Why do people with Sensitive nervous systems become fatigued more quickly, and what does this mean for your workplace?Read Now
I want to answer two questions which go to the heart of why having a Responsive nervous system/temperament leads to particular needs, and why it matters to everyone – not just those with this temperament – that those needs are met.
These concepts are important to understand, and it’s evident that they’re not well understood yet, because workplaces, schools, and public areas continue to be over-stimulating and emotionally-fatiguing for people with this temperament (and for others who have environmental sensitivities for various reasons).
In her book, Self-Care for Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents (2021), psychologist Lindsay Gibson explains why those with more sensitive nervous systems become fatigued (seen in various forms) more quickly than others.
“[Your nervous system] is responsible not just for doing but also for not doing. There are two kinds of processes the nervous system performs: initiating action and inhibiting action. Whenever you restrain yourself from the urge to act, you are doing as much work – often more – as if you had actually said or done something.”
The Responsive temperament is characterised, in part, by a strong ‘pause-to-check’ system. This is the ‘inhibiting action’ process that Lindsay Gibson describes.
People who leap into action look like they are expending lots of energy. But people who pause, think, and problem solve… are expending even more energy. This means that people who are empath[et]ic, …reflective, and concerned about helping others are constantly draining their neurological batteries with their internal efforts….
Thank goodness for people who exert their brains to calm others and find constructive outcomes, whether it is dealing with a child or with global politics. This high level of mature behaviour is a strenuous physical workout of the nerves and neurons, working brains double-time to find the optimal blend of both inhibition and action.
The great thing is that probably everyone can do this – although not everyone does. The other great thing is that a Highly Sensitive/Responsive temperament naturally works like this – and does other important things.
Do you think we need people to do this? To restrain themselves from impulses and think more before they act? To consider, empathetically, before speaking? To find, in all situations, “the optimal blend of both inhibition and action”?
If the answer you get is the obvious one – yes, yes, absolutely! – then that’s your reason for doing something about it. For learning what Highly Sensitive people need to thrive, and implementing those elements within your workplace or school.
Because, as you can see, it’s not an extra, nice little thing to do for people, or a virtue-signalling initiative; it’s not a difficult expenditure of resources better used for other things. It’s supporting people who do more of what is desperately needed in organisations and public spaces. To think, reflect, notice ‘all the things’ and place them in context, restrain oneself and potentially others by example, act on what matters after considering all the options, and care deeply about the consequences.
There are so many things that Highly Sensitive/Responsive people do which are greatly needed in our world. That’s why we’re here. Make use of it – harness these unique strengths, and reap the rewards.
Not sure how to do that? See here and here for more. Contact me to talk about what would work best for your workplace/school: a presentation, workshop, or consultation.
What is path dependence?
Path dependence develops when organisations act based on existing parameters, which were established in the past and have become ‘locked in’ by “self-reinforcing processes” (Morgan & Barden, A Beautiful Constraint, 2015, p. 37).
For example (and one you've probably heard about), the fact that railway tracks in the USA determined the width of the rocket-booster fuel engines designed for the first Space Shuttle, because that’s how they needed to be transported to Florida – and the width mattered, because they were coming from Utah and going through mountain tunnels. The engines had to fit within the tunnels – just wider than the tracks. The width of the railway tracks was based on tramlines in England, which were fitted to the width of horse-and-cart paths built along Roman roads, which were 4 feet, 8.5 inches. (If you're reading that and keep thinking of There Was an Old Woman who Swallowed a Fly, then you're not alone.)
And if you’re interested (or skeptical), here's a good explanation of how it happened:
Very early on, the British Monarchy insisted on a 4 foot 8.5 wheel spacing [for carts] because they wanted to promote and ensure maximum trade and commerce throughout the kingdom. They decreed that every wagon and ox cart had to have a wheel spacing of 4 feet, 8.5 inches. They needed this width to match the spacing of the ruts in English roads. They knew that if any wagon or cart had wheel spacing different then 4 feet 8.5 inches its axles would get caught up in the ruts and break and the wagon would be destroyed….
What's the problem with path dependence?
The answer is pretty clear from the fascinating example of the Space Shuttle above, but knowing more about how it happens and why and when you need to guard against it is important. It's not just something that happens in such amazing situations as the example I shared - it's almost certainly a feature in your organisation and workplace.
Path dependence happens because something that’s been done in the past has worked, so similar things in the future are modeled on them, or use the same parameters and assumptions. This is helpful and necessary when habits allow for efficiency and reduced energy. It becomes a problem when the habits, and the parameters they’re based on, have become outdated, when new information is available, and when new challenges arise (as is so obvious in the Space Shuttle example). In these cases, path dependence limits productivity and efficiency, and ignores new thinking and possibilities. Habits are very helpful, until they become ruts you’re stuck in.
