Monday, September 9, 2013

Highly Sensitive Introvert: Strengths, Weaknesses and Workarounds

Today I turn 28, and I had an emotional breakdown on my birthday.  Not because I am turning 28, but because I had too much social interaction this past weekend.  It was so bad this morning that my husband phoned the work on my behalf because I couldn’t bring myself to talk to anyone.

After being alone in a room for 15 minutes I was okay enough to make a phone call to reschedule a meeting I was supposed to have, but then I closed the door again and spent another 15-30 minutes alone, crying and thinking.

It is now 4 hours later and I am beginning to function again.  Enough to be able to write my thoughts and the discoveries I made while having this time of introversion. 

Writing helps, it helps me organize the thoughts which are usually whirring through my head like the London subway trains.  Writing helps me to focus on a specific train, the path it came along and where it is going to.  Writing helps me to block out the entire world around me and recharge my batteries.

Do you ever feel like there is too much going on in the world around you.  Do you ever feel like clear open spaces are just too much to cope with?  But then again a small cluttered space is just as stressful?

Have you ever walked into an open plan living area of a house, where the kitchen, dining room and living room are actually one large room and secretly wished you could lock yourself in the bathroom or bedroom?

If you feel this way sometimes, then you might be a Highly Sensitive Introvert.

A Highly Sensitive Introvert is a person who is overly stimulated by the world they are in.  Normally they cannot handle intense sounds, too much going on around them, bright lights or wide open spaces.  But then again, some of them cannot handle small cluttered spaces either.

For a long time, being a Highly Sensitive Introvert was thought to be a fault that needed to be fixed.  What it really means is that your brain is wired differently.  You have different strengths and weaknesses from the less sensitive introverts, and extroverts.  Learning to build the strengths, and cope with the weaknesses is what will allow you to succeed or fail.

Some of the strengths I have noticed include:

1) The ability to concentrate on something completely (single task), blocking out the world around you, to determine the ins and outs of a problem.  This intense concentration allows you to analyse and figure out the best course of action, and see all the potential problem area’s, if you have enough time to concentrate on the problem at hand.

2) The ability to pick up on the subtleties in your environment.  Some people may pick up the subtleties in the physical world (a light bulb that has blown), other’s may pick up emotional vibes and the subtle expressions in other people.

3) The ability to “fix yourself” when you have emotional problems.  When given the chance to go and be alone, then normally you are able to reflect within yourself and fix any emotional problems you may have or plan a course of actions to overcome your emotional problems.

4)  Conscientious. You often work carefully and thoroughly at anything you have committed to, whether it is writing a book or babysitting someone else’s child.  However, the key word here is “committed”, if you have not committed yourself to a task, quite often you become unwilling to spend your energy on it.

For example, you have committed yourself to becoming the top Mathematics student at the school, you will work extremely hard and carefully on all your Mathematic tests and assignments.  However, your parents see your talent for tennis, but you haven’t committed to it yourself, so you only do the bare minimum at that task to satisfy those around you.

Some of the annoying weaknesses I have noticed include:

1)   You get stressed out when exposed to large amounts of stimulation. This varies from person to person, it can be tangible or intangible stimulation. 

Tangible stimulation are things happening in your physical environment, a cluttered desk, a car alarm going off outside your office window, music being played too loudly, even bright florescent lights.

Intangible stimulation are the more subtle forms of stimulation.  The emotional state of the person you are talking to, or if you are at the party, then the vibe of the room.  The more people the greater the mixture of vibes you are picking up on, and the more it stresses you out.

I noticed that for me I get stressed out more from long-term exposure to intangible stimulation.  That is when I have been in social environments for prolonged periods of time, constantly getting an inflow of emotions/feelings/vibes from the people around me.  I am highly sensitive to other people’s emotions.  If I haven’t had at least 2-3 hours completely alone to recharge my batteries every 3 days then I suffer from an emotional breakdown where I will cry for no tangible reason.  The crying comes from an extreme sense of frustration at not having a chance to recharge my batteries alone.

2) You struggle to multitask and task switch.   This is a big one for me.  If I am in the intense concentration mode (single-tasking), as stated in the strengths, then it takes me a few moments for my brain to reset and cope with the new incoming stimulation (I have to adjust my thoughts). 

