How do find a job or career where compassion, sensitivity are assets?
September 16, 2014 10:32 PM   Subscribe

Are there jobs where having a *thin* skin is an asset instead of a liability? Where being loving, caring, emotional, sensitive are a good thing and you don't have to fight those tendencies, especially as a leader?

I have spent the first decade of my professional life in jobs that require a thick skin, such as client relations-type jobs that requires navigating lots of personalities and tricky politics (including leadership roles- such as right now, I'm the director of a tiny community-based nonprofit); and creative jobs where clients are passing judgment on your work. I'm fairly good at what I do but I can't say I love it; and I really, really hate the negative interpersonal interactions that can come up frequently.

Recently I've been realizing that having a thick skin really doesn't come naturally to me, and has probably been one of the main sources of my perpetual career struggle. I would much, much rather be able to let my vulnerability and emotions and love and compassion and desire for connection flow through me and be activated by my work and really be an asset, rather than a liability like it is now. But I'm having a hard time finding work that would really tap into that part of me - especially because I'm ambitious and I want to be a leader, and it seems like to be a leader in anything, you need to have a thick skin.

That's where I'm hoping you can help.

This review of the book Hug Me, on Brain Pickings, is a great example of what I've been going through in my work. (I went through something similar in my childhood, too, but that's for a future AskMeFi question.) I want to be able to go into work and give everyone hugs and have all of my coworkers get along and feel good while we try to make the world a better place by being loving, caring, emotional people and sharing that with others... is that too much to ask for? What types of jobs are like this? How do you do that AND be a leader who grows to make a bigger and bigger impact on the world?

Maybe a research job or something else that doesn't involve dealing with quite as many people?

Thanks in advance.
posted by inatizzy to Work & Money (30 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
How about nursing or other roles in healthcare?
posted by pikeandshield at 11:35 PM on September 16, 2014

It's a tricky one, as jobs where those attributes are an advantage in some areas (e.g., healthcare) will also require a very thick skin in others. I work in a hospital and you get ward politics, lots of conflict all the time and patients who tell it like it is. Or even worse, patients who tell it like they perceive it to be, which can have very little to do with reality.

You may find value in healthcare though, and that may make it all worthwhile.
posted by kadia_a at 11:42 PM on September 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

Counseling or therapy of some sort? Crisis hotline management?
Any sort of nurturing career might be up your alley. I think I know EXACTLY how you feel and what you mean...

It sounds like you have a Highly Sensitive Personality so you might also deal with Compassion Fatigue in a line of work where you do use your emotions a lot.
It is something I have dealt with in the animal care field so I recommend reading up on that if you do find yourself with a new career.
In a job where you are dealing with emotions and compassion and kindness there will always come times when you need thick skin such as dealing with company policies, co workers, bosses etc. so I find this is a double whammy where I work. Having to have multiple personalities at worst, or just being very flexible at best.

I wish you luck and am following this thread as I am very interested in answers myself.
posted by fogonlittlecatfeet at 11:45 PM on September 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Your personality sounds like my mother's. She started as a kindergarten teacher and now also has mother-child groups for toddlers/pre-kindergarten age.
I'd guess you would need a thicker skin in healthcare (people die in hospitals, after all) or therapy (people may talk about traumatic events) than it seems at first, so working with children and families might be a better choice. The "leadership" part you seek: You help parents be better parents (my mother has many, many new mothers who thank her years later for the advice) and teach children values (rather than facts and knowledge like a school teacher).
posted by MinusCelsius at 12:07 AM on September 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

Clerical work in healthcare? You would still have to deal with some difficult situations and personalities, but being compassionate is also important. For example, a nurse that i know told me that sometimes clerks are really cold and unwilling to budge on things, like when someone comes in without proof of insurance etc. but really just needs to be seen. In that situation, the clerk needs to worry about the welfare of the patient first and about the money second.

I think that something like nursing would be too intense for someone with a thin skin.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 12:28 AM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also consider that a lot of the caring professions suggested here actually require people to adopt professional personalities and a degree of professional detachment at least some of the time. I get the impression that you really would prefer not to have to do that.

