“You cannot make everyone think and feel as deeply as you do. This is your tragedy, because you understand them, but they do not understand you.” Daniel Saint
“Once again, you show all the sensitivity of a blunt axe.” J.K. Rowling
Sensitive skin. A sensitive topic. Sensitive to light. Hypersensitive. These all sound positive, right? To a highly sensitive person, Merriam-Webster’s definitions offer no additional solace; in fact, the list reads like a list of symptoms:
- Highly responsive or susceptible/excessively or abnormally susceptible
- Easily or strongly affected, impressed, hurt or damaged
- Delicately aware of the attitudes and feelings of others/capable of indicating minute differences : DELICATE
- Readily fluctuating in price or demand
- Concerned with highly classified government information or involving discretionary authority over important policy matters
- Calling for tact, care, or caution in treatment : TOUCHY
- Having occult or psychical abilities
- Capable of being stimulated or excited by external agents (as light, gravity or contact)
Aside from definition number three, I don’t want to associate with any of these descriptions. In fact, most of the inspirational sensitivity memes, quotes and assertions otherwise fly in the face of these bullet points. According to the dictionary, and many places in society, being sensitive is not desirable.
The highly sensitive person (HSP) can have a hard time fitting in, particularly in the workplace. Processing information deeply can slow an HSP, requiring more time to do certain tasks, including making decisions. Janine Ramsey, founder of Sensitivity Style, says HSPs are often seen as weak and faulty among the popular Western culture that champions assertiveness, boldness and speed. “In a world dominated by automation, computation and systemization, the need for people with intuition, creativity, empathy and superior sensory perception and processing abilities has never been greater,” says Ramsey. “Unable to be reproduced by technology, the capabilities of such people are rare and valuable and offer the potential for unique points of difference amongst competing organizations.”[i]
Ramsey goes on to say sensitive, perceptive people have the potential to be the best or worst performers depending on the conditions, due to their enhanced ability to detect and deeply process subtleties in the environment. Being highly responsive and affected by everything can take its toll on every aspect of an HSP’s life. HSPs often go unnoticed, but just as often are shamed or bullied.
So how does an HSP survive and thrive in the world and the workplace? It takes a lot of effort. HSPs usually crave a slower, simpler pace of life. This means a lifestyle and work environment that allow the HSP to dig in at his/her own pace, at least most of the time. Working from home, delving into open-ended projects, teaming up with a non-HSP coworker…finding the right work environment to fit the skill set will help.
Change is a common enemy to most people, especially to HSPs. This also involves a change that comes in the form of conflict. Often, sensitive people hide their needs and just go with the flow to avoid drama. They don’t want to upset others because of a high-level of empathy as well as a strong desire to avoid dealing with the anxiety and overstimulation of arguing with an angry person. Finding calm, healthy ways to address disagreements is beneficial to everyone involved.
Being susceptible to the environment requires an HSP to take extra care of himself. Being highly sensitive is like a swinging door. All day long, an HSP must cope with what is coming in and going out. For most people, the normal fluctuations of life go in and out without a lot of personal affect. To someone who is easily or strongly affected, impressed, hurt or damaged, managing the elements of everyday life can be as hectic and unpredictable as that swinging door. HSPs need to create a sustainable routine to stay healthy, well-rested and able to attend to life’s ups and downs, ins and outs, highs and lows. This may involve counseling to develop coping strategies to handle anxiety, disappointment and crises.
One definition the dictionary missed is the need to dig in deep. HSPs crave close, meaningful relationships. Small talk doesn’t cut it with a sensitive person. An HSP will probably pick and choose friends based on a connection and will work hard to create that bond. This dovetails into an HSP’s strong need for a sense of purpose. Surrounding yourself with others who think deeply about the meaning of life, fight for mutual causes or relish creative outlets to focus acquired emotional and sensory input – that’s how an HSP really sustains himself in the world. Finding others who understand and respect the gifts that an HSP brings is key to doing well at home and in the workplace.