Defining Introversion and High Sensitivity (HSP) + How To Know

Introverts and highly sensitive people (HSP) have had a lot of online attention over recent years, and yet the terms are still so misunderstood, in harmful ways. Let’s get some real definitions.

Much of the attention has been in the form of cute little quizzes or image quotes. While it’s mostly done to be supportive, much of it has created more confusion.

That means you could be missing out on the valuable insights that come from a true understanding about introversion and high sensitivity. Understanding could help you find more energy, happiness, confidence, and/or career clarity.

introvert and HSP wordle
Let’s untangle this mess so you can have some freedom. You’re not stuck in a box.

A bit about this tangle:

Examples of lingering misunderstandings of the word introversion:

Classic example of misunderstanding the high sensitivity trait:

  • “She must be highly sensitive because she takes things personally.”
  • “I care so much about people so I must be a highly sensitive person.”

I’ve also noticed that a lot of people assume they are introverted and/or highly sensitive without having taken a reliable assessment tool to actually know. In fact, some people who are sure they are introverted are actually highly sensitive people (HSP) and not introverted. It matters which.

So, this page is a resource to help you understand what these actually mean and how to find a reliable way to know about yourself.

Reliable self-awareness can be incredibly freeing and help you make good career and life decisions.

For clarity, I talk about these two together because those of us with either or both traits have a lot in common and the terms are often confused. Understanding each one can be helpful for all of us. Also, coaching introverts and HSPs is my specialty. I myself relate to both traits.

Are You Limited by Labels?

Some people worry about being labeled and limited by these terms. I hate being put in a box, so I get it.

To me, these traits are not a box and should not be seen or interpreted like that. You are still unique and deserve to be treated with respect, as you are.

This is something liberating to know about yourself, the same as knowing if you’re right-handed or left-handed. It can be a relief.

Introversion – Defining and How To Know

There are various definitions, even among researchers who study it. Here’s what has made most sense to me.

introvert brain making connectionsAccording to brain imaging research, the introverted brain naturally thinks deeply and makes many connections between various pieces of information. (I think that’s cool.)

I believe this is why our brains get increasingly stimulated with more input, like when there are more people around us. The more people, the more the potential for overwhelm, and the more need for breaks.

Thus we often prefer more time to integrate everything before we voice our ideas. It’s not for lack of anything to say! In fact, when introverts speak, they often have a LOT to say, and the people around them can be quite surprised by the amount of insights that roll forth.

Everyone has introversion and extroversion in them. We just tend to lean in one direction. There is no 100% one way, and probably no one exactly in the middle either.

Find Out If You Lean Introverted or Extroverted

assessmentThe Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is the most common research-based option for finding out.

I’ve described some introversion assessment options here.

It might surprise you.

Highly Sensitivity Person (HSP) – Defining and How To Know

High sensitivity is also very misunderstood and often maligned. It is actually an evidence-based trait that shows in brain scans. It’s not a fault. It’s once again like being left-handed or right-handed.

Some people use the label for themselves without knowing if it’s actually true for them. And many people have the trait and don’t know it. So let’s have a look.

It’s not about sensitive emotions. It’s about having a tendency to be more stimulated by sensory input — sounds, smells, brightness, touch, motion, heights.

That heightened sensitivity to sensory input can go in both positive and negative directions.

  • Positive example: A sunset can blow our minds in a wonderful way! While our friends look for a moment and say “that’s nice.”
  • Downside example: We can have trouble sleeping if there’s a crack of light through the window, while others say “just close your eyes.” Yet it’s not enough for us.

The best way to understand it is to take the quiz that lists the research-based signs.

Find Out If You Have the High Sensitivity Trait


Self-assessment: Are You Highly Sensitive? (2 minutes)

For me, learning I had this trait and learning what it meant was life-changing. It helped me have an explanation for things that were mysterious and annoying.

Now that I have learned about it, I discovered it’s actually a strength and there are ways to lessen the challenges of it. It took a while to implement lots of changes to reduce the challenges, but now it’s just part of my life and I can live mainly in the benefits of it.

Terms Confused with Introversion and High Sensitivity

There are a few somewhat related terms often thrown around. Here’s a quick look, far from exhaustive.

  1. Empath – Often confused with high sensitivity. It’s pointing to a heightened ability to feel what others feel. All humans have empathy, but this is apparently a heightened level of it, and can be overwhelming. I don’t know if this is research-based, but it’s a popular term, used in many different ways.
  2. Social anxiety – I suspect that many people who experience social anxiety, a clinical diagnosis, might be highly sensitive people (HSP) who could benefit from understanding it so it can be easier to manage. It’s worth taking the above HSP quiz to see.
  3. Anti-social – A negative term often used to put down someone who simply wants some alone time and the person using the term is not happy about that.
  4. Shyness – This simply means a reticence to speak or be visible, typically out of fear of judgement. It’s a feeling, not a trait. Everyone has shy moments.  (My take on shyness and a connection to introversion.)
  5. Low Confidence – People often confuse extroversion with confidence, and low confidence with introversion, but these are completely unrelated.
  6. Quiet – Anyone can appreciate quiet, so it makes for a funny label in a way. Sometimes it is used to playfully describe introverts, but introverts aren’t necessarily quiet. A more accurate description that would include both introverts and HSPs, is “quiet-loving.” Sadly, “quiet” is often used in a negative way, like “Why are you so quiet?” (more about “so quiet” accusations here.)
  7. Sensitives or Sensitive Souls – These are usually used in a positive way as an umbrella term for people with heightened sensitivities of various kinds, which could include introverts, HSPs, and empaths; and I like to include people with big hearts. I like this term and use it sometimes.
  8. “So sensitive” (emotionally) – When people say “you’re so sensitive,” that’s typically a judgement, and typically refers to taking things personally, and/or being emotionally sensitive. It is not the same as high sensitivity. However, HSPs might cry more easily simply to release the energy of overstimulation.
  9. Narcissism – Sometimes people with very low empathy can be so focused on their own needs and think everyone around them is the problem if anything goes wrong. Narcissistic tendencies is considered a personality disorder.
    Someone with this tendency might claim to be highly sensitive (HSP) as an excuse for making demands. While they might be an HSP, signs of narcissistic tendency are putting blame on others, demanding others serve their needs, and regularly taking things personally while not taking self-responsibility. (I’m not an expert but I’ve seen it in action.)
    NOTE: People with this tendency can unconsciously prey on kind-hearted people who can get caught in their sticky web, and no one wins. (Been there.) If this is happening, learn about narcissism so you can find your way out of the web.

Main Takeaway

I’ve thrown a lot at you. Consider this a resource page and you don’t have to understand it all at once. The most important takeaway:

If you discover you are introverted and/or highly sensitive, there is nothing wrong with you. Only wrong fits. You have a lot to offer. The world needs these gifts. 

If you are realizing there are some real concerns like debilitating anxiety, learn more and get some support.

Making Career and Business Easier for Introverts and HSPs

Introverts need certain things in our work, and our work environment. (Open office hell sound familiar?)

We also need people in our lives who understand us and what works for us. I’m so grateful that my spouse and close friends all get me.

I incorporate my understanding of introverts and HSPs into my way of coaching, how I lead groups, and how I teach my Career Clarity Course and other classes. It’s all based on introvert-friendly and HSP-friendly formats, and based on what works for us in our work lives.

Curious if coaching will work for you?


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