Being called an “old soul” can mean a wide range of things, such as not caring for material things, focusing on meaningful connections, and having high empathy, among others.

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The term “old soul” has slipped back into the common lexicon, partly thanks to some well-crafted tweets.

You can find those tweets here and here, but here’s the gist: People called “old souls” as children often experience mental health symptoms and other emotional distress as adults.

According to the comments left on these tweets (along with thousands of likes and retweets), that description resonated with a lot of people.

But what exactly does it mean to have an old soul?

Some use the term to literally describe a soul that’s been reborn many times before.

Not everyone believes in reincarnation, but you can talk about old souls without bringing past lives into the conversation.

There’s no hard-and-fast definition of an old soul, but below you’ll find some of the most commonly recognized traits.

Material possessions don’t matter much to you

While you probably have a few cherished belongings, you don’t associate contentment with possessions or money.

Instead of seeking wealth, you only hope for enough money to meet your needs, with a little extra for savings or emergencies.

Rather than regularly replacing technology or redecorating your house on a whim, you’re more likely to use things as long as they last.

Keeping up with current fashions may not interest you, since you focus more on what you can’t purchase: intangible things like knowledge, compassion, or peace.

You focus on meaningful connections

Old souls and other sensitive people often have small social circles. Your friend group might include people of all ages, with different backgrounds and life experiences.

Strong intuition is another hallmark of old souls, so you might have a knack for recognizing when someone will make a great friend.

In childhood, you probably found it hard to relate to others your age and felt most drawn to people older than you. You may have wanted more substance from your interactions, but your peers might have considered you socially awkward or stuck-up. Maybe you even faced some teasing.

If you had a difficult family situation, you may not have had much time for play, especially if you had to take on a more adult role in your family.

This would have made it even more difficult to find common ground with peers, so you probably learned to prioritize relationships with people who seemed to understand.

You need a lot of time alone

People with old souls tend to feel more attuned to the emotions of others and the surrounding world. Higher sensitivity often means you’ll need more time to yourself so you can recharge from this regular barrage of feeling.

Generally speaking, you find it more comfortable to observe than interact. When school or work requires group participation, you might set yourself up on the outskirts to go unnoticed and avoid being overwhelmed by the noise of others — both the audible noise you hear and the emotional “noise” you absorb.

You may devote plenty of time to creative pursuits, daydreaming, and simple contemplation.

Many old souls are also big readers. Stories of other places and times might appeal to you most, to the point where you can almost picture yourself as part of them.

Others might see you as distant, distracted, or slightly out of touch with reality.

You have high empathy

Deeply empathic people, or empaths, are often seen as old souls.

The ability to consider the experiences of others and feel what they feel can grant you a sense of maturity and gravity. At the same time, this awareness of the pain people experience can put a weight on your shoulders that might prove difficult to shift.

Heightened sensitivity can also make conflict more challenging, leaving you even more inclined to keep to yourself and spend time in nature and other peaceful, quiet places.

This often further emphasizes your “displacement” from time.

You spend a lot of time thinking about how to make a difference

Old souls often focus on big-picture thinking rather than small details. You know you can’t change the world single-handedly, so you focus on making improvements where you can.

Your desire to do good can make the more impermanent interests of life seem less important.

In short, you drift along largely unaffected by the ebb and flow of day-to-day life.

You feel deeply connected to those you consider important and might find yourself wanting to support them through challenges.

Your intuition might guide you to offer wisdom or helpful problem-solving tips, so your loved ones might continue seeking your advice.

People with old souls also tend to pick up on the deeper nuances of human behavior. You may be more likely to believe in the underlying worth of others, regardless of their choices, and recognize their capability for change.

Often, having an old soul simply means you perceive things in different ways. There’s nothing wrong with that.

In fact, most people would argue that a unique perspective on life can benefit you and others in your life. Perhaps even the wider world, depending on what you do with your insight.

People have different levels of sensitivity, both to their environments and to other people. High sensitivity is simply one end of this spectrum. It’s not all that uncommon: Around 20 percent of people can be considered highly sensitive.

Still, certain old soul traits might present some challenges.

Perhaps your contemplation of broader life concepts distracts you from mundane but necessary activities, like paying bills or getting to work on time.

Even when sensitivity itself doesn’t trouble you, you could feel some loss or sadness when you believe you don’t quite fit in.

Like other aspects of personality, these traits aren’t necessarily good or bad. They’re simply part of who you are. In the end, it comes down to what you make of them.

While there’s no solid explanation for what might make someone an old soul, genetics and early childhood experiences play a big role in forming your personality.

High sensitivity

Research suggests that people with high sensitivity have finely tuned nervous systems and brains that process information in a complex way. Some experts consider this an evolutionary survival strategy.

When you can analyze sensory information from your environment more thoroughly, you’ll probably notice threats earlier. Strong intuition can also help you recognize when people or situations just don’t feel right.

Childhood trauma

Children who experience adversity in the form of trauma or violence (but not deprivation or neglect) may age faster than children who don’t, according to a 2020 research review.

The researchers note that children exposed to this type of adversity often hit puberty earlier than others and show signs of faster cellular aging.

There’s no question that adversity can get in the way of a happy, carefree childhood, and trauma survivors may see the world differently. To others, this perspective might look like “old soul” maturity.

Caring deeply for others can be rewarding, but it can be overwhelming, too.

Unless you take steps to prevent energy drain, you might end up facing exhaustion, resentment, anxiety, and even depression.

The most important way to protect yourself is to let your needs guide you. Consider these tips:

  • If you feel resistant to the idea of socialization because you crave alone time, pay attention to that need.
  • Remember, it’s always OK to say no. Avoid letting others pressure you to cross boundaries you set for yourself.
  • Set aside time for relaxation and hobbies to build up a buffer that offers protection against future stress.
  • Nature can offer key wellness benefits, so if you feel the urge to spend time wandering through forests or along a quiet beach, don’t fight it.

Trusting your intuition can also serve you well. People sometimes scoff at intuition since there’s no scientific evidence behind it. Yet intuition tends to relate to your stronger perception of the emotions and behaviors of others, so your greater sensitivity can provide some basis for accuracy.

When a specific situation or person gives you pause, though, respecting that feeling (or exploring its cause, at the very least) typically won’t hurt.

Having an old soul isn’t synonymous with suffering. Plenty of people with old soul traits and high sensitivity feel perfectly satisfied with life.

Still, the effects of complex trauma can linger. If abuse, family problems, or bullying played a part in your premature maturity, it may be worth talking to a mental health professional, especially when you experience anxiety or depression.

Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.