Why Sensitives Long for Social Change — and What It Costs Them

A passionate, sensitive person looking up toward the future

Do sensitive people feel a “call” to create change?

Among the many qualities common to sensitive people are these two: empathy and attention to detail. In fact, for those of us who are born a little extra sensitive — which includes roughly 30 percent of both men and women — these two traits determine how we see the world. Our empathy, for example, draws us to others and connects us deeply to their experiences. We celebrate when others feel joyful and content; we struggle with sorrow and anger when others are suffering or wronged. Meanwhile, our attention to detail forces us to notice what is happening around us, especially when something is not quite right — when policies or institutions are unequal or unjust, or when people are marginalized and don’t have what they need. 

These experiences drive our actions, too. In a survey I conducted of 204 highly sensitive and empathic individuals, 88 percent said they stayed informed about social issues “a lot” or “some.” An astonishing 96 percent reported feeling at least some sense of responsibility about social justice issues. Many highly sensitive people (HSPs) simply cannot rest easy until everyone is treated with dignity, respect, and care.

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Do Sensitive People Feel a ‘Call’ to Meaningful Work?

Unsurprisingly, many sensitives have a profound longing for meaningful activities and work —especially work that helps others or makes a positive impact. “HSPs have a tremendous need to do meaningful work,” explains work expert Barrie Jaeger in her book Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive. She says this can include “doing something with a direct cause and benefit to someone or something” greater than yourself or a company’s profit margin. This call may be just as strong outside of work, in volunteerism and activism, where HSPs seek to create broader change in the world.

That work matters. To fight for equality and the protection of human rights is to engage in some of the most meaningful work possible. Such efforts may literally save lives, righting wrongs and providing greater opportunities for individuals and communities to thrive.

But, sometimes, that longing is a double-edged sword.

The Emotional Cost of Fighting for Justice 

Those same qualities that motivate and energize HSPs to engage in activism and advocacy can also lead to significant hardship. Social science researchers have clearly documented the emotional cost of social justice work for individuals of any temperament: According to a 2006 psychological study of social activists, “Activism related to social justice and human rights concerns requires activists to develop a deep understanding of overwhelming social conditions related to suffering and oppression — conditions that society as a whole often is ‘unable or unwilling to face.’” This knowledge becomes a “burden” weighing on the consciousness of activists, according to another study, leading to elevated levels of stress, self-inflicted pressure, and burnout.

HSPs are already more prone to stress. Because we tend to notice far more than our non-sensitive counterparts — and have stronger physiological and emotional reactions than they do — we “are more likely to be distressed by experiences that do not normally affect the rest of the population, Jaeger says. The result? “There are greater opportunities for acute stress.”

So, by placing themselves in environments that are objectively intense and stressful, HSPs engaged in social justice work face significant risk of burnout, exhaustion, anxiety, depression, and trauma. They absorb the emotions and suffering of others, taking on their pain, anger, and grief as their own.

But the sense of purpose and meaning that sensitives gain from advocating for equity and opportunity for others can’t be underestimated. And arenas filled with so much pain and conflict benefit immensely from the particular gifts highly sensitive people bring: empathy, compassion, and care. In other words, activism needs sensitive people — and sensitive people may need activism. 

So, how can HSPs who want to work on social issues do so in a way that is healthier and more sustainable? 

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How to Fight for Justice Without Burning Out

After spending more than a year researching this question for my book Social Justice for the Sensitive Soul — and nearly two decades working in activism and nonprofits myself — I’ve found four key frameworks that help empower sensitives to do important work, while protecting us from burnout: 

What you choose to work on can significantly affect your well-being.

We all have limits to what we can be exposed to. What is your limit? What social issues or challenges upset or disturb you too much? Then, consider: What causes are you drawn to that do not drain you emotionally in the same way? (For example, perhaps issues like human trafficking or police brutality are too intense for you to engage in but a job training program or healing art activities give you hope and encouragement.) Similarly, what kinds of roles would energize you rather than exhaust you? Working in an administrative role will likey feel very different from providing direct services to community members. Answering these questions may require trial and error over time, but this knowledge will deeply empower you to find an area of work that best fits you.

Whom you choose to work with can mean the difference between health and trauma.

In surveys of workplace satisfaction,relationships with co-workers, supervisors, and community members are a major factor. The same is true for volunteer groups and grassroots efforts. So, consider: Do your colleagues genuinely care for one another and prioritize self-care in a taxing sector? Do they give you space to process and share your observations and ideas? Do they manage conflict in respectful, healthy ways? Even the greatest, most meaningful work can become a painful experience when you have to do it alongside toxic people. But having excellent team members to encourage, support, and guide you can make you a wiser, more impactful person. If you’re currently burning out doing the work you care about, it might be the people around you — not the cause — that needs to change.

Where you spend much of your time impacts your mental and physical health, and should be carefully evaluated.

Sensitives are particularly attuned to and affected by our physical environments, and office spaces and community groups are no exception. Is the physical workspace one where you can effectively work, or will it drain you? (Factors such as privacy, noise levels, lighting, and decor will all affect your experience of a space.)  In addition, every organization and group has its own culture that is shaped by its leaders, its mission, and their approaches to work. Is this a place where you can bring your whole sensitive self and feel appreciated?

When you choose to engage can vary significantly, depending on the other circumstances in your life.

As social activists, we sometimes assume that we must always persevere for the social good, that resting or taking breaks is not acceptable. In reality, healthy activists are well-balanced and self-aware, taking time away when they are nearing burnout, prioritizing other important needs such as caring for children or elderly parents, or exploring hobbies and activities that bring joy. Many great social justice leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi, took periods of time to rest and reflect in between their social actions. The more emotionally healthy you are, the greater the energy that you can bring to the causes you love. (You can find specific tips by and for activists here and here.) 

Sensitive souls can certainly thrive in spaces working for social change. And the world needs more highly sensitive people to join these critical efforts for the common good. But we just need to enter the arena with a bit more thought and care, to ensure that we remain healthy, balanced, and able to continue advocating for many years to come.

My book Social Justice for the Sensitive Soul: How to Change the World in Quiet Ways (Broadleaf) is now available and can be purchased on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, or at your favorite local bookstore.

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