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Untangling introversion, anxiety and high sensitivity.

Updated: Aug 7, 2020

You’ve likely heard the popular notion that introverts hate people. But you’ll notice that nowhere in my previous article (where I discussed introversion) did I mention that introverts dislike socializing. In fact, according to Sarah Cain, author of Quiet, introverts typically have strong social skills. So where did this popular notion come from? Pop culture has tangled the concept of introversion with that of social anxiety.

What is social anxiety?

Social anxiety describes the discomfort that a person might have in social settings, ranging from mild to severe, and can lead a person to hyper-focus on how they are being perceived by others. It can have a person overthinking what to say or how to act in social settings, and can include physical symptoms such as an inability to maintain eye contact, shaking, sweating, or even panic.

If you are experiencing these symptoms, they may be related to anxiety, and are not a function of introversion. It is possible to be both an introvert and anxious, but they are two separate and distinct phenomena.

The problem lies in conflating the two, and as a result thinking that introversion is to blame for one’s difficulty with socializing, when in fact it could be a solvable problem. While introversion is an inherent trait that is characterized by orienting one’s energy to one’s inner world, anxiety is a mental health issue that can be treated by seeking professional help.

Learning to differentiate between the two can help you understand what your natural baseline is when it comes to socializing and being around people, and what behaviours are related to your preferences around where you orient your energy, and those that are a function of anxiety.

In addition to introversion and social anxiety, there is a lesser known phenomenon that can impact one’s ability or desire to be around people, and how one functions in social settings: high sensitivity.

What is a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)?

Culturally, we’ve defined “sensitive” to mean “easily offended”, but in this case, sensitive means something else altogether. The research around highly sensitive people was pioneered by psychologist Elaine Aron in the early 1990s. A highly sensitive person (HSP) is one whose nervous system processes their environment (both internal and external) more deeply than the average person, and is a biological trait found in about 15 – 20% of the population.

This means for example, that for HSPs, loud noises may sound really loud, bright lights can be blinding, and even certain textures of fabric can be irritating. Because HSPs process their surroundings, situations and emotions so deeply, they tend to be very aware of subtleties in the environment, deeply empathic, respond more strongly to emotions, and more prone to overwhelm. If you’re curious about whether you fall into the highly sensitive category, here’s a quick self-test to help you figure it out.

Can I be all three?

Yes, you can. And as you might imagine, having all these three phenomena can make for a very interesting, if not challenging experience at times. As a highly sensitive introvert myself, with tendencies toward social anxiety, untangling these three things has been quite the journey. Learning where one ends and the other begins, and how they influence each other is an ongoing process. Knowing when it’s appropriate to challenge myself, and when I need to step back is something I’m continuously figuring out.

I strongly advocate for self awareness, and believe it’s an important part of the journey. However, learning more about introversion, anxiety, and sensitivity made all the difference in helping me put the pieces together, and come to a deeper place of self acceptance.

I realized that there wasn’t anything wrong with me, and I didn’t need “fixing”; there are thousands of other people out there just like me, experiencing life in a similar way. Rather, I began to learn to manage my sensitivity, introversion and anxiety, and design my life in a way that supported these parts of me, as much as I could.

Ultimately, it’s not about the labels. It’s about understanding ourselves, our unique characteristics and needs, and learning to make choices that support those needs. Knowing ourselves deeply and accepting all parts of ourselves allows us to make choices that honour our well-being, and that best reflect our values and core selves. In turn, rather than just getting by, we can finally learn to thrive.

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Written by Alia Rajab

To learn more about introversion, check out our podcast episode How Being an Introvert Can Be Your Biggest Strength with Godwin Chan, Host of the Digital Introverts

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