As a highly sensitive person, you think and feel everything more deeply. Take this common workplace situation, for example.
An email comes in from the boss, providing a few tweaks to a presentation you have spent all week working on. Logically, you know that most of the feedback is no big deal, yet you still feel like a failure. You click away from your inbox and back to the project you’re working on, but you can’t concentrate. Your body feels shaky and unsettled.
Even though there’s loads of evidence that proves you’re a smart, effective professional, the terrible feeling of imposter syndrome lingers. It takes three full hours to regain your composure.
If so, then you may be one of the 20 percent of people who fall into the category of being a highly sensitive person (HSP).
Highly Sensitive Person Characteristics
Biologically speaking, highly sensitive people pick up on more stimuli within and around them. According to research by Elaine Aron, the researcher who originally discovered the trait, HSPs inherited a special set of genes that leads to having a more highly attuned nervous system.
That means HSPs notice more details and process information more thoroughly than others. Studies have shown that the HSP brain is more active in areas related to attention, emotion, action-planning, decision-making, and having strong internal experiences.
Being highly sensitive is an invaluable trait that comes with many advantages. HSPs are known to be highly observant, intuitive, thoughtful, compassionate, empathetic, conscientious, loyal, and creative. In fact, managers consistently rate people with higher sensitivity as their top contributors. As professionals, HSPs are innovative, deeply committed to fairness, and have a knack for leading teams of people in a way others simply can’t.
At the same time, hyper-attunement to every minor interaction and inner experience can be draining. Situations that might be moderately stressful to the average person can cause a sensitive person to spiral into emotional reactivity and overthinking.
This is especially true for Sensitive Strivers – highly sensitive people who are also high achieving. The concept of sensitive striving comes out of my decade of researching and coaching driven, top-performers at Fortune 500 companies like Google and Facebook. Sensitive Strivers not only have typical traits of HSPs (including depth of processing and emotional responsiveness) but also show above-average ambition and an appetite for continual growth.
Many Sensitive Strivers are former star students who bring that same dedication, reliability, and goal-orientation into the workplace. But while many Sensitive Strivers rise quickly in their careers, they often face a daily battle with stress, anxiety, and self-doubt.
14 Signs You’re Highly Sensitive Person
Wondering if you have the traits of a highly sensitive person? If you relate to most of the following, you can confidently call yourself an HSP.
1. YOU’RE EXTREMELY EMPATHETIC
HSPs possess a keen ability to sense others’ feelings, needs, insecurities, etc. Science proves it: HSPs are shown to have more active mirror neurons, which are responsible for understanding other people’s emotions. Your emotional intelligence and empathy make you a master at communication, conflict resolution, and inspiring others to action. Unfortunately, you may also slip into people-pleasing and putting others’ needs ahead of your own.
2. YOU CHERISH REFLECTION
As a highly sensitive person, you operate best when you have the opportunity to pause before responding. In other words, you need time and space to reflect. You pick up on nuances and are skilled at making connections and integrating complex information. Just make sure you are creating the proper boundaries to give yourself the chance to process all that you are constantly taking in.
3. You’re used to hearing “don’t take things so personally”
HSPs tend to react more strongly to situations, both good and bad. As an HSP, you may have felt out of place growing up, wondering why you were so deeply affected by the world around you while others brushed it off easily. Because HSPs sense and react so intensely, they often report feeling isolated – like there is something wrong with them for being so sensitive. As a result, many HSPs spend years denying their gifts and strengths.
4. YOU FREEZE UNDER PRESSURE
Working under a deadline might make you anxious. Speaking up in meetings is a huge challenge. Having too many things on your to-do list sends you into a state of overwhelm. These are all common experiences for HSPs because we are stressed more easily. That’s why is essential to learn how to manage your nerves and fears to contribute in the workplace, and to find ways to manage your time and take care of yourself so you don’t become overstimulated.
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5. YOU’RE AT HOME INSIDE YOUR HEAD
HSPs have vibrant inner lives. This means you are an incredibly original, creative thinker who is extremely self-aware. On the flip side, your brain is often racing. It’s not uncommon for you to overthink and over-analyze day-to-day experiences, and your above-average self-awareness can veer into self-consciousness and self-criticism.
