Back in 1991, Dr. Elaine N. Aron began researching high sensitivity and discovered a trait she calls Sensory-Processing Sensitivity. You might have heard of it by the more popular term used describe those with this trait, Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).
This trait is not well understood by the majority of people. Dr. Aron says that it is “often mislabeled as” shyness or “introversion. It has also been called inhibitedness, fearfulness, or neuroticism.” HSPs can be like that, but it’s not part of the basic trait.
Even with discussion of HSPs becoming more mainstream this trait is still often lumped in with introversion. Couple that with descriptions of introverts as sensitive, thoughtful people who don’t need much outside stimulation and you can be forgiven for thinking that all HSPs are also introverts.
Sensory processing sensitivity is found in 15 to 20% of the total population (that’s about 1.4 billion highly sensitive people). Of that group, 30% are extroverts. This means that almost 1/3 of all the HSPs Dr. Aron has studied are not introverts after all. Read more →
I just started rereading Watership Down by Richard Adams last night. Normally I wait to write about the books on my Classics Club list until after I’ve finished them, but I’m also rereading Elain Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person In Love and I was struck by a connection between the two books.
In her research on high sensitivity (also known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity), Aron discovered that it’s found in 15 to 20% of the population. And it’s not just humans. The trait “can be observed in all higher animals — mice, cats, dogs, horses, [and] monkeys” at about the same percentage. I’m going to add rabbits to the list as well.
Research on HSPs had barely started by the 1970s, so I doubt Richard Adams would have been familiar with it as a scientifically validated trait when he published Watership Down in 1972. I think he was writing about it anyway, though, with his character Fiver.
When publisher Rex Collins acquired the book, he wrote to a friend saying, “I’ve just taken on a novel about rabbits, one of them with extra-sensory perception. Do you think I’m mad?” Fiver’s insights do go beyond simply being a highly sensitive rabbit, but it’s also true that Fiver would pass the HSP test. Easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input? Check. Aware of subtleties in the environment? Double check. Made uncomfortable by loud noises, startles easily, has a nervous system that feels frazzled, and so on down the list.
He was small, with side, staring eyes and a way of raising and turning his head which suggested not so much caution as a kind of ceaseless, nervous tension. His nose moved continually, and when a bumblebee flew humming to a thistle boom behind him he jumped and spun round with a start that sent two nearby rabbits scurrying for holes (Fiver’s introduction, Watership Down)
As a Highly Sensitive Person myself, I know that feeling all too well. The heightened awareness of the smallest noise. The tension so familiar you barely notice it until an unexpected sound startles you out of your chair (in fact, right after writing this sentence I jumped at a Facebook notification on my phone). And it’s kind of nice to see a character like that in a book, especially one with friends who don’t tell him he needs to change. They accept him for who he is, work with his weaknesses, and appreciate his unique strengths.
Can you think of any other HSP characters in fiction?
Daydreaming is often considered a childish activity. So it might come as a surprise that studies indicate at least 96% of adults engage in daydreams and/or fantasizing on a daily basis. These daydreams typically last for just a few minutes while the mind wanders, but they can also be more involved, frequent, and lengthy. And getting caught up in daydreams is not, as previously thought, as sign of tending toward mental illness.
According to an article in theDartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, we’re learning that daydreaming is “a normal part of our cognitive processes.” In fact, it’s pretty normal to “spend one-third to one-half of our waking hours daydreaming, although that amount can vary significantly from person to person.” I was honestly pretty surprised to learn this. I mean, I know I do that, but I wasn’t expecting such a large percentage of the population to also daydream so much.
But while reading different articles about daydreams, I realized something else. They’re talking about people’s minds drifting into fantasies about their real lives. For example, it’s considered healthy for someone approaching a job interview to daydream about getting the job or for someone in a high-stress job to spend time fantasizing about how all their conversations for the upcoming day could go well. Other studies asked people to daydream about taking vacations or their childhood home. These daydreams are about things that could happen or have happened. I have those types of daydreams, too, but that’s not what most of mine are.
While studying hypnotic suggestibility in 1981, psychologists Theodore X. Barber and Sheryl Wilson discovered that the 27 women they identified “as extremely good hypnotic subjects … all had a fantasy life so intense that it seemed ‘as real as real.'”‘ After more research, people in this group are now described as having a “fantasy prone personality” (FPP). On the more extreme side, where fantasies start to take over reality, it’s called “maladaptive daydreaming” (click here to read an interview with a maladaptive daydreamer).
