Are Empathic/HSP People “Made” by Certain Childhoods?

By Rachel Puryear

One popular debate around highly empathic/HSP people; is whether we are born the way we are, with our traits being in our nature; or whether we are instead made, with our traits being primarily the product of nurture – and that if it’s the latter, then what kind of childhood makes for persons like ourselves.

Some proponents of the “nurture” argument scoff and claim that empathic/HSP people must have had indulgent parents, a lack of discipline, and relatively problem-free childhoods. Their logic is apparently that empathy and sensitivity is traced back to those alleged early life conditions. (Generally speaking, that’s a huge – and damaging – myth that goes well beyond this subject, too.)

Other proponents of the “nurture” argument go the opposite way. They claim that high empathy and sensitivity arise out of trauma, overly harsh or strict – and perhaps abusive and negligent parenting, deep family dysfunction, and the resulting need to constantly be hyperaware of one’s home environment – living in fear, and always watching for signs that something bad is about to happen. Their argument could also be characterized as the “lack of nurture” argument.

(This latter argument is much better intended than its opposite, but can also be subtly damaging in its own way.)

Smiling young child with lots of different colored paints smeared all over her. By Senjuti Kundu.

However, neither of these two aforementioned theories have it right – according to expert Dr. Elaine Aron, a pioneer in the field of studying and advocating for awareness about empathic/HSP people. She, in her seminal book “The Highly Sensitive Person“, shows us that actually, such people are not made – they are born the way they are.

Empathic and HSP people have childhoods and backgrounds that vary as much as everyone else’s does. There is no evidence that they are any more or less likely to come from abuse and dysfunction, or loving and supportive families; from disadvantage and poverty, or privilege and wealth; from oppressed or free communities; from adversity or fortune; from deprivation and hardship; or abundance and prosperity; or any combinations of any of these things; than anyone else.

Accordingly, there is no particular childhood, good or bad; that produces – or prevents – a child from being empathic/HSP. Empathic/HSP people are what they are, from their very first breath, and until their last.

However, empathic and HSP people can be in some ways affected differently by their childhood environment, experiences, than circumstances; in comparison with even similarly situated non-empathic, and non-HSP children.

Note that I’m not saying that non-empathic, non-HSP children are less or more affected by more difficult and traumatic childhoods than their empathic/HSP counterparts. But, perhaps just differently.

It is important for any and all children to have loving and supportive childhoods.

How might children be affected by their childhood differently, because of their temperament? That is a whole other conversation – many of them, in fact.

However, I would suggest a couple things:

  • Empathic/HSP people might be more inclined than others – if they had a difficult childhood, to commit to being better than the upbringing they had. To do better for their own children, if they have any. To be the kind of people they wish their parents had instead been.
  • For empathic/HSP people who had a more fortunate childhood, they might be more likely than others to realize their good luck, and to be compassionate to those who had less than they did – rather than feeling superior than those whose early lives were harder.
  • Empathic/HSP people are deeply impacted by trauma, as are others. They can also be surprisingly resilient – and again, others can also be. It depends a lot on the individual, other aspects of their attitude and personality, as well as what other kinds of social support and opportunities they may or may not have in life.

In any event, look at people as individuals, rather than making assumptions about their whole lives because of their personality traits. And keep an open mind as to who they really are.

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