Though certainly not every vegan identifies as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), the overlap between the two is significant. HSP is a personality trait first coined by psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron in the early 1990’s, which she describes as “not a new discovery,” but a concept that has long been misunderstood. (The term “empath” has come to be used fairly interchangeably with HSP, and some people prefer one term over the other.)
Dr. Aron’s research has indicated that about 15-20% of the population meet criteria for the HSP trait, which entails high sensory processing sensitivity (essentially higher sensitivity to external stimuli), greater depth of cognitive processing, and high empathy and emotional responsiveness. She and others have written many books on a variety of topics related to HSP, and her website (www.hsperson.com) is an excellent hub to find these books and other HSP resources, including a brief self-assessment test.
In the mainstream of both Western and Eastern patriarchal cultures (as opposed to, for example, matriarchal tribal groups), the idea of being “sensitive” has typically carried a negative connotation. People who are called sensitive are often encouraged to be less so — to develop “thicker skin” so they do not feel or need to process things as deeply. In recent years, this norm has come increasingly into question as we’ve collectively developed greater recognition about both the negative impact of emotional suppression and the positive impact of deep empathy.
Most ethical vegans — people who live a vegan lifestyle for ethical reasons such as animal rights and environmental concerns, rather than purely individualistic health reasons — feel a high degree of empathy for animals, which is often what led them to choose this lifestyle. Though not all vegans share the other traits of HSP, it’s very likely that the vegan population has a higher percentage of HSPs than the general population (I was unable to find any research to date that explores these statistics and correlations). Speaking for myself and many of the vegans I know, what ultimately led me to step out of my denial and dissociation of eating and wearing animals was a viscerally painful empathic experience with animals I’d see in my life and in documentaries that detail the reality of animal treatment for human uses.
Even aside from veganism, HSPs in general have to be more mindful than non-HSPs of their emotional wellbeing, details of their living and working environments, and interpersonal issues — because, essentially, they sense and feel everything more deeply. Couple that with the existing difficulties of being vegan in a non-vegan world, and you have a recipe for a distressed HSP vegan who needs a lot of resources and support to feel stable and to thrive.
Though an entire book could be written to support this specific population, for this post I will focus on sharing three coping strategies for vegan HSPs/empaths. (And until that book is written, a close match would be fellow Exploring Veganism blogger April Lang’s book Animal Persuasion: A guide for ethical vegans and animal advocates in managing life’s emotional challenges.) I hope these tips will prove helpful for you or someone you love.
- Find, create, and nurture truly safe spaces to express grief and frustration.
Most vegans know how crucial it is to make other vegan friends who “get” their choice, especially if their existing friends or family do not. Thus, there are probably hundreds or thousands of vegan groups on Facebook alone, in addition to Meetup groups and other in-person gatherings for vegans to meet and support one another. Nonetheless, ten different vegans will have ten different personalities, and not all of them will be equally as supportive of an HSP’s needs.
HSP vegans have to especially mindful that they don’t stay in emotionally unsafe spaces just because they’re full of other vegans. For example, I know that my local vegan Facebook group is fairly well-moderated, but even so, it can be a challenging space when someone just needs to express their pain, and the response they get is not one of validation and support, but perhaps taking a more rational/logical approach and trying to “fix” the person’s feelings or tell them how they should have behaved differently in the first place to try to avoid the feelings. In researching for this post, I learned that there is a Facebook group specifically for Highly Sensitive Vegans — and it even offers the option to sign up to be a mentor or mentee of another group member.
- Learn more about the specifics of navigating life well as an HSP — and adjust your context accordingly.
The answer to living more peacefully as an HSP isn’t to change yourself, but rather, to understand how to “cope ahead” for situations you know are likely to be challenging, and whenever possible, to choose activities and environments that feel supportive rather than ones are not at all well-suited for your personality. For example, I rarely go to events downtown that I know will be crowded and overstimulating. If the pros outweigh the cons and decide to go, I plan ahead, knowing that the environment will be challenging. Dr. Aron’s original book, The Highly Sensitive Person, is full of strategies and ideas for how to cope with situations that can be especially challenging for HSPs. If you’re not quite ready to bite off a whole book on the topic, HSP mentor Elena Herdieckerhoff’s TedX Talk is a great place to start.
- Get professional support if the feelings are obsessive or too overwhelming.
As fellow blogger Shiri Raz wrote in her recent post on the vegans’ trauma, the experience of being an ethical vegan is, for many, one of chronic exposure to traumatic material. While self-care, self-help, and social support can go a long way, sometimes bringing a professional on board who understands the complexities of vegan living — especially as an HSP — can be hugely beneficial. The stress of being an HSP vegan can not only result in PTSD-like symptoms, but also increased anxiety, depression, and at times, obsessive compulsive traits. Trying to navigate these issues without a trained professional can be extremely difficult, and if you find yourself in an especially dark place, please consider finding a vegan mental health professional. You can email me or comment on this post or any of the posts on this blog, and we will do our best to connect you with a professional in your area.
Above all, remember that your highly sensitive nature is a gift — and as any gift, cultivating greater awareness and intention will support you in using it most skillfully and living with it most peacefully.