Collectivist Cultures Are the Best — And Worst — Place for HSPs

An Indian couple part of a collectivist culture

If you’re a highly sensitive person in a collectivist culture, how can you find the right balance between community and autonomy? 

I was born and raised in India, and following the summer after 7th grade, cousin after cousin got married. And, every time, my family and I would travel 14 hours by train to get to our hometown, where all the wedding events would take place. Each wedding and the receptions (yes, plural) would draw around 2500 people (on average). 

Music would bellow out through loudspeakers. Aunties (who were not always your actual aunts, but older women you’d address this way as a form of respect) would move around the hall, airing their stuffy silk sarees in all colors of the rainbow. 

Thousands of scents — both perfumes and flowers — would merge into an erratic ensemble.

And, every few minutes, someone I didn’t know would hold my hand, saying in Tamil with a nasal accent, “Daughter! How you’ve grown!” or “Do you remember me? Tell me who I am.”

As a highly sensitive person (HSP), were you cringing with overwhelm just reading that? (I was as I recollected it!) 

My Collectivist Culture (Inadvertently) Introduced Me to My Sensitivity

Yet, it’s in the madness of these family events where I learned to embrace my sensitivity. In the family, there were a few uncles, aunts, and cousins who were highly sensitive, as well. They would either sit next to each other in silence or, when they needed to, stand or walk outside for some much-needed alone time.

Most of the time, they would not be disturbed, because the more extroverted members of the family took it upon themselves to entertain guests. It was an unspoken understanding that the sensitive relatives needed space and calm, which everyone else seemed fine with.

Collectivist cultures like mine can be the best — and worst — places for highly sensitive people to be part of. Collectivist cultures are those in which the communities that people create, and are a part of, are central (and crucial) to the lives of individuals. These communities form our support systems and contribute to our identity. 

The most important unit in collectivism is the family, the center of life and celebration. It includes first-degree relatives, as well as extended family members, like grandparents, uncles, aunts, in-laws, cousins, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. 

There is considerable variation across collectivist traditions. So, while I cannot speak for them all, I can explain how my culture was both good, and bad, for me. Here are four beautiful things that I experienced growing up in a collectivistic tradition.

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4 Benefits of Growing Up in a Collectivist Culture as an HSP 

1. Diversity in personality traits is accepted.

We don’t get to choose the family we are born or adopted into, which means we’re stuck with people with different personality traits. If families expect uniformity, they would be disappointed and see significant conflict and strain within. This would threaten the integrity of the collective. 

But, because our families are so important to us, and because it’s necessary to maintain peace, it’s understood in collectivist cultures that we need to accept — and take care of — people with different traits, including high sensitivity. We each play a different role in our family, and it’s accepted. 

2. Highly sensitive people are highly valued.

As HSPs, we are hard-wired to nurture and build deep relationships. Because of our intuition and empathy, we’re often the first ones to notice when someone seems unhappy or distressed. We’re also most likely to reach out, listen to, and soothe those in pain. 

These qualities are the bedrock on which collectivism is built. Our families are our communities, and they are all about looking out for one another and being present — it’s like community care — through both the good and bad. For this reason, the characteristics of highly sensitive people — like empathy, intuitiveness, and deeply caring for others — are esteemed in collectivist cultures, and people who exhibit these traits are valued.

3.  There are others — you are not alone — and they will look out for you.

Our families are rarely small — if we don’t have half a dozen siblings, we make it a point to be closely knit with our cousins and second cousins. When we’re large in numbers, chances are that there are others in the family who are like us — meaning, sensitive, too. My family has a few highly sensitive people who lead by example.

For example, at weddings and receptions, my uncles or cousins would walk over to me and invite me to take a walk outside every hour or so. Away from the crowds, we’d stare at the night sky — in silence. They knew I needed a break and taught me that it was okay to take it. 

Likewise, when I’d go through challenging situations, like a career change or stress around school exams, one of my HSP cousins took the time to write letters to me and speak words of encouragement. She guessed what I was experiencing and wrote to me even before I mentioned that I was struggling. 

These people knew I needed them and I’m so grateful that they were looking out for me.    

4. You can share burdens with others — they’ll always have your back.

Highly sensitive people are prone to stress and burnout — we get anxious and worked up really quickly. And because we feel these emotions so deeply, the burden can become too much to bear. 

In collectivist traditions, there is no need to bear the burden alone. Our families pitch in the moment they know we need them and help relieve anxiety. Most of the time, their care alone is sufficient and we don’t need to reach out to anyone else for help. 

