Though much has been written recently about HSPs and work, I think Barrie Jaeger’s Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person is the best book out there on the topic.
I frequently consult and recommend Barrie Jaeger’s book, Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person. I even quoted her at length in an earlier article about the dangers of work drudgery for HSPs, but I unaccountably neglected to come right out and say, “If you are an HSP, read this!” I’m glad to have a second chance, because the book really is a godsend for us.
First, a clarification. Jaeger has been criticized by some for over-emphasizing self-employment for HSPs. Without a doubt, the more freedom and autonomy you have at work, the easier it is to care for yourself there as an HSP. And no one—least of all me— could argue that you do have more freedom and autonomy when you work for yourself. I’m self-employed and I love it.
Does this mean you shouldn’t bother with Making Work Work if you work for someone else? Not at all. Jaeger discusses a number of considerations and coping strategies for HSPs who work in more traditional employment settings. In addition, she points out that the two worlds overlap:
Those who have a traditional employee lifestyle can benefit from knowing something about self-employment. The skills involved in keeping an eye on your own working life would also be helpful for those employees who want to keep an eye or two on those forces that may directly impact on their careers. (p. 167)
Making Work Work is is a creative, insightful exploration of the internal and external dynamics that affect HSPs as we make career decisions. I hope you’ll read it and discover that for yourself. In the meantime, though, here are some key concepts Jaeger shares, illustrated by examples from my own work life.
Letting go of shame around your work history
Many HSPs list what we judge to be a motley assortment of endeavors on our resumes. We feel a vague shame about this work history. We feel we’ve somehow failed because we didn’t make a beeline for a definable, “successful” career.
No wonder Dr. Elaine Aron lists “reframing your life in terms of your sensitive trait” as one of the four key tasks for HSPs. If you feel confusion or shame about your work history, then you will certainly want to include reframing your view of your work life within this bigger HSP reframing task.
In service of this reframing—and to help you make better decisions in future—Jaeger defines three kinds of work: Drudgery, Craft, and Calling. Drudgery is self-explanatory. My first job in high school was sheer Drudgery: more on that below. Later on, making oboe reeds to sell was a Craft job for me. I was good at it. However, when the time came, I walked away from it without the slightest regret.
The 1:1 work I do now with clients, though, is a perfect example of Calling. I find the work deeply meaningful. I have an immediate and satisfying sense of contribution. And I use a broad range of skills and talents, which meets a need for ongoing learning and challenge. The latter is significant, because HSPs can get bored once we’ve mastered the tasks required by a given job, turning what once felt like Calling—or at least Craft—to Drudgery.
Looking at your work life
Take a moment and think back over your work life. As you think of each job you’ve done, consider how you would categorize it. Was it Drudgery? Craft? Calling? A mix? If there was Drudgery, did that aspect of the job drag the Calling elements down in a way that ultimately made it unsustainable?
When I first encountered these categories, light bulbs went off in my head. I understood my work history in a new way–as an ongoing experiment in how to bring more Calling (and less Drudgery) into my work life. Even my most painful, unsatisfying employment experiences provided me with invaluable information about creating a sustainable life.
Cracking the code: what makes a job great for you—or terrible for you
Having laid out the Drudgery/Craft/Calling concept, Jaeger adds a second framework of understanding. This one contains three key elements: People, Tasks, and Conditions.
Obvious, right? Yes, at first. But here’s the brilliant part: Jaeger emphasizes that these three categories are not created equal. She offers the simple but powerful visual metaphor of three floating balls.
The category of “People” gets the largest ball, because for HSPs, the people around you are the most important factor in any job. “Tasks” get a smaller floating ball, because the actual tasks you perform affect your overall satisfaction less than the people you work with. “Conditions”— lighting, noise, space, smells, hours of work, commute, and so on—are represented by the smallest ball.
Seeing that large “People” ball, I instantly grasped a tough reality: if the people aspect of your job isn’t working, it doesn’t matter how much you love the tasks or how ideal the conditions are. You will slowly (or rapidly) descend into Drudgery.
My high school job at Arby’s, a fast-food roast beef sandwich chain, was never going to be a fount of meaning, and I wasn’t thrilled with the noise level or the smells. But for a 16-year-old, the sheer novelty of it, along with a bit of money coming in, could have lifted it to the Craft level for me.
Unfortunately, though, I was the target of a constant stream of sexual innuendo from my male 20-something bosses. I dreaded going to work—a sure sign of Drudgery.
