Highly Sensitive Refuge
Two women sit together in meaningful two-way conversation to practice spiritual direction.

How Spiritual Direction Can Help HSPs in Troubled Times

We HSPs are arguably more at home in the enigmatic terrain of intuition than we are in diagnosis and treatment.

Ask most people what spiritual direction is, and you’ll get a host of blank stares. Eight years ago that would’ve been me — until I found myself in a rocking chair sitting across from my own spiritual director.

I’d been seeing a therapist I loved. He was an ordained minister, but had left the church to practice Buddhism and become a psychotherapist. We spent more time discussing meditation techniques than we did the typical modalities, and it was a focus I found more helpful at that time of life. Visualizations came that took me into new currents of emotional insight. A year-and-a-half in, however, he left his private practice to return to the hospital setting. I’d given up looking for a replacement when a friend suggested a spiritual director. 

Spiritual direction (also known as spiritual companionship) is a means of spiritual support offered most often in a one-on-one relationship; in some ways it’s similar to therapy. For example, it’s non-judgmental and conversational — like talk therapy — and helps a person come to insights on their own rather than giving direct advice. Unlike conventional therapy, however, it is structured around the idea that there’s a larger presence and purpose moving within your life. 

Today, spiritual direction is practiced across the globe in many world religions, as well as by those outside of any formal faith tradition (that is, spiritual but not religious). 

Why I Sought Spiritual Direction as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

I figured seeing a spiritual director was worth a try — but the stakes were high. I’d just separated from my partner, and I was trying to build a new life with my two young children. Divorce proceedings were imminent. In the midst of the most emotionally charged time of my life, however, spiritual direction opened a door of deep support I never knew was possible one that spoke to my emotionally sensitive, introspective temperament.

You see, as a highly sensitive person (HSP), I’m operating with the volume and brightness turned up on the world. I’m more sensitive emotionally as well, often processing information more deeply than non-HSPs and within a greater field of emotional “vision.” I feel an energy in my surroundings and in my exchanges with others. I’m also highly attuned to subtle connections and symbolic inferences. These HSP traits are what drew me toward spiritual direction — and why I continue to be drawn to it today.

How Spiritual Direction Can Help Highly Sensitive People  

1. You start from a place of inner revelation, not diagnosis.

Therapy can be an illuminating and critical means for healing. For many of us, it’s an essential support in working through trauma or sustaining mental well-being. It can restore the functionality that allows us to live a full life. And, as an inherently medical model, therapy offered me ideal guidance for particular situations — but it wasn’t an effective ongoing support. The fact was, while certain struggles in my life benefited from the process of a diagnosis and treatment, my life as a whole did not.

While both talk therapy and spiritual direction may offer a compassionate approach to particular struggles, spiritual direction centers itself within the sacred journey of each person — the mystery we live into and the presence that accompanies us. This change in perspective opened a path for me into self-affirmation, empowerment, and peace. HSPs often notice subtle things that others do not, and by acknowledging the bigger forces moving through our lives, spiritual direction teaches us to embrace that.

2. Spiritual direction offers an expansive view of being human.

As HSPs, many of us feel we don’t always fit in well with the prevailing outer culture. While much of our conversation inevitably focuses on identifying our traits, needs, and strengths as highly sensitive people, we can also recognize that the dominant culture represents a mere blip in human history — and only a fragment of the larger picture of being human. 

Spiritual direction, by its embrace of the mythic imagination, cultivates other ways of knowing — means that are innate but largely neglected, imprinted in the human psyche and spirit. The soul is always larger than any structure it finds itself in.

As HSPs, we’re arguably more at home in the enigmatic terrain of intuition. Many of us are well-versed in the acuity of the senses and the resonance of silence. Ancestral memory, the soul’s timetable, sensory rituals, spiritual ceremony, heart-centered insight… these might be more accessible, and perhaps more welcome and intelligible concepts, to those already steeped in sensitized waters.

3. Spiritual direction offers us a bigger container for questions and struggles.

Adapting the lesson of an early Buddhist teaching, author Jack Kornfield wrote, “If you put a spoonful of salt in a cup of water it tastes very salty. If you put a spoonful of salt in a lake of fresh water, the taste is still pure and clear.” In other words, while our rational minds are easily overwhelmed, intuition tells us when we need a larger container for the challenges we experience. 

That’s more than a mere coping mechanism. As an HSP, I need a different way to relate to life. That “bigger container” frees me from overwhelm and allows me to move with more ease and clarity. While the social world around me promotes a chronic striving for more and better strategies, sometimes peace comes from surrender — a recognition of my own limits in a particular moment. As an HSP, this level of self-attunement has been essential. I make my efforts and seek my answers, but I also know the outcomes aren’t entirely dependent on me and my modest abilities. 

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4. Spiritual direction supports a creative life.

Many HSPs, myself included, swear by creative outlets to process our experiences and stay attuned to ourselves in the midst of daily chaos. Many spiritual directors encourage or even incorporate the arts, since creativity can move us into a more integrated, soulful space. When entered playfully and freely, creativity can be a powerful means to witness the sacred within and around us. 

Of course, it’s never about artistic skill or the end product, but about reverence for what wants to come forth from us at this time. Creative practice can open the channels of the unconscious in and beyond ourselves. Spiritual direction honors creativity as vital for our spiritual exploration and development — an affinity that many HSPs may find naturally accessible.

5. Spiritual direction illuminates the path to purpose.

Living in a culture of personal development means we might be rich in self-knowledge, but what will we do with this awareness? As HSPs, it may have been a long road to understand our sensitivity, to push back against the culture’s demands for chronic productivity, and to create a life that honors our needs. But where will those choices intersect with “the world’s deep hunger,” as Frederick Buechner wrote? Will we retreat from the imposing world or will we find more skillful and inspired ways to engage with it

Spiritual direction calls us to grow into our personal strengths and to examine the inner and outer summons we each face — an invitation that complements an HSP’s natural thoughtfulness. As we ask ourselves about our calling — “What is mine to do?” — spiritual direction can help us move into the heart of that inquiry, embracing inner courage over societal expectation.

For HSPs, Spiritual Direction is an Ongoing Journey

You may wonder: How will we grow into the benefits of our high sensitivity? How will we nurture our well-being and resilience as we bring those gifts to our next authentic horizon? For me, it’s an ongoing journey made richer through the intimacy and illumination of spiritual companionship. It’s helped me view my life as a greater narrative with meaning and significance within and beyond the throes of personal challenges. And, as an HSP, it also means finally embracing my innate sensitivity and all that goes with it — heightened sensory perception, empathic tendencies, emotional acuteness, intuition — as a sacred part of that story.

So many of us struggle against ambiguities and loss of many kinds. We may have a hard time holding our energy against the enormity of the world’s strife, let alone its effects on our lives and wellbeing. That’s why I think spiritual direction offers HSPs a healing and enriching companionship along the path.

If you’re looking for a spiritual director, Spiritual Directors International is an inclusive, non-denominational organization that offers an index of spiritual directors by location, age, gender, and spiritual tradition. 

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