Elaine Aron talks about the Highly Sensitive Person and Highly Sensitive Child which Susan Cain, in her book Quiet, describes as the ‘cousin’ to the ‘Introvert’. How are your more sensitive or introverted children or partners adapting to this new normal? From what I have seen, providing they have some space and time to be alone at home and some control over their daily routine, they are thriving.
Anxious or Overstimulated?
Back in the days before lockdown…I noticed that many of the children and teenagers who presented for therapy with anxiety were feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. These sensitive children were struggling to cope in their highly stimulating school environments – the competing noise, the bright displays on all the walls, the interactive whiteboards and multimedia learning, the heat, the smells, and don’t forget the itchy uniforms and uncomfortable chairs. Trying to learn in this environment whilst managing the increasingly complex social dynamics of the playground and peer relationships is a challenge for even the most stoic extraverts amongst us; our sensitive and quiet children quietly bubble and fizz inside and sometimes combust. Psychologists call this hyper-arousal.
This must be the same for many adult working environments. Cain discussed research which found that open plan offices can reduce productivity, impair memory, cause stress and harm wellbeing and, as a result can be associated with high staff turnover for all, not just for introverted people. But at least, as adults, we have more choice over if, where and how we work; children do not.
Depressed or Under-valued?
But it is a double whammy. Not only are introverted people overwhelmed daily, they are often left feeling inadequate and undervalued. For the pre-teen and teenager, this can create anxiety, depression, and self-loathing. The systems and social groups in which we spend the majority our time typically value and reward speaking fast and loud, performing, competing, acting out, jumping into an experience, being funny, getting noticed; all the things that stimulate and energise our extraverts but can overwhelm or inhibit our introverts. Introverts can present as more serious, shy, thoughtful, and focused on their inner world – all traits that Cain notes are undervalued and often perceived to be undesirable in Western society. In my experience, this undervaluing is even more exaggerated in school and teenage culture and leaves a deep sense of inadequacy that is often carried forward into adulthood.
Extraverts or Introverts?
Yet, whilst Western society is geared up to help extraverts thrive , as Cain points out, at least a half to a third of people are introverted; and without introverts we would not have the Apple computer, the theory of relativity or Van Gough’s sunflowers. Where would be without that careful, analytical thinking and creativity behind the scenes? Can you imagine a world of only extraverts?!?! So, how do we go about better supporting and nurturing our introverts to feel confident, wanted, respected and valued within our families or schools?
Thinking About Your Family in Social Distancing
As always, when applying psychological ideas and constructs to our families we need to think more broadly. How our introversion or extraversion plays out in lockdown may depend on: who else is in the family home, the developmental stage and degree of independence of children, how busy or stimulating the family home is, the personality types in the family, nature of individual family relationships, and whether external relationships are already established and comfortable via social media.
In my family, we have a real mix of personality types. My partner is absolutely and completely an introvert and thriving; he misses nothing of pre-lockdown life. He has space to work and exercise alone and is able to work from home and catch up with friends using technology in a less socially demanding way. My introverted teenage daughter is more relaxed and confident but is quietly missing her friends – as a teenager friends matter a lot, but as an introvert she does not like putting herself out there a lot on social media.
The extraverts in our family, that is my pre-teen and I, have had a more mixed reaction. We enjoyed the break but are starting to wilt now. My pre-teen is starting to get bored and lethargic but comes alive when conniving with her sister or getting out on her bike with her dad. Me? Well I desperately miss my girlfriends – the laughs, the banter and the in-depth conversations. Zoom does not cut it for me – too much of the energy and nuances of interaction are lost. My brain has struggled to allow the quiet and is stimulated by conversation. I would like to blame my consumption of sweet treats on my need for stimulation, but I think that is taking it a bit too far! But as a more experienced and mature extravert, I would love to nurture and take a little bit of this quiet me with me to the other side.