Are you feeling like work drains you? You find it hard to unwind your buzzing mind? These could be sings that you are a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).

Being highly sensitive permeates multiple layers of daily life, but it becomes increasingly difficult to navigate around the workplace. Though issues of mental health in the workplace have gained a lot of newspaper and magazine column space, there is a lot more work to be done to educate everyone on various levels of sensitivity amongst us.

So, how do you know if you’re, in fact, an HSP? Highly sensitive people experience acute responses to stimuli, both physical, emotional and mental. They tend to be introverted and need alone-time to unwind and ground themselves. Amongst my clients, but also in my personal and professional life, I have encountered Highly Sensitive Persons.

I myself have many aspects of a Highly Sensitive Person, which I realised when I noticed how scenes of violence or even news at 10 o’clock affect me. I always disliked scenes of violence but over time found them literally unbearable and the alarming music and news on TV would give me heart palpitations. It would take me a long time then to unwind before going to bed so, I simply stopped watching the 10 o’clock news. This was more than 15 years ago, and I never looked back!

I believe that we can recognise in others only what we have and acknowledge in ourselves, therefore I have been able to connect with clients who are Highly Sensitive People and help them with their professional and personal lives. Although we all have varying levels of sensitivity, there are ways to gauge if one might be an HSP. Essentially, if the sensitivity makes your day-to-day life difficult, then that may be the sign you need help.

Being Highly Sensitive in a ‘Normal’ Environment

Because HSPs are in the minority, they would often withdraw rather than insist that adjustments are made to suit them – this could be about physical sensations and reactions to sound and light, for example someone shouting or loudly honking the car horn, or reactions to scenes of violence. As the majority of people are not HSPs they may be quick to harshly judge a highly sensitive person.

Communication, or the idea of ‘taking things too personally’, is one of the ways in which being highly sensitive translates to issues at the workplace. I work with clients who, due to their sensitive nature, but also possibly due to some work-related trauma, have trouble working under pressure with multiple deadlines, for instance. Feedback from a colleague or a boss that another person may not give much thought to, could leave an HSP devastated or traumatised.

An HSP might receive the sender’s message, and by interpreting the tone, the style, or even the timing of a remark, arrive at the conclusion that this message is hurtful, and perhaps even deliberately so. To visualise this, let me draw on a recent experience with a client: “Nicole” is a well-respected colleague and team member and produces great work, which is often praised by superiors. Her direct boss is very busy and very curt in manner. Recently, he just dropped Nicole an email saying: ‘What are the 5 last cases you have been working on?”

Nicole took that to mean that the boss was checking on her, that he didn’t trust her and was even trying to micro-manage her. During the coaching conversation, it became clear that the boss needed a quick summary in order to write his own report, and being curt in manner, as usual, he just framed his request in a way that could be taken as a criticism. However, he simply needed a quick answer and did not spend thought or words on ‘decorating’ his request. Nicole understood during the coaching session that the way the request was framed had nothing to do with her but had everything to do with the way her boss was accustomed to communicating. This relieved her of unnecessary doubt and ruminating thoughts about why the boss had asked her this and if she was now under scrutiny.

Empathy and Emotional Intelligence

HSPs could be offended or hurt by remarks about other people, which they deem hurtful. As they empathise deeply and are connected to one and all, it may seem like there’s no boundary between the person at whom the remark was aimed and themselves.  According to neuroscientific research, there are distinctive ways in which our brains respond to our own pain and other people’s pain. One argument is that ‘empathy does not involve a complete Self-Other merging’ (Roman Krznaric, Empathy – Why it matters and how to get it).

So, while empathy is the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions, HSPs not only feel empathy for others but are prone to ‘self-other merging’ where they feel the other person’s pain, or for that matter any other emotion such as sadness, grief, anxiety, as their own. They have difficulty in drawing a line between themselves and the other person and separating their own emotions from those of the person next to them.

5 Helpful Steps for HSPs to Navigate Stress And Build Resilience

So, what are the steps you can take now to tackle these issues head on? The most important work would be for an HSP to build their resilience and sense of ‘separate self’ so that they start feeling empowered. This will help them to start being able to choose how they receive feedback, or a sometimes even intentionally hurtful remark. It also helps to reinforce what might seem commonplace: to understand that someone who is intentionally hurtful, or bullying is projecting their own insecurities by attacking another person. Although nothing justifies this sort of behaviour, it helps to understand that more often than not, the remark, feedback or offence, has everything to do with the ‘perpetrator’ and hardly anything to do with the HSP who is at the receiving end.

