Cubicle Advice

Sensitivity: Coping in the Workplace

It took a very long time for me to realize certain truths about myself.

Sensitivity was not something I had seen as a particularly appealing trait. Instead of acknowledging it earlier in life, I pushed my awareness of it deep down, where I might never have to look too closely at it ever again.

But the truth is that I’m very sensitive. Physically. Emotionally. Psychologically. Spiritually.

I am sensitive to sound, touch, taste, smell, and sight.

I am sensitive to any incoming emotional and energetic messages, whether from other people, TV shows, or even my own imagination.

After finally acknowledging this sensitivity of mine (via a very incompatible relationship that made it glaringly obvious to both myself and my ex-partner that I was, indeed, sensitive), I decided to embrace it wholly.

Let me back up…I understand on an intellectual level that embracing my sensitivity is the healthiest, most wholesome thing I can do for myself.

That being said, I still have a damn hard time fully working with it in my daily life. But work with it I do, every day, and I’m slowly getting better.

Sensitivity in the Workplace

Given that part of this blog is about coping with a day job while you live your creative passion, I thought it appropriate to share how I’ve accommodated my own sensitivities specifically in the workplace.

After all, us day-jobers spend an inordinate amount of time in a location that can be, quite frankly, one of the most sensory-overloaded places we frequent.

Below are my tips for what has helped me deal with some of my sensitivities at work. Assuming you are in a similar boat to me (creative, sensitive, anxious, working a 9-5 cubicle desk job), the list I’ve come up with should hopefully inspire you to take care of your own sensory-specific needs in the workplace, making the entire experience that much more bearable.

Disclaimer: I realize these suggestions are highly specific to myself and my own experiences. Every industry is unique. Every workplace is unique. And every individual is unique. I leave it up to your creative, beautiful, sensitive mind to come up with appropriate parallels to your own life, applying the principals in your own way toward helping you cope with your unique sensory demons.

Sense Number One: Sound

Have you heard of Bose noise-canceling headphones? No? Buy them.

Have you seen their price and thought they were too expensive? Yes? Ask your significant other or best friend to get them for you as a birthday gift.

These things have saved my butt at work.

I have a mild form of misophonia, which means certain sounds cause me to feel intense anxiety, and yes, anger. Co-workers chewing in the cubicles next to mine is one of my biggest triggers (also, chronic yogurt-cup scrapers).

These headphones have done wonders for me. Play a little music in the background and all external sound just disappears. Given how sensitive to sound I am, this is really saying something. Even nearby conversations go away as long as I’m listening to music.

Let’s say, though, you can’t afford a pair of noise-canceling headphones. Not to worry. You can use regular headphones, earplugs, or any other headset to still get the benefit of sound blockage.

The biggest obstacle I found in using my headphones is that I would wait too long to put them in.

You need to put your headphones in preemptively. Don’t leave it till the last minute, when you can hear the CHEW-CRUNCH-GULP-CHEW-BURP as you fumble manically through your bag to locate your headphones before the last ounce of your sanity is gone.

Give yourself permission to be the weirdo who wears headphones all the time.

It’s worth it.

Other options for those who don’t like anything in or over their ears:

Space-heaters, fans, white-noise machines, getting up and working remotely, working from home, humming tunelessly to yourself, and asking your co-workers to eat or make noise elsewhere.

Not that asking anyone to make accommodations for you is in any way easy, but just keep it in mind as an option should things get to the point where you cannot cope with them on your own.

Remember, as will be the theme through most of this blog post, you are not broken if you have these experiences. You’re simply wired differently and you owe it to yourself to take care of your unique needs.

Sense Number Two: Touch

Clothing

Cut the tags out of your clothes. It took me 27 years to realize that I friggin’ hate clothing tags. Apparently, I used to rip entire outfits off as a child because of the sensory overload the clothes caused me. Chance that this behavior was caused by the tags? I’d give it a 90%.

I don’t know why I put up with clothing tags for so long. I started to research Asperger’s recently and came to realize that some people with Asperger’s specifically cut out the tags on their clothing. Why can’t I do the same?

