4 Workplace Behaviors that Hit Highly Sensitive People Hard

A highly sensitive person (woman) looking stressed at her workplace.

I have a sixth sense. 

You do too if you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP). In fact, it seems 20 percent of bipedal humanoids are HSPs. And possibly 100% of all dogs. For those of us who know what high sensitivity means, it’s a call to action — a call to embrace ourselves and others. It makes us reach out to those who identify as highly sensitive people and share our stories to further the bond. HSPs unite! 

Those who do not know what it means, however, might have a negative perception of sensitivity simply by the sound of it. Look at those silly HSPs and their silly feelings, pff. It feels like we’re constantly fighting some kind of battle, whether an internal one or an external one. It never feels like we can come up for air.

To be clear, being highly sensitive means that you process everything in your environment very deeply — and that includes social and emotional cues. Research suggests that we HSPs experience emotions extra-vividly. That makes us very intuitive about what people are feeling, and why we’re often called empaths. I told you it was a sixth sense.

But, I’ll be the first to tell you that this sixth sense doesn’t always feel like a gift.

“Being an HSP means that I absorb everyone else’s dreams and let-downs as if they were my own.”

It’s Not Easy Being Sensitive to Everyone’s Emotions

I won’t lie. My sensitivity tends to overexpose me. It can even alienate those around me who aren’t capable of understanding the surge of emotions I may reveal. Heck, my own husband sometimes rolls his eyes at me when I get tears in my eyes watching Our Planet. That’s nature, honey! But it sure looks like a family being torn apart… at least to me.

Let’s not even get into the story of the killer whale that carried its dead calf for 17 days (warning: hard to read). I feel every part of that whale mom’s grief, and I think about it frequently. 

I tend to cry at the most mundane things, such as Pampers commercials. And I tear up at everything else: Orchestras. Ballets. Paintings. Anything raw that people put out into the world, I absorb and feel with every ounce of my being.

But that’s not all.

I get inner panic attacks when I look out the window and I see my husband arguing with a neighbor. Oh my goodness, what will they think of me?! I lie awake at night trying to come up with the right words to say to apologize for something I’m not even remotely involved in. I notice every side eye, every whispered word, and every indifferent aura as I walk by the neighbors.

The funny thing is that I’ve been like this my entire life. Yet I had no idea I was an HSP until a few months ago. I sure as heck identified with it the moment I read the words: absorb other people’s feelings. No wonder I’m so darn exhausted ALL the time *running to let the husband know.*

It’s no longer a wonder that for many years, my mood at work reflected the moods around me. But now that I know better, and have assessed my personality against all the signs of being an HSP, I can finally express what it’s like working in corporate America with this 6th sense.

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4 ‘Little’ Workplace Behaviors that Hit HSPs Hard

1. Walking by without acknowledging me is like throwing a dagger to my heart

Taking things personally is the name of the game for an HSP. I’ve learned to manage it throughout the years, and shrug things off for the most part, but even the small gesture of not saying good morning when you walk by still hits me in the heart. A hello takes NO effort! Literally none. You walk by, you say good morning or anything to acknowledge that I exist. We work together for goodness’ sake! 

I get it: Some people aren’t “people persons,” and that’s understandable. What sets off my radar, though, is when a person is all sunshine and rainbows one day, but ignores a coworker the next. Because now I’m processing the implications: Is somebody upset? Did you just get bad news? Did I do something to peeve you off? Why the change? There’s nothing I hate more than trying to figure that out — because it drains my mental energy for other tasks.

In the workplace, many people are only casual acquaintances, yet still need to work closely together. That makes it all the more important to add a little friendliness whenever you can.

2. Cold and unfeeling emails 

This might totally be a millennial thing, but if you’re not matching my level of email energy back, I’m going to assume you don’t like me. You don’t have to fill every line with an emoji, but keeping things warm is double-important in email, where other emotional cues (like facial expressions) are lacking. 

It’s even more concerning when a reply comes back from a manager and it’s completely tone-deaf. A few years ago I had my baby and sent out an email with an update. While the majority of the responses were filled with balloons and happy faces, my manager replied with a flat congratulations. It may be a minor thing, but that’s exactly why it’s so easy to do and so glaring when it’s missing. 

Here’s the thing: Even if you’re the kind of person who’s all business, it helps you meet your goals when people feel warm and liked around you. Responding to emails Morticia style is counter-productive.

3. Not including me in a group lunch or celebration

Listen, I’m an introvert: I love lunches at my desk, or alone in the park with my Audible on, but I also seek connection. So when I see my work friends meet up, walk by, and not ask me to join their group lunch, I silently cry inside. 

(Disclaimer: This feeling happens only when I’ve been included previously.)

It raises the specter of having offended someone. Sure, sometimes I’ll decline an invitation (see also: introvert), but it doesn’t mean I want to opt out forever. Ask again — it takes no effort, yet it means the world to an HSP.

The same goes when I see this happen to other coworkers. As a highly sensitive person, I sometimes wonder if I’m the sole pillar holding up the camaraderie and sense of welcomeness at work. Little things like including the new guy, inviting the quiet person, or celebrating milestones need to be a team effort — and they help keep the culture healthy. 

“Being sensitive gives me visibility into the hidden world that surrounds me. I love that I feel so deeply and so immensely. It allows me to connect with people at a much higher level and to understand them in ways they probably don’t understand themselves.”

4. Not giving everyone the recognition they deserve

My office has a monthly event where the entire team gets together to recognize each other and celebrate any recent achievements. We jot down our colleagues’ and managers’ names on cards, and we personally recognize them for a specific value they exhibited. Of course, some people are more prolific in giving out recognition, and if it just so happens that your team members are the types who don’t write much, you’re gonna be left by the wayside. It happens.

But if someone knows how much effort I put it in, and I’m left out? I will feel unvalued. And, as an HSP, I can sense that the same is true for others. I look at everyone’s faces when they get recognized (and don’t). I see how it hits them. And I tally up how many times each person gets recognized so that I can do my part to include as many people as possible. 

When that’s not reciprocated, my sensitivity kicks into high gear. And I become cynical.

I don’t think it’s a world-changing revelation that recognition matters to people; in many ways, other than a paycheck, it’s the most important reward people get. Failing to give it where it’s due feels, to me, almost intentionally cold. 

How an HSP Can Find Peace in the Workplace

At times, I wish I could shed this sixth sense, just so I could breathe easier and go to bed peacefully. But the more I accept and fully embody being an HSP, the more I appreciate the exceptional visibility I have into the hidden world that surrounds me. I love that I feel so deeply and so immensely. It allows me to connect with those around me at a much higher level and to understand them in ways they may not understand themselves.

Ultimately I have to accept that people around me will not always reciprocate — because many of them can’t see what I see. But the more I let them know what affects me, the closer I can get to them doing so — and the more I see that many of them do care.

That’s the trick to living as a highly sensitive person. The more I learn about myself, the more I learn how to not take things so personally, how to manage my overwhelm, and how not absorb other people’s emotions as much. Like me, if you struggle with those things, here are some posts that will help: