Being highly sensitive is a good thing, but being labeled “sensitive” is no fun.

A reader, who I will call Elena, wrote to me recently to describe the discouraging situation she finds herself in at work:

I’ve had a few experiences recently where my colleagues at work have given me the label of sensitive and have stopped listening to me. It’s almost like they have now discredited me and so don’t have to value my opinion.

One example is that I’m about to carry out an inspection of a workplace for quality control. I was told by my manager that she knows I’m sensitive so if I could just not get upset if someone yells at me as she is not going to deal with it, so if I could just not get upset that would be great.

Also, with another colleague, if I demonstrate an opinion that’s different to him, he just says “well you’re being sensitive about it, so I can’t talk to you”.

I’ve got good self-esteem and I know there is nothing wrong with me and they are missing out by not engaging with me but my question is, is it ok to give up even trying for your own peace of mind? I do a good job, I am a hard worker but I’m thinking of retreating a bit from trying to build relationships with my boss or my colleagues. Do you think this might cause more problems for me in the future, in terms of my own mental health? I’ve got a good happy home life.

Thank you, Elena, for allowing me to address your questions here. I’m sure you are not the only highly sensitive reader who has experienced a dynamic like this at work (and it can happen in families, too.) Here are six actions I recommend you take—in this order:

1—Give yourself empathy–lots of it.

This sounds lonely and stressful, to feel judged by your co-workers. On top of that I hear that you are feeling so hopeless of addressing the situation that you are considering pulling back from trying to build relationships with your boss and your colleagues.

When you find yourself in a painful situation like this one, it is both tempting and habitual to skip over self-empathy and go directly to problem-solving—or worse, to self-judgment. Try to resist this temptation to leap into fixing or judging.

Instead, start with self-empathy. If you haven’t already, take a moment now to turn within and sense where in your body you feel this conflict. Perhaps your stomach feels tense. Or your throat aches. Or you sense a heavy sensation in your chest.

Whatever the feelings are about this situation at work, the important thing is to check in with yourself about it, kindly and repeatedly. Sense what you feel. Describe it, and sense if the description fits. Sense if there is more. Take time to do this if a new incident triggers fresh pain in you, or if you feel pain thinking about past incidents.

2—Imagine what you wish could happen.

Now that you have given yourself some empathy, put on your crown and play “Queen for a Day,” an imagination game that can shift your sense of possibility in miraculous ways. It is particularly helpful if you notice you are feeling hopeless about a situation, as it sounds like you may be.

As Queen, you command the royal treasury, along with wise men (and women), magicians, and thousands of loyal, willing subjects. You also have a time machine so you can go back and change things from the past.

Put yourself in these royal shoes. Then imagine your work situation as you would most love it to be. Imagine you are able to relate to your colleagues in a way that you truly enjoy. Imagine they are treating you in a way that meets your needs for respect, appreciation, connection, integrity, and any other qualities you value.

Don’t hold back. This is not about what you believe could be possible: it’s about what you most want. Take a few minutes to try this now. What are you seeing? What are you doing, saying, and feeling? Notice how your body feels right now, as you imagine this new scene.

3—Notice what is under your control, and what isn’t.

Now, observe your “Queen Scene” with a thoughtful eye. What elements of this new world are under your control? Which ones are not? What, if anything, could you do to move towards your royal vision?

For example, you may have pictured your boss acting in a way you have never seen her act. You realize that she likely won’t ever act the way you wish she would. In that case, give yourself empathy for what you wish could be:

It doesn’t appear likely my boss will ever spontaneously come to me and say, “Elena, I was amazed at how sensitively you handled that situation with so-and so. We are lucky to have you.” But wouldn’t that be wonderful if she did? If she ever did that, I would feel so _____. As it is, I feel _____.”

Once you’ve given yourself empathy for what you so wish could happen but likely won’t happen, examine your Queen Scene once again. This time, search for any elements of it over which you do have control. Make a note of anything you find.

Is there anything you can do now—that is completely under your control—to move towards your vision? It could be something as simple as asking after a co-worker’s mother or some topic you know they care about. Being a sensitive person, noticing and observing are strengths of yours. Use them.

