The Guilt Spiral

The guilt spiral is a mystifying thing that occurs when bad things happen to people around me. I start to feel guilty that the bad things are happening to other people instead of me. And then I start to feel guilty about feeling guilty because bad things aren’t happening to me. At this moment there are quite a lot of bad things happening to people around me.

I think I feel this way because on some level I cannot let go of the idea of fairness and that people should get what they deserve. It’s part of the appeal of television; in most cases the bad guys get their comeuppance and the good guys live happily ever after (well, maybe not so much in modern television – I’m looking at you Joss Whedon and George R.R. Martin). Occasionally the good guys will die young and blameless and their equally young and blameless peers will bear the exquisite suffering on their noble faces like the True Heroes that they are. But real life is not a carefully crafted drama where good and evil are balanced, and where some karmic justice is at work. It’s just a bunch of people, muddling along, doing the best we can, and stuff happens that’s mostly outside our control. And then we deal with it. But as someone who grew up with books and fairy tales, a strong sense of justice and a vivid imagination, I on some level refuse to accept this.

And on some level – sadly – I seem to think that I deserve bad things more than others do. Hence the guilt. I haven’t yet in my 35 years been able to exactly determine why I carry this guilt around. It’s not from being unusually lucky, so I feel as if it’s “my turn”. Compared to most of the people I know, I end up somewhere around or above average on the “bad things have happened” scale (don’t worry, I won’t detail my grievances). For the record I would say I’m around or above average on the “good things have happened” scale too.

Of course I was born in Western Europe and always had a roof over my head and food on the table so I also habitually feel guilty for not having been born in say a poor African country. But the long and the short of it is that this cosmic burden of guilt is not doing me or anybody else any good – so I’d like it to go away please.

Because I veer towards being overly analytical, I wrote myself a letter to try to convince myself to stop with this nonsense:

Dear Sarah,

Sometimes bad things happen to people around you. It doesn’t mean you caused it or that you should feel guilty because right now bad things aren’t happening to you.

Most of these bad things you cannot fix. Sure, you can be there and offer what support is possible, but you cannot make friends, family, or colleagues physically or mentally well. You are not a doctor or a psychiatrist. You are not omnipotent. You do not have magical powers. There’s no misplaced Hogwarts letter with your name on it.

My advice to you is this: be there when you can, in the way that you can, for the people you care about. Try to appreciate that you have your health, a happy relationship and that your life is not generally falling to pieces. This is a good thing. It is not something to feel guilty about. It doesn’t mean there’s some glitch in the matrix and actually these things should be happening to you, and because they’re not, it in some way becomes your fault that it’s happening to others. Good and bad things do not happen because you deserve them. They just happen. Your friends deserve to be happy, but so do you. Go. Be happy.


Fuck you depression, step 1: openness

I met an old friend today,
But I turned and walked the other way.

Depression is not so much a friend as an enemy, I suppose. But sometimes when you know your enemies this well, they almost seem like old friends.

Yesterday’s post was part acknowledging to myself that I’m here again now, I’ve come to the fork in the road and I recognise the signs. I have to actively choose to walk the other way while I still can, or I’ll be dragged down. And partly it was a promise to be open to those around me – the great void of the internet, and the people closest to me.

If you open up you’ll find that a surprising amount of people have been through something very similar. And surely there’s some consolation in the fact that you are not alone, even in your darkest hour? Even when you really feel like nobody understands – somebody does. Trust me. You’ll find that there are many around you who’ll find it easier to share their story because you shared yours, and will be grateful for it. This is something I’ve discovered again and again. I mean, choose your moment and your audience by all means. Maybe don’t tell your butcher. But do tell your mum, your partner and/or your best friend – or even find a support group – they’re not just for addicts!

But, sometimes sharing is hard. Sometimes you feel like you don’t have the words or you don’t want to burden those around you – because it is a burden. It’s a burden to know that someone you love is suffering, and you can do very little to help. A very dear friend of mine is currently undergoing treatment for cancer. I can’t fix it, I can’t make it go away, but would I rather not know? Not in a million years. I still have the opportunity of telling her I love her and that I’m here for her and she can talk to me if she wants to, to offer what little support I can. And so I believe it is with depression or any mental illness as well.

I know it’s difficult for poor Boyfriend to deal with all this. He  – luckily – has no experience with or understanding of what it’s like to be depressed. Which is one reason I am drawn to him. He’s pretty much always happy and easy-going, he is a stabilizing factor in my life, my safe harbour. Another thing he is is selfless.