Your wishlist sounds quite challenging because you're going to encounter people and their various shortcomings everywhere. Have you ranked the things you want to get away from in your current field? And the things you are really really looking for? Then focus your efforts on achieving the top two things on each list.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:45 AM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Home health aide? Working one-on-one with people with special needs? Adminstrative work in an intentional community or commune? Church administrator?
posted by ladybird at 3:36 AM on September 17, 2014

I think it's less about the job description and more about the culture.

I'd look for another job in your field, but make sure your boss is a hugger. Bring this up at the interview. There are people in every line of work who consider someone who loves a positive environment and wants to dwell in kindness to be an asset. This is true in every field: law, business, academia -- even places where stereotypically you would find "hard nosed" people. It's a matter of finding a compatible workplace.
posted by 3491again at 3:47 AM on September 17, 2014 [17 favorites]

Nthing working with small children-- what you're describing sounds quite a bit like the personality that many of my child's kindergarten and preschool teachers projected. I'd imagine there's a fair amount of negative emotion that gets directed at those teachers, too, but coming from a small child, it's probably decidedly easier to let any nastiness wash off and stay in a place of personal compassion.
posted by Bardolph at 4:08 AM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do you need much money to get on? Outside of nursing most of the jobs with your emotional skills pay peanuts. I would prefer you to think of your "thin-skin" as a plus rather than a Failing. We have all the heartless pricks we need right now and could use a few more people with a little more compassion in our lives.
posted by BarcelonaRed at 4:13 AM on September 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

I want to be able to go into work and give everyone hugs and have all of my coworkers get along and feel good while we try to make the world a better place by being loving, caring, emotional people and sharing that with others... is that too much to ask for?


Work is not set up to foster the kinds of things you say you want from it. I agree with the person above who said that getting close to what you want will be more about finding a good fit regarding where you work than it will be about finding a profession that caters to it.

I'm a social worker, and I can tell you without a doubt, that the "helping professions" are not for the thin skinned. I had a dear friend who loved her job working with young children as a Head Start teacher, until her new principle made her life hell and she had to resign.
posted by OmieWise at 5:04 AM on September 17, 2014 [11 favorites]

It might help you be more empathetic in jobs where you are helping people, like social work or health care. That might improve your performance.

However, those jobs will be hard on you emotionally as a result. And if that overwhelms you and you shut down, your job performance will suffer.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:14 AM on September 17, 2014

Do you like animals? If so, working with animals in some way might be a good way for you to get that compassion out into the world. Having a huggy feel-good rapport with your coworkers is indeed a lot to ask; a lot of people just don't want that sort of closeness from the people they work with. But a lot of animals do! Training or dog walking would get you close to animals, with a little less of the direness that working at a vet office or shelter would have. I don't think these are very lucrative careers, but that's the trade-off you'll have to make.

Another option would be to provide a feel-good service that isn't strictly necessary in the world. I'm thinking yoga, massage, personal makeovers, etc. You'll be giving people that warm glowy feeling, and you won't be in as many situations that require a thick skin, but the drawback is you might get a little cynical anyway - you're generally helping well-off people feel better about themselves, rather than helping those who need the most help.

Ultimately, though, most jobs that require compassion also require a thick skin, because the people who need compassion the most are those in the worst and most unfair situations, with the odds stacked against them. And it's nearly impossible to be a good leader without a considerable amount of toughness. Your other alternative is to find a job that you like well enough but doesn't come with emotional lows or highs, and engage that loving part of yourself in your spare time.
posted by Metroid Baby at 6:28 AM on September 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

Day care provider for children or adults with special needs.

Therapeutic yoga instructor.
posted by phoenix_rising at 6:31 AM on September 17, 2014

Work is not set up to foster the kinds of things you say you want from it.

This is very true in probably the vast majority of jobs. Perhaps you might want to consider a situation where "being loving, caring, emotional people and sharing that with others" is not part of the job, but rather is incidental to it. For example, in a job involving operating machinery or the like, co-workers can have all kinds of personal conversations and interactions and can be very emotionally supportive of one another (assuming they are all at a level of proficiency where chatting and interacting does not distract from job duties). And in addition, one can discontinue the interaction at will. In a job where a compassionate and selfless way of being is required 8 hours a day, I could imagine burnout being a real possibility.
posted by RRgal at 6:35 AM on September 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

As a fellow thin-skinned person, one thing I have found to be crucial is having control over my hours. This might mean being self-employed or working part-time. People who are "thin-skinned" are usually Highly sensitive, meaning we respond more intensely to stimuli. Therefore we will get overwhelmed before the average person, with lesser degrees of stimuli. So te average work day and hours is usually just too much stimulus and we go into overload- even for a person of average sensitivity it is often too much.

