Sensitive People’s Inverted Hierarchy Of Needs

A few months back, I attended a talk by Dave Markowitz, the author of Self-Care For The Self-Aware, in the events room of a metaphysical bookstore filled with highly sensitive people and empaths looking for insights and help. The energy in the room was electric. As it often happens when I attend a group event with people whose energy I resonate with, I felt my own energy expanding, felt my own self-being nourished.

At the end of the talk came a little interactive session in which different people asked their questions. A nurse talked about how she takes on the patient’s energy when she was tending to them, how it left her exhausted at the end of the day. She found it hard not to be affected. A few people raised their hands when Markowitz asked whether any of us tended to isolate ourselves from other people and felt lonely. Many people raised their hands when he asked whether we considered ourselves healers, and even more did so when he asked whether we were healers but didn’t call ourselves that.

It felt as if I had been many of these people at different times in my life. While I have become better at managing my daily life as an emotional empath, there have been points in my life when I have almost shut myself in and cut myself off from people because I was picking up so much from them. It was as if I was being swept up in a wind, and not able to manage routine, daily things that seemed to occupy other people.

Accepting Different Needs

One of the things that have changed now (even though I still have many challenges) is that little by little, I have started accepting my different way of being. This month, I want to talk about an insight that shifted the way in which I thought about myself as an HSP.

It comes from Ane Axford’s work. I stumbled upon it a few years back when I had discovered that I was an HSP and was trying to learn more about what that meant. In an online article on the Tiny Buddha website, Ane, who is a psychotherapist, talked about how highly sensitive people have an inverted hierarchy of needs. She was talking about how our needs work differently than what is often talked about in traditional theories such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For those of you that might not know, Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist. He is most known for his Hierarchy of Needs states that in order to develop as people, we must meet certain needs in a certain order, starting with physiological needs. Once we have met our physical needs, we then move on to the next level (safety), and then to the next (love and belonging). Once we have fulfilled these “lower level” needs, only then do we proceed to the higher-level needs (such as actualizing our selves and transcendence). It is almost like we are going step-by-step up as we develop as people.

But what Ane talked about was that this does not work for Highly Sensitive People. They tended to develop in an opposite manner as compared to traditional theories. “As a highly sensitive person, I am starting out with all this raw sensation at the transcendent level. It is up to me to self-actualize it and bring it into my body to feel it there, then bring it to thought and belief, and on down the levels to get a physiological manifestation.”

Reading this made so much sense for me. Of course, physical needs are important for everyone, whether they are HSP or not. But I think the need to self-actualize and find meaning is especially strong in highly sensitive people. We are not as okay with just fulfilling lower-level needs and discounting these higher-level needs.

Also, as Ane says, we are picking up on so much raw, unformed feelings and sensations that we are often stuck up in the head and have to consciously feel and experience these feelings and integrate them. We are first paying attention to a different aspect of reality than other people. When people look at us, they might discount this and think that we are paying attention to the “wrong” things. We might feel a great pressure to just be like others. But as sensitive people, we are like receivers that absorb a whole lot of information. We have to sort through it and give it a context for our lives to work. We can’t just try to be like other people.

What might this mean in practical terms? I think one bit is that we do not discount our need for meaning. So, when we are looking for work, it is important to tie our skill set with something that gives us meaning as well. If I work as a copy editor, for example, it is better for me to work in a more service-oriented environment than it is to work in a corporation whose values don’t match with mine. I still might not “love” copy editing, but this work in the service of something bigger will sit better with me than the same work in a purposeless environment.

For me, Ane’s insight is an important reminder and has triggered many different lines of thoughts. I still have to be reminded of it and what it means. It does not come naturally because we live in a world that sets very different expectations. But I think this is a very important piece, something that can help you understand yourself as a sensitive person.

What do you think? Does this make sense to you?


Rethinking Service: How We Get Lost In Sensitivity To Nuance

As a sensitive person, I am like to be of service and, in my experience, most sensitive people are the same way. Service is a wonderful thing. It enriches our lives and the lives of others. For sensitive people, being of service has pitfalls, however,  because of our capacity for sensitivity to nuance and therefore the complexity in the world around us.

Is It Pleasing Or Service?