According to researchers, about 4 percent of people spend half or more of their waking hours absorbed in reverie. The fantasies are not mere fleeting daydreams but something of a cross between a dream and a movie, where an elaborate scenario unfolds once a theme is set. (from a New York Times article)
Reading about this group is where I start to recognize myself. Read more →
This is a great time to be an introvert. We see articles and books popping up all over the place defining introversion, listings wonderful qualities of introverts, and making sure the extroverts know that introverts are just as good (and dare we imply, better?) than them. Introverts Unite (separately)! Introvert Power!
But I wonder when reading some of these articles if we’ve done the extroverts a disservice. Are we introverts in danger of taking our quest for recognition as extroverts’ equals to the extreme of thinking we’re “better than them”? If people could ever be balanced in a quest for equality, it should be those who study type theory. The very fact that introversion and extroversion is hard-wired into our brains should tell us that not everyone thinks the same, and that’s okay.
So with that in mind, here’s a post for the extroverts. You’re awesome, too. Most of the introverts posts like this are addressed to extroverts with the goal of debunking myths surrounding introversion, so we’ll try and do something similar for assumptions we have about extroverts.
1. Extroverts are Intelligent and Sensitive
Let’s get two things straight right from the get-go: introverts don’t have a monopoly on intelligence or sensitivity. Extroverts can be intelligent (and introverts can be unintelligent). Extroverts can be sensitive (and introverts can be insensitive). In fact, the Sensory Processing Sensitivity trait is independent of introversion and 30% of the people who qualify as Highly Sensitive are extroverts. At least two of my extroverted friends are HSPs, and even the ones that aren’t are way more in-tune with their own and other people’s feelings than most introverts give them credit for.
2. “Extrovert” Doesn’t Equal “Social”
Introverts tend to think of extroverts as the people who crave the society of others, and who have an annoying habit of trying to drag introverts out of their shells. But extrovert doesn’t necessarily mean someone who is always social. It means someone who is oriented to the the outer world of people, places, and/or things. They are more likely to recharge among other people than alone, but not always. This is especially true of the more “introverted extroverts” like ENFJs and ENTJs. As one article puts it, ““Extrovert” is not Latin for “has Red Bull flowing through veins.””
3. Extroverts Can Be Shy
Often, the extroverts who tell introverts that we can “recover” from our introversion think this because they were shy as kids and assume “introvert” is the same thing they experienced when they were shy. Shyness is not the same as introversion, and it isn’t an uniquely introvert phenomena. Extroverts can also suffer from shyness and social anxiety. It might actually be harder for them, because at least as a shy introvert you are oriented to living inside your head, whereas an extrovert who is shy wants to be around people but is also terrified of them at the same time.
4. Extroverts Get Things Done
I recently saw someone ask what the world would look like if introverts were in charge. Most of the responses (all from introverts) were along the lines of “peaceful,” “harmonious,” and “quiet.” The first thing I thought? Nothing would ever get done. We’d be so busy trying to avoid conflict that the world would fall apart. As a society, we need extrovert’s energy to connect people, force conflict resolutions, advocate for change, and step-up as leaders. Can introverts do that? sure. But many extroverts thrive in those roles and find that it comes naturally to them.
5. Extroverts Do Think
This should be obvious, but even for those of us who know deep-thinking extroverts there can still be an assumption that most extroverts just word-vomit whatever pops into their heads and dash through life acting instead of thinking. Granted many extroverts do love to talk and sometimes words get out that haven’t gone through a filter yet, but that doesn’t mean they don’t think deeply about things. If you’ve spent any one-on-one time at all with an extrovert, it quickly becomes obvious that they aren’t all shallow. Most of my closest friends are extroverts, and I’ve learned to value their insights and thoughts on a wide range of subjects.
If you’re an extrovert, what is it that you wish people understood about you? If you’re an introvert, what do you love about the extroverts in your life?
Honestly I have no idea what to write about. Guardians of the Galaxy? the book I just read about HSPs? how much I hate head colds that keep me from attending a wedding?
Let’s go with a combo of the first two. My sister talked our whole family into going with her to see Guardians of the Galaxy yesterday. After being … let’s just say less than impressed with the trailers, I found that I actually enjoyed the film for the most part. I’d thought it would be the characters or humor or plot that would be the part I didn’t enjoy, but that wasn’t it.
