Finding a Career Match as a Highly Sensitive Person
This article is part of an ongoing series about the joys and challenges of life as a highly sensitive person (HSP). For more background information about HSPs, please read The Highly Sensitive Person: An Introduction.
If you are not familiar with the HSP trait or feel unsure about whether or not you are an HSP, you might also want to take Dr. Elaine Aron's free self-test for sensitivity, which can be found on her website.
Why Can Work Be Difficult for an HSP?
As a group of people, HSPs potentially struggle more with work than almost any other demographic I can think of. Why is this?
In western society, employment and what we do for a living is typically one of the least HSP friendly activities we have to engage in. At the same time, it's among the most discussed and talked about in general society—think about how many conversations are started with the words, "So, what do YOU do?"
Most forms of employment tend to be highly competitive, often require putting in grueling hours, occasionally demand a cutthroat approach, frequently are "profit-centric" rather than "human-centric," and seldom offer any measure of long-term security. And yet? We all have to work—unless we happen to be "trust fund babies" or are content living with parents or family beyond our college years.
On a more specific level, work can be difficult for HSPs because many of us tend to be of an idealistic nature and want to feel like our work matters and truly makes a difference in the world, as well as to the people we work for and with. In most cases, such a philosophy is not compatible with corporate cultures that, ultimately, primarily care about the continuous growth of their bottom lines.
Another challenge for HSPs in work contexts centers on dealing with the physical environment of many workplaces. Given that our senses are easily overstimulated, working, for example, in an office made up of hundreds of "cubicles" set up in huge rooms tend to cause overstimulation, in which we are unable to offer our best performance. Noise, harsh lighting, and a lack of privacy add to the discomfort.
Finally, because an estimated 70-75% of HSPs are introverts, our personalities don't tend to be a good match for the majority of today's work environments, which are heavily focused on "group projects" and "collaborations." Whereas highly sensitive people are perfectly capable of getting along in groups, it's usually not the type of setting that will bring out our best work and often one that leads to pervasive stress.
Idealism and Underemployment
As mentioned previously, many HSPs have an idealistic nature. Not only would we prefer to do work that gives us a sense of purpose and value, we'd like to do work that contributes to the overall betterment of the world. Unlike many, HSPs are not easily able to labor at a mediocre job and adopt an attitude of "it's just work."
HSPs also tend to evaluate success and good jobs a little differently than the rest of the world. In the traditional sense, there may be many well-compensated jobs in the marketplace, but HSPs are often concerned with things beyond monetary compensation; we're looking for psychic income, feeling appreciated, and like our efforts matter.
Alas, the type of creative meaningful work HSPs often find most attractive and interesting tends to be in short supply. Why? Because in our profit-driven capitalistic society, the most plentiful (and often best paying) jobs—and consequently the most profitable for employers—are not often the ones that also are best for humanity or make people happy.
If you haven't read Elaine Aron's original book on being an HSP, you really owe it to yourself to do so! This book changed my life and my self-perception, as it has done for millions of other HSPs. Seriously...you should read this!
In her books about high sensitivity, Dr. Elaine Aron mentions the issue that many HSPs tend to become underemployed, meaning that they often end up in jobs that are low ranked, in relation to their educational, intelligence, and experience levels.
Usually, this happens because HSPs are soft-spoken and unassuming and end up getting passed over for promotions and positions that typically are awarded to those employees with the best "song and dance routine," rather than strictly on performance and merit.
Underemployment can also be an issue because of the work environments HSPs favor: We may appreciate the quiet that comes with working as a librarian, park ranger, or museum archivist, but these are typically not well-paid positions.
The creative natures of most HSPs present their own unique challenges in this particular area. Many sensitive people are naturally drawn to professions like art, music, or acting, which are typically in low-paying industries. Because of this, an HSP may find themselves in pleasant and fulfilling environments, but there may be a new set of stresses—namely the stresses of struggling financially.
How Important Is Work for You?
One of the questions HSPs often end up having to answer is just how important work—and happiness at work—is to them.
A number of folks decide that they can live without pursuing their true calling at work; they can make do with a reasonable work situation, as long as they get to pour their energy into their passion when they are away from work—maybe through volunteering for charitable causes or the pursuit of a creative hobby. This type of approach doesn't come easy in the modern workplace, especially for the HSP. Employers usually demand long hours of hard work and given how HSPs become overstimulated when faced with stress and too much on their plate, there's often not much left in their tank at the end of the day.
When you are an HSP, it's also important not to get trapped by the conventional philosophy that success means that you must keep working longer and harder to advance, and you must be part of the machine that eternally seeks to keep a business growing and expanding. This is a central part of the Western corporate greed culture that tends to work very poorly for HSPs.
