Why do sensitive introverts withdraw?

sensitive introverts withdraw

This article was originally published on BrendaKnowles.com.

Last week, I had an overwhelming desire to withdraw from everything. My emotions colored and flooded my mind. My mother’s recent death, along with the humbling number of edits necessary to make my manuscript work and getting my kids back to school, put me in a draining state of high-alert.

As a sensitive introvert and INFP personality type, the non-stop action and endless decision-making wore me out. I needed positive energy inflow and a stoppage of outflow. I needed to slow down. I needed to read. I needed to rest.


Like the early spring plants, fiddlehead ferns, I needed to curl up tightly before I could unfurl into the lacy frond capable of freely greeting the world.

This is not the first time I’ve had a deep need to retreat.

At the end of my marriage, I withdrew. I withdrew from my husband and even from my children. The tension and internal conflict I felt in my husband’s dominant presence was almost unbearable. I physically withdrew by hiding out in my home office or by spending extra time at the gym, but withdrawal does not require you to leave the room. One of the hardest things I ever endured hearing was a stranger telling me that my kids said, Mom is there but not really there. Meaning, I was physically present but not really tuned in to them. Ouch. I hadn’t realized how detached I had become.


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Why introverts retreat

An introvert’s first home is within. According to marriage therapists Jane Hardy Jones and Ruth G. Sherman, in their book, Intimacy and Type: Building Enduring Relationships by Embracing Personality Differences, introverts are always receiving and processing information from two sources: their inner world and the outer world. Hence, the introvert’s predisposition to become overstimulated easily. Our best abilities are aimed at our inner worlds, so engaging and negotiating with the outside world is daunting and draining. We need to be alone in order to eliminate stimulation, process for clarity, and replenish our energy.

Sensitive introverts need safe spaces in order to engage. The less safe and more vulnerable an introvert feels, the less they tend to share. We need to feel especially secure and confident before revealing our personal thoughts. Critical and judgmental people will push us further into ourselves.


It is extremely difficult to be around people who cause us inner conflict. If we dislike or often disagree with someone but have to pretend we don’t (think co-worker or family member), this will cause dire fatigue for the introvert. So much so that we will want to escape from the place and person involved.

We ourselves are the substance we withdraw to, not from, as we pull our overextended and misplaced creative energy back into our own core. —Julia Cameron via Brain Pickings

Our creative energy exists inside us. Introverts thrive on stillness. Within stillness ideas bubble up and our inner voice whispers vital messages we can hear. These vital messages need expression. They are the basis of our creativity. Withdrawal leads to self-awareness and ultimately our creativity.

We have to clear emotions. Emotions can get the best of a sensitive introvert. They swell and flood our brain. Added stress or stimulation only prolongs the emotional overwhelm. Processing and alone time are crucial to recovery and relief from the flood. We get ourselves together by moving away from the genesis of the emotional tidal wave. Solid sleep goes a long way towards relieving emotional exhaustion as well.

If there is a lot of change going on in our lives, we may hole up for a while in order to sort through what is going on and prepare ourselves for new situations. Introverts like to be prepared. Prior knowledge soothes our sensitive systems. We require space to mentally work through the process of meeting new people, navigating unfamiliar places and surviving different experiences. At first, new situations will feel overwhelming, possibly driving us underground to recharge and sift through all the foreign material filling our minds.

But, as Emily White writes, newness is only overwhelming in the beginning. After a couple of sessions with a new situation, you will have information to draw from and a much better idea of what to expect.




We feel guilty when we retreat

As many of us already know, it is difficult to ask for and obtain time to recharge. Almost everyone in your immediate circle will ask and expect you to keep on plugging on. They’ll expect you to get over whatever is bothering you and be there for them with a smile, the message being that self-care is selfish. Work and others should always come first. Introverts spend a fair amount of time feeling bad for needing a break.

Although I didn’t get a real break last week, I did spend quality time with generous, positive, and inspiring friends this week. The emotional flooding is beginning to subside, and I know there will be more healing space in my near future.

