High Sensitivity and Introversion — The Slippery Slope Towards Isolation and Disengagement


The qualities that describe the temperamental introvert are almost in and of themselves a list of the qualities of the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).

Many, but not all, HSPs are deeply introverted and for those HSPs who are strong introverts, retreat and solitude are natural inclinations towards which their nature flows. The HSP tendency to become overwhelmed or overloaded and to retreat to solitude or seek quiet in order to recharge their batteries after over-stimulating experiences, can sometimes drive them down the rabbit-hole into loneliness or alienation.

Human beings are by design social creatures.

From earliest infancy we are hard wired to respond both physically and emotionally to other human beings. Social responses like smiling and mimicry are built into us by evolution. Mothers guide their infants into the world and translate physical events into usable experiences by naming them for their children.

Attuned mothers model what is dangerous and what is exciting and struggle to soothe their over-excited or fearful children. They help their children to understand whether the fight they see is a real fight or a play fight and help them determine if they should be distressed or laugh when the clown falls down. Children naturally look to their caregivers for comfort for information about what their physical responses and feelings mean.

Emotional contagion

Even as adults we often look around at others to take the temperature of the room before we react to an ambiguous situation. We are influenced by the emotions of others around us both positively and negatively. This ingrained tendency to be emotionally in synch with the other humans around us is what psychological researchers call emotional contagion. It is a potent aspect of crowd behavior or mob responses. Unfortunately, in a crowd we are often captured by our worst, most aggressive selves…»egged on» by others in the situation. All human beings are susceptible to emotional contagion to some degree.

In its positive form, emotional contagion is the basis of the human virtue of empathy We need to be emotionally in tune with others to understand them and get along with them.

HSP’s have finely detailed observational abilities which make them more responsive than most to the nuances of other people’s feelings and this often leads them to shy away from crowds since the mass of emotional messages is just too confusing.

Even one-on-one can be emotionally challenging. Since HSP’s own emotional responses are strong and quick it feels too easy to get caught up in other people’s feelings. These experiences of being attuned to the rawness of other people’s emotions and even taking them on through emotional contagion are often unpleasant and aversive. Unfortunate experiences and un-attuned care-giving sometimes teaches HSPs that risking exposure to other people’s upset is painful and should be avoided. It is a kind of negative conditioning, like giving a shock to a rat to teach it to go in a certain direction and not another. For many HSPs therefore it starts to seem simpler just to stay away from other people…sometimes to the point of becoming socially phobic.

Downhill slope of introversion

A process of withdrawal feels natural for some HSPs because it follows their introverted inclination. But when the process starts too young, for example for sensitive children whose caregivers do not protect and buffer them sufficiently from the raw experiences of the world, the habits of solitude and withdrawal rob them of the opportunity to learn the social skills which would permit them to manage their social environment effectively by themselves.

With inadequate social skills, pleasant and supportive social relationships are harder to build, harder to maintain and more difficult to replace if they are lost. Because of the combination of lack of skill and acquired feelings of social aversion, many HSPs begin to feel lonely, isolated and alienated.

This contributes to a sense that they are strange and «flawed» and that no one likes them or cares for them deeply and it can create feelings of shame that make them even more reluctant to engage with others for fear that they will be humiliated or embarrass themselves.

Human beings regulate each other.

This withdrawal is very unfortunate because human beings need contact with others in order to regulate themselves. Just as infants need their mothers to help them understand what is frightening and what is fun, adult friends and colleagues can help one decide which anxious or self-critical thoughts have merit and which are exaggerations and excess that needs to be pruned back and put into perspective.

The introverted HSP tendency to withdraw which feels so «natural» can push a person too far away from the regulating influence of the human world. It is too easy for a person who already has easy access to fantasies and imagination to fall prey to fantastical fears or even to inflated positive beliefs about themselves or situations when there is no one around to balance their point of view.

Feeling of anxiety and depression often lead in a circular way towards more isolation and less balancing input from others.

Opus contra naturum»

HSPs then, who wish to manage themselves rather than being driven by their natural tendencies sometimes have to engage in what psychologist Carl Jung called the opus contra naturum… a struggle against their own nature.

The opus contra naturum is not an attempt to crush natural tendencies which are felt to be troublesome, but rather an effort to build up other parts of the personality which are also valuable and necessary. The goal is not to switch to a completely different but equally one-sided persona, but to develop wholeness of character that permits flexibility and choice, specially in vital human relationships.

HSPs often need to struggle against the exaggerations of their natural introversion in order to find ways to maintain and nurture human contacts in a style that is suited to their tolerance. This may take effort and may even require some «remedial work» on their social skills. The very first step in this direction may be to turn to some one they trust, or even to a professional helper to help them regulate their fears and raise their social comfort level.

Social graces, saving graces

Fortunately for the world, HSPs have many natural attributes which most of us would consider «social graces.» HSP’s are often described by their friends using words like: caring, intuitive, perceptive, empathic, a good listener, sympathetic, committed, deep thinkers, and very good at seeing other people’s point of view.

HSPs are often committed and vocal advocates for causes which they feel are important enough to draw them out into public forums. HSPs are fully capable of asserting themselves and speaking up when their values are engaged.

The world would be much harsher place for everyone without the engagement of the thoughtful and empathic HSPs who make up 15 to 20 % of the population.

Introverted HSPs would do well to remember that their qualities and abilities are vitally important to human society and that that the rest of us are poorer when they retreat too far from us.

Susan Meindl


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