Most people find life difficult: relationships break down, loved ones die, a new manager turns out to be rude and incompetent, and so on. But, though everyone has their bad times, some cope better than others; no matter what happens, confidence and optimism see them through. Indeed, some are so insensitive nothing upsets them. For others, like the sensitive introvert, life is a constant struggle.
The better you understand yourself the better you will cope. You will also be able to arrange your life in a way that suits your temperament and personality, from the people you socialize with to the places you work. Too often, the sensitive introvert forces herself to go to parties, socialize with the neighbors or pursue a stressful career because she feels she ought to.
Some cultures reward assertiveness and treat sensitivity and introversion like disabilities. And in a hub of modern capitalism, such as London or New York, it is a disability! Wherever people must fight for money and status, amid endless noise and movement, the sensitive introvert suffers. But there is nothing wrong with such people. On the contrary, they possess strengths others lack. Their emotional intelligence, for example, tends to be high. And without them the arts and sciences would be hugely impoverished.
The words “introvert” and “sensitive” are rather vague and need defining. Both Freud and Jung wrote at length about the introvert-extrovert divide, especially the way they use energy. Freud used the word “libido” to refer to this energy (a “hypothetical form of mental energy,” as Charles Rycroft puts it in his Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis). This can flow outward, towards people and events, or it can be turned inward. Introverts turn libido inward, which is why they often have a rich inner life – and why they make great artists.
In general, people assume “introvert” is synonymous with “shy,” but that is not accurate. Introverts may be on average more shy than extroverts, but you can have a confident introvert and a shy extrovert. The real difference lies in the effect people have on them. Introverts find socializing exhausting; extroverts find it energizing. When introverts go to a party, they tend to focus on one person; the extrovert flits from one to another, eager to meet new people but quickly tiring of them.
In the 1960s, Hans Eysenck identified arousal levels as another difference. The introvert’s mind and body are more sensitive, which is why they need less novelty or adventure than extroverts. Indeed, sensitivity and introversion are often found together. Around twenty percent of the population are believed to have a “Highly Sensitive Personality,” or “HSP,” and more than two-thirds of that twenty percent are also introverts.
An HSP is sensitive in numerous ways. If they are walking down the street and a car suddenly honks its horn, the HSP will jump. Should the neighbors start arguing, the highly sensitive will be kept awake all night. His partner, on the other hand, will shrug her shoulders, roll over and fall back asleep. They are even sensitive to bright colors or strong smells. In the most extreme cases, they find it impossible to walk through a busy shopping mall, not because they fear other people but because of the sensory overload. In the winter, they are the first to notice the cold, in the summer the first to complain of the heat.
Dr Ted Zeff, who wrote a survival guide for HSPs, described it as like living without a barrier or “natural shield” between you and the world. Since the highly sensitive also tend to be more empathetic and emotional, they suffer a great deal (news stories about abused dogs or abducted children will haunt them for days). Unsurprisingly, they also take rejection or ridicule badly. As you can imagine, High School is a particularly stressful time. If there are problems at home as well (divorce, abuse, addiction, etc), such children may even self-harm.
The key is to organize life in a way that suits you. That does not mean running away. On the contrary, it takes courage and strength to say “this is who I am, this is what I like, and I don’t need anyone’s approval or permission.” Thankfully, that becomes easier with time. One of the upsides to ageing is that you care less and less what other people think of you. At school and college, and even in one’s early 20s, the pressure to conform, to fit in, is overwhelming. That pressure is now reinforced by social media. Consequently, introverts force themselves to go to parties, struggle through college, pursue a high-pressure career, or whatever it may be, often damaging their mental health in the process.
Take work, for example. If you are a sensitive introvert, a sales office may not be the place for you. Again, don’t allow others to pressure you into something you hate. People complain that they hate their job but do it for the money. In truth, they usually stick at a horrible job because they want the status rather than the money. They could earn just as much if they re-trained as a plumber or locksmith, but they like going to work in a suit.