What needs to happen after the withdrawal?

I felt extra sensitive and tired last week. I was burned out when my marriage ended. Both times I wanted to fill myself up with swaths of uninterrupted time, positive support, meaningful work and expansive ideas. It was vital for me to take time for self-care, and eventually space led to action. Eventually I re-joined life.

What makes you want to withdraw? How does your need for space affect those you love? What gets you out of this mode? Let me know in the comments below or post about it on the community forum.  retina_favicon1


Brenda Knowles is a personal coach who helps introverts gain confidence to be their true selves and enhance intimacy and understanding in their relationships. Learn more at BrendaKnowles.com.


Read this: Why intuitive people feel lonely in this practical world


37 Comments

  • Carmen T says:

    I withdraw to re-group!
    I need my space. I wish people would understand
    it’s why I have few friends, but loyal ones.
    And why I don’t like attending too many social events.
    I’m becoming better by going out more often
    but I love my space, I just don’t stay there!
    I love quiet!
    “newness (or change) is only overwhelming in the beginning”
    ‪#‎teamintrovert‬

    • Me too Carmen! I think it’s interesting that you said you are becoming ‘better’ by going out more. I think we feel we are better people if we interact more. We ARE social beings but I think we can be pretty dang awesome being our selectively social selves. Introverts often have fewer friends but deep friendships. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.:)

  • Luke says:

    I cannot even begin to express how healing this is for me. You have written everything that has encompassed my past few months this holiday season (and really these past few weeks!). I feel like being a sensitive introvert and INFP male are the best things in the world, but it is hurtful at times personally when I want to connect emotionally yet have to withdraw due to overwhelm. Family hardly grasps this. Thank you for helping me find space to accept this about myself more and more. I’m learning to love and respect my time to revamp more and more, and learning to express that to others so they understand. I look forward to more helpful articles.

    • I think being an NF and male is unusual and tricky in our culture, but oh my gosh I love you guys! I have good male friends who are INFPs. I feel so relaxed and at home with them. As an INFP myself, I definitely understand the push and pull between wanting to be emotionally connected with others but also needing time to re-connect with yourself. Self-awareness is the first step. Sounds like you have that. Next step is educating others and advocating for your way of being. The ones who truly want to create a lasting relationship with you will want to learn, have your back and allow you to be yourself. I have lots more articles on brendaknowles.com if you’re interested. Thank you for sharing your perspective!

  • Danielle says:

    As a sensitive introvert, moving to a foreign country has made me withdraw so much more than anything else. I love to explore and observe people and appreciate the kind interactions I’ve experienced here, but with the many unfamiliar aspects of living in a new country, every day bringing about a new situation and all the unknowns that come with that, I’ve found that when I’m at home I need more quite and alone time than ever before. So much of my energy has gone toward simply recovering from new situations that my creative energy never gets built up. My art has suffered as a result.

    Brenda’s words are exactly right for my ongoing situation…”If there is a lot of change going on in our lives, we may hole up for a while in order to sort through what is going on and prepare ourselves for new situations. Introverts like to be prepared. Prior knowledge soothes our sensitive systems. We require space to mentally work through the process of meeting new people, navigating unfamiliar places and surviving different experiences.”

    • I just returned from a week-long vacation in New Orleans. I know exactly how you feel Danielle. All of those new places, people and situations to navigate and comprehend. It’s exciting and I’m a big explorer but the energy output is heavy. I felt drained every night after dinner. I just wanted to read and rest.
      I hope eventually the newness subsides and you can see and feel your foreign experiences as material and image re-stocking for your art. Be gentle with yourself. Give yourself that space to recover and digest your experiences. It always helps me to set up routines and systems so that I can relax more. For example, I always park in the same place when shopping in a certain area. I make a few friends who are familiar with the new situation and can help me streamline my experience (i.e. only see the most important parts, help with logistics). Best of luck! Enjoy it while you process.:)

  • Khadine says:

