Thursday 8 December 2016

Brendan O'Connor: Am I an introvert or just highly sensitive?

Published 14/03/2016 | 02:30

Do other people's moods affect you?
Do other people's moods affect you?

I see the introverts are at war with the HSPs (Highly Sensitive Persons), though war is a strong word for it. A war between introverts and HSPs would involve the introverts sitting around thinking of all the clever put-downs they should have used on the Highly Sensitive People except they only thought of them afterwards, while the Highly Sensitive People presumably were at home crying, wondering why everyone just can't get on, and finding the tissues they were wiping their tears with were a bit rough on their skin.

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I was listening to the leading light in the Highly Sensitive People movement in a podcast recently and it struck me she was being a bit mean about Susan M Cain, who wrote the modern introverts' bible Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Susan M Cain cornered the market in introversion with Quiet a few years ago.

Basically, how it worked was that a load of bookish types read it - she knew her market this woman. If you want to hit the introverts, put it in a book rather than telling people about it at parties - and decided that the world was doing them a disservice. Basically the thesis was that the world is dominated by extroverts and while there's nothing wrong with them per se, they often dominate everything just because they talk the loudest

While Cain is at pains not to diss the extroverts, reading between the lines, she is basically saying they are empty-headed, needy blowhards, who can't relax for five minutes unless they are the centre of attention and dancing the Conga. Cain thinks the world needs to listen to the introverts more, that our thoughtful, slow approach to things can be very valuable in organisations, in families and in life in general. This was, of course, music to the introverts' very sensitive ears. Not loud music - quiet, classical music.

You'll notice I slipped in an 'our' there when referring to the introverts. Because obviously, like many other people who read Quiet, I decided that I was an introvert, that this had been my problem all my life, and now I had a diagnosis that explained everything. And not only was my introversion not a bad thing, it actually made me superior.

You can see how the whole movement took off. Not only is it OK to want to be alone sometimes, it actually makes you better than other people. It's a good message. And one I have used since to get downtime. Because I 'need' to go away and read the paper up in my bedroom, because I have a medical condition you see.

Cain ruled the roost until the Highly Sensitive Person thing came along and frankly I decided I'd get in on that too. I have to admit the main concrete evidence of my HSPism is sensitivity to caffeine (I swear, that's one of the signs). I also identified with many of the other traits. I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short time. I am sensitive to pain. I have a rich and complex inner life. I am easily overwhelmed. Other people's moods affect me. It's great.

What I previously just thought to be paranoia and maybe some tiredness turns out to mean I am a Highly Sensitive Person. Some of the HSP crowd claim that Susan M Cain was actually confusing being an introvert with being a HSP. So many of those who had previously identified as introverts should be considering shifting to the HSP camp. As a sufferer of both (though I prefer the term survivor) I think there is a lot of overlap between the two; they both involve a lot of downtime.

I have decided publicly, through this forum, to offer myself as a peacemaker between the introverts and the HSPs. Obviously I am not suggesting that they both sit down together to work this out. Nightmare! We can do it by text. I'm proposing a new catch-all category of Highly Sensitive Introverts, The one issue with this is that a lot of Highly Sensitive People are not in fact introverts but extroverts. Some of them may even have misdiagnosed themselves as introverts by reading Cain's book. According to the HSP crowd, they are in fact extroverts, just highly sensitive ones.

But then this could be just people trying to tell introverts they are not introverts. Which is common in my experience. My wife claims that I tick as many, if not more, boxes on the extrovert list as I do on the introvert one. She also likes to point to the many things on the introvert checklist that do not describe me.

I usually tell her I need to go and lie down for a while to mull over that.

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