How I Found Out I’m a Highly Sensitive Person — And Used It to Change My Life

A highly sensitive person looking strong in the face of stress

Could your most sensitive side be the key to building a happier life?

After an 18-year corporate career back in the 1980’s and 90’s that was “successful” on the outside but not at all successful on the inside, I faced a huge blow that forever changed my life trajectory. That shift in my life started first with the tragedies of 9/11, which devastated not only our nation but many of the people I worked with and lived near, in my hometown and community in Connecticut. 

One month after the terrorist attacks, I was let go from my corporate VP role in a way that blindsided me and pushed me to my knees. I felt betrayed and deeply let down, partly because I had endured so many painful experiences in the last several years of my corporate career – including sexual harassment, gender discrimination, narcissistic bosses, toxic work cultures and more. These experiences enraged me, but I had toughed it out, only to be laid off with no warning, after moving to a new home one month before, being promised by a senior leader that I had “a great, long career” ahead of me at the company.

But as is often the case in these crushing experiences, there was a silver lining to all of it. For me, this was the first time I recognized that breakdown can actually lead to breakthrough if we let it, by choosing to listen to ourselves more deeply and learn the important lessons our life is trying to teach us. We can indeed break through our challenges if we take key steps that honor who we really are instead of breaking ourselves against it. 

Of course, doing that means understanding ourselves — and at the time, my sensitivity was a piece of myself I did not yet understand. Being sensitive isn’t valued in the corporate world, and was something I had tried to cover up.

What I did realize is that it was time to say “ENOUGH!” to the very insensitive expectations I’d been trying to live up to. I suddenly saw the world through a different lens, and decided that I’d had enough of the deep conflict, challenge, mistreatment, chronic illness, zero work-life balance and the feeling that the work I was doing had no contributive value or meaning to others or the world at large. In other words, I was ready to honor my sensitive need for peace and meaning — even if I didn’t fully understand where it came from.

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How I Discovered My Strengths as a Highly Sensitive Person — Without Even Realizing It

I decided to transform my work. I became a marriage and family therapist, then a writer, and launched a career and leadership coaching and training business focused on helping professional women bypass the challenges I faced, so they could advance, thrive and grow — as leaders and impacters.

But something fascinating happened. Therapy training changed my life in many ways, and I saw through that training that I was a person who seemed to have a highly attuned “radar.” Weirdly, I could sense very clearly what the people around me were feeling and thinking. It was uncanny and the more I focused on and developed that trait, the more acute it became.

For instance, I began studying energy healing work in the form of reiki, and during that time in my therapy work with clients, I’d often see “videos” in my mind’s eye (or “hear” messages and thoughts) about the lives of the people I was working with. These intuitions always proved to be helpful — I’d see vignettes of traumatic events in a client’s life, or I’d suddenly “know” things about what they wanted and needed that didn’t come from anything they had ever shared verbally. I somehow just knew.

This was the first time I had truly leaned into my sensitive gifts of intuition and the ability to read people — and I didn’t even yet know that I was a highly sensitive person. 

But that was about to change.

The Moment I Realized I’m a Highly Sensitive Person

I learned about narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder during my therapy training, and recognized that there had been narcissistic traits in a few of the people around me in my childhood and early adulthood. I learned that when we have that type of situation in our youth, we often develop a very strong internal “sense” regarding our environment, as a way to sense danger and protect ourselves. We learn how to quickly adapt our behavior to avoid situations that might cause pain, hurt and conflict. 

For instance, when you have a narcissist in your life, you might keep a very low profile in a difficult situation, or sense when to leave this volatile person alone until they calm down. Or you might become an expert on how to soothe an agitated person so the narcissist is safer to be around. I became adept at all three of those skills. I was starting to get a glimmer that I might be more sensitive than others — and why.

But just this year, after speaking with Andre Sólo on my podcast Finding Brave about how being highly sensitive is a superpower, I had a huge revelation. Not only did I have this “radar” in my later years, I also had it as a very young child — in fact, I believe now that I have numerous key traits of a highly sensitive person (HSP) and always had them. Andre and I had a remarkable and eye-opening discussion where I learned about HSPs, which helped me gain important deeper self-awareness. And it is this self-awareness that helps us build self-trust, self-reliance, and self-esteem and step into our most powerful and confident selves, feeling more comfortable leveraging our unique talents and abilities rather than stifling them or doubting ourselves and our capabilities.