    This describes me perfectly. As a sensitive introvert INFP, life is hard to navigate and I have never found anyone that really understands me. I love my space, but get real lonely too …. Thanks for sharing x

    • That’s our constant dilemma — wanting to connect deeply but also needing time alone to process everything and connect with ourselves. I’ve found the key is to connect in ways that only minimally drain you, for example with others who foster expansive conversations or connecting while doing something you are passionate about or that gives you purpose. It’s a balancing act but a worthwhile one. Thank you for commenting.:)

  • lalah says:

    Wow this is a good article that really helps me analyze my behavior when it comes to withdrawal. I noticed that I withdraw when I feel judged, misunderstood, unnapreciated, or disliked. All negative vibes I discern and cannot fake when I pick up these vibes. It usually shows how i respond to people and on my face. I also distance myself, or show no interest anymore.

    • Negative energy is so draining. Sensitive people are often quite empathic, picking up on others’ feelings quite adeptly. This is actually a valuable skill. The key is to separate your energy from theirs. I’m still working on that myself, but having clear boundaries about what you value and what energy you should take on from others is a start. Remember, often when others judge you, it is only a projection of what they struggle with themselves. Take the time to regroup on your own. That’s self-care, but also keep yourself in the game so you can better understand WHY others are emitting negative vibes. Empathy can help us not take things so personally. At least, these are things that have helped me. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Brenda says:

    I have been in a relationship with a amazingly wonderful INTP for about 1 1/2 years now. Early in our relationship, I often felt overwhelmed and struggled to ask for alone time. Because even though he is also an introvert, as an INFJ, I scored much higher on the Introvert scale than he and had been accustomed to spending far more time alone. He lived an hour away in a rural town and my place is in the city. Within a few months he was in effect living with me, without us ever having a discussion about it. When I finally was able to ask for alone time, he was crushed and felt so hurt that I “didn’t want to be with him as much as he wanted to be with me.” I tried explaining the value of being able to miss his presence and how that could only make our relationship stronger when together again. Alas, to no avail. Although he had agreed to give me what I asked for, I felt enormously guilty. He went away for the night, with the understanding that I would let him know when I felt I had the alone time I needed. Well, he can back sooner than that anyway and my guilt and compassion towards him permitted his early return anyway! As time passed, my self-awareness has deepened along with my understanding of my own needs. I’ve also become more familiar with him, and mysteriously my need for alone time has become dramatically diminshed. My best friend asked how things were going in this regard and upon reflection I think it is, in part, due to the comfort of knowing each other well and also from finding ways to be “alone” while together. We are both artists, and work from our home studio and can spend hours working along side each other with very little discourse. In this way, he gives me the space I need to allow my creativity to blossom. I still occasionally need to remind him, “This is my time to write” which he responds far more agreeably to than when I previously let things build up and would finally snap, “I’m TRYING to write!” And that is just one example of how being armed with an awareness of our differences, we can respect one another and our needs and meet each other halfway.

    • That’s wonderful Brenda! I love it when two people can work together to understand, appreciate and honor differences. I do think familiarity helps with comfort level and the ability to relax. Boundaries and routines get established and there isn’t so much energy put into defending them. Thanks for sharing your story. It gives us all hope.:)

  • Kristen says:

    I cry when I read this. I am also very sensitive INFP with high INFJ tendencies with 6 kids and married to an ENTP. I am so overwhelmed and over stimulated so much of the time and I feel like I have no space or time to recharge. When I run errands, I take the long way home with the stereo off just to soak up the quiet. I try to get up early to spend some time alone, but my 5 year old has mommy radar and follows me and has to touch me every moment of the day and night. I can’t create anymore, I sit to write and have nothing to say. I know what I need, but can not seem to find a way to get it. My partner is constantly filling his time with classes and work and coaching, leaving little time or resources for me to just have quiet. He tries to understand, but he does not get it. I am mentally absent to my kids so much of the time, I don’t want to be, but I am empty. This year, my goal is self care, I need to make a way. Thank you for writing so that I don’t continue to just feel like something is wrong with me for needing what I need. It is so comforting to know that others have been where I am.

