Hiding vs Visibility as a Highly Sensitive Person

I was recently invited to give chair massages at a birthday party in a coffee shop. But when the time came, I went inside to scope it out and see if it was really worth the effort. I can’t think of a time when I’ve set up my chair and no one got a massage, but that fear is there. I’ve definitely had moments at events where I stood awkwardly by my chair, smiling at people who seemed confused about my presence. But I always attracted *somebody*. So I’m not sure why I have this fear.

I walk in and look around, not sure what I’m really looking for. Someone shouting about how badly they want a massage therapist to set up a chair? Probably. Yes, actually, that always helps. But no one seems dismayed by the lack of a massage chair, so I order a coffee and sit down to observe the largest bluegrass jam circle of guitars I’ll probably ever witness. I consider how I’d massage to this particular bluegrass music. I decide it would probably be fun…but I just feel awkward sitting there.

I meander to the bookshelf and find “Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person” (HSP). There’s a chapter about HSPs hiding themselves. Perfect! I flip to it and immediately relate to every paragraph in there. I didn’t feel overwhelmed in grad school (not anymore than anyone else does, anyway), but I certainly did when I was on my own, trying to explain myself to employers. There’s a story about a web developer graduating and taking a job as a maid because she couldn’t handle the pressures of explaining herself to get a web job. I took a job as a dog walker, and tried to get various other menial jobs….including a massage job. My intent was to do massage until I get hired as a UX Researcher or Experience Designer. I had gotten so bored with massage therapy that I had sworn it off when I began grad school. I was tired of the “happy ending” jokes. I was tired of people thinking I was a sex worker. I hated that when I told people I was a massage therapist, they’d talk down to me, whereas when I said I went to Georgia Tech, or that I was a game designer, I got a total opposite response. So in my mind, taking a job as a massage therapist again was degrading, and temporary.

But everything *was* different after grad school. I guess I was smarter now, after all. Because now I don’t limit myself or my career, and I have the confidence to work the way I want to. I didn’t do it all at once – it started slowly, with small changes in the type of music I played. The positive response was empowering, so I kept taking it further.

The chapter I read in this book spoke directly to me. She writes that HSPs need to follow their calling. Work environments are usually too sterile, bright, loud, and unfriendly for HSPs, so it’s hard for them to thrive. On the other hand, we have this extra sensitivity that can be put to great use if you allow yourself to follow your path. The sensitivity then becomes a huge benefit, no longer something to hate about yourself.


Turning My Passion into a Career

I’ll be honest… I’ve got a lot of passions. Sewing, Costuming, Animals, Flute, Dance, Photography, Video Editing, and Massage Therapy. As a wee child, before age 10, I’d say my passions were fabrics (sewing), massage, and animals. Whenever a friend came over, we’d go hide in a closet and trade massages on each other. If we couldn’t go to a closet, we’d play doctor or veterinarian, with one of us being a sick cow or other beloved animal and the other being the vet. Massage masquerading as play.
I’m bringing that playfulness and mindfulness back into my massage therapy practice. I graduated massage school in 2003, and for over 10 years I did traditional massage therapy, with a focus on deep tissue and neuromuscular. I didn’t know I could experiment with music, lighting, textures, or animals. I always fantasized about giving guided meditations, but even that felt too “outside the box” from what I was taught in massage school.
Naturally, I got bored giving standard massages with uninspired music and candlelit rooms. I started a MS degree in Occupational Therapy, then switched over to Human-Computer Interaction. I learned *a lot* in those programs. I promised all my OT teachers that I would never forget what they had taught me, and I swore I would incorporate my limited OT education in everything I did henceforth. After graduation, I worked as a video game designer for a therapeutic video game company that was within a psychology clinic. I wasn’t doing any of my passions…I discovered I enjoyed project management, but it wasn’t the same as working with my hands nor helping humans or animals heal. I left to work on a farm for rescued exotic animals.
Lightning finally struck me, and I realized that being a massage therapist doesn’t have to bore me to death. I can use what I’ve learned in OT school, and what I’ve learned in HCI school, and do whatever the heck I want. No one said massage has to be boring, that I can’t dance when I work, that I can’t put lovely textured fabrics in the room or fading colored lights, or read scripts for guided meditations, or make relaxation playful.
So that’s what Monkey Tail is all about. My first big step, after embracing rhythmic music, was installing aerial silks to support my weight in such a way so I could massage with my hands and feet simultaneously, as I imagine a monkey may do when hanging from her tail. Turns out it’s also great for stretching clients and giving clients a swaying sensation with their legs in a hammock. Monkeys, I imagine, probably don’t have rules about how serious or playful massages can be. And they’re comfortable with their bodies, and with swinging around naked in nature. Those are all pretty admirable traits. Lastly, I love the primatologist Franz De Waal. He writes excellent books about animals, empathy and teamwork that I encourage everyone to read. We are more like animals than many of us care to admit. I embrace it. I love animals, and I love people. We can learn from our pets and be a little more playful in our lives.


Erin is a User Experience Designer located in Atlanta, GA. She works at a psychology clinic that develops VR games for therapeutic and educational purposes.

She got here from a convoluted path of pursuing multiple career paths starting at age 10 with pet sitting. She became a licensed massage therapist straight out of high school to pay her way through an Anthropology degree. She learned enough about ethnographic filmmaking during her Anthropology studies to be a freelance videographer, then began her graduate studies in Human-Computer Interaction at The Georgia Institute of Technology.

In her free time, Erin pursues many types of partnered and solo dancing, playing the flute at an Irish pub, sewing, training her dog to be the best he can be and accepting her cat for being the best he can be.