Creative, Sensitive, Deep Thinkers in the Workplace — A Tricky Proposition

photo courtesy of Easton Oliver, Unsplash

“…Your high-strung nature, your baggage, your achievements, your defenses, even your garrulous, confident nature — all of these things are often interpreted as a selfish inability to play nicely with others…Your complexity makes you untrustworthy. Your sharp mind makes you suspicious. Your separateness makes you unlikable. And even a supernatural effort to be friendlier, better, simpler, sweeter, quieter, and more agreeable will only make it worse. You will only seem fake. You will try too hard…” Heather Havrilesky,  Ask Polly

Having a rainforest mind at work. It’s a tricky proposition. More questions than answers. Here are some.

When do you speak up? When do you stay quiet? How do you deal with boring, repetitive tasks? How do you tell your boss that there’s a better way? What do you do with the extra time when you’ve finished an assignment but are tired of fixing your co-workers’ mistakes? How do you get your boss to trust you with the tasks you find more stimulating? What about colleagues who don’t like you because the answers come easily to you and they think that you’re arrogant? What about employees who complain that you’re overly demanding and unrealistic? When do you let your perfectionism run wild and when do you rein it in?

How do you cope when you do all of the work and someone else gets all of the credit? What do you do when no one wants to implement your creative, forward-thinking ideas? What about the colleagues who steal your suggestions? How do you cope with unethical behaviors? What if you’re sincerely interested in doing a thorough job and your co-workers just care about the paycheck? How do you deal with a narcissistic, charismatic boss who everyone loves but you? What happens when your co-workers and boss act an awful lot like your dysfunctional siblings and parents?

What if you’ve been labeled Troublemaker? Renegade? Rebel? How do you change the system when you’re overwhelmed? What if you want to fit in with colleagues and be invited to their Fridays-at-4 but are conflicted because you also feel frustrated, impatient, and annoyed by them?

Lots of questions.

But you knew that.

For now, let’s sit together in the questions. You’re not alone if you’ve been accused of “a selfish inability to play nicely with others.”

You can play here with us. We love your sharp mind.

“…Because you have so much energy, so much emotion, so many wild, brilliant thoughts in your great big head, and you can achieve anything you set your mind to. You are focused, and you don’t mind working hard, and underneath all of this people-pleasing, you really don’t give a fuck. You are a raccoon with hearts bursting over your head, but your claws are ready to strike. They should be envious, and they should also be afraid. Forgive them for not caring that much. Forgive them for not knowing how formidable you are…”  Heather Havrilesky, Ask Polly


To my bloggEEs:  Tell us about your experiences at work. Share your thoughts, feelings, answers to these questions or more questions. Thank you to the reader who sent me this Ask Polly article. It’s worth reading the entire piece. A great resource, especially if you want support making changes within your workplace, is Rebels At Work. Check it out!

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Author: Paula Prober

I’m a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice based in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in international consulting with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. I’ve been a teacher and an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a frequent guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I’ve written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, Advanced Development Journal and online for psychotherapy dot net, Rebelle Society, Thrive, Introvert Dear, and Highly Sensitive Refuge. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, is a collection of case studies of gifted clients along with many strategies and resources for gifted adults and teens. My second book, Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind: A Field Guide for Gifted Adults and Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists is a collection of my most popular blog posts along with writing exercises for self-exploration and insight.

48 responses to “Creative, Sensitive, Deep Thinkers in the Workplace — A Tricky Proposition”

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  3. Themon the Bard Avatar
    Themon the Bard

    I read two fascinating insights on work in “Surviving the Future,” a collection of lectures, notes, and thoughts by David Fleming.

    The first is the observation that our “labor saving” technology does not, in fact, reduce labor: instead, it increases labor by “complexifying” society. Consider one of the first “labor saving” devices, the powered loom. Yes, it reduces the labor requirements for the actual weaving of fabric (and put weavers out of work). But a competent hand-loom can be built from (basically) sticks, by hand, in a reasonably short period of time. An automated loom requires machined parts, lubricants, engineers; steam, fuel to make the steam, transportation to provide the fuel, distribution network for the voluminous quantities of fabric produced, warehousing, wholesalers, an increasing customer-base….

