5 Lessons on Being an Introvert in a Loud World

I’m a writer, a presenter, and a teacher. My talents, at least the latter two, are best put to use in situations where I have an audience. In addition to being all of these things, I am also an introvert and a highly sensitive person. This means that mentally and emotionally, I am better without an audience and all of the stimulus that comes with lots of public interaction.

Isn’t this a contradiction? Absolutely it is. Navigating in a world where I shine in a place that also happens to be emotionally detrimental to me has always been challenging. Doing what I love comes at a cost, and I’ve had to learn to be protective of myself.

What is a Highly Sensitive Person?

We’re all bombarded by various stimulus at any given moment. Some of this is related to the five senses. This could be background conversations, various things occurring in our field of vision, somebody brushing against us as we pass, and the smells we encounter. Then there is emotional stimulus. In any given day, we witness people displaying a wide range of emotions.

For most people, the brain does its job quite efficiently by filtering all of this stimulus and storing it away as background noise. For people like me, the brain doesn’t do this job as well as it should. All of the inbound ‘noise’ can become unbearable. Like many HSP individuals, I am also an introvert.

This makes for a very noisy world. Fortunately, it’s one I’ve learned to thrive in, thanks to these lessons.

1. Stick to a Schedule When Possible

This isn’t to say that life as an HSP introvert is a life doomed to no spontaneity, but there is some real value in predictability. If I start the day knowing what my schedule looks like, I can identify the tasks and interactions that will be challenging for me, and be able to predict the times when I will need to take action to recover and recoup my emotional resources.

The result of this is that not only am I better off emotionally, I am much more enjoyable to be around, and I can make the most productive use of my talents. This is because I can bring out the teacher and presenter sides of myself when I need to be switched on, and then seek solace in being a writer when I have time to myself.

2. Take The Time to Figure Out How Your Brain Works

If you are an introvert, take the time to understand exactly what that means, not just in a general sense, but for you specifically. HSP and introversion don’t operate in exactly the same way from one person to the next. For example, I can be in a relatively loud environment if I have a focal point. I do absolutely fine attending the theater or enjoying a concert but, on the other hand, parties and crowded nightspots are an absolute nightmare for me. I suspect this is because, in these situations, I don’t have a single thing on which to focus. When external stimuli come from so many different sources at various levels of intensity, I struggle to sort it all out.  Understanding my particular brand of HSP and introversion has helped me to create some great coping strategies.

3. Know Which Situations Will be Most Challenging

I have something called my ‘Defcon 5 List’. This is my list of situations that are extremely difficult for me to contend with, even for a relatively short period of time. Unfortunately, this list is the result of painful and very personal experience. However, once I became aware of some of the situations that caused me to struggle the most, I realized that I could then predict other situations that would be just as challenging for me.

Of course, awareness doesn’t necessarily translate into the ability to avoid. Not only that avoidance isn’t always desirable. What awareness does do for me is that it lets me know that I need to prepare myself for these situations and that I need to allow myself time to get back to normal afterwards.

4. Focus on Growing Not Fixing

Being an introvert or an HSP is not a disease, and it’s not a character flaw. It isn’t something that needs to be cured. However, it also doesn’t mean that no effort should be made to grow or challenge yourself. When I am deciding whether or not to expose myself to a challenging situation, I do a bit of a risk-benefit analysis. I try to determine what I will gain not just from the experience itself, but also from forcing my boundaries to get a bit wider and challenging myself.

If I determine that I simply am not up to the challenge, I don’t beat myself over it. When I am able to challenge my limits, I give myself permission to feel proud of the effort and accomplishment.

5. Develop an Understanding of Extroverts

I think the world is becoming more accepting of introverts and becoming more educated on what it means to be an introvert. In fact, if you were to Google ‘introvert memes’ you can find lots of visual depictions of what life is like for an introvert. Many of these are very spot on. One thing that has come with this increasing acceptance and understanding is a bit of a backlash against extroverts. I think it’s important to put it out there that extrovert is not synonymous with loud, insensitive, brash, or boorish. Someone can be an extrovert and also be thoughtful, contemplative, and bright.

I’ve found it easier to relate to extroverts now that I understand that where I lose energy, they gain energy. That’s helped me to get past some of my own prejudice and tendencies to misinterpret the actions of introverts that I interact with. For example, I understand now that when one of my extrovert friends really wants me to socialize, they aren’t pushing me to do something I don’t care to do. They are sharing something that brings them joy.

