Over the holidays, my friends and I went to an improv show at the local comedy club. One of the skits was called “The Emotional Carpool.”
In the first scene, a man hops into the car and he’s ecstatic. He tells the other passengers that he’s on his way to the hospital to meet his baby for the first time. Everyone in the car picks up on his energy. There’s laughter and cheering.
Until they get to the next stop.
A woman whose pet just passed climbs into the car. Within seconds, everyone — even the man on the way to meet his newborn — spirals into a deep depression.
Next, they pick up a man who was short-changed by his waiter at breakfast. He’s livid. Soon, the whole car is too.
This went on for several minutes. It was hilarious.
But in between laughs, I thought, “Oh my goodness, this is my life.”
HSP: Highly Sensitive People
It’s fair to say I’ve been in an emotional carpool since I was a young child.
Whenever I’m in a group of people, I can’t help but pick up on the energy of those around me.
If people seem loose and happy, then I feel loose and happy. If I sense someone is stressed out, I start tensing up. If they’re sad, it’s like I can feel their sorrows tugging at my heartstrings.
It’s not so much that I’m a mindreader. More that I’m a sponge. I can’t help but absorb whatever emotions the people around me seem to be emitting.
To be frank, it’s utterly draining.
It gets to the point where I become so absorbed in the other person’s energy that I start to lose track of myself. I can’t feel my body. I can’t hear my thoughts.
There’s this sensation of being sucked into their lives, problems and joys.
I always blamed these feelings on anxiety or my introversion. But then I read an article about HSP, or the “highly sensitive person.”
An HSP is, as Healthline describes, “someone with a sensitive nervous system who’s deeply affected by the subtleties in their environment.”
This took me down a Google rabbit hole. I found a self-assessment quiz that seemed to have been written for me personally.
The questions weren’t just about my experiences in social interactions. It also wanted to know how I reacted to noise and light. It asked how I felt after a busy day.
As I was answering the questions, I thought of all the times I was distracted by the firecracker-like sound of someone chewing gum on the other side of the room. Or how I spend several moments each morning ensuring the lights in my office are “just right.” Then there was the day, just last week, when I had to recharge for several hours in my room after a hectic afternoon of back-to-back meetings.
The quiz said that anyone who answered yes to 14 or more of the 27 questions was an HSP.
I had answered yes to 26.
An HSP in the Courtroom?
It’s fair to ask why anyone who identifies, knowingly or not, as a highly sensitive person would go into law.
On TV, lawyers are often presented as anything but sensitive. They spend their days dueling with each other in the courtroom.
They have to be quick. Sharp. Always ready to pounce.
And that’s exactly what my first professional experience was like. After law school, I worked in a firm that was known for training young lawyers to become litigators. I was in the courtroom all the time.
It was my job to be confrontational, to get into arguments and win them on a daily basis.
I was good at going toe to toe in advocating my client’s position. But I hated it. Every day, I felt like I was playing a role written for someone else.
After about a year and a half, I started looking for opportunities elsewhere. Soon, I found another firm where I had a choice: I could be a litigator. Or I could work on a team that supports the litigators.
In other words, I could spend my days arguing in court. Or I could work behind the scenes to build powerful cases for someone else to argue in court.
It was an easy decision. And a damn good one. Now that I’m away from the front line, I’m able to do so much more for my clients.
These days, my HSP label is a professional strength.
When I sit down with a client, I’m able to be 100% present. I can tune my frequency to their station and immerse myself in the details of their case.
Instead of overwhelming me, their energy and emotions help me determine the best way to move forward.
Highly Sensitive Aunt
My niece recently joined our office as my Human Resources Assistant.
During one particularly busy afternoon, I noticed how she was navigating the endless barrage of calls and back-to-back meetings. It was like I was looking into a mirror.
I asked if she had heard of the highly sensitive people label. She hadn’t. Instead, she identified as an “empath,” which, after some googling, appeared to be very similar to an HSP.
Of course, my first reaction as her aunt was to take her under my wing and tell her exactly how to handle this highly sensitive condition we had both inherited.
But I knew that in order to truly help her, I had to give her the space to figure things out on her own. I can help guide her, but she is the only one who can determine what she needs to lead her best life/
Hopefully my niece — and all my fellow HSPs — find power in simply understanding who we are.
For instance, while writing this post, I felt very vulnerable talking about my “condition.”
I’ve always associated sensitivity with weakness. For someone who’s spent most of her life ensuring she’s never perceived as weak, embracing the “highly sensitive” label wasn’t easy.
But now that I have, I see that it gives me power.
Once we become aware of how our minds and bodies operate, we’re able to have more meaningful professional and social interactions. Ones that don’t leave us feeling like we just exited a nine-round boxing match.
In my case, I’m careful about when and how I schedule my calls. I build in time to recover between draining events. I maximize my workdays to match the ebb and flow of my energy levels.
Of course you can’t control every element of your environment. But there’s a certain zen in accepting who you are and giving up pretending you’re someone you’re not.