Our weddings, for example, are huge affairs (as I mentioned earlier). If they had to be organized by the bride and groom alone, it would get overwhelming. But when the family works together, pitching in money, manpower, and ideas, it doesn’t seem as engulfing.

But, all this said, this is not to say that collectivist cultures don’t have their flaws. Below are a few reasons why I found being an HSP in a collectivist culture difficult and challenging at times.

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5 Challenges of Growing Up in a Collectivist Culture as an HSP

1. There’s a high risk of sensory overload.

The Indian wedding I described earlier is just one example of the extravagance of our events. And, every time we gather (not just for weddings!), it’s usually loud, colorful, and taxing. Plus, we are expected to show up for everything and everyone in the family. 

The sheer number of stimuli and people we are exposed to, and interact with, could easily lead anyone to sensory overload and fatigue — and put our highly sensitive souls into overdrive. Being an HSP in such a tradition can be intense. (That’s probably an understatement!)

2. It’s not always easy to draw boundaries with family members.

People within collectivist traditions grow very attached to, and dependent upon, their families. The attachment can run so deep that the line between ourselves and our family gets blurred. So, it goes without saying that the concept of boundaries is not very clear. 

This means that we’ll receive unsolicited advice and comments about the way we do things, and there will also be overpowering reluctance in letting us go to do our own thing — like be independent.

For instance, many parents in my culture cannot imagine, let alone “allow,” their adult children to live or study in a different state or country from them. For an HSP, drawing boundaries is very important. However, if we try to maintain them, our families might take offense.

3. Your creativity may be curbed and you could easily fall into people-pleasing behavior.

In collectivist cultures, parents and elders of the family have a huge say on the lives of the younger family members. Big decisions — such as career choices, who we marry, and where we live — have to be family-approved. And, sometimes, these choices are made for us. As a result, our autonomy may be curtailed. 

In addition to this, many families are averse to what is unfamiliar. They fear uncertainty, doubt their childrens’ capabilities, and worry for their kids’ safety. This can significantly curb creativity and curiosity. 

As an HSP growing up in such an atmosphere, I was afraid that I would displease everyone if I pursued writing instead of medicine, which was my family’s dream for me. So, I fell into people-pleasing behavior and studied medicine. (Eventually, however, I quit to follow my passion for writing. But that’s a whole other essay!)

4. You might be misunderstood.

All families in collectivist traditions are not the same. Each one is like a little village with its own values, beliefs, customs, and administrative style. So, although my family was accepting of high sensitivity because there were many of us, others may not feel the same way. 

My husband, for example, was often told by members of his family not to be so sensitive. (For men, being highly sensitive is different.) An HSP may also be misunderstood by new members of the family who enter in by marriage. I’ve heard an aunt tell off my HSP cousin — her niece — for being her sensitive self. Likewise, HSPs might be misunderstood (or bullied) outside of their family in places where they study, work, or live… all due to their sensitive natures.

5. If, for any reason, you are cast out of the family, it can have devastating effects.

In collectivism, the emphasis is on cooperation and interdependence. However, this does not extend to the people outside of the family or community. Instead, we are taught to be wary of the world and depend only on family for our needs. This means that if, for any reason, we get cast out or distanced from the family, we would find ourselves ill-equipped for life in the world. 

When we’re cut off from family, we would lose more than our support system: We would lose the people whose love and approval we have always desired. (The people-pleaser within us would be a wreck.) We would also find ourselves alone facing the fears that our communities have of the exterior world. 

All of this can have devastating effects on our mental health, too. Having depended on family all our lives, we might find ourselves lacking confidence or experiencing low self-worth and rejection issues. 

The most common reason for being cast out of the family is marrying someone that the family does not approve of. Other reasons include pursuing a career that is different from the family’s desire for the individual; subscribing to new value system (or religious views); property disputes; loss of family; migration; or sexual orientation and gender transition. Friends and family members that I am acquainted with who have swam against the tide have experienced considerable backlash (and sometimes abuse) for their choices. Some of them were no longer considered part of their families either.

It’s Important to Learn to Navigate Collectivist Cultures… as Long as You Don’t Lose Yourself in the Process

As you can see, being in a collectivist culture can have both challenges and benefits. My experiences within my larger family have been predominantly good (except when I chose to switch careers — which, again, is another story!). What helped me during this time, though, was to persist in having honest conversations with my family, plugging into communities with highly sensitive people outside of my family, and working with professionals to learn how to draw healthy boundaries. That way, I was able to rediscover my individuality and build my self-confidence. 

It’s really easy to antagonize, or for that matter exalt, collectivist cultures. But I learned that it’s more important to learn to navigate them — without losing ourselves in the process, of course.

Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank my mother and mother-in-law for helping me with this article.

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