I coach and work with many clients who think they are “weak” because they are an introvert, empath, or an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person).
They feel misplaced in this world, and others struggle to understand them.
These are not traits, and we have no say in being one or all of them. They are the result of genetics and are largely misinterpreted because (more or less) 70 percent of the population is not wired that way.
As an introvert, empath, and a highly sensitive person, and a coach who attracts clients belonging to one or more of these categories, I want to share the physiology behind it.
May this be a sort of permission for you to get you what you need, a tool for others to understand you better, and a portal for you to access your superpowers:
Introverts will feel drained at some point by “people time” and will need some alone time to recharge. And they do their best work independently. It’s genetic—their brains process dopamine differently. Dopamine is the hormone that gives you the “reward” feeling when you are validated. For most people, it happens when they are promoted, get likes on social media, or feel appreciated during social interactions.
The “reward” button doesn’t work for the introvert. They don’t get such a hit (dopamine boost) from external stimuli involving people—chitchat and small talks.
They need depth and feel more at home around meaningful one-on-one conversations and activities like reading an interesting article, silent contemplation, or being creative.
Being introverted is different from being shy. Being shy means that you are self-conscious and nervous in social situations. An introvert can be shy or not.
Introverts represent at least one-third of the population.
Some introverts are not empaths; some introverts are not HSP.
Empaths can feel other emotions; they even get physical symptoms out of it. They have an acute capacity to pick up on social and emotional cues and to internalize them. It’s an unconscious process they can’t control.
They will sponge the emotions of people walking in the room for the best and the worse. This is due to their mirror neurons being more active. (This is explained in detail in the HSP section. )
Empaths can be introverts or extroverts.
Empaths are likely to be HSP. Scientists find more and more cues that empaths and HSP are two sides of the same coin.
HSP (Highly Sensitive Person)
The word sensitive can be associated with bad connotations, like taking things personally or crying easily. That is not what HSP is about.
An HSP will process more information about the world around them than other people. They have a stronger internal experience about it.
It’s genetic and involves several differences in their brain and nervous system in general:
>> They process dopamine differently.
Like the introverts, they are not that driven by external recognition and tend not to chase the same things most people are after.
>> Their mirror neurons are more active.
Like the empaths, they don’t have more mirror neurons, but they are more active. These brain cells compare the other person’s behavior with your experience of behaving that way.
This “mirroring” assessment gives you an understanding of what’s going on for them. This process is the one that allows us to feel empathy and compassion for others.
HSPs and empaths show consistently higher levels of activity in the keys parts of the brain related to social and emotional processing. They process their own social and emotional cues, and others, almost constantly.
That’s why they will feel gifted when taking the role of carers and completely overwhelmed by a violent scene on television (even more in real life). This activity makes them “absorbent” beings.
>> They experience emotions and sensory stimulations more vividly.
To understand this, let’s talk about an area of the brain: the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VPC).
The VPC is not yet fully understood, but this is what scientists know: it’s a region of the brain responsible for regulating emotions and evaluating pleasure and threat. And it is an integrative hub for emotional, sensory, social, memory, and self-related information processing.
Its activation adds a certain vividness to the emotions we process and to our sensory experiences.
Everyone experiences that vividness, but high sensitivity is linked to a gene that turns up the volume of that felt vividness. As a consequence, HPS’s experience emotions and sensory stimulations strongly.
>> The “Sensitive” Gene (Serotonin Transporter).
Serotonin is a chemical in the body that stabilizes your mood.
The serotonin transporter gene helps move serotonin out of the brain. Doing so balances and regulates your mood.
There are two variations of the gene called the “short allele” and the “long allele.”
The gene variant called the “short allele” makes you more sensitive to your surroundings. You experience increased sensitivity to environmental stimuli.
That matters a lot when it comes to relationships.
For example, if you combine this gene with an unhealthy environment during childhood development, you will have a higher risk of experiencing mental health problems later in life.
Combine it with a safe, encouraging environment, and you will get out larger than life as an adult. It will exaggerate the effects of both good and bad environmental experiences.
>> Other people are the most important element in HSP’s world.
For an HSP, almost everything about the brain is wired to notice and interpret others.
The cingulate area and the insula are two areas of the brain that light up when we become more aware and present.
For HSP’s, these areas become far more active in response to images of other people, especially those emotionally related to them.
HSP’s are between 15 and 20 percent of the population.
HSP can be introverts or extroverts. The fact that they get so animated by other people’s presence can take over the lack of dopamine hit they have in common with the introverts.
As an HSP, empath, and introvert, I know its challenges. I am always processing so much. I get tired easily and need plenty of alone time—a quiet environment to replenish. I am sensitive to sounds; they ask for so much focus.
But if the lows are overwhelming, the highs are higher. For that reason, I wouldn’t exchange any of it. At the end of the day, life is richer and more colorful. And with tools to manage all the overwhelms, there is an outsized version of life waiting for you.
I know I can fly to another dimension with some good music. I can feel connected with the ocean when I surf and talk to animals (and be understood). I have an exceptionally efficient bullsh*t detector; I dream big and act on it.
Yes, I create fewer connections and relationships, but they’re meaningful. I can feel intense pleasure, do deep, intense, transformative work on myself and others—visit the extremes and come back from it.
I can spend time in the underworld, be happy with myself, and feel what my loved ones need.
What are your superpowers?