Personalities — just like people — can vary on a spectrum, and on that spectrum lie the extremes. The problem is, not everyone appreciates those extremes when it’s unfamiliar or makes them feel uncomfortable.
This is why people are often characterized as needing improvement if they are a highly sensitive person (HSP). Sensitivity is often misunderstood and underappreciated — especially in the workplace. But sensitive individuals have a lot to offer, and are more diverse and valuable than you might realize. In fact, you could be a highly sensitive person and not know it.
Let’s look at how HSPs and empaths can find success and fulfillment in their career, and what it means to be a highly sensitive person in our modern age.
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What is a Highly Sensitive Person or HSP?
Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs) are people who possess a combination of acute sensory and emotional awareness. They can be easily overwhelmed when they’re over-stimulated, or can notice small changes in a room before anyone else. They can easily tap into their emotions, but are also astute and perceptive individuals. They may feel out of place in a society that doesn’t tolerate or accommodate their heightened sensitivity, but they’re highly capable people.
There are many assumptions about HSPs that are untrue. Many people might assume — just by the name alone — that HSPs are prone to crying when upset or criticized, are more emotional and unbalanced, or are more likely to panic when overwhelmed in a busy environment. However, all these assumptions are misinformed. A highly sensitive person is not simply a crier or empath.
Marwa Azab, a neuroscientist and contributor to Psychology Today, explains that HSPs are much more than your emotions: being highly sensitive is also in your genes. As Azab points out, research into “sensory-processing sensitivity” (SPS) have proven that both environmental and genetic influences are at play inside the minds of HSPs. Essentially, both your upbringing, and your predisposed genetic material can influence you becoming an HSP.
Azab describes the genetic side of HSPs in more detail, which is also believed to have some connection with the genes that produce serotonin:
“There are biological reasons for all the components of this trait. A HSP’s brain is wired differently and the nervous system is highly sensitive with a lower threshold for action (link to research paper opens as PDF). This hyper-excitability contributes to increased emotional reactivity, a lower threshold for sensory information (e.g. bothered by noise, or too much light), and increased awareness of subtleties (e.g. quick to notice odors).
“There are also changes at the macro brain level. The areas associated with this trait greatly overlap with the brain areas that support empathy! Also, they have a hyperactive insula [a portion of the brain deep within the cerebral cortex], which explains their heightened awareness of their inner emotional states and bodily sensations. This hyperactivity explains their sensitivity to pain, hunger and caffeine.”
Many HSPs will grow up to be artists, poets, or musicians, but this heightened creativity also comes with its own set of challenges. Many HSPs also struggle with mental illness: primarily depression and anxiety — which could explain the relationship that HSPs have with your serotonin-creating gene (5-HTLPR). Burnout can be common, and for those that are HSPs, simply knowing that you are sensitive can help you better navigate the world and your relationships.
Highly Sensitive Person Traits
HSPs are characterised as detail-oriented people; those that notice small changes in a landscape or in a room before anyone else. You may also be deeply moved by art, music, or nature, and many have strong and colorful imaginations. You may pay extra attention to your environment, and feel as if the world around you is teaming with life and secrets.
Additionally, you may tend to be highly susceptible to burnout at work. You can be easily overwhelmed when you don’t have the ability or time to process your emotions. You can also have sensitivity to stimuli such as caffeine, pain, or hunger. Bright lights or loud noises can overwhelm you easily. You don’t enjoy making mistakes, and might even go above and beyond in order to avoid slipping up.
Azab notes that many also struggle to perform a task if you’re being watched or monitored — so overbearing managers that watch over your shoulder will certainly not inspire an HSP’s best work. You may also be startled easily, and you may be so absorbed by a movie or book that it takes you a few days before you can recuperate.
Lastly, you’re very in-tune with your body, emotions, and any internal or external sensory changes. This can mean you’re very cognizant of your emotional states, or that you’re aware of physical changes within your bodies before you show any signs or symptoms of illness or injury. Additionally, you may be very susceptible to outward emotions, and may even reflect or internalize the emotions of others simply by being within proximity of them or speaking with them.
If you believe you’re a highly sensitive person, but not all of these qualities relate to you, don’t worry! Many HSPs will only show a few of these traits, but that doesn’t mean your high sensitivity isn’t valid. Plus, although many HSPs are introverts, not all are classified as such. Azab notes that about 30 percent of HSPs are actually extroverts, which is another example of how varied HSPs can be. For you personally, it could be that your past life experiences helped you adapt to certain situations better than others, or that your personal triggers are different than other HSPs.
