Did you know that research shows at least 20% of the population has the temperament trait of being highly sensitive (known as HSP)*? This may be recognized as having the feelings of overwhelm or thinking / feeling deeply about past memories, current events or even anticipation about the future. Thinking about the planet’s future, uncontrollable weather events, politics, or relationships may seem at times overwhelming for highly sensitive people. Watching the news may sometimes be too difficult to bear. On the other hand, these same people may be tremendously touched by joyous or positive emotions…. or feel deeply in reaction to music, art, or anything that may stimulate their senses. For people with HSP, the emotional dial can be at times extremely difficult to regulate.
Perhaps if you are reading this you may be one of them, or at least know someone that is. For these people, the times we are going through now are even tougher to handle than average. At the same time, we are asking people and leaders to be more empathetic and to listen to others concerns and emotions. For those leaders in the 20% HSP bucket, the two may become impossible to combine. However, my message is that if you are one of these sensitive people, combining this trait with empathy (if well managed) can be extremely powerful. Highly sensitive people have the power to make a huge impact on the world, and we need you now more than ever!
As a highly sensitive person myself, one of my prior coping mechanisms was to over-regulate. This may have taken the shape of being less available emotionally or even physically. As a leader, these were the days I would want to close my door or keep the camera off. I may have reacted by not letting people get too close, as the fear of vulnerability or letting people see my emotional instability was very real. At the same time, what was needed in some of these instances more than ever was my presence, was my availability, and my leadership. Reflecting back, I realized that it was not that I was an un-empathetic leader, but that empathy combined with sensitivity was something I sometimes could not reconcile.
So what do we do if we are highly sensitive, and our teams and organizations are asking for even more of us? How can we remain empathetic when all we sometimes want to do is stay underneath the covers each morning? A few steps I have taken on board that may also be of help to you:
1. Empathy does not mean having to solve someone else’s problem.
As a leader, we do our best to make certain decisions in the best interest of our customers, our organizations and our employees. We listen to challenges and help create environments where they can be solved as effectively as possible. However, the various emotions of everyone in your organization can not be your responsibility. You can regulate your own emotions and you can listen. You can offer compassion and curiosity. You can offer productive and inclusive behaviors. However, you can not manage how other people feel, only they can do that.
2. We are all human beings - “be” an example.
Sometimes we forget that we are all going through this emotional roller coaster of a ride together. We can not always keep it together. We can not always perfectly regulate our emotions. Of course, we all attempt to not “bring all our baggage to work”. Imagine the consequences if everyone did :) However, sometimes especially as leaders we want to see the “real” you. If we show our vulnerability, it gives others the permission to do so. (With this, please refer back to point #1)
3. High sensitivity is not a weakness; it can be extremely powerful.
Now, I am not suggesting that we go “full-on” sensitive in every meeting and interaction. We need to also protect ourselves to a certain extent and know where/when/how to show our sensitive side. However, by using our sensitivity we can inspire others. We can take great action on our emotional reactions that may trigger us to take more action than others. We can create an emotionally inspiring vision and a call to action for change. If used properly, we can move organizations towards that vision by leveraging our deep senses and activating them in others.
If you are interested in this, and would like to learn more about HSP and its great powers, you can watch a great documentary called Sensitive: the Untold Story. I loved it and hope that you enjoy it as well.