Highly sensitive people don’t just have big emotions. We have smart ones — and we do emotional intelligence in a whole different way.
For four years, I was a manager at a small marketing agency. Even though I was in a leadership role, I often felt different and out of place — an experience that had defined most of my life and resulted from me being a highly sensitive person (HSP). I’d been told on multiple performance reviews that I was “too sensitive,” and it often felt like a heavy burden in the corporate workplace, something that limited my success.
As we grew, the founder of the company enrolled us in a consulting program focused on emotional intelligence best practices. As someone who feels deeply, I was intrigued but skeptical. Thankfully, I stayed curious as I dug into the context of what it meant to be emotionally intelligent.
The more I learned about emotional intelligence, the more I started recognizing my strengths as an HSP. More than that, my newfound knowledge gave me the tools to develop those areas that needed help. The result? I gained the confidence to reach my highest potential as an HSP.
How Emotional Intelligence Coincides with High Sensitivity
Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to tune into your emotions and be aware of the emotions of others. It’s a particular kind of social skill mixed with self-awareness. That’s a potent combination that can help you strike a balance so you’re more effective at understanding yourself, and how you show up at work and in your relationships.
There are four main components of emotional intelligence: self-knowledge, self-management, relationship building, and social connection. And each component has related skills. For instance, since self-knowledge has to do with the exploration of our emotions, it involves skills like understanding our self-purpose, being good about self-care, and maintaining self confidence.
HSPs have several advantages when it comes to emotional intelligence, including — based on what’s called the “mixed model” — being particularly good when it comes to empathy, active listening, and social-awareness. HSPs are known for feeling and thinking deeply, which may not come as easy for some non-HSPs, and gives us an edge. They also have their own unique EI pitfalls — meaning sensitive people don’t just have high EI in general, they also “do” emotional intelligence a little differently. Here’s how.
A Sensitive Person’s Emotional Intelligence ‘Strengths’
We’re known for absorbing emotions from others in the room like a sponge. Our strong empathy skills not only means that we experience someone else’s emotions, but we’ll use that knowledge to begin seeking a deeper understanding — of the person, the situation, or some other factor. (Not all HSPs have the same level of empathy, but compared to non-HSPs, we tend to have an ability to pick on someone’s “vibe” more easily.)
Thanks to our ability to tune into how people are feeling, we have a greater knack for knowing how to respond or what to say. We can offer more thorough analyses and feedback. And — bonus! — in business, empathy is used to build accurate buyer personas and develop more effective products by imagining the consumer’s or user’s needs, so we can lend our strengths in more specific ways than non-HSPs.
Thanks to our empathy skills, we also tend to tune into what others are saying more. We’re very attentive to detail, so we pay more attention to the words others use and even the way they communicate them. Really, what we’re doing is not only listening to what’s being said, but also observing the person’s body language and tone of voice.
It’s almost as if we have an inner cipher that decodes the words expressed by someone. We can look beyond the surface of what others are saying to articulate what the person is trying to communicate.
Social awareness often goes hand-in-hand with empathy, so it’s no wonder that we have a strong ability to read the room. We can sense the vibe and pick up on emotional signals from others. Although this can be extremely daunting for some HSPs, when managed well, it can be a great superpower that allows us to shift how we show up in the room to be the most effective when communicating with others.
If you come home to your significant other with exciting news to share about your promotion, but find them sitting on the couch with their head in their hands, you’re more likely, as an HSP, to withhold your good news until you find out what’s troubling your partner.
Sensitive People Have EI Pitfalls, Too
There are a few EI areas where HSPs can stand to improve. These areas are often the strengths of non-HSPs because those people are not as clouded by feeling deeply, and can carry on without the heavy emotional weight. But knowing how you relate to these areas as an HSP — and how to improve them — will help you become the best version of yourself.
Self-management is the ability to manage our emotions effectively. Although HSPs tend to be in tune with our emotions and feel them deeply, research suggests that we are not always the best at managing them effectively — or even understanding why we’re feeling them!
To better manage emotions, the best place to start is to observe what we’re feeling and then write it down. That way, we can dig deeper into what’s troubling us. For example, feeling “betrayed” rather than just “angry” can take on a whole new meaning. It can be a cloudy mess in our emotional brains, so by putting emotions to paper, we can better identify why we’re feeling a certain way and take action if needed.
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Positive change, negative change, small changes, big changes — no matter what type of change we’re undergoing, HSPs dislike change. That’s because we feel deeply when we go through life changes, good and bad, and it can emotionally exhaust us. We tend to avoid changes because feeling the emotions that come with it can be unbearable.
A great way to better manage change is by reframing the change and identifying the positive aspects of it. If we focus on it as a good thing — and list out all that entails — rather than a negative, we can more courageously embrace change as it comes.
While there is a growing amount of research — and websites like this one — to help clarify the HSP experience, it can still be difficult for us to get to know ourselves and find acceptance for being highly sensitive. It doesn’t help that in many countries, including the US, non-HSP traits are favored more than sensitivity. All of this can be detrimental to an HSP’s self-esteem, especially when we’re not clear on what makes us different and why we sometimes feel the extremes that we do.
Fortunately, we’re on the road to creating more awareness around the strengths of HSPs and the value they bring to our society. As we continue to learn more about ourselves, we can gain greater confidence to unlock our potential and leave a positive mark in our world.
Of course, every HSP has a unique set of gifts, so you may or may not feel strongly in line with all of the EI strengths above. But as a sensitive person, you do have a lot to give. And feeling emotions and understanding those of others is a great skill. Our biggest lesson is to know when to lean into our superpowers to give to others, and when to prioritize our own needs — and emotional intelligence, when we learn to master it, helps us do that.
Want to learn more about yourself as a sensitive person? Shannon Callarman offers a 14-day journey to self discovery. Learn more here.