It was the violence. You expect a certain level of violence in a Marvel superhero film. But at least in The Avengers they were trying to minimize casualties and none of the main characters enjoys killing. The Guardians do (spoiler warning) save an entire planet, but there’s a lot of collateral damage in a mining colony that no one seems concerned about, and Rocket Raccoon, Drax, and Groot are all seen laughing or grinning while killing people. The deaths are played for audience laughs too, like when Groot grows a tree limb through about 5 bad guys and batters them around inside a spaceships corridor to kill them and their companions. I think Peter Quinn and I were the only ones in the theater not laughing.
If you take Elaine Aron’s self-test for High Sensitivity, one of the questions is “True or False: I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows.” When I first took the test, I answered “false.” I wouldn’t watch things with what I considered excessive violence, but I would watch the occasional Criminal Minds episode and I had seen too many R-rated movies to count on one hand (but just barely, and most in a film class at college). Even so, during our yearly re-watching of The Lord of the Rings, I’d leave the room for most of the Battle of Helm’s Deep and if I was watching Henry V on my own I hit the skip button for Agincourt.
Now I think I’d answer “true,” partly because I’m being honest about how I’ve approached violent media in the past and partly because I’m becoming more aware of how violence affects me. I had to stop watching Criminal Minds because the nightmares got too bad (and even after I quit, they came back after reading Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue). I almost wished I hadn’t seen X-Men: Days of Future Past in theaters because the battle scenes were so dark and raw (almost — wouldn’t give up seeing the character development for young Professor X and Magneto). And I was troubled by Guardians of the Galaxy.
Please tell me I’m not the only one who flinches when a character gets stabbed, punched, kicked, shot or otherwise maimed. That there’s other people who think even superhero movies could do with fewer explosions, mayhem, and destruction. Or maybe I could stop watching movies … nah. I’ll probably skip The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, though, at least till DVD, and (spoiler warning) delay the inevitable deaths of all my favorite dwarves for as long as possible.
I’ll still go see Avengers: Age of Ultron, though. Probably for the same reason I let my sister talk me into seeing Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel films are addictive.
I realized Tuesday night when I was reading Fire by Kristin Cashore and crying into the bath water that I wasn’t crying because I felt sad a character had died. I was crying because someone in the book felt sad that this character had died. Once I thought about it, I realized that at least half of the times when fiction moves me to tears, it is in empathy with the characters rather than my own feelings being affected. In other words, I’m crying because the character is crying, not because of what moved the character to tears. Sometimes it is both (Ender’s Game, for example).
The extent to which INFJs report feeling other people’s emotions range from an awareness of how others are reacting, to not being able to remember the last time you experienced a feeling that belonged only to you. “You feel it, I feel it,” an anonymous INFJ wrote. I may not be quite ready to claim my feeling of and for others reaches that extent, but I share her decision to try and avoid encountering strong negative emotions (e.g. a news story about child molestation, a film where a family is torn apart, real-life conflict) because of how overwhelming it is — emotionally as well as physically in terms of headaches and stomach pain.
In INFJ Coach’s series of blog posts on “10 Steps to an Amazing INFJ Life,” part two is “Manage Those Pesky Emotions.” Her article is mainly about dealing with our own emotions when they surface, but the comments point out that this is only part of the problem. One commenter named Jennie wrote that she asks herself,
“Is this my emotion that I’m feeling, or is it someone else’s emotion?’ Many of us INFJs are emotional sponges for the emotions that other people are feeling. Our NF gives us a very high degree of empathy, but sometimes taking on other people’s emotions can be too much to handle.
The other side to this is what INFJ writer Cheryl Florus points out in Personality Junkie’s INFJ Strategies for Dealing with Emotions: Part I. Because an INFJ’s feeling is extroverted, we often have an easier time understanding the emotions of other people than our own emotions (for more on function stacks, see this post). We feel emotions strongly, but need to make an effort to learn how to experience and express them in a way that doesn’t seem overwhelming or uncontrolled. Often, writing down or talking about our emotions is a way to get them outside us so we can look at them more objectively (I keep a journal and talk to my closest family members). Sometimes, until I’ve done this, I’m not exactly sure what it is I’m feeling, let alone how it should be expressed and dealt with.
What about you? Are you an INFJ with experience feeling other people’s feelings (or a non-INFJ who does the same thing, because I’d love to hear from you)? Or are you someone who has never had this happen and thinks we’re crazy?