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Are Highly Sensitive Persons the same as Burden Bearers?

Are “Highly Sensitive Persons”
the Same as Burden Bearers?

Mark Sandford

After reading Dr. Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person, a lot of people have asked, “Is this the same as a burden-bearer?”

My late father, John Sandford, coined the term, “burden bearer.” If you haven’t heard of a burden bearer, here’s a short description. It is someone with a spiritually sensitive temperament who senses in his spirit what others feel and picks up their emotional burdens. Burden bearers often misinterpret this as their own feelings and are unable to resolve or release them, so they can become overloaded emotionally. they can develop dysfunctional ways to cope with this, such as withdrawal, emotional numbing, addictions, etc. Inner healing can heal root issues that cause them to pick up others’ emotions indiscriminately. And through the Holy Spirit’s discernment, they can learn to take on only the emotional burdens God gives them to carry to the cross in intercessory prayer, lightening others’ loads and bringing comfort in its place. In this way, their spiritual sensitivity can become a blessing instead of, well, …a burden.

So again, are “highly sensitive persons” (HSP’s, for short) the same as burden bearers? Not exactly, although there is some overlap. It’s easy to confuse the two because burden bearers are also highly sensitive. But HSP’s and burden bearers are sensitive in different ways. In HSP’s, the five senses are heightened. They keenly observe facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, etc., which enables them to be keenly empathetic. Burden bearers sense in their spirit what others feel, which enables them, as well, to be highly empathetic.     

Having said that, I’ll offer a caveat: no one uses only their five senses or only their spirit. HSP’s and burden bearers use both to attune themselves to others. But each has a tendency to use one more than the other. And there are some persons who are fully an HSP and fully a burden bearer.   

 The following is a list of tendencies of highly sensitive persons,* compared with those of burden bearers. As you read through the list, see if one or the other (or both) describes you or someone you love!


---HSP’s are easily overwhelmed by what they perceive through the five senses, such as bright lights, loud sounds (sirens, motorcycles, etc.), strong smells, and coarse textures.

---Burden bearers are easily overwhelmed by what they sense in their spirit, such as others’ troubled emotions or the negative feel of a building or location.


---HSP’s are empathetic and often feel emotionally exhausted from being acutely aware of what subtle facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice tell them about others’ feelings. They also tend to picture and think a lot about the details of situations that cause others pain.

---Burden bearers are empathetic and get exhausted, but more through sensing in their spirit what others are feeling. Unlike HSP’s, this often happens even when not in the presence of the persons whose feelings they sense.


---HSP’s thrive on praise and sink under criticism, and they often avoid conflict. Conflict may even make them physically ill. Their intense awareness of body language, tone of voice, etc. magnify both the joy and the pain of interactions with others.

---Burden bearers have the same issues, but it is what they sense in the hearts of others who praise, criticize, or conflict with them that magnifies the joy and the pain.


---HSPs' heightened senses enable them to feel intense enjoyment of fine meals, delicate scents, tastes, and sounds and to be deeply moved by the beauty of nature, works of art, and music.

---Burden bearers intensely enjoy these things because their sensitive spirit enables them to sense life in what they see, hear, taste, and smell and in what they sense in art and music. (What they sense in their spirit can also help to heighten their five senses).


---HSP’s can feel overly disturbed by violent movies and TV shows or news about brutal acts against animals or people. They feel the need to avoid these, since their heightened senses (what they see and hear in violent movies) and their imagination (what they picture about violent news stories) intensify their displeasure. 

---Many burden bearers can easily handle violent movies or disturbing news. Since the persons they view onscreen or read about are not present, there is nothing for their spirit to sense. However, some burden bearers feel overly disturbed by these things because they have sensed others' pain so often that they have come to the point where they can't stand to even see it portrayed or to hear about it.


---HSP’s are jumpy and have a strong startle reflex—for instance, when someone sneaks up behind them unexpectedly.

---Burden bearers are more affected by what they sense in their spirit than by what they physically experience, so such experiences don’t make them as jumpy—unless, for instance, they sense something troubling or sinister in the person who sneaks up behind them. 


---HSP’s are intensely sensitive to physical pain of any kind, such as headaches, injuries, sore muscles, etc.

---Burden bearers aren’t overly sensitive to such things physically, but they can become so if their spirit and emotions become so worn out by what they sense that their body begins to react to the stress.


---HSP’s get angry if they haven’t eaten in a while, because of changes in blood sugar. And a fair number of them are easily affected by alcohol and caffeine.