This selflessness is not unproblematic though. My failure to be happy becomes his failure to make me so. I talked to my mum earlier today who had read yesterday’s post and was all prepared with a battle plan. Boyfriend asked jokingly (I hope and assume) if one of her strategies was for me to find a new boyfriend who’d make me happy.

But my darling, we are all very much the masters of our own happiness, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Do I expect and anticipate that you will contribute to my happiness? Absolutely. And I’ve many years of evidence to support it. Do I expect you to be the maker or destroyer of my happiness? Frankly that’s a scary thought so let’s not even go there.

So let it not be your failure, or indeed anyone’s failure. Let it just be what it is. Let us find a way through it together and come out stronger on the other side.

And to you lot out there, sitting in your dark corners thinking you have no one and no one will understand: Please reach out to someone. Reach out to me, if you want, I’d welcome it. I’m never as happy as when my misfortunes, experience, mistakes, trials and tribulations can be of help and comfort to someone else. I feel redeemed; like some small part of it is worth it all.

Be kind to yourselves, people.



Will I feel better in the morning?

For a long time (years) I’ve not felt much. By which I mean my feelings have been superficial. I can feel happiness, enjoyment, sadness and all those things, and do so quite frequently, but it doesn’t really touch me.

I used to be on the other end of the spectrum. I used to feel everything really intensely. And it was hard, but I miss it.

I thought  there was a thing  about me blocking out my sensitivity and that’s how I got to where I am now, so I’ve been trying to work on that. Trying to accept and appreciate my sensitive side without leaving myself completely unprotected. I’ve tried to focus on being in the now, on living, on doing things. But either I’ve failed at that or I somehow lost my way.

My feelings have been shrinking over the last few weeks.

We have a magnolia tree in our garden which is now just past full bloom. I remember when we moved here, the intense feelings of joy of looking out at the tree, sitting in the garden, enjoying the peace and quiet and sunlight, smelling the flowers and other spring scents. Spring used to make me deeply happy.

Last weekend I sat in the garden in the sun, reading a nice book. It was pleasant. Objectively speaking it was nice. But you know, nothing more than that. I sat staring at the tree for a while, trying to force myself to feel something more, trying to tap into those feelings I believe I still have – somewhere. But, I guess you can’t force these things.

But you can’t coax them either.

Today I feel nothing. And I want to do nothing. I mean I don’t even want to watch Downton Abbey and have a glass of wine, which is usually pretty fail-safe. I don’t want to go for a walk, I don’t want to read, I don’t want to play Super Mario – there’s nothing I usually enjoy that tempts me.

I cried a bit, but it’s out of some kind of emptiness rather than sadness. I feel the lead coating of depression settling over me, and I’m not sure how to fight it.

I used to always hate it when people said that I’d feel better in the morning, or after a good night’s rest – I’m still waiting for that morning. Will I feel better then? Is it morning yet?

The loud shall inherit the earth

It seems to me that our society is getting increasingly louder. It probably depends on where you live, but in any city or residential area I believe this to be the case.

For me, as an HSP, noise is probably my biggest “trigger”. I’m not sure what it is about noise that makes me particularly uneasy, but I guess it’s more invasive than a lot of other sensory stimuli. For instance I’ll usually have to move a lot further away to not hear a noise than I’ll have to do to not smell something. It carries farther. And I can’t just “not hear it”, like I could look away if someone was wearing particularly loud colours/patterns.

Noise also carries with it a certain sense of foreboding. There’s a noise because something is happening. Therefore for me the worst kind of noise is the one I do not know the cause of. If I know what it is, it’s easier to tell myself “oh, it’s just a lawn mower, it’s OK, it’ll be over soon”. There are some notable exceptions of course, like when there’s a police helicopter flying over the neighbourhood. I know what it is, but it doesn’t make me any less uneasy – rather the contrary, as my lively imagination will start to concoct a story where the police are chasing a deranged psychopathic killer, escaped from a mental hospital through our neighbourhood. Naturally he will choose our fence to climb over and come crashing through the glass door to hold us hostage. But, enough about that. 😉

I’m afraid that most people don’t care about noise pollution. It doesn’t seem to bother 80% or so of the population. The kind of things I’m talking about here are:

