As a highly sensitive introvert, in a split second, my thoughts spider out in a thousand different directions.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt like I simply couldn’t handle life as well as everyone around me. Who cries in the middle of high school band class while listening to Moonlight Sonata? Or chooses to spend Friday nights alone reading? Or takes criticism so harshly that it can make them physically sick? Certainly not the majority of people around me.
The conclusion that my younger self came to (and believed for years) was that the rest of the world was simply stronger than me. How else could I explain our shared experiences but vastly different reactions? Surely listening to Beethoven made everyone cry and criticism made everybody nauseous; I just couldn’t hide it as well. Right?
But once I discovered I am an introvert and highly sensitive person (HSP), I began to realize that I hadn’t been judging myself against people who were stronger than me — I’d been judging myself against people who experienced life altogether differently than I did.
(Are you an HSP? Here are 21 signs that you’re a highly sensitive person.)
So, here are five things I experience as a highly sensitive introvert that I didn’t know weren’t “normal” — but are completely normal for us quieter, sensitive ones.
5 Things I Experience as a Highly Sensitive Introvert That I Didn’t Know Weren’t ‘Normal’
1. Every thought has an equal and opposite thought — or twenty.
Whether it’s decoding a virtual work meeting or choosing curtains for a room, for every interaction or decision, there are hundreds of thoughts vying for my attention. From social cues to the physical environment around me, these external influences shatter my delicately balanced world like a rock shattering a windshield; in a split second, my thoughts — connected by a thin and sometimes tenuous thread — spider out in a thousand different directions.
It took a stream-of-consciousness style rant, some shocked faces, and a few long discussions for me to learn that this was not something most people experience. While everyone can be overwhelmed by thoughts occasionally, both HSPs and introverts process things differently than others. In fact, about 70 percent of HSPs are introverts, so it’s no surprise that many qualities overlap. We notice details that others may not — someone shifted while I was talking: were they uncomfortable or was it a reaction to what I said? — and continue thinking about them long after the moment has passed.
Being overwhelmed by the speed and sheer quantity of your thoughts can be a difficult thing to handle, and highly sensitive introverts can be prone to ruminating, overthinking, and burnout because of the heavy mental toll this takes. Talking to a therapist or finding ways to be mindful and grounded — like getting out in nature — can help us maintain a healthy balance and appreciate the positive aspects of the way we process the world. After all, this is why we excel at noticing things others may miss, and also how we can be so aware and responsive to the feelings of those around us.
2. Seemingly insignificant things can be overwhelming, like a balloon popping at a party.
Like many introverts and HSPs, I can find birthday parties overstimulating. But the worst part isn’t the steady stream of people or the singing — unless I’m the center of attention, then that takes the cake (no pun intended) — but the balloons floating cheerfully over the cake or bouncing along the floor. It’s only a matter of time until one pops. And when it finally happens, I’ll likely jump, scream, and start crying simultaneously.
While I’m still embarrassed about how much sudden sounds truly shake me up, I try to accept that it’s simply my body’s way of reacting. Because our nervous systems respond so strongly to stimuli (like popping balloons), highly sensitive introverts tend to startle easier than the rest of the population. Similarly, the definition of an introvert is someone who prefers calm, minimally stimulating environments — loud and sudden things are not our cup of tea.
Being overstimulated and on high alert isn’t always fun, but it is part of why HSPs and introverts are so observant and aware of the world around us. And while we can’t control the way our nervous system reacts, we can control how we respond to it. (I finally realized that my previous methods of self-judgment and criticism didn’t work.) Taking a step back and finding a quiet space is one of the best ways for highly sensitive introverts to recover from overstimulation. (I’d highly recommend creating an introvert zen zone!) Even a bathroom can be a peaceful, welcome retreat if need be. Giving your mind and body a break is a pivotal aspect of self-care for everyone, but it’s especially important for us highly sensitive “quiet ones.”
3. Violent movies take an emotional, and sometimes physical, toll.
When I was in high school, a group of my friends decided we should watch Saving Private Ryan. Not knowing anything about the movie — or myself— at that point, I agreed. And that was a mistake. I spent the entire two hours pressed into the corner of the couch, trying desperately to hide my swollen, tear-stained face with a pillow. After it was over, the rest of the group jumped up and resumed chatting while I struggled to breathe normally.
