The Cape of High Sensitivity

I’ve recently stumbled on the concept of the Highly Sensitive Person. An HSP, according to the Observer is somebody who can experience traits such as a dislike of crowded places, feeling too cold or hot, discomfort from extreme light or dark, and panic when the other senses are overstimulated. You might think that HSP is an autism spectrum condition but it also includes empathy for the emotions and plights of other people, animals, and other entities e.g. the pain supposedly felt by freshly cut flowers

Although autism does not necessarily mean an inability to empathise, the name of the condition derives from the self (auto) being somebody’s main focus. Being an HSP from what I understand, suggests an ability to not only understand what another person is going through but to be able to feel it too. A close associate of mine for example cries at TV adverts promoting charities for abused donkeys or Christmas-time TV films proving that horses can indeed fly. HSP can include the ability to be deeply compassionate.

My daytime job is helping people find new careers and supporting them prepare for a new work role. It’s about managing change and shifting self-perception e.g. today I was persuading a former highly-paid investment banker that their present situation means they need to start again, perhaps as a bookkeeper or an administrator. It’s very hard for people to let go of the past and making them face reality is challenging. I explained how I have made a similar journey and that I had to make the same kind of transition. Once people understand that my empathy comes from first-hand experience they are usually more amenable to taking my advice. 

The people I help fall into these categories: 

  • Those who want to work, 
  • Those that pretend they want to work 
  • Those who are genuinely too unwell to work
  • People who are well enough to work but don’t feel it 
  • Others are well enough to work but pretend they are not. 

Through working with a vast variety of people, I reckon I have developed my HSP skills. In addition, I am also able to turn this superpower on and off.

One client, let’s call him Vladimir, came storming into my office. He had no appointment and yelled in pidgin Esperanto that as a fellow Italian speaker (?) I was obligated to help him. I had no idea how he knew I spoke Italian or how he got through security. Equally, I didn’t like the idea of somebody ordering me to help them. However, I donned my HSP cape, asked Vladimir to sit down, and did my best to tell myself I would not judge him and I would calm him down and then help him. 

The outcome was not good. I checked through his files and could see he was an inveterate liar. He lied about his skills, his qualifications, where he lived and even his right to be living in this country. If he was proving to be unsuitable and unreliable in front of me, how could I possibly help him to work for an unsuspecting employer? The result is that I know nothing about Vladimir and while that’s the case, he is basically useful to nobody. Through his shouting and yelling, I tried to view his uselessness as something to feel sympathy for. But I couldn’t. My sensitivity cape was slipping because this person had no redeeming features. In addition, the fact I could not get through to Vlad and influence him to moderate his high-volume approach began to undermine my confidence too.

My low mood continued when I saw Maude sitting in the waiting zone. Maude was slumped in a chair and had an awkwardness about her. She was waiting to see an absent colleague and I toyed with the idea of avoiding dealing with her by pretending to be on a phone call. However, I allowed the words ‘wake up and don’t judge’ to step back into my consciousness and I invited her to sit by my desk. 

Maude, I realised, had learning difficulties. She had no airs and graces and told me directly she was worried about being evicted from her rented property. She was sad and vulnerable. I donned my fallen metaphoric cape and managed to contact her support worker who miraculously resolved the issue within minutes. Other than the phone call, I did little of great value but had the honour of being able to tell Maude that she now had nothing to worry about. She looked relieved and I smiled at her. Job done. 

Maude left and I shed a tear. The unfairness of the human species had been put on hold and I was an effective, useful HSP once again. I realised, however, that this mutual satisfaction only came about because I met somebody who was as honest as she was unfortunate. 

I know I should try to see Vladimir through sympathetic eyes. It’s possible that he too he has a genuinely sad tale to tell.

On the other hand, he might be just a scoundrel.