Intense Emotions: How to Cope With Hypersensitivity at Work

  • August 1, 2019

Joy, anger, fear, sadness, pleasant surprise, or downright disgust—we all run through a full range of emotions every day. They are essential to many of our thought processes, such as when we make decisions, take action, or step back from something. Even anger or frustration can be linked to self-protection. However, people who are hypersensitive feel these core emotions much more intensely. How does their heightened sensitivity express itself? What impact does it have on their careers and professional relationships? What is daily life really like for them? We get an insider’s perspective on this personality trait—both invaluable and debilitating—from Margaux, a communications officer who was diagnosed with hypersensitivity.

A sensitive issue

The rundown

Hypersensitivity is a personality trait that is characterized by heightened emotivity and extreme responsiveness to stimuli. When it comes to their surroundings and emotions—and the emotions of others—hypersensitive people have feelings that are more intense than most. In other words, whether positive or negative, their emotional response to any given situation might be exaggerated.

It also has its pros and cons. For example, hypersensitive people are extremely empathetic, intuitive, creative, compassionate, thoughtful, modest, gentle and loyal, but they are also easily offended, irritable, anxious, withdrawn, uptight, thin-skinned and often tend to feel like they’re under attack. They sense emotions on the horizon, forecasting emotional blue skies or storms brewing long before other people.

Margaux explains how she is usually the first to sense how others are feeling: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought: ‘That person is in a bad mood. I don’t know why, but something just isn’t right.’ Their usual response is that everything is fine, but then it turns out just how I expected, and my intuition is proved correct once again.”

This emotional sixth sense is characteristic of hypersensitive people. According to workplace success coach Melody Wilding, they are so highly receptive that they react more strongly to environmental stimuli and notice more details than other people.

Expression

Heightened sensitivity can often lead to feelings of social inadequacy and awkwardness. The workplace is governed by a rational framework of specific codes such as bureaucracy, procedure, self-control, and social participation. As such, it can be an anxiety-provoking environment for those who are hypersensitive because it implicitly discourages emotional excess. At the same time, work by its very nature exposes us to stress, criticism, and the often exorbitant demands of others.

Hypersensitive people are quick to feel the pressure and might experience continuous mental and physical fatigue as a result of their fluctuating emotions.

Margaux explains how this intensity plays out in her daily life: “First of all, my body is hypersensitive. I’m either too hot or too cold most of the time, and I’ve had several skin problems. My body struggles to adapt to my surroundings. As far as my emotions are concerned, they are up and down—I can go from feeling euphoric to sad in a split second. It’s hard for me to accept the idea of disappointing others, and I can’t cope when coworkers or managers raise their voices. If someone criticizes me too bluntly, I might just burst into tears.”

Perception

This excessive emotional response means that hypersensitive people are at risk of being emotional sponges in the workplace. They sometimes struggle to find their place in the professional world because it is somewhat of a gamble.

As Margaux points out: “My professional life has been pretty chaotic. By the age of 29, I’d worked in more than a dozen offices and had five jobs—things were either perfect or disastrous but never in between. I sometimes found supportive teams that worked like a family, which was amazing. However, more often than not, I found myself working with teams where I felt misunderstood and sidelined. I felt like a freak because the little universe around me went on without a hitch, and I couldn’t get over certain things or mental blocks.”

This extreme sensitivity, unfamiliar to most, can often lead to misunderstandings. Margaux can attest to this: “I need more recognition than the average person. Because of this, people think I’m a suck-up or show-off. I guess I’m pretty hard to read. At the same time, hypersensitive temperaments are extremely in demand in the professional world; they are deeply committed and, because of their acute attention to detail and innate powers of observation, they naturally go above and beyond what’s written in the job description. They bring a host of soft skills to any team, and help foster better communication, creativity, and authenticity.”

Identifying hypersensitivity

A diagnosis that lacks legitimacy

Hypersensitivity is generally not recognized as an illness, even though sufferers can get help from a psychiatrist or life coach. So how do you know if you are suffering from hypersensitivity?