What do you think? Do you have any coping strategies that you have created as an HSP? If there are extroverts who are also HSP, your input would be especially interesting.


How Writing Helped Me Find a Life Balance

Do you know a person who has never faced any obstacles in life? If you can think of a name, then you probably don’t know enough of their personal story. People are torn apart between their ideas, desires, personal goals, expectations of other people, and the sad reality that never leaves enough space for complete self-accomplishment. Those struggles can easily take us to a bad point in life. I know that for a fact because I’ve been there myself.

When I finished college, I faced the inevitable existential crisis: now what? Do I start looking for a boring job? Do I go to graduate school to get the degree I had zero interest in? My head was a complete mess and I could not see a clear road to a happy future. That’s when I started writing. I thought that the only way to understand the chaos in my head was by writing how I felt and what I was thinking. This turned out to be a masterful trick that helped me find the balance in life.

When I told my friends that writing was my therapy, they thought I was kidding them. I was one of those students who always complained about writing assignments, so it was weird that I arbitrarily turned to this method. Let me tell you how writing helped me get my life back.

I clarified my thoughts by writing them down.

When you’re anxious, the unstoppable flow of thoughts can make you go crazy. When I started writing, the text turned out as a complete chaos. With time, I noticed that my thoughts started clarifying. My mind intuitively start thinking in a way that could be brought in written form – clear, short, specific thoughts and ideas that I could finally recognize and connect.

Before I started writing, I didn’t know whether I was feeling sad, angry, confused, or dull. With this writing ‘therapy’, I could finally understand the emotions I put on paper. That was the first step towards healing: understanding how angry I was.

Writing helped me grow.

I started the writing therapy with a plain notebook, but then I started using Penzu – a free online diary, which is completely private. I took the weekends to review the writing I did throughout the week, and I noted down the impression. That online diary is still the witness of the progress I made. It shows how I found the sense of my existence, step by step. I started from zero, and I wrote my way towards awareness.

Writing helped me sleep.

I spent many sleepless nights after I finished college. I couldn’t stop blaming myself for not choosing a better educational path. When I started writing before going to bed, I got rid of all those thoughts by noting them down. It was like they were passing through my mind onto the computer screen, so I could read them there like they were someone else’s words. It was important for me to get those bad thoughts out of my system before I could start seeing signs of a brighter future.

Writing made me wiser.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that writing made me wiser. It brought sense to my thoughts, and I started being more careful about the things I was saying. I also noticed that my style of expression became much clearer over time. I wasn’t writing only about my thoughts and emotions; I also noted down the impressions I got from things I read, as well as all new things I learned during the particular day. Since I was writing everything down with a conscious state of mind, my memory improved and became more aware of the things that surrounded me.

Finally, writing helped me find the balance.

The most important benefit I gained through writing was getting rid of the anger I carried inside. I felt guilty about being so angry at myself, my parents, my friends who had jobs they liked… I was angry with everyone. When I got that out of my system, I didn’t have to show the pages to anyone; I just wrote and I understood it was okay to feel that way. I stopped identifying myself with those thoughts – the momentary state did not convey the true nature of my character. When I paid attention to that anger, I realized it was the main enemy I had to defeat. And I did that. The diary shows the progress I made towards achieving balance.

If you’re at a low point in your life, take my honest recommendation: write about it. It’s the best therapy you’ll ever have.

How a Small Decision to Travel Led Me to a Very Different Life

It was a plain sheet of paper with typing packed on both sides, and it was yellow. A dozen different cities were listed, each with a short description. I remember wondering why the university’s honors program had chosen such a garish color for such a boring purpose. Was an administrator having a whimsical day at the office, or did they simply run out of white paper?

This was my sophomore year at NYU, the beginning of my second year living in the city—I’d adapted and learned it was never New York City and always just “the city,” because it was the only one that mattered—and I was already disillusioned. The winters were cold, fun was out of reach on my student budget, the contrived irony of people I met was difficult to relate to. I was lost, but at first I was too busy choosing classes and chasing unpaid internships to notice.

When I went to visit my mother that winter I broke down in the car ride home from the airport and sobbed that it wasn’t working, that I wanted to quit. In her usual practical way, she made it very clear too much had already been invested in my tuition for me to even consider backing out now. I had chosen this, against her better judgment, so I was going to see it through. I carried on, miserable and scattered.