However, if you can't treat your work as just a job, it becomes extremely important to take a long hard look at your work situation and decide whether or not it's time for a change of direction. And if it's important to you to be in a truly meaningful line of work and you're not, don't wait too long. Remember, not being true to yourself can be bad for your mental, emotional, and physical health!
Barrie Jaeger's 2005 book on HSPs and work remains the primary guide for HSPs seeking to find more meaning in their work lives. Whereas it is by no means an exhaustive guide on the topic, it is filled with many useful tips and insights, as well as a few exercises to help you figure out where you are and where you may wish to go in your career.
Pausing for a Personal Evaluation: Where Are You at In Your Career?
In her book "Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person," Dr. Barrie Jaeger talks about three primary categories (or stages) of work and how they impact our well-being.
She describes "drudgery," the form of work that's almost painful to be part of and which sometimes makes us want to stay home, just so we don't have to deal with it. It makes us feel unappreciated, and even if we're well-paid, it leaves us with a strong dislike of what we're doing. Often we feel stuck and like we don't have a choice in these kinds of jobs. For HSPs, drudgery work can lead to chronic stress, depression, and other health-related issues.
"Craft" describes the kind of work where we can competently do our work, don't really mind going to work, and we may occasionally find meaning in what we're doing. Even if we are not using our education or training, we may be really good at what we do. However, it's not a perfect situation, and while there may be a few brilliant moments, it's unlikely to leave us with any lasting sense of looking forward to going to work.
A "calling" is the perfect situation, as far as work for an HSP goes. When we are in our true calling, what we do doesn't even feel like work. We get compensated sufficiently to live and our work gives us a deep sense of well-being. We feel appreciated, valued, and like our job is meaningful and contributes to the betterment of whatever cause we believe in or the world in general. The vast majority of HSPs who work in their calling are self-employed.
Take a few moments to consider these three levels of work and decide where you fit on the scale. Sadly, HSPs often end up working in "drudgery" situations, which leaves them feeling stressed, despondent, and unfulfilled. The challenge lies in discovering our true calling and then finding ways to change your life to pursue it.
It's Not Always Easy to Change Careers
Sadly, it's often not until they reach midlife that most HSPs take time to pause and question their work and careers. Many work in unfulfilling jobs, striving to reach the societal ideal of success, and then wondering—when they get there—why success doesn't actually feel very good.
Others have a strong sense that they want to do something meaningful and different but lack a plan or direction, so they end up skipping from one thing to another in an eternal "job of the month" cycle, learning what they don't want but never really developing a true sense of what they do want.
The midlife epiphany many HSPs experience often revolves around questioning who exactly they're trying to impress. It's not always a pleasant realization to see that we've spent a quarter of our lives living up to other people's expectations while failing to even acknowledge our own dreams, hopes, and desires.
Highly recommended because it bases suggestions on individual personality types rather than "one size fits all." Based on Jungian/Myers-Briggs typologies.
Setting out to identify your true calling—and then finding ways to pursue it and make it your work life—is not easy.
In fact, it can be very challenging, and outright scary at times, especially if your path leads you from a relatively safe but "colorless" job towards the path of self-employment.
My own journey of reinventing myself began in the early 1990s and continues to this day. It took me from the realization of just how truly miserable I was in my work— although outwardly successful—to identify what I wanted to do, to gradually phasing out of a steady job and into my own contracting business, followed by years of fine tuning, to where I have landed today. There were many very lean times and times when I thought I'd done the dumbest thing on earth. But I can say with a clean conscience and 20 years of hindsight that I have no regrets about turning my back on conventional work in order to carve out my own work path-—my way.
From the author of the popular "Artists Way" books, this book is an invitation to examine prosperity (and success) as something other than how much money you have in the bank. In general, Julia Cameron's approach is very well suited for HSPs.
This article only scratches the surface of a very complex and often challenging aspect of HSP life. If work has been—and continues to be—a source of frustration and dissatisfaction for you, it may be time to take inventory of your life.
As you approach the process, remember that using other people as your basis for comparison is likely to be an exercise in frustration. You must focus on what will make you happy and try to forget about what makes people happy, as a social generalization.
I do recommend any of the books listed here as starting points, especially "Making Work Work" by Barrie Jaeger. If you are serious about changing directions, consider starting a special journal with work ideas. Dream big! Journal to design your perfect job."I found this very helpful when I started the process of reinventing myself a couple of decades ago.
After examining your life and what truly matters to you work-wise, you may decide that self-employment is the way to go. Not all HSPs are good candidates for self-employment, but a number of us do take that route because we simply cannot find ways for the mainstream to work for us.