Peter has written extensively about high sensitivity since 1997, when he first learned he was an HSP.
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.
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.
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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!
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.
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.
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.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Talk back! As an HSP, what has been your experience with work? Have you found your calling? Please leave a comment!
Tracy on September 17, 2018:
Thank you for writing this! I'm just now coming across it in 2018.
Can you recommend ways to obtain start up capital for self employment? This is one of my stumbling blocks. I've been self-employed before, but one reason the business didn't survive is because I had no start up money.
I was recently let go from a job for taking 2 sick leaves in 2 years, and not "performing" in ways they needed to secure funding for the agency. Compassion, ability to develop rapport, and excellent communication cannot be measured quantitatively. These are among my best skills. Being let go is a mixed blessing. My severance will run out next month. I've decided not to look for listed jobs, or take the typical employment route for my next gig. Don't know what will happen financially, however, I don't want to continue burning out.
Shari Dyer on June 15, 2015:
I was lucky. I've been an x-ray tech (5 years), an Aikido instructor (27 years) and a video producer. All have been fulfilling.
Sybilin on January 11, 2015:
Hi, and thank you so much for your article. I also found the one about hypersensitive people and friendship so accurate...
For years, I struggled in various office jobs where I never felt confortable, finding it hard to fit-in even though I was competent. Often based in open space offices, I couldn't stand the surrounding noise and lights, and found the in-politic dynamics exhausting and depressing.
I have since managed to operate a life-changing shift and am about to start anew as a naturopath ; even though I fear a bit being self-employed, I feel that this is the right path for me, and since I discovered that I was hypersensitive while studying naturopathy, I intend to do my end-of-studies' memoire on naturopathy for hypersensitive people who care for others one way or another.. (therapists, teachers etc..)
Sandi Marie on August 25, 2014:
I am going through what you are experiencing. I feel the same, I just wanted to let you know you're not alone.
kjoy82 on April 15, 2014:
Thank you for your article! I found my calling... painting on canvas! I had a good job painting crafts for a local artist. I loved it... worked 14 years at that job. I worked at home and only had to see "people" once a week to drop off my work. It was awesome... I just sat down to paint something on canvas for myself only, to see if I could do it. I was in a gallery 1 year later!!!!
Alas.... my boss married an unemployed man... and could not afford to keep us both.... she let me go....
I had to sell my sanctuary, could not afford it anymore. Had to work 3 sometimes 4 part time jobs just to squeak by and survive. I moved to Indiana from S.C. BIG MISTAKE! For a better chance of finding one job instead of 3. My life no longer belongs to me.... I can no longer paint, too exhausted from work. No painting.... no life...
I now HAVE to be around people almost 24/7 .... work 55 hours or more a week. Bosses that only think about money not their employees. No painting anymore, I do not feel that creative spark anymore.....
I miss my old life, hate the city and the smell of car exhaust. Cannot stand the cold, ice and dirty snow.
By reading your article... I now know that I am not going crazy.... thank you!
I will not give up.... I will get my dream back.....
crusader77 on February 04, 2013:
Thanks for this series...I've been struggling with these very issues for the 7 years I've been with my current employer. On the up side, I work for an educational nonprofit with a great mission. On the down side, the more competitive types who are managing the organization have frozen the rest of us out of the best and most meaningful roles, so we are consigned to low paid, humdrum administrative and clerical tasks. I've had time to sort through various outside options, but the main conclusion I've come to is that the things I am most interested in do not come with any occupational structure attached. One would have to be invented. I am definitely not the independent, entrepreneurial type- I respond best with a structure already in place. I will definitely take a look at some of the recommended reading for a possible direction. Thanks again!
Anshuman from Kolkata on January 31, 2013:
Underemployment is a curse which causes even more worries. Experience has to be gathered over time in work .
The idea is cool a bout work ethics3and communications play an important role in that. Further it is best to have a work plan.
idaeliho12 on January 30, 2013:
Hi, I am quite new to this Hub business, but want to express my thanks to you for writing about the challenges of being HSP. I have known most of my adult life that I had a number of interpersonal issues. My mother used to describe me as a nervous fullblood horse but a series of not so healthy work situations for a total of 27 years as an academic health professional have sent me soul searching for an explanation of why I react as I do. I have known for 5 years that I am ENFP (Myers Briggs) and for a year that I am also HSP. I would really appreciate if anyone could write about the challenges of being extraverted HSP. My youngest daughter is 12 and has the same traits and I would like to giver maximal support. Thanks very much!
