Most INFJs are highly sensitive.
The term, Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), was coined by Dr. Elaine Aron and made popular by her book The Highly Sensitive Person.
Basically, HSP is used to describe someone who is highly sensitive to sensory and emotional input. Approximately 15% to 20% of the population is highly sensitive. 70% of them are introverts, while 30% are extroverts.
I wasn’t aware of this term until someone read the first draft of my memoir, The Emotional Gift, and told me that I might be an HSP.
If you are not sure whether you are a HSP, you can do this HSP test created by Dr. Elaine Aron. There are 27 questions altogether and if 14 or more questions are true for you, then you are probably highly sensitive.
I scored 25 out of 27 for the test. Apart from the food-related questions (i.e. caffeine has no effect on me and I don’t get hangry), all the other questions are true for me.
There are pros and cons of being a highly sensitive person.
As HSP, we have a richer inner life and appreciate music, the arts or food in a more profound way than others. We tend to be more empathetic and sensitive to other people’s needs. We pick up subtleties easily and process information deeply.
However, this also means that we have a low capacity for sensory input such as loud noises and strong smells. We are easily affected by the environment and other people’s moods. So we get overwhelmed and overstimulated by external factors much quicker than most people.
Problems that a Highly Sensitive Person Faces
Even though high sensitivity is not a disorder, being highly sensitive does create some inconvenience, challenges, and problems. Here are some of them.
Mental Confusion and Burnout
Living in this fast-paced world where information comes at you from multiple channels, it can be quite a struggle for a highly sensitive person to take in all these information.
As HSP, we need time to process information slowly.
An HSP is better at processing information deeply than quickly. It takes time to process information to the depth that our nervous system is built for. If there is too much information and we have to process in a limited time, it can make us mentally confused and disoriented. And we can’t function at our best.
So an HSP usually doesn’t work well with tight deadlines. It feels too rushed. Like for me, I get a little lightheaded and tired when I had to multitask and digest a great number of details. I cannot think properly unless I do the tasks slowly one at a time.
And it’s not because that we can’t process a large chunk of information. We still have our sensing cognitive functions. It’s just that we find it difficult to process everything in one sitting.
Imagine a traffic jam where many cars are converging into one single lane. Our sensory processing system is like a narrow lane. We can only serve one car at a time. So things get a little chaotic and overwhelmed when we try to cram more information than we can handle. This can easily lead to burnout and exhaustion.
Difficult to Focus and Socialize in Certain Environments
It’s difficult for HSP to concentrate on having a conversation with another person or any task at hand when there are too many things going on around us. We get distracted easily. For example, when there are too many people walking by or other people are talking loudly or laughing at the next table, my attention gets a little scattered and I might space out.
Other people don’t mind this. They can talk in a noisy, chaotic, and crowded environment like a club and be fine with it. They can bounce off from people to people like a social butterfly and not complete their conversations. But for HSP, we feel uncomfortable or even anxious in such an environment, let alone enjoy or focus on our conversations with others.
INFJ HSP prefers to meet people at a quiet and cozy place.
In this way, we can give our full attention to our friends and actually listen to what they are saying, not just verbally and also their body language. Also, INFJs enjoy deep conversations and being in a quiet environment fosters such intimate sharing.
Being Misunderstood (Especially for HSP Males)
Sometimes, being highly sensitive can be perceived as weak or too emotional. This is unflattering especially to HSP males because these traits don’t fit the traditional masculinity image that the society imposes on us.
For example, men are expected to be tough and macho. We are not supposed to cry or show our emotions in public except anger. But highly sensitive guys aren’t like this. We are deeply moved by the arts and music and we don’t like to watch violent movies or TV shows. Instead of embracing these good HSP qualities that we possess, HSP males often have to hide their sensitivity in fear of being ridiculed by their peers.
What people don’t understand is that there is a difference between the nervous system of an HSP and that of a non-HSP.
Our nervous system is just more reactive than most people.
For some non-HSP, they need a lot of stimuli to get themselves high and excited. Their nervous system doesn’t get aroused that easily. But for HSP, a trickle of stimulation can already send a shock wave to our body and overwhelmed us.
