Ever psychoanalyzed a Slack message? Retyped an email 7 times so it came off just right? Felt caffeine-level excitement when people complimented your work? If so, you might be a highly sensitive person (HSP) just like me.
When a psychologist named Dr. Elaine Aron wrote a book called The Highly Sensitive Person back in the ’90s, she changed the game for those of us who feel things deeply. This genetic personality trait yields a heightened nervous system that processes stimuli extra thoroughly. We’re all sensitive to some extent—even those who won’t admit it—but Dr. Aron’s research found that 20% of the population is highly sensitive.
In the workplace, we’re known for having strong feelings and making decisions carefully. We pick up on all the little things: subtleties in body language; the rhythmic tap of a pen across the room; minuscule hesitations in a prospective client’s voice. And, okay, we do overthink here and there.
Sensitivity gets a bad rap sometimes, but I can’t imagine what my career would be without it. When nurtured, it’s a special spice that sets us apart—even if we occasionally puzzle our less-sensitive colleagues.
A fine attention to detail and high levels of creativity
Simply put, the mental circuitry within a highly sensitive brain is off the charts. One study revealed HSPs have extra-strong neural activations in areas relating to awareness, attention, and integration of sensory information. Basically, our eyes work like magnifying glasses. The neurons in our brains run a 24/7 relay race where the baton is external stimuli.
All of that extra mental processing? It’s a catalyst for massive creativity. Although we’re a focus powerhouse when in a flow state of work, keeping a balance is vital. HSPs can become overstimulated (think noisy coffee shops) or feel drained after a brainstorming session. Personally, my creativity comes in bursts—a robust force when flowing.
History tells me I’m not alone. Even Vincent van Gogh had to dip out of Paris back in 1890 after finding the city too noisy and hectic.
Emotional awareness of ourselves and others
Shari Botwin, LCSW, is a licensed therapist who has worked with HSPs throughout her career. “Highly sensitive people can be described as having a sixth sense,” she explains. “They pick up on inconsistencies in others.” She goes on to say how some of her clients have expressed frustration over their hyper-alert nature, but that when managed, their high sensitivity can actually lead to healthier relationships. “They tend to be intuitive, empathic, and determined people who value their relationships,” she adds.
At times, I’ve been self-aware to a painful extent. At age 16, I’d fear getting fired anytime my boss was in a bad mood, worried I had somehow messed up. I’ve had to work against taking things personally. But since I’ve come to understand myself more, that same sensitivity has enabled me to better understand the emotions of others. I can now separate myself from them when necessary—and more openly communicate my needs.
Inclusive personalities that foster community
According to Botwin, having an HSP on your team can lead to a more cohesive environment for everybody—especially when they’re leading. “The HSP tendency to be empathic can help if there’s tension between team members,” she says. “And most likely, they’ll be able to detect who’s most invested in the project, engaging team members in roles that suit them best.”
Building community is our happy place, and we’ve been known to mediate a conflict or two. As Botwin explained, “Since HSPs are highly sensitive to others, they’re good at communicating without coming across as overly confrontational.” We’re pretty approachable like that.
We’re reliable, and genuinely care about what we do
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my professional career, it’s that I really just can’t fake things. Enthusiasm, personal involvement: If it’s not there, it feels borderline impossible for me to drag my way through it. So, if you’re working with an HSP, take comfort in knowing they actually care.
HSPs derive joy from seeing others’ happiness. Unsurprisingly, the thought of letting people down makes us feel terrible. I take a lot of pride in what I do, and I’m pretty confident my clients and colleagues can sense that. As Dr. Aron put it in her book, directed at HSPs, “For you, work is play. Not to work would be work.” That’s the truth, right there.
Being sensitive in this complicated world can be overwhelming. Even so, because of the value brought by our deep inner worlds and the way we engage others, it’s all worth it in my book.
Here’s to the rest of the professional world getting onboard with that.
Sarah Lempa is a writer and creative media strategist covering the joys (and challenges) of solopreneurship, mental health, and travel. Her work has appeared in Business Insider, Vice, Healthline, and Huffington Post, among others. Keep up with her on Instagram @travelempa.