Do you ever leave work wondering what the heck just happened? Like the day was simply too much, too fast? And do you feel like your needs on the job are ignored, and your strengths go unnoticed? If you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP) like me, this may be your everyday experience at work. And you probably go home feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.
As an HSP professional who coaches other HSPs, I know many of us struggle to find a job that’s a good fit. The amount of stimulation in a typical work environment can cause a great deal of stress, frustration, and overwhelm. And being different from others means we can be ostracized, ignored for promotion, or even bullied.
But I truly believe being highly sensitive gives us tremendous potential in the workplace. And when we learn to harness that potential, we can be more than just successful — we can be happy in our careers. Here’s how.
Why the Workplace Is Stressful for Highly Sensitive People
Highly sensitive people can be successful in a wide variety of careers. But being an HSP can also make it a challenge to earn a living, because we generally have to work in situations that make us feel stressed, burned out, and overwhelmed.
Personally, I’ve worked for bosses who were bullies and with narcissistic people who tried to manipulate and control me. I’ve experienced hostility from coworkers simply because I tried to be as productive and efficient as possible. And, like every HSP, I’ve suffered through noisy and chaotic office environments — so many of them. I’ve even found my voice drowned out by more outspoken colleagues, so that I ended up working harder than everyone else while frequently being overlooked for promotions.
I’m not the only HSP who has dealt with this. A former client of mine, Michelle, worked for 10 years as a speech language pathologist in public special education — a role that’s often highly emotionally charged for students, parents, teachers, and administrators. With the intensity of having to respond to 90 teachers at one school, and a caseload of up to 65 students and their parents, it’s safe to say that Michelle’s environment was not conducive to her needs as an HSP. It was overwhelming.
But what I have seen in my own life, and in clients like Michelle, is that HSPs are resilient. Over time, she learned how to calmly withstand high pressure and emotionally charged situations — and how to take care of herself, even in the most stressful moments.
5 Ways to Thrive at Work as a Highly Sensitive Person
I’ve since learned that it is possible for HSPs to survive and even thrive in stressful jobs. But it requires a deep level of self-awareness — and a willingness to adopt strategies to balance and reset energy when needed.
Here are five strategies I believe will help:
1. Get to know your own talents and needs.
Before you can expect others to understand you at work, you must understand yourself — including the needs and strengths you bring with you. What are your sensitivities and your abilities? What are your unique talents? What do you particularly enjoy doing? And what conditions enable you to do your best work — for example, do you need absolute quiet? Do you prefer to work alone? Or do you actually thrive on some level of stimulation and collaboration?
Only when you’re clear on your own needs and abilities will you be able to make them clear to others.
2. Own the things that make you different.
As an HSP, you’re different from the majority of people. You know this, but you may put a lot of effort into trying to fit in, trying to be like others, and trying to do things the same way as others.
But guess what? That approach will never work.
The truth is, you are NOT like everyone else. Comparing yourself to others or trying to do things the same way will only cause you more frustration. You feel and see things differently, you do things differently, and you have insights into things that others don’t. Don’t expect others to know what you know — they are not receiving the same sensory input that you are, so they cannot know. The simple act of accepting your differences can bring a great sense of peace.
3. Practice speaking up.
I know, this can be difficult for HSPs — and for introverted HSPs in particular. You may be hesitant to speak up because you’ve been criticized in the past for being different. But people are afraid of what they don’t understand. They don’t understand you, and they see you as “different,” so they may automatically jump to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with you. It’s up to you to put them straight.
And that’s why this is the third step. If you know yourself at the deepest level, and you’ve accepted who you are — really owning it — it will bring you confidence.
Begin to speak up with that confidence. Find someone (a boss, supervisor, or human resources professional) who is open and who will listen to you. Here’s what you can say:
- Tell them what you need in order to be able to work most efficiently and effectively.
- Do this in a confident way, and not in a complaining way. Stick to facts.
- You might even point out that there’s a trait known as high sensitivity, and you can refer them to this site or Dr. Elaine Aron’s research.
When you speak up and ask for what you need, you’ll be surprised at how willing some people may be to listen and take steps to help you.
4. Plan the self-care you need.
Because it’s so easy for HSPs to become overstimulated at work, it’s important to make self-care a priority. Plan little routines to conserve your energy before, during, and after the workday. For example:
- Spend time alone. Find somewhere to go to be by yourself, even for just a few minutes, when you’re at work.
- Boost your energy before and/or after work with something soothing. Michelle’s routines were yoga and soaking in a hot tub. Yours may be different.
- Listen to calming music, or even white noise, while at work.
- Practice working through emotional issues, rather than holding onto them. (Yes, we too can “smuggle” feelings from our personal life to work or vice versa.)
- Bring nature into your environment, such as a plant or fresh flowers. It’s amazing what even one beautiful natural element makes for HSPs.
5. Use your natural gifts as a highly sensitive person.
Nothing stifles your energy more than not using your innate gifts, talents, and abilities. And as a highly sensitive person, you have many gifts.
Do you have a strong intuition about certain things? Do you know things without knowing how or why you know them? Do people seek you out for advice, or share problems with you? All of these things are clues to your unique gifts.
Once you identify them, you must use them in some way — and yes, you can leverage them at work. It’s a rare workplace that doesn’t want an insightful problem-solver that everyone trusts.
Someday, Companies Will Compete to Snap Up Highly Sensitive People
In The Highly Sensitive Person’s Workbook, Elaine Aron wrote: “Someday, we will be so valued, I believe, that organizations will compete for their share of HSPs. Our needs will be met because it will be economically wise to do so.”
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I think she’s right. Change is coming. Awareness is growing. But until then, we must learn to take care of ourselves.
It is possible for HSPs to thrive in our professional lives, but we can’t wait for other people to figure out what we need. We have to take the lead. We have to help ourselves and tell others how to help us. Then we can show the world what we’re really capable of. When people see how much we have to offer, I believe we will be more accepted — and valued. That’s when organizations will start competing for their share of HSPs.
Struggling with your career or business? I specialize in working with professional women and women business owners who are intuitive, highly sensitive, empathic or introverted. Learn more here.