Introversion and Sensitivity are Not Disorders

Introversion and Sensitivity are Not Disorders

After discovering that my daughter is a Highly Sensitive Child (by reading The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When the World Overwhelms Them by Elaine Aron), I have been interested in reading more about the qualities of sensitivity and introversion. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain is one that I recently finished reading, and really enjoyed.

It talks about introversion in all facets of life, from childhood to adulthood, in the business world and in the workplace, in Western society as a whole.

At least one third of the world’s population are introverts, and yet our society upholds what Cain calls the “Extrovert Ideal”.

I see this Extrovert Ideal applied in so many situations with my daughter, and with children in general. People expect young children to be outgoing, happy, jovial, and eager to interact with everyone and anyone. When a child is not (like my daughter), they are quick to label her as “shy” or “scared”.

Kids that are extroverted are quickly met with praises of “aren’t you adorable?” and “you’re so cute!”

I think Cain does an excellent job of exploring this phenomenon in her book. As an introvert myself and now parenting an introverted and highly sensitive child, I struggle with what to do about our society’s value of the Extrovert Ideal.

She had one teacher at daycare who would write on the daily comments: “Please tell your daughter she needs to play with her friends.” Sigh.

One thing Cain talks about as an extremely positive quality of introverts is their ability to work and play independently, and be extremely productive in this manner. She names many great contributors to society who likely would not have accomplished what they did if they were forced to work with others. She also talks about how the idea of “teamwork” may not be as wonderful as we think it is.

But I digress.

My daughter plays happily and easily on her own – she often doesn’t need anyone else to entertain her. I would think that would be something positive in a daycare environment where many children are often clamouring for attention. Does that mean there’s something wrong with her? Absolutely not. She is creative, engages in pretend play, and uses her imagination to the max when she plays alone.

I believe, and Cain reinforced this for me, that these are the skills that will allow her to be a great thinker, researcher, artist, or whatever else she wants to do in the future.

Now – what about introversion and high sensitivity TOGETHER? I was explaining to another mom about a situation in which my daughter had a tough time adjusting because of being highly sensitive. She asked if I had ever considered whether my daughter was on the Autism/Asperger’s spectrum. I am extremely familiar with Autism Spectrum Disorder, as I worked in that area for many years before and after becoming a Speech-Language Pathologist. And I know this question was asked in a very innocent way, with concern. But it just drives home the point that our society considers introversion and sensitivity to be disorders.

If my kid isn’t outgoing and fun, and doesn’t adapt to new situations whenever thrown into them, there must be something wrong with her.

She must need some kind of therapy or help to FIX her. She doesn’t conform to the extrovert ideal.

Well, I’m quite certain my daughter is not on the Autism Spectrum. She is perfectly sociable and outgoing when she wants to be. With people she knows and likes, in environments where she feels safe. She takes longer to adapt to new things, new people, new situations. But when she is comfortable, she can be a total riot. Introversion and sensitivity are NOT disorders. They are simply personality traits that make my daughter different.

My favourite point from Cain’s book is “the orchid hypothesis” by David Dobbs.

quote from Quiet by Susan Cain
My hope is that I can give my daughter the right conditions she needs to grow into a beautiful orchid. I am excited to see what she will bloom into, and I will continue to assure her that her introversion and sensitivity are beautiful and perfect.

Quiet is available in Canada at and in the US at

Are you an introvert or a highly sensitive person?

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