    The second is the difference between a “taut” and a “slack” economy. Our market economy is “taut,” as opposed to “slack.” What this means is that the economics incentives are pulled tight: every producer is working according to the same rules, which impose on them the need to work as much as possible, produce as much product as possible, and keep prices as low as possible. No producer can afford “inefficiencies.” One way of enforcing tautness is to make survival contingent upon work. So we need work for everyone, and as population rises, that means we can’t afford actual “labor saving” technologies.

    The result is that work has become more complex, more narrow, and less satisfying. It also means that any fluctuation in the trade economy threatens people’s lives.

    “Tautness” increasingly removes the opportunity to innovate, at every level. Innovation requires time and resources to play, and to fail frequently. Increasingly, failure is not tolerated, and “play” is not only discouraged, it’s a moral failing, a fireable offense, and (potentially) a catastrophe.

    I bring all this up to suggest that before we get too much into rating ourselves by success in the workplace, we need to have a sober understanding that the workplace itself is fundamentally unhinged.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I love that expression. “fundamentally unhinged” Thanks for sharing your observations and those of Fleming, Themon the Bard. Always good to hear from you.

    2. CallunaTook Avatar

      I would agree with that. I think it is also important to note that 1) some people truly thrive in this Western post-Industrial Revolution economy (although it does appear to be a minority, just from casual observation), and 2) while participation in the system is default, it is not required. Cultures and economies are not the same everywhere, and aside from moving, one could choose to go their own way. On my own part, I know that I could either move to a place where the culture surrounding work and existence is different, or disengage my little cog from the giant machine via lifestyle change, but it’s all a game of priorities, payoffs, and trade-offs.

      1. Themon the Bard Avatar
        Themon the Bard

        I’d love to hear details of your model for disconnection!

    3. Becca Perry Avatar
      Becca Perry

      Thanks for your interesting comment about work. I have also found myself noticing that because the economy (in the US at least) relies on capitalist investment, the work that ends up employing people follows the agenda of the capitalists. There is much work out there that is desperately needed but goes undone or underpaid because there is nothing in it for the capitalists. The “taut” economy is all the things you mentioned *and* it also fails to meet the needs of the people.

  4. M. J. Cuthbertson Avatar
    M. J. Cuthbertson

    Hasn’t work always been a complicated puzzle filled with difficult conflicts?

    We spend so many of our waking hours at it we eventually believe it should help create meaning in our lives. When, perhaps, work and meaning might have no connection or be opposed to each other. Yet, we persist in joining the two together in an unhappy alliance. The first question I get most often from old friends or new acquaintances is, “What do you do?” Definition of self and meaning of life bundled together in a single package that probably says little about the true me.

    A bigger conflict is our inability to decide if work should be collaborative and benefit all in a mutual way or adversarial and raise only a few up. Internally, we have trouble deciding which path to take with each choice all day long. Should we be working with other’s or acting for self alone. We rarely know which choice the person sitting next to us has taken in this moment. It’s a wonder trust and connection ever happen at work.

    And the biggest conflict is trying to grasp and living with the bizarre notion that by spending hour after hour away from each other is the optimal way to bring the family together and maximize it’s survival. I’m not sure we could have developed a more peculiar system if that had been our goal.

    It’s always difficult to play well with other’s when no one knows what game is being played. Especially, when so many conflicts are built into the structure of work. It’s almost like we made it so no one can play with each other.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      So much to think about here, M. J. Cuthbertson. Important ideas to contemplate. Thank you.

  5. CallunaTook Avatar

    I had 40+ jobs before the age of 28, and loved most of them… for a while. Moved on when I got bored, and timed it so that I could explain my exit well on my next interview. Eventually it caught up with me and I had to quit job hopping or be labelled unemployable. I was lucky enough to find my way to my current job, which I consider to be the long-lost Island of Misfit Toys. There are many people here who are quirky and very smart in many areas, and caring supervisors who know how to “handle” us. I’ve been here more than a decade now. I feel very fortunate. Some days (Many days?) are boring but I have managed to wait it out to get back through to the good bits. Projects switch out every few months to every few years, and I’ve worked in three different “sections” during my time here. (I’m currently working on birthing an unusually long sighted ten-year project, but have plans to hand it off as soon as it can walk on its own) All of the tasks are related, but it’s like a bunch of different jobs rolled into one agency. You can big-picture the work or dive into the details. If you’re convincing enough and have the free time, you can strike up your own project. I feel so, so lucky.

