Imagine a world where sensitivity is seen as a strength — all the way up to our leaders.
I felt anxious and embarrassed as I squirmed in the rough office chair.
Moments earlier, our VP, with his steel, unfeeling eyes, had shifted his gaze directly to me. With the flip of his hand, he’d asked me an impossible question. My stomach sank as I realized, in front of everyone’s watchful eyes, I had no idea how to answer him.
I tried my best to look confident, “I’m not totally sure about the answer to that, but I will look into it after this meeting and let you know!”
He wasn’t amused. “You all need to be more prepared for these meetings. When I ask you a question, I need you to know the answer,” he said with a snort.
I was ready to throw up. My desk mate, a frequent target of his, leaned over and whispered, “Oh, don’t worry about him. He’s always like that! Don’t take it personally.”
But, as a highly sensitive person (HSP), I did take it personally. Not only does my external environment really affect me, but so, too, does criticism.
And because we HSPs tend to be perceptive and conscientious — always giving things our all — when I do make a mistake, I feel deeply that I let others down.
Still, as much as I can “blame” my high sensitivity, I don’t think it’s at fault: We sensitive types don’t need to be fixed. Society does.
It’s Time to See the Value that Sensitive People Bring
Saying “Don’t take it personally” or “Don’t be so sensitive” is like telling a tall person to quit being tall. It’s just part of us. It’s part of our genetic makeup. It’s part of our nature. We are wired to care. We are wired to think deeply. We are wired to be more sensitive.
In fact, about 20 percent of the population is made up of HSPs, an unofficial club I’m proud to be a member of. It’s not a disorder or liability; in fact, I feel it’s the complete opposite.
The way highly sensitive people think and care deeply is a gift. And it has the ability to make the world a better, more harmonious place. You see, HSPs tend to be some of the most respectful and committed people you’ll ever meet — and we could use more of them.
But I hadn’t yet realized that back when that steel-eyed VP was pummeling me with questions. In retrospect, however, I can see how much value my sensitivity brought to such a cutthroat environment.
For instance, we make sure the people around us feel comfortable and happy — and this comes easily since we tend to absorb others’ emotions as our own. We’re also usually great at being on time and keeping our word, as well as care about doing good work and being supportive, collaborative teammates.
And one of the superpowers of HSPs is our ability to be deeply empathetic. Putting ourselves in other people’s shoes and relating to them on a deep level comes naturally to us. As our society grows more divided and disconnected, the ability to connect and empathize with others only becomes more valuable.
Sensitivity Is a Cure for a Toxic Society
As it stands today, society — at least Western society — does not seem designed to nurture, value, or highlight the gifts of the highly sensitive person. In fact, I’d venture to say that society and its current value system are in a toxic relationship with one another.
Our society likes to reward people who hustle and grind and function on little-to-no sleep, research shows, as well as values people with thick skin and leaders who are dominant, intimidating, and aggressive.
But these values are toxic because they perpetuate feelings of division, anxiety, and loneliness. And with the number of people experiencing depression on the rise — COVID-19 has tripled the rate of depression in all demographic groups — it’s critical that we shift into a healthier direction.
That healthier direction includes more of the values that highly sensitive people bring to the table. We desperately need more appreciation for beauty, connection, and empathy. If we want this type of society, we need changes made to our current system.
In a society that embraces sensitivity, perhaps my former boss would have welcomed my suggestion that I’d look into the answer to his question instead of what felt like berating me in front of my coworkers. He also may have extended some sympathy or empathy, cognizant of my work ethic and the fact that none of us have the answers all the time.
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Societal Changes Would Start With Our Youngest Members of Society
But, for societal changes to take place in the workplace, I think they need to start among people both at home and in school. That way, by the time people join the workforce — again, like my former boss — they are equipped with the right mental tools in how they treat others, whether they’re highly sensitive or not.
So, to start, we need to empower our highly sensitive children to embrace and love their sensitive traits. We need to encourage children to feel their feelings instead of telling them to “stop crying” or “toughen up” or reciting phrases like “don’t be so sensitive.”
When a child has permission to fully embrace all their emotions, experts say, they learn to actually name the way they feel rather than stuffing their feelings down. This is essential to building healthy coping and self-soothing skills.
For example, when we see our children feeling deeply moved by a sad story, or animal cruelty, or a classmate being bullied, it’s important we highlight how beautiful it is that they care so much. Yes, these situations may trigger tears in the child, but they should not be punished or made fun of for this behavior.
Instead, we want them to see that feeling emotional and aware about wrongdoing is a powerful gift. When these gifts are nurtured, we build a pathway for these empathic, kind-hearted souls to grow up and become our future empathetic leaders one day.
And how about creativity? HSPs tend to be naturally creative, yet we often see creativity being squandered in the school system because of its perceived impracticality. In a society that values sensitivity, creative expression would be considered a necessity the same way math or history is.
Giving people an outlet, a way to express themselves, is therapeutic. Art connects us. It moves us. To the sensitive person, it’s essential.
As Robin Williams’ character said in the movie Dead Poets Society, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race… poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
What Would Society Look Like if it Honored Sensitivity?
In a world that honors sensitivity, we would have more of that poetry, beauty, romance, and love. We’d have more space in our days and less round-the-clock grinding. We’d take breaks throughout the workday to go for a walk, paint a picture, meditate, or simply practice mindfulness and sit in the grass and enjoy the fresh breeze. We’d honor and encourage everyone’s need for rest.
A society that honors sensitivity would have more equanimity. There’d be more listening, less interrupting. This doesn’t mean we’d have the same opinions on everything, but we’d handle them with more empathy and grace.
So it’s time to give sensitive people a highly respected seat at the table. We need both HSPs and non-HSPs to have a healthy, balanced world. Instead of sensitive people being drowned out by louder, more aggressive types, their opinions must be valued. HSPs should be looked to for their emotional intelligence, intuition, and ability to problem-solve in creative ways.
That includes putting more highly sensitive people in leadership positions. People like Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Einstein, and Rosa Parks were some of the greatest trailblazers in history and were all considered to have HSP traits.
When we have more examples of sensitive leaders, we empower sensitive children to see themselves in these roles. We give them something to aspire to; to believe that, they too, can make a difference in the world.
A society that honors sensitivity wouldn’t be soft or weak. It would be stronger and more united. It would be filled with more beauty, balance, compassion, and collaboration.
This type of society isn’t some far-off dream. We get closer to this type of world each time a sensitive person is told to be themselves, own their gifts, and stand confidently in their unique power. And, the more people notice this, the more they, too, have permission — so to speak — to be their authentic sensitive selves, too.