    • Oh Kristen! I hear and understand you. I remember taking the long way home from anything I was able to do by myself. 🙂 It sounds like you may have to redefine some boundaries with your family in order to be able to be your best self. Being emotionally absent is a sign that changes need to occur. I hope you do make self-care a priority now. Your family members will not like it if you change the system but over time they will adjust and even benefit from the more energized and content you. Believe it or not, often defining your boundaries gives others the ability and reason to work on their own self-soothing and autonomy, which can be very healthy.
      There is nothing wrong with your and you are not alone. Sending you the courage, strength and permission to lead your life instead of being dragged through it by other’s needs.

    • Tammy says:

      Kristen, definitely what Brenda Knowles said. I wish I would have known 30 years ago that I needed a very LARGE amount of alone time and get so easily overstimulated. I cannot even imagine 6 kids. One almost killed with busyness!!! You are very important and no one respects us unless we demand it. They just don’t know. Educate them and free yourself. Mentor others who are like you. You can do great things if you draw boundaries!

  • Katherine says:

    Those close to us need to understand. We are not being lazy, we are damaged and need to heal, need to process. It may take a day, a month, or even longer, but we need it. It doesn’t help to be told, “Get up and do something, you will feel better”, while being dragged out of the house by well-meaning loved ones. They don’t feel the confusion going on inside our minds. It has to be in our time and every one of us is different in this and every situation is different. That works for some people, but not people like it us. Being forced makes it worse.

    I also recently lost my Mom, at the beginning of the holiday season. Chaos was the name of the game with siblings scattered all over the globe. Some of them are not very nice people. Still, I had to trudge on and deal with many things in a short period of time, a lot of it not under my control, spend a week in a large urban area, and be subjected to people I would not voluntarily subject myself to. It went from bad to worse. Even returning home, I found out terrible things you cannot make up and now have to be dealt with, again. All of this with Christmas and everything else arriving. At least now the holidays are over.

    It’s beginning to get a bit better but it does feel like it’s all starting all over again. Yet, it does require action. Positive action does help but you have to get to that place where you have the energy to take that action.

    No, we are not lazy, we just need time.

    • So true Katherine. We need time and space to recover and stave off overwhelm. Some people do heal through being active, but we often have to get to a clearer mental state before we are ready to take steps. I’m not a real detail person so I am a list maker. It helps me see concrete objectives and helps untangle all of the thoughts in my head. I hope you are finding a way to get solid sleep. Sleep is so crucial. It provides the solid foundation to work from.
      I am sorry to hear about your mom. I know what a loss that is. I hope this barrage of forced socializing and responsibilities dissipates and you can move on. Remember everything passes/changes. You will get through this. Do it your way. Tell others what you can do and tell them when you can make it happen. Defining boundaries is exhausting but so necessary. I feel for you. I know that feeling of overwhelm. One small step at a time. Be gentle with yourself. You will get through this and learn about yourself along the way.

  • Steph says:

    I appreciate this post so much. I’ve been having trouble describing how I feel, and what you’ve written explains it so well. You’re so on point. Thank you for writing this. I used to get labeled as a free spirit (lots of energy and courage to challenge myself) but over the past year I’ve been so far away from that identity. I returned to live with my parents after being independent for so many years. I couldn’t handle living with roommates anymore— privacy was rare; I loved driving because that’s where I could be on my own. Anyway, I started to be more aware of how I’m really an introvert. I was always like this when I was younger. I don’t know how I became so lively in my teens and early twenties. But when I reflect on those years, I still did a lot of things on my own.

    As to answering your questions: 1) What makes you want to withdraw? 2) How does your need for space affect those you love? 3) What gets you out of this mode?

    1) Stress, being highly emotional, when it’s tough to make a conversation, hearing too much gossip, not having space, when people expecting so much from me (I try to see this as a positive thing, it makes me feel reliable but it’s quite overwhelming). No control of my time nor energy.