---Among burden bearers this doesn’t seem to be the case.


---HSP’s are overly distressed by having to do a lot in a short amount of time, such as a timed quiz or a deadline for a to-do list. It’s too much overload on their five senses and their easily overstimulated minds.

---Burden bearers can feel distressed by these things when their spirit is already overloaded by what they sense around them.


---HSP’s, with their heightened ability to observe the outward signs of others’ pain, often to try to be as perfect as possible to make others happy. 

---For burden bearers, perfectionism and the desire to make others happy is more a reaction to the pain their spirit senses in others.


---HSP’s can feel overwhelmed by moving to a new home or by traveling—even for fun—because this bombards the five senses with a lot of new stimuli.

---Burden bearers feel distressed by moving to or traveling somewhere only when their spirit senses trouble where they go. 


---HSP’s can find change very upsetting—even a positive change such as a job promotion or making new friends. Familiar routines and situations are not as overstimulating. They need more time than others to adjust to change.

---Burden bearers are generally alright with change, but they may find it hard to adjust to new situations where they sense trouble around them.


---HSP’s often feel the need to withdraw to a private place such as their bed or a dark room for relief from overstimulation.

---For burden bearers, the need to withdraw has more to do with being loaded down with what they sense in their spirit.


---As children, most HSP’s withdrew from overstimulation and were seen by parents or teachers as shy or sensitive introverts (But some are extroverts who learned to crave the excitement of overstimulation.) 

---As children, most burden bearers were seen as shy or sensitive introverts, but it was because they withdrew from the trouble they sensed in others. (But some are extraverts who learned to cope with feelings they sensed in others by trying to lead or dominate them instead of shying away from them.)


---HSP’s have a rich and complex inner life. They are deep thinkers with an incredible ability to process information, reflecting a lot on the details of emotional experiences. This can dispose them toward negative overthinking and anxiously replaying events in their mind.

---Burden bearers also have a rich inner life, but it tends to come more from ruminating (sometimes without words) on impressions and feelings that arise out of what they sense in their spirit. Since they don’t always know where what they sense comes from, this can also lead to obsessive, anxious overthinking.   


---HSP’s are seen as perceptive and insightful because, through their heightened five senses, they notice what others miss. Even as children they may have been seen this way.

---Burden bearers are also seen this way, but for them it’s more because of what they sense in their spirit.


---HSPs’ ability to process so much through their five senses and to imagine detailed situations inspires a craving to find answers to the mysteries of life. They might ask, “Why are things the way they are?” “What is my role in the grand scheme of life?” They wonder why others aren’t as concerned as they are about such questions. As children, their penchant for deep thinking may have inspired them to daydream or to create imaginary friends or fantasy play. As adults, their dreams may be very vivid.

---Burden bearers also ask such questions and often do all these things, but more out of a deep searching in their spirit to understand and articulate the mysteries of what they sense around them.



(That is, a natural tendency to sense things in their spirit, which can predispose them toward being receptive to supernatural gifts such as word of knowledge, word of wisdom, and prophecy.)

---HSP’s don’t always appear to have a prophetic bent. But their intense ability to attune themselves to fellow human beings through the five senses may be a reflection of an ability to attune themselves toward the One in whose image their fellow human beings were created.

---Burden bearers always have a prophetic bent because of their spiritual sensitivity.


Do some HSP’s lack a prophetic bent, or have some just shut it off and learned to rely too exclusively on what their five senses tell them? If you have any insights about this, let us know! 


So far, one person who is both an HSP and a burden bearer tells me she thinks that both can be true; some may lack a prophetic bent; others may have it but have shut it down to avoid adding intense spiritual stimulation to their sensory overload.  


*  The list of traits of burden bearers is my own. The list of traits of highly sensitive persons was paraphrased from the following sources:
Dr. Elaine Aron, “Are You Highly Sensitive?”, The Highly Sensitive Person, https:/ (Accessed July 8, 2019).
Dr. Jenn Granneman, “21 Signs You’re a Highly Sensitive Person,” highly sensitive refuge (December 13, 2019), (Accessed October 14, 2020).
 (For more on burden bearers, read The Light and Easy Yoke, by my sister, Andrea Sandford Bareither, The Mystery of Spiritual Sensitivity and Highly Sensitive: Understanding Your Gift of Spiritual Sensitivity, by Carol Brown, and The Gifting of Highly Sensitive Burden Bearers, by Dirk and Christa Luling.)
© Mark Sandford 2020

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