When I sit down to write an article, it’s often to share my little adventures away from the rat race. But with mountains off the agenda right now, I thought I’d try something different by writing a post that’s a little more personal.
I’m conscious readers don’t know a lot about me. I’m quite a private individual, so other than knowing I’m a former lawyer who’s found solace in the mountains, you’ve had to form your own impression about the kind of person I am from my writing, the photographs I take and the messages I share about work-life balance.
What might not be so obvious is that I also have a super power: I’m a highly sensitive person, or HSP. It’s something I’ve only recently labelled and embraced. So this article is a chance to share a little more about what goes on in my highly sensitive head.
Is that a thing?
The notion of being a HSP is still relatively unknown, despite being nothing new. It’s still seen by many as not a real thing. People think it’s just being shy, or lacking in self-confidence – qualities rarely in demand when framed against the majority view of what it means to be successful in life. I was often labelled as a reserved child in my early years but, once I found my stride, and in situations where I feel comfortable, you’d think I were the most confident person in the room. So I don’t buy in to this idea.
This article seeks to dispel these myths and explain what it means to be a HSP. But it also comes from a desire to reassure. That it’s okay to observe a different set of measures when it comes to success and happiness. Understanding my own highly sensitive temperament has clarified many experiences from my past. It’s empowered me to navigate my life as I choose, and not cave in to the expectations of the majority.
What does it mean to be highly sensitive?
Being highly sensitive has a number of traits. There’s a common theme of being easily over-stimulated in everyday situations. So loud noises, busy restaurants, bright lights and sudden changes to routine can all be difficult to handle. We tend to be deep thinkers and analyse tiny details. This means we can worry unnecessarily, and agonise over the simplest of decisions. But it also means we have a high degree of empathy; we detect subtle shifts in mood and experience others’ feelings as if they were our own.
HSPs usually hate small talk. But we do enjoy profound and more meaningful exchanges. We prefer to be in control of our immediate surroundings and find spontaneity more challenging. I don’t like it when I have too many different tasks to do. If my e-mail inbox has more than a couple of things in it, I start to sweat.
These traits give HSPs incredible powers of observation. I’ll notice things about others: they’ve got new glasses, have subtly changed their hair, are wearing a different perfume or a new shirt. I’ll remember details like birthdays, telephone numbers and wifi passwords, particularly if there’s a strong emotional connection. I experience things like music, art and picturesque scenery intensely. I’m sensitive to smells, sounds and tastes, which can make life feel incredibly vibrant but also make more unpleasant sensations particularly distressing.
My friends often describe me as being ‘anal’. I prefer ‘conscientious’! I’ll prepare for different eventualities and tend to perform well at tasks, especially when given chance to prepare. Public speaking is a classic example. I quite enjoy the speaking part but would rather avoid questions at the end. Although others might not spot my discomfort, I am deeply aware of it and can suffer from imposter syndrome. The time-honoured metaphor of the swan gliding effortlessly across the water while its legs paddle furiously beneath the surface best sums it up.
Why does it make life difficult?
Typical social activities, like going for a drink with friends or eating a meal in a restaurant aren’t always the relaxing occasions they should be. The background din of a bar with lots of people, loud music and sudden bouts of laughter make focusing on the immediate conversation exhausting. I’m always the first to leave a party. Or the one to suggest eating early at a quiet restaurant, which many would think had ‘little atmosphere’.
It’s not just a social thing either. Everyday situations like being in a city, passing through a busy train station or heading to an airport can be draining. Even though I’m fascinated by these places, it’s hard to relax anywhere there is lots going on. Everywhere we look, brands compete for our attention. Life is all about progress and growth: being bigger, faster, better. Piloting this landscape as a HSP can be frustrating and make you feel out of place.
HSPs need to build in more down-time than most. We need space to think things through. To process the events of the day. Some might see us as lazy, or unambitious, or be offended when we turn down an invitation. Yet some of the most driven people I know are highly sensitive; they just have to steer a different path in order to thrive.
We don’t like to be rushed, whether that’s making an important life decision or ordering from a fast-food outlet. If I’m buying something more elaborate, like a new gadget or piece of outdoor equipment, I’ll research and weigh-up every possible option, often ending up knowing more about the product than the person trying to sell it to me.
There’s still far too much pigeon-holing of the sexes and I think that makes it especially difficult to be a man who is highly sensitive. There’s still this idea that men should be ‘tough’. From an early age, we hear things like ‘man up’, ‘don’t be so sensitive’, ‘big boys don’t cry’. Millennials are labelled ‘snowflakes’ when they demand a better work-life balance. I was told to ‘sink or swim’ when I reached out for help during a stressful period as a newly-qualified lawyer. It’s likely no accident that highly sensitive men often prefer the company of women – perhaps we relate more to the female typecast in a world that still recognises the idea of typical masculinity. Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t need to be defined by these archaic stereotypes?