For Margaux, it took time to understand: “The trigger was when I realized that what seemed unfair and unacceptable to me was perfectly normal and routine to others. I thought to myself: ‘But this is insane—why isn’t anyone saying anything when what’s happening to me is so painful?’ So I started talking about it to close friends and family—especially my brother, who encouraged me to see a psychiatrist so I could understand where all these emotional blocks came from—and it all became clear.”

The discrepancy in feelings that exist between a hypersensitive individual and so-called ‘normal people’ can, therefore, act as a kind of compass for sufferers.

Common traits

Without drawing up an exhaustive list of “symptoms” and making a diagnosis, it is nonetheless possible to assess an individual’s sensitivity in light of specific personality traits regularly observed in hypersensitive people. The Huffington Post, with the help of researcher Elaine N. Aron, has identified several common features.

Here are ten key characteristics of hypersensitive people:

  • They will go the extra mile to understand the things around them
  • They are very empathetic and attentive to other people and their surroundings
  • They prefer doing things alone, whether it’s in their free time or in their professional lives, because they feel less observed and less judged
  • They take longer to make decisions because they are naturally more aware of the variables and are often worried about making the wrong choice
  • They’re extremely detail-oriented
  • They work well in team settings: they are precise, conscientious, attentive, and strive for perfection
  • They’re more prone to anxiety or depression
  • They cry more easily
  • They have above-average manners
  • They are more sensitive to criticism, and as such, they are prone to do as much as possible to please others and may often seem self-deprecating and self-critical

Aggravating factors

A toxic work environment

Light, smells, noise levels, personal space, and air circulation in the workplace can be detrimental or challenging if you’re highly sensitive. For this reason, hypersensitive people generally prefer to work alone, in a quiet or enclosed office space.

Beyond these spatial requirements, this personality type needs a caring, friendly, and supportive professional environment in order to thrive, one which is governed by mutual understanding and avoids conflict, gossip, and mind games.As Margaux explains: “I need a great deal of recognition, especially when it comes to being on good terms with coworkers.” Because they are empaths, hypersensitive people struggle to work with and be managed by just anyone; they have a deep desire to feel connected to corporate and team values. Direction, nuance, and alignment inform their interpersonal preferences and allow them to flourish professionally. Finally, they are often more comfortable working in customer service or care sectors that embody humanist values.

Overwhelming activity

Working conditions, or the nature of the work itself, can exacerbate hypersensitivity. Margaux was forced to change career course to escape a job that didn’t suit her. She says: “I think that business activities should be different for everyone. For my part, I found that my weakness was sales. I had many sales jobs, and this sector is very challenging for a hypersensitive person like me because you are in constant contact with people all day, every day. I was euphoric whenever I made my team and my clients happy. But people are more inclined to say what’s wrong. I internalized criticism every day, and let it weigh heavily on me. It was unbearable, and that’s why I chose to change course.”

This in-depth article also recommends factoring in other considerations, starting with identifying your specific needs and abilities. From there, it’s much easier to ensure that your workplace is a supportive environment where you can own your differences, communicate them to others and thus better manage situations and tasks that aren’t a good match for intuitive, perfectionist, creative or introverted temperaments.

An era of hyper-connectivity

Hypersensitivity is no stranger to excessive demands. It is greatly amplified by the notifications, messages, images, and other stimuli that we receive continuously through emails, SMS, social media, appls, and our peers. It is more difficult than ever to escape our surroundings; with our attention spans limits and tolerance levels so quickly and irrevocably breached, emotions are bound to become overwhelming.