  • People listening to music extremely loudly on public transport (with headphones)
  • People listening to music/playing off videos or playing one of those insidious mobile games on public transport without headphones (since when did this become acceptable??)
  • People playing loud music in their gardens and what have you for the whole neighbourhood to hear (and I don’t include the occasional birthday party etc in this category). I actually had this conversation with one of my neighbours down the street some time last year, when he’d parked his car right across the  street from us and decided to work on it while playing really loud music: Me: Hey, listen, I can hear your music really well inside our house… Him: Oh, nice! Me: No, not nice.. I have to work, and I’d prefer to choose myself when I want to listen to music and what kind. Him: Oh, so what kind of music do you like?… As if the problem was simply his choice of music.
  • People answering their phones and/or talking loudly in the cinema
  • Open plan offices and the people who choose to shout loudly across them rather than physically walk over to the person they’re trying to reach and talk at a normal volume (what I like to refer to as using your indoor voice)
  • Randomly shooting up fireworks (this happens a lot in the Netherlands leading up to New Year’s, but this year also happened quite far out into January, and just last night it happened again)

I was also upset the other day when I was on my way to work in the train and feeling particularly frazzled, and a group of screaming school children came pouring in; it literally felt as if I was being assaulted by the noise. But I realise that kids must be allowed to go on school trips, that I don’t own the train,  and that keeping 20-odd kids quiet is nearly impossible (especially when they’re probably excited to be going on a trip).

So the kind of things I’m mainly talking about here are the instances where I feel like others are being rude and inconsiderate. And it’s not just my imagination; it has gotten worse. Of course some of this is made possible by that good old buddy of ours – technology. When I was young, portable music players were a lot less common and smartphones and Bluetooth speakers were non-existent. But, even back then nobody talked in the cinema.

The question is: are people becoming ruder, or are they so used to the constant noise and stimulation of modern society that they genuinely don’t realise they’re doing something that could upset others?

I think it’s probably a little of both. Which makes it harder to actually go up to a stranger and ask them if they could maybe wear their headphones. If they’re just being rude they’re likely to be even ruder to you, but if they’re unaware, they may genuinely feel sorry that they bothered you and indeed put on those headphones. My problem is that I’m incredibly confrontation shy and it’ll take a whole lot for me to go over to someone and risk option 1 (rudeness), so in 99% of the cases I’ll shake my head, put on my noise-cancelling headphones (which would by the way be better named “noise-reducing”) and hope that it’ll be over soon. It took me years of being annoyed with aforementioned neighbour before I actually said something to him, and I was shaking for  at least an hour afterwards. I still get uncomfortable thinking about it.

I discussed my noisy neighbour with another neighbour – he’s a no nonsense kind of guy, straight forward, working man, and he said “Oh, it doesn’t bother me, I hadn’t noticed. But if it DID bother me I’d go over there and give him what for!”.

So the situation is that the kind of people who’d be likely to confront noise polluters are the kind of people who aren’t bothered by said noise in the first place and therefore do nothing. The kind of people who are bothered by the noise are likely to be too timid to confront noise polluters and therefore do nothing.

Thus, nothing gets done, and the world gets ever louder. We HSPs and quiet folk will slowly dwindle into oblivion. Survival of the loudest.

Reading in public and other HSP problems

One quality of being an HSP that I really appreciate most of the time, but that can also be quite stressful is that of immersion/empathy/vivid imagination. In Norwegian we have a word that  embodies this better: innlevelse. It literally means your ability to put yourself (live in) a new/imagined/foreign situation. So yes, empathy, but somehow more so.

It pretty much affects every area of my life. If I read a news article about Donald Trump refusing to accept refugees/reneging on climate deals/building his wall etc., not only do I feel very strongly for the people (or animals in the case of climate change) directly affected by this, it just makes me incredibly sad. Something in me kind of breaks a little, because I don’t accept that people are this way, that they behave this way, and yet they do. I feel depressed and despondent.

If a friend tells me they have family trouble, I feel so bad for them it’s almost as if it’s happening to me. I want to fix it, but I can’t. I know, logically, that it’s probably helpful that I’m there for them and that I listen and give what support I can, but I feel acutely like it’s just not enough.

So why do I appreciate feeling like this? Well, it certainly is stressful and almost impossible at times. But I love the strong connections I have to my loved ones, my family, my dearest friends. I love having good conversations with people, being able to talk about things great and small, and making people feel heard and understood and feeling heard and understood in return. I love being able to tell people how much I care about them, genuinely, and not feel awkward or embarrassed. I love the genuine responses I get in return.

And I love that every movie or show I see, every book I read is another little life lived. I’m not a huge fan of George R.R. Martin, but I do love this quote:


Boyfriend seems to be constantly surprised or perplexed at my (seemingly unavoidable) ability to empathise with fictional characters, even after 10+ years together.

We’ll be watching a movie and something horrible happens (it’s particularly bad if it happens to someone innocent/defenceless like animals, children or people who are old and frail), he’ll turn to me and I’ll be bawling my eyes out, gasping for air. He keeps telling me it didn’t really happen, that the characters are fictional, as if that matters.