For example if I am working on Project A, and I have been working on Project A for the past 3 hours, and somebody phones me to get some information about Project B, my brain has to save Project A. Then boot up Project B, search for the information required and respond to the person who just phoned me.  The person puts down the phone, I begin to continue with Project A again… But now Project B is still sitting in the RAM of my mind (temporary memory), so I struggle to achieve the intense level of concentration I had previously had with Project A until I have had a moment to clear my temporary memory too.  Clearing the temporary memory is a lot harder than it sounds, because my London Subway has 2 trains running on it instead of only one.  I have to isolate the Project B train, and park it back in it’s place in the deep reaches at the back of my mind, so that I only have one train running on my subway again.  The more incoming stimulation (phone calls, emails, birds singing outside the window) the more trains join the subway and the harder it becomes to achieve the intense concentration mode.

3) Can be extremely emotional.  Due to the on-going incoming stimulation, an overwhelming of the senses can cause you to react in an emotional outbreak (crying or anger) due to an inability to control the intense frustration you are feeling.

4)  Can be completely detached from certain tasks.  This I briefly mentioned in the conscientious  point above.  If you haven’t committed yourself to a project, then you will only do the minimal you can with the project in order to move onto a project you would rather be doing.

This can become a problem when there are things you know you need to do, compared to what you want to do.

Coping/Surviving the weaknesses:

I am still trying to figure this one out myself, but so far, I have come up with the following:

1)  Determine your stimulation threshold and exercise it.  This will take some intense self-discipline.  You need to figure out how much stimulation you can handle before you have the breakdown, and push it to the limit.  Then schedule yourself some down-time or relaxation time to recharge your batteries. 

The goal isn’t to become immune to the outside stimulation, it is to train yourself to cope with larger amounts of it.

I know when I was a teenager that I couldn’t handle being around people at school all day, and then being around my friends/boyfriend/parents at home afterwards (thank goodness I was an only child).  I didn’t realise it then, but it made me extremely depressed because my batteries were constantly running on empty and they never got recharged.  At that stage, I needed half day social and half day to recover.

Now I am older and working in a more social environment.  At first it felt like I was in High School again.  In the beginning I would come home, eat, sleep and repeat.  I wanted nothing to do with people after hours and even more so on weekends. 

Now it is 2 years later and I have trained myself to cope better.  I am able to survive the week, with 15 minutes in the evenings totally to myself and a Friday evening completely alone.  If the social interactions are hectic on Saturday and Sunday, then I also need a Sunday evening completely alone to be ready for the week ahead.

Today I had the emotional breakdown due to not having my Sunday evening rest.  I think that I could have coped without the Friday Evening rest, but not having it on the Sunday evening was the killing point.  This morning I woke up crying from having absolutely no energy reserve left.

2)  Struggling to multitask and task-switch. My best solution is actually to limit the outside stimulation as much as you possibly can.  The advantages of being able to concentrate intensely outweigh the advantages of being able to multitask or task-switch in my opinion. 

Try to arrange a work environment where you can single-task.  Ask people to email rather than phone so you can get back to them on your own time.  Show that the work you do while single-tasking is at a much higher standard than when you multi-task. 

Practice saying “Let me think about it and get back to you.”  This will give you enough time to close the first train of thought and start a new one, do the new one properly and thoroughly, then get back to the old one.

Another method I have learned to limit stimulation so as to allow me to concentrate is to do a task first thing in the morning, before I have even showered or got dressed, and to continue with the task until it is finished, that way it gets my complete focus.  Or alternatively to do the more intense tasks in the afternoon/evening when everyone else is shutting down for the day and disruptions are less likely to happen.  I get my best work done before 8am or after 3pm for this reason.

3)  Can be extremely emotional  This is another thing that can be prevented by making sure you are well rested and have had enough “me-time”.  I found that my emotional state becomes a lot worse when I am tired or haven’t had enough reflection time.  Schedule a calming activity as often as you need it.  Writing, meditation, prayer, solitary walks or simply sitting with a cup of coffee and thinking.   Whatever works for you.

4)  Can be completely detached from certain tasks  When faced with a task that I don’t feel committed to, I find it best to analyse why I have to do it.

For example, if you dislike a certain school subject, or doing a certain project, figure out why you are doing it.  For me the subject was Biology and it was a compulsory subject at my High School.  In High School I was detached from the subject, but now as an adult I know what I should have done to become motivated at it.

Why do I have to do Biology?  Because it is a compulsory subject, because either Biology or Science was needed (at that stage) to get into a University over here, so my school was looking out for the well-being of all their students by making Biology compulsory.

Once you understand why you need to do something, then you can make the choice.  Is the task really necessary? Is there any way I can give this task to somebody else? And if the answer is no, and you have to do it, start to focus on the positives of the successful outcome, commit yourself to the project in your mind and then do it as carefully as possible to meet the successful outcome.

And this is my nice long essay for the day.  On a side note, I think I should mention how much I love writing, and how relaxing I find it, especially when I need to clear my thoughts and get my emotional state under control.

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