Why Are Highly Sensitive People Attracted to Jobs That Burn Them Out?

A highly sensitive person who is burned out

To HSPs, job satisfaction is often about doing meaningful work — but that’s often the same emotionally demanding work that burns them out. Is there a way to overcome it?

A beautiful quality of highly sensitive people (HSPs) is their desire to help, care for, and nurture others. So it makes sense that many HSPs are drawn to careers that have meaning for them in this way — it may feel like part of their purpose in life. Because of this, it’s common for HSPs to find themselves working in caring professions, such as childcare, nursing, psychotherapy, social work, or teaching. In these types of positions, there is absolutely that opportunity to help others. Plus, they require a high level of empathy, which comes naturally to HSPs. However, if the sensitive, giving, and empathic HSP is not careful, these jobs that they are so well-suited for may lead to compassion fatigue or burnout for highly sensitive types.

In my work as a therapist, burnout is something I help my clients to identify in their lines of work, and I definitely see it occurring more frequently with those working in the helping professions. And burnout is something that is essential for me to be aware of in my life, too. I’ve definitely had experience working in settings where there was a high turnover rate with my colleagues due to being overwhelmed, overworked, and feeling burned out.  

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), burnout is:

“A stressful lifestyle can put people under extreme pressure, to the point that they feel exhausted, empty, burned out, and unable to cope. Stress at work can also cause physical and mental symptoms. Possible causes include feeling either permanently overworked or under-challenged, being under time pressure, or having conflicts with colleagues. Extreme commitment that results in people neglecting their own needs may also be at the root of it.”

Some symptoms of burnout include difficulty concentrating or getting motivated to work; a lack of satisfaction and energy; unexplained headaches or stomach/physical problems; and a change in sleep habits.

You may notice that these symptoms overlap somewhat with depression, but burnout primarily stems from work stress. Yet, similar to depression, as burnout progresses, it often manifests in other areas of your life, such as your home and social life. It’s something to take seriously and catch when you first notice signs of it.

If burnout symptoms progress, burnout can turn into compassion fatigue, wherein you’re so concerned with others’ suffering that it causes chronic tension and stress. Since HSPs so easily absorb others’ thoughts and feelings, they must pay attention to whether they’re feeling burned out or experiencing compassion fatigue, especially if they’re in jobs where being empathic is a given.

The Connection Between HSPs and Jobs That May Burn Them Out

There are a few primary reasons as to why HSPs are attracted to jobs with a high level of burnout.

  • HSPs love to care for others — it’s part of who they are! Since highly sensitive people are naturally helpful and empathic, it makes sense why they’re drawn to jobs where giving, caring, and empathy are truly required. HSPs don’t like to see others in pain, so it feels good to them to know they are making a difference by helping others feel better. Plus, HSPs feel good when they are helping others, especially when they feel needed and valued by those who desire their help.
  • HSPs are more concerned about doing meaningful work vs. having the biggest paycheck. When it comes to work, HSPs aren’t focused on needing to have the highest-paying job. It’s not their main priority. Instead, their reward is knowing they are making a difference in the lives of the people they’re helping. For example, working with a patient who starts to achieve their health goals and is finally starting to feel better can feel much more rewarding than receiving a big salary or work bonus. For HSPs, the bonus is the satisfaction and happiness that comes from helping others.
  • HSPs see themselves in others. HSPs often experience depression, anxiety, and feel misunderstood more so than non-sensitive types. Through helping others with similar things, they are actually helping these parts of themselves, too. For example, if you still feel misunderstood by those who are important to you, you may find it to be healing to help a child who feels misunderstood by others. It can subconsciously be as though you are helping the younger part of yourself who is still holding onto the pain and wounds of feeling misunderstood

How HSPs Can Prevent Burnout 

So what is the best way for HSPs to prevent burnout while still working in professions they find rewarding? These four tactics can help

1. Fill up your cup first, and then help others.     

I like to share an example with my clients from bestselling author and motivational speaker Lisa Nichols, who talks about “filling your cup” first. On Twitter, she said, “Your job is to fill your own cup, so it overflows. Then you can serve others, joyfully, from your saucer.” She also has a talk about it on Facebook.