For more insight into path dependence, including how to overcome it (steps to take), chapter 2 in Adam Morgan and Mark Barden’s A Beautiful Constraint is both insightful and practical.
How do Highly Responsive people help guard against the dangers of path dependence?
People with Responsive temperaments naturally look at things differently. They take in more information than others, and process it more deeply, making more connections between more pieces of data. (See, for example, Wired to Create, by Scott Kaufmann & Carolyn Gregoire, 2016: 125-27). This makes them aware of more and able to place it in relevant context. Meaning, they’re not looking at things the same way – or even looking at the same things. They ask questions, wonder why things are being done this way, consider how they can be done better, and make suggestions for them to be done that way. Or, if they have the authority (or are frustrated enough), they’ll start doing things that way.
Responsive people aren't thinking along the same paths, because they're open to difference - it's the deliberate focus of their nervous systems. They:
This is disruptive - to the status quo. People like doing things the way they’ve been doing them. It’s safe and doesn’t require new thinking. We need path dependence in some ways. But when it matters – when new challenges come, or a way to improve arises – organisations need change-makers - disruptive thinkers – to question and to find new alternatives. Transformative alternatives.
This is what Highly Sensitive people do – their temperament is made for it.
How can organisations harness this?
What is different about people with a Responsive (Highly Sensitive) temperament?
What is so fundamentally different between Responsive (a.k.a. Highly Sensitive) and Unresponsive temperaments? Why do people who are Responsive in temperament, in fact, need anything different - in the way their workplace (or classroom) is set up, or how managers (or teachers) approach working with them?
Let me explain (you can also read my posts about gifts of sensitivity, brain differences, benefits of thriving HS people in workplaces and why you need them on your team, and other differences)- the differences, and the consequences.
The main differences
These are the basic drivers of differences between sensitive and non-sensitive/ responsive and unresponsive temperaments.
This results in:
1. Greater awareness
- what’s going on around them
- what might happen soon
- how things are interacting and are likely to interact to produce results
2. Increased insight/perceptiveness
- how things come together to make sense
- emotional states of other people, and what those might lead to
- what has led to current situations
- how to resolve the problems in those situations
- how to avoid potential problems
- how to get desired results
- a desire to do what one is doing very well
- (due to) understanding why doing something well is important, and the consequences of not
- self-motivated, because they see the reasons for doing or not doing something – can perceive consequences, meaning, etc.
- aware of others’ emotional states, what might have led to them, and how to approach them
- awareness of the experience of others
- awareness of how a person might have arrived at a conclusion
- can place another person’s position on a matter within their map of reality
- awareness of many things means more connections to be made
- deep processing leads to many connections
- those connections result in creative – different – ideas
It also means:
1. Responsive people are overwhelmed by too much data at once
- they have a great capacity to absorb information, but because they are taking in so much, it needs time to process; too much at once overwhelms their system
2. The deep processing their nervous system does needs time, and sufficient calm and quiet.
- thinking on the spot in unfamiliar situations isn’t one of their gifts
- coming up with wise and valuable insights when that information has had the time and space to be processed is one of their gifts
3. Without this time and space to process the large amount of data they take in, the above desirable results are minimised (or halted, depending on the severity of the lack of time and space).
Importance of understanding this:
With conditions which nurture/support the way their temperament works, HS/Responsive people can give forth all of their gifts, as listed above.
With conditions which counter the way their temperament works, their responsiveness is unable to be effective. It turns, instead, into a liability, and they suffer deeply for it.
1. Provide as many ‘right’ conditions as possible. Result:
This is not a threat; it's an opportunity – an invitation to something better. The excellence we can create together – Sensitive and non-Sensitive/ Responsive and Unresponsive.
Highly Sensitive people provide an essential service.
The reason they are Highly Sensitive - the reason they are highly aware and deeply process - is so they can provide this service.
We know it's for this reason, because High Sensitivity - Responsiveness - is found consistently at this rate of 15-20% among humans and many animal species. In evolutionary terms, it's 'been selected for'.
What is that essential service?
That 1 in 5 people perceive more and process it in a way that makes more connections between more data. That they use this to provide insight, warnings of danger, pinpoint opportunities, notice the unseen aspects and invisible people, practise and teach others empathy, pause to reflect before acting - avoiding dangers and making better decisions - and provide beautiful, insightful and ennobling works of art: poetry, paintings, stories, music, and more.
The people who do this - the Highly Sensitive/Responsive among us - bring these abilities to all their endeavours. This is the service they provide.
Quite simply, Highly Sensitive people make the world a better place.
Help make it a better place for them.
Highly Sensitive managers are one way your organisation can solve the problem of managers with poor 'soft skills'.