Since a child, I can’t watch gory movies without feeling the pain all over my body. When someone is being stabbed in the movie, it feels like I’m being stabbed. Even hearing about the story or the sound effects make me feel uncomfortable and jittery.
In Singapore, all males have to serve the army and when I was working in Malaysia, my male colleagues were so envious of me because I got to fire a rifle. But at the back of my mind, I was thinking, “There is nothing cool about using the rifle.” And it’s not about being masculine or weak, I would rather not have war or be part of it.
They don’t understand the impact a simulated war scenario has on an HSP. It’s not like playing a video game. The loud noises, the smell of the smoke and gunpowder, the chaotic situation and etc wear the HSP out completely. And it takes time to reset the nervous system and calm the nerves.
Tips for Highly Sensitive People: How to Survive as an INFJ HSP?
1. Build good daily habits that support your HSP traits.
Starting and ending the day well are important to everyone, but it’s even more so for an HSP. If you get yourself overstimulated and stressed out at the start of the day, how are you going to cope with the demand from the rest of the day?
HSP can cultivate some morning routines to help them start their day calmly and slowly build up their momentum from there. We HSP don’t like too many changes in our life, so routines are good for us.
For example, you can wake up early to meditate, do some yoga, or go for a brisk walk in nature before you go to work. Previously when I was working in the office, I went to work earlier so as not to experience the crowded morning rush and get my nervous system overstimulated before work.
The quality of your day starts the night before.
Before you sleep, learn to wind down and don’t expose yourself to more sensory input. A good night sleep helps HSP rest and reset our reactive nervous system. Having some evening routines that soothe our body and mind will help us to sleep better during the night.
It’s also best not to work on something intensive or new in the evening. Otherwise, our INFJ mind might get a little too active. Just use that time to prepare for the next day so that the next day will be a breeze. And if you have nothing important to do, sleep early. Let go of your desire to do more stuff just to fill up the time or to feel accomplished.
As a tutor, I usually don’t work in the morning. So I have the luxury to wake up naturally without the alarm clock. If you have to use the alarm clock, choose an alarm that is soothing or progressively loud. Some alarms startle HSP easily and this wipes out the benefits of having a good night sleep.
Another good practice is to have mindfulness breaks sprinkle all over your day. More on this in the next section.
2. Limit, choose and disengage your sensory input.
Since HSP are easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input, we have to be careful of the sensory input that we expose ourselves to each day and limit stimulation as much as possible. This includes:
- our consumption of food (what we eat and drink),
- our consumption of media and entertainment (what we read and watch),
- the people we interact with on a regular basis (who we surround ourselves with), and etc.
You can limit the quantity in two ways — either reduce the duration or the number of times it occurs. For example, you can cut down on the time spent on social media or you can cut down the number of times you check your social media. In this way, you don’t over-consume information and exhaust your processing system.
You can also choose what sensory input to take in and when. For example, unfollow people or channels with messages that evoke unpleasant emotions and disrupt your peace. Shut down the notification setting of your social media or switch your phone to silent mode and schedule a certain time during the day to check for updates and messages. Don’t check your phone whenever you receive a message or notification.
Be mindful of what you do during your free time.
Learn to stop and do nothing.
One of the bad habits that I observe in myself is that whenever I got tired from working, I will try to “relax” by surfing the Internet or watching video on YouTube. But I usually end up more tired than before. I realize I’m just switching from one activity to another activity. My mind has already signaled to me that I’ve too much to process in my head, the last thing I should do is to expose myself to another form of stimulation.
What I learned is that the best way to experience relaxation is to take mindfulness breaks. Just do nothing, watch your breath, and be in the moment. By stopping, you disengage yourself from all the information that you have to process and prevent new information from coming in. It’s like putting a barrier to close off your lane while allowing the congestion and traffic jam to clear up before you reopen your lane. I usually feel more energized after taking these breaks.
If you are in the office and you feel overwhelmed, excuse yourself and take a walk to the restroom cubicle or a quiet space. A couple of minutes is all you need to reset your system.
3. Choose your living environment and who you live with wisely.
Home is a sanctuary for both INFJs and HSP. When we are tired from work, people or over-stimulation, home is where we recharge our battery and relax. Without a peaceful living environment, HSP feels unsettled and constantly on edge. We cannot face the world with renewed energy.
