In a noisy, busy world, here’s how I’ve learned to thrive as a highly sensitive introvert.
Even though I had friends growing up and got along well with others, in the back of my head, there was always a little voice that said, “I am weird, I am strange, I am so different from everybody else.”
It took a while before I got acquainted with the concept of extroverts and introverts. This was in my early 20s when I was studying to become an elementary school teacher. I got to understand a bit more about myself and that I was an introvert — it finally made sense that I got my energy from being alone — but I left it at that.
But when I moved from job to job and from house to house with my loving boyfriend (later to be my husband), I started to struggle. I cried a lot, and felt worthless and powerless. I wasn’t sure why I was feeling the way I did and took some courses on how to be assertive. But the real change happened years later.
How I Discovered I’m a Highly Sensitive Person, Too
Working as a secretary in a hospital, at some point I shared an office with a coworker. One day, she mentioned she thought I was a highly sensitive person (HSP). She recognized some characteristics of herself in me, like how empathetic I was toward others. I googled “HSP” and did some tests and it was pretty straightforward: I was a highly sensitive introvert. Although I do not prefer to stick labels on people (everybody is different), it really helped me understand why I acted and reacted the way I did to certain situations and stimuli.
I bought some books, did online research, did a lot of thinking and journaling, and went from disliking the HSP label to accepting it as my talent. So there it was: I was an HSP, I had loads of “aha” moments, and better understood where I came from so I could move forward.
(Are you an HSP? Here are 21 signs that you’re a highly sensitive person.)
From Knowing I’m a Highly Sensitive Introvert to Living It
Knowing you are a highly sensitive introvert is one thing, but the next step is how to act in an extrovert-dominated world as a person who is an introvert and highly sensitive, especially when it came to sounds. Honestly, I would have preferred to stay at home all day, every day. My colleague wondered how I was able to work in a room with four other secretaries (she had the luxury of having a spacious office to herself).
I think it was because I’d been living in survival mode for a long period of time and had become an expert on adapting to my environment. I did the things that were expected of me by my peers, parents, colleagues, and so on. In the meantime, however, I exhausted myself.
I consider it a miracle that I haven’t burned out. (I have my husband to thank for that; he is very understanding and caring. I now have a quiet, relaxing house to come home to and the freedom to do my hobbies.)
How I Made My Life More Comfortable as a Highly Sensitive Introvert
So what did I do to make my life more comfortable for my introverted highly sensitive soul? The following have worked for me.
- Find the home you need or create a sacred space in your current one. I know it is not possible for everybody, but my husband and I moved further away from family to a cheaper living area so we could buy a detached house. This way, I wouldn’t suffer from the noises we’d hear from the neighbors (running showers, drilling in the walls, that sort of thing). If you cannot do this, make sure to set up a sacred space — like an “introvert zen zone” — just for you in your current home. Fill it with all your favorite, calming things, from throw pillows to lavender essential oil to your best pair of noise-cancelling headphones.
- Do what you love instead of what other people are doing. I love crafting, drawing, painting, gardening, reading, petting my cats, and taking care of my bees. I used to do the things other people would be interested in; now, however, I don’t do mainstream anymore. If everybody is into some sort of style, music, or TV show, I am most probably not. The downside is, I can’t participate in conversations during lunch breaks about the latest popular actor or something that was on TV the other night. But I do not mind as much anymore; I just listen to the stories. (And introverts are great listeners!) When the opportunity presents itself, I feel I can be more comfortable sharing about my interests. Before, I would stay quiet. Now, I just tell people I spent my weekend crafting or beekeeping and I do not feel embarrassed (anymore).
- Get all your thoughts out through journaling. I have notebooks full of notes and diary entries. Sometimes I read them again and find I still struggle with the same issues, but most of the time, I realize I’ve made small or big improvements. (I guess it is a lifelong process.) And it may feel like you get nowhere, but if you look back 10 years, what positive changes did you make? For me, for example, I used to agree on things in a conversation, although I really did not agree. Now I do not agree anymore (just for the sake of agreeing). I also don’t disagree as much as I would like, but I am getting there. (We introverts don’t like conflict!) Journaling can help you see the small (or large) steps you make toward your end goal.