Managers can make or break a person’s experience at work, due to the close contact they have with team members, and the effect this has on their daily work lives. You’ve heard that people leave managers, more than they leave jobs. So, having managers who work well with their teams is essential to retaining your best people.
In these times of increased movement between jobs, due to re-assessing working conditions and alignment with purpose, retaining your best talent is one of your top priorities. How do you do it? By offering more incentives and perks? Increasing salaries? There are several approaches to take, which you’re no doubt already working on. Here, I offer one, perhaps surprising, way to ensure you have managers (or HODs, or supervisors) who excel in ‘soft skills’ – the human aspect of managing well: choose managers with Highly Sensitive temperaments.
A recent study by the Australian College of Applied Professions found these results:
"65% say their manager struggles with soft skills…. The biggest perceived gaps" are in empathy (27% - i.e. 27% of employees in the study said their manager struggles with empathy), effective communication (25%), active listening (21%), flexibility (21%), and emotional intelligence (20%).
In addition, "1 in 2 remote employees are concerned about interacting with their manager when they return to the workplace. This is due to managers’:
65% is a concerning majority. You might consider improving these gaps through training – but how effective is training in changing a person’s ingrained habits and even personality? Some of these interpersonal skills can be taught more effectively than others, such as active listening and effective communication. A person can learn to be more empathetic. But emotional intelligence is a long-term learning process, and empathy and flexibility are also the result of long practice, and a strong desire to develop them.
A different option, which overcomes these difficulties, is to hire and promote Highly Sensitive managers – and make sure their workplace has the conditions which allow them to thrive. People with a Highly Sensitive temperament are naturally empathetic, deeply interested in and responsive to others and aware of their needs, notice subtleties - including how someone is feeling and little differences in their condition - and consider ‘the big picture’. All of these contribute to emotional intelligence and the ability to respond flexibly and appropriately to team members’ ideas, needs, and talents.
You wouldn't want all managers to have this same temperament; but having a good mix will help eliminate some of these too-common difficulties between managers and their teams. A good strategy is to aim for the same average ratio (of Highly Sensitive to non-Sensitive) as naturally exists in the population: around 20%.
How many Highly Sensitive managers does your organisation have? Are there systems in place to identify and support them, so that their innate gifts can shine and be put to excellent use?
Soft skills aren’t the only area Highly Sensitive people excel in. Here’s a list of some of the other benefits they bring to their workplaces, especially when able to thrive.
Photo 1 by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash
Photo 2 by Sincerely Media on Unsplash
You’ve probably heard about serotonin. It’s one of the two major neurotransmitters (the other is dopamine, which I’ll write a little about another time). How much a person has available depends on genetic factors.
Every gene has 3 possible variations – ‘short-short’, ‘short-long’, and ‘long-long’ (how’s your high school biology memory going?). There’s a gene called the serotonin transporter gene. Its ‘short-short’ variation, called the ‘s-allele’, gives a person less available serotonin.
Now, you might think immediately that this is a bad thing – after all, serotonin is about feelings, isn’t it? Less serotonin = depression. Right? Wrong , actually. This is what researchers used to think, because SSRI (selective serotonin uptake inhibitor) drugs help alleviate depression. But this is, in fact, a ‘very inconsistent link’, says clinical psychologist and researcher, Elaine Aron. Further research has found that serotonin isn’t linked to depression, per se. So what is it linked to?
Having less available serotonin, due to the s-allele variation, isn’t about depression itself, but about sensitivity to good or bad environments. (Does this sound familiar?). S-allele carriers ‘took substantially longer to reflect before making difficult choices’, and were ‘emotionally risk-averse’ (more careful) when there was a low probability of winning, but emotionally eager to take a risk when there was a high probability of winning.
So, people with this s-allele are more careful decision-makers; more reflective and thoughtful – more cautious – when making complex decisions and considering risks. Overall, this gene variation seems to lead to better decision-making.
And what’s really interesting is that about the same percentage of people carry this variation as have a Highly Sensitive temperament. One of the markers of this temperament is… more careful, reflective decision-making. People with this temperament have a strong ‘pause-to-check’ impulse – stopping to think before acting, when risks are involved or it’s a complex decision in other ways.
On the other hand, they can have a strong curiosity impulse – the desire to discover, learn, and take creative risks. So, unless they’ve had very difficult childhoods or other traumatic past experiences, these two impulses can serve them very well, balancing each other and leading to a well-rounded person who is both creative/innovative and sensibly cautious when it matters.
Doesn’t someone like this sound like a highly valuable person to have around? A gift – and a protection – in an organisation aiming to operate smoothly and successfully? How are the Highly Sensitive people in your organisation going? Do you know who they are? Do you know how to help them play this vital role?