I joined the Honors Scholars Program for less than honorable reasons. I had the grades, and it would look good on my curriculum one day. The application process was easy, the research requirements few. None of that mattered; my real motivation was the spring break vacation the program offered. Honors Scholars could choose an all-included trip from over a dozen possible destinations, with flights, hotels and outings almost entirely covered by the university. It was my chance to escape New York for a while and enjoy myself. I signed up and received my yellow paper, a list of potential destinations, in the mail a few months later.

It was that easy. If I replied quickly enough, I could spend an entire week almost anywhere in the world, from Ghana to Paris to London to Mexico. It was only a week, hardly a monumental decision. At most, a heartbeat of escape.

I nixed Hong Kong, Beijing and the other Asian destinations as being too far away. I ruled out Paris and London because I’d been there before, the rest of Europe because of jetlag. I looked south. By coincidence, by elimination, I chose Buenos Aires.

I knew nothing about Argentina. There were no romanticized images of gauchos galloping through my mind’s eye, no smell of charred parrilla, Argentina’s barbecue, tickling my nostrils. I didn’t know who Evita Perón was, and had never heard Madonna sing “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.” I chose letters on a page, a place that to me evoked nothing. I simply hoped that the March weather would be kinder in the Southern Hemisphere than it was up north.

Tour guides often refer to Buenos Aires as the Paris of South America, and I can understand the comparison. In the upscale neighborhood of Recoleta where I lived that spring break week, the architecture has a deliberate Haussman vibe. Tall white buildings line wide avenues, and on many sidewalks rows of trees grow so tall their canopies touch, filtering the sunlight and tingeing the streets with a green glow. I was never a romantic, but I fell in love immediately.

Buenos Aires is defined by its details. It’s the dinners that begin at 11 p.m., and how no one ever complains they have to work in the morning. The simplicity of the empanadas and the way the sun shines even in winter and no one leaves the house when it rains, because it doesn’t really rain that often. The way each neighborhood has its own chosen identity, from pleasantly bohemian San Telmo to fashionable Palermo. It’s the way Argentines have lunch with their families every Sunday, without fail, and look forward to it.

Guidebook comparisons aside, Buenos Aires isn’t Paris. Outside Recoleta, the city’s tumult is visible in its buildings. In the central Plaza de Mayo, right outside the presidential palace, neo-classical edifices and 1970s monstrosities sit side by side, daring visitors to find a pattern. The presidential palace itself, the Casa Rosada, is painted a bright pink. At night the effect is accentuated by small purple bulbs that light up its façade. The people themselves, porteños as they are known, exhibit Latin warmth in everything they do, from their crude catcalls to the barbecues that last well into the small hours of the morning.

The truth is, I never really liked Paris, its history and arrogance. Like New York it feels too cold, too harsh, too expensive. When I look at the city it glares back, whispering, “how dare you presume to belong?”

In that week Buenos Aires felt like home. Maybe because, like me, the city—and the country—is still finding its way. Argentina has been economically unstable for much of its history, and inflation is rampant; accusations of political corruption are met with resignation; the shadow of the Dirty War that killed thousands in the 70s and 80s still hovers at the edges of it all. My messy utopia isn’t for everyone. Loose pavement stones spray un-cautious pedestrians with leftover rain and waste. Spicy food is inexistent, bureaucracy labyrinthine. Much like Paris, dogs leave gifts on every sidewalk. But under the chaos there is a beauty, a space to breathe that New York, with its crime-free streets and sky-high rents, never gave me.

Five years later, sitting in my apartment in Palermo, Buenos Aires, I can’t imagine another place to be. Though the decision to move here after college was monumental, that first choice, the childish desire to go south for the winter, seems incredibly small. From my balcony I can catch a glimpse of the Jardín Botánico, the botanical gardens where the author Jorge Luís Borges used to wander for inspiration. I stroll there too on occasion and peer into the ancient greenhouses, careful not to disturb any of the dozens of stray cats that claim the gardens as their home. That yellow piece of paper is long gone, but when the noise of the streets disappears between the trees and the light catches a certain green glow, I can still feel its weight in my hand.

By: Sam Harrison
Sam Harrison is a journalist and English teacher who lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She enjoys learning about different cultures, studying languages, writing, and traveling.