Was Eleanor Roosevelt Secretly a Highly Sensitive Person?

Image of a postal stamp depicting Eleanor Roosevelt, likely a highly sensitive person (HSP)

History’s most beloved First Lady shows both the beautiful and traumatic side of being sensitive. 

I have spent many afternoons and late nights reading biographies on former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Some interesting character traits popped out at me. I began to suspect she was an HSP. Here are some interesting insights into her and her “HSP-ness.”

To think Mrs. Roosevelt’s childhood was bliss because she was born into a rich, famous and powerful family would be flat wrong. In fact, her childhood was nearly Dickensian. According to historian Blanche Wiesenthal Cook, the First Lady’s parents were an unreliable alcoholic father and a mother who was a self-trained, emotionally closed-off Belle of New York society.

Eleanor would learn the same self-defense mechanism as her mother over her years. But as a child, Eleanor could feel her mother’s emotional wall and concluded she had done something wrong, that her mother didn’t love her. According to David Michaelis in his simply titled book, Eleanor, Eleanor’s mother Anna nicknamed her daughter “Granny.” While it is clear that Eleanor was a disappointment to her mother, the nickname points to Eleanor’s serious demeanor, her deep-seated feeling of responsibility, and the “old soul” quality that she exhibited since her earliest years. 

This feeling of deep responsibility is a common trait amongst sensitive people, who often keenly feel the needs of humanity and, often, a calling to make things better. Some sensitive people direct this calling toward their own families or communities. Eleanor directed it toward humanity as a whole.

Roughly 30 percent of people — both men and women — score as “highly” sensitive, which includes emotional and physical sensitivity. A number of leading sensitivity researchers explain sensitive people with a metaphor: highly sensitive people are akin to orchids, who need a carefully controlled environment to thrive, whereas less-sensitive people are like dandelions, and can do well nearly anywhere. (Orchids, of course, are also capable of immense beauty if given the environment they need.) 

We see both sides of the orchid in Eleanor’s life. And her early life, sadly, shows us the impact of a bad childhood environment, and how we sensitive “orchids” can shrink and hide when in an unhealthy household.  

Like what you’re reading? Get our newsletter just for HSPs. One email, every Friday. Click here to subscribe!

A Difficult Childhood

Eleanor’s first fifteen years were filled with trauma and tragedy. At the age of 2.5 years, she was involved in a shipwreck. This event, naturally, scared and scarred her, crying uncontrollably and resulted in her parents traveling to Europe a few days later without her — most likely leaving Eleanor feeling abandoned and ashamed over her emotional reaction, something she would learn to control in her later years. 

When she was 8 years old her mother died of diphtheria. Her older brother would die of the same disease a mere six months later, and her father would commit suicide a scant 15 months after that. Before Eleanor’s tenth birthday, she had experienced trauma and tragedy of the deepest kind. This, quite understandably, sent her into a self-described “dream world” — her form of escape, coping, and self-care. She spent her days alone reading wherever (most often outside, hanging in the branches of a tree)  and whenever she could, devouring whole books in one day. This retreat into her dream world is an example of a Sensitive coping and may have been used as a form of detachment. 

At the age of fourteen, Eleanor was “plagued by anxieties” trying to please people, possibly making sure no one left her again (a sign of abandonment issues, and another common trait for highly sensitive people (HSPs)). HSPs are born pleasers, turning ourselves inside out to keep others happy. This isn’t always bad: Brendan Fraser’s character in the 1999 movie Blast from the Past states that being a good hostess, or acting gentlemanly, is a “way to show other people we care about them.” When we apply this theory to sensitives, who have an outside sense of empathy yet are often treated as misfits, we can see how easily it is for us to over-please — to lose ourselves, and our identities, in making others happy. 

For some, like Eleanor Roosevelt, pleasing others can become a compulsion, and a way to create a purpose and comfort for ourselves.