Petra v B on January 30, 2013:
This was very recognizable and spot on indeed. I did found my calling, at least I think so, but it's incredibly hard to handle two jobs, a drudgy one for income and a really great one but hard to make it fulltime (as a freelance illustrator). Especially because the first one is also picky about people having interest in the job. Sometimes I wish I could be fully open and clear with them but I just have to fake that I like working there for the sake of income. I hope that in 1 to 2 years I can live from my freelance income. Until then it's a big fight. I think most HSP people are also one of the most persisting and devoted people in the world, because they have to to survive.
jaydene from Alberta, Canada on January 08, 2013:
So glad to find this article, I am currently," stuck in a wedge" it feels. I am daunted and overwhelmed by what to do for money. Being an Hsp, I am now often scared, anxious, and feeling trapped because I really haven't the skills for the corporate world, and none of the degrees or certification. This plagues me daily, I want to get away from a small disability , to an income that is enough I can live on. The fear of being in the wrong environment with the wrong people has me frozen right now. I have brainstormed for months on what i could do. It seems to come down to two choices, a) invest thousands in school, or b) invest thousands in a business. It is very nerve wracking. I see an employment counselor next week, and I suspect that 90 percent of the conversation will be based on what I already know.
So I remain , frustrated and skeptical. I wondered if anyone has had similar problems.
Cindy A Johnson from Sevierville, TN on November 06, 2012:
Very interesting. From this hub I learned that I do not have this personality trait. Thanks for enlightening me.
Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on November 03, 2012:
Everything you said is spot on, vlbrown. Money is the only thing that keeps some of us trapped; and I also can't understand those who can tolerate the drudgery, the abuse, etc.
Definitely keeping best wishes for you and for anything you decide to do.
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend on November 03, 2012:
vlbrown, thanks for the comment and feedback.
Ultimately, yes, we need money. We all do. I've experienced "being without," both living in my car and on a park bench (at different times), and it's not pleasant.
I also did contract work for a number of years. The nice thing about it (at least for me) was the fact that contracts tend to be "finite." You go in there, do something, get out. Dealing with "hell" is a little easier when you KNOW it's only for 30 days, or whatever... and you'll be well compensated. Even so, I can appreciate your apprehension-- and I wish you all the best with your "gig!"
Sometimes the whole "create your own reality" dialogue gets bogged down in New Age mumbo-jumbo which may be inspiring and optimistic... but not very helpful. The fulfilling work IS out there, but sometimes WE have to create it. And a lot of times we get mired down because we lack the skills to TRULY "think outside the box." It reminds me of the smarta$$ back in college who responded to a visiting lecturer on creative careers "Yeah, but what if you're only good at sleeping?" The lecturer didn't miss a beat... "Then you go work as a mattress tester, or work in a dream lab."
The scope of "real jobs" out there is SO much greater than what we're familiar with. The TRICK is knowing where to find the right information.
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend on November 03, 2012:
Jacquelyn, thanks for commenting, and for the book recommendation-- another to add to my "books to read" list.
Sometimes is does work to remove "what we DON'T want" and then check what's left behind-- I've done that, myself, on a number of occasions.
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend on November 03, 2012:
Phyll, thanks for the kind words! Work is such a HUGE issue for HSPs, and there are so many angles to be explored. I am trying to take a balanced approach, since SO much of what I've read on this topic is "long on ideas, but short on practical advice." Some people just need exercises and plans to follow, more than mantras and positive thinking...
I appreciate the book recommendation and will definitely add Gratzon's book to my ever-growing "to read" list.
vlbrown on November 03, 2012:
re: there's absolutely NO reason to work at ANYTHING unless it gives you purpose, meaning, fulfillment and enjoyment.
Sadly, there is one reason. Income. Income buys food, housing, medical insurance.
