6 Challenges Every HSP Leader Must Face — And How to Overcome Them

a highly sensitive person leader

Many highly sensitive people (HSPs) are natural leaders. As an HSP, you have a unique way of seeing the world, which is likely accompanied by a high level of emotional intelligence and deep thinking. You likely also have the ability to inspire and bring others together — whether you realize it or not. 

Yet, being an HSP leader comes with real challenges that can feel overwhelming. This is especially true if you’ve received a lifetime of false messages about what it means to be a leader. 

You’ve been fed a paradigm that says leaders have bold confidence, magnetic charisma, and quick thinking abilities. These qualities are still very much valued in our society, so you may be slow to see yourself as a leader or feel frustrated when you’re undervalued.

This happens even to HSPs in established leadership positions. I have to admit that occasionally a part of me falls prey to this narrow notion of leadership. When it does, I start to doubt myself. And that doubt can make me question whether I embody leadership qualities at all.

It’s taken me twenty years to let go of limiting beliefs about what a leader is and embrace the important skills I bring to my work as an HSP who guides international retreats for sensitive people.

But, despite the stereotypes, I believe that highly sensitive people make excellent leaders. We don’t need to be afraid to step up. And I truly think that our gifts as HSPs allow sensitive leaders to make a positive difference. 

Let’s take a look at the challenges of being an HSP leader — and how to manage them effectively while creating space for your innate strengths to blossom.

6 Challenges of HSP Leaders and How to Manage Them

1. You may resist being a leader at all. 

Even if you’re in a leadership role already, part of you may still doubt your abilities. And if you’ve never led before, you may think it’s just not “for you” — that only very aggressive people really step up into leadership. You may get this impression at work, in politics, in organizations you belong to, or even in the parent/teacher community at your child’s school. 

And it’s easy to see why. Not only do others often have a bias, but the responsibilities of leadership can sometimes feel overwhelming to HSPs. Especially if you dislike being the center of attention (which is common for some HSPs, but not all) and prefer being behind the scenes. 

How to overcome it:

Commit to owning your role and your strengths.

Can you identify sensitive leaders you admire? Even if you’re not sure they’re HSPs, you can spot caring leadership. For example, I see Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a leader with clear purpose, strategic thinking, and courageous persistence. She’s careful and poised, but very strong. Can you see similar strengths in yourself? 

Draw on these examples to consciously release the need to be like the non-HSP. Instead, get curious about the distinctive ways your sensitivity helps you show up as a leader. Write those strengths down and feel them in your body.

Remember: Owning your role as a leader is not an act of pride or power. It’s for the benefit of those looking for guidance. When I first began leading retreats, I deliberately avoided the head of the table during meals. I resisted putting myself in the “power seat” because I didn’t want to be seen as such. But the best of intentions don’t always have the best impact. Several times, a guest with a stronger personality would end up directing the energy of the table (not in my HSP retreats!). Over time, I learned that as a space holder, it was vital to care for my position of leadership in order to care for my guests. 

You can own being a leader in a firm, gentle way. It’s not that I always sit at the head of the table. But I am more aware of how I can use the keen awareness that comes with my sensitivity to ensure a supportive environment for everyone. 

2. You struggle with decision-making. 

One of the four traits that define an HSP is depth of processing. It means you think deeply, but you need time to make sense of information you consume — and that can make decision-making a challenge. HSPs see the subtle consequences of many different paths, and may get stuck analyzing or second-guessing decisions for fear of making the “wrong” choice. 

How to overcome it: 

Explore new ways to make decisions.

The caution that HSPs employ can be an asset provided that it doesn’t immobilize you. Start by asking whether something is a smaller or bigger decision. For small decisions, it may help to balance your detail-oriented nature with the bigger picture to refrain from overthinking. Let go of “right” and “wrong” and perhaps opt for the “good enough” choice. 

For bigger decisions, give yourself permission to take some time to process. But don’t just process with your intellect.You may have great analytical skills, but you’re also a feeler. Practice getting in touch with the reactions of your body and deeper self by asking, “How does this decision feel?” 

Not only do some decisions require time, but sometimes they also require other people. Know when to reach out for support. A decisive person with a quick answer may not have the best plan, but they may give you a new way of thinking about the issue that helps you see your priorities. 

3. You need time to articulate your thoughts. 

Being a deep processor can also mean you need time before verbalizing your thoughts. And you don’t always know how much time is enough. For example, there are times when I think I’ve processed, but the thoughts whirling around in my head do not quite find their way into coherent sentences when they come out. When HSPs speak before processing, ideas may not come out right, which can make you doubt yourself further. 

This is only harder if you think of “leaders” as giving fast, off-the-cuff responses to everything. But, of course, they don’t. 

How to overcome it: 

Give yourself and others permission to take time to process.  

One of the main things to remember as an HSP is that when you allow yourself time to process, you can better navigate your way through your ideas and values. So take your time processing, but be wary of fearful tendencies wanting to keep your ideas in isolation. It’s important to share your ideas.

