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How sensitivity differs from introversion



Susan Cain with her book Quiet, gave much needed validation to the introverts of this world. Society tells us in subtle and not so subtle ways that being outgoing, gregarious and a team player are desirable traits. Conversely she showed us that among other things introverts make better managers, artists and inventors.


While introversion has been studied since the time of Carl Jung, and forms the basis of personality typing systems starting with Myers Briggs, the book has always raised questions to my mind about the origin of the trait. Cain offers us only that less than half of introversion is inherited.


If we are curious, by delving further into the literature we come across 'sensitivity', which is now thought to be an altogether separate trait. And one that is more genetic in nature. You can test this by clapping near a babies ear, if it jumps its sensitive.


This is a review slash summary of Elaine Aron's (1996) book The Highly Sensitive Person. Aron digs deeper into the realm of personality, in particular the 15-20% of us that are born with high sensitivity. She calls the trait "Highly sensitive Person" or HSP.


In brief, sensitivity is different from introversion and shyness. Sensitivity is inherited, while the latter two are less so, being more learned behaviors. The essence of sensitivity is that from a nervous system point of view HSP's more easily over-arouse, and saturate more easily. For example too long in traffic, at the shopping mall, the bright lights, the noises and bustle of too many unfamiliar people.


There is now quite of lot of studies on sensitivity with Aron, herself a scientist, focusing on the area. Aron makes it clear that sensitivity is not a disorder, saying that the defining quality is actually about the depth that we process information received from the senses. Its also not really a spectrum (as with introversion), you are either are or aren't.


While being sensitive can make you an introvert, 30% of HSPs are in fact extroverts. And some introverts are not HSPs.


The clinical term is 'sensory processing sensitivity'. It means that HSPs are more aware of subtleties in their environment. It also means their nervous systems are more easily overwhelmed when over-stimulated. They get overwhelmed precisely because they notice so much. Thus, being sensitive has both pros and cons.


In our society, historically, being sensitive tended to be seen as a defect. If you are a HSP, parents and teachers probably tried to help you outgrow your sensitiveness. However in evolutionary terms the trait most likely evolved to ensure that a few among the group were more cautious when encountering new foods, new people and new environments. That pause to analyze, saved lives in a tribal setting.


Aron gives us the acronym DOES.

D is for depth of processing. Our fundamental characteristic is that we observe and reflect before we act. We process everything more, whether we are conscious of it or not.

O is for being easily overstimulated, because if you are going to pay more attention to everything, you are bound to tire sooner.

E is for giving emphasis to our emotional reactions and having strong empathy which among other things helps us notice and learn.

S is for being sensitive to all the subtleties around us


HSPs notice things that other people do not. An HSP child might enter the classroom, notice the teacher is in a bad mood, that there is a new child, and that there is a pile of bags where they arent supposed to be, meanwhile, all the other kids will just run in and start playing.


Loud music and large crowds are highly stimulating for HSPs and thus stressful. HSPs need solitude after such events in order to to recharge.


HSPs can be instantly aware, whether they wish to be or not, of the mood, the friendships and enmities, the freshness or staleness of the air, the personality of the one who arranged the flowers...


Mostly you notice that you seem unable to tolerate as much as other people. You forget that you belong to a group that has often demonstrated great creativity, insight, passion,and caring"all highly valued by society. We are a package deal, however. Our trait of sensitivity means we will also be cautious, inward, needing extra time alone.


Because people without the trait (the majority) do not understand that, they see us as timid, shy, weak, or that greatest sin of all, unsociable. Fearing these labels, we try to be like others. But that leads to our becoming over-aroused and distressed. Then that gets us labeled neurotic or crazy, first by others and then by ourselves.


It seems that the trait has not really been recognized until recently. HSPs go unrecognized for two reasons. First HSPs are the minority. Secondly HSPs are sensitive to their non-recognition and keep themselves hidden, making their gifts harder to notice. Interestingly, they are trying to fit in, by not standing out.


At birth the trait is found in males and females equally. However as children, we are molded by the stereotype that boys are supposed to be more active and tough, and girls quieter and more emotional. Men are just not supposed to be sensitive. Whereas women are expected to tend to social bonds, and to the needs of children etc.


Consequently by school age, most male HSPs are introverts.



Down sides


HSPs don't do well working night shifts, and they take longer to recover from jet lag.


Depending on how they were raised, HSPs are genetically more susceptible to depression. This is caused by lower than average serotonin levels. HSPs with a troubled childhood are more at risk of becoming depressed, anxious, and shy than non-sensitive people with a similar childhood. Many HSPs have had difficult childhoods, possibly because no one understood or could help regulate their temperament. Too intense stimulation for the infants body, can lead to a defense mechanism involving stopping being conscious and present. What we call shut down.


Another feature of HSP is a tendency to overthink things.


Sensitivity... involves paying more attention to details than others do, then using that knowledge to make better predictions in the future. Sometimes you are better off doing so, but other times your extra attention and effort have no payoff. Sensitivity does have its costs. It really can be a waste of energy if what is happening now has nothing to do with your past experiences. Further, when a past experience was very bad, an HSP can over generalize and avoid or feel anxious in too many situations, just because the new ones resemble in some small way the past bad one. The biggest cost to us of being highly sensitive, however, is that our nervous system can become overloaded.