Unfortunately, even if you do stick out a horrible job, you are unlikely to be much good. Introverts are more productive when left alone, while extroverts work better in a team. Indeed, an extrovert will get more done while chatting away to colleagues than when isolated. If you ran a building firm, for example, and sent an introverted employee to remove some old windows from a house, he would be much quicker on his own. Put two strangers with him and his energy will be used up talking to them; an extrovert would gain energy.
So make an effort to find work that suits you. Above all, find something with minimal stress. And be wary of the people you work with. In his book about recovering from suicidal depression, Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig recalls the first job he found after his breakdown. The experience had left him more sensitive and withdrawn than normal. Foolishly, he ended up selling advertising space. At lunchtime he tried to socialize with the other sales representatives, but “it was all dirty jokes and football and slagging off [complaining about] their girlfriends.” No surprise that Haig “hadn’t felt this out of place since I was thirteen” and “couldn’t stand another hour phoning people who didn’t want to be phoned.”
Relationships are another area to approach with caution. A relationship with a confident extrovert isn’t necessarily doomed. What really matters is that your partner and friends understand you. If not, things become tricky. Your discomfort around people and reluctance to socialize may be mistaken for rudeness, arrogance or coldness. An outgoing party-lover is also likely to grow bored. Once again, it is important to stress that being a sensitive introvert doesn’t make you boring. An introvert is just as likely to find an extrovert boring as the other way around. The extrovert may be fun in a nightclub, for example, but have nothing to say at a quiet dinner party.
Another problem is the need for silence and space. Your partner may expect constant attention. As a sensitive introvert, however, you need time alone to re-charge. You love your partner and are very happy with him, and yet your tendency to disappear with a book is mistaken for lack of interest or affection. So make it clear to a new partner that this is what you are like. That way, you avoid misunderstandings.
This need for silence and space extends to where you live. A small apartment in the center of a big town or city may not be the best place. HSPs tend to be very sensitive to noise, whether that be neighbors, traffic or workmen digging holes. But life in a small village can be just as hard. Yes it is quieter, but people can also be more intrusive. A small house on a quiet estate in the suburbs may be best.
Being an insensitive extrovert brings problems of its own. Insensitive people struggle to sustain deep or meaningful relationships. Often, the man or woman they love senses this lack of depth and finds life with them lonely and empty. Extroverts are also prone to boredom and low mood, especially as they age. In their youth, they tend to be popular. Most people in their age group are single and childless and keen to make new friends. The young also tend to be more impressed by their energy and confidence. As people age and have children, they have less time to socialize, and when they do, they look for depth and emotional intelligence.
Depth and sensitivity are enormously attractive traits, whether in a partner or friend. Life is hard, and we all yearn to be understood. The sensitive introvert is more likely to possess this kind of empathy and understanding. Though they find socializing stressful and difficult, when they do make friends those friendships tend to last. Sensitive introverts also inspire great loyalty. Once they let people in, the connection is deep.
Most of us feel lonely at some point, but we feel it most intensely when unable to bond at a deep, non-verbal level. Indeed, you can be surrounded by friends and family and yet feel totally alone. And as many people know from experience, nothing is lonelier than a relationship with someone who doesn’t understand you. Don’t be fooled by the number of friends a noisy extrovert has on Facebook. What really counts is the depth and quality of those friendships.
Even in the workplace, sensitivity and introversion have their advantages. It really depends on the work you do. Teaching, therapy, freelance writing, etc., all favor the sensitive introvert. In any case, working from home is increasingly common, something the extrovert often finds difficult. Futurologists also predict that Artificial Intelligence and robotics will soon take many jobs. Two things AI struggles with, however, are empathy and creativity – the very areas in which the sensitive introvert excels.
In Ancient Greece, the words “know thyself” were carved in stone at the entrance to the Temple of Apollo. And for good reason. Knowing yourself is the key to a happy and successful life. Once you understand who you essentially are, you can arrange your life in a way that suits your temperament. This is especially true for sensitive introverts.