Sensitive people are often called people pleasers. We have a combination of attributes which together predispose us to want to be constructive and helpful in our actions. Sensitivity to nuance shows us a lot of information that others might not be aware of. That increased awareness is something that we may want to share with others because:

  • We may see possibilities that others miss.
  • Being empathetic we hate to see others in pain especially when we are aware of possibilities that others may not see.
  • We see a world in pain and do not want to add to it
  • It feels good to see others around us happy and to contribute to that happiness.

Having a different awareness gives rise to a number of questions;

  • What do we do, keep our awareness to ourselves?
  • Do we share what we see even if it is unwelcome?
  • Do we risk our relationships over our awareness?
  • When is our awareness constructive and when is it actually counterproductive to share?
  • Where does our responsibility lie and how do we identify where it ends and another person’s responsibility begins?

These are important questions that sensitive people often grapple with, myself included.


There is a relationship between awareness and responsibility. However, in order to have true responsibility, there is one thing that is absolutely essential. You have to be receptive to the realities you are dealing with before you identify your role and what you need to do and then act on it. Receptivity is an important first step in assuming responsibility.

Receptivity is a complex subject. There can be many reasons why someone is not receptive to information:

  • timing
  • overload and the inability to handle more information or work
  • illness
  • fear

These are some of many reasons why someone might evade information. However, these are mostly personal reasons someone might not be interested in receiving information. Are there less personal ones?

It May Not Be Personal

As a sensitive person, it is much more difficult to evade information since our nervous systems are usually open for business listening for every nuance around us. Furthermore, sensitive people respond differently to information and are not as oriented to the cultural clues in their environments.

Culture plays an important role in what information people consider relevant and important. Culture acts a filtering device for human attention. If what we see and would like to share with others is outside of the cultural priorities of the times, then other people may not be receptive to hearing what we have to say and it is not because they are trying to be irresponsible; they may simply see responsibility in a certain way as defined by the priorities of their culture. If my culture makes it a priority for me to be involved with the social scene, for instance, I will make it a priority and I might among other things, spend a lot of time going out and being on social media. Survival is the first priority and cultures define the requirements for survival under their systems. If you come to me with different priorities based on what you see as necessary then we will likely disagree about what we need to be focusing on.

Cultural expectations play a significant role in setting the receptivity of individuals. This is one of the reasons many sensitive people suffer disconnects with people who are non-sensitive.

So How Do We Connect?

The quick answer is that sometimes we can and other times we cannot.

What is most useful is to be able to identify when to get involved in a situation and when not to. It is very easy in the spirit of goodwill to get involved in a situation where we have little or no chance of making a difference and then beat ourselves up when we were unsuccessful in achieving a positive outcome.

There are many cultures all with different priorities and objectives. If you look at what is happening around you with your sensitive and empathetic eyes you may not see the cultural aspect of what is happening and may inadvertently get involved in a problem or situation where the individuals are not receptive to what you offer because the framework for their perceptions is fixed in a particular cultural construct. This does not mean that you are dealing with irresponsible or harmful people, it simply means that the solutions that people may be receptive to are limited by their culture’s system. As a sensitive person who is very creative, I have found that my creativity is not always welcome when working with people living in some cultural systems.

Understanding the cultural frameworks that shape people’s priorities has helped me to detach from many situations where receptivity to new ideas is low. When we are able to do so we can identify those individuals and situations which are hospitable and constructive for us and which ones are likely to drain us. Learning frameworks has made it much easier for me to identify when something is not mine and I have an easier time discerning where I belong a world of diverse cultures. I now offer that information in my frameworks program which you can learn more about here.  I hope you give it a look.



Give Consciously: A Guide For Sensitive People

A few years ago, I read Adam Grant’s bestselling book Give and Take. In the book, Grant, one of Wharton’s top-rated professors and one of the world’s most influential management thinkers, explained why helping others drives success. His theory flew in the face of the “Greed is Good” and “dog-eat-dog” mentality that is often thought of as predicting success in corporations. After analyzing studies that spanned 30,000 people in different fields (engineers, sales people, medical students) from different parts of the world, Grant found that top performers in these fields were often what he termed as Givers. These were people who gave to others without any strings attached, without expecting anything in return.

Is It Better To Give?

What was even more interesting was that Givers were disproportionately represented both at the top as well as at the bottom of different success matrices. The top rung in different organizations was occupied by many nice guys and girls. They were finishing first. But the lowest performers in organizations were also Givers. What was behind this striking difference?

