How to Handle “You’re Too Sensitive” When You Hear It at Work

I am almost 40 years old and have been highly sensitive since I was a small child. Almost my whole life, I have heard the following phrases regularly:

  • “You’re too sensitive”;
  • “Don’t take things so personally”;
  • “You need to toughen up”; and
  • “You are never going to get anywhere in life if you keep going as you are”.

Naturally, I felt that there was something very wrong with me and I didn’t know how to be “tougher” like others in my life, no matter how much I tried.

Having a highly sensitive nature has not only been a challenge in my personal life, but also in my professional life. Although my friends and family are more accepting of my sensitivity, I cannot expect that my boss, colleagues and clients will understand me. Therefore, the workplace can be a challenging environment and sometimes the most I can hope for in a day, is to simply survive it with my dignity intact. However, I have thrived in workplaces where my bosses have been positive and encouraging, my workmates are friendly and stakeholders are easy to work with.

My stories

I have experienced a number of situations during my career that have hurt and upset me.

Many years ago, I started working in a publishing company. I was very excited as I had always wanted to work in publishing – I love books and the written word. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm was short lived as I joined a team where I was bullied.

A tall, blonde girl in the team (Lydia), took a disliking to me straight away and managed to influence the rest of the members of the team, so that they all seemed to dislike and exclude me. A birthday lunch would be organised for a member of the team but I would not be asked to sign the birthday card nor be invited to lunch. I would attend team meetings and be ignored. I would try to talk to Lydia but she wasn’t interested in any kind of relationship with me. I was very upset at being treated this way in the team and would often spend lunchtimes in tears, calling family and friends for comfort and support.

Eventually, I mentioned to my manager that I was being bullied by Lydia and excluded by the rest of the team but it turned out that she was also intimidated by Lydia and was not able to help me. I persevered in the team for almost a year but as things were not improving, I felt that my best option was to look for another job. In the end, I was lucky to secure a job in another team in the company, which was friendly and inclusive.

More recently, I was bullied in another company, this time by my manager. Although the manager and I had had a good relationship for some time, I noticed things suddenly changed after a year. She became very critical of my performance and started micromanaging me. Nothing I did was ever good enough for her. Devastated by her constant negative feedback, I went to see a higher level manager to let her know about the situation and I was told was that I was “too sensitive” and needed to learn not to take it personally.

As my manager continued to be critical and unwilling to accept my feedback, I finally resigned, realising that my mental health was more important than work and money. I took a break to focus on my health and recover. When I was ready, I was able to gain a new job that suited me better and that was in a more positive environment.

Tactics for HSPs to survive at work

Although highly sensitive people make up around 15 to 20 percent of the population, which is quite significant, they are likely to face misunderstanding and a lack of acceptance of their unique personality type in the workplace, as I have experienced on many occasions. However, there are ways to survive at the office to ensure that you still perform at your best and most importantly, that your mental health stays intact, without necessarily having to leave your job or the workplace. My advice is:

  • If a colleague or manager at work calls you “too sensitive”, you could try having a one-on-one chat with the person, to find out why they have labelled you this way and to explain to them that this is your personality and that you need to be accepted as you are.
  • Failing that, bring up the issue with a manager or higher level manager, to inform them that being labelled as “too sensitive” at work is inappropriate and to seek a resolution with the colleague or manager.
  • If you feel very emotional because you don’t feel understood in the workplace, it might be best to go outside and go for a walk, get some fresh air and have some time to calm down, so that you can return to work feeling more rational.
  • Make friends in the office so that you don’t feel alone and have someone to talk to, when needed. However, you do need to make sure you can trust these friends if you confide in them and that they do not disclose your conversation to anyone else.
  • See a counsellour to get a different perspective on your work situation and the best ways of dealing with it.
  • Exercise – a walk in the park or at the beach can do wonders as can yoga or dance or whatever exercise you love to do.
  • Self care – and lots of it! Do what makes you feel good and gets you through the day, whether it’s having a nice coffee, getting a facial or massage, talking to a friend, going for a walk in the sun or reading your favourite book. It’s important to look after you!

HSPs can be an asset to the workplace

Despite our tendency to get upset and out of sorts easily by what are considered “small things” (for example, someone ignoring us when they usually say “hello” to us everyday), highly sensitive people do have a lot to offer the workplace. They provide a high level of empathy and understanding to others, are often creative thinkers, have an eye for detail and tend to work very hard. You can be a highly sensitive person and still thrive in the workplace!

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