    Still, sometimes I can hardly bear it one more hour. At this point I’m stubborn enough to stick to it because I’m really motivated to try management, and I have to be very patient for that. Still, I wish I could strike out into job-hopping again. It’s just not a sensible choice at my age for one who highly values financial security. So now my goal is to retire as early as possible, so I can get back to dabbling. It will be a long wait, though.

    1. CallunaTook Avatar

      To add to that, I’m a little concerned that some day I will become so set on waiting it out that my mind will become complacent and lazy… and then I’ll see everything in black and white instead of Technicolor because I’m just so used to waiting and being bored. :-\ But. I’ll do my best and see how it goes. Right now I’m Very. Determined.

      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        Stay determined. Stay technicolored. I don’t think your rainforest mind can become un-rainforest-ed…

      2. Themon the Bard Avatar
        Themon the Bard

        Agree with Paula. The rainforest isn’t going to become a shrubbery.

        1. CallunaTook Avatar

          I appreciate that from both of you. Logically, I would think so, too, but sometimes when I get off work after a boring day (or week) I feel like I am in such a stupor and my mind doesn’t snap back as quickly as I’d like. It is disconcerting. Knowing how moldable the brain can be, it makes me wonder what I’m dong to myself. But. I hope/hypothesize that you are right.

          1. Paula Prober Avatar
            Paula Prober

            It makes sense to me that the boredom would create the “stupor” and there might be some depression with that so it could be hard to shift gears after work. But I don’t think that’s the same as becoming less rainforest-y. But I hear you. It’s probably a good idea to be sure that you’re getting intellectual stimulation other places for your own well-being and sense of self.

    2. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Congratulations on finding that job. Of course, it’s unlikely that any job will be a perfect fit. But this one sounds good. If you haven’t read them, you might want to check my posts on multipotentiality. (use the search engine) Thank for sharing.

  6. kontekst Avatar

    Can definitely relate to the bullying. Those questions are great. Got me thinking about how sensitivities and overexcitabilities make it really hard to tell whether i’m being bullied or not. Seems like i’m so hyper-alert to the possibility that i feel it everywhere. I learned to hide from bullies as a kid by blending in and being quiet, aloof, and self-deprecating. I wouldn’t suggest that approach to anyone. It twisted up social development in all kinds of ways that make working with people overwhelming.
    These days i think i still hide from difficult people by staying quiet and channeling friendliness all the time. It doesn’t really help in the end, just like that quote says. It stifles me and people don’t trust it anyway, which is even more upsetting and draining. Plus, eventually i have volcanic explosions of self-expressing long monologues on random people when they least expect it… and then lose sleep feeling bad and shameful about that. That’s the price of suppressing yourself most all the time i guess. Maybe there’s a way to be more expressive in small doses? …something about a pressure valve?

    The end of that quote brought to mind a great youtube TEDtalk video if anyone’s interested. Love the part in there about honesty.
    The Magic of Not Giving a F*** by Sarah Knight

    1. kontekst Avatar

      Didn’t mean to bog down the page with a video there. Gave me a reason to research not embedding videos though. And a reason to… practice… not… apologizing…

      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        Is there a reason the video shouldn’t be here? I can edit it out. And, yes, no need to apologize!

    2. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yes, more expressive in smaller doses. A good thing to think about. I watched the video. It was good! I think it doesn’t bog down the page. Thanks for sharing it!

      1. kontekst Avatar

        Not a problem for me, just didn’t want to take up too much space… hmm… think i just fell into doing the excessive-effort-at-friendliness thing again. grrr

        1. Paula Prober Avatar
          Paula Prober

          What about that idea of taking up too much space?? That’s also something rainforest minds deal with!