To understand it, we have to first know about the two other reciprocity styles that Grant talks about in his book. One of these was made up of people that Grant simply called Takers. Unlike Givers who ask “How can I help?,” Takers just want to know “What’s in it for me?” The third and last style, the majority of the people, were what Grant called Matchers. When Matchers did something for others, they expected that they might do something in return for them. When someone did them a favor, they felt like they were in that person’s debt and wanted to repay it.

While all of us give, take, and match at certain times, overall, our approach falls into one of these broad categories.

In the book, Grant talks about how people with these different styles interact with each other. How can we identify the bad apples, so to speak, the Takers, some of whom could also fake really well and who were often difficult to identify. Was giving always a good thing? What made some Givers successful and others unsuccessful?

Transactional Styles

As highly sensitive people who can be highly responsive to other people’s emotions, Grant’s book has some important lessons for us. Let’s see how we can preserve the delicate balance between giving and receiving.    

    • Overemphasizing generosity at the expense of other values doesn’t work: It is obvious that Givers can be prone to burnout if they don’t also stop and receive, or if they are loaded with work (like in an office setting) just because they give so freely. As someone who identifies with being a Giver, as I have grown older, I have seen how giving too much, without discrimination doesn’t make you happier or a better person. In fact, it makes you resentful and tired. While giving without calculations is wonderful, there is a lot to be said about who and what we are giving to. We are mostly safe giving to Matchers because they will give in return. But giving to Takers defeats the very purpose of giving. Grant talks about how Givers give for the greater good, even at a cost to themselves. But they and their greater purpose is only served when they give to people who will pay it forward. For me, when I see other people who I regard as Givers getting burnt out, getting the short end of the stick or getting increasingly resentful as they get older, I think of my own dangers, my own traps – the times when giving so freely can end up with you becoming a food source for others. I am also starting to see more and more that generosity is just one value. When I was younger, I used to think that Matching is very transactional. But as years pass, I have started seeing that what Matchers practice emphasizes another important value – the value of fairness. Fairness is as important to move towards as generosity. In this context, I think understanding that the same path is not a path of growth for everyone is also important. The common maxim that teaches to Give without calculations is important for Matchers to extend themselves. But if your natural style is already to give without calculations, then you have to guard against the pitfalls of giving to the wrong people or giving without discernment. Grant tells us that Givers benefit from asking why they are giving, to whom they are Giving, and for what purpose. This awareness is what separates the “losing” group of Givers from the “winning” group.


    • Identifying Takers is Important: Grant talks about how while a wonderful Giver might not promote feelings of giving in others, a Taker in an organization is a very dangerous thing. Takers help create a culture where everyone is on the defensive and feels self-protective and less open to giving. It can be very hard to identify Takers. Grant’s research found that agreeableness – being pleasant, charming or non-confrontational has nothing to do with whether a person is a Giver or a Taker. There are pleasant and unpleasant Givers, in the same way as there are pleasant and unpleasant Takers. While we all know or have been people-pleasing Givers, there are Givers who give in action, but might be more critical, sceptical, and challenging than our usual image of what Givers look like. These are important people to have in organizations, Grant tells us. They are the ones willing to call out the problems, willing to say hard things. They are also the ones willing to do the work to bring about that change. So, it’s important to really listen to actions, and not simply words. In a similar fashion, while it might be relatively easy to spot a disagreeable Taker, it is hard to spot an agreeable, charming Taker. Again, look out for actions. Takers usually kiss up, and kick down. These are the people who will show a generous face to their bosses but treat their employees or people who report to them badly. In the end, Grant says, Takers are often brought down by Matchers, who believe in treating people the way they’ve been treated. A social clue about Takers is their grandiosity. For example: In an interview, Grant says that social media can sometimes make it easier to spot Takers. Their profile pics, on say Facebook, look significantly better than they do in their real life. Takers also do not ask as many questions when trying to solve problems. They think of success as a zero sum game. Either they win, or they lose, and asking questions, to them, seems to reveal a one-down position. After a loss, they look to blame other people. This is in direct contrast to Givers who often take a bigger share of the responsibility.