HSPs usually resist change and don't do well with a lot of change, even much needed change. Again this is moderated by upbringing. Sensitive children with secure attachment to their caregivers feel less threatened by new experiences.


HSPs find their high school years to be very difficult. Because it involves so much change, and because it means making big choices about their future, which they fret over whether they will be the right decisions. If they fail to cope, their pattern of disassociation really sets in. They get through school by leaning on one or two really good friends.



Up sides


HSPs tend to be very conscientious and perfectionistic. But they cannot rest until all the details of their work are resolved. "The details are like little needles of arousal poking them". That makes it difficult to relax.


There is an upside to the tendency to depression. Now new research demonstrates that this genetic variation causing lower serotonin to be available in the brain also bestows benefits, such as improved memory of learned material, better decision making, and better overall mental functioning, plus gaining even more positive mental health than others from positive life experiences. When raised by skilled mothers, we're more likely to show developmental precocity, resilience to stress, and be leaders of their social groups.


Everyone reacts to negative emotions and situations, but HSPs respond as much or maybe more to positive emotions. For example, curiosity, desire, anticipation, satisfaction, joy, and contentedness. "HSPs seem to have evolved so that they like positive outcomes and try to find a way to make it happen."


When it comes to being empathetic, understanding and aware, when HSPs are very calm, they have the advantage of picking up social nuances particularly well, although to varying degrees of consciousness. But this is only when they are calm. When over-aroused, they are the reverse of sensitive, and non HSPs will be more understanding of others in highly chaotic situations.



Things to do


1. Self-knowledge. You have to understand what it means to be an HSP. Thoroughly. And how it fits with your other traits and how your societys negative attitude has affected you. Then you need to know your sensitive body very well. No more ignoring your body because it seems too uncooperative or weak.


2. Reframing. You must actively reframe much of your past in the light of knowing you came into the world highly sensitive.

So many of your failures were inevitable because neither you nor your parents and teachers, friends and colleagues, understood you. Reframing how you experienced your past can lead to solid self-esteem, and self-esteem is especially important for HSPs, for it decreases our over-arousal in new (and therefore highly stimulating) situations. Reframing is not automatic, however. That is why I include activities at the end of each chapter that often involve it.


3. Healing. If you have not yet done so, you must begin to heal the deeper wounds. You were very sensitive as a child; family and school problems, childhood illnesses, and the like all affected you more than others. Furthermore,you were different from other kids and almost surely suffered for that. HSPs especially, sensing the intense feelings that must arise, may hold back from the inner work necessary to heal the wounds from the past. Caution and slowness are justified. But you will cheat yourself if you delay.


4. Help With Feeling Okay When Out in the World and Learning When to Be Less Out. You can be, should be, and need to be involved in the world. It truly needs you. But you have to be skilled at avoiding overdoing or underdoing it. This book, free of the confusing messages from a less sensitive culture,is about discovering that way


HSPs need to parent themselves. "Treat your body like it is an infant and you are its caretaker".


There are two main ways that HSPs don't look after themselves. They push themself too much to be out in the world like everyone else. We succumb to this because competition is part and parcel of western culture. Thus there is a tendency to feel worthless and unproductive if we are not always striving for success.


But on the other hand they will be tempted to withdraw too much. This is overprotecting themselves, but the fact is that they have the same innate need to be connected as everyone else. The problem with withdrawing too much is that the more they withdraw, the more sensitive they become to ever smaller and smaller stressors.


HSPs need to counteract their over thinking by remembering to play. We all need play because play creates hormones that counteract stress. "If you are depressed, overly emotional in other ways, not sleeping, or showing other signs of being out of balance, force yourself to plan more play."


Being self employed makes a lot of sense for HSPs, because they can control the amount of stimulation they receive. But they must watch out for their tendency to be un-focused, and procrastinate a lot.





Maybe the HSP phenomenon helps us further clarify the premise that social shyness is a learned behavior. Simply put, bad social experiences lead to subsequent social hesitancy. Perhaps you could even say that introversion is basically one part sensitivity plus one part shyness.


So while it might sound like a rather challenging gift, Aron emphasizes that HSP's were born to be our advisors and thinkers, and the spiritual and moral leaders of our world. They may not be destined to be bold fearless warrior-kings, but more of a royal-advisor or priestly class, visionaries, advocates for seeking and pursuing wholeness.


Carl Jung regarded sensitives as "the educators and promoters of culture". Teaching us all about our "interior life, which is so painfully wanting in our civilization".



Self test


If you answer true to twelve or more of these questions, youre probably HSP.


I seem to be aware of subtleties in my environment

Other peoples moods affect me

I tend to be very sensitive to pain

I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or into a darkened room or any place where I can have some privacy and relief from stimulation

I am particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine

I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by

I have a rich, complex inner life

I am made uncomfortable by loud noises

I am deeply moved by the arts or music

I am conscientious

I startle easily

I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time

When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment I tend to know what needs to be done to make it more comfortable (like changing the lighting or the seating)

I am annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once

I try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things

I make it a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows

I become unpleasantly aroused when a lot is going on around me

Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration or mood

Changes in my life shake me up

I notice and enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, works of art

I make it a high priority to arrange my life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations

When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise

When I was a child, my parents or teachers seemed to see me as sensitive or shy

(source: Elaine Aron)



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