Does it sound like you?
If so - don’t worry, there is nothing wrong with you - this is a typical “side effect” of being highly sensitive. Highly Sensitive People (or HSPs) is a scientific term. It refers to people who are believed to have a genetic ability to notice more subtleties in their environment than most people, and process more sensory input from it, including sounds, lights, temperature etc. They are not sick and don’t need any treatment – it’s just that their nervous system and mind are more “fine-tuned”.
Think about sensitivity as a super-expensive medical knife that can be used for the most delicate surgery thanks to its sophistication and sharpness. However, if the same knife is used to cut bread, chances are it will break down or become dull, and so can no longer be used for a surgery. Same way, highly sensitive people will flourish in the right conditions, or shut down and/or experience stress-related issues if they are continually overwhelmed.
Because highly sensitive people are in the minority (it is believed that only about 20% of all humans belong to HSPs), most companies are not structured to support them. So a highly sensitive person might struggle to have a successful career, especially at an early stage. However, being highly sensitive does not mean you cannot be successful - it's just a question of learning to manage and "sell" your sensitivity. The following five tips will help you with that:
Most problems a highly sensitive person gets at work arise because people don’t get them. As previously said, 80-85% of people are not highly sensitive, and so they genuinely don’t understand why you are bothered about food smell at the desk, loud music or an air conditioner. They might even not notice something that will seem to you like a major thing impacting your well-being and productivity. They even may enjoy this little stimulation, otherwise their nervous system is dormant, and will think you are too demanding when you ask them to turn the music volume down.
Explaining what sensitivity is to a non-sensitive person is a bit like trying to explain to a blind person what colors are. You need to “sell” your sensitivity in the language they can understand. For instance, if you need time to withdraw after a meeting, don't say you are overwhelmed, but mention you are going somewhere to write down the thoughts that came to your mind after the meeting. Or make a joke that you need a cup of tea to warm yourself up after a chilly conversation with a client. People are afraid of what they don't understand, so use humor and keep things really simple.
2. Incorporate regular breaks throughout the day
If you are a highly sensitive person, you need more rest than most people to recharge your nervous system. I remember this made me really upset in my younger age, as most of my colleagues were able to carry on working. Having built a successful career in several fields, I can assure you now it's not the question of working harder, but working smarter with fewer distractions.
It may sound counterintuitive, but the most efficient thing to do for a highly sensitive person at work is to incorporate breaks every hour or so for a few minutes not to accumulate stress. Because if you don' rest, it will take you much longer to recover after you break down. Taking rest for a highly sensitive person means doing something that involves as little stimulation as possible – so no computer, possibly no chatting to colleagues, but taking a few moment to be somewhere quite, or even better having a little walk outside.
Ideally, you want to manage your schedule yourself and this should be your priority at work. If you do, do not put several meetings one after another. Switch between meetings and personal activities. As a highly sensitive person, you need time to recharge after one intense experience.
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We all are stimulated by different things – some of us are more sensitive to noise, some to smells, some to information overload. You can take this little test to see what stimulates you compared to other highly sensitive people. Notice what triggers your sensitivity, and start consciously managing it. For instance, if your trigger is noise, make sure you have a pair of earplugs when you work (earplugs are way better than earphones for an HSP, as music adds stimulation). In my experience, wax earplugs are the best ones, as they don't let any noise in and are also not irritating to the ear.
If you absolutely cannot avoid the trigger, try minimizing it. For instance, if you know you get tired after the flight and being in the airport among crowds of people, do not set up important meetings for that day. Go on a business trip a night before to have proper rest.
A typical trigger for all HSPs is multitasking. People aren’t generally good at multitasking as has been proven by multiple researchers, but as an HSP you need to be even more careful because any distraction has a bigger impact on you than on your non-sensitive colleagues. You need to organize your work so that you have enough time to dedicate to one particular task and aren’t disturbed in between. This means you may need to book a closed room, ask everyone not to approach you for two hours, and switch off all notifications, all sound signals on your communication devices and put them face down. If you’re waiting for an important call, you should not be working on something that requires your concentration. Similarly, do not open more than one tab when browsing online. Multitasking isn’t good for your brain.
4. Watch your diet
As a highly sensitive person, you have to be extremely careful about how you eat, as you are more sensitive to sugar than most people (your nervous system literally gets exploded every time you consume sugar). This means that a regular office chocolate/biscuit snacking is out of question. When tired, we are not able to tell what’s good and what’s bad for us, so make sure to have something healthy (and yet yummy) in your desk instead of sugary stuff.
As an HSP, you are very likely to be more affected by caffeine than most people, so it’s best not to consume it altogether, or if you do, not to drink coffee on the days when you’ve got a lot going.
5. Talk about your work, not sensitivity
The last thing you want to do after you’ve read this text is to go to your boss or colleagues and tell them you’re highly sensitive, and therefore they should start treating you in a different way. If you did that, you’d be seen either as difficult, or sick.
What you really want to do is to show them how your work might be impacted if a certain problem causing you extra stimulation (i.e. sitting next to a noisy scanner) will not be resolved. Focus on the extra value you’ll be able to provide. For instance, if you are negotiating flexible working hours, tell them how you’ll be able to better concentrate and call more customers when it’s less noisy around.
It obviously helps if you are doing well in your job, and your boss is happy (make sure that they are by giving them the highlights of your key achievements on a weekly basis – it’s not bragging, it’s PR). If this is not the case, you may want to work a little harder (or rather, smarter) before you negotiate anything. The good news is that your bargain power will improve dramatically the more senior you become, so it’s the question of surviving through the early stages of your career.
Most importantly, start being nice to yourself and appreciate your sensitivity. Many highly sensitive people feel they are different and have been punished for that at work or at home, and so try to downgrade their sensitivity to “fit in”.
Instead of punishing yourself for not being able to cope as most people, think about all the great things you are able to do thanks to being sensitive. You probably know what other people want or expect, are able to build great relationships, forecast trends and make conclusions without having all necessary information thanks to your intuition. Start appreciating your sensitivity, and your colleagues and bosses will do so, too.
See more tips at Part II of the article