‘Light a Light Had Been Turned On’

At the age of fifteen young Miss Roosevelt was sent to England to school, Allenswood. Allenswood was a school for privileged young ladies established and run by Madame Marie Claire Souvestre. By all accounts, Eleanor’s arrival at Allenswood was life changing and is a perfect example of how a sensitive person can blossom when in their orchid-friendly environment. Suddenly Eleanor felt comfortable, standing her full height, no longer cowering and trying to hide. 

In this setting, Eleanor very quickly made friends and even displayed her mothering and leadership qualities. Eleanor loved Madame Souvestre’s technique of teaching and encouraging her students to think for themselves and express their ideas. Keeping Madame Souvestre’s photo on her desk all her life, Eleanor used the techniques she learned at Allenswood, including daily meditation. Her three years at Allenswood is where we see the beginnings of the historic Eleanor Roosevelt.

Eleanor’s transition from the downtrodden quiet childhood Eleanor into a future First Lady Eleanor feels very fast, almost like a light has been turned on in her. The speed at which Eleanor embraced her new environment at Allenswood and opened up and blossomed is amazing: less than 24 hours, and we can feel she is a different person. One could say, she finally felt safe enough to explore who she was and what she thought, believed and to grow into herself, her true self.  

Eleanor’s flourishing experience at Allenswood demonstrates to us sensitive orchids our own possibilities when we are in an environment where we feel safe and valued. 

Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System? 

HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?

That’s what you’ll find in this powerful online course by Julie Bjelland, one of the top HSP therapists in the world. You’ll learn to turn off the racing thoughts, end emotional flooding, eliminate sensory overload, and finally make space for your sensitive gifts to shine.

Stop feeling held back and start to feel confident you can handle anything. Check out this “HSP Toolbox” and start making a change today. Click here to learn more.

The Source of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Compassion

Eleanor did learn to steel herself against physical and emotional issues, just like her mother, never allowing herself to give in to a multitude of challenges, anorexia, malaise, and chronic illness, and even consciously rejecting suicide. First Lady Roosevelt would however “take to her bed” when she experienced migraines throughout her early life, and struggle with “anguish and depression.” Interestingly, the migraines began to subside after the first ten years of her marriage, when “the life she so carefully knit together” began to manifest and “serve her”. When her emotions did get the best of her, she would retreat into solitude, choosing long walks in the park or even meditating and visualizing in an empty room.

First Lady Roosevelt always felt deeply for the suffering of others stating she hated to “see other people hurt”. Her own suffering seemed to fuel her compassion for others: The First Lady could easily put herself in other people’s shoes, identifying with the “mistreated, misunderstood, or despised,” which only proved to strengthen her resolve to work harder.

First Lady Roosevelt’s compassion and empathy for such a demographic was well-received. Her vision of economic equality combined with her “magnetism of profound sincerity” made people believe her, and hope and want to work with her.

When Eleanor was approximately 6 years old, in the winter of 1891, Eleanor “sensed her mother needed her” and for the first time in her young life, Eleanor felt “useful and worthy.” Eleanor wrote this feeling of being useful was “perhaps the greatest joy I experienced.”

The Greater Purpose of Highly Sensitive People

Eleanor’s joy of feeling useful and worthy is common to sensitives. It points to our need to be needed, our feeling of purpose, and our desire to make the world a better place. But as Eleanor teaches us, we can only do that when we take care of ourselves first.

Eleanor is known to have meditated daily and throughout her life. She created a quiet room in the White House and in the United Nations building. She wrote of her meditation practice in 1959 but according to author David Michaelis, she learned this practice back in 1930. (Her meditation looked different from today’s cross-legged practices: In a quiet room, she would lay flat on the floor. Breathing deeply and relaxed she would feel her body getting heavier and heavier, even imagining her body sinking into the floor. She reported this 10 minute practice was more effective than one hour in bed.)

The sensitive Eleanor Roosevelt shows us how impactful HSPs can be to our immediate world and our future world. With some healthy, daily self-care, we can make ourselves stronger, overcome our own past trauma, and above all, make our world better.

Dr. Laura Palmer would love to assist you in finding your inner strength by helping you create healthy self care techniques. Book a session with her at https://sacredsciencenergy.com 

You Might Like:

This article contains affiliate links. We only recommend products we truly believe in.