Both introverts and sensitive people think deeply about life, but only one of them craves solitude.
In Sensitive, which I co-wrote with Andre Sólo, we explain it like this: Introversion describes how you relate to people, whereas sensitivity describes how you relate to your environment. So, introverts get tired from being around people, while sensitive people can get tired from all kinds of things, including socializing.
Are you an introvert or a highly sensitive person? Actually, you can be both. Here are some more similarities and differences between them, so you can figure out which one(s) you are — or are not.
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How Introverts and Highly Sensitive People Are Similar
1. Both of them think deeply.
Both introverts and sensitive people carefully tune into their own thoughts and emotions. They may be more likely to do mindfulness practices like meditation and journaling, or creative activities, as a way of exploring and expressing their vast inner world. They may create art that reflects their emotions or write stories or poems that allow them to delve deeper into their experiences. Always puzzling over life’s mysteries, both big and small, they seek to thoroughly understand the world around them. They may constantly ask questions like, “Who am I?,” What are my values?,” “What can I learn from this situation?,” and “How can I improve this?”
If you’re an introvert and/or a sensitive person, then you know that this focus on introspection can be both a gift and a challenge. On the one hand, it gives you a deeper understanding of yourself and the world around you. On the other hand, sometimes it makes you feel anxious or self-critical, for example, when you overthink a decision or overanalyze a past conversation.
2. Both of them need lots of downtime.
Introverted and sensitive brains are wired to go deep. For example, as we explain in Sensitive, research has found that the sensitive brain keeps thinking about emotional events long after they are over. Similarly, introverts may use a longer pathway through their brain to process their experiences.
Because of their deep processing, it’s easy for them to get overstimulated. They may become stressed, overwhelmed, or tired when there’s too much going on, like a lot of noise and social interaction, or a busy schedule. A “normal” day at the office or at home with their kids can feel like too much. After work or school, instead of running errands or meeting coworkers for happy hour, introverts and sensitive people just want to go home and relax!
For introverts, downtime is particularly important because they find social interaction — like attending a party or making small talk with coworkers — to be draining. Sensitive people, on the other hand, need downtime in order to recover from the strong emotional and sensory experiences they encounter throughout the day. For example, a sensitive person may become drained by loud music or bright overhead lights. Or, because they are so attuned to people, simply the act of existing alongside others can be draining, as they feel other people’s emotions and respond to their cues and perceived needs.
Of course, introverts and sensitive people aren’t the only ones who benefit from downtime. Everyone needs time to recover from the demands of daily life. However, for introverts and sensitive people, downtime is particularly important because they become overstimulated more easily than others.
3. Both of them may feel anxious or overwhelmed.
Both introverts and sensitive people may feel overwhelmed or anxious in certain situations. Introverts might feel anxious about attending a large social event because they know that making constant conversation will drain them. Both introverts and sensitive people may feel overstimulated by the fast pace of their job or the demands of being a parent. Conflict or confrontation can feel overwhelming for them, as the emotional intensity of these situations can trigger stress and overthinking. Basically, any situation that is loud, highly stimulating, or intense can feel like “too much” for the gentle, peace-loving introvert or sensitive person.
However, the good news is, they may be able to manage these feelings more effectively than others (once they become aware of them). After all, they have a greater understanding of their own needs and abilities — remember, they are very introspective!
4. Both of them may feel out of place in society.
It’s estimated that introverts make up 30-50 percent of the population, while sensitive people make up 15-30 percent. So, if you’re an introverted or sensitive person, many of the people who you encounter in life will not be like you. Other people do not experience life in the same “turned up” way that you do, nor will they be able to relate to your need for solitude or downtime.
And, as we point out in Sensitive, our loud and rushed world is not always friendly to introverts and sensitive people. In many cultures, especially Western ones, extroverted and aggressive behavior is highly valued, while reflective or introspective behavior is seen as a weakness. Emotions — which sensitive people experience intensely — may also be seen as a weakness (“Stop crying!” or “Toughen up!” or “It’s not that bad!”). This can lead introverts and sensitive people to feel pressure to be something they are not, or to feel like they are somehow not measuring up to societal expectations.
How Introverts and Highly Sensitive People Are Different
1. Sensitive people can be introverted or extroverted.
It’s estimated that about 70 percent of sensitive people are introverts, while 30 percent are extroverts. In other words, you might be an introverted sensitive person who cherishes solitude and quiet, or you might be an extroverted sensitive person who is outwardly expressive and thrives on relationships.
An extroverted sensitive person can look quite different from an introverted sensitive person. While an introverted sensitive person may be quiet and reserved, an extroverted sensitive person may be outgoing and sociable. In terms of their verbal and nonverbal communication, extroverted sensitive people may be highly expressive, using gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice to convey their emotions and ideas. Although extroverted sensitive people feel energized by socializing, they still need downtime to calm their senses and process their experiences.
2. They experience emotions differently.
Sensitive people may experience emotions deeply and with greater complexity than others do. Called depth of emotion — one of the gifts of sensitivity — they may feel more moved, touched, or deeply impacted by their experiences, and they may need more time to process their emotions afterward. They may also experience a particularly emotional event, such as falling in love, a sad movie, a divorce, or a personal accomplishment or tragedy, with greater intensity than someone who is less sensitive. Their depth of emotion springs from the fact that they process all stimulation deeply — including internal stimulation. This emotional depth can make sensitive people more susceptible to anxiety, depression, and trauma, but it can also make them more empathetic, compassionate, and creative. Feeling emotions deeply puts them in touch with what it means to be human.
Introverts, on the other hand, do not necessarily feel emotions in a stronger way than others do. And they may be more reserved or guarded with their emotions.
3. They react to stimulation differently.
While both introverts and sensitive people may be more responsive to external stimuli, sensitive people tend to have a more visceral reaction to it. Certain smells, sounds, or rough textures may trigger a physical sensation in their body, an emotional reaction, or a feeling of discomfort or unease. (For example, as a sensitive person, I can’t wear pants that have a tight waistband, or I will feel distracted all day.) For introverts, the primary source of feeling drained and overwhelmed is socializing.
Of course, if you are both an introvert and a sensitive person, you may feel drained and overwhelmed by many things at once. I remember attending a “speed friending” event where I sat in a circle and had to talk to a new person every five minutes. The sensitive person in me was drained by the emotions, noise, and activity level in the room, while the introvert in me was exhausted by making small talk with so many people!
4. Introverts crave solitude while sensitive people don’t necessarily crave it.
As I explore in my other book, The Secret Lives of Introverts, introverts love spending time alone. For example, introverts might skip a party and instead opt for a solo activity like reading or gaming. As Susan Cain writes, “Solitude matters, and for some people, it’s the air they breathe.”
Being sensitive, on the other hand, is about how a person experiences the world around them. Sensitive people do not necessarily crave solitude in the same way that introverts do — they may have no desire to spend an entire night (or weekend!) alone. Rather, sensitive people may need downtime to prevent feeling overwhelmed. They may step out of a loud room for a few moments to calm their senses or spend the morning journaling to sort out their thoughts.
For too long, society has told us that sensitivity is a weakness, when it’s actually your greatest strength. To learn more about your superpower, check out my book, Sensitive. It was named an Amazon Best Book of 2023! Susan Cain says, “This important book reframes the way we think about sensitivity and shines a light on the great power of being highly attuned to the world.” Click here to buy it on Amazon.
You might like:
- 27 ‘Strange’ Things You Do Because You’re a Highly Sensitive Person
- Why Do Introverts Love Being Alone? Here’s the Science
- 7 Rules for Introverts and Sensitive People to Protect Their Energy
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