Empath Versus HSP
Empaths and HSPs are commonly mixed up, and much of this is due to the fact that they share a lot of the same traits. Empaths can have all the same traits as HSPs — everything from vivid imaginations to easy burnout at work, and even sensitivity to over-stimulation such as caffeine, loud noises, or bright lights.
However, where empaths differ is in emotional capacity and inter-connectedness with others. Author and researcher Judith Orloff, M.D., is a regular contributor to Psychology Today and an outspoken empath. Dr. Orloff explains that empaths have the unique challenge of being heavily influenced by the emotions or “auras” of people around them. She writes:
“However, empaths take the experience of the highly sensitive person much further: We can sense subtle energy (called shakti or prana in Eastern healing traditions) and actually absorb it from other people and different environments into our own bodies. Highly sensitive people don’t typically do that. This capacity allows us to experience the energy around us, including emotions and physical sensations, in extremely deep ways. And so we energetically internalize the feelings and pain of others — and often have trouble distinguishing someone else’s discomfort from our own. Also, some empaths have profound spiritual and intuitive experiences — with animals, nature, or their inner guides — which aren’t usually associated with highly sensitive people.”
Dr. Orloff goes on to explain that HSPs and empaths are not mutually exclusive. In fact, you can be both. Just think of the scenario: all poodles are dogs, but not all dogs are poodles. In this case: all empaths are highly sensitive, but not all HSPs are empaths. She also explains that most empaths are on the highest extreme of the empathic spectrum; just a level up from HSPs.
HSP Test and Diagnosis
HSPs make up about 15 to 20 percent of the population. However, it’s difficult to tell if your personal sensitivity is actually genetic, unless you get a genetic test or are diagnosed by a professional psychologist or doctor. In fact, it’s very common for high sensitivity to be misdiagnosed for disorders, or visa versa. It’s also possible for HSPs to have disorders alongside their high sensitivity.
Regardless of the potential for misdiagnosis, it’s possible to take self-assessments online to see if you can qualify as an HSP. It’s important to note that no online test is going to be accurate or indefinite, so results should not be taken as a final diagnosis. It can, however, help you get a better idea of how you fall on the empathic spectrum, or how you might relate to high sensitivity.
The best test available for free online is through The Highly Sensitive Person: Are You Highly Sensitive? Test.
HSP Skills: What a Highly Sensitive Person Brings to the Workplace
Although societal expectations might make HSPs feel like outsiders or that your sensitivity is unwanted, the fact is HSPs have many valuable skills that you can utilize in the right office setting. Here is a list of some of the most applicable skills you can bring to any office, provided they support you and you’re aren’t in an overstimulating environment:
- Ability to Focus and Think Deeply: It can be difficult to get into your flow in a busy or bustling office environment, but if you’re free of that, then you can be an extremely focused and thorough worker. If your job is willing to provide quiet spaces that can help you focus, or is willing to support your need for independence and peace, then you can prove to be a very valuable asset to any team.
- Ability to Read and React Accordingly to Emotions from Others: Your emotions are certainly not a weakness, but an amazing strength to have. In fact, having a strong and developed emotional intelligence is an essential soft skill in business, especially in management positions. Take note of times when you listened to others (whether coworkers or customers), empathized with them, and were able to come up with a reasonable solution or response that helped turn their experience into a positive one.
- Avoidance of Office Gossip or Politics: You’re not interested in sharing your inner thoughts with everyone, and you’re certainly not interested in starting drama. Because HSPs are so worried about making mistakes or upsetting others, you’ll most likely do your best to avoid any potential chance to get involved in drama. If that’s true for you, then you can certainly use that as a professional soft skill.
- Attention to Detail: As noted, HSPs are very aware of their surroundings. They can notice subtle changes and differences before anyone else, and they can use that attentiveness in their work. Whether you’re constructing a resume or simply trying to sell your skills for a potential promotion, make sure to note how detail oriented you are, and provide some examples.
- Creativity: HSPs are certainly creative people. Whether you’re in a job that allows your creativity to flourish, or you’re in a job that welcomes innovation, your creative tendencies can always come in handy.
- Independent: HSPs require little supervision, and many actually flourish when they can be left to their own devices. Your independence can be used as an asset in many positions that require a “self-starter” attitude. Just make sure to communicate to your manager how important independence is to you and how it helps your work so they can avoid micromanaging you.
- Intuition: There are many reasons why your intuition can come in handy. You’re very in-tuned with emotions (both your own and others), which can help when making decisions, reading others, and delegating assignments. You’re also very aware of your surroundings, which can help you make informed decisions about either your work or your environment. Your strong intuition can also show itself in other ways, and it can always be seen as an asset.