You’re not alone — there are likely others that need time before speaking. When I’m leading retreats, I urge guests to give themselves permission to participate how they choose. I acknowledge my own difficulty with getting my thoughts out verbally, so that others remember they can take their time, too, and that none of it has to be perfect. As a leader, you can shift the quick-witted culture to make it okay to take time to process. 

4. You feel exhausted when you notice everything. 

You pick up on the stress of others and feel it. You also notice when other “leaders” are ego-driven, showy, and insensitive. 

But it’s not just people that trigger you. Sensory overload from environmental stimuli — and all of the excess information you’re carrying around in your sensitive brain — can all lead to depletion and difficulty focusing. 

How to overcome it: 

Use your awareness of subtleties to care for yourself and your people. 

Feeling everything can be draining, but it’s also a strength. You’re conscientious and you notice errors others may not. You can use your subtle senses to read group dynamics, identify strengths in others, and feel when the quiet ones may need to communicate in a different way — or when the loud confident voices are simply not right. By gathering these subtle details, you have the opportunity to empower others and help them to feel seen and heard.

At the same time, it’s equally important to take quiet time for yourself and set boundaries so that you don’t burn out. In her book, The Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine Aron talks about the balance of being “in” and “out” in the world. As an HSP, it’s vital to explore how much “in” and “out” time you need to stay healthy. Prepare for situations you know may be stimulating by giving yourself time to rest.  

5. You may feel undervalued. 

I know your HSP leadership skills may seem like they’re invisible and unappreciated. It’s true that non-HSPs may not initially value your ways since our culture tends to value strong assertiveness (even to the point of confrontation). Or, maybe you’ve had the experience of sharing an idea that gets dismissed — only to have a louder, more forceful personality earn praise for the same idea. 

How to overcome it:

Remember your purpose and trust yourself.

Don’t let the societal paradigm determine your value. Return to your purpose for why you do what you do. Trust in your strengths, whether or not you’re given credit. Chances are people feel your magic, even if you don’t always receive verbal confirmation.

Here’s an example. I recently organized a retreat for a non-HSP friend who has a much more extroverted, high-energy vibe than I do. I tend to shrink myself in the presence of people with bolder personalities, which I did during that trip. At the same time, I know my detailed planning, soft-but-firm communication, and attention to each individual were felt. Near the end of the trip, one woman said she saw me as the architect of the experience and appreciated my ability to hold space for everyone to be their best selves. In other words: My strengths made a difference and some people noticed them, even if I wasn’t the “alpha” of the crowd. 

Of course, there are countless situations in which my skills go unnoticed. That’s okay too — because I know they’re supporting a greater good. A sensitive leader will focus on the outcome and not grabbing credit. 

6. You always feel there’s more to do. 

HSPs are deeply passionate about their work in the world, whether that be in the form of a career, community involvement, nonprofit, or side project. When you strive to be just and supportive to others as well as innovative and steadfast, you may have a nagging feeling that there’s more to do. Way more. Turning off your ever-active mind can be a real challenge.  

How to overcome it:

Ask yourself how you would support a friend with this problem.

Your desire to contribute to the world in creative ways is a great sensitive strength as an HSP leader. But remember to acknowledge what you’re already bringing to the people and environments around you. You don’t have to do it all. It doesn’t all need to happen right now. And you can ask for help.

When you do find yourself operating on overdrive, ask yourself how you would advise a close friend. Most likely, you’d show them compassion and point out how much they’re already doing. You would give them permission to rest, delegate, or focus on one thing at a time. 

Pause and show yourself the same compassion. It will help you show up more expansively as a leader. And it will create more change in the long run. 

A Sensitive Leader is a Beloved Leader

Dear HSP, remember this…

There is an endless need for your kind of leadership.

It is like a canvas waiting for you to bring your assortment of brushes and colors to its surface. Waiting for you to perceive possibilities, lay out plans, explore new strokes, and transform when necessary. 

Your sensitive energy is a gift to the world. If you embrace it, you can be the rare leader who is kind and gentle. Give that gift and start to guide others. Just, please, be kind and gentle with yourself as well. 

HSP Retreat to Guatemala

Want to nourish your soul, change the way you see yourself and others, and connect with other sensitive souls? I’m offering a retreat just for HSPs and introverts, mixing the energies of these two often misunderstood but gifted personalities. There are still spots available for our retreat to Guatemala on November 16-23, 2019. See details here.Use code HSREFUGE50 to get $50 off. 

Drop into peace as you soak up the stunning volcanic backdrop over Lake Atitlán, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Immerse yourself in local culture. And renew with yoga, meditation, and reflection time — all in a way that honors your needs as a highly sensitive person.

Ever wondered what it feels like to travel with other HSPs?

“It was an acceptance I’ve never felt before in my life and I’ve been searching for since I was a kid,” said Marian M., who completed one of my previous retreats. “It was reinforcement that there are people out there who understand.”

And now, Highly Sensitive Refuge readers can get $50 off by using the code HSREFUGE50. Learn more here.

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