Drudgery is terrible for your mental and physical health. It leads to burnout, to which Jaeger devotes a whole chapter. Because HSPs are susceptible to burnout, we need to learn how to recognize the signs of Drudgery before it drags us down too far. This book can help you do that.
Your perceptions of Drudgery, Craft, and Calling evolve situationally
If your employment road has been long and winding, like mine, you may now have a better appreciation for the process you’ve been through, including the complex and evolving interplay of Drudgery, Craft, and Calling. Our perception of that interplay depends very much on our current situation, as another example from my own life shows.
In 2000, I left my husband of 13 years. Soon after, I reached a tough conclusion: I couldn’t keep performing. My only professional experience was musical. But I couldn’t stand leaving my four-year-old with sitters several nights a week.
To my amazement, I found a part-time job with an arts education organization. I did everything from phone calls to painting the boss’s office to scheduling meetings. I earned $10,000 a year.
Was this a move towards Drudgery, to go from performing, to being a glorified secretary? No. The job tasks were perfect for me. I had never even turned on a computer; they paid me to learn how to email and use Word. I got an invaluable education in office skills that I still use to this day.
Also, the conditions were perfect for me as a newly divorced, stressed-out mother of a four-year-old. My hours were short and flexible. I couldn’t have handled working any more than that anyway; I was exhausted from the prolonged ordeal of the divorce.
Best of all, the “people” aspect of the position was wonderful. One boss gave me two bags of beautiful clothes she could no longer wear. The other boss sent me home with enchanting Miyazaki videos to watch with my four-year-old. Both of them treated me with respect, care, and even affection. They supported me as a mother and gave me a great deal of autonomy to complete my work.
Financial income vs psychic income
I did so well in the part-time position that after one year, I got promoted to program director. Suddenly, I faced full-time work, much more responsibility, and a salary of $24,000. My stress level skyrocketed.
What happened? Wasn’t this success? Why wasn’t I happy and relieved? Another key concept from %Making Work Work helped me understand what happened: the idea of psychic income versus money income.
In my part-time job, my money income had been low. However, my psychic income was adequate, given all I was learning. And given all the stress I was under with the divorce, the low-key tasks, the supportive people, and the flexible conditions balanced out the low pay.
The promotion to full time changed all that. I immediately perceived that I would never get the psychic income in this position that I needed to make it sustainable over the long haul. Yet I knew that if I stayed, I’d have to make it my main focus. With that level of commitment and the lack of upward mobility of income, I’d never have time to resume playing professionally, let alone having money or energy to train to do anything else.
Like most HSPs, I’m very conscientious. For two weeks, I forced myself to go on. In a final fireworks display of creativity and bull-headed hard work, I created a color-coded sticky-note system on the wall to track my work, made 400 phone calls, and completed in two weeks the scheduling that the program director typically did over the course of 9 months.
Then I collapsed. Two days later, I resigned. I was forced to admit I was profoundly burned out from the inherent pressures of the new position, the stress of the divorce, and too many massive changes all at once. My road back to functionality was a long one.
The world needs you in your Calling
If there’s a message that’s louder than any other in Making Work Work, it’s this: don’t let yourself burn out. Jaeger offers many strategies to cope better at work, but none of them will help if you are in denial about the level of stress your work is causing you.
If you are in Drudgery, you can’t possibly be in Calling. So moving away from Drudgery automatically moves you towards the challenges and joys of serving others and the world through your unique Calling.
To be clear, Calling doesn’t have to be expressed only through your work. Ideally, it is. But the important thing is to understand what Calling means to you, and to find a way to express it. As Jaeger puts it,
Being the captain of our lives is a tremendous challenge. For some of us, it will require courage and faith in ourselves. These true Callings require someone with the need for a deep value or passion in life. Sometimes from earliest childhood, HSPs have the capacity to see and need answers to large questions. We can see the big picture; we can feel the moral issues for which humanity cries for answers. Together, we and our Calling produce something new. That newness is first found inside of us. (p. 221)
How do you find that newness inside?—by connecting to your spiritual intuition. To do that, you need a healthy inner relationship, good self-regulation, and a flexible, sturdy personal infrastructure—all of which I write about frequently in this newsletter.
As you pursue greater sustainability, do check out Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person. There’s more wisdom in it than I could possibly cover here. Whatever stage of life and work you’re in, I think you’ll value a deeper dive into what Jaeger has to say about HSPs and work.
Photo: 2023 Kaitlyn Wyenberg (email@example.com). Thank you, Kaitlyn!