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The Highly Sensitive Person

By Marty Nemko

A client whom I’ll call Denise said she was so sensitive that the sound of an answering machine clicking on and off annoyed her. All it took to overwhelm her was street noise, two requests from a boss, or a crowd around the coffee machine.

My first reaction was to wonder if there was any hope for her. After her first session, I played with my friend Google and found that Elaine Aron had written a book called The Highly Sensitive Person, and that Barrie Jaeger had written a book called Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person.

Here’s what I learned from reading Aron’s and Jaeger’s work and from interviewing them on my radio show.

Cause: In most cases, parents notice their child’s hypersensitivity from birth, so the root cause is probably physiological: highly reactive neural, hormonal, immune, and/or cardiovascular systems.

Careers for Highly Sensitive People (HSPs)

HSPs can be found in a wide range of careers, from financial managers to actors, but to succeed, HSPs must be confident enough to speak up for their needs, have an accommodating boss, and be vigilant about avoiding overstimulation.

If an HSP lacks that confidence or is anxiety ridden, he or she will more likely succeed in these careers:

§ One-on-one careers. The quiet environment is ideal, and HSPs’ sensitivity tends to make them intuitive about what people are feeling and what drives them. Many HSPs do well as what Elaine Aron calls “Priestly Advisors”: as counselors, coaches, and tutors. They also do well as massage therapists and other body workers.

§ Solo project work: for example, programmers, writers, and graphic artists. HSPs tend to do better on their own than when many team meetings are required.

§ Analyzers and predictors, when in-depth analysis is important but the analysis needn’t be done quickly, for example, in evaluating stocks, race horses, research data, office dynamics, or market trends. HSPs make a useful counterbalance to a decision-making team filled with quick, impulsive thinkers.

§ Personal assistant. HSPs tend to be loyal, which is invaluable in an assistant.

§ Sales.

§ Work with animals and plants.

§ Owning a business. That allows HSPs to control their environment and to create a flexible schedule so they can take unscheduled breaks as needed.

§ Any career in which much of the work can be done from home.

Don’t be tempted by a drudgery-filled job. That may seem like a way to control the stimulation, but Jaeger devotes an entire chapter of her book to warning why the liabilities of drudge-filled jobs almost always outweigh the benefits: You’re likely to become stressed by the lack of control typical of such jobs and depressed by having taken a lower level job than necessary.

My career suggestions to Denise: reading tutor, piano teacher, personal assistant to a kind boss, and because of her accounting background, a credit counselor or phone-based bill collector.

Landing the Job

§ In looking for a job, tout any of the above-mentioned HSP strengths you possess.

§ In interviews, ask if the boss is looking for someone who can work with little supervision. That’s a way to screen out micromanagers, an HSP’s worst enemy. Similarly, before taking a job, ask your potential coworkers about the boss’s temperament. Hotheads and HSPs don’t get along.

On the Job

§ You must ask for what you want. You will need quiet, autonomy, and perhaps other accommodations, such as permission to take unscheduled breaks.

§ You must self-regulate: be vigilant to incipient overwhelm and nip it in the bud with deep breaths, short walks, whatever works for you.

§ Big projects tend to overwhelm HSPs. So, be sure to break them down into comfy baby steps.

§ Because HSPs work well alone, their accomplishments often go unnoticed. If you are unable to trumpet your own accomplishments, find a cheerleader: an outgoing person in the organization willing to sing your praises.

What if you’re an HSP’s boss? Recognize that like all of us, HSPs have strengths and weaknesses. The good boss tailors an HSP’s job description to capitalize on his or her strengths and which accommodates the HSP’s weaknesses. If you do, you may find you’re glad you’ve hired an HSP.

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