Life As A Highly Senstive Extrovert
What do you do when your energy comes from being around people, but those same people cause you stress or physical pain? (Illustration by Monica Garwood via The Bold Italic)
In the winter of this year I noticed I was feeling exhausted all the time.
I was falling asleep in the middle of the afternoon, and never seemed to be able to get enough rest. I chalked it up to stress (I had a lot going on), but I did start seeing a therapist. When my therapist recently said she could see that I feel others’ emotions very deeply, and she could see how tired that was making me, I was surprised. I always have been able to read people and tell what they’re feeling, but it had never occurred to me to think about how that was affecting me. I began to look online to see if I could find clues as to what was happening in my mind and body.
What I found was a personality type called an empath, or a little more clinically, a Highly Sensitive Person. These people have sensory sensitivities that mean they feel things like emotion, pain, pleasure, smells, sounds and even dreams more deeply than others. Wading through the ridiculous (empaths as borderline psychics who can tell what people are feeling from miles away) to the definitely not me (HSP are introverts who lock themselves away to avoid the onslaught of emotions from the outside world), I found a reflection of myself. My personality type is the Highly Sensitive Extrovert.
According to the medical community, up to 20% of the population can be qualified as HSP, and up to 30% of those people identify as extroverts An extrovert is someone who gains energy from being around other people. The highly sensitive part comes in when that energy becomes too much for your body and you kind of short circuit. Then you need to retreat and recharge your “emotional battery”. All in all, it’s not a very well understood personality type. I wanted to share some of my experiences, to help people understand what people like me feel.
1. I still get my energy from being around others.
I love being social, going to parties, having friends over to my house – but when these things are over (or sometimes before they’re over!) I can sometimes feel the need to escape. That’s why I’ll go sit in another room, or go to the bathroom, or leave while the party is still raging.
2. Crowds are a double-edged sword.
If I’m at a baseball game or a concert, the energy of the crowd pumps me up (sometimes to the point of tears – more on that later). But if I’m in a packed night club with loud music blasting or a shopping mall at Christmas time, I feel overwhelmed and panicked. My friends know they will often find me dancing by myself in an open space rather than on a busy dance floor.
3. My (and others’) personal space is important to me.
If you’ve ever heard me complain about people who block entire aisles with their shopping carts; or people who take up the whole sidewalk while walking; or people on public transit who don’t make room for others; you’ll understand this one. I am hyper aware of how my bubble of space affects others, and therefore I am always conscientious of these things. It baffles me that other people are not.
4. I cry a lot.
This is another one that my friends will recognize. I cry at sad things. I cry at happy things. I cry during the national anthem at a ballgame. I cry watching So You Think You Can Dance. I cry hearing the opening chords of the Star Wars theme. Sometimes I cry while singing, because the song’s lyrics affect me without me even knowing it. Sounds fun, right?
5. I don't watch the news.
How stories on screens affect me is something I’m just beginning to understand. As a kid, horror movies or anything with blood gave me nightmares. As an adult, I have less sensitivity to movie violence or drama (who doesn’t love a good tearjerker or action fight scene) but real life violence or emotion affects me deeply. This means things like the Donald Trump on the news, those commercials with the sad African babies, or TV shows about real-life terrible events are unwatchable. I never really knew why I avoided the news, and it can sometimes be perceived by others as being ignorant or insensitive. In reality, it’s a self-preservation mechanism.
6. I also have trouble with reality TV.
This one is a little more complicated. Some people love watching the Kardashians or the Real Housewives spar on screen. I find these kinds of shows stressful and draining. Whether the drama is real or created for the show, it’s exhausting for me – and I can see right through to the fake (which incidentally makes me a vicious critic of bad acting). That being said, the more documentary-type series with *happy endings*, even with their fake “drama”, are right up my alley. Give me My 600lb Life, Say Yes To The Dress or House Hunters International any day of the week.
7. I have no time for drama in real life, either.
Articles about empaths and HSP use the term “emotional vampire” to describe the type of people who suck your energy when you spend time with them. I learned early on in my life that I had to avoid these kinds of people, though I never understood why until now. That ‘friend’ who always puts you down to make themselves feel better? That drama queen who always has some sort of unsolvable problem? That person you’re dating who plays games? Some people are able to tolerate this kind of behavior, but I am not one of them. Some empaths and HSP even struggle to say no to these people, because they feel like they can help. I practice avoidance. That being said…
8. You can always come to me for advice.
Because I am excellent at unearthing deep feelings, I am great at getting to the root of problems. My friends know they can come to me if they want something analyzed, solved, or even just someone to understand what they’re going through. My friends also know that if I still hang out with them, it’s because I genuinely enjoy spending time with them.