  • Value and build on your natural capacity to give: One of the big advantages that Givers have is that they inspire loyalty in people who work with them. They can consciously build on this capacity by mentoring and coaching people who have the willingness and capacity to pay it forward. This is what broadens their circles of influence and makes them a force for good. So, how can people who want to be successful and also give help others? One of the Givers in Grant’s book, Adam Rifkin, was listed by Fortune as the best networker, with more connections on LinkedIn to the most powerful people in the world, than anyone else. It turns out that was because Rifkin is a Giver, “a sun with many different solar systems,” as Grant says. One of the rules that Rifkin practiced for himself was a 5-minute favor. This could mean introducing two people who could help each other or listening to an entrepreneur pitch an idea and giving some quick feedback. Rifkin consciously searched for ways to do this, ways in which he could help that did not cost him a whole lot. But then, he went a step further than this. He asked the people he was helping for help, but not for himself, but someone else in his network. Grant talks about how Rifkin was helping create a Pay it Forward culture and how he was truly leveraging the power of giving by creating a network that was helping each other. This is just one example of conscious, thought-out giving that Grant talks about in his book. This awareness of how they can effectively give is what separates Givers from falling into the common helper’s trap of neglecting themselves and instead helps create a culture of giving that helps everyone.

What do you think? Grant’s book has some interesting ideas both about how giving can either be a great strength or become a quality that holds us back. How might you be able to give in a more conscious manner instead of spending out your energy in places or on people who might drain, or worse, use you?


Working With Lower Chakras Can Help Sensitive People

Working with chakras can be healing for highly sensitive people. If you are interested in holistic modalities of healing, you have probably heard of the concept of chakras and the system of chakra healing. These words might sound esoteric from where you are. But learning about chakras, experimenting with what you learn, even in small ways, can help us as HSPs.

What Are Chakras?

But first, let’s start with a little context. The chakra system originated in India, more than four thousand years ago. Knowledge of chakras came to the West through the practice of yoga, a discipline that has as its ultimate objective connecting the individual to the divine. This is how Anodea Judith, author of Eastern Body, Western Mind, defines chakras: “The word chakra literally translates as “wheel” or “disk” and refers to a spinning sphere of bioenergetic activity emanating from the major nerve ganglia branching forward from the spinal column. There are seven of these wheels stacked in a column of energy that spans from the base of the spine to the top of the head.”

Apart from these seven major chakras, there are also many minor chakras in the hands, feet etc. Any vortex of activity could be called a chakra. But most often, when people talk of chakra healing, they are talking about these seven spinning centers of bioenergetic activity. If you work with a trusted healer, they might work with a specific chakra, such as the root chakra. Working to shift energy in one chakra also affects the other chakras because these 7 spinning discs are part of a whole. They are interrelated and affect each other.

Sensitive People Can Be High Chakra People

Maybe, you, like me, are a definite higher chakra person who is most comfortable in the world of imagination, ideas, and spirituality. While all these are wonderful traits, every quality, the chakra system tells us, can become distorted. For example, the third eye chakra, one of the higher chakras (in terms of its relationship to our bodies), when balanced, shows up in our ability to be intuitive and perceptive, amongst other things. But when it is not balanced, we are prone to illusion. We lose our ability to see with clarity.

So, different qualities, as well as different imbalances, are associated with different chakras. The so-called lower chakras are not low in terms of their importance. They are the foundation upon which higher states are built. We are not trying to negate or get away from issues such as survival, feelings, sexuality and power, connected with the three lower chakras. We are attending to them because they are an essential aspect of being human.

While we can start working with any chakra, for sensitive people who take in a lot of information, paying attention to the lower chakras is very important. We need to build our lives on a strong foundation, and focusing on the core issues associated with these chakras can help us do that.

The Root Chakra

Chakra 1: The Root Chakra: The basic right associated with this chakra is the “right to be here,” the right to exist. A large majority of us have problems with our root chakras. We might have suffered childhood wounds related to survival. We may have been neglected or abused. We may have been born in poverty. We might have been unwanted.

So, we probably have issues with fear, feeling it excessively, fear being the metaphorical demon of the first chakra.

While a balanced root chakra gives us stability and a sense of trust in the world, we might, time and again, come against issues of basic survival. Even if we have cleared and solidified our right to be here and exist, we might still struggle with something related to that right, what Anodea Judith calls the “right to have”. In this case, even if we objectively have access to money, pleasure, and praise, we might find it hard to let ourselves have those things.

