Learn to Thrive at Work and in Life

A handful of years ago I was so relieved to discover that there’s a name (Highly Sensitive Person, aka HSP) for what I thought were uniquely weird sensitivities. I also finally understood and now even celebrate the fact that I’m highly introverted. Thanks to these new insights into my personality, I’ve come to appreciate that the traits that make me seem “strange” to some are also the reasons that I enjoy and do well at being a coach and writer.

Through most of my life I felt that if people knew what I was really like, they’d write me off as strange or  different. What a thrill to discover I’m not alone: 15-20% of the population are thought to be highly sensitive (according to HSP expert Dr. Elaine Aron), and around 20% of all people tend towards introversion. Of the 15-20% who are HSPs, 70% are introverts.

I’ve been enjoying fellow PT blogger Sophia Dembling’s blog about introverts, and it got me thinking of how difficult it can be to live this way in a world of extraverts. Add being highly sensitive to the mixture and you may feel like you want to hide from everything and everybody (partially to avoid trying to explain yourself to others). I’ve found that understanding why I am who I am has helped so much, and has helped me stop trying to fit in.

Here are some of the more challenging aspects I’ve experienced living a highly sensitive introverted life:

1) I’d prefer not to share a hotel room with you

A few years ago, a well-meaning acquaintance suggested we rent a one-room apartment during an extended stay in Europe, though I was already happily ensconced in a cheap but cute hotel.

“We’ll save so much money,” she urged me, “and it’ll be so much fun!”

At first, I said no. I tried to explain that when I don’t have my own space, I get really stressed out.

She laughed and told me I was being ridiculous. We got along so well and had so much in common, how could this not work? She was so convincing, optimistic and insistent that I caved in. After a few days I started to feel a lot less friendly.

As a highly sensitive person who needs to minimize auditory stimuli, I don’t do well when another person likes having TV or loud music on all the time as background noise. I’m extremely sensitive to other people’s moods; when someone is angry, judgmental or irritated, those emotions make me even more uncomfortable. If I don’t have my own space to retreat to and recharge, I’ll eventually have a meltdown.

As an introvert, being around other people drains me (as opposed to extraverts, who gain energy being around other people). That doesn’t mean I don’t like being with others, in fact I love it – but I can only do it for so long before I have to go into my cave and refuel.

Sadly, after that ill-fated stint in Europe, our friendship ended. We never recovered from the tensions of trying to cohabit in that teeny space. I felt particularly sad about it, as I had told her that I didn’t do well sharing a small space.  At the time, I thought that she was right, that I was just a weird, anti-social person. Thankfully, now I know otherwise.

2) Just because I don’t call doesn’t mean I don’t care

Reading Sophia Dembling’s blog, I was thrilled to discover that introverts almost universally don’t like the phone. All my life people have been complaining that I don’t call them, perceiving my behavior as evidence of lack of affection. I used to feel guilty, but finally realized (with Dembling’s help) that it’s simply that I don’t like being on the phone. The only exception is talking to someone else who I’m so similar to that there’s an effortless endless flow of conversation. I dislike awkward silences or pressure to come up with fascinating conversation topics, even with people I know well. (I’ve come to appreciate since, though, that just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean I can freely avoid it; I’ve trained myself to call people more often as my priority on relationships trumps my  own comfort level)

Email and Facebook are completely different, I love to communicate that way – another characteristic, according to Dembling, which is typical of introverts.

As an HSP, I also pick up all kinds of subtleties in people’s voices or comments that make me uncomfortable if they have personal (negative) significance. This sensitivity works really well when I work as a personal coach over the phone, as I’m able to pick up what’s behind a client’s words and use it to unblock them or help them move forward, but in personal conversations it can be too much information.

3) I don’t want to go to a crowded concert with you, but would love to hang out in a relatively quiet restaurant where we can hear each other speak and can talk about life and other meaningful things

One of my worst memories in recent years was a concert in a large plaza in Cabo. If I’m somewhere that really interests me, e.g. a salsa club where there’s great music and lots of room to dance, or a party filled with friends and people I find highly amusing and interesting, I’ll often be the last person to leave. If I’m just going to an event for the sake of going and there will be tons of strangers and noise, I’d rather stay home and watch a video.

As our group pushed through the sardine-packed throng to get near the stage, I decided to stay by myself near the periphery. I was still surrounded and pushed against by people I couldn’t see over, and felt overwhelmed by smells of beer and smoke (that’s an HSP thing) as unfamiliar eardrum-shattering country music assaulted me. Too much noise, too many smells, too many people. I was on the verge of tears and if I could have walked home, I would have.

I’m a fun person, really I am (just ask my salsa dance buddies from years back) – if I have space, can hear myself talk, and have reasonably fresh air to breathe. People like me don’t want to leave a party because we want to wreck your fun, we’re just totally overwhelmed. My sister’s the same, and she and her husband have learned to go to parties in separate cars.

Let’s go out for a lovely dinner instead – introverts prefer meaningful one on one conversations to large group experiences, and HSPs yearn to connect deeply, discussing rich complex topics.

If any of this reminds you of you, google the words highly sensitive person (HSP) and introvert. You’ll be reassured by what you read, and can finally explain to the world that you’re not weird, you’re just like a significant proportion of the rest of the population – so there!

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