Constituting an estimated 15-20% of the population, highly sensitive people (HSPs) are defined as individuals with heightened sensitivity to environmental stimuli (Aron, 1996/2016). It may be common to assume that highly sensitive simply refers to a high level of emotionality (i.e., someone who is always feeling). However, the term—coined in the 1990’s by psychologist and researcher Dr. Elaine Aron—has a far more technical definition. Sometimes referred to as Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS) in scientific and research settings (Malinakova et al., 2021), HSPs are highly sensitive to their environment, registering subtle physical and emotional cues and sensory stimuli such as smells, sounds, sensations, and light (Aron, 1996/2016). In any given moment, an HSP is processing extensive internal and external cues and as a result, they tend to reach their threshold for overstimulation sooner than others. In short, HSPs’ heightened sensory sensitivity can be attributed to their processing of subtle information cues that others may not even register. The outward manifestation is often someone who appears highly intuitive, sensing, empathic, and, as natural consequence, more easily overstimulated by their environment.
In an American cultural setting where sensitivity is often perceived as a weakness, it is easy to overlook the many advantages of being highly sensitive. HSPs tend to have deep empathy, diplomacy, strong listening skills, intuition, creativity, thoughtfulness, attention to detail, and reflective capabilities (Aron, 1996/2016). This makes them particularly skilled at roles in helping, artistic, philosophical, spiritual, and academic professions—though these strengths lend themselves to many settings.
How Career Services Can Aid Highly Sensitive Clients
Though awareness of HSPs has grown in recent decades, career professionals may not be familiar with the term. And even those well versed on this population may be unsure of how to incorporate their understanding into career advising. However, given the unique professional needs of many HSPs, career services play a critical role in helping them thrive in professional spaces. The following three considerations offer a starting point for career services providers when working with HSPs.
1. Don’t Stop at the Label: Seek Understanding
When someone shares that they are an HSP, career service providers first need to learn what that means for that individual. To qualify to be an HSP based on Dr. Aron’s definition, 14 or more of the 27 criteria listed on Aron’s questionnaire must be met, resulting in a diversity of symptom configurations grouped under one umbrella label (Aron, 1996). Career service providers can help clients explore the way that sensitivity uniquely manifests in their life, identifying specific strategies and solutions to address challenges and amplify strengths. The label of HSP isn’t the answer- it is the starting point to gaining more information about how a person operates and what they need to be happy in their professional life.
2. Intuition May Lead to Overwhelm When Exploring Careers
As Dr. Aron notes, HSPs are often guided—to their great benefit—by their intuition, juggling many perspectives and possibilities all while sensing the way forward (1996/2016). However, this strength may backfire in the job search process. HSPs can feel overwhelmed by different internal voices and perspectives (as well as subtle cues from external sources such as family and friends), each offering a different possibility, vocational calling, or vision. This may manifest as a client pulled in many directions: they want to serve others but worry they should be prioritizing their artistic passions; they dream of a family-focused life while simultaneously wondering if a better focus would be their spirituality. As a result, highly intuitive HSPs may start feeling overwhelmed with all the thoughts swirling around in their head when searching for a vocation. To help HSPs avoid the swirl of thoughts and feelings, and better understand the realities of different career paths, career service providers can encourage clients to balance their intuition and hunches with fact-finding and information gathering. Sessions might focus on supporting HSPs in their decision-making process by helping them narrow their list of options (i.e., identifying 2-3 realistic possibilities that best align with their values), weigh advantages/disadvantages (i.e., using a pro/con list), and try things on for size (i.e., job shadowing, informational interviews). Facts create a map of information from which intuition can provide compass-like guidance. To get to one’s career destination, individuals need both a map and a compass.
3. Avoid Reinforcing Stigma by Circumscribing Where HSPs Should Work
For HSPs who struggle in certain work environments, it can be easy to internalize this as a sign of being ill-suited for the job. The unfortunate outcome is that many HSPs leave the very spaces that need them the most. (I would argue that business settings are sorely in need of empathic, diplomatic, and thoughtful leaders). When HSPs are discouraged from certain fields, the diversity of those spaces is limited and stigmas are reinforced. It is unhelpful, unethical, and inaccurate for the career service provider to hand an HSP a list of jobs to avoid and not offer additional support. The goal is not to avoid certain jobs, it is to approach those spaces in ways that are congruent with the client’s needs and the requirements of the role. Learning about being an HSP can help clients identify techniques to manage overarousal in particularly stressful environments. For example, as Melody Wilding LMSW suggests, a highly sensitive employee could designate time alone in their office before a stressful business meeting to meditate or could utilize noise-cancelling headphones throughout the day (Wilding, 2023). Admittedly, some professions may seem more favorable for HSPs than others (i.e., clergy, therapist, librarian). But all people could be miserable in any job if the environment is not right (consider an HSP therapist who works in a loud, chaotic facility with insensitive supervisors). It is better to focus on ideal environments, not broad categories of conducive jobs.
Doing the Work
Career service professionals serve an important function in helping HSPs navigate their professional life. They can support HSP clients by:
Though these considerations offer a starting point, more research and exploration are needed to further understand how to best support HSPs in their career development.
Aron, E. N. (1996). Are you highly sensitive? https://hsperson.com/test/highly-sensitive-test/
Aron, E. N. (2016). The highly sensitive person: How to thrive when the world overwhelms you. Harmony. (Original work published 1996)
Malinakova, K., Novak, L., Trnka, R., & Tavel, P. (2021). Sensory Processing Sensitivity Questionnaire: A psychometric evaluation and associations with experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(24), 12962. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph182412962
Wilding, M. (2023, February 20). Why being a highly sensitive person could be your greatest professional asset. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/90851501/why-being-a-highly-sensitive-person-could-be-your-greatest-professional-asset
Hannah Fuller, MA, Mental Health Counselor Associate, CSP, is a counselor and HSP residing in Seattle, Washington. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shelly Trent, CMCS on Tuesday 05/02/2023 at 11:43 PM
Thank you for this article. As a HSP myself, and a career coach, I can't tell you the number of times coworkers and bosses have told me I'm too sensitive. I have been criticized for it throughout my life, including having it mentioned numerous times on performance reviews. My sensitivity is more than emotional; I am also sensitive to sounds (like when my husband has the TV on and is listening to a video on his tablet or someone drops dishes in a restaurant), touch (I remove the labels in my clothing because I can't stand to have labels touch my skin), sights (there are certain things I just can't look at), etc. I'm glad that HSP is finally coming to light with the general public and the counseling arena. I think anyone who supervises others should be educated about HSPs.
Jessica Edwards, LPC, CCC on Monday 05/01/2023 at 06:31 PM
Hannah, I was truly excited to see an article with a topic around HSPs as it is a topic near and dear to me! I will be sharing it with our state CDA in the May newsletter. Thank you for a well-written article along with some new to me resources!