On a physical level, root chakra issues can show up as issues with the lower body (feet, knees, the base of the spine), the solid parts of the body (bones, teeth), disorders of the bowel and large intestine and eating disorders.

Some simple healing practices for the root chakra are physical activities that help you connect with the body (yoga, dance, running) and lots of touch and massage. The color for the root chakra is red, essential oils connected to it are sandalwood and cinnamon, and the plant is sage. Music associated with it is drumming. So, bringing in any of these energies in can help you feel more grounded, be present in your body and connected with it. For deep, complex issues, psychotherapeutic help might be needed, but at least on a simple level, we can start taking care of the energy in our root.

The Sacral Chakra

Chakra 2: The Sacral Chakra: The basic right associated with this chakra is the “right to feel.” Many, if not most of us, grew up in cultures that look down upon emotional expression. For sensitive people, this often means being considered weak for showing an unacceptable feeling. Injunctions like: “Toughen up. Don’t cry,” or “You should be ashamed of yourself (for expressing something inconvenient)” or “Boys don’t cry” infringe upon our right to feel our feelings. Cutting off from feelings means we cut off from the important information that feelings bring us. We become numb, disconnected, cut off from what we really want.   

If we have problems with the second chakra, we likely have issues around guilt, the demon of the second chakra, feeling it excessively, often inappropriately. While a balanced sacral chakra shows up as emotional intelligence, the ability to receive pleasure and the ability to nurture ourselves and others, if we have problems here, we may have either excessive or poor boundaries, fear change or be emotionally dependent.  On a physical level, low back pain, lack of flexibility, disorders of the reproductive system and sexual dysfunctions are some of the malfunctions associated with second chakra issues.

A simple healing practice for healing the second chakra is assigning ourselves healthy pleasures. What might we allow ourselves? The color for the sacral chakra is orange, essential oils connected to it are jasmine and neroli, and the plant is jasmine. The music associated with it is sensual, like Latin dance music. Engaging with any of these energies helps with second chakra issues. For complex issues, psychotherapeutic work that focuses on inner child work and boundary work is needed.

The Solar Plexus Chakra

Chakra 3: The Solar Plexus Chakra: The basic right associated with this chakra is the “right to act.” When we grow up in cultures that enforce blind obedience or we fear punishment if we act a certain way, our right to act, to have power over our circumstances is compromised. When we have wounds in this, the chakra related to personal power, we don’t have enough space to develop our own inner authority. Instead, we follow conventions and try to look like everyone else.

The demon of the third chakra is shame. For example we might have had been made to feel ashamed of our capabilities even though we might have been given age inappropriate responsibilities (the parentified child).  While a balanced solar plexus chakra helps us define ourselves and makes us responsible and confident, if we have problems here, we could swing to different extremes. We might have a weak will or be easily manipulated or we might be dominating and controlling. We might have a victim mentality or become extremely stubborn. Which one of us doesn’t have issues with self-definition and with exercising appropriate power? On a physical level, solar plexus chakra issues can show up as digestive disorders, chronic fatigue, hypertension and disorders of stomach, pancreas, and liver.

Depending on what form our imbalance takes, healing practices involve risk taking and vigorous exercise (running, aerobics) when we give up power too easily or deep relaxation exercises if we are excessively dominating. The color for the solar plexus chakra is yellow, essential oils connected to it are lemon and juniper, and the plant is carnation. Music associated with it is marching music. So, bringing in any of these energies can help you connect with your own sense of personal power. Psychotherapeutic work might include releasing or containing anger, working on shame issues and strengthening the will.

Chakra Wounds And Sensitive People

We all have wounds to one or all of these chakras. As an HSP, you might not have been mirrored back when you expressed a feeling or were told that certain feelings were unacceptable. You might have suffered a wound to your very core that just came with being human. For example: In many parts of the world, if you are a girl, you might not be wanted. That infringes on your very right to exist. Or you might have been born to parents who did not want you at that time. Your personal power might have been curbed by well-meaning but uninformed caregivers who themselves grew up with the conditioning that children are meant to be seen, not heard.

Whatever your wound is, tracing it back and identifying what injunction is operating, what basic right was compromised at a young age, can help look for solutions. You are here for a reason. You do have a right to exist, to feel your feelings, and to act according to your own values. You have a right to take up space, to take in pleasure, and to define yourself. You have a right to be you.