Now I know that many HSPs — although not all — simply can’t handle violent movies. It turns out our brains respond very differently to witnessing violence than the brains of those around us. In fact, according to Highly Sensitive Refuge, the difference is so drastic that it’s as if we were watching completely different movies. Trying to tell ourselves it’s “just acting” simply doesn’t work, and the emotions we take on from films can linger for hours or even days.
On the plus side, this is directly related to our high levels of empathy, a quality often attributed to introverts, as well. Both HSPs and introverts feel the emotions of those around us as if they were our own, which is why seeing a child laughing and playing in a park can lift our spirits and comforting a friend can bring us closer together. The ability to relate to the world in such a powerful way is part of what makes us unique. It’s also why changing the channel during a Humane Society commercial or turning off a popular (but tragic) movie just might be the healthiest thing you can do for yourself.
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4. Dreams can be incredibly, unnervingly real (which is both good and bad).
When I wake up in the morning, my first thought has nothing to do with the day ahead. Instead, it’s typically about the dreams I had that night. My dreams can be so vivid and realistic that, at best, the real world is a shock to my system. At worst, I can spend days weighed down by a particularly rough nightmare.
Having vivid, intense dreams correlates with being highly sensitive. HSPs have a rich inner world which, combined with our depth of processing, can lead to complex dreams and nightmares — and an increased likelihood that we will be able to remember the details (whether we want to or not). And, thanks to our creativity and affinity for daydreaming, introverts can find our dream world just as vivid and intriguing.
While there’s a lot of research into the link between the dream and waking world still to be done, journaling — something HSPs and introverts can benefit from in general — can be a great way of releasing dreams and their accompanying emotions onto the page, while taking advantage of our natural creativity and exploring our complicated inner worlds. A dream might even inspire a bestselling novel!
5. Criticism feels like a gut punch, and it’s not uncommon to ruminate over it (even for years).
It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I struggle with criticism. An offhand comment can send me spiraling and a direct, mean-spirited attack will likely be something I think about for years. For example, if someone says I’m “too emotional,” you’ll find me hiding out in the bathroom, ruminating over every other time I’ve been told that — and, of course, becoming more emotional in the process.
But growing up, I watched my friends shrug off these same comments like they were nothing, while I was told — and told myself — to “toughen up,” “stop taking things so personally,” or just flat out “get over it.” Comments many highly sensitive introverts are all too familiar with.
Once I learned I was an HSP and introvert, this began to make sense. For HSPs, the emotional part of the brain is activated more often than others, and we have to work to take criticism through a logical lens, not an emotional one. And thanks to our highly empathetic nature, desire to avoid conflict, and tendency towards perfectionism, introverts can also struggle with strong reactions to criticism.
That explains why some of my friends could disregard or accept criticism without batting an eye whereas I had an immediate physical reaction. (This is especially noticeable for HSPs and introverts in group settings, such as classrooms, sports teams, or workplaces, in which collective criticism is rampant.)
Despite this, like many HSPs and introverts, I’ve always found myself drawn to creative pursuits, like music and writing, where criticism is deemed essential for growth and improvement. Ironically, the same emotional part of our brain and empathetic, perfectionistic nature that makes HSPs and introverts so sensitive to criticism is also what makes us so passionate and successful in our creative endeavors. Thankfully, there are many tools that HSPs and introverts can use to make dealing with criticism more manageable — from allowing time to lend some perspective to requesting positive feedback (alongside criticism) for a more well-rounded view.
Highly Sensitive Introverts Are Wonderfully Normal
I wish I could go back and tell my younger self that my dreaded sensitivity is absolutely, 100 percent normal, and nothing to be ashamed of. That being a highly sensitive introvert means I have valuable gifts and strengths to share with the world, from cultivating meaningful relationships to finding purpose and beauty in things so many take for granted. And, perhaps most importantly, that even when I struggled to find my way through this crazy world, I’m not alone.
So, my fellow highly sensitive introverts, what experiences would you add to this list?
You might like:
- What It’s Like Being a Highly Sensitive Introvert
- 13 Problems Only Highly Sensitive Introverts Will Understand
- 27 Things You Do Because You’re a Highly Sensitive Person
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