Highly Sensitive Refuge
An HSP feeling misunderstood at work

5 Things I Wish the Work World Understood About HSPs

I’ve cried during at least three performance reviews. And it wasn’t because I was being reprimanded for poor work. Alas, for me, this emotional response is the result of being highly sensitive.

Of course, there’s a cultural norm that you should never cry at work. In the moment, I felt so unprofessional, and I usually try hard to convey total competence. What’s even harder to admit is that every one of those reviews was almost glowingly good. My output is excellent. I am reliable, responsible, and excellent at managing my workload. I build strong, close relationships with my team.

But my sensitivity to criticism can make me feel very fragile. The perfectionist in me never hears the positive feedback, and instead focuses like a laser on the smallest indication of something negative. It always came down to my personality not fitting in the corporate world — and each comment felt like a knife wound. I’m too emotional and wear my feelings on my sleeve (demonstrated so inconveniently by my tearful reaction to the review). I need to network more broadly to expand my influence. My expectations of others are too high. One supervisor even suggested that “my personality is my cross to bear.” The thought that the essence of me was my burden to carry — well, that one really hurt.

So I’ve always felt misunderstood in the work world. The weight of corporate life and caring so deeply caused me more stress than others seemed to carry. I dove into self-help literature to try to “fix myself” and find a way to cope. And then I read a book that changed my view of myself, and even changed my life. It was like someone turned a light on in a very dark place in my soul. Instead of trying to fix myself, I could start to understand and accept myself: I was a highly sensitive person (HSP).

(Not an HSP? Learn what it means to be a highly sensitive person.) 

In The Highly Sensitive Person, psychologist Elaine Aron writes, “The business world is undoubtedly undervaluing its HSPs. People who are gifted and intuitive yet conscientious and determined not to make mistakes ought to be treasured employees. But we are less likely to fit into the business world when the metaphors for achievement are warfare, pioneering and expansion.”

Being a highly sensitive person (and an introvert) working in corporate America has led to a lot of stress and heartache for me. People don’t always “get me.” But I know I am capable, conscientious, and talented. And while I certainly understand the value of opening up and sharing more about myself, I secretly wish people understood these five things about working with a highly sensitive soul.

What I Wish Others Knew About Working With HSPs

1. I’m not stuck up. I just have high expectations of myself.

I’m quiet, I’m a perfectionist, and I’m eager to please. I think this is true of a lot of HSPs. This gives some people the impression that we’re holier-than-thou taskmasters who need constant praise. But we’re not! We just have high expectations of ourselves. Sometimes I wish people could hear my inner dialogue — I constantly question what I could have done better, and I feel like I don’t fit in.

It reminds me of a line from Friends when Chandler is describing himself:

“Oh come on, Chandler is funny, he’s sophisticated, and he’s very loveable… Once. You. Get. To. Know. Him.”

I wish people would get to know their HSP coworkers before making judgements about their character.

2. If I ask for an office, it’s not because I think I’m more important. It’s because I need to focus.

To concentrate, I need a quiet space free of distractions. I get easily overwhelmed by lights, noise, and overheard conversations. I pick up on the energy around me. If someone in the cube next to me is angry or frustrated, it’s almost like I can feel their energy radiating from their space and fueling my feelings. This is a classic HSP trait — but private offices are hard to come by. At a previous job, I wanted to ask for an office so I could write in peace, but I was too fearful that it would be perceived negatively given our contentious office politics.

Unfortunately, this is a problem that’s not getting better. The trend toward open office spaces worries me, because 8-hour days in an open, exposed area can be extremely draining for HSPs.

3. My real personality comes out when you spend time with me one-on-one.

Despite my need for quiet space, I actually am an advocate of working closely with a small team. I believe that a more personal, human connection can make for stronger work. But that doesn’t mean that the only way to form those close connections is during happy hour  or a team kickball game. Large groups are intimidating. Throw in drinking or a sports activity, and now I am racing to the “Decline” button on that invite.

Invite me to go out to lunch one-on-one or take a small group on an ice cream run instead. We can talk person-to-person, and I don’t have to worry about being asked why I’m not drinking or recount a horror story from the last time I played organized sports. Remember that what is fun for one isn’t necessarily fun for all.

4. I’m not built for dominance.

I worked on a team with three women and three men. We all were given a DISC assessment, which measures (among other things) how dominant you are. All of the women scored low on dominance and all of the men scored high. The men were then praised for their assuredness. The women were instead mentored to be less deferential and more dominant.

HSPs don’t always want to be dominant. We believe that a lot of truth gets left in the dust when the loudest voice in the room wins out. Or when no one asks for input from others before charging forward with implementation.

I prefer to lead in quieter ways, like leading by example. And I take time to think things over, but I always have an opinion or an idea on the next steps. For an HSP, scheduling one-on-one time after we’ve had a moment to reflect is a much more productive way to get useful feedback.

5. My highly sensitive nature brings balance to the workplace.

We’re so lucky to live in a world of yin and yang. We need opposing energies to find balance at home, at work, and within ourselves. I am an HSP to the core, but I am drawn toward non-HSPs for many reasons — I admire their ability to keep their feelings seperate from others and their ability to work through stressful situations in a calm way. The best workplaces recognize that a functional team requires a mix of personalities.

We need leaders and followers. We need introverts and extroverts. We need big picture thinkers and detail-oriented planners. We need strong, confident personalities — and we need highly sensitive people with caring hearts.

We spend so much time trying to change our behavior to mirror the values that others seek. No matter where we live, work, or play, this is my wish for us all — to be what we are and be celebrated for it.

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