    2) I’m not actually sure. My family tends to leave me alone. We hardly talk about anything too deep in general.

    3) Making art, taking mini road trips or getaways, watchings lots of movies or shows. If I spend enough time not “thinking” or catering to anyone, I get re-energized and ready to interact.

    • I have the same wonder about how I was so social and lively in my teens and twenties. I did spend a lot of time in my room listening to music and reading when in my teens. I also had long conversations about relationships with my girlfriends. I think those gave me energy. I didn’t have so many people depending on me either. I also believe society in general is much more stimulating than it used to be. We work faster and are constantly accessible. Technology plays a part in that and so does the glorifying of productivity/busyness.
      I think having control over your time and energy is a crucial point to maintaining our balance. When others pull at us we feel obligated to oblige even if it drains our well of energy. Boundaries are hard to define and uphold but in the end usually help everyone relax because things are clearer.
      I hope you find ways to be the you, you want to be. Take the re-generating time with no guilt attached. Surround yourself with people who respect your boundaries and fill you up. You’re already ahead because you know what recharges you. Keep on digging into those flow states. I would recommend staying connected with the outside world too by discerning those relationships you value highly and putting effort into maintaining them. Relationships are the primary path to personal growth. The key is to hold onto your personal values and needs while holding onto a relationship. Thanks for sharing your insightful comment Steph.

      • Tammy says:

        I made this discovery about myself and set about re-organizing my life accordingly. No longer do I go places that I do not want to go because people say, “you need to get out more”. F— off. No. You go. And do not lay guilt trips on me because you don’t want to go alone. Get out. Go. I’ve gotten mean since I’ve come out of the HSP closet!!! hahaha Those that matter understand. The other ones I do not care about anyway. Now I plan my day according to my energy times. I’ve boycotted Christmas and Thanksgiving,..the best gifts I could have ever given myself since I have always hated the hoopla and fakeness. Now I have a fabulous HSP life with all the things I want in it…and have eliminated most all of the things I don’t want in it. Since I’ve come out of the closet about it, droves of people have said they are like that, too, but just cannot stop doing things because of their family, etc. I can’t give my family the best of me when I’m giving them the REST of me (what’s left over after a dead battery).I love my quiet life. I still have overstimulating things, but I manage and boss them around! haha And if I go to a party, I stay for an hour and LEAVE.

        I’ve developed some FABBBBBULOUS canned responses to clods to don’t respect that I’m leaving early or don’t want to go to events. I have grown just enough lady balls to eloquently say each and every thought out response. I’m thinking about blogging about the canned responses. So glad I read this thread. It reinforces that there are tons of others just like me.

        • You are hilarious and ‘ballsy’ Tammy. I love it. Please do write a post about your canned responses to those who judge your socializing style, then let me know so I can read it and share it.:) I really like your ‘not giving the BEST of me, if I’m only giving the REST of me’ phrase. I may use that.
          You are definitely not alone. Thank you for sharing your positive and direct attitude. It’s empowering.:)

        • Deb says:

          Please do post your canned responses. I really need some ideas.

  • Danielle says:

    Thank you for the reply and suggestions, Brenda! I need the reminder to be gentle with myself often 🙂

  • I hear snippets of conversation for days after a party or gathering, which effectively shuts down my creative output. I feel I’m cut adrift from myself, so needless to say I try to avoid such situations as much as possible. I once had a very extroverted friend say she doesn’t believe in introversion, implying it’s simply an affectation (which is probably a widely held belief.) I’ve finally learned to embrace my preferences and am much the happier for it.