Four years ago, I was living in Malaysia with my other housemates and I nearly went mad! Not only are they extroverts, but they aren’t highly sensitive too. In fact, a couple of them need a lot of stimulation to satisfy their sensory needs. When they listen to music and movie, they have to turn the volume way up. So my house was like a club.
It was so bad that I wanted to rent another place. But because my housemates were my colleagues too, I didn’t want to offend them or the colleague who assigned the living arrangement. I also didn’t want them to feel like that they can’t be themselves at home. So I forsake my own needs and bore with it for six months.
Due to our Fe, INFJs have a tendency to please.
So who you live with matters a lot!
During the weekends, I usually escaped my house and went into a quiet cafe nearby to have my peace. But a cafe is still a cafe. It will never be as comfortable as your home. Not having a private place to unwind is miserable for an HSP. If I were to face the same scenario again, I will definitely forsake my extroverted feeling (Fe) function and move out instead or at least let them know how I feel.
As an HSP, you really have to see if your lifestyle matches those who you are living with. We INFJs tend to accommodate others. So if your housemates, partner, family members and etc don’t have the same lifestyle as you or even worse, they have one that is opposing yours, then you are going to suffer, especially when you don’t speak up and set your boundaries.
The people you live with don’t have to be HSP. But at the very least, they must be willing to make the environment you live in as HSP friendly as possible. For example, you can request a room or some space for you to decompress when you are exhausted.
4. Learn to go with the flow.
We can avoid crowded places that have endless stimulation. We can design a living environment and a life that embrace our sensitivity. However, things don’t always go according to plan. And as an HSP, someone who doesn’t like too many changes, this can be difficult to deal with.
So learning how to go with the flow is helpful. Not only does it helps you to navigate disruptions, but it also helps you to cope with overwhelming sensory inputs.
You don’t have to process everything or make everything in order.
When I was young, my mom often brought me to the temple and I hated it. Everyone was walking everywhere in a disorder fashion. There was smoke from the incense. People were making a lot of noise. I felt nausea and my mind was all over the place.
These days, I don’t get that rattled in crowded places anymore. I still don’t like crowds and avoid them if I can. But nowadays, I focus more on my inner stillness. Instead of trying to resist the disorder, I navigate the crowd calmly and just go with the flow. I move slowly and patiently one step at a time toward my destination by looking at where space is available in the crowd.
The external environment can be a mess but that doesn’t mean that our inner space should be messy too. Often times, we HSP allow the external environment to dictate how we feel. But when we feel frustrated about the situation, and try to escape or organize the environment, we actually add on to the anxiety that we are feeling.
If we relax into the sensory inputs and not try to process all that we see, hear, smell, and etc (just let them be), we will find them more bearable.
5. Let other people know about your sensitivity.
Telling others about your sensitivity, especially those people that you have to interact on a regular basis, can help to bridge misunderstanding. Even if they don’t fully understand what it is like to be a highly sensitive person, at least let them know what you dislike.
Most people don’t force others to do what they don’t like.
It’s our extroverted feeling (Fe) function as an INFJ that prevents us from asserting our needs and preferences. We have the desire to accommodate and we think that others might be offended if we voice our opinions. But that’s not true. When you tell others about your sensitivity, then they will know how to relate to you.
Growing up, I know I can never be a surgeon or a paramedic. During my time in the army, I just told my Platoon Commander, “Can I don’t be a medic? I don’t like the sight of blood.” I also told him that I don’t like to handle weapons. So in the end, I was given a compliance role instead. If I didn’t tell him my dislike, who knows what role I will be assigned.
And if there are people who have negative perceptions of your sensitivity or tease you about it, then that is their perception. There’s nothing you can do about it. And there’s nothing you need to do about it. They are fully entitled to their opinions and you are fully entitled to yours. You don’t have to change their perception of you.
Just embrace your own sensitivity!
If you want to find out more about how to love yourself as an INFJ, be sure to download my free eBook called Self-Acceptance for INFJs.
Featured Photo Credit: Engin Akyurt