Do our sensitive natures account for our sense of being different?

by John McManamy


IN AN EMAIL newsletter survey, I asked my readers to take an online MBTI test and email the results. As I related in another article, my first jaw-dropping finding was that eight in ten of my respondents tested for introversion. This can best be explained by the fact that introversion-extraversion can shift with mood, with the high likelihood that a good many of my respondents were depressed at the time.

My second jaw-dropping finding had to do with my respondents clustering around a few rare personality types. In this case, research turned into me-search. Let me explain …

My own MBTI retesting confirmed my profile from years before. “INFP” was my type - one of 16 possibilities - alias “questor” or “dreamer.” The “I” in INFP stands for introvert.

Basically, leave me in a cave in Tibet for ten years, with occasional weekends off, and I’ll be just fine. As you may guess, we INFPs are a fairly rare breed, comprising but two percent of the general population. So when a bunch of INFP results started to roll in, I got pretty excited. Out of the first 100 replies I tabulated, 14 were my people. Just one letter off, an equally rare breed the INFJs - “mystics” - constituted an eye-opening 17 percent.

Also, just one letter off were ENFPs - visionaries - at seven percent the only group of extraverts over-represented in my survey.

Think about it: Thirty-eight mystics and dreamers and visionaries - clear outsiders - in an imaginary room where one would expect to find only four or five or six. But in a largely bipolar and depressed population, the outsiders turned out to be close to the norm. What on earth was going on?

Okay, first let’s break down the alphabet soup. We know the “I” in INFP stands for introversion (as opposed to extraversion). The N signifies intuition (as opposed to sensing), the F for feeling (as opposed to thinking), and the P for perceiving (as opposed to judging).



In our imaginary room of people with depression and bipolar, it is reasonable to expect that intuitives and feelers would be over-represented, and this proved to be the case (by a two-thirds majority for each). It’s not that intuitives lack the ability to stay grounded or that feelers don’t think. Like everything else about behavior, we’re talking about tendencies rather than absolutes.

If we think of bipolar as a condition where we think and feel and perceive wider and deeper than the rest of the population, even if we identify as “feelers” we’re also certainly engaged in a lot of deep thinking - more so, I would submit, than most of those who identify as thinkers.

Where it starts to get interesting is when we join up the two middle letters in our four-letter combinations. Three of these combinations (such as S for sensing and T for thinking) yield fairly mainstream temperaments: Artisans (concrete and adaptable), guardians (concrete and organized), rationals (abstract and objective).




When we come to our tribe of mystics and dreamers and visionaries, though, we seem to form our own outlier class of “idealist” intuitives and feelers (NFs). What we lack in terms of fitting in we make up for in passion and commitment. Four in ten in my sample turned up as idealists.

We can loosely describe this breed as those in pursuit of meaning in their lives, empathic and sensitive, spiritually inclined. In case you thinking this sounds an awful lot like the “highly sensitive person” (HSP), you could well have a point.



In her 1997 book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, Dr Aron observes that many of us are sensitive to the subtleties in our surroundings, but can easily become overwhelmed to the point of exhaustion.

The book starts out with a 27-question self-test, such as: “I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by,” “I find myself needing to withdraw during busy days, into bed or into a darkened room,” “I notice and enjoy delicate or fine scents, sounds, works of art.”

According to Dr Aron, “if you answered true to twelve or more of the questions, you’re probably highly sensitive.”

Dr Aron, herself a card-carrying “HSP,” reports that we notice far more than mere objects in the room. Not surprisingly, we tend to be a creative and insightful and passionate and compassionate lot. But it comes at a steep price, one that invites misunderstanding and ridicule. Life is a challenge, and because of this we easily find ourselves marginalized by the non-sensitive majority.

Sound familiar?  In a blog on Mental Health Talk, writer Rachel Miller reports:

I’ve always felt like an outsider, so different to everybody else, like I had been dropped off on the wrong planet. Everyone around me, even at primary school, seemed so settled in the world, like living on Earth was the easiest and most natural thing. I felt alien.

There is a strong upside to this (such as our ability to think and feel deeper) but we also tend to get highly aroused and overwhelmed.

This tendency leads to behaviors that don’t exactly win popularity contests. On one hand, we become frazzled and may lose it. On the other, we may withdraw into our shell and isolate. In both cases, life becomes a struggle. We get marginalized, we turn into outsiders. Maybe we were outsiders from the moment of conception.

Yet, according to Dr Aron, there is a certain sweet spot, sufficiently aroused but not over-aroused, where we are on our game and can play to our strengths. Once we recognize who we are, with practice, we can adjust accordingly. We stay true to ourselves, but learn to fit in. when the situation calls for it. Success breeds success. Life can be good.

See also: Introversion and Extraversion

June 28, 2016


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