I have recently become aware of a personality trait that I’m not sure I knew existed. I knew I was an introvert, and quite a sensitive one at that, and perhaps someone who struggled a little with anxiety on top of that. However, whenever I read about these traits or characteristics, there was always something in their descriptions or symptoms that I couldn’t 100% relate to. I could see myself in a fair bit of them, but something was missing.
The Highly Sensitive Person
At the moment, I’m training to be a Supervisor for coaches. As part of this training, we’ve been re-visiting a lot of the coaching psychology that I covered when I first trained as a coach over 10 years ago. During one of these discussions, which was on individual differences, a fellow coach mentioned that being a ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ (HSP) is becoming more and more recognised as a neuro-diversity characteristic to be aware of and account for in individuals. I’d heard of HSP before, and even had a book on it gathering dust on my bookshelf. However, hearing her mention it on this occasion struck a cord in me.
Since I had my son, my nervous system seems to have gone into overdrive. I’m a lot more anxious than I was before, over-thinking all the “what ifs” of most scenarios. I’ve also found that my memory isn’t what it used to be. And the overstimulation - don’t get me started on that! I can jump out of my skin and scream when my husband happens to unexpectedly walk into the kitchen. Loud noises are also quite overwhelming. If my son is watching TV, there’s a knock on the door, the phone is ringing, and then I’m asked a question, it’s like my brain freezes and I just want to run out the door! I can appreciate that a lot of this sounds fairly normal, but it’s the degree of the stimulation and the overwhelm that I can’t quite find the words for. Even going for a brisk walk somewhere new in the wind and sunshine can bring on a headache, because there’s been so much for me to process along the way. It’s very odd, and can be quite frustrating, to be honest.
As a result, I often feel quite weak compared to other people - like I don’t seem to have the stamina of others. I get very tired in social situations and just want to go home after a while, and lie down in the dark. Sometimes I feel like I’ve reached my limit and my brain is full - I can’t take in any more words or information. I just need to shut down, be quiet, rest and process. That analogy of your mind being like an internet browser with way too many tabs open comes to mind…
Yet, I am aware that I have great strengths related to this trait too. I notice things that others don’t notice. I can read a room and someone’s mood incredibly easily. I’m always scanning for information and meanings. I am a natural analyser, with a deep curiosity. I think about what someone has said, something that happened or something I’ve heard or watched for days afterwards - how it made me feel, and how they might feel, etc. I am incredibly empathetic, and deeply sympathetic too. With this comes huge warmth, and an ability to connect with others in a variety of situations that not everyone can manage. I only wish my memory was better, but I’ve come to the conclusion that, because I process everything so deeply, there’s only so much information that can fit into my brain before some of it has to come out the other side!
So, here I was experiencing all of these things, thinking I was just an extreme introvert. However, reading more and more about being a ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ has been quite a revelation. There’s a test you can take to asses how highly sensitive you might be - I think I ticked all of the criteria, bar one or two phrases (I don’t experience pain that acutely, weirdly). Never before have I read around a subject and identified so heavily with the descriptions, the upsides, and, of course, the downsides of the trait - you’re endlessly knackered from all that processing!
The Impact on Career
The reason it’s had such a profound impact on me at this stage of my life is because it was coming to a point in my career that I was starting to assume coaching just wasn’t for me. I was coaching 4-5 clients a day, and I was feeling pretty burnout. I looked around Instagram and LinkedIn at other coaches and they seemed to absolutely LOVE what they do. They seemed have so much energy, drive and passion. I didn’t feel like this, so maybe I was in the wrong profession.
However, not only was I forgetting that I’d been in this career for over 10 years (so, of course, that drive and passion may look different these days compared to someone 1-2 years in), I was forgetting that we all have such different personalities. I sometimes struggle with social media because, a lot of the time, I simply just don’t have anything to say. I’m not great at short posts - I like to talk (or write, preferably) deeply and profoundly about certain subjects. By the time I’ve formulated the depth of my thoughts on a subject, time has passed and I can’t remember what topic I wanted to post about in the first place!
With my tendency to catastrophise, I thought I’d better start looking for an alternative career. First though, I had a thought and decided to post a poll on LinkedIn, asking how many clients other coaches on average saw each day. The result? The majority were coaching approximately 1-2 clients a day. No wonder I was so bloody knackered! As an introvert, and now the revelation of being Highly Sensitive, it made perfect sense. I assumed that listening just couldn’t be tiring - how hard could it be? But when you’re listening, truly listening to someone, hanging off their every word, working hard to understand what lies behind what they’re saying, seeking the meaning of it, processing it all deeply and conscientiously…that’s tiring. I need a lie down just thinking about my day ahead sometimes! But there’s a difference between knowing you find it tiring, and believing that that makes it the wrong fit for you. I find coaching hard, and it saps my energy, but I don’t believe that means it’s not right for me. I just need to create conditions around it so that I can still thrive and grow…a bit like a plant perhaps - each one needs different conditions.
As a result, I’ve tried to reduce the number of clients I now work with. I’ve also given myself one day all to myself. What a game-changer! I’m enjoying my work so much more, I’m more relaxed, more confident, and less berating of my limitations.
Perhaps then the moral of the story is understanding the power of self-awareness, and working with what and who we are, as opposed to trying to fight against it and wondering why we're struggling. I can only assume that my clients (and my family) reap the rewards of someone who enjoys their work more too.
If you're struggling in your career...
Having reflected on the above, for those struggling with their job currently, I’d perhaps suggest understanding your personality first as much as possible. Sometimes, it can be the set up of the work that we do that’s the issue. It could also be the environment, what the work requires you to do, and who it requires you to be that’s misaligned. For example, hot desking and open plan offices can be a nightmare for introverts and Highly Sensitive People. If you’re required to multi-task under time pressure, that can be draining and overwhelming. If you’re required to present at the drop of a hat, or give an in-depth answer at short notice, you might need to retreat somewhere quiet afterwards! Someone wants a quick, off-the-cuff phone call, and you don’t know what it’ll be about…nightmare. I was interviewed on BBC News a few months ago - afterwards I could really feel the energy that took out of me. I knew it would, but I wanted to do it, so I just made sure I didn’t do too much for the rest of the day.
Having certain traits doesn’t mean particular careers or jobs are a write off though. It’s just knowing your limits, and how to manage yourself. Of course, certain jobs and employers might allow for that more so than others, but, sometimes, just knowing yourself and working around and with that, rather than against it, can really help. Perhaps that’s wearing noise-cancelling headphones in the office, perhaps that turning your video off in 50% of your daily Zoom calls, perhaps that’s leaving an hour between each meeting…whatever helps you manage your energy and stimulation levels throughout the day.
So, you’ll be pleased to hear I’m not packing in coaching anytime soon…just working with less clients, resting more in-between sessions so I’m fitting fight for the next one. May my clients reap the rewards of working with a more engaged, less frazzled Career Coach!
Editorial Assistant (previously an EA)
I first contacted Alice at a time when I was feeling very low about my work and desperate to make a change. Alice listened closely to my needs and tailored our sessions to the specific challenges I was facing. She was quick to follow up after our sessions, to reflect on what I’d said, and to give me further exercises which would help with my development. Alice really helped me to build my confidence to think logically through potential risks of leaving a job and of moving into a new sector, which I did and where I have just started my first job. I have recommended Alice to many friends and friends of friends who I hope will benefit from her coaching as much as I have.