Check out the book, "Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person", or the book "The Highly Sensitive Person".

I am self-employed, and while I don't make a lot of money, controlling my schedule and work situations has been invaluable.

Don't think being sensitive means you can't work with people. It just means you need to have more control over the amount of contact vs. breaks, which means that an ideal job would be getting to set your own hours so you don't go on overload (getting that is not an impossible task).
posted by bearette at 6:35 AM on September 17, 2014 [9 favorites]

Compassion and sensitivity =/= having a thin skin.

There are plenty of careers (which are addressed in great detail by answers upthread) that value compassion and the ability to be sensitive to others' needs and wishes, and where loving/caring individuals flourish. But those careers, just like other ones, are still going to be fraught with their fair share of interpersonal issues, ranging from personality conflicts to stress. Two compassionate and sensitive people can easily dislike one another and struggle to work together. To succeed in the workplace - in any workplace - you need to find a way to toughen up a bit.

That doesn't mean you have to give up or squash your more emotional side, but it does mean letting some workplace issues roll off your back, because a workplace where everyone hugs and ... get[s] along and feel good while we try to make the world a better place by being loving, caring, emotional people and sharing that with others does not exist anywhere 100% of the time. Even the most loving, caring emotional people will sometimes experience conflict with one another at times. Having a skin that is thick enough to deal with those complications is key to success.

Also, some non-huggers are compassionate and sensitive and loving/caring...and some huggers are jerks. I strongly caution against using hugging as your metric for a good workplace.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 6:37 AM on September 17, 2014 [14 favorites]

If I may be frank (and I just may be), the issue you describe is not a surfeit of sensitivity or empathy, but a dearth of emotional resilience. Increasing that, and the degree to which you're able to rely on yourself for emotional equanimity, should be your greater goal.

Otherwise, what schroedingersgirl said.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:45 AM on September 17, 2014 [10 favorites]

Do not do healthcare. I repeat, do not do healthcare. You really can't be ultra-thin skinned in healthcare or you will burn out in a minute. You have to be able to detach from the situation. For one, sick people are often unpleasant because they are having the scariest time of their life. You have to not take that stuff personally. People die, or they get bad news and if you are a thin-skinned person who can't detach it will eat you alive.

There are some healthcare jobs I think you could do. These are more concerned with quality of life than life or death. Occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech therapists.

I've worked with children with special needs. It's great on one hand, but on the other, I've been a part of a team that has had to call child protective services, and those parents who really can't take care of their kids, probably happens more often than you think. And wanting to hug them all the time? That's really an impediment to giving them as much independance as possible. I hated when the other staff would coddle my students because it was not age appropriate. Learned helplessness is a real problem in the field of special needs.

I think you could be a good teacher for young children. You could have a strong impact without having to deal with all those other pesky details of being a leader.

I think the issue is you want to be a leader. I do not know any leaders who are thin-skinned to be honest. Being a leader means making choices that other people will hate and not understand sometimes. Take it from someone who has worked in the schools - it is exceedingly common for people to dislike their administration.

I think you should admit to the type of person you are. You probably aren't going to be happy in most leadership roles. Instead you can be a quiet leader - by supporting things more behind the scene, or impacting people's lives so they can go and accomplish things.

I am a really sensitive, thin-skinned type too. I would never do leadership-y things for that reason, because it would mess me up. I prefer individual interactions where I improve other's lives. That is who I am.
posted by Aranquis at 6:45 AM on September 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Certainly being sensitive is an asset to an elementary school teacher. Depending on your school, as a teacher you may have to have a thick skin to deal with parents as well as principals and politics. Maybe instead consider being a pre-school teacher, daycare provider, after-school teacher?
posted by radioamy at 7:04 AM on September 17, 2014

Caretaker for an elderly and/or disabled person. You're one-on-one with each client and develop a personal relationship with them. You do need to be an extremely kind and compassionate person to do the job well. There are agencies that you can sign up with, and they always seem to be looking for good people. It's a "freelance" gig -- the money per hour is fairly good, but you only get paid while you're on the clock.