  7. Walther Ligtvoet Avatar
    Walther Ligtvoet

    Burn-out/bore-out, conflicts with co-workers, managers etc.. had the works.. and the reasons above are all applicable. Now I’m just tired… drained of all energy and trying to re-invent myself. I’m literally panicking when I see wanted ads in my old line of work. No idea how to set up a new future, a new career. But as always, I’ll manage…

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Sending you a hug, Waither!

  8. Margie Avatar

    Goodness this is so me! People who feel threatened because I learn fast, think out of the box and have eagle-eyed views. Leaders who need to be embracing differences in their staff instead take sides based on their comfort levels. On more than one occasion I’ve said “enough is enough” with the catty nonsense, or the need to mansplain. Or too many times I’ve doubted my capabilities because someone has decided to nit pick on every single petty thing I’ve done, when I know that I’m damn good at what I do. I’m super creative and have my share of hypersensitivities and overexcitabilites but the latter is also what I call having a huge heart.
    Enough with the narcissism; empathy and compassion is what we need. Narcississm is nothing but fear and self-loathing; compassion is love.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Huge heart. Thank you for your huge heart.

  9.  Avatar

    The beginning Ask Polly quote is me exactly. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called selfish at work even if I’m doing more than half the work of the entire team. It is such a frustrating position to be in. I try to always help and be nice to everyone…..and still I’m hated mercilessly. It makes me feel like every company is full of terrible people. I know this isn’t true, but I really struggle some days. I have dreams of starting my own company because then I could work on my own, but I don’t know if that’s a feasible solution. Can some of you be my coworkers???

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Wouldn’t that be cool? Should we start a business?? Sometimes that is an answer for some people, to work for themselves. Thanks for sharing.

    2. Themon the Bard Avatar
      Themon the Bard

      People use epithets to express displeasure, and they usually don’t know what the word means. “Selfish” is one of those. “Arrogant” is another. “Stupid” is perhaps the most common. They’re not telling you anything about yourself, they’re telling you how they feel.

      “Selfish” means they are feeling deprived.
      “Arrogant” means they’re feeling inferior.
      “Stupid” means their prejudices have been challenged.

      It helps with having compassion for them. At least a little.

  10. cathytea Avatar

    Gosh, nearly every point, question, and grumble mentioned in your post (though not in the Ask Polly post) are ones I’ve been wondering for… oh, the past twenty years I’ve been working in this job!

    Sometimes, our work groups aren’t that close, so I can just focus on doing my job well and creatively and thinking globally while acting individually without even really realizing that no one seems especially glad to see me or asks me about my weekend or cares to hear my opinions.

    For the past few years, though, I’ve been in a fairly tight-knit group, and I feel like the outsider nearly all the time. It gets quite lonely. I’ve come to identify what I need to be able to do my best work–which includes asking questions and speaking up, when I feel it’s important, and being myself in full color–so at least I don’t feel that I’m having to hide who I am. But still. It would feel so wonderful to be who I am and to have someone else light up when I walk into the office in the morning the way I light up and smile when I see that they’ve arrived!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I hope there’s some place in your life where they light up when you appear. That would be so important. Glad to hear you let yourself be “full color.”

  11. Gail Post, Ph.D. Avatar
    Gail Post, Ph.D.

    Great questions. Work can be so difficult for gifted people if it lacks creativity and if we feel misunderstood or unable to express ourselves. Thanks for reminding us that giftedness does not stop after high school, and these needs continue throughout adulthood.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      We’re the lucky ones, aren’t we, Gail? Psychotherapists working with the gifted. Such a privilege.

  12. Carol Avatar

    My job is just a job. I’m trying to find a better situation, but in the meantime, it is very tricky to walk the balancing line between trying to get along with others in the office, and not giving a fuck. I am SO different from these folks. They’re nice people, but they aren’t my kind of people, and I stick out like a sore thumb. I’m also a very creative person, and there is no place for that here. This job is NOT my kind of job. I took it because I was unemployed for a year, and this was an opening. Now is my time to get back out and find something better! Everything on Earth is in a state of higher vibes and improvement, and that includes my occupational state : ) I look forward to eventually being around people that are like me, and doing something that I love!!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I hope you can get there soon, Carol. Thanks for sharing.