Why does it matter in the modern workplace?
Think about the typical office environment. Offices are increasingly open-plan. You are constantly on show with little privacy. Air-conditioning units and printers buzz constantly in the background. Intense strip lights illuminate the space. Several telephone conversations are taking place as colleagues pace past your desk. People are stressed with deadlines to meet. Targets to exceed. Too busy to listen. HSPs are constantly aware of, and reacting to, each of these stimuli.
Then there’s the work itself. It’s increasingly the case that people want quick decisions. Little value is placed on detail or considered responses. Customers demand speed and high-level summaries. There’s a culture of churning stuff out and getting things off our desks.
There’s no downtime either. Training sessions are held as working lunches or breakfast briefings outside of office hours. Networking events take place in the evenings: in bustling bars with lots of small talk about how busy we all are. Thrive in these environments and you’ll invariably get on in the corporate world.
A HSP’s skills lie in their attention to detail. We are happy doing tasks which require concentration and take time. But we are pressured by others to spend our working days sending one line e-mails, or, even worse, ‘having a quick call’ to get things off our desks. We come up with creative ideas but can’t get a word in edgeways in frenetic department meetings. We show a high degree of empathy with colleagues, customers and other organisations we work with but are expected to be robust, thick-skinned and hard-nosed.
I’m generalising, of course. But experience suggests that even in the more traditional professions, there’s a growing demand for speed, efficiency and, in some cases, the relentless pursuit of growth. Traits like attention to detail, empathy, creativity and sensitivity are sidelined in favour of quick decision-making and short term deadlines, performance and metrics.
How did I know?
I’ve always felt I might experience things differently from most people but only discovered the term ‘highly sensitive’ in the last couple of years. At school, I would become emotional when singing hymns in assembly. I was incredibly fussy about clothing. Anything scratchy or too tight gave me a stomach ache. I was a terribly picky eater too. It wasn’t always the taste, but the texture, smell or appearance of certain foods.
I didn’t like the usual hobbies of my peers, preferring hill-walking, music and nature to football, WWF wrestling and Nerf guns. At university, I wasn’t interested in drinking or heading to clubs. I was lucky to have some amazing friends who liked all sorts of different things but it can feel lonely when so many social occasions revolve around drink.
When I started my first office job, I hated the modern, open plan setting, high up in the latest glass high-rise in the city. Everything from using the telephone, water-cooler chat and networking events made me cringe. My fellow trainee solicitors were keen to stay at the office all hours and embrace an active social life with clients and colleagues. I preferred to leave on time and go for a walk on my lunch break.
After stumbling across a newspaper article about HSPs, I read a number of books about the subject. All of a sudden, my life made sense. It was a huge relief.
How to cope
The most important thing I’ve learnt is to accept who you are. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not, just to fit into a particular environment and meet with the expectations of others. Be proud of your achievements, your passions and the super powers you have.
Try to accept your feelings and don’t be afraid to open up. Our ability to feel the lows as well as the highs is what makes us human. See if you can embrace this and casually observe your emotions, rather than get caught up in them.
Reconnect with old friends and let go of those with whom you can’t be yourself. Make sure you take enough time for yourself. Navigating daily life can be exhausting so build quiet moments into your routine, even if it means saying no to things more often. Your friends will understand and you’ll probably find your relationships are strengthened because of it.
Be sure to take regular exercise – ideally outdoors. Connect with nature. Smell the air, touch the bark of trees and listen to birds singing. Be in awe of the tiny details you’ll automatically notice as a HSP.
One of the harder things you can do is to embrace imperfection. Acknowledge that you might be living by unrealistic standards and rules and that your view of ‘perfect’ isn’t necessarily someone else’s. Try not to get too drawn in to thoughts of ‘what if’. Agonising over every detail is sometimes a good thing. But there are times when you just need to take a risk and grab opportunities before someone else does.
Be honest about where your strengths lie and play to them. There will be times when you need to venture out of your comfort zone. When that is the case, ask yourself if the temporary discomfort is worth the longer term reward. But don’t be afraid to break the mould too. If your colleagues are all heading to big networking events, why not arrange your own gatherings in a more intimate setting, doing things you enjoy with more like-minded folk? Taking a different approach often gets you noticed.
This sounds like me
If anything in this post resonates with you then I recommend you check out the work of Dr Elaine Aron. Her website has a quick questionnaire you can answer to determine if you might be highly sensitive. And her numerous books offer up an abundance of information.
For highly sensitive men (and those who care about them), I also recommend The Highly Sensitive Man by Tom Falkenstein. As well as volunteering strategies for living well as a highly sensitive man, the book explores what it all means against a historic backdrop of ‘toxic masculinity’.
It is hoped that by being more open about the highly sensitive temperament, more people can better understand the benefits of the unique gifts we can offer the world. And failing that, at least you now know a little bit more about me!