It is exhausting to live all these lives. You lose dear friends and see hardships perpetrated on them. But you also laugh with them, see them succeed, find love, happiness, friendship. You explore new worlds, get new insights and ideas. It is rewarding beyond measure. It is the reason I love to read. It’s the reason I go back to movies and books I loved over and over. It’s like visiting with old friends. I’m sure I wouldn’t want to live without this wealth.

I also love this quote from Blanche in  A Streetcar Named Desire:

Strange that I should be called a destitute woman when I have all these treasures locked in my heart.


Today at work I was reading Wild during lunch. And there’s a particularly heart-wrenching scene involving her mother’s horse (see before re. children and animals) – I won’t go into the details of the scene because spoilers, but… I felt my whole body go rigid. I gripped the cover/sides of my Kindle for dear life. I almost held my breath and tried really really hard not to start crying in the kitchen, but if anyone looked at my face they must have thought I just got news regarding a loved one’s death or something. I decided (sort of, I’m not sure I made a concious decision) to power through that section, to get it over with. But I was really shaken up when I got back to my desk and strongly considered going into the loo and having a good cry.

I was affected for hours after I read this, and when I came home and recounted it to Boyfriend I flat out started crying.

And yes, it’s frustrating and sometimes embarrassing to get so emotional about stuff, and to get so upset about fictional characters. But you know what?

I wouldn’t want it any other way.


My life – as an HSP (part 2 – being social)

Being around people, particularly in crowds and/or in the middle of the city is always a challenge. The past week presented quite a few such challenges for me.

I try to balance having a social life and going to work with needing down time and quiet as well as I can. For a while that meant I’d say no to pretty much any social gathering with 5+ people in any sort of public place. But that’s not really a good way to go through life, and I discovered that on the rare occasion I did say yes, I did often end up having a good time though I’d be exhausted afterwards.

So I’ve concluded that I should say yes to things more often, because I do enjoy spending time with friends and colleagues, but I need to prepare a little. Some things I find useful:

  • Arranging it so that I can leave when I feel like it. As I don’t have a driver’s license this is not always possible, though in the Netherlands you can fortunately rely on public transport and/or your bike in most cases. If I know that I can leave when I’ve had enough social interaction I end up enjoying it more and worrying less about it beforehand.
  • Less often possible/acceptable: having something or somewhere to withdraw to. For instance a book or a garden. Now, at most parties it’s not really socially acceptable to pull out a book, but maybe there’s a slightly quieter room where you can withdraw for a little bit, or even somewhere you can go outside if it’s not too cold.
  • Creating a smaller group at big gatherings. This is pretty common and accepted already, so it’s usually pretty easy to group up with one or two others and have a slightly quieter chat somewhere than be in the middle of the throng. It usually also means more meaningful and rewarding conversation.
  • Knowing what the food situation will be like. There are multiple reasons why this is very helpful to me. I’m a former anorexic and former fat girl, who’s at a healthy weight for the first time quite a few years. I also try to eat vegetarian most of the time, though I do eat fish and will very occasionally eat other meat. So for instance if I’m going to a party and I know there’s only going to be some fried snacks, I’ll try to have something healthy to eat before I go, or plan to have something healthy afterwards. I’ll probably still sample the party food but I’ll not be “at the mercy of it”.
  • This one’s not so healthy, but: alcohol. It helps me to relax and often helps filter out the noise of both people and things around me for a bit. I do try to moderate my intake though, and it’s not like I can’t enjoy a social gathering without booze. That being said I did have a very tough time at a good friend’s wedding a few years back where I knew no one, there was no alcohol AND I was dependent on a ride back from another party guest.
  • Planning for quiet time after social engagements. I learned this the hard way. Last year my sister and her boyfriend came to visit. They stayed from I think Wednesday to Sunday evening. Now, they’re fantastic people whom I love and they’re very easy-going, but nevertheless having them over meant I pretty much had no alone time for 4,5 days straight. And then on Monday I went in to work… I was so extremely grumpy and fed up and just hated everyone – like, on sight. Just because they existed near me.So, I’ve learned that if I have an intense social situation for a few days I should probably plan time off. Which is actually why I have a day off from work today.

In the past week I’ve had 3 social engagements, which is quite a bit above average for me. It was even supposed to be 4, but I was sort of relieved that one of my friends was sick (sorry!) so she had to cancel and I got a bit of a breather.

