The Challenge of being an Emotionally Sensitive and Intense Social Innovator

Hamish Lindop
4 min readAug 23, 2023

I want to write this article as a way of reflecting, for my own benefit, and a way of sharing, to let others who are similar know of my experience, maybe connect with it, relate to it, know that they aren’t alone. I have been growing up as an innovator for about a decade within Auckland Council, first starting as a library assistant and creating a makerspace at Auckland Central Library, then being an innovative children’s librarian at Avondale library getting kids coding and making with digital tools, and getting into co-design and social innovation, growing into in successive roles focused around growing innovation capability in staff.

I identify with the neurodiverse category of “intense, sensitive, and gifted” as identified by Imi Lo in her ground breaking work. This means that I think and feel big, deep, and wide. I’ve been working on understanding and growing the Participatory City Approach in Auckland Council for a number of years now; it’s a huge undertaking and the gap between reality and the potential and possibility is vast. The approach is aiming to build a whole new system to cocreate neighbourhoods with everyone in the community, building capability in and social cohesion between all community members in a radically inclusive way. Part of my gift is to see the potential of big, ambitious, high impact ideas like this and get passionate about making them reality. But the upshot can be a lot of “biting off more than I can chew”!

Working on this in an existing system where the gap between the possibility and the current reality is big, is taxing to say the least. I’m constantly reminded of how much more work there is to do (10 years? 15 years? 20?) to make this possibility a widespread reality, and how many barriers there still are, while also experiencing the volatility of increasingly frequent restructures that call into question the stability of the platform for developing deep, significant innovation in local government (I imagine it’s similar in other organisations too). And the nature of this work is volatile; the shifting political and organisational environment at all scales creates regular seismic events which need adjusting to. This is the hardest thing about the work for me; managing the changes in expectations and outlook, and disappointments and setbacks, with a nature of emotional sensitivity and intensity is really hard, and I am scared of the intensity of the emotions that I feel sometimes.

Another aspect of my nature is that because I choose to work on something that’s so different from the current reality, in a sense I end up working alone; I’m working with people in the organisation to try and influence them to adopt the approach, and managers and teammates that I’ve had are generally supportive, but there is no one who is fully alongside me in the work. This can make it like working in an echo chamber where my sensitivity and intensity are amplified instead of regulated among peers. I am getting better and better at self regulating through a diverse toolkit of well being tools, but when I am really in the thrall of an intense emotion, it’s still hard. At times this can feel like it’s on the edges of mental health issues, and I have been diagnosed with depression before, although I have recovered. But the feeling of the risk of going into that space pops up when things get really tough.

I am getting steadily better at managing myself through these challenges, and I’m really proud of what I am achieving, because I’m making significant headway with the work that I’m doing. I’m also able to be more present in my home and family life and enjoy it, and be there for my family more practically and emotionally, which wasn’t always the case when I was getting more consumed by work challenges. A good friend who I talk to reminded me a while ago about how self-compassion is so important, and I think this is especially true for me; it’s hard to be different and not doubt the value of what you are doing and your unique way of working when it looks so different from everything around you.

Imi Lo writes really well about how organisations are set up to cater for neurotypical individuals, and how emotionally sensitive and intense individuals can struggle to utilise their gifts and get the support that they need. Do you identify with this category? Are you doing this type of work? What’s your experience been? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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Hamish Lindop

Sharing insights from community building and social innovation, and reflections on ways of (well) being