Empathic sensitivity as an initiation journey

I take it as a given that highly sensitive people (HSPs), intuitives and empaths have many unique strengths.

You can find lists of them in almost any (upbeat) publication on the topic – sensitive people are typically deep thinkers, perceptive in the interpersonal, natural, and often cultural realms (think artists, musicians, writers), and often care a great deal about ethics, meaning and integrity.

I won’t recapitulate here why these and other typical sensitive traits are strengths and needed (if you need a reminder, type “HSP strengths” into a search engine).

But in short, defining a sensitive (emotionally or sensorily gifted) person as “easily overwhelmed” is like defining an intellectually gifted person as “easily bored” or a natural athlete as “can’t freaking sit still”. In a world without books and sports. It’s a diminishment based on the absence of understanding.


Emotionally gifted people often find themselves growing up in a situation equivalent to, say, Descartes (a faint-bodied intellectualist) growing up in an agrarian village. You suck at ploughing the soil and doing business, but nobody around you values or even knows about philosophy.

(Thinking about it, Nietzsche and Kafka had that kind of life. The former not being able to afford books and later being judged insane for viscerally empathising with cart horses, the latter being endlessly put down for not going into business.)

In the contemporary world, the cultural mainstream doesn’t value or propagate (?!) wisdom traditions, mysticism, communication (or communion) with nature, animals, plants, profound introspection, gentle authentic connection, and other things sensitive people excel at (that might have been more valued at other points in time and space; the book Quiet by Susan Cain discusses East Asian cultures valuing gentle kids, and supposedly sensitive boys don’t get teased in Thailand – can’t confirm or disconfirm).

It’s not a question of being superior either; but a question of recognising the full bandwidth of valuable human faculties.

Hardcore sensitivity

What I’d like to discuss in this post is deeper and a tad more existential and hardcore.

I’d like to write about a lesson I learnt from a friend, perhaps without this friend even knowing.

I won’t write about the sensitive people who prefer a tea at home over hanging out in a bar after work (what a bizarre idea) and go for walks instead of crunching away to techno music at a crowded gym class.

I’ll write about the people who are so emotionally open and responsive that mere exposure to the modern world – as well as, probably, the universal, timeless varieties of suffering or mere samsara – is to them like smog exposure to an asthma patient.

In the new age world, these people are likely described as empaths or intuitives – people with virtually no filter, whether they are born that way or take on such a developmental trajectory for some external reason.

Phoenix cycles

Kelly Brogan, Imi Lo and others in the mental health field recognise that these people can end up with mental disease. Apart from being judged crazy for being their natural selves, they can actually go crazy from emotional and spiritual pollutants that other people can pass over, and/or from minority stress and the stress of being ceaselessly (even unintentionally) gaslighted and misunderstood (to me the human world has certainly at times felt like a brick wall world). At the very least, as Dąbrowski writes in his “Theory of Positive Disintegration”, they will go through repeated cycles of the “phoenix” phenomenon – breakdown and reintegration, breakdown and reintegration.

I’m not sure how pristine and supportive living conditions would have to be for a person with this level of sensitivity to not go through these cycles. In the world as it exists, it can seem like there is almost something intrinsic, inside the person driving these cycles of breakdown and breakthrough. But I’m not sure about that. Maybe if you always put your oysters into sandy shallows, you’d think they have an intrinsic motivation to make pearls.


Another way to say this is that a certain depth of sensitivity can serve as an initiation in and of itself – even if your life, apart from that, is calm bordering on luxurious.

(Another great article on sensitivity as an unseen trauma from a psychologists’ perspective by Imi Lo here.)

Because even if others seem to only stumble over rocks, you will not live too long in this world without encountering a grain of sand eventually and starting that phoenix process (to mix metaphors).

* * *

The image that springs to mind is that there are two banks to a giant river. You can stay dry on the one bank. Some people can stay dry for quite a while. If you’re extremely sensitive (or your life circumstances take care of that), you are thrown into the river fast. The magic with this river is that there is no way back – there is only a way through to the other bank.

By the time you are an adult and capable of reflecting on this, you may be deep in the river already, and wondering why others stay dry. Still, there is not really a way for you to go back. The only way is forward, sort of blindly hoping for the other bank – on which you also have your variety of dry, perhaps, but it’s a different variety and it’s much harder to reach than the one most of us still have when we are born.

I’m actually not sure if you ever reach it – perhaps you just become such a good swimmer that at some point you can relax, swimming.

Still, even if you manage not drowning – your way of functioning, once you recover your functioning, remains different from what you’ve known and from what most people would take as the natural way to live.

It’s like you have to traverse certain dark valleys in depth just to come back to the point on the top of the hill where you started – you can’t just turn back and start climbing; you have to walk the Earth (or actually, perhaps only your own nature) full-circle.

* * *

The upside to this is – once you accept the journey, including its stretches of wading through the mud or over charcoals, and the occasional walking on water – it’s fascinating. You meet myriad fascinating beings on the way, human and non. You meet your own soul, and typically the spirits (some good) start talking to you too, sooner or later. You feel part of the cycles of the Earth.

The downside is, perhaps, that for varying proportions of the time, you seem not to function. You seem stagnant, you seem to “not be doing anything” (when in fact, you are still traveling). You revisit the same signpost 1,000 times approaching from different directions, like someone vicious bending space-time just to spite you.

Maybe in the end you are fed up and just set up your tent at the bottom of the valley and light a fire there. After a while you get fed up and bored with that, too, and start moving. It’s not clear whether it’s by virtue of your moving, or your giving up, or simply through the passage of time or someone suddenly changing the movie, but the landscape does change gradually.

* * *

You have different senses and need to learn to survive in a different landscape, that typically you didn’t get any maps for. Again, I’m not sure if it’s designed that way, or a defect in the way we live. Certainly I searched and later prayed for a guide when I was younger.

Paradoxically, however, accepting that the first river bank is gone forever and (blindly, often) hoping that there is another sometimes warps spacetime around again to create ground under your feet and connection in your heart.

You may suddenly find yourself in the spot you wanted to be, but it’s somehow different. You are different. You grow roots, but you still travel with the wind.

You find a type of strength that you certainly haven’t asked for, which may resemble the persistence of a weed more than the majesty of an oak (although certainly, you can feel like an oak sometimes). But you know that the Earth is there for you; and that there is spaciousness both within and without you even when you are growing in the crack between two rocks.

* * *

I don’t know yet where the journey goes from there.

Do you?

Feel free to share and respond.

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