- Practice self-care and self-love. Self-care and self-love are really important. We introverts can be really hard on ourselves. You suck, you must do better, why are so weak, are you stupid? These are some of the things I told myself a lot (and still do sometimes). But, instead, remind yourself that you are trying and doing the best you can at the moment. Maybe you made mistakes, but know you did then what you could with the knowledge and tools you had at the moment. It is always easy to know better afterwards, because then you can see the whole picture. One thing that has helped me when these negative thoughts crawl toward the surface is telling myself: “This thought is not helping me.” Other ways to love yourself include: taking good care of your body, eating well, using nice, fragranced body lotions, exercising, getting enough sleep, wearing comfortable outfits (in the style you like), pampering yourself, surrounding yourself with inspiring and meaningful items/products, being kind to yourself, telling yourself you have done a good job and that you are proud of you, and hugging yourself.
- Use visualizations to help you get through things. I think in pictures, so visualizations are easy and helpful for me. For example, when I am restless but I need to fall asleep, I envision a wolf laying on my bed, snuggling his snout against my body and comforting me. Or when I need to feel strong, I envision a big, strong bear standing behind me and giving me the strength I need.
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- Recite positive mantras to yourself. Because our minds can be full of negative thoughts (or just full with any kind of thoughts; we are introverts, after all!), mantras can help you clear your mind. There are tons to choose from. At some point, I discovered that one of my core wounds is that I have this need to prove myself. So I tell myself: “I do not have to prove myself, I am good the way I am.”
- Take your time and be OK with it. I can do about one social activity per week. This, combined with an office job four days a week and teaching gymnastics three hours in a row, makes my nervous system overwhelmed and I need solitude to recover. I used to think this was weak, but I have learned to accept this as part of my being. My friends know this, as well, and I feel comfortable saying, “Sorry, can’t do next week, I already have something planned the day before, so that will be too much for me.” (Both introverts and highly sensitive people only have a certain amount of energy we can dedicate to social situations; meanwhile, we value our alone time to rest and recharge.) So before planning an activity, check your calendar and see if you have space left. And I don’t mean space as in time, but the importance of mental space to cope with the day’s activities. If you do need to plan more than you can handle, try to schedule some days off to recover, or a least some low social days (like working from home or staying indoors).
- Be one with nature. Being outdoors can be refreshing and energizing, especially for introverts and highly sensitive types. I live in an agricultural area in the Netherlands, but the woods are just a 20-minute car ride away. Or spend time gardening in your yard. If you don’t have a garden of your own, you can create an indoor one. Or consider the idea of helping out families who have a big garden, but not enough time to maintain it. By helping them out, you create a win-win situation.
- Remind yourself that it is OK to feel however you’re feeling. I have been interested in the dark side within me (yeah, a little Star Wars-y), and by that I mean the feelings of guilt and shame you keep inside your soul. I am working through a journal from the lonerwolf.com website to explore this shadow side. And what I take into practice is that I accept the feelings I have. When I am getting upset about something, I do not punish myself for being weak; I tell myself it is OK to feel this way. Instead of burying the feeling and ignoring it, I go through it: I look it in the eyes and give it a place. Otherwise, it will linger somewhere in your subconscious and will pop up unannounced when you least expect (and need) it.
- Watch ASMR videos to relax. In short, ASMR is a relaxing tingly feeling you get while listening to certain sounds. This could be somebody writing or cutting hair. There are loads of videos on YouTube and Instagram, such as these gentle-whispering videos. It really helps me relax and wind down, especially when my highly sensitive self feels overwhelmed and overstimulated.
So while being a highly sensitive introvert is not always easy, I’ve found so many ways to self-soothe and hope you do, too.