According to the documentary Sensitive: The Untold Story, there are 1.4 billion highly sensitive people (HSPs) in the world (15-20% of the population). As Elaine Aron’s research has shown, 30% of that 15-20% of the HSP population are sensitive extroverts – or approximately 420 million HSPs. Unfortunately, due in great part to social media and recent books published on introversion, these 420 million sensitive extroverts are often mislabeled or lumped into a general category of extroversion. They are often referred to as the “extroverted introvert,” the “outgoing introvert” or the “contemplative extrovert.”
It is important to differentiate between the introverts and extroverts who are HSP and those who do not self-identify as HSPs. All HSPs, whether introvert or extrovert, possess four main characteristics as identified by research psychologist, Dr. Elaine Aron in Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person (2010.)
These four are: D.O.E.S.
1) Depth of Processing
2) Over Stimulation
3) Emotional Responsiveness & Empathy
4) Sensitive to Subtleties
The other 80% of the population, who are not highly sensitive, do not possess these four characteristics, nor the implications associated with them.
It is easy to see why the lines between introversion, extroversion and high sensitivity have become blurred. I believe this confusion first began when two very helpful books on introversion were published: The Introvert Advantage (Laney 2002) and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking (Cain 2012.) Both of these books have been especially beneficial not only to introverts, but also to highly sensitive people as well.
The Introvert Advantage has done an excellent job of bridging a gap between introverts and extroverts. I especially liked her book because Laney advocates for those who have often felt disregarded, unseen or like “something was wrong with them.” These sentiments are almost identical to the ones shared by the highly sensitive people I have had the honor of working with since 2000.
Susan Cain’s well-written, researched book, Quiet, includes 7-10 pages describing Elaine Aron’s research. Perhaps it is here that the definitions between Sensory Processing Sensitivity and introversion begin to merge? Any hoped for discussion about correlations or overlaps between the two are unfortunately omitted. Cain does attempt to clarify or prevent possible confusion by sharing that she deliberately chose a broader definition of introversion, drawing on the work of many, including Jerome Kagan and Elaine Aron. (p. 269, Quiet.)
Susan Cain attended the 10th HSP Gathering Retreat at Walker Creek Ranch in Marin County in 2006, and I was delighted to read a detailed account of her retreat experience in Quiet, (pp. 133-134.) It was at this retreat that Susan shared her interest in the connection between introversion and sensitivity. Later, I was honored to be interviewed for her book, along with Dr. Aron. However, when her book was published, I found myself confused and a bit dismayed when reading the description of “introversion.” I was confused mainly because my non-HSP introvert spouse was nowhere to be found in Quiet, yet I saw myself, the sensitive extrovert, throughout. I soon realized Dr. Aron shared a similar reaction of dismay.
In fact, from Aron’s Psychology Today blog (2012) article she states:
“…Her (Cain’s) discussion of “introversion” throughout (her book) is almost identical to what has become the standard definition of high sensitivity—deep thinkers, preferring to process slowly, sensitive to stimuli, emotionally reactive, needing time alone, and so forth, all as described in the first scientific paper specifically on sensitivity, published in 1997…”
The confusion is easy to understand given Cain’s broad definition of an introvert:
“…a man of contemplation ~ one who is: reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-adverse and thin skinned…” (Quiet, p. 270)
Here is Cain’s definition of the extrovert, described in Quiet:
“…a man of action, one who is: ebullient, expansive, sociable, gregarious, excitable, dominant, assertive, active, risk-taking, thick-skinned, outer-directed, lighthearted, bold and comfortable in the spotlight…” (Quiet, p. 270)
There are many more conflicting definitions of introversion and extroversion, and these abound in many social media sites on introversion as well. The Myers Briggs Personality Assessment, and others like it, add to the confusion as they rightly confirm: “extroverts get their energy renewed by spending time with people, involved in a wide variety of events or social activities.” And that introverts: “get their energy renewed by spending alone, taking time to inwardly, process and think about ideas, and to participate in quieter, more thoughtful activities.”
But we do have to ask: What about the sensitive extrovert? We also pause to check (reflect) have deep, complex inner lives (introspective) thrive when connecting deeply with others; and need extra downtime to process the events of our day (inner directed). We also need more sleep than others; and we need solitude or downtime to recover from overstimulation. See how easy it is to confuse the characteristics of highly sensitive people with a broader definition of introversion?