Below are just a few of the numerous key HSP traits I now recognize I possess — some of which you may have heard of, and others which are not as talked about:

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4 HSP Traits That Can Change Your Life for the Better

1. You get physically and emotionally drained from absorbing other people’s feelings

As I’ve read through Andre’s and others’ work about highly sensitive people, I’m learning that HSPs tend to “absorb” other people’s emotions, and often are empaths. I fit that bill. I am a “walking lie detector” and can very quickly detect when someone is faking, lying, deceiving and manipulating. 

I can also tell when someone is hurting inside and doesn’t love or trust themselves. Even when I’m viewing someone’s LinkedIn profile, I often “know” and can sense how an individual is doing in their career and how they feel about their work, and even their own confidence level. 

Knowing/sensing this type of info at a deep level can be draining if there isn’t enough time built into my schedule to rest and re-balance. But it’s a very powerful gift. 

2. You process information from the environment deeply

The cornerstone of being an HSP is processing information deeply. This means that we do plenty of reflecting on our experiences and on what is happening to and around us, in a deeper way than others might. 

This can also pave the way to being prone to overthinking (which I do!). But I’ve found that this depth of thinking can also be very helpful in my work — for instance, helping me come up with new “models for change” and new ideas and strategies for behavioral and mental shifts that can help people experience more success, confidence and fulfillment in their lives and work. 

3. You approach life and work as a “Seeker” 

HSPs seek answers to the big questions in life. They ask why things are the way they are and what their role in all of it is, and don’t stay on the surface of big questions. My dad noticed this tendency in me when I was a teen, saying “Kathy, you always have to know why people do what they do!” A few years back, I recognized this “Seeking” tendency in myself and in many of my clients, which felt different to me than other “action styles” I witnessed in folks in my corporate life.

And I noticed that certain behavioral styles are often applauded and highly valued in corporate life, whereas others are not valued as much. I wanted to understand this phenomenon more deeply so I engaged in research on what I later found were the six dominant action styles that people embody, that impact: 1) the goals they chose to pursue and 2) the manner in which they pursue them.

I now know that I’m a “Seeker” and that my corporate environment valued “Strivers.” That’s why I’m much happier running my own business — I can “seek” all I like!

(Here’s a quiz you can take to assess what style you are — Striver, Seeker, Pacer, Researcher, Challenger or Advocator. Knowing your style and being free to honor and leverage it is critical to your career and personal growth, happiness, and success.)

4. You are deeply moved by beauty

I’m a singer/performer on the side, and beautiful music and melodies have always had a deep emotional impact on me. I remember as a child, my mother would cry listening to traditional Greek music (she was a second generation Greek here in America and missed a lot of the Greek traditions she grew up with), and I’d wonder why she was crying. But as the years passed, I have found that music, nature, rich scents, gorgeous artwork, etc. often affect me deeply as well. This is known as aesthetic sensitivity, and is one of three styles of sensitivity that highly sensitive people can embody.

Just this summer, my singing group The Wilton Singers, toured Vienna and Prague on a weeklong vocal performance tour, and the experience and beauty of these cities moved me deeply, often to tears. Being able to stand where Mozart gave his first performance at age six (at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna), for instance, was incredible! And looking at actual handwritten compositions by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven and thinking that their DNA was right there in front me, was tremendously moving!

I could say that my aesthetic sensitivity has helped improve the work I put out there to the world, and that is true. But it’s also part of what balances my work — music, beauty and nature are a sources of peace and joy for me, and they restore my energy and my passion when I’m getting worn out. 

These are just several of the HSP traits that I know are a part of who I am. The traits you embody might be different than mine. But your HSP traits, like mine, can all be leveraged to live a happier, richer and more fulfilling life that also supports others to step into their own uniqueness and gifts. 

To learn more about the amazingness of you, you can take my free Career Path Self-Assessment. And if you are experiencing feelings of a lack of confidence and power in a world that can be difficult to navigate, please check out my book The Most Powerful: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss and my video training course The Most Powerful You.

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