If you’re an introvert, you get your energy from within and thrive with lower levels of stimulation. If you’re a highly sensitive person, you get overwhelmed by bustling environments—from big crowds to bright lights. You’re not only sensitive to your surroundings, but you’re also sensitive to the moods of others. You might startle easily and feel deeply moved by music or the arts. You have a rich and complex inner life.*
According to Brenda Knowles in her book The Quiet Rise of Introverts: 8 Practices for Living and Loving in a Noisy World, “As introverts and/or highly sensitive people, our inner worlds are our safe kingdoms. When we are mentally healthy they provide shelter, peace, and creative space. When we are struggling mentally, they can be scary places of rumination.”
Which is why it’s vital to understand our inherent traits and to care for them. Below are tips from Knowles’s book, which can help us minimize our anxiety, nourish ourselves, and feel supported.
- Learn and read. Learning and reading feed our curiosity and revitalize us, writes Knowles. Since we live so much inside our heads, it’s important to be thoughtful and intentional about the things we consume and pay attention to. What kinds of books inspire you? What piques and satiates your curiosity? What resonates with you? Seek out these things and make them part of your days.
- Process your emotions. As Knowles notes, “If our inner realm is flooded with dark or unexpressed emotions, we struggle to make progress. If we pay attention, value and express our emotions in healthy ways then we feel competent and less stifled.” Knowles teaches this six-step coping process to her clients: Name the specific feelings you’re experiencing; accept your feelings, without judging them; explore where these feelings might stem from; focus on a memory of feeling safe and happy; talk to someone who helps you feel emotionally safe; and take action, which might include setting a boundary and saying “no.”
- Savor solitude. Solitude is essential. It “allows our imagination to make its creative associations,” Knowles writes. “It is where we breathe big gulps of restorative air. It is where the flow state slips in.” How can you incorporate alone time into your days? Put it on your schedule, and think of it as sacred. Think of it as vital as work or a doctor’s appointment or anything else you see as non-negotiable in your life.
- Seek low stimulation, and slow down. According to Knowles, “our nervous systems crave gentleness.” So does our creativity. She suggests the library, a quiet café, our office, or a natural environment to help us return to ourselves. These places give our minds the space to create patterns of our thoughts, and to ignite our creativity. What’s also helpful is to immerse ourselves in vastness. “Studies show placing ourselves near things that make us feel small, like the ocean, a starry sky, or an open field, gives us a calming sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves. Our brains can’t quite process the complexity and magnitude of such things and therefore we experience a sense of awe that enlarges our perspective,” she writes.
- Prioritize sleep. When you have a highly reactive nervous system, sleep is crucial for soothing your nerves and helping you process all the stimulation you collect throughout the day, Knowles writes. She also notes that poor sleep sinks our mood and our pain threshold, splinters our focus, and even sparks impulsivity. If you’re having a hard time falling asleep because it feels like your brain is on fire, try these strategies and these ones.
Many of us have grown up feeling ashamed of our inherently introverted or sensitive tendencies. Maybe we’ve felt weird or weak for being so easily bothered by seemingly everything. Maybe we’ve wanted to be bolder or louder—or completely different than we are. So it might feel strange or unnatural to actually honor these tendencies, to honor ourselves.
But it’s also vital. It’s vital to respect who you are, and to find ways to work with yourself—instead of trying to force yourself into a box where you don’t belong. Which is exhausting and ineffective, anyway. Which makes you only feel miserable and overwhelmed. Because we can only wear our masks for so long until they start to feel itchy and uncomfortable, until they start separating from our face.
Remember that what you perceive as weakness may really be strength: Your sensitivity may make you deeply empathic. You may be a great listener who helps loved ones feel safe and seen. You may come up with unique ideas and successful solutions. You may write poetry that makes others feel less alone. You may think through your decisions. You may see and appreciate the world’s many wonders, which only makes your world that much richer.
Embrace your sensitivity. Tend to it. Nurture it. Protect it. And maybe even be proud of it.
* To find out if you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), take this test on Elaine Aron’s website. Aron pioneered the study of HSPs.