Honestly, Even for an Introvert, Listening Can Be Draining

An introvert feels drained from listening.

Talking is hard. No one knows this better than an introvert does. Whether it’s a speech in front of a large group of people, small talk with a stranger, or an unexpected question from a coworker that completely derails your train of thought, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that verbal communication just isn’t an introvert’s favorite thing.

We complain a lot about the difficulty of talking. However, for highly sensitive introverts, listening can be just as difficult — even though it’s something introverts are supposed to be good at.

(Not sure what it means to be an introvert? Here’s how we define introversion.) 

I Internalize Other People’s Emotions

I’m an INFJ personality type. Whenever I read about characteristics of this type, it always seems to come up that INFJs are good listeners. In fact, this seems to be a supposed characteristic of a lot of the introverted personality types.

(What’s your personality type? Take a free personality test.)

But is it really? When I hear that introverts make good listeners, I can’t help but feel guilty. I’m not sure it’s true for me.

I’d like to be a good listener. As a social introvert and as a “feeling” personality type, I long for the close personal relationships that result from having someone confide in you. I want to be a trustworthy emotional support system for my friends and family, and sometimes even for those I barely know.

Yet, as a highly sensitive person (HSP), I have a tendency to internalize other people’s emotions and feel them almost as deeply as I do my own. This can be a problem when someone is trying to confide in me about something upsetting or serious, as I feel so emotionally drained by empathizing with them that I don’t have the energy to give the kind words or council the moment might actually call for. I fear I come across as callous or uninterested, when I’m really just trying to process all the new emotions I’m currently feeling as a result of listening to you talk.

Sometimes, if I’m with someone who talks for too long about a potentially weighty subject, I’m left feeling physically as well as emotionally tired. I want nothing more than to escape the “conversation,” even if I know the other person is looking for some kind of feedback.

When Listening Becomes Overwhelming

Once, I went on a date with a guy who spent several hours telling me not only his complete life story, but also his five-year plan, his ten-year plan, and the back-up to his ten-year plan (he had two because of all the things that could go wrong with the first one). While he had a lot of interesting things to say about his path in life and why he had chosen it, I felt utterly exhausted just listening to him talk.

I could tell he was being a lot more vulnerable with me than he had originally intended to be. Part of me wanted to let him know this was okay, and that I wasn’t judging him for his emotional honesty. That part of me was working very hard on not just absorbing what he was saying, but also in controlling my reactions. Was I murmuring encouragement in all the right places? Was my face sympathetic enough? What was my body language saying?

Another part of me desperately wanted to flee. As the coffee shop around us closed, I noticed we were the only ones there, and I began to wonder if the manager wanted us to leave. Was he upset with us for taking up his time? Should we have spent more than $5 on lattes to justify sitting there for several hours? My mind and body were wired by more than the caffeine.

When the night finally ended, I all but sprinted back to my car. And when I got home, I did something that I rarely do. I called a friend.

I have about three people in my life who I call on the phone, and one of them is my 85-year-old grandmother who still uses a landline and therefore cannot text. However, while I won’t press dial for just anyone, I do have two close friends who I call on a semi-regular basis. Even introverts need to vent sometimes.

I appreciate these two friends in particular because they not only let me vent, but they also encourage it. Coincidentally, they are both extroverts, and I find it unsurprising that they are truly the best and most supportive listeners I know. In fact, I feel far more comfortable calling either of them than any of my introverted friends, as I know they will never be disturbed or upset by my unexpected conversation inserting itself into their day.

Even more amazing than this self-professed introvert finding the words to rant into her phone for hours on end is the fact that instead of making me feel more drained, it actually makes me feel better. As I say my thoughts aloud, it allows me to unpack and sort through the weight of my emotions. It allows me to figure out what I’m actually feeling, and what emotions I’m feeling purely because they were passed on to me by someone else.

You Are Worth Listening To

As I talked to my friend, I realized the anxiety I was feeling about my future was mostly a second-hand emotion I was vibing from my conversation with my date. What I was really feeling was uncertainty about my relationship with him, because I did not see myself in the future that he had so carefully described for himself. Once I had talked my way to the source of what I was feeling, I was able to go to bed with a clear head.

As an HSP, I experience what I like to call “second-hand” emotions quite frequently. If I am talking to someone who is distressed about something, I will also become distressed, often for far longer than the conversation lasts. Listening to my coworker vent about the stress of her day before leaving the office will leave me stressed for the rest of the evening, even if I had a perfectly productive day. Watching an intensively emotional movie, particularly if the movie also includes violence, will leave me feeling depressed or anxious, even if everything else in my life is fine.

Having someone to vent to about these feelings is important. For me, a long chat with a friend is usually enough, but for others, a therapist or trained professional might be helpful. Whatever works for you, please do it. The pressure to listen and help nurture those who are hurting can be quite strong for empathetic types, but it’s important to realize that you are worth listening to as well. For introverts, this can be especially hard to come to terms with, as listening is so mentally draining that verbalizing what you are feeling afterward can seem impossible.

However, when you have the right listening ear, neither talking nor listening is hard, even for a highly sensitive introvert. With time and patience, you might find that opening up to someone, and allowing them to open up to you, will cultivate exactly this kind of relationship. This is a friendship in which empathy no longer feels draining, because it is based on a mutual respect for each other’s thoughts and feelings. Although sometimes it can be hard to just listen, you know they will reciprocate when life gets rough.

That is what makes both listening and talking worth it. 

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