However, it won't be all hugs all the time. Bad days happen. That job also sometimes means that you're encouraging the client to do things that s/he doesn't want to do, which doesn't always go well.

Regardless, I do think that you're going to have to get your emotional needs met outside of your work. It's not fair to your clients or co-workers to expect them to meet your emotional needs, that's not their role in your life nor in their work.
posted by rue72 at 7:51 AM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, jumping back in to address this:

Maybe a research job or something else that doesn't involve dealing with quite as many people?

I work at a think tank. Our organization's key function is research. Everyone is smart and tenacious and well-respected, but we do not hug. There is some interpersonal conflict, because despite being a relatively homogeneous group (well educated nerds) we all have different communications styles and personalities. Before this, I worked for a small business, where the interpersonal issues were even worse. Unless you're going to work in the sort of position rue72 suggests (one-on-one caretaking), you really can't escape occasionally unpleasant social dynamics. (And even in those one-on-one positions, there will still be occasional strife - I can promise that.)
posted by schroedingersgirl at 8:17 AM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Most of the answers here are not distinguishing enough between the "clients" (e.g sick people, students, etc.) and the other staff (co-workers and those above you in the hierarchy).

The OP seems to be talking more about the latter than the former.

I want to be able to go into work and give everyone hugs and have all of my coworkers get along and feel good while we try to make the world a better place by being loving, caring, emotional people and sharing that with others... is that too much to ask for?


I'm almost 64 years old and have worked in some of the huggiest fields there are (mental health and substance abuse), and yet, I have never been in a work situation where my co-workers were looking for hugs from me. And I am not looking for hugs from my co-workers (although, since I now work alone, if I did, it would mean that I'm delusional).

It's not too much to ask for a work environment in which everyone respects each other (or knows how to fake it), but I think you're looking for something else, something that isn't generally part of a work environment. Work, with its issues of control and authority, is a loaded issue for many (most?) people. You might be the most benevolent leader in the world, but there are going to be people who resent your position nonetheless. Maybe they want to be the leader and feel you're in their place. Or they want to be a leader but feel they can't lead and hate that and project that hate onto you. Or think you're just fine but would prefer you keep your arms to yourself.

In a family and in your social life you try to work out this stuff because you want the intimacy. But in a work situation, you want to do a good job and collect your salary. It's great if you get along with your co-workers, but you have not chosen those people to spend your days with.

If I found myself in a job with a high hug expectancy because of the leader's emotional needs, I'd run for the hills.
posted by DMelanogaster at 8:19 AM on September 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

As odd as it may seem, I'm a VERY sensitive person. But I work in the real world and I have developed a detachment that serves me well.

I taught school and you'd think that being loving and kind and helpful would be rewarded in that environment, but I'm sure you know how difficult teaching is. So no.

I took classes towards becoming a nurse and again, you CAN'T be too compassionate and empathetic in healthcare professions because you'd be so overcome you couldn't do your job.

Thick skin doesn't come easily to anybody, which is why we all work at it every day.

As an example, I had a meeting yesterday that was pretty much 'How not to hold a meeting' and my new manager gave me so feedback about it. She could not have been nicer about it, but I went home and fretted about disappointing her about this freaking meeting!

But here I am at work. Doing what needs to be done. I'll try and put it behind me and I resolve to NEVER have that shitty of a meeting again.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:08 AM on September 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would much, much rather be able to let my vulnerability and emotions and love and compassion and desire for connection flow through me and be activated by my work and really be an asset ...

Have you considered the clergy?

I want to be a leader, and it seems like to be a leader in anything, you need to have a thick skin.

That's pretty inherent in leadership, no matter what context. No way around it. If you're putting yourself out there by leading, you make yourself a target for rotten tomatoes from time to time.

But I think what you can do is find people who do what you do, for example, a carefully selected group of other directors of nonprofits who crave that kind of meaning and connection from their work also. You can support each other and inspire each other, and then you won't feel so alone at the top, so to speak.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 10:27 AM on September 17, 2014

This is a problem I have wrestled with.

I was really, really good at being a wife and mom. It took my husband a lot of years to figure out what an asset I was to him. But he eventually realized that other guys at work did not have the kind of support he had for his career and life and that he was really lucky.

Since getting divorced, I am finding that paid work is mostly not a nice, comfortable fit for that aspect of myself. So I somewhat agree with folks above who have suggested that, yes, you just might be asking for the impossible.