6. YOU HAVE A TOUGH TIME WITH NEGATIVE FEEDBACK
Because they are sensitive to subtleties, HSPs react more strongly to criticism than non-HSPs. Therefore, they may go out of their way to avoid being criticized, such as by working extra-hard, which leads to burnout.
7. YOU’RE DELIBERATE IN THE WAY YOU MAKE DECISIONS
HSPs are maximizers, meaning they often struggle to make decisions out of fear of choosing the “wrong” option even if the stakes are low. Because HSPs are so conscientious about how their decisions impact others or how they may be perceived, all choices—even small ones—carry immense weight.
8. YOU’RE ON TOP OF THE DETAILS
HSPs are extremely perceptive. They pick up on the specifics of situations and notice the tiniest changes—from pointing out that the CEO has a habit of always wearing the same suit Tuesdays to catching typos in a presentation. This detail-orientation is a positive trait in many scenarios. You’re highly attuned to others’ likes, dislikes, and preferences, and that perceptiveness can win you friends and allies right off the bat. On the flip side, your meticulousness can turn into perfectionism if you don’t manage it carefully. Remember, sometimes done is better than perfect.
9. YOU EXUDE KINDNESS
If you’re often complimented on your politeness, courtesy, and clear understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong, you have many of the characteristics of an HSP. You’re probably the champion of integrity and upholding your word at the office. While these traits are important to creating harmony and likability, HSPs can be easily peeved by difficult co-workers who don’t share the same traits or values.
10. YOU’RE A PROBLEM SOLVER
Commitment and dedication are qualities that make HSPs great team members. Always attentive to the environment, HSPs are able to sense conflict, mitigate problems, and flag new opportunities.
11. YOU NOTICE WHAT OTHERS MISS
Ever left a meeting and remarked about your boss’ incessant pen-tapping only for your co-worker to say, “Oh, I didn’t notice that”? Highly sensitive people attune to and process noise, chaos, and other external stimuli profoundly, so what may be a major annoyance to you could go pretty much unnoticed by a non-HSP.
12. YOU GO THROUGH TISSUES LIKE IT’S YOUR JOB
Do you cry easily? HSPs become overwhelmed more quickly than others, and that often manifests itself in tears. It’s important to realize that while you may be able to manage your emotions more effectively, they are nothing to be ashamed of.
13. YOU ENJOY WORKING FROM HOME
Highly sensitive people often prefer work environments where they can control the external stimuli, such as how well-lit, quiet, or uncluttered their workspace is, making them partial to working from home as opposed to an office with an open layout.
14. YOU SEEK MEANING AND PURPOSE
Unlike most people, HSPs have the rare strength of being able to be alone without being lonely, enabling them to be more productive and satisfied by intrinsic factors (such as finding enjoyment in their work), rather than external ones (such as money or prestige). You are the type of person who looks for work that feels like a calling, rather than taking a job just for a paycheck. You are driven to make an impact but can sometimes get so emotionally invested in your professional life that balance and your well-being go out the window.
If you can relate to any of the above scenarios and have spent your life confused and upset for acting these ways, better understanding the qualities that compose the HSP profile can shed light on some of your challenges.
Next time you’re feeling totally out of sync with other people around you, think instead about ways that you can use these traits as gifts and leverage them as strengths.
Get My Book: Trust Yourself
Groundbreaking and insightful, TRUST YOURSELF is essential reading for every sensitive, introverted professional. Wilding does a brilliant job of giving you tools to regain your confidence and become your most empowered self.
––Susan Cain, author of Quiet and creator of Quiet Revolution
Trust Yourself offers a neuroscience-based blueprint based on decades of research and client work to help you break free from stress, self-doubt, and perfectionism so you can regain your confidence at work and reclaim control of your life.
In Trust Yourself, discover how to:
- Achieve confidence and overcome imposter syndrome
- Find your voice to speak and act with assertiveness
- Build resilience and bounce back from setbacks
- Enjoy your success without sacrificing your well-being
If you’re an empathetic, driven person trying to navigate your career and learn how to believe in yourself in the process, Trust Yourself offers the mindset and tools to set you on the path to personal and professional fulfillment.