It's always "interesting" for me when I meet (in person or online) people who are the opposite of HSP, who are INsensitive to the drudgery, the hierarchy, the Command & Control management styles, the noise & distraction, the incessant blather, the psychological stress of the workplace. Some of them will literally take _any_ job because "I need to feed my family".
HSPs have it harder. We also feel the need to feed out families, and ourselves, but we need to feed our spirits too and we react badly (physically and mentally) to the stress of the workplace. It's a fine tightrope to walk.
I've been unemployed for 9 months now. Everything about that (other than the loss of income) has been delightful and low stress. (I'm collecting Unemployment benefits of slightly better than minimum wage, so even the income isn't totally gone.)
Yesterday I received an offer for a 90-day "contract" position with option to continue if it works out. I've said yes. But, as you might presume, I'm of two minds about it. The job sounds like a good match for my interests, but it's 8 hours/day out of the house, a 45-minute one-way commute. Cubicles. People.
Send me your positive wishes everyone!
Jacquelyn on November 03, 2012:
Great article Peter ... another great resource I'd suggest is: The Career Guide for Creative and Unconventional People by Carol Eikeberry ...
My own career journey was always led by my deep sense of intuition -- it didn't lead me directly to what I am doing now....but it always led me to what I knew I DIDN'T want .... thus many contractual jobs along the way ... plus "testing the waters" for where I was being led.... It is definitely a journey .... one that is worth pursuing....
With gratitude for all you do for the HSP community Peter,
pepstar27 on November 03, 2012:
SO TRUE! Thank you, Peter, for hitting the nail on the head in this very important topic: work. Your article is "spot-on" with regard to HSP's and our challenges with the work-place as we know it. Another book I'd like to recommend (and author and thinker) is Fred Gratzon's excellent book about work or, shall I say, the perils of it: "The Lazy Way to Success". Fred is totally
against "work" as we know it, that is, the drudgery, long hours, tedium, boredom, hierarchies, minutia, lack of meaning, purpose, and "fun!" He slams work, right from the get-go, saying there's absolutely NO reason to work at ANYTHING unless it gives you purpose, meaning, fulfillment and enjoyment. As an HSP, I couldn't agree more! Thank you for raising this topic, Peter, I look forward to hearing more from you and other HSP's on this challenging and controversial topic/issue.
Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on November 02, 2012:
I know what you're talking about, and that's why it became more difficult for me to have a bad job; there is a contradiction, a conflict, a division with the rest of life. As far as I'm concerned, life must be whole, there cannot be contradiction; the contradiction corrupts the whole. I look forward to your next Hub on this subject.
Peter Messerschmidt (author) from Port Townsend on November 02, 2012:
Nate & Andrew, thanks for your comments and feedback!
One of the things I learned about work and being an HSP is how our lives tend to be more of a "whole" than the rest of the world (this will be part of a future article). Many people seem able to "compartmentalize" their work life and deal with a bad job as "just work," especially if it pays well... and they get their happiness elsewhere.
HSPs have more of a "work is part of life, and life is part of work" approach... so if work sucks, life pretty much sucks by extension. This makes the work issue very complex... because it's not enough to merely have "work that supports our life," we have to choose a "life that supports our ideal work." It's hard to explain this dynamic in a comment... but suffice it to say that sometimes you have to reorganize your LIFE, in order to reorganize your work.
Andrew R /UK on November 02, 2012:
Great article. Thanks for distilling my dilemmas with work over the past 30 years!! Finding the right personal recipe for work can take several attempts in my experience, and........enjoying cooking is SO different from running a restaurant so to speak, but sometimes one just has to try things out and if it doesn't work out. Better than never having tried at all... and that's why I'm offering Coaching, to help people by providing a space to really explore things and park their inner critic.
Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on November 02, 2012:
When reading this excellent piece, I felt like you described exactly my experience at work. Thank you for bringing this issue to light. It is a very neglected subject, wish someone had talked to me about it years ago. I'd be so dragged down by work, knowing something was wrong inside and out, it eventually caused many problems for me. I was always good at what I did, but I'd mess it up eventually because I knew I had to get out. Such work is damaging to those who are highly sensitive (and everyone else, too, I think). It is true, the main task is to explore and find out what it is you truly want to do; if you want to do it, you just will, without the stress and coercion of the typical job. Thanks, again. Enjoying this series very much.