Updated: Oct 26, 2021
I'm a therapist who is a Highly Sensitive Person and who works with Highly Sensitive People (HSP). This blog post was actually written several years ago about my experience of starting a new job. In my private practice, the topic of navigating a work environment as a HSP is weekly. It is an everyday struggle for many and was for me for a very long time. In fact, it still shows up as I work from home, for myself, in my own private practice. Below you will find my original post, with some edits to reflect new insights.
A typical work environment is often tricky for a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) to navigate and flourish in.
Here are some things that come to mind that describe traits of being HSP: needs more time to process, takes longer to make a decision, becomes overstimulated by the environment, needs a quiet or dark place to regulate, feels drained from interacting with too many people, feels nervous when being watched or graded when performing a task, feels emotions more deeply.
And here are some things that come to mind that describe a typical work environment: collaborating with others, maintaining deadlines, multitasking, being evaluated for your job performance, given specific times (maybe 1 or 2) to take a break, bright lights, constant noise, logical and task minded, no to very little opportunity to be alone.
If you look at the two descriptions, they seem to clash a bit. So can a HSP be successful in a typical work environment? Are there certain environments that are better for HSPs than others? Well, the answer is "yes" to both.
With understanding, self-compassion, and some tools to cope, an HSP can make (almost) any work environment work for them. And it's also true that there are some environments that will be easier to make work than others.
As I reflect on my own experiences with jobs in my past, I have learned a lot. For the majority of my work history I did not even know HSP was a thing. And honestly it makes me cringe a little to think about how I felt, how I acted, and what I just didn't know.
The vision and feelings that come to mind are fragile, lost, insecure, anxious, quiet, passive, uncertain. Like a broken vase that I keep glueing back together with school glue and wrapping in string to keep it together, and nonetheless it keeps falling apart.
But it's not this way any longer. I'm a solid, sturdy, vase (still fragile, but whole and secure). It's a hard road getting from one to the other.
At the time of the original blog post I had recently started a new job. During the first couple of months I had times where I felt anxious and overwhelmed, overstimulated, sad and angry, I experienced shame, my body and mind would feel exhausted. I cried, couldn’t stand to be around anyone when getting home from work, regretted my decision to take a new job, felt lonely, insecure, and misunderstood, got stressed out, and couldn’t get enough alone time. When I say this was difficult, I am not misleading you. When I say this was way easier and more successful than any other job transition I’ve had, thank goodness I am telling the truth! So here are several intentional things I did to make sure of it.
13 ways to survive a (new) job as a HSP...
TAKE A BREAK WHEN YOU NEED ONE. In fact take a break even if you don’t think you need one. I walked outside and soaked up sunshine. I went to the bathroom for privacy, using that time to close my eyes, maybe stretch, or even do a short meditation.
FIND PEOPLE YOU EASILY CONNECT WITH. You are a HSP for goodness sake, trust the intuition you have about people. Right off the bat I found about three coworkers who I felt comfortable around and could talk with easily. That’s where I started.
CONSERVE YOUR ENERGY. If you know you have something draining coming up later in the day, do what you can to limit your energy usage before that. For me this meant having an extra energizing lunch (alone time, outside, healthy meal, walking, and music). I did not push myself to socialize or take on too much those days.
PICK YOUR BEST TIME OF DAY TO SOCIALIZE. (or whatever else is draining for you). For me I have the most energy in the morning and socializing with brand new people in a brand new environment is exhausting. I did my connecting and putting on my extravert mask first thing in the morning. This gave me the opportunity to go more inward as the day progressed without sacrificing relationships.
RELEASE TENSION & NEGATIVE ENERGY FROM YOUR BODY. I’ver really gotten into Tapping, or Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). That’s my go-to at the moment and I highly recommend it. Yoga, meditation, running, dancing, and really anything else that gets you moving are great resources for this.
SOCIALIZE WITH ONLY ONE OR TWO PEOPLE AT A TIME. I found moments to connect with coworkers on my terms when it was far less stimulating. I avoided the crowds but made a point to interact when it was a small group and I knew I could handle it.
FIND OPPORTUNITIES TO EDUCATE OTHERS ABOUT YOUR TEMPERAMENT. Now this one is not always necessary, however was important to me. I started giving small insights into my temperament as a HSP introvert to the coworkers I felt most comfortable around.
TALK TO SOMEONE ABOUT YOUR STRUGGLES. As you’ve read, I was not void of struggles. I talked to my husband and made sure I had some therapy appointments available. My past (and sometimes current) go-to is to bottle it up. This is not good for the mind, body, or spirit.
ALSO, TALK TO YOURSELF. Write about it. I use Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” every morning before work, which is a great way to identify and process my thoughts and emotions from the previous day and plan for the day to come.
DON'T BELIEVE YOUR THOUGHTS (at least not the negative, self-defeating ones). I made a point to challenge the self-criticism, doubt, and general over-thinking. It’s just simply part of a new experience, but does not have to define how we view ourself.
SET AN INTENTION TO FIND CONNECTION. Despite my natural disposition to be a loner, I have finally come to realize how important it is to connect with others. I made my intention to build connection. This means making an effort and getting outside of my comfort zone even though I would rather sit by myself with my headphones in and have no human interaction.
BALANCE EVERYTHING WITH SELF-COMPASSION. Starting a new job and building new relationships is hard work, it’s uncomfortable and it’s draining. I made sure to give myself a break, to not be so hard, to not expect perfection, and to be extra gentle and loving. I was doing the best I could and that’s all I can ask for.
LASTLY, PRACTICE EXTRA SELF-CARE. You’re giving so much away- you have to refuel. Rather than doing something a few times a week I made sure to do something every single day. This ranged from an epsom salt bath, going to the gym, meditating before bed, taking a nap, eating extra healthy, or maybe spending some creative alone time.
Find what works for you. It has been much trial and error to figure out this list for myself. It takes effort and you have to be willing to put the work in.
There are many ways to find healing, to love yourself, and to take care of your unique needs. Trust your intuition, you know what you need.