It is this confusion that motivated my research with the sensitive extrovert which encompassed the following: more than 100 written survey responses over 10 years; 37 in-depth semi-structured interviews with sensitive extraverts between the ages of 35 and 70; and my own ethnographic observations over 16 years gained from observing HSPs at 33 HSP Gathering Retreats. This research was enhanced by twenty years as a Licensed Professional Counselor, 17 of those working exclusively with HSPs. My work has also included administering and interpreting the Myers Briggs Personality Assessment to a multitude individuals since becoming certified to utilize this tool in 1991.
Although I am a great fan of the Myers Briggs, having been certified in its use since 1991, it is important, especially in the context of this work, to note it was conceptualized long before the research into our trait of SPS Sensory Processing Sensitivity. This gap in knowledge inspired the creation of my class: Myers Briggs with the HSP Overlay. This class helps, along with many other insights, helps to differentiate HSP introversion and HSP extroversion from the general categories of introversion and extroversion.
Understanding the Highly Sensitive Extrovert – Truths and Misconceptions
- The highly sensitive extrovert (HSE) meets most if not all of the criteria Cain uses to describe the introvert in Quiet. We are contemplative, introspective, kind, gentle, empathetic, creative, visionary, intense, and perceptive. Many of us are social justice activists, teachers, humanitarians, poets, spiritual teachers or counselors, and prefer a less stimulating environment over a more “random” social one.
- The HSE does need to go “inward.” It is in these quieter environments where we retreat for the deep, internal processing that comes naturally to being an HSP. This inward state is also where our spiritual life resides and where we rest and recharge from an often harried external world.
- The HSE also needs to gain energy from the external world, because if we spend too much time in this inner world, we can become, lethargic, restless, unmotivated or even slightly depressed. It is then we know we need to get out of our inner world and seek “novel” stimulation which will inspire or energize us. Notice the word “novel” — our excursions in the outer world need to be novel, and chosen by us, based on our individual needs, or else the activity can become just as overstimulating for us as the introvert HSP. And even when we are out, very much enjoying ourselves, we can often return home overstimulated, physically tired, and in need of extra sleep or processing time.
- The HSE is not the same as the ambivert. Why? Because ambiversion implies one can choose to go out, engage in social activities and enjoy themselves without the kind of over stimulation, deep processing, or awareness of subtleties that HSPs encounter. Ambiversion also does not take into account the other characteristics in the D.OE.S. acronym mentioned above.
- When in more positive environments, as individually defined by the HSE, we can be highly responsive and our natural joy, curiosity and enthusiasm might be viewed as generally extroverted. Our highly sensitive enthusiasm can be contagious, yet if we are not careful, we can become easily overstimulated, and may overstimulate others as well. In more negative environments, the HSE can appear to be introverted. We can also become quiet, reserved or withdrawn. A further explanation of this can be found in the “differential susceptibility” work of Belsky & Pluess (2009.)
- Unlike the introvert, the HSE looks forward to creating meaningful time out in the world, and are often catalysts for others to join in our unique adventures. However, we can grow tired, and depleted of energy, being the only one to initiate activities with our more introverted companions.
- Because of our tendency toward overstimulation, it is not unusual for the HSE to leave an event early. Even when enjoying an activity, we can often return home feeling “wired and tired” because the very chosen activity that energized us, can also make us tired and in need of alone time or a nap.
- The HSE can often be found engaged in interesting, novel, creative activities outside the home – and we often enjoy these activities more with one or two others. When out and about in their chosen activities, they are warm and engaging, often enjoying or initiating conversations with strangers they meet, and/or sometimes making a new friend.
- Some research (Laney 2002) indicates the neurotransmitter dopamine energizes the extravert brain causing, them to seek external rewards in the form of status, money, sex, social affiliation or a promotion at work. It is important to know the HSP, introvert or extrovert, is not motivated by these external societal rewards. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The highly sensitive person, extrovert or introvert, reflects more about the “way the world is going;” is more concerned with deep, meaningful relationships; and the exploration of the meaning of life, social injustices, and why things are the way they are. In fact, Barrie Jaeger’s book, Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person makes it clear that the HSP is more in need of “psychic income” and will often take a position lower in salary if the job offers opportunity for meaningful engagement in the world.