  13. EwaB Avatar

    where to start? I dont stay at a job for more then 2 years maximum. most of the time I am the one walking away because boredom and in company politics that are to much like kindergarten stuff. Who can pee the furtest.
    I have now ( after 18 years as a medical dr) decided I want something totally different. I am going to start and animal pension. Always loved animals,
    So now I am starting to panic about having staff. Having huge financial responsability.
    But I am going to keep going. Because I can not keep doing this until 67 years, switching every 2 years or less in a job that is sucking dry my soul.
    So any real solutions? nope, or hope so, but untill now it is just keep running.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Boredom and company politics. Yup. Might it help to see yourself as a multipotentialite? It’s normal, then, to change jobs often.

  14. donyadunlap Avatar

    Lots of places on the web leave me feeling overwhelmed or guilty for not making the world a better place…even though I try. Here…I just feel understood. Thank you for that.

  15. Me Avatar

    I’m hoping my post isn’t too far off-topic.

    My handbook for the gifted has been Living With Intensity by Daniels and Piechowski. One of the concepts they’ve observed in the gifted is asynchronous maturation. I’ve observed that in my own child. In middle-school he was playing college-level music and getting straight A’s in class, but he threw a full-out-fall-on-the-floor temper tantrum that was reminiscent of a 4-year-old.

    I’ve been wondering if it’s possible that I’m stuck emotionally as a high-schooler. That’s when I was bullied so badly (they murdered my dog). I constantly find myself still in the same mindset that I had as a teen. A counselor once observed, “You’re still in high school!” At the time, I just thought it was an offhand comment. But is it possible that I’m stunted emotionally and not “adult”?

    If I truly am emotionally challenged, how would I know and what would my markers be?

    There are few books on the subject. Obviously Bradberry’s Emotional Intelligence 2.0 would float to the top of the stack. And I’ve found an excellent resource Karla McLaren on “The Language of Emotions.”

    We tend to lean on our strengths–with the gifted, it is often our intellectual gifts. So therefore, it would be logical that we would/could be challenged in the emotional arena.

    I note also that stands for “Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted.” So obviously we need a lot of support in our emotions.

    For me, the whole world is about emotions. This is true in the workplace as well. Doing the work isn’t the challenge–I can do the work of three people. The challenge is managing my emotions both in the workplace and in my private life.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you for the book suggestions. These are important questions. If we are traumatized in childhood, we certainly have emotional difficulties, such as difficulty with regulation of emotions or being easily triggered in situations that remind you of the trauma, consciously or unconsciously. People in the addiction field talk about getting “stuck” at the age when you started using the substance. I’m so sorry to hear about such awful bullying. Thank you for sharing.

  16. Anonymous Avatar

    Just what I needed to hear today!! Good to know others are like me and I am not crazy. Well, I am a little crazy.
    Love what you said about people pleasing and then the next sentence saying you don’t give a fuck. I struggle with people who really don’t care and understand how formidable I am and my children are. It is so hard for me to get past this and let go. Simply do not understand.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Well, those words were actually said by “Ask Polly” in her column. And yes, we’re all probably a little crazy…

  17. litebeing Avatar

    Hi Paula,
    Thank you for this post. I look forward to reading the responses. Great questions you pose. Not sure what the answers are. 🙂

    peace, Linda

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      In future posts, I hope to address some of the answers! Thanks, Linda.

  18. creativeinacube Avatar

    Yes! I am so often bored at work. I blaze through assignments in half the time expected. High quality and fast – that’s just how I’m wired. It’s frustrating when my job can’t keep up with me, and I feel arrogant to even be complaining about it. I ask for more work and I’m given button-pushing busywork to pass the time. I need something more invigorating 🙂

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      You don’t have to feel arrogant here. You’re just stating a fact. And busywork can be so frustrating. Thanks for sharing.

  19. S Avatar

    This was well timed on a day where I was asking if I missed opportunities for being a free thinker… When the institution seems to demand predictable conformity, how can we be our creative, true selves? (Who wants an opportunity that eschews them for digging deeper and striving higher anyways?)

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Good question! I wonder if there are ways to take small steps toward creativity even within the institution. Carmen and Lois at write about that.

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