Since cutting out the tags on my clothing, I’ve been able to focus better at work. I also make it a point to dress as unprofessionally as I possibly can while still looking adequately professional; soft blouses, nice jeans, and, because I’m an engineer, squishy tennis shoes that make my feet happy all day long.

I also don’t wear a lanyard. My job requires a badge and I have found that the feeling of a lanyard on the back of my neck drives me insane. I use a clip instead on my belt loop.

Give yourself permission to identify what’s bothering you and, most importantly, fix it.

Stop ignoring it. Honestly, I almost wonder if some of the ignoring that I’ve been doing this whole time has caused some of my anxiety.

Personal Space

Another piece of touch has to do with personal space. I don’t like to be touched by strangers. I cringe when I have to shake someone’s hand. I also don’t like people looking over my shoulder at my computer while they breathe down my neck.

So I made a sign for the outside of my cubicle. In a manner that is equal parts direct, funny, and humble, I let my co-workers know that I don’t like people getting too close, and to please respect my personal space.

I work with a bunch of engineers, so I was lucky in the fact that they almost all appreciated and related to the sign. But even if you work in an office environment where it’s more difficult to communicate physical boundaries to people, try to do so still. Try to find a creative way to share with people your limits.

Your boundaries are important and valid, no matter what they are. No one should be closer to you than you are comfortable with. Some industries make this super difficult, and some make it less difficult, but even if you have to grin and bear it in your particular field, know this: the fact that these kinds of things make you uncomfortable, again, doesn’t make you strange or broken.

It’s just the way you’re wired.

Sense Number Three: Sight

Lighting

My office, like most cubicle farms, has fluorescent lighting. For the longest time, I allowed myself to get a headache every day from these lights while typing away on a blue light-spewing computer screen. It was miserable.

I went to Wal-Mart and spent about eleven dollars on a chunk of bright green fabric. I secured the fabric with magnets above the corner of my cubicle where I sit to block out the light. There is now a gentle, green glow in my cubicle instead of the bright fluorescent light.

I also fiddled with the computer monitor’s settings until almost all the blue light was gone. (There are eyeglasses you can buy that do this for you too.)

I don’t know why I waited so long to do either of these things. Like my other sensory issues, I just kind of accepted these things about my working environment.

But no more. Blue and fluorescent light diminished, I now have substantially less physically anxiety symptoms while sitting at my desk. I can focus better and I leave work at the end of the day (nearly) headache-free.

Aesthetics

Another feature of being sensitive to sight is that I’m also uplifted by beautiful things. Therefore, I have decorated my cubicle to the maximum. I have cut out the calendar pages of previous years of idyllic nature scenes and stuck them up on the walls. I have also printed pictures of things that make me happy to look at. Every color in the rainbow exists in my cube. While my co-workers have pictures of spaceships and techie things in their cubes, I pride myself on my trees, flowers, and animals. And I even get compliments when new people stop by!

(I also have a small plant, who is, at this time, my best friend at my workplace. Just kidding. Not really.)

My cubicle has become my visual sanctuary, and I didn’t even know I could apply the word “sanctuary” to my workplace.

Sense Number Four: Smell

I’ve only had one issue with smell, and thankfully it was resolved easily, though not without a lot of over-thinking on my part.

At one point in my career, I had to work with a man from another department who wore, to my sensitive nose, a very strong cologne. Every time I needed to interact with him, I would get severe headaches and find it impossible to concentrate.

I needed to tell him how it was affecting me, but I was deeply afraid. I didn’t want to offend him. I didn’t want him to feel ashamed for wearing a scent (which, to most people, likely smelled quite nice). But I also couldn’t keep working with him if he continued to wear it.

So I spent some time drafting up an email to him (I don’t do well bringing up conflict in person). I read through it around twenty times before sending it off, making sure it spoke in the kindest, most respectful, most humble way I could possibly manage to get out using the English language.

I got lucky. He was kind. He understood and didn’t wear the cologne again.

I’m glad I asked, but I realize this is probably one of the hardest things for people to do. Not everyone has an awesome co-worker like him. That being said, perfume and cologne are known to cause allergies and respiratory issues in certain people. It is not unreasonable to ask for someone to stop wearing a particular product that bothers you if it bothers you to such a degree that you can’t do your job properly.

