Are You Truly an Introvert… or Actually a Highly Sensitive Person?

Photo: Stocksy/Javier Díez
Thanks to pop culture generalizations, many people's understanding of introversion—and what it really means to be an introvert—lacks a bit of nuance. For starters, not all introverts are homebodies, nor are they all shy wallflowers. However, what is true for introverts across the board is their need to recharge and refill their cups with alone time.

In many cases, this need just reflects a natural preference for processing information internally, says clinical psychologist Laurie Helgoe, PhD, author of Introvert Power. But sometimes, it can also emerge in an introvert who is more sensitive to their surroundings than the average person—making them similar to a highly sensitive person (a term for someone with elevated emotional and/or sensory sensitivity). Even so, these two personality types are not one and the same. When it comes to the introvert versus the highly sensitive person, says Dr. Helgoe, “the overlap is not complete.”

Experts In This Article
  • Alice Shannon, LMFT, Alice Shannon, LMFT, has been in private practice for twenty years. Her full scope psychotherapy practice is in Arcata, CA. She specializes in helping parents and school staff to understand and respond effectively to temperament-based behavior problems and concerns in...
  • Jadzia Jagiellowicz, PhD, Jadzia Jagiellowicz, PhD, is a psychologist offering individual advising sessions for highly sensitive persons (HSPs). She is passionate about using scientific findings to help highly sensitive persons and deeply committed to evidence-based practice. This means that she uses information that...
  • Laurie Helgoe, PhD, clinical psychologist, author, and associate professor of behavioral sciences at the Ross University School of Medicine.

Being an introvert versus being a highly sensitive person

To grasp what really makes an introvert introverted, it’s helpful to first compare them to extroverts. The biggest difference between introverts and extroverts lies in “where they get their energy,” says psychologist Jadzia Jagiellowicz, PhD, whose research focuses on the effects of environmental sensitivity on emotion and cognition. “Introverts go inward and retreat into their thoughts, and extroverts go outward and interact with others.”

While falling on the introverted side of that spectrum implies at least some level of sensitivity—after all, introverts have been shown to be more sensitive to stimuli like caffeine and loud music—that link does not always happen in reverse.

“A highly sensitive person may slow down, shut off, and turn inward to process all the information they’ve absorbed from surrounding stimuli.” —Laurie Helgoe, PhD, clinical psychologist

For instance, it certainly makes sense that someone who is highly sensitive to a bunch of stimuli (as HSPs often are) might also feel more of a need to process all the sensations that bubble up as a result with quiet alone time. As a result, highly sensitive folks do tend to be introverts more often than not because of that tendency to “slow down, shut off, and turn inward to process all the information they’ve absorbed from surrounding stimuli,” says Dr. Helgoe. But at the same time, being highly sensitive doesn’t necessarily mean a person will require alone time to reboot their energy levels. Generally, the definition of a highly sensitive person is more broadly focused on perception and response to environmental stimuli than it is about preferences surrounding social versus alone time.

“Characteristics common to people who are highly sensitive are a depth of processing (or feeling things deeply), being easily overwhelmed or overstimulated, having stronger emotional reactions, and being aware of subtleties around them,” says therapist Alice Shannon, LMFT, whose practice focuses on highly sensitive people. This dimension of sensitivity references all five senses (plus emotional sensitivity), making it very possible for a highly sensitive person to be more affected by things like thumping club music or bright strobe lights than the average person would be—without being drained by social settings or needing to process things internally, as an introvert would.

What it looks like to be a highly sensitive person who’s also extroverted

As noted above, it’s certainly more common for highly sensitive people to also be introverted because that sensitivity can make social settings overwhelming. In fact, the leading expert on sensitivity, clinical psychologist Elaine Aron, PhD, reported, in her original research in 1997, that 70 percent of highly sensitive people are also socially introverted, says Dr. Jagiellowicz. But, of course, that still leaves 30 percent. Those are the folks who are highly sensitive to environmental stimuli but also prefer to share and process information externally, says Dr. Helgoe. Enter: The sensitive extroverts.

Usually, these people love people and feel as if they have more to gain from social interactions than they do from time spent solo (a key difference from introverts). But when there are lots of other stimuli present during a social interaction—like, say, at a party or a concert—their sensitive side can kick in, and they can become overstimulated, so that the social benefit they’re gaining from the interaction comes at a cost.

“A highly sensitive person who is extroverted may push past any discomfort or arousal they may be feeling in a social setting in order to stay longer.” —Alice Shannon, LMFT, therapist

“A highly sensitive person who is extroverted may push past any discomfort or arousal they may be feeling in a social setting in order to stay longer, only to leave feeling overwrought,” says Shannon. “If they are not aware that they are highly sensitive or wish they weren't, they may feel discouraged or disappointed that they can't easily stay [in a social setting] as long as others without consequences, such as feeling fatigued, or even experiencing physical discomforts such as a headache.”

That’s why it may be every bit as important for the sensitive extrovert to be aware of and regulate how much stimulation they’re experiencing on a given day as it is for the sensitive introvert.

How to handle social plans as a highly sensitive person—whether you’re introverted *or* extroverted

Simply acknowledging and accepting your sensitivity upfront can shift your approach to social interactions for the better. “It helps to notice who we are and what works for us without judgment, much like a journalist or scientist collecting information,” says Shannon. “It's not good or bad information, but just useful to know.”

Once you’ve embraced that mindset, you may feel more empowered to act in accordance with how you feel—rather than be swayed by others’ pleas for you to attend social outings that involve a lot of stimulation. If you find that others are insisting on your presence (e.g., “Everyone will be there!” or “It would be rude not to go!”), Shannon suggests coming up with a go-to response and repeating it as often as needed—for example: “Maybe next time, but this isn’t going to work for me today,” or “I’ll be there in spirit.”

When you are planning social outings on your own terms, be sure to space them out and allow chunks of time in between for your own pastimes, hobbies, or journaling, and for restorative alone time, whether that means exercising or walking in nature, suggests Dr. Jagiellowicz.

And make a point of keeping additional stimulation to a minimum whenever you are meeting socially, she adds. Considering you’ll already be faced with the emotional stimulation of chatting with a friend or a few, it may be the case that a chiming phone or background noise, for example, just pushes the interaction into over-stimulating territory. In that realm, quiet gathering spots and smaller groups are always going to be better options for managing sensitivity than their louder and more chaotic alternatives.

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