I help organisations learn about the gifts and needs of sensitivity, identify who has the Highly Sensitive temperament, and create workplaces where people with these gifts can thrive.
My workshops and consultations will help you answer these questions, and begin to truly harness the unique gifts of the Highly Sensitive people in your workplace.
A well-functioning society depends on many things, but one of these is the balance between less-sensitive and more-sensitive individuals. There's a reason why the ratio of Highly Sensitive to non-Sensitive people remains constant at around 15-20%.
Let's look at a helpful overview from a group of experienced researchers into this temperament, then I'll put it into some plainer language.
High Sensitivity 'is a genetically-based trait associated with greater sensitivity and responsivity to environmental and social stimuli.'
What does that mean?
High Sensitivity or Responsivity is an evolutionary adaptation - something selected for - that is beneficial to a society or group, because those who have it are more aware of subtle things which influence survival and well-being, and which those without it more often miss. It allows people to connect better with each other, understand and help each other more effectively, and co-operate as a result.
It's called a 'stable trait' here because this distinguishes it from disorders (that's why the title says, 'seemingly related disorders' - these are disorders which can seem to be related to High Sensitivity, but are not), which are not stable traits.
‘Deep integration’ means that Highly Responsive people apply all the little pieces of disparate information to form a whole picture of understanding. So, where most people are letting a lot of information 'bounce off' them, Highly Responsive people are taking it in, then deeply integrating each of those pieces of information with their existing knowledge. This creates insights which no-one else is getting. They have more information at their disposal, and they know how to use it.
(They are, uniquely, details and big-picture people!)
A Highly Sensitive person will tend to have a very good memory, since they have so deeply integrated the details of what they’ve heard, read, and experienced. The sensory data that they absorb isn’t floating around in its original form, but has been connected and made meaningful. This cements it into their minds, so that when the time comes where it’s needed, the applicable knowledge arises, available to apply to the situation at hand.
* The exception to this ability to apply highly relevant, detailed information to the situation at hand is when a Highly Sensitive person is in a situation where the stress response occurs – what we call ‘fight-or-flight’. This bypasses that excellent ability to recall and apply salient information, and creates a ‘deer in the headlights’ experience instead. This is one reason why it’s SO important to have conditions which help Highly Responsive people to remain calm and able to take in, integrate, and recall everything that they are uniquely and so well able to do.
Often, what we see in Highly Sensitive people is the result of too much unhelpful stimulation - that state of being overwhelmed. But this is a really poor indicator of what High Sensitivity is. And the reason they get there is because they're living in a world set up for everyone who's non-Sensitive. So what, really, is this temperament? What are its gifts - and how do we recognise them and allow them to flourish?
In this recording, I discuss the following:
- alternative terms for the Highly Sensitive temperament (*note: Willow MacIntosh - I couldn't think of his name at the time - is the champion of the term 'High Sensory Intelligence' mentioned here. He's the founder of a company called 'Inluminance', which works to help people with this temperament use their gifts in the world)
- misunderstandings about what sensitivity means
- what it actually means
- how the Sensitive temperament leads to unique gifts (an insight into the process)
- why it's in everyone's best interests to help Highly Sensitive people to thrive
- where the overstimulation that's often the most visible feature of the temperament comes from - and why this isn't what their 'sensitivity' is really about
- how to see past this: my goal
- benefits and reasons for reducing unhelpful stimulation for HS people at work
This recording was made using my computer's microphone, in the middle of summer, so there's fan noise in the background. I hope it's not too distracting - I think it is at first, and then you become used to it. As I don't have a dedicated podcast, I'm not focusing on recordings and don't have a separate microphone. For now, the message is the most important thing. I hope that message comes across, despite the imperfect nature of the recording.
There are two options for listening: the weblink below to the track on SoundCloud, and a downloadable audio file.
I also have a list of myths and facts about High Sensitivity, which you can view, and download, via the button below (no sign-up required - this is a direct link to the file).
You can save or print this, and use it for your own reference when working with Highly Sensitive people. You can also provide it to managers and other leaders when explaining the concept to them, as you work to get them on board for helping Highly Sensitive people thrive in your workplace.
(If you’ve heard any others not on this list, let me know – if they fit, I’ll add them)
Tamara - Sensitive Thrive is my consulting business. I believe that the world needs Highly Sensitive people who are flourishing. We need their hope, insight, wisdom, and awareness of beauty and possibility. My vision is to help create a culture where this temperament is known, understood and valued; where organisations seek Highly Sensitive people to work for them, because they know what they can do. Where HS people feel like they fit in their workplaces, because those workplaces also fit them. A world where HS people belong, thrive, and flourish, and the world is better for it.