What the Cutthroat Business World Taught Me About Being a Highly Sensitive Person

A man yelling at camera

For highly sensitive people, working in a cutthroat business world can be a challenge. But that changed once I learned to embrace my HSP superpowers — not just at work, but at home.

For those of us that identify as highly sensitive people (HSP), navigating the competitiveness of certain environments can feel, at times, like a tremendous challenge.

Since we tend to be more collaborative, caring, and in tune with natural cycles — as opposed to artificial deadlines — the prospect of absorbing the cutthroat energy that some people emanate can deter or paralyze us. (Generally, time anxiety is tough for HSPs.) I’ve felt this way both in the business world and as a competitive youth tennis player.

As an entrepreneur, I have started numerous businesses, and I have had both successes and failures. My first “official” business, which I started at 23, grew to $1.5 million in less than 18 months. 

And not understanding that my sensitivity was a superpower — at that time, I thought of it as a hindrance — caused me to lose that $1.5 million… and more. 

I don’t complain. Those were the lessons I needed to learn, and I learned them the way I needed to learn them. 

But now, eight years later, as I look back, and after a lot of work on my personal development and spiritual healing journey, I’d like to share those lessons, hoping they can speed up the learning process for others, and perhaps, make it less painful. Even if you’re not an entrepreneur, you’ll be able to relate, as the business world taught me a lot about myself as an HSP. Here are three key things I learned.

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3 Key Things the Business World Taught Me About Being an HSP

1. Remember to include yourself in the equation.

Three years ago, at a film festival, a title called my attention. The movie was called Everybody’s Everything, and it was a portrait of musician Lil Peep, who died tragically of an overdose at age 21. 

“The title of this movie could very well be about me,” I thought to myself. Since I grew up with zero knowledge about what boundaries were — common among HSPs — and with the need for external validation, I thrived on being “everybody’s everything.”

The problem was that I did it at the expense of my well-being.

Instead of clearly determining my priorities, I dedicated considerable parts of my day to solving everyone’s problems. This felt good because they had me on a pedestal, and it led me to think that I was doing a great job as a CEO. 

Underneath that, however, it was all fake, because I was not owning up to my position. As a leader, it can be easy to default to people-pleasing, and wrongfully believe that a good leader is the one that keeps everyone happy. 

Yet keeping everyone happy is fruitless if we fail to include ourselves in the equation. What do we need? How do we feel about the situation? 

I remember sharing a difficult dilemma with my therapist. I needed to let go of some people, and I was afraid I would hurt them and our friendship. My therapist responded: “If you keep them, only to avoid hurting them, who are you hurting instead?” 

The answer was obvious: I would be hurting myself. 

I know that, especially for sensitive people who, like me, are afraid of hurting others, it is really hard to say “no” or to communicate bad news. But it is also true that we cannot give anything or anybody our full, wholehearted presence if we said “yes” to something that we should have said no to in the first place. 

Once we include ourselves in the equation, everything changes. Standing up for ourselves — and setting boundaries — is like everything else: It needs practice. The more we do it, the better it feels. And once we see the benefits, our confidence is bolstered. Plus, we don’t want to burn out, which is more common among sensitive people, too.

Similarly, the people that thrived by sucking our energy will leave our surroundings, because we are no longer easy prey. Our self-worth is no longer in somebody else’s hands, and this is significantly empowering.

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2. Prepare difficult conversations in advance.

When we are highly sensitive, we can tend to avoid conflict, since it can trigger an unmanageable flurry of emotions. 

At least, that’s how it would be for me. 

And something that helped me make this fear more manageable is to prepare for difficult conversations beforehand. To do this, Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication, is very useful. Rosenberg says that “at the core of all anger is a need not being fulfilled.” 

Hence, if we are to communicate nonviolently, four words can help our thoughts and feelings come across the right way. These four words are “I feel, I need”. 

Here’s an example that happened to me in real life, when I felt some colleagues were edging me out of an upcoming business trip. In response, I said: “When planning for the trip, I felt excluded. I was not given some of the benefits some of you had, and I felt as if you didn’t want me to come. I need to understand what’s going on, or if there is an underlying problem, so we can clear this out.”

Speaking up from that perspective opened up the space for discussion. If I had resorted to blaming (You excluded me!), then, very likely, their defenses would be triggered, and a vulnerable conversation would not be possible. 

Also, if I went on the trip, and left these feelings unexpressed, my resentment would have come out during the trip, and it would have harmed both the business and myself. 

Another tip for whenever we need to have a difficult conversation is remembering the second of The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz, from the book of the same name, which is “Don’t take anything personally.”

When we don’t take anything personally, we can give feedback without being afraid that we will hurt others. At the same time, we can listen to what others have to say — and how they feel — without automatically believing it is our fault. 

Then, we can make the best decision, which should be in accordance with the next lesson.

3. Always trust your intuition, which is an HSP superpower.

When one of my first businesses succeeded, I became an angel investor. 

It wasn’t long before several people were lining up at my door, asking me to invest in their business. For many of those projects, I knew that the answer should be no. There was no viable business model or value proposition, and the founding teams did not align with my values.

However, I said yes to many projects out of the fear of missing out (something prevalent in the investing world), and out of the need to preserve my public image. Since many of the people that pitched me were part of my social circle, investing in their businesses gave me status. 

Of course, all those businesses that I knew I should have said “no” to failed.

As HSPs, we are blessed with the ability to sense things that other people can’t. We can feel the energy of a person, and of whatever they create. Our intuition is our best guide, our best counselor, and our best friend. Therefore, if our intuition says no, it should be no, and vice-versa. 

The business world — and the world, in general — is currently going through a revolution that will need the skills that we sensitive folks can bring, including empathy, compassion, and the human touch. These can help ensure that technological advances are really serving the greater good.

Once we fully connect with these gifts, and with our intuition, we can learn that sensitivity is a superpower, and that it can point us toward those things that enhance our life’s calling, so that we can feel fulfilled and happy. It is from this space that we can become who we really are, and genuinely serve others, no matter what kind of business or career we’re in.

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