Peter learned he was an HSP in 1997. As a student of sensitivity, he has met 100s of HSPs in person and writes extensively about the trait.
HSPs and Work: A Tricky Proposition
It is pretty much a fact of life that most of us have to "make a living" in some capacity or another, regardless of whether we're HSPs or not.
Although most people appreciate finding a measure of happiness and satisfaction in the work they do, work and career tends to present a more significant challenge for the Highly Sensitive Person than for the rest of the world. Not only are we more sensitive to our environments and the people in it, we also tend to be idealists who view work as being about far more than "just a paycheck."
Explaining the specifics of how HSPs find work challenging is beyond the scope of this article, but if you are interested in some more in-depth reading, I recommend a different article I wrote, entitled Work and the Highly Sensitive Person.
In this article, we'll take a look at the most recent book on the market examining HSPs and their relationship with work and career.
Work Advice for HSPs can be hard to find
Compared to a couple of decades ago, there are now lots of books now available about high sensitivity, but most of them tend to focus on the spiritual, mental health and psychological aspects of the trait.
Work, of course, is a far more tangible and functional aspect of our lives.
For many years, the only work reference for HSPs was Dr. Barrie Jaeger's "Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person," so Dr. Tracy Cooper's relatively new book is a very welcome addition to this important part of HSP living!
Thrive! The Highly Sensitive Person and Career
So, can HSPs Thrive at Work? Tracy Cooper believes so...
Dr. Cooper's book is different from many other books on High Sensitivity in that is it a combination of university research and general career advice for HSPs. In fact, the book came about as an extension of the author's research done for his doctoral dissertation.
I enjoyed it because it takes a fairly pragmatic approach, while still honoring that HSPs are attuned to many intangible factors when considering work. I also really like the many quotes from the 1500+ survey takers whose feedback helped make the book possible.
"Thrive!" is divided into three parts.
The first part, called "Setting the Stage," basically looks at the idea of work and how it has developed in recent years... and how those developments affect the possibilities and work environments open to HSPs.
What kind of HSP are you, anyway?
Although HSPs share common traits, we are ultimately just as unique as any other group of individuals.
Part II of the book takes a look at some of the major components of "the HSP Work Experience" Dr. Cooper identified during the research stages of the book. Individual chapters on the impact of Empathy, Childhood Influences on work perception and the importance of Self Care for HSPs follow. Each of these chapters include numerous quotes from the HSP survey takers... many of which I found myself relating to.
Part II is rounded out with chapters exploring the "inner depths" central to the HSP experience (the "Rich Inner Lives" attribute Dr. Elaine Aron speaks of), a chapter on "High Sensation Seeking" HSPs, and a chapter on the sociological contexts for sensitivity-- how our surrounding environment empowers (or fails to empower) us.
So what kind of work DO we need?
Part III of the book takes on the more functional "nuts and bolts" of HSPs finding rewarding and meaningful work.
The first chapter draws heavily on the author's survey results, and offers a great many career suggestions for HSPs. Cooper is quick to point out that some will appeal to certain HSPs but not to others-- a reminder that we are all different.
In short, there is no single "one kind of work" that best fits HSPs.
Care is taken to break out different styles of work: from the societal standard of "working for someone," to virtual work, to self-employment, to trade work, to working in arts and crafts. Each is presented with some of the potential upsides and pitfalls.
The final chapter in Thrive! is a collection of stories from the many HSPs who took surveys and were interviewed by Dr. Cooper. As an HSP who has been exploring the nature of the trait for some 20 years, this was my favorite part.
In conclusion, Cooper believes that "surviving" (that is, understanding ourselves and how to work with our talents... and shortcomings) is the first step on the path to thriving. When we know and understand ourselves, we can make informed choices that will help us thrive at work!
About Dr. Tracy Cooper
The author of this book is, himself, an HSP who struggled with finding work purpose. His purpose in writing the book-- in part-- was to help guide us from merely "surviving" at work to actually Thriving.
He brings to the book his own widely varied work experience, covering time in the US Army, working for printing companies, earning his doctorate and teaching college... and eventually becoming a researcher, author and consultant.
He intended the book to be for all HSPs, and brought work experiences ranging from menial repetitive labor to high level executive positions to the table. The book is equally for those just starting work, and those with decades of work experience already under their belt.
Cooper states that he was motivated to write the book after some three decades of very varied work, none of which ever lasted more than a few years. He felt-- as many HSPs do-- that something was "wrong" with him, and his work experiences had a negative effect on his confidence and self-esteem.
These days, he owns a publishing company and teaches graduate courses at Baker University while still conducting ongoing studies into the nature of being a Highly Sensitive Person.
So, did I LIKE this book?
On the whole, I would recommend it.
As mentioned earlier, the book was based on Dr. Cooper's graduate dissertation, which included interviews/surveys with 1500+ people.
Whereas the content is valuable, the formatting was at times a little distracting, with the extensive number of quotes from HSPs interviewed. Sometimes, it got a little too repetitive on "background information" while falling a bit short on practical advice. This is NOT a "how to" book for HSPs to choose a perfect job!
On the balance, though, a recommended addition to your HSP library.
The "original" book on HSPs and work
The "Original" Book about HSPs and Work
As mentioned previously, there has not been a lot of information available about HSPs and work.
Published in 2003, Barrie Jaeger's book (inset at right) was the only serious coverage of the topic for more than a decade. It remains a useful and important book today, and is really a nice accompaniment to "Thrive!" I have often referred back to my own copy, over the years.
At the heart of the book, Jaeger asserts that there are basically three categories of work: "Drudgery," the kind of work that leaves us feeling depressed and drained; "Craft," work we may somewhat enjoy and be pretty good at, yet it isn't great; and "Calling" which is where we find essential meaning in what we do, and work doesn't even feel like work.
The book examines work from a number of both psychological and functional angles and generally concludes that most HSPs turn to some form of self-employment in order to work with their true Calling. However, she also makes suggestions and recommendations on how we might improve work situations when we are working in larger companies.
Although it's by no means an exhaustive explorations of the highly sensitive person and work, it's still a worthwhile book and definitely worth a read!
A Few Final Thoughts About HSPs and Work
There is little doubt that the topic of work remains a major challenge for the Highly Sensitive Person.
Whereas I am happy to recommend the two books mentioned in this article, it's important to remember that there is no "set formula" for HSPs to find fulfilling careers-- after all, we may have "high sensitivity" in common, but we're still all unique individuals.
One of the best things we can do is to educate ourselves about our trait and be realistically aware of our true gifts and talents, as well as our limitations.
Thank you for reading this article!
If you found it useful and/or informative, please do share with others-- use the nifty social media buttons out at left. The more people know and understand about high sensitivity, the easier life becomes for ALL of us!
As an HSP, how is YOUR work life? Have you found a "Calling," or does work remain a struggle? Leave a comment and share your experiences!
Ann on June 20, 2018:
I left my job after 31 years at the same company. It has been just over a year since I left and cannot find the courage to look for another job. I worked at a dental lab were production was more important than quality. I feel my last job ruined my self esteem and am so scared to face ridicule again!
Jill on May 23, 2017:
Working as a high school teacher is very challenging for an HSP because of the high number of interactions with people, the lack of control over your surroundings and work circumstances and the conflict inducing nature of the work. Burnout is a real risk.