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Inner Reflections: Work and the Highly Sensitive Person
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Work and the Highly Sensitive Person
I believe HSPs often face challenges in their work life-- and this is almost inevitably an extension of their "being a little different." That has certainly held very true for me, and I know a large number of other HSPs for whom the issue of "work" continues to be a major concern, and is often seen as a sort of "stumbling block" on the road to happiness and living an authentic life.

I believe there are a number of fundamental aspects of the HSP psyche and sense of core values that clash with driving forces and "values" of most conventional work environments. Here are a few:

Most jobs tend to be competitive, in one way or another-- most HSPs are cooperative, by nature.

Most jobs are "sales" oriented-- sell an idea, sell a product, sell yourself-- most HSPs are uncomfortable with the idea of "pushing" something on another.

Most jobs reward aggression and "loudness," most HSPs are non-aggressive and subtle, leading to their feeling overlooked in work environments.

Many jobs only reward accomplishment monetarily, most HSPs need acknowledgement (or "psychic income") in order to be happy.
These are just a few examples, to give you an idea-- perhaps you can think of a list of your own. I know there are many more I can apply to my own work life, which has definitely been a bumpy ride.

I spent many years in a variety of "conventional" jobs, eventually running an import and retail business that was mostly focused on sales, marketing and advertising. It was a very "public" and, as such, high-stress job for me. At first, I had just been one of five "principals" in the business, but I suppose it was that HSP tendency to be "responsible" to a fault that compelled me to keep going, even though the other partners were quietly dropping out, one by one. Eventually-- by "default"-- I ended up in the very position I the least wanted to hold: Being the owner/manager, and in charge of it all.
2003.06.23  2013.02.05
All content Copyright ©1995-2013 Peter Messerschmidt & Inner Reflections. All Rights Reserved.
In some ways, my situation actually clashed with some HSP-wisdom-- in the sense that many HSPs find happiness in self-employment. However, self-employment, when it becomes fairly large scale and involves many responsibilities and people, can reach a point where it no longer serves as a "safe haven" to work in, but instead becomes a stressful nightmare of logistics, people management, long hours and other overwhelming factors that make it very little different from a conventional high stress job. But there's an essential difference: in a situation where you work for someone else, at least you get a pay check and then you can go home and forget about it. When you're managing a business with 20-odd employees, your mind never "gets the day off" and you can find no way to "get peace."

Part of the "secret" (Which I did not know about, at the time) is to avoid getting trapped by the conventional philiosophy that "success" means that you must keep working harder, and you must keep the business growing. This is part of the Western "corporate greed culture" that tends to not work well for HSPs.

For an HSP, it is often a better option to just stay with a smaller scale of work that feels within your comfort zone. As a group, highly sensitive people tend to be more comfortable with the concept of "enough" (rather than "more") than the rest of the world. That said, it is also essential that your starting point is with a line of work that feels like a "true calling" to you.
Who are you working for, anyway?

Around age 35, I had what some might describe as a "mid-life crisis." For me, it was more of a "mid-life epiphany." I came to the sudden-- and not very pleasant-- realization that I wasn't actually working for me, I was working for "the world" and its expectations. Now, I don't mean that in terms of what I was actually doing, but in terms of what my "work purpose" was. I was working at something because it was "what was expected of me." I didn't actually want to be there. I didn't actually care about the ostensible trappings of success. They were there because "Isn't that what everyone does?"

"Yes, but I'm just doing it because I need the money."

That's a common objection I hear from well-meaning HSPs, but it's ultimately an excuse and rationalization. It's a nice idea, and one that often has some validity for non-HSPs. However, it tends to be a "soul killer" for an HSP. Almost without exception, all the HSPs I have met have been more oriented towards non-monetary rewards than income. HSPs get much of their "reward" from working through recognition, acknowledgment and the "connections" they make with other people. Persisting "just for the money" is a form of drudgery for an HSP that can easily lead to both depression and illness.
Some things to consider: Are you happy with your work? I mean the actual work you do, not your "job." Does it feel like your "calling," like you truly "belong" in that line of work? Does your work environment make you want to be at work? If the answer is no to more than a couple of these questions, it might be time to evaluate your situation.

I ended up doing just that, and in the process pretty much had to "reinvent myself" from the ground up. I went from being someone living close to the manner of a "corporate type" to being a self-employed technical writer. I took a 70% pay cut. Voluntarily. And made an according adjustment to my lifestyle. At first it seemed both frightening and daunting. Then I spent almost 15 years fine-tuning what "work" meant to me-- to where I today can say (only slightly tongue-in-cheek) that I "make my living from "playing with my hobbies."

Fall leaves, Oregon. Yes, the sky really WAS that color.
Wildflowers, Texas
The seeming contrast between outer feedback and inner feelings (about "success") can be confusing. I spent many years outwardly projecting the appearance of someone who was "successful" in their job. Stable employment, good pay, nice house, owner of a respected-- and even awarded-- business admired in the community, employees who liked me. Sounds like I should have been happy, doesn't it? But I wasn't. Most days, I actually dreaded going to work. I felt so out of place, and like what I was doing "just wasn't ME." On top of that, my ostensible "success" didn't feel like anything-- it mostly left me with a dull, empty and meaningless "so what" feeling. Eventually, those feelings also turned into disappointment and a sense that something was "wrong" with me: After all, how "dare" I "have the gall" to feel unhappy when I had what 95% of the population only dreams about? 
Wildflowers, Texas
Dr. Barrie Jaeger's book on HSPs and work is the most widely used and recommended reference for HSPs wrestling with the issue of work.

"The Artists Way" is not specifically about HSPs, but is still one of the most widely read texts on finding work purpose for creative people.

Where as my work life these days is close to something resembling a "true calling," work (self-employment) as a highly sensitive person continues to present challenges, in various ways. Looking back, however, I would not have made a different choice-- except perhaps to have undertaken the change years earlier!

HSPs and finding work that constitutes a "Calling"

Most HSPs who have found their work Calling seem to be pursuing some kind of self-employment. Some choose to work from home; some work as contractors (rather than "employees") for larger organizations. Only a few seem to have the good fortune to find "calling-like" work within large companies.

"Going independent" can definitely be scary, and may not be suitable for everyone-- in order to make a go of it, it's important to have creativity, patience, good organizational skills, discipline and a lot of perseverance.

If you want to "look before you leap," there are now some helpful tools out there-- in the form of books, online discussion groups and life coaches who specialize in helping HSPs. I especially recommend "Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person" by Barrie Jaeger, as well as Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way." Both are valuable guides for HSPs in search of work happiness.
Get more information: Articles I've written on the topic of HSPs and Work

Work and the Highly Sensitive Person, Part I-- introduction to some of the challenges HSPs face in work environments.

Work and the Highly Sensitive Person: Self-employment-- many HSPs turn to self-employment in order to pursue their callings. This article takes a thorough and "non-romantic" look at working for yourself, as an HSP.

Work and the Highly Sensitive Person: Identifying Your Calling-- much has been said about the importance of HSPs working with their "true Calling." This article examines the different aspects of "callings," how to identify ours, and the the steps needed to turn an idea into a way to earn a living.