Could You Be a Highly Sensitive Person Masquerading as a Tough Lawyer?

Most of you land here on Leaving Law because you’re trying to figure out why law isn’t working for you. Heaven knows you’ve spent mounds of time and mental energy on that topic, right? Yet perhaps you aren’t much closer to finding a solution.

One thing most unhappy lawyers discern quickly is that their colleagues often drive them nuts. After all, as a group lawyers score below average on emotional intelligence.

So the thinking goes, maybe I’m unhappy because my personality is too different from other lawyers’ personalities—choosing a better firm will help. Or maybe you’ve concluded that lawyering in general is not leading you anywhere you want to go.

These aren’t wrong conclusions for many unhappy lawyers.

Some of you, though, may have an additional wrinkle to add to the analysis: It might be your neurology that’s your biggest problem. You might just be what Dr. Elaine Aron calls a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).

If you haven’t heard of HSPs, let me assure you it isn’t some trend du jour. The research dates back to the early 1990s. Turns out that roughly 20 percent of the human population are HSPs. It’s also a trait found in more than 100 other animals, including fruit flies, horses, fish, and primates.

Is This You? A Guide to HSP Traits

Simply put, HSPs are able to perceive a much higher amount of sensory input than average. If an average person is a 5 when it comes to picking up on the emotions of others, HSPs are a 10 or 11 (on a 1 to 10 scale). The same is true when it comes to sounds, tastes, textures, and other physical sensations.

Specific HSP traits include:

  • Easily overwhelmed by external stimuli such as noise, strong smells, and lights;
  • Anxiety when there’s a lot to do in a short amount of time, regardless of how easy the tasks are;
  • Quickly sensing the emotions of others, when most people don’t detect them at all;
  • A complex, rich inner life; or
  • Sensitivity to subtle flavors, sounds, or to art of all kinds.

This isn’t an exclusive list, and you don’t need to have all the traits to be an HSP.

Once I heard about HSPs and did some reading and thinking, it was easy to see how I’d been one since birth. Some of my bigger Aha! realizations were:

  • Getting jostled and smushed trying to get into an outdoor concert made me absolutely rage-filled. It was roughly 1,000 times too many sensations at once for me to process, and it took at least a half hour to calm down enough to enjoy the show.
  • I sometimes have instant, intense dislikes to new people–even though the new acquaintance has not done or said anything suspect. Usually other people don’t have a problem with that person initially. Sooner or later, though, I end up being correct to distrust that person.
  • Despite my complete lack of knowledge about music (at the time), the first time I heard Bach’s Cello Suites I nearly cried because they were so beautiful.

For a more formal assessment, you can take Elaine Aron’s free assessment here.

It’s All in the Your Head—the Wiring of It

Being an HSP isn’t a choice you made when you were an impulsive, dramatic tween, say, because it’s about the difference in your nervous system wiring. There’s research documenting that HSPs have more mirror neurons than the average person, and that there may be a genetic component, too.  

Drawing of woman's profile, with messy random lines going throughout her head.
Image by ElisaRiva from Pixabay

The neurological differences have been seen on fMRIs (functional MRIs), which track brain activity in real time. (Side note: Anyone who can hook me up with getting an fMRI without paying thousands of dollars will have my undying gratitude! It’s one of my few bucket list items.)

Note that roughly 30 percent of HSPs exhibit extraversion. So while most HSPs are introverted to some degree, it’s not an inherent part of being an HSP.

HSP Hell Is Living in Modern American Culture

In Western culture, HSPs have been mislabeled and misunderstood; frequently they’ve been  pathologized as neurotic, shy, or unduly fearful. If you’re an HSP, chances are very good that you’ve heard “you’re too sensitive!” many times during your life, and perhaps particularly in law practice.

In contrast, Korean culture highly prizes nunchi, a skill that is definitely in the HSP toolkit.

As journalist Euny Hong explains:

Nunchi is the art of sensing what people are thinking and feeling, and responding appropriately. It’s speed-reading a room with the emphasis on the collective, not on specific individuals. . .  In traditional Korean child rearing, nunchi is on a par with “Look both ways before crossing the street” and “Don’t hit your sister.”

This sounds like an HSP’s version of paradise, compared to living in the United States. You need only watch the procession of inescapable truck, beer, and sports commercials to know that our ruling ethos is both “never let them see you sweat,” and “only the strong (deserve to) survive.”

The oceans of unexpressed/repressed emotions lurking just below the surface of many people is wildly confusing to HSPs. Many—maybe most—HSPs do not realize the emotions they are suddenly feeling are not actually their own. It requires constant filtering and interpreting, and it’s exhausting.

HSPs as Lawyers

If it’s bad in the general culture for HSPs, it’s so much worse for HSPs in law. Partly, that’s because the typical law firm or legal department contains a hefty dose of dysfunction, and that is bewildering to HSPs. Plus, the level of energy needed to pretend everything is OK when HSPs know it absolutely isn’t takes a heavy toll.

But if you’re an HSP and your personality doesn’t fit into law, it’s a double-whammy. That’s why the chances of lasting a long time in law are pretty small for that group. An HSP, regardless of personality type, will quickly become overwhelmed, exhausted, and burned out in the typical law environment. The same dynamic happens when you’re an idealistic personality working with hard-nosed pragmatists all the time. Ugh, a double helping that does not taste great!

Photo of red fading rose covered with snow.
Photo by HumoyunXon on Unsplash

Usually, environments that expect constant toughness also punish people for showing sensitivity. The price for HSPs to remain in that environment can be really high. More than likely you’ll have:

  • poor physical health,
  • poor mental and emotional health, and
  • very little satisfaction with your work and life.

Your chances of spending huge chunks of cash on doctors, medications, therapists, massages, retreats, and other things HSPs need to simply survive is roughly 100 percent.

It’s a lot like growing roses in Alaska: It can be done, but it’s infinitely harder than growing spruces or lichens there. It’s pretty pointless.

See Yourself, See Your Solution?

Sometimes, simply recognizing that you’re an HSP gives you the push you need to make changes in your career and life, so that it better matches who you actually are. If that’s you, congratulations! Let me know how your life improved. I love those stories.

If you need help making changes, reach out to set up a session with me (jalvey@jenniferalvey.com ), so we can dig deeper into what will help you embrace your high sensitivity and thrive.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering attorney who, if she had a dollar for every time someone said, “you’re too sensitive,” would be sitting on a nice pile of cash. The day she learned about HSPs was a very, very good day for her, and hopefully will be for many readers, too. Jennifer can be reached at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com for sample sessions and speaking engagements..

2 thoughts on “Could You Be a Highly Sensitive Person Masquerading as a Tough Lawyer?

  1. I’ve known for some time now that I’m a HSP. This personality trait is also part of ADHD, which I have. Luckily I realized this and was diagnosed with it approximately 5 years after I started lawyering. It helped me move on. I was putting myself down quite a bit bc I hated it and couldn’t understand how others could just not give a sh@* about other people. The day I didn’t pay my annual dues was a great day!!

    • I’m so glad you’ve found a much better option that worked for you. Being an HSP lawyer makes many of us feel like permanent residents on the Island of Misfit Toys, huh?

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