Here are 5 ways that can help you navigate stress if you are an HSP:

  1. Make sure you take time for yourself, to recharge, regroup and ground yourself. That can mean taking a walk in the nearby park during lunch break or taking 5-10 minutes before an important meeting to just breathe, ground yourself, and visualise a soothing  golden light enveloping you and protecting you from any outside stress triggers.
  2. Take up meditation or mindfulness as a regular practice. There is no better way to ‘cleanse’ our emotional and mental bodies from accumulated stress and negative thought patterns than meditation.
  3. Remember that things are not as bad as they seem. If you feel attacked, aggravated or threatened, step away from the situation and take deep breaths. Remind yourself that it is YOU who is able to choose how to respond to events around you. Acknowledge the pain/hurt/stress and then decide on how you want to respond. Play the ‘flash forward game’ – “What would my 80-year-old self, tell me about this situation?” Tap into your inner wisdom and consult your older, wiser self.
  4. Nothing is for ever. This too shall pass! Keep perspective and remember situations from the past – even though they may have been terrible and stressful, you have overcome them. Time heals. What seems like a mountain right now could become something you see in a different light a few years from now. Or even a few months?
  5. Laugh and have fun. Take time to watch comedies, funny videos, stand-up comedy, or whatever gives you the giggles or belly laughs. Administer laughter as a medicine, regularly and in hearty doses – there are no side effects!

Women & Sensitivity: From Societal Corset to Unravelling Potential

Societies are built on norms that have arbitrarily emerged from history and became solidified. This essentially means that being highly sensitive can often be perceived as reaching beyond a ‘normal’ level of sensitivity. So, a recurring stigma is the accusation that Highly Sensitive Persons are simply ‘over-emotional’ and take things too harshly – this, specifically, is an issue many women are facing. The gendered perspective on emotional intelligence and vulnerability still permeates our language and harks back to a history of framing, almost exclusively, women as overly emotional, sensitive, and even ‘hysterical’ to reaffirm a patriarchal structure of the workplace.

This goes hand in hand with what feminist writer and scholar at the intersection of feminist, queer, and race studies, Sara Ahmed, has to say about the concept of vulnerability: “Vulnerability is not an inherent characteristic of women’s bodies; rather it is an effect that works to secure femininity as a delimitation of movement in the public . . .” (The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 70). Essentially, this means that the concept of female vulnerability is not only structurally upheld, but societally enforced upon women’s bodies. Mapping this onto the workplace, it is a mechanism in place to keep our bodies from moving, say, up the career ladder.

Good news for HSPs!

There are, however, many advantages to being a highly sensitive person. A high level of empathy, for instance, is a sign of higher emotional intelligence and Highly Sensitive People definitely have an innate understanding of what it feels like to be in other person’s shoes. HSPs also process both negative and positive emotions more deeply and are acutely aware of their environment.

Although the picture of being highly sensitive is often depicted through a lens of negativity (‘abnormal’, ‘over-emotional’), it can bear advantages that HSPs are able to ‘feel more’ and process all emotions more deeply. It is important to make it clear that, although we talked about ways by which to achieve smoother sailing in the workplace, being highly sensitive is not an issue, but a predisposition to be worked with and a potential to be tapped into. Some famous people have been HSPs – from Judy Garland, Greta Garbo, Martin Luther King Jr, to Albert Einstein, who has been famously quoted to have said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.”

This sacred gift allows HSPs to cultivate an awareness of their surroundings and sharp senses with which to appraise beautiful images, smells, tastes, music; to experience a deeper sense of appreciation and fulfilment; to experience deeper, stronger and more authentic feelings of love, bliss and transcendence, which can also enable them to absorb this and channel it into their work. Often these people use their extra potent ‘antennae’ to tap into knowledge that is not available to the rational mind, or use their gift for creative problem solving.  At work, HSPs can harness their traits by:

  • Becoming empathetic leaders; Listening skills and the ability to understand the other, truly, are much sought after leadership traits
  • Channelling the ability to feel others into building great teams; teamwork and collaboration are top of the list for most organisations nowadays
  • Using the inclination to interpret messages and non-verbal communication for creative problem solving
  • Pre-empting problems by using foresight and intuition

In the hustle and bustle of modern life, these steps to develop mindfulness and to actively harness positive traits can seem overwhelming at times. “Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day”, Virginia Woolf writes in her essay ‘Modern Fiction’, almost one hundred years ago. “The mind receives myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms . . .”. These atoms shooting in on us have only increased today: news flashes, emails, text messages, traffic noise… While this can seem overpowering, it actually makes the work of the HSP even more important: to harness the energy of all of these impressions that their mind is more prone to register. From this perspective, HSPs can find ways to transform impressions into action, work, art, life. We should all allow ourselves the time to do so.