- HSEs differ according to their age. The younger HSE is likely to be quite social, never turning down an invitation to do something with their friends. This might be because they possess more physical energy which allows them to enjoy more extroverted activities. The more mature, or older HSE, is not rewarded by social activities, nor by interacting with friends or strangers, unless it is an environment and interaction based on trust, openness, and authenticity.
- Our passions manifest outwardly and we will easily risk our comfort zone for causes that are important to us. Many HSEs are social justice activists, speaking out passionately for what we believe. Many of us are leaders, not because we want to be, and not because we enjoy the spotlight (we don’t), but because our compassionate convictions have placed us in leadership roles, often because no one else has stepped up to the plate. You will find many HSEs passionate and expressive about what they do to make the world a better place, especially when reciprocity and mutuality are in place.
- Unlike the HSP introvert, we go inward (i.e., we “introvert” as a verb) mainly to recover, rest and renew – not necessarily because we “prefer” to be alone. After our physical and mental energies are recharged by being “in,” we go “out” to manifest our visions, our passions, or our work in the world. We enjoy sharing our ideas with other like-minded individuals.
- The HSE extravert is warm, engaging, expressive, and easy to know, and can make and keep friends without too much difficulty, although they are usually easily fulfilled with only small circle of close, loyal and true friendships. It is always easy to identify the sensitive extrovert who attends an HSP Gathering Retreat. I never have to wonder if they are enjoying themselves for their smiles, openness and conversations leave no question that they are happy they came. Introverts are more difficult to read, at least for the first two days. Then, the introvert HSP shows up just as engaged as the sensitive extrovert.
- The HSE can often unconsciously challenge the status quo, by simply stating something they are passionate about in an off-handed way. This then draws attention to themselves, which is something we find very uncomfortable, thus we withdraw, and can appear as introverts. However, if our values are in jeopardy, we can be passionate, outspoken and will tolerate overstimulation and attention in order to make our point of view understood, or to challenge an injustice.
- The majority of HSEs are most likely high sensation seekers (HSS), (https://hsperson.com/test/high-sensation-seeking-test/) although not necessarily in a physically challenging kind of way. We are seekers of novelty and do not shy away from intense experiences, if chosen by us. The same could be said for introverts who are high sensation seeking.
- For the HSE/HSS, being under-stimulated can be just as anxiety-producing as being overstimulated. Thus finding one’s “optimal level of stimulation” is often difficult …yet rewarding, energizing and nurturing when understood, experienced and maintained.
- Many HSEs find great enjoyment in jobs that allow them to teach a subject matter they enjoy. For example, one sensitive extrovert loved being a successful coach of a girls’ volleyball team, yet she dreaded “recognition night” when she had to use a microphone to bestow awards, and speak to a crowd of parents. Other sensitive extroverts, when allowed to manage their own time, have found parenting to be a great joy. Others found teaching to be extremely rewarding, yet were drained by public school environments.
- The HSE thrives on deep meaningful connections with others. We often work best when collaborating with others, especially when feeling safe to share our truest thoughts and feelings. We are creative, visionary and inspired by common interests we share with others. We thrive on mutuality, reciprocity and empathy, and can wither without it.
- Just like the HSP introvert, feeling misunderstood, excluded or invalidated is a recurring theme for the sensitive extrovert as well. The HSE identified as feeling things deeply, being emotional, caring deeply about others and the world at large.
More from a Myers Briggs Perspective
My research, including interpreting Myers Brigs results with scores of HSPs, has shown the majority of HSPs are of the “NF” temperament, specifically: INFP, followed by INFJ, then ENFP, ENFJ. Then comes ISFJ, and less frequently, ESFJ. There are many HSPs who are “Ts” and can be found within the “NT” temperament, such as INTP and INTJ. Fewer HSPs are ISTJ, ISTP. I have met only two HSPs who identified as ESTJ.
Many sensitive extroverts mistakenly think they are introverts because their (Myers Briggs) raw scores between the E (extraversion) and the I (introversion) are very low. This usually leads to the misconception that they are either ambiverts, or that they are well-balanced between the two preferences. This is not accurate. According to Myers Briggs theory, a low score between preferences indicates some sort of transition or turmoil between the two functions. Example: the HSE is often overstimulated and harried when in the external world, yet they can become easily bored, lethargic or experience a low grade depression if “introverting” (as in a verb) for too long, thus there often is a sense of transition or turmoil between extroversion and introversion for the HSE.
Many HSEs can be led to believe they are introverts because of their avoidance of crowded, noisy places, their need for alone time and their general misunderstanding about the difference between the HSP extrovert and the non-HSP extrovert. Here is what one participant, fairly new to the HSP trait shared after her participation in my Myers Briggs/HSP Overlay class:
“…It is exciting to understand more about my HSP trait and the Myers Briggs. This has helped me understand my sensitivity, and some of my extraversion desires that otherwise have always felt so contradictory. I finally know I’m not a “contemplative extrovert,”, or an “outgoing introvert” ~~ I am a highly sensitive extrovert. I can’t tell you how much sense this makes to me… It helps me discover what balance looks like in my life within the E and HSP context – a balance which has eluded me for many years. I look forward to consciously choosing to honor both my extraversion and my sensitivity and to finding a more nurturing and meaningful balance between the two…”
So are there any differences between the HSP Extrovert and the HSP Introvert?
Yes, there are. However, my research clearly shows the difference between the sensitive extrovert and sensitive introvert to be quite small. The greater difference was between the HSP population, and the other 80% who do not self-identify with the Sensory Processing Sensitivity Trait. However, here are a few differences between the sensitive extrovert and sensitive introvert.
- We do prefer to share our thoughts and feelings out loud rather than write them. In fact, when confused or seeking clarity, we might first jot down a few notes, but are most relieved and gain the most clarity when talking with a trusted friend.
- We do not like to share our personal lives or habits via social media, however, we do easily share our personal lives in person with those we know, like and trust.
- Unlike what social media tells us about the introvert the HSE does not mind talking on the phone. In fact, the phone has nothing to do with it – it is the person we are talking to and the context of the conversation that means the most to us. So, yes, we will let the call go to voicemail if we don’t recognize the caller. Yet, if it is a call from someone in our “Inner HSP Circle” or someone we know and trust, we joyfully receive their call, and are most likely enriched, or energized, by the context of our conversation.
Neither the HSE, nor HSP introvert enjoys small talk. However, observations made about two days into the four day HSP Gathering Retreats show that after the opportunity to “go deep” and share our “authentic” selves, the HSP can and does engage in small talk often much to their surprise.
The HSE is not the “man of action” described in Quiet. It is also not accurate to assume the non-HSP introvert, like my spouse, (who makes up the majority of the introvert population as seen in the graph on p. 1) is the “man of contemplation.” Finally, it is accurate, and only fair, to differentiate between four temperaments: the HSE, the HS Introvert, the extrovert who is not an HSP, and the introvert who is not an HSP. To understand these differences, it is important to overlay any discussions of extroversion and introversion with the D.O.E.S. ~ (1~Depth of Processing; 2~Overstimulation; 3~Emotional Intensity, Empathy and Responsiveness, and 4~ Sensitive to Subtleties) because as previously discussed, these apply to all highly sensitive people. The D.O.E.S. does not apply to all introverts or extroverts, especially those who do not self-identify as highly sensitive people.
Elaine Aron closes her article in Psychology Today (2012) mentioned earlier with this statement:
“…Well, whatever we name this trait, the most recent research suggests that the general strategy of being more sensitive is determined by multiple genes, and these do not come with names on them. We scientists are creating the names—introverted, inhibited, shy, sensitive, and responsive. As we learn more, we will become more accurate. For now, if you are socially extroverted yet feel things deeply, ponder the meaning of life, reflect before acting, and need a lot of down time, please, be patient. If you are socially introverted but not especially bothered by loud noise, are not very emotional, and make decisions rather easily, please also be patient. We’ll get it right about you, too…”
It is my hope this article will help expand the conversation, and encourage more accurate definitions between introversion, extraversion and the highly sensitive person. It is also my hope that the 420 million sensitive extroverts may more readily and easily identify as the highly sensitive person they are, so they can better plan for the type self-care that empowers all HSPs.