High Sensitivity & me: a feminine-defined working life
Updated: Mar 10
This is an amended version of an article first published in The Academic Woman in 2021
My research helps me understand that work provides many things that are good for my health – structure, meaning, purpose, social interaction. But I've also had several periods of stress-related ill-health during the course of my working life. I never mentioned this to anyone because for as long as I can remember, I have been called ‘over-sensitive’ or ‘too emotional’ and things that other people seem to shrug off or breeze through without a second thought would often knock me for six.
I always pick myself up again, but at the end of 2020, after a year of great difficulty for everyone, I knew this time was different – I was burnt out. Like many working women, I was also shouldering the lion’s share of parenting/home-schooling. With my usual support systems unavailable, I realised I needed to dig deep to understand how best to support myself.
High Sensitivity is normal
In conducting some personal research, I came across a body of empirical work by Dr Elaine Aron on High Sensitivity, also called Sensory-Processing Sensitivity (SPS). I had a complete light-bulb moment when I took the online test and scored full marks! It described me and how I experience life (and others’ reactions to me) down to a tee. I learnt that 15 to 20 percent of the population are Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) and that the condition is a normal temperament, not a disorder or impairment.
HSPs are creative, insightful and empathic, but they are also more prone to stress and overwhelm. Because the trait is poorly understood and not largely valued in Western culture, HSPs are often called shy, fearful, neurotic, sensitive and inhibited, resulting in low self-esteem and feeling abnormal. As a result, HSPs have often not learnt healthy self-assertion and they can become people-pleasers, taking on more and more to compensate and/or prove they can ‘hack it’. When the culmination of this affects their health, because of a lack of understanding, HSPs might blame themselves for not being ‘strong enough’. This vicious circle leaves many HSPs feeling unsupported, and as a result they may fall out of work unnecessarily, or fail to achieve their full potential in the workplace.
Finding this out helped me make sense of a lot of things about my own working life. Particularly when I found out that academia appeals to many HSPs because it provides us with an opportunity to use our strengths and conduct work that requires a deep focus and thoughtfulness. This made me wonder how many other people like me are drawn to academia as a career because they are HSPs, but don’t realise it. I feel it’s important to raise awareness of this because HSPs face many obstacles that other workers don’t. The Highly Sensitive Refuge (an online resource and community for HSPs) notes that as an HSP, a day at work involves more than just doing the job itself. It also means:
being aware of, and often unconsciously managing, the emotions of everyone else they work with
noticing all the subtle sounds, scents, and details that most people view as background
deeply processing every part of their day — and giving it far more of their mental energy than other people would.
In other words, work can be far more draining for HSPs than it is for others. Even on a good day, we may be overstimulated and out of energy by the time we finish. With its high degree of autonomy and flexibility, academia helps me manage my energetic day-to-day needs, but it can be extremely competitive. I struggle with rushed deadlines, having too many tasks, and I am particularly sensitive to common workplace stressors — including the environment and the different personalities of those I work with (virtual meetings are just as draining!). It’s clear that all too often, academia simply isn’t set up to accommodate or even show concern about these needs.
Celebrate High Sensitivity
This is a major oversight because the HSP skillset has tremendous value for academia. Relationships are particularly important to us, and we are supportive and encouraging to our colleagues/students. We pay attention to details, and take time to think things through before rushing into action – we are particularly observant and conscientious. As leaders, HSPs put a great emphasis on building consensus, which helps them bring together capable, loyal teams. And in all settings, they pick up on subtle nuance and have an intuitive sense for how to deal with people. However, because many of these skills are expected from women in particular, it becomes easy to overlook the needs of female HSPs in academia.
Burn-out is not an inevitable consequence of being highly productive, it is a sign of an unhealthy system. What we need – as, in fact, do most working women – is a new definition of what a successful and healthy working life looks like. Historically, these definitions have been provided by one half of the population only. A more feminine perspective would be a definition where traits like High Sensitivity are celebrated and cared for and where HSPs are given the support that’s needed to thrive at work.
I accept the reality that the majority of the working population are not HSPs, but trying to fit into a way of working that doesn’t honour my natural temperament is not good for my health. I don’t like the term ‘self-care’ (because it side-steps the collective responsibility that is required for a healthy working life) but this has had to be a priority for me. Self-care doesn’t mean spa treatments or bubble baths, it means saying “No” more often and having firm boundaries. This means I can say “Yes’ to those things that align with my values, needs and interests and therefore do a better job.
A way of working which aligns best to my High Sensitivity often means challenging our collective world views and societal programming which normalises overworking. Good health at work is now even more of a priority, and the current circumstances present us with an ideal opportunity to redefine work which supports health in new ways. We HSPs may have much to teach the rest of the workforce.