There is so much we can’t control in life, including and especially other people. But we can control our own actions and attitudes. The point is to reassert your power to decide how you want to show up.

4—Do your detective work.

So far, you’ve given yourself empathy. You’ve imagined what you wish could happen, and you’ve considered whether there are ways, even small ones, of moving towards that. Finally, you’ve given yourself more empathy for the gaps between what you wish could happen and what is actually happening.

Next, do some detective work. Take a thoughtful look at the incidents and exchanges at work that led up to these recent interactions. This may possibly be painful. Even if it is, though, it’s worth it if it helps you to better understand what is happening.

Consider carefully how the current dynamic came to be. You didn’t mention what had happened previously that led your boss to comment, “I know you are sensitive so if you could just not get upset if someone yells at you, that would be great, because I’m not going to deal with it.”

Perhaps on some occasion in the past, you went into a workplace to do quality control. Perhaps an employee there took something you said the wrong way and got defensive, then raised their voice at you, and your boss ended up being involved in cleaning up whatever ensued.

The purpose of this step is not to assign blame or to make you feel bad. It’s to look as dispassionately as you can at “what is”—or, in this case, at “what was.” In fact, let’s assume no one did anything wrong. Rather, everyone was doing what they were capable of doing given their resources at the time, including you. We are simply gathering observations: what was said, who said it, what happened next.

5—Empathize with the “other side”

Now we get to the most challenging step of all. Your next step is to go over the “memory footage” you’ve collected—from the point of view of the other parties involved. See if you can imagine or guess what they might have been feeling and experiencing when these interactions occurred.

If empathizing with your colleagues in this way feels impossible, that’s OK. Don’t force it. Just go back to Step 1 above and offer yourself more empathy. You can’t begin to wonder what is going on in someone else if your own empathy tank is empty.

But if you notice a bit of curiosity in yourself, then let’s proceed with the next step: try to guess what was going on in your colleagues in your interactions. For example, I wonder what was going on for your boss when she said, “I know you are sensitive so if you could just not get upset if someone yells at you, that would be great, because I’m not going to deal with it.”

Listening for the meaning underneath her words, I hear something like this: “I know you find it upsetting when people raise their voices at you, and that is likely to happen at this job today. I’m letting you know now I’ve got too much on my own plate to be able to intervene or involve myself in any way, if someone upsets you. You’ll have to handle it on your own.”

Does that ring true? You may hear something different. The important thing to remember is that her reactions are expressions of her feelings and needs, even when they sound like they are about you (e.g. “don’t get upset.”) Knowing this lessens the sting of what feels like a criticism.

6—Talk to the other parties—maybe.

I added the word “maybe,” because you may choose not to talk to anyone. Based on what you learned as you took the above five actions, you may decide that the best course is simply to adjust your own actions and expectations.

You’ve said you have a happy home life and good self-esteem. Your relationships outside of work offer you a solid base of connection and support. That’s wonderful. Many HSPs are content with a relatively few very close friends and family members. Your work colleagues don’t have to be among those.

However, for most HSPs, the “people part” of a job has a bigger effect on their satisfaction than any other aspect. I’d vote for trying to learn more about the origins of the dynamic you’ve described. It would be helpful to you as a professional to have more information which might empower you to change the pattern or at least avoid it in the future.

To do that, you will need to talk to people, even if you decide to pull back eventually. I wonder what would happen, for example, if you invited your co-worker—the one who won’t engage when you have a difference of opinion— for a coffee, outside of work. You could ask him what caused him to decide that he can’t express an opinion to you. You could tell him the truth–that you really would like to be able to exchange opinions.

There’s risk in that. But there is opportunity, too. You could learn a lot that will help you, both now and in future jobs. You’re wondering how your mental health might be affected if you were to “retreat a bit” from trying to build relationships with your boss or your colleagues. The biggest risk of pulling back might be a lessening of trust in yourself to address touchy situations.

Photo by Johann Siemens on Unsplash