    • Too many conversation snippets or emotions and my creativity wanes too. I’ve found that some parties actually inspire me though, so I am selective about which events I attend. Are there gatherings that do inspire you?
      That’s an interesting comment your extroverted friend made. My son voiced something similar and he’s an introvert. It makes me feel like we make up our nature for attention. No.
      Go you! Embrace your preferences, be authentic. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      • Yes Brenda, there are gatherings which inspire me, although they usually center around a particular interest or with a select group. Generally, the larger a gathering gets the more chaotic it gets, with less intimate discussion, so I burn out quickly (usually about an hour or two.) So if I do attend large parties, I try to make arrangements for an exit. I tell my host/hostess my plans in private first, so it’s not taken amiss, and stopping the party’s flow would be embarrassing. I try to slip out unnoticed.
        I often feel that people expressing the view of introversion as affectation, is just another ploy at controlling the introvert. Generally empathic and supporters, introvert are wanted there to support, 24/7. I found it exhausting been there for someone else and being there for me at the same time. It creates an ongoing seesaw, which ultimately comes off as undecided, whishy-washy, doormat or erratic. You’re not what the other person wants AND you’re not the person you want to be. Everyone loses. I find working from the authentic self, no matter how much ridicule or misunderstanding it brings, is the only option. I try to head off misunderstandings by stating clearly what works for me. ‘It’s not personal…it’s the way I’m wired’ takes the sting out of saying, ‘no’. As introverts that’s the hardest hardest thing to do, but the most fundamental. I don’t apologize anymore,I just stick with the facts and do the best I can in the moment.

        • Sorry about the typos above.
          I wanted to add, that it’s a shame so many introverts are made to feel they must apologize for who they are, rather than embrace themselves and their gifts. For most of my life I just accepted being misunderstood and alone. Along (for me) is better than being inauthentic. I don’t seek to push my ways on others, but only request some understanding. I love the differences of people and do see their value. Pity, it’s not often returned. Those that do understand are the ‘keepers’ I hold dear. They are however, far and few between, but they are out there.

  • Anna says:

    Thank you! If I have to be around a draining, negative relative, I have to make sure nothing else is planned for that day and hopefully the day after. I need recovery time from such experiences. Most extroverts seem not to be bothered the same way. Some of them actually seem to thrive on confrontation and conflict. Not me!

  • Joanna says:

    Trying to parent on empty is awful. I haven’t figured out how to recharge effectively so I feel in a constant state of wanting to be away….which isn’t healthy and I’m sure my kids pick up on.

  • Micah says:

    Great article. The points about finding it difficult to open up when we don’t feel safe/secure with those around us particularly resonated. I find it to be one of the most difficult needs to articulate to others, as you’re so aware of the offence it can cause.

  • Amy says:

    At work, I’m often around gossips, people who feel the need to confide and share too much personal information, small talkers, and those who think I am their personal therapist/priest. On top of that, I work extremely long hours (10 hours plus) without any help (believe me I tried asking!). I started withdrawing for survival, and noticed that my co-workers didn’t seek to understand, but actually grew resentful–even my supervisor. I told one of my friends how stressful work was, because she was constantly calling or emailing, which I was guiltily ignoring. She said she understood and occasionally did the same thing, then continued to call, email, etc. In order to preserve my sanity, I sent her a “Dear Jane” letter to end the friendship, because it was overwhelming. What seems to work for me is to start eliminating, as much as possible, those things that stress me out and recharge on the weekend or days off. Then, I start making steps to do something fun (start a new interesting project, exercise, or go to a movie alone). Until, I get another job, this system is the only thing standing between me and the exit.

    Thank you for the wonderful article! I thought it was just me.

  • […]  Read this: Why do sensitive introverts withdraw? […]

  • This last week I’ve been extra sensitive physically and emotional due to a pinched nerve in my back. Technically I am not an introvert but instead a Highly Sensitive Person that is also an High Sensation Seeker (An HSS is a 30% subset of HSP). Anyway, I’ve been absolutely depleted and have a high need to bury myself into reading pleasant stories and watching romantic comedies on Netflix. I have a high need to see love and goodness in the world when I don’t feel well. I know its a distraction technique but it also allows me to heal as I rest and reduce my pain while laying on packs of ice.The good news is that I have found ways to communicate to people and adjust commitments so that it’s a win-win for everyone.

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