A few months ago I started reading two different books, both with the same basic topic: introversion. The two books that I picked up, at the recommendation of some online friends, were Introvert Power by Dr. Laurie Helgoe and Quiet by Susan Cain. They are excellent and I highly recommend both of them.
I decided to purchase these books after months of struggling with my work/social/alone-time life balance. It’s not that I’m shy by any means, in fact I’m quite sociable (and funny, or so I’m told) when I’m in a setting that requires it. It’s more that, as a person, I need a large amount of alone/non-social time to re-charge my batteries. I can spend an entire weekend in my apartment and have a great time just reading, cooking, researching, and of course writing posts for this very site!
What I came across in my reading, among some very useful tips for operating in an extrovert-centric world, was a term that I had never seen before: highly sensitive people, or HSPs. According to Heloge, HSPs make up only 20% of the general population. Of HSPs, 70% are introverted. In Introvert Power, Helgoe explains that the term was first used by psychologist Elaine Aron to describe people who, “pick up on subtle clues in [their] environment[s] , including what others are thinking and feeling”.
By now you are either nodding your head in understanding, or scratching it in confusion. I was in the former party. As I read the words, I found myself thinking, “Oh…well this explains everything!” Being a highly sensitive person has some excellent benefits. When I host a dinner party, I notice when glasses need refilling before the drinkers do. I excelled when I worked in sales on commission, because I had an innate ability to read people. But, I can also sense discomfort in people, even in people that I hardly know.
I was recently riding the subway when I noticed that the young man (probably in his early twenties) standing in front of me was shifting his weight from leg to leg- I immediately stood and gave him my seat, he replied with a sigh and a grateful, “thank you so much, I just had hip surgery.” I was not surprised, the combination of his body language and facial expression alone alerted me that he was in pain. Unsurprisingly, no other riders took notice of him.
This doesn’t mean that I’m more compassionate, or better than other people- it just means that I’m extra observant of the world around me. This used to cause internal conflict between myself and people who are not ultra-observant. In my eyes, these “other” people (who by all accounts, are really just normal) seemed callous, self-absorbed, or even oblivious.
My turning point with the anger that I felt towards less observant individuals came to me on another subway ride, public transportation can be a great teacher. I was standing behind a girl whose backpack hit me about every three seconds for the duration of a 40 minute trip. As I stood there, I grew angry, “How on earth can she not feel that she’s hitting my back?!” I thought.”Why doesn’t she take her backpack off and put it on the floor like I do?” I fumed.
Then something truly hilarious happened. After a forty minute trip, during which this woman was hitting me with her bag every couple of seconds, this same lady made her way off the train. In her way to get off the train, she stepped on my shoe, and immediately she turned to me and said, “Oh! I’m so sorry! I hope I didn’t scuff your shoe!” It was at this point that I realized that she was not inconsiderate, or terribly mean, she was just genuinely unaware of her surroundings. I laughed it off, and promised to remind myself of that situation when I found myself getting irritated in the future.
Events like this are common for those of us who are HSPs. Often, being ultra-sensitive is a benefit. We offend people less frequently, make excellent listeners and friends, and as a group we are wildly empathetic. Unfortunately, it can also leave us at the mercy of other people’s emotions. While I think I’ve figured out how to deal with my own anger towards people who are unaware, there’s another area that I’m still struggling with. Let me paint a picture for you:
A couple of months ago I was at a social gathering, I hear the kids call this a party. Everyone was talking and laughing, and just generally getting along. Suddenly, a new person entered the fold. This person was what I would call a “conversation dominator”. He took control of the room and dominated the conversation unilaterally. The back and forth that had been happening came to a crashing halt, and the pleasant conversation became a monologue.
I personally don’t mind this behavior if I’m interested in the topic the person is discussing. When I encounter people who are extremely talkative, and domineering, I am not necessarily turned off. I realize that they are unaware of the effect that their behavior has, and so I do not get upset. However, what does turn me off, is the discomfort that these people produce in others. I vividly recall people shifting in their seats and shooting each other sidelong glances. People began to pull out their cell phones and withdraw. One group actually broke off and left the room- and yet this guy continued to verbally charge through.
I don’t know quite how to explain it, but I actually feel the energy of other people. If someone around me is agitated, I feel that agitation- I always have. I can’t turn it off- it is constant. Heloge mentions that this trait is common in HSPs. She writes that that HSPs who grow up in environments with lots of tension or anger often have significant emotional scarring compared to non-highly sensitive people who grow up in similar environments. (She also points out that HSPs who grow up in calm and stable environments tend to have fewer emotional issues than the general population.) This makes perfect sense to me, tempering our internal feelings is difficult enough- but when the emotions of others have a strong hold, where is the line between compassion and personal inner peace?
I was so uncomfortable after about an hour of sitting in a tension filled room that I actually left the party. It became unbearable.
Part of my internal quest, is to temper my emotions, and have a greater understanding for everyone around me. One of my favorite things about starting this blog is that it has given me a platform to write out my thoughts, and write through things. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, because I don’t. I am no guru. I’m just an average person who has the perspective of having lived through some extraordinary events. So, I am asking you, my readers, this question: How do you reconcile compassion, and an ability to read people- with the desire to protect your own inner peace?