When I got to college, something seemed to be wrong with me. Suddenly, it was impossible for me to concentrate.
My three roommates studied in our room. Classmates were always working in the dorm common areas, or in the student center. Me, I couldn’t even study in most parts of the library.
The only place I could do good work was two floors down into the basement of the biggest library on campus. There, between the stacks and stacks of old books, far against the wall, were old wooden desks that must have been there since the 1960’s. It was quiet and empty and no one went there.
I feel relaxed, even thinking about it now.
That was the first time I noticed that I seemed to need an above-average amount of quiet and alone-ness. It wasn’t the last.
I never seemed to want to go out to parties as much as other people. When I got my first job after college, and spent my whole day sitting at a conference table with three or four other people, I often felt like I couldn’t get anything done. Some boyfriends in my 20’s were annoyed because I needed a lot of time alone, or because sometimes when we were together, I just wanted to read or do quiet things. Why are we together if we’re just going to read? a kind but confused boyfriend once asked.
As I learned more about myself over the next decade, I realized that there were two factors that contributed to it. I was an introvert and a highly sensitive person (HSP).
Ever heard of those traits? Here are some simplified definitions:
An introvert is someone who tends to be drained when they spend time with groups of people or in larger social settings, and tends to be energized when they are alone or in small social settings.
A highly sensitive person (HSP) tends to be more sensitive than the average person, to both external and internal stimuli. External stimuli could include sounds or temperatures or environments or art or music what is going on with other people. Being more sensitive to internal stimuli means that they might feel their emotions or thoughts more strongly. Because of that increased sensitivity, they may feel drained more easily.
As you might expect, there’s a lot of overlap between introverts and HSPs. About 70% of HSPs are introverts, though extroverts can be HSPs as well.
It’s worth noting that both of these traits are value-neutral — not inherently good or bad. Depending on the person and the culture we live in, there certain strengths of being an HSP or introvert, and certain challenges.
Last week, I wrote about how cultivating your sensitivity can be helpful for anyone. But HSPs and introverts have some innate sensitivities, and many of them may feel like there’s something “wrong” with them.
If you take nothing else away from this essay, I hope you’ll know that nothing is wrong with being an introvert or an HSP. In fact, they can be strengths! I am a far stronger coach because I am a sensitive person, for example, and I even cultivate my sensitivity that so I can notice more about my clients and how to help them.
Finally, if either of these personality traits resonate with you, I’d encourage you to look into them more. Learning about these traits helped me to understand that I wasn’t a “weak” person, but rather that these were common personality traits, and they gave me both strengths and challenges in the world.
If you’d like to explore more, here are some of my recommendations:
Introversion. Check out Susan Cain’s TED Talk, or her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.
Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). Check out Dr. Elaine Aron’s online self-test, or her book The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You