- Loyalty: This trait is common with many introverts and HSPs: you’re loyal to those you work for because you’re unlikely to seek out change (unless you need it). Change can be very overwhelming if it’s too sudden or major, so you might prefer staying with a business that can support you in the long-run and not cause you to be overwhelmed with major changes. Considering how common it is for younger workers to job hop, loyalty to a company can be a very valuable asset in the modern working world.
Highly Sensitive Person Challenges in the Workplace
Despite all the assets that you can bring to the table as an HSP, there are also plenty of challenges that come with your high sensory-processing sensitivity. However, this doesn’t mean it’s impossible for you to succeed in a job, or that you’re unable to be a productive and an excellent worker. It could just be that you need certain accommodations to be the best version of yourself in the office, or that you haven’t found your right calling yet.
If you believe you’re in the wrong field of work, it’s completely reasonable for you to start searching for a new job and possibly quit the job you’re in currently. Making a dramatic career shift can be scary for HSPs, but the benefit of finding a job that makes you feel fulfilled far outweighs the challenge of switching careers — no matter what your level of experience or age.
Some of the biggest challenges that HSPs face in the office, or jobs that HSPs should avoid include:
- Collaborative work instead of independent or individual work
- Competitive or “cut-throat” environments
- Confrontational jobs
- Jobs that are strictly monitored, timed, or controlled
- Jobs that deal with people non-stop or regularly
- Jobs that lack a sense of purpose or are too sales or money oriented
- Loud and hectic environments — sometimes including offices with open floor plans
- Require ongoing and monotonous work, rather than fulfilling projects
- Risky careers or activities
Best Jobs for HSP and Empaths
Being a highly sensitive person should not limit the amount of jobs that are available to you. However, working off your strengths and avoiding environments that can overwhelm you is a smart career decision to make. Because of that, there are some jobs that may work better for you than others.
Keeping your strengths and challenges in mind, these are some of the best jobs for empaths and HSPs:
- Artistic Careers: There are plenty of reasons why an HSP might excel in an artistic career. Not only does it allow you creative freedom, but you can work independently and without restraints or managerial interference. You can also use your intuitive nature to create beautiful and emotional pieces of art — whether through music, drawing, sculpting, acting, or otherwise.
- Fashion Designer
- Graphic Designer
- Interior Designer
- Music Tutor or Teacher
- Narrator/Voice Actor
- Business and Marketing: Another environment where HSPs can shine is in business and marketing. You get to show off your detail-oriented nature, as well as work within environments that provide you with independence and a creative outlet. Marketing is also a perfect calling, as your intuitive side and emotional intelligence can help you create compelling and moving marketing campaigns for your business.
- Business Owner
- Charity Work
- Graphic Designer
- Human Resources (although this can also be too confrontational for some HSPs)
- Marketing Content Writer
- Network Marketer
- Non-Profit Manager
- Social Media Manager
- Software Developer
- Financial: Because HSPs are so detail-oriented, you can work exceptionally well in the financial sector. Plus, many jobs within this field have quiet and independent environments.
- Financial Analyst
- Market Researcher
- Healthcare or Mental Healthcare Field: HSPs might have to be selective with which healthcare career you pursue, but there are plenty of callings that might speak to you in this field. Not only will your intuition and empathy come in handy — providing you with exceptional bedside manner — but you can work independently in many of these callings and can use your detail-oriented nature to keep track of patient charts.
- Counselor or Therapist
- Healthcare Systems Analyst
- Holistic Medicine Practitioner
- Massage Therapist
- Medical Records Technician
- Physical Therapist
- Journalism: Similar to the arts, journalistic careers give HSPs an opportunity to show both your creative side and your independent side. You may find there are many opportunities within journalism that work for you, but some of the more hectic environments (such as high-stakes journalism or busy newsrooms) don’t quite jive with your need for quiet and calm.
- Content Writer
- Grant Writer
- Online Blogger
- Technical Writer
- Nature and Animal-Related Careers: Although HSPs are highly attuned with human emotions, they can also be very attached to animals and nature. Because of this passion, you may feel drawn to conservation or animal-related careers that give you the opportunity to work independently and work alongside your values.
- Conservation Scientist
- Dog Trainer, Sitter, or Walker
- Pet Groomer
- Veterinarian or Veterinarian Assistant
- Trades: If none of the above career paths are speaking to you, also consider these HSP-friendly career paths.
- Career/Life Coach
- Clergy Member
- Delivery Driver or Mail Person
- Housekeeping or Janitor
- Librarian or Bookseller
- Personal or Pastry Chef
- Personal Assistant
- Private Investigator or Detective
- School Counselor
- Travel Agent
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