Learning to live with hypersensitivity

‘Know thyself’

Hypersensitivity, especially in the workplace, can hinder or even cripple sufferers, but ignoring it is the worst thing you can do. Margaux recalls a total lack of understanding on this subject, and the insensitivity of her coworkers: “When I tell people about my hypersensitivity, the overwhelming response is like, ‘Oh yeah, so that essentially means you cry when watching romantic comedies.’ But that’s far from the truth. It’s not a weakness either because I realize that I am more resilient than most in certain tough situations. It’s hard to accept the idea that you are different, that you are treated differently, when at first glance, you look like everyone else. It’s often assumed that we’re exaggerating or doing it on purpose—that it shows weakness of character or a lack of self-confidence, but that’s not true. I was born hypersensitive.”

Accepting and living with heightened sensitivity seems the best way to turn this trait into a strength. For Margaux, acceptance and introspection became her saving grace: “What helped me cope with my hypersensitivity was first of all understanding it and knowing myself. I believe that many challenges we now face can disappear or become more bearable if we take the trouble to understand them. Today I try to pre-empt situations that could negatively affect me by simply avoiding them or finding a suitable way to work around them.”

There are a few keys to personal development that help people deal with emotional overstimulation:

  • Find a quiet space by yourself or take a time-out to get some distance from an incident or situation
  • Embrace your emotions and learn to express your needs and feelings
  • Learn to let go and don’t just focus on the negative

Self-knowledge is all about being in tune with your likes and dislikes, understanding your limits and making sure you are prepared for life’s many challenges.

Power off your emotions

Another way of approaching a difficult task or situation is to divest it of all emotional charge. Instead of intellectualizing and overthinking the task at hand, try using the ‘deep work’ approach instead. Staying focused and getting rid of distractions helps us to make the most of our time. Ridding a situation of its negative, positive, painful, disturbing, annoying, or challenging energy by setting a time limit can help us to stay on track and increase productivity.

Surviving in the jungle

The professional world can be especially harsh for anyone with acute sensitivity. Here’s a selection of best practices that you can incorporate into your daily professional life to find the perfect balance between feelings, emotions, situations, and behaviors:

  • Take part in a recreational or creative activity that gives you a break and silences your inner critic
  • Get ready for sleep before bed with a relaxation ritual such as taking a bath, doing breathing exercises, meditating or reading, and by making sure you are in a quiet setting with dim lighting
  • Take regular breaks to get some alone time, escape the chaos and recharge your batteries
  • Master the art of saying no so that you aren’t overwhelmed by the demands of others

Put things in perspective—even your hypersensitivity

Generally speaking, the circumstances in which we live are neutral. It’s the thoughts we project onto these situations that generate a positive or negative emotion, as psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett rightly explained in her TED talk from 2017.

According to Professor Barrett, we can control the emotions we feel by learning to direct our thoughts. In seeing her hypersensitivity as an asset, Margaux has put this theory in practice: “Today, I like my hypersensitivity. I think I’m lucky that I can feel everything at 3,000%. Even if it’s sometimes really painful, it’s also what makes me extremely sensitive to my surroundings and compassionate, which has driven me to launch my charity. I often get the impression that people put blinkers on to make life more bearable. I don’t put them on, and I never want to.”

In this way, everything is relative, and we are responsible for putting things in perspective to moderate, slow down, or shift our thinking about what once seemed problematic. Margaux followed this strategy to confront her hypersensitivity: “I’m becoming indifferent to what other people feel about me—if someone likes me that’s great, but if someone doesn’t like me it’s not a big deal. I have finally realized that I have the right, like any other person, to affirm my position and my emotions, and above all, to say no.”

While society in general—and the workplace in particular—often value extrovert personality traits, such as sociability, self-confidence, and fearlessness, hypersensitivity is without doubt a professional asset. Being an emotional sponge is challenging, but it also allows you to look at the world differently, with an acute awareness of others and the environment, and an alert, thoughtful, empathetic, intuitive and analytical mind. The huge success of books about hypersensitivity is proof, including Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength by Laurie Hawkes or Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. It seems that sensitivity is finally getting the positive recognition it deserves.

Illustration by Antonio Uve

Translated by Andrea Schwam

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Elsa Sayagh

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