Sensitive People’s Inverted Hierarchy Of Needs

A few months back, I attended a talk by Dave Markowitz, the author of Self-Care For The Self-Aware, in the events room of a metaphysical bookstore filled with highly sensitive people and empaths looking for insights and help. The energy in the room was electric. As it often happens when I attend a group event with people whose energy I resonate with, I felt my own energy expanding, felt my own self-being nourished.

At the end of the talk came a little interactive session in which different people asked their questions. A nurse talked about how she takes on the patient’s energy when she was tending to them, how it left her exhausted at the end of the day. She found it hard not to be affected. A few people raised their hands when Markowitz asked whether any of us tended to isolate ourselves from other people and felt lonely. Many people raised their hands when he asked whether we considered ourselves healers, and even more did so when he asked whether we were healers but didn’t call ourselves that.

It felt as if I had been many of these people at different times in my life. While I have become better at managing my daily life as an emotional empath, there have been points in my life when I have almost shut myself in and cut myself off from people because I was picking up so much from them. It was as if I was being swept up in a wind, and not able to manage routine, daily things that seemed to occupy other people.

Accepting Different Needs

One of the things that have changed now (even though I still have many challenges) is that little by little, I have started accepting my different way of being. This month, I want to talk about an insight that shifted the way in which I thought about myself as an HSP.

It comes from Ane Axford’s work. I stumbled upon it a few years back when I had discovered that I was an HSP and was trying to learn more about what that meant. In an online article on the Tiny Buddha website, Ane, who is a psychotherapist, talked about how highly sensitive people have an inverted hierarchy of needs. She was talking about how our needs work differently than what is often talked about in traditional theories such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For those of you that might not know, Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist. He is most known for his Hierarchy of Needs states that in order to develop as people, we must meet certain needs in a certain order, starting with physiological needs. Once we have met our physical needs, we then move on to the next level (safety), and then to the next (love and belonging). Once we have fulfilled these “lower level” needs, only then do we proceed to the higher-level needs (such as actualizing our selves and transcendence). It is almost like we are going step-by-step up as we develop as people.

But what Ane talked about was that this does not work for Highly Sensitive People. They tended to develop in an opposite manner as compared to traditional theories. “As a highly sensitive person, I am starting out with all this raw sensation at the transcendent level. It is up to me to self-actualize it and bring it into my body to feel it there, then bring it to thought and belief, and on down the levels to get a physiological manifestation.”

Reading this made so much sense for me. Of course, physical needs are important for everyone, whether they are HSP or not. But I think the need to self-actualize and find meaning is especially strong in highly sensitive people. We are not as okay with just fulfilling lower-level needs and discounting these higher-level needs.

Also, as Ane says, we are picking up on so much raw, unformed feelings and sensations that we are often stuck up in the head and have to consciously feel and experience these feelings and integrate them. We are first paying attention to a different aspect of reality than other people. When people look at us, they might discount this and think that we are paying attention to the “wrong” things. We might feel a great pressure to just be like others. But as sensitive people, we are like receivers that absorb a whole lot of information. We have to sort through it and give it a context for our lives to work. We can’t just try to be like other people.

What might this mean in practical terms? I think one bit is that we do not discount our need for meaning. So, when we are looking for work, it is important to tie our skill set with something that gives us meaning as well. If I work as a copy editor, for example, it is better for me to work in a more service-oriented environment than it is to work in a corporation whose values don’t match with mine. I still might not “love” copy editing, but this work in the service of something bigger will sit better with me than the same work in a purposeless environment.

For me, Ane’s insight is an important reminder and has triggered many different lines of thoughts. I still have to be reminded of it and what it means. It does not come naturally because we live in a world that sets very different expectations. But I think this is a very important piece, something that can help you understand yourself as a sensitive person.

What do you think? Does this make sense to you?


About Ritu Kaushal

Ritu Kaushal is the author of the book, The Empath’s Journey, which TEDx speaker Andy Mort calls “a fascinating insight into the life of a highly sensitive person and emotional empath.” Ritu is a Silver Medal awardee at the prestigious Rex Karamveer Chakra awards, co-presented by the United Nations in India, and given to people creating social impact through their work. Ritu writes about highly sensitive creatives on her site Walking Through Transitions where you can also get two free chapters of The Empath’s Journey by signing up for her newsletter.


  1. Jody on June 29, 2020 at 9:02 am

    This is so helpful and I think it could be why so much written about “self care”, which often prioritises the physical rarely rings true or is helpful for me. When my CNS is frazzled what calms me best is reading something meaningful (even better, writing it!) and then I am able to move back to taking care of other areas… thank you for this provocative reframing of Maslow!

    • maria hill Maria Hill on June 29, 2020 at 9:47 am

      Hi Jody
      I think our needs as sensitive people are different and more inner directed. Many people treat self care as doing whatever you have to do to “get back out there.” For me and I suspect you it is about coming back into balance.


  2. Barry W. Kennedy on June 29, 2020 at 11:20 am

    As a mirror-touch and numerical-space synesthete, I find that meditating on positive images and sounds of flowing water in nature along with math and practicing yoga calms me and enables me to focus on creative activities like writing poetry and painting. That’s why I call myself an Empath Power Engineer. Where my focus goes my power flows.
    Happy meditation,

    • maria hill Maria Hill on June 29, 2020 at 11:25 am

      Hi Barry,

      What an innovative and creative approach to being sensitive. Thanks for sharing it.

      Warm regards,