RANT: 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.
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 amazon.ca and in the US at amazon.com.
Are you an introvert or a highly sensitive person?
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I think you’re already doing such a great job and in my opinion, she’s already a beautiful orchid! She’s perfect, sensitivity and all! She’s already got the mechanisms in place to be more selective with the people, and I think that’s a good thing. I think it means she’ll have more meaningful relationships in her life. Love you both!
Thanks so much for your comment – it means so much to me. I love that she is a sensitive introvert but worry about how she’s going to cope with our extrovert-focused world. Thanks for your encouragdment. 🙂
Wonderful article. I have been reading Quiet as well and I’m an Introvert (a social introvert!) My son and husband are both Introverts too. It’s disheartening how much bias and ignorance there is about introverts. Every school and daycare should understand and celebrate these more cerebral kids.
Thanks Cher! Really loved reading Quiet. And I agree that there definitely needs to be a change in what is regarded as “normal” for kids. However changes like that always happen very slowly.
Such a great post! “Please tell your daughter she needs to play with her friends.” For real? Most bizarre teacher report ever.
Also, I love that you are separating autism from sensitivity. They are so completely different. Highly sensitive people usually have very strong empathy and social awareness, which is the opposite of autism. I would never have even thought to compare the two. I’m glad you are helping to set the record straight!
Although being an HSP has made my life very difficult in some ways, I’m really grateful that it’s helped me understand and nurture my sensitive daughter. Also, being an HSP child helped to shield me from my somewhat traumatic childhood, as it was easy for me to slip away into my own world of books and art and my imagination. My extreme cautiousness has also helped me make wiser choices than my siblings. In the end, I’m proud and grateful for my sensitivity. I’m sure you’ll help your daughter see the good in it, too!
Thanks Kristin for your thoughtful comment. It does bother me that people unknowingly clump autism in with sensitivity; kids with autism don’t really like social interaction whereas sensitive kids are wonderful at social engagement as long as they are comfortable and given time to warm up.
Thank you for sharing your experiences as a HSP as well, it does make me feel good knowing that my daughter will likely have a few deep and meaningful friendships in her life rather than being a social butterfly. My journey with her has shown me that I have always been an introvert but was willing to put on the extrovert mask in social situations. No wonder I was always drained after parties!
I know that your daughter will certainly bloom as a beautiful orchid in your care.
Thank you so much for this article. I’m going through a rough time with an incredibly sweet 6 year old daughter in grade 1 who is highly sensitive. Her anxiety is at an all time high because of the loud boys in her class and I’m debating what my next step should be. You reminded me though, that I have to be my daugher’s champion and help her through this somehow. Thank you.
Thank you so much for your comment. I am sorry that your daughter is having a tough time in Grade 1. The school setting is the scariest, I think, because we cannot be there to help our kids through tough situations. I’m learning that the best thing we can do is to give them strategies and tools they can use to self-manage when things happen at school. We have been working on having a mantra that our daughter (who is 4) says to herself when she starts feeling her anxiety rising, and taking deep breaths to calm down. I have just heard about a book called Up and Down the Worry Hill by Aureen Pinto Wagner, which a psychologist friend told me about. It is a kids book to help them deal with anxiety (it says for kids with OCD, but I think it’s applicable to highly sensitive children). I’ve just ordered it so will write another post about it when I get it and try it out!
Up and Down the Worry Hill: A Children's Book about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and its Treatment