9. I know when people are lying.
This is the type of empath you see most on TV or in movies; the person who “magically” or “psychically” knows when the criminal/witness/patient isn’t telling the truth. It’s much more subtle than that for me. I sense people’s feelings, so I can sense nervousness or avoidance when the truth isn’t being told. Sometimes I can just let it slide, other times it makes me incredibly sad, especially when it’s someone I love.
10. I learned early on to have a thick skin.
As a kid I got made fun of a lot, and experienced a lot of hurt feelings. I taught myself to let what others say bounce off of me, because if I felt everything I wasn’t able to function. I also had a great group of razor-witted friends in high school who taught me the art of the snappy comeback. As a result…
11. Some people find me off-putting (and I can tell when they do).
Because deceit stresses me out, I tend to be very honest and direct. Some people have trouble dealing with that, and I can tell when they feel uncomfortable. In my younger years I would be told I was being impolite and would adapt the way I was acting or speaking (and I still do today in things like professional relationships or interacting with strangers), but because I find putting on airs mentally exhausting, I pretty much am who I am. I have accepted that I won’t get along with everyone.
12. I have very vivid dreams.
My friends are very used to getting calls saying things like “I dreamt I was getting married to Tom Hiddleston and he bought me a beach house in Vancouver”. My dreams are closely tied to my reality (I dreamt about TH because I read an article about him; about a house because a friend of mine recently purchased one; etc.). They are also often lucid. This means my conscious self recognizes I am in a dream and can control what’s happening. Remember those nightmares I had as a kid? Those haven’t gone away, either.
13. Strong smells give me anxiety.
That dude with the really bad BO on the bus? The woman who dumped a whole bottle of perfume on before getting in the elevator? The garbage in the kitchen that needs to be taken out? I have strong physical and emotional reactions to all of these things, ranging from nausea to full-on panic. Some of these feelings are controlled/helped by an anti-depressant that I take for a hormonal imbalance, but I still feel them.
14. I have to watch my caffeine intake.
People who know me know I can’t drink more than one coffee in a day. I’ve also never been able to stomach an energy drink like Red Bull because it makes my heart race, gives me anxiety and jitters and, depending on the time of day, keeps me up at night.
15.I don’t deal well with hunger, heat, cold or other feelings of physical discomfort.
If you’ve ever heard the term “hangry”, you know that many people’s emotions are affected by hunger. I don’t only get irritable when I’m hungry or thirsty, I get anxious, shaky and even nauseated. If a room is too hot or if I’m out in the cold without being properly dressed, I get panicky. People who know me have seen me freak out when these things happen. These are also feelings that are helped by my anti-depressants, but again, I still feel them.
16. I have excellent instincts.
I can always feel tension or a negative environment. Sometimes it’s directed at me, and sometimes I can tell if it’s being directed at someone else, or if there are other people who are not getting along with each other. Times in my life when I’ve gotten fired from a job, I have always felt it coming. Even trying to talk myself out of it, I could feel a change in energy. I’ve only been wrong once – and that time it wasn’t me getting fired, it was everyone else.
17. My empathy makes me good at my job.
I am a teacher, and I can always tell when a student is happy and needs congratulating; when a student is sad and needs some cheering up; or when a student is sad and just needs to be left alone. I also like to joke around and poke fun at my students, but I can always tell when to stop, or which kids will be too sensitive to handle it. Conversely, my students know they can trust me and that they can always come to me if they have a problem or need some help.
18. My empathy also makes my job extremely stressful.
Because I sense and experience the emotions of others, a class full of kids or teenagers can be a very tiring place. Add on interactions with other teachers, administration, parents and the whole thing turns me into one big ball of stress.
19. I need time alone.
This is one that baffles other extroverts, because we’re supposed to always want to be around others. Last year I went on a trip with a group of adult coworkers, where we stayed in hostels and spent long hours on busses. By the end of the 5-day trip I could feel my nerves physically twitching, aching for some time when there wasn’t another person speaking or invading my space. I was exhausted by the time I got home, and attributed it to long days and sleepless nights. Now I understand better. I need time to recharge and get my energy back.
20. I find writing cathartic.
People who know me know that sometimes when I have feelings I can’t process, I need to write about them. Then I need to share that writing with lots of people in order to feel like that feeling has been sent into the world in a way that’s positive and healing for me. I practice self-care in a lot of aspects of my daily life, and writing is one of them.