Why Sensitive People Search for Meaning in Suffering

Sisyphus carrying a rock

Is there really a greater purpose hidden in your worst moments? 

Being sensitive comes with its share of challenges. We sensitive types are often perceived as different and misunderstood. We are seen as “weak” or “too” sensitive, and we’re expected to fall in line and be like everyone else. When we aren’t able to, we feel ashamed of who we are and get tired of trying to get other people to understand our point of view. We may even start to question who we are — and hide our sensitivity rather than taking pride in it. 

Personally, I could see that I was “different” as soon as I started school. In class, I was happy because I got to learn and think about new things. I was also comfortable with literary extracurriculars, and I enjoyed being on stage provided I had enough time to prepare. But when it was time to interact with others or go outside to play, the sensitive side of me was visible. While my friends got dirty and sweaty playing basketball, I sat under a large Peepal tree thinking and smiling at the words in my pocket-sized dictionary. While they hung out in groups gossiping, I chose to only engage with people one-on-one or be by myself writing poems about injustice and inequality. When I was forced to go for a picnic with my peers, I couldn’t wait to leave. I didn’t eat the cake and chocolates because they were “too sticky” and pizza and burgers because, well, I just hadn’t tasted cheese before.

Eventually people started saying things like “why are you so serious?” and “why do you hate fun?” and “you’re such a nerd!” Their words made me think that my uniqueness — and my sensitivity — was a problem to be ashamed of. I started to dislike myself. I became self-critical, thinking, “Why can’t I just be like everyone else?” But I didn’t find the answer to my question for many years. So, I chose to hide those parts of myself that were different.

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Does Suffering Have a Greater Purpose?

When I grew up, I learned that I was a highly sensitive person (HSP), and I began to notice some interesting patterns. My love of deep thinking might be unusual, but it meant I could sit with my thoughts and develop my creative ideas. Similarly, my comfort with isolation meant I could thrive as an artist working on my own time. And being fascinated by words meant that I could take joy in the work I produced. It seemed to me that as a highly sensitive person, I was just the right make and model to be a writer. 

I also began to think that feeling misunderstood and unaccepted as an HSP meant I could empathize with others who are excluded and pushed to the fringes of their own communities. Writing about hurt and healing with a bank of lived experiences to draw from meant that my work could be that much more impactful.

(Wondering if you’re an HSP? Take the test or read about the signs you’re a highly sensitive person.) 

Thinking this way about the deeper purpose behind my sensitivity — and why I felt rejection — helped alleviate my dissatisfaction with myself. It even helped me take joy in who I was and what I had lived through. Giving meaning to my situation helped ease the angst I felt over being different from the majority.  And more than that, it helped me embrace myself as an HSP.

The Science Behind Making Meaning

In Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl explained that finding purpose in pain can alleviate suffering. Frankl spoke from experience, having been imprisoned and tortured in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. He observed that some people in the camp gave up on life while others pushed through their struggles. Those who gave up, Frankl said, were those who had concluded that there was no point or meaning to life or their suffering. While those who pushed through were the people who found an answer to the question why? Frankl goes on to write “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.” 

To illustrate his point, Frankl writes about a day when he was in excruciating pain from the frost during a cold, arduous walk to a work site. He felt dejected and disgusted by what he and his fellows’ existence had become. But then he made a choice to look for meaning. “Suddenly, I saw myself standing on the platform of a well-lit, warm and pleasant lecture room… I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from that remote viewpoint of science. By this method, I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the suffering of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past.” Frankl saw purpose in his suffering in the concentration camp. He began thinking of his time there as food for scientific inquiry. He survived the Holocaust, was released from camp, and went on to found a school of psychotherapy called logotherapy which helps people find meaning, including meaning in suffering. Elsewhere in the book, Frankl says, “in some way, suffering ceases to be suffering the moment it finds a meaning.”

Recent research also corroborates that giving meaning to our life and experiences, including our suffering, improves our quality of life. A 2020 study got over a thousand people to reflect on and write about a time when they suffered. They were also asked to write whether they felt there was meaning in their suffering and rate their satisfaction with life. The results showed that people who felt that there was a purpose in their suffering were generally more satisfied with life.

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What is the ‘Purpose’ of Suffering?

People often search for one answer that objectively and categorically explains why we suffer as humans. However, there may not be a single absolute reason. Instead, I think of suffering like abstract art: the meaning is made in the mind of the beholder. Often, I look at a piece of art and find that it makes little sense whatsoever. But then I push myself to think about its message, and invariably come up with potential ways to interpret it. Occasionally, the meaning I attribute to the piece moves me to tears. In the case of our struggles, what helps is to find a meaning that supports you and makes sense to you at that moment.

For example, the explanation I gave earlier as to why I was born a sensitive person — that my sensitivity helps me to be a writer —  is only one potential reason. And it is hardly an objective one. Yet, it is an explanation that I liked, resonated with and accepted for myself. It’s an explanation that made my experience worth my while. Because it works for and encourages me, I decided to embrace it as the purpose of my experience. In this way, meaning-making is our individual freedom and responsibility.

Because there is no universal reason for suffering, people will come up with their own answers — and even different inferences for the same experience. In fact, if one person considers the same event from different points in time, they might draw completely opposite inferences from the ones they drew earlier. Frankl writes, “The meaning of life differ(s) from man to man, and moment to moment. [I]t is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way.” This applies to meaning in suffering as well. But it is very possible — and empowering — to decide on a meaning that we give to our suffering in the moment. 

Frankl’s own purpose in suffering — that he would later give lectures on the psychology of concentration camps — may not have had the same soothing effect on another person in the camp. This was a purpose Frankl gave himself, and it only made sense to Frankl, but that was all that was needed.

How to Give Yourself Meaning — and Heal Your Own Suffering

Most of us will never go through anything like what Frankl and other Holocaust survivors experienced. But everyone faces suffering in some form, and as sensitive people, we may feel our suffering and that of others even more keenly than other people do. Perhaps even the fact that you are sensitive has brought you suffering. Maybe it only ever led to misunderstanding, exclusion or hurt. Maybe your empathy was taken for granted and abused. And, as with so many HSPs, perhaps your tussle with the world might have been so intense that you have begun to lose hope. 

If so, giving it meaning could help.

I invite you, if you haven’t already, to give meaning to your own HSP identity and experiences. Think up a positive reason why being an HSP serves you even if it’s subjective and only makes sense to you.

When you do, perhaps you, too will see yourself standing somewhere warm and pleasant, doing what brings joy to you, the world, or the people you love. And if so — if you can visualize and embrace that purpose — perhaps you, like Frankl, will go on to make it a reality. 

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