The hardest part is braving that emotionally-laden minefield of actually asking. All I can give you in terms of advice if something like this is affecting you is to be brave. That sounds cheesy but it’s true. Your needs are important. They are valid. Trust yourself and be brave in the face of your fears.

This may seem like overkill for something as simple as cologne, but trust me. If you’re a sensitive person reading this article right now, you’ll understand exactly how hard asking for something like this is.

You still have to do it.

Sense Number Five: Taste

This is not especially relevant to the workplace, so this one will be short. What I do have to say is that if you have taste sensitivities, please do take care to pack your own lunch, and make sure it contains food that nourishes you and doesn’t cause you sensory overload.

The worst things I’ve done to myself are 1) pack something that I don’t like to eat from a sensory standpoint and end up not eating it, therefore coming home very hangry, and 2) not pack anything at all, planning on going out to lunch with co-workers, only to realize they chose a restaurant that has nothing on the menu I’m able to eat, also causing me to come home at the end of the day super hangry.

Food is important. This is obvious. Take care of your needs. Eat what feels good and tastes good. That will keep you focused and alert. You can add in the nutrition as you find things that work for your palette.

Sense Number Six: Emotional Intuition and Psychic Energy

It’s time for woo-woo!

I am deeply emotionally sensitive. I pick up on any emotional energy whether I want to or not.

Some days are easier and some are worse, but there are ways I’ve learned to cope when I know that my boundary bubble is particularly thin on a given day.

Eye Contact and Smiling

First, I don’t make eye contact with passers-by.

This may sound deeply anti-social and a bad idea for some industries, but I’m an engineer. It’s not uncommon to pass people in the hallway without acknowledging them in my industry, so I’m going to speak from my experience. This practice helps. A lot.

Eyes are windows to the soul. This is not just a cliché. It is a truth. When I make eye contact with people, I feel everything they feel. I also feel like all of my emotions are getting sucked out of my eyeballs and flung in their direction for them to do with whatever they please.

I had to give myself permission to not look at people when I’m feeling vulnerable. This has helped me tremendously.

It’s helped my energy (not as much emotion sucking into or out of my eyes).

It’s helped my confidence (not as many half-arsed smiles that I criticize myself over for being disingenuous after the fact).

It’s helped my mood (not quite as much anger toward people as a defense mechanism to prevent my energy from dissipating in their presence).

It’s not a perfect tool, but it’s done wonders for me.

I don’t try to do it with my direct co-workers, as I don’t want them to feel bad or like they did something wrong to anger me. However, I definitely do it with people whose names I don’t know.

Even if you’re in an industry where being friendly and making eye-contact is a must, I think you can still get away with some things.

For instance, try not to look directly into their eyes. Try looking at their chin, or their neck, or a spot twenty feet behind them. Try blurring your eyes a bit. If you have to smile, remind yourself not to beat yourself up for the smile being inauthentic. It’s ok. You’re human and you’re sensitive. You can only give so much, and that’s all you have.

Cafeteria Televisions

One last tip when it comes to energetic sensitivity…

If your cafeteria, like most industry cafeterias, displays the news feed all day…please, for the sake of your sanity, avoid looking at the TVs at all costs. I’ve had one too many energy-zap experiences looking at news-ridden TV sets in the workplace to allow myself to even glance at them any longer. It’s not worth it. Not to someone like you.

There you have it – the ways in which I have learned to cope with sensory overload experiences in the workplace. I hope it gives you some insight into your own life.

The biggest obstacle I’ve ever faced getting my needs met was internal. I had to give myself permission to take care of myself. In order to do that, I had to tell myself that my way of experiencing the world around me was valid.

Everything else, everything external, eventually fell into place once I took that internal barrier away.

It was replaced with tons of self-love, self-acceptance, and way less anxiety.

That’s definitely what I prefer.

What is your workplace like? Do you have sensory needs not currently being met? Did anything I suggest spark a creative solution to some of your struggles? Let me know in the comments. I love hearing from my readers about their unique experiences!

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