Of course, it’s a metaphor about your “inner cup” or “emotional cup.” So when you fill your own cup to the point you have overflow onto the saucer, it is the overflow that should ideally be shared with others. 

But, when your cup isn’t full and you are giving from a space of a partially filled cup, this only ends up depleting your own reserves rather than giving from the overflow. And this is what leads to burnout: you are essentially overextending yourself beyond your capacity. But, without self-awareness about this — especially with HSPs not feeling good about saying “no” when it comes to helping others — burnout has the potential to be overlooked until you are really feeling its effects.  Which leads to my next point…

2. Practice self-care regularly (not just now and then).

In my work, I find this is something many people struggle with: making self-care a habit. Maybe you were taught that self-care is selfish and that you need to spend that time giving to others instead. Perhaps it was an unspoken rule when you were growing up that being there for others is how you receive a sense of self-worth and love. But, I can’t emphasize this enough: You need to give to yourself in order to fully give to others. 

So, what does your self-care look like? This circles back to the cup analogy. How do you know when you’ve filled up your own cup? Ways to gauge this is evaluating what your energy level is like. How are you really feeling? (Be honest!) For example, are you taking time to recharge, to eat well, to get enough sleep? Do you have a support system that you’re utilizing? Are you giving to others more than you’re giving to yourself? 

You may find that meditating, going for a walk, listening to music, painting, or getting enough rest is what fills up your inner cup. Ask yourself what it is for you… and then if you’re actually doing it. Do you set aside time for this or add it into your schedule? As you give to yourself, you can then show up as your best self to help others.

3. Set boundaries (which can be a challenge for HSPs!).

Setting boundaries can feel difficult for HSPs, but when it comes to your emotional health, it’s important. When you say “yes” to others on a regular basis, in the sense of overextending yourself, you are going to feel it. Let’s say, for example, that you’re really looking forward to your lunch break. A client calls and says they need to meet with you at your next available opening. Your next opening isn’t until the end of the week. Do you give away your lunch break to accommodate the client? Or do you honor that time for yourself and let the client know when your next available appointment truly is?

It can be hard (and even triggering) for HSPs to not accommodate those in need, but if you consistently do this — where there’s an imbalance between giving to others and to yourself — you are going to feel the effects.

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4. Keep your self-awareness in check and be cognizant of how you’re feeling at any given moment.

You must be aware of how you are feeling inside. Take a moment to shut your eyes and focus inward for a moment. Quiet your mind. As you tune in with yourself here, how do you feel? Do you notice feeling tired, depleted, or craving some time off?  Do you feel fully happy, energized, and blissful? Or are you somewhere in between?

In using these examples, if you are tired, depleted, or craving time off, this likely means you are burned out or getting quite close to that. If you are feeling happy, energized, and blissful, then that tells me you are in a good space. If you are in between, then it’s good to make sure you are intentionally implementing coping strategies to prevent burnout.

Dr. John Gottman, of The Gottman Institute, has a phrase in couples work that says “prevention is three times more effective than intervention.” So I’d like to borrow that phrase here. If you are able to prevent burnout, that’s a much better position to be in than intervening when burnout is moving into compassion fatigue.

If you’re going to show up as your best self to help others, you need to care for yourself in that way. Even though part of you may believe you’re letting others down by saying “no” or taking time for self-care, you truly aren’t doing anyone any favors by showing up in a state of burnout. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s hard to have empathy, be present, and have compassion — which is so important to HSPs and those they work with — when you are feeling depleted. Therefore, it’s important to prioritize giving yourself the nurturing and care that you’re extending to others. Then, you can provide the help, support, compassion, and empathy to those you are working with and have that full feeling of meaning and purpose in your work restored again.

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