Having said that, I want to note that I see you conflating a couple of things. There are plenty of jobs where compassion and sensitivity are assets. The fact that they are assets at work does not mean your work will feel all warm fuzzy, bunnies and hugs for YOU. It means your work will involve making OTHER people feel all warm fuzzy, bunnies and hugs. And sometimes that means going home and crying yourself to sleep. Or growing a thicker skin so that stops happening.

My life works better when I view my emotional pain as a kind of early warning signal that helps give me the heads up about what needs to be addressed. In other words, when I am upset about something and I take that to mean I need to attend to a problem before it goes from emotional pain to something more serious, then being emotionally sensitive is an asset. But it doesn't mean I never hurt. It just means I try hard to be pro-active so it is the least worst thing possible to arrange, given the myriad ways in which life can put a hurt on us. I sort of view things through the lens of "pick your poison" and acknowledge that I would rather have some emotional pain than accept how warped things can get when one gets comfortably numb.
posted by Michele in California at 1:45 PM on September 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Definitely not healthcare, for all the reasons mentioned.

I agree that the environment is probably more important than the specific field of work - how about a workers' co-op or some kind of non-profit? Obviously some non-profits are hives of iniquity, but there must be some staffed by huggy hippies. There is a yoga studio run as a workers' co-op near me - that must be the most touchy-feely place I've ever visited, but the workers' co-op bike shop down the road would be a close second.

Or you could set up your own co-op (or chambers, or agency, if co-op is too socialist) and then you can pick like-minded people to join.
posted by tinkletown at 1:51 PM on September 17, 2014

This might sounds nuts.. but do you have any interest in acting? Yeah I know it's rough and highly competitive, so in that way the opposite of what you seek.. it's also about atunement and being able to dig deep into yourself and not shy from emotion..

Healthcare? Mixed feelings here. It's my trade and I'm a HSP. Early on a boss said to me I needed to "build a layer of steel over me" (lovely eh?) and I knew this was shit and not what I wanted at all. A wiser woman said I wouldn't start to care less but that things would slowly become less of a shock to the system the more I saw. This was kind of true (I was overwhelmed initially)and I always liked how she put it. A tender heart can be a blessing to others, it can also go through the wringer.
posted by tanktop at 2:27 PM on September 17, 2014

Healthcare is too broad a term; there are a thousand different positions in the health care field. You can be a paramedic or an ER hospitalist physician or ER nurse or aide if blood and trauma doesn't bother you too much and you'd get a massive psychological reward out of relieving the pain and suffering of someone. Or you could be a surgical nurse - or a surgeon - if, again, the "fixing" of someone's physical body would be gratifying. Or you could be a floor nurse in OB or pediatrics or orthopedics or nephrology or cardiology or ICU/NICU, all of which involve politics and administrative paperwork, but also patient care. Or you can work for pennies and take care of nursing homes residents, involving geriatric/physically or mentally challenged/mentally ill or the prolonged suffering of the terminally ill who take a long time to reach the end; those patients will remain in your heart forever, but most of them you will lose and you'll have to find a way to feel good about making their last days/years good ones - if death bothers you, it's probably not the right field for you. Or you can work in Medical Records, working with charts and electronic records, where you have no one-on-one with patients, but you can take to heart the commitment to making absolutely certain that every record that passes through your hands is as correct as you can make it. One of the gentlest jobs I ever did in health care was as an aide in OB; mothers groaning in labor (you can help them feel better and fear less) and then, 90% of the time, a delightful delivery with a healthy babe and happiness all around; of course, there are babies who have problems and the occasional baby whose arrival isn't a joy to the family, and there are circumcisions which make you want to strangle the physician doing the job, but overall the ratio of happy smiles is higher than most other hospital jobs, I think.

There's lots of good advice here and I applaud you for your thin skin, your compassion, your need to help; the world needs more people like you.

I might also suggest that if you can't just jump into a new career or you're not sure which way to go, you might consider volunteering at something that needs your compassion while still keeping your regular job. Volunteering, when you can work directly with someone who needs you, is a "fix" that never fails.
posted by aryma at 11:54 PM on September 17, 2014

Have you considered becoming a professional in dispute resolution? You might want to look into NVC (non-violent communication).
posted by ontheradio at 2:26 PM on September 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

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