As a highly sensitive person, empathy and compassion are two qualities which greatly contribute to my career as a psychotherapist.
They say if you have a job that you love, then you never work a day in your life. Although a bit of an exaggeration, this statement does hold some truth: if we are passionate about our jobs, it feels less like work and can actually be life-sustaining. And for highly sensitive people (HSPs), we need to love our work in order to thrive in life.
Fortunately, my parents urged me to do just that. While I was growing up, they encouraged me to one day find a career that would bring me joy. My idea of what this could be changed depending on my stage of life, but one thing was for sure — my HSP soul wanted a job in which I could make a positive impact on others.
A Passion for Mental Health in the Making
Growing up as an HSP wasn’t always easy. Although I didn’t know about Dr. Elaine Aron’s research on highly sensitive people at the time, I was keenly aware that I was much more sensitive than my friends and family members. For example, I felt tremendous compassion for animals and became a vegetarian at the age of 12 because I couldn’t stand the thought of contributing to the suffering of them. My family and my classmates teased me for this decision and labeled me as “weird.” Additionally, I felt my emotions very deeply, to the point where others accused me of overreacting. I was told to “stop being so sensitive” more times than I can count.
As with most HSPs, I struggled to be my sensitive self in a society that undervalues sensitivity. I wore my heart on my sleeve, and other people saw this as a weakness. They didn’t understand this trait, instead characterizing me as “overly emotional” and “too sensitive.” As a result, I often felt like I didn’t fit in. Being an HSP, their words were that much more hurtful to me, since HSPs are greatly impacted by the words of others. This was all on top of the toxic messages I was receiving from my fundamentalist Christian church — that I was a sinner, not good enough, and inherently unworthy as a person. These experiences created a perfect storm of shame, which is strongly associated with mental health struggles, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and eating disorders.
Meanwhile, my sensitive nature started to awaken to social justice issues. As an HSP, I have always been deeply moved by the suffering of others. I started to learn about the systemic injustices people face due to their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other such factors, and my heart longed to help right these wrongs. Indeed, this systemic mistreatment is strongly associated with poor mental health.
Choosing a Major… and a Job
Eventually, I made it to college. Choosing a major was not a decision I took lightly. There were two significant criteria that needed to be met. First, it needed to be in an area that I was passionate about. The advice of my parents to find a job that made me happy continued to reverberate in my mind. Second, it needed to ultimately lead to a career in which I could help others. I wanted my work to make a positive difference in this world. My HSP soul longed for more than working for some soul-sucking corporation fueled by greed and profit.
Initially, I chose to study nutritional science with the goal of becoming a registered dietician nutritionist. Becoming a vegetarian at such a young age sparked an interest in how nutrition can be used to help people. However, I (reluctantly) discovered that this was not the right fit for me. While I did enjoy the nutrition classes, the “hard science” classes (such as biology and chemistry) were difficult for me to get through. They were so analytic, detached, and even cold. Although I have the utmost respect for individuals who are passionate about these sciences and incorporate them into their careers (most of which make an incredibly positive impact), that personable warmth that I was seeking was missing.
I needed to change majors, as well as my career goals. I decided that if I could not help the body, then I would help the mind and soul instead. Reflecting on elements of my past — including being misunderstood as an HSP, the toxic messages I received from the fundamentalist Christian church (especially as a queer person), and my interest in social justice issues — I realized that mental health was my passion. I switched my major to psychology and made plans on how I could eventually become a psychotherapist. I wanted to help others feel understood and validated. I wanted to protect others from the harmful effects of shame. Finally, my HSP soul had found her calling.
Reflecting on My Work as a Psychotherapist
Although I am fairly new in my career as a psychotherapist, I cannot imagine ending up in any other profession. Indeed, while I find my work to be enjoyable, it is greater than just that — it is profoundly meaningful and feeds my soul. I have met some amazing and remarkable people along the way, and am honored that my clients have allowed me to be part of their journey.
Unlike my childhood and adolescence, during which I was repeatedly given the message to “stop being so sensitive,” I could at last embrace my sensitivity. Indeed, my highly sensitive nature was no longer the hindrance that I once believed it to be, but rather a trait that positively contributed to my work as a psychotherapist. Specifically, here are some primary ways in which being an HSP helps me as a psychotherapist.
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4 Ways Being an HSP Helps Me as a Psychotherapist
1. Empathy and compassion help form a connection with the client.
A common trait among HSPs is the ability to feel what others are feeling. This empathy is essential in the workforce for certain professions, like in psychotherapist professions, as it aids us in truly understanding our clients as individuals with unique, yet human, experience.
Empathy helps create a strong therapeutic alliance, which is the relationship between the client and therapist. If you have been to therapy, then you know how important it is to have a good relationship with your therapist in order to feel safe and make meaningful progress toward your goals. I found that my sensitivity helps me feel compassion for my clients’ situations and fondness for them as individuals, allowing us to connect on a deeper level.
Compassion also helps me to understand and connect with clients who may be different from me in terms of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic background, and other such factors. While it is impossible to have first-hand knowledge of every potential issue someone may experience, empathy and compassion allow me to better understand and help my clients in the ways that I can.
2. Intuition is helpful, especially for making decisions in the moment.
Sensitive people tend to have a strong connection to their intuition, which is essential in most areas of life. However, I would argue that intuition is essential in fields such as psychotherapy, since decisions need to be made in the moment. There are a myriad of different therapeutic interventions that can be used; however, because each individual is so unique, any one intervention will work better for certain individuals than others, depending on the circumstances, needs, and personality of the client.
Additionally, my intuition helps in knowing certain themes to be explored, which can then lead both the client and myself to a deeper understanding of the roots of their problems and, subsequently, how to address them.
3. Reading others’ emotions and body language help when assessing situations.
HSPs are able to read others remarkably well, including their emotions. Because HSPs are highly attuned to details and process their surroundings more deeply, we are better able to notice changes in facial expressions, vocal inflections, and other signifiers of body language. This is especially useful in psychotherapy, as I can assist my clients in identifying their emotional experience(s), which, consequently, helps with moving through said emotion more effectively. In addition, being able to pick up on sudden emotional changes can help identify pain points that need further exploration in order to help the client heal.
4. Being highly sensitive helps to encourage clients to embrace their sensitivity, too.
So many clients have told me about their experiences being invalidated by others: “You’re too emotional,” “You shouldn’t be feeling this way,” “You’re too sensitive…” In fact, it’s estimated that up to half of clients in psychotherapy are HSPs. Because I know what that feels like, I firstly acknowledge and validate their pain. I let them know that, no, they are not “too emotional” or “too sensitive,” and that their feelings are valid and even have a purpose!
I share with them that I am an HSP and provide them with knowledge and resources about what it means to be one, how high sensitivity is a biological trait, and how HSPs have many strengths — all while gently encouraging them to embrace their sensitivity. For many of my clients, this is the first time that sensitivity has been reframed as a strength rather than a source of shame. A critical part of healing is to accept our full experience, including our emotions, as well as our whole self, including our highly sensitive nature.
This is not to say that I am a perfect psychotherapist (that doesn’t exist!). I am still relatively new in my career and am mindful about my areas of growth. I am also a firm believer that we are never done improving. But I wholeheartedly believe my strengths as a psychotherapist are a result of being a highly sensitive person. I don’t think I would be in this profession if it weren’t for being an HSP. For that, I am thankful.
How has being an HSP contributed to your career? I’d love to know in the comments!
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