On Being Yourself in Competitive Workplaces by Scott Kerlin

On Being Yourself in Competitive Workplaces: Insights from an HSP

Have you ever started out on a career journey with plans of landing at one occupation—only to find out a few years later that you really wanted to be in one that is totally different?

This is a common challenge faced by HSPs as they evaluate their career aspirations and outcomes.

As an undergraduate student in the early 1970s, I was a highly introverted science geek (engineering student) with a painfully shy exterior.

Years later, I found my true passion as a graduate student in social sciences and psychology, and it led me to a lifelong career interest in counselling others about the world of work and professional development.

I’ve always known that I’m very sensitive and introspective, long before I encountered the concept of “highly sensitive person”.

Now, looking back over my career journey from the perspective of a new job as a college administrator in the San Francisco Bay region, I’ve been filled with insight about the highs and lows of my professional career journey.

I am aided in my exploration by a wonderful reference book, “Thrive! The Highly Sensitive Person and Career”, by Tracy M. Cooper, Ph.D.

When we enter a new workplace, especially in a job offered to us based on a series of competitive and gruelling job interviews, it’s often a challenge to assess the workplace climate for goodness-of-fit until a few weeks or even months into the job.

Job interviews typically conceal the true nature of future interpersonal working relationships with supervisors and co-workers.

In my experience, it typically takes six to nine months of daily life in a workplace before one can judge the quality of work life—and the likelihood of remaining in that same job beyond the first full year.

Dr. Cooper astutely observes that three factors have a significant impact on job satisfaction and fulfilment among HSPs in the workplace. They are (1) Physical Working Environment; (2) Opportunities to be Conscientious and Authentic; and (3) Positive and Cooperative Interpersonal Working Relationships.

If you are an HSP with experience in the world of work, you have likely gained insights about the conditions you need in order to be able to survive and excel at your job. Consider the following goals for success:

  • Develop an acute understanding of your innate processes of thought and social interaction
  • Overcome the inhibiting effects of others’ expectations and judgments
  • Choose occupational settings that allow you to thrive emotionally and intellectually
  • Find your own passions, honour your deep commitment to empathy, and allow yourself adequate time to cultivate trust in building bonds with others at work
  • Be fully aware of your own personal code of values, ethics, and needs for harmony in the workplace
  • Recognize your inherent vulnerabilities and fears of rejection or exclusion
  • Understand your relationship with power and with power differences in organizational relationships; respect your preference for collaborative working relationships whenever possible
  • Allow yourself to set goals for your personal growth, assess your success at attaining them frequently, and expand your ability to take risks
  • Recognize your optimal level of stress for achieving your best work, and strive to create working conditions that enhance your peak performance
  • Find allies in your workplace who value you just as you are. Reach out to them often, form supportive alliances, and let them know you value having them as your colleagues

Perhaps no other goal is more important for HSPs than the mindful practice of self-care: honouring our need to protect our well-being, manage our stress, yet still thrive and grow. I recommend a nightly ritual of meditation, peaceful music, and plenty of rest.

So, dear reader, I have one big question to ask you as you venture forward in your career journey:

What are the three most important things you have learned about yourself in your career that you would like to strengthen in the year ahead? What steps can you take this month to begin to make these happen more?


Pic credit via rawpixel

Scott holds a PhD, is an Academic Director, an advocate for graduate students and offers support at Grad-Mentor.com. He writes about the numerous career challenges faced by HSPs. He's also a passionate outdoor photographer.

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