On Wednesday after work we had leaving drinks for a colleague of mine who I care a lot about, so I really wanted to be there. It was just 6 of us at a pub near the office, and these people are some of my favourite current and former colleagues whom I also consider friends. Since it was a smallish group and I knew everyone, I had a really fun time, and the pub didn’t get too crowded or loud either. I had some nice chats with people and way too many beers… It was just one of those rare nights where the beers just sort of kept coming and I didn’t really think about it because I was too busy having fun. I only got home at 00:30, could barely walk straight and had to work the next day. So, not ideal. But even though I was incredibly hung over on Thursday I still think it was worth it. My colleague is moving home to Oz for personal reasons and I don’t know when I’ll get to see him again, so it was worth giving him a proper send-off. And I went home early and to bed early on Thursday, and woke up on Friday feeling fabulous.

Friday night was a work party, which I would normally have skipped, but said colleague had his last day and I thought it would be nice to join for a bit. With Wednesday’s hangover fresh in mind, I had a moderate amount of wine (even though the drinks were free) and made sure to drink water with it. I stood in a group with 2-3 others and just had a nice chat, and I left early.

Since my Saturday plans fell through I was able to have a quiet day at home, which sadly didn’t leave me much more well rested for Sunday’s high tea with the in-laws. I kept waking up and dreaming about being there and about trains getting delayed etc. I woke up early and grumpy. But, it was the last item on the agenda.. This one entailed travelling for hours by train to a noisy hotel to have a mediocre high tea with 11 in-laws. I would have skipped it if I could have, but.. well, for more on this see my review of The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k. :-p It ended up being OK as all our 7 (!) trains were on time, and the event itself lasted about 3 hours. After we finished our food and were sitting around chatting, I pulled out my crocheting. Which thankfully the in-laws seemed to deem eccentric and slightly fascinating rather than rude or anti-social. It’s not like I didn’t still participate in the conversation. But it helped ground and relax me with the constant buzz of people around me.

After we came home we had a very quick bite to eat and then headed out to the movies. I only managed that one as I knew I’d have a day off today, AND we’ve been wanting to see Passengers for a long time and it’s probably the last week it’s playing. Since it’s been on for a while the theatre was pretty quiet and the movie was quite enjoyable and not very taxing.

I went to bed relatively early last night as well, completely knackered, and I slept in this morning. Today I’m only doing good for me stuff: getting enough sleep, exercising, eating healthy, catching up on blogging, reading, and limiting social interaction to a minimum. I should be ready to face the world again tomorrow. 😉

In short, I feel like the most important parts to being an HSP and still having a social life are planning, balance and prioritising.


My life – as an HSP (part 1)

Let’s start at the beginning… An HSP is a Highly Sensitive Person. It is not the same as being introverted, though most HSPs are also introverts. I am one of those.

Some signs of being an HSP are that you’re very aware of other people’s moods, that you react strongly to noise, colour, smell – basically any sensory input, that you’re empathetic and feel deeply. Most people have some HSP traits, I score 24 out of 27 on the test.

I’ve known for years that I was an HSP, and that that was an actual, real, neurological thing, but it’s only really in the last year and a bit that I’ve started to deal with it and really accept what it entails.

For most of my life I’ve been trying to ignore it, to “toughen up” (I cannot count how many times I’ve heard that throughout my life, from all corners), which has led me to more or less repress my sensitivity. I’m currently working on letting my sensitivity back into my life without being completely overwhelmed.

I was in therapy last year, and was confronted with the fact that ignoring my sensitivity could be the root to some weird and seemingly unexplained ailments, which I think basically boil down to stress and anxiety.

My mother is also an HSP, and has also been repressing that most of her life, until she ended up getting ME (aka Chronic Fatigue Syndrome)  – now in her fifties. Over the past few years she has done so much work to deal with this, find her way back to a productive, gratifying and balanced life (she always struggles with wanting to do everything) and accept her sensitivity. And I am so proud of her. But it’s also a warning sign for me. I don’t want to go so far down the same path that I end up getting ill.

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting next to the radiator. It’s cold winter’s day. The radiator is emitting a constant humming noise. I’m trying very hard not to get distracted by it, but it really bothers me. Boyfriend would not have noticed that it’s even making a sound. That’s just one of the many little challenges you face on a day-to-day basis as an HSP. But, I mean, there are a lot worse things in life than annoying radiator buzzing sounds.

There’s a lot of good stuff about being an HSP. I love my vivid imagination (though sometimes, when I’m out running in the morning by myself and think everyone I meet is going to kill me, not so much), I love my creativity, my connection with art and literature, how into books and movies I can get, the deep connections I make with my close friends and family and generally how deeply I can care and feel about people, animals and nature. It’s really a gift.

So why have I been ignoring it? Surely the above good stuff more than makes up for the fact that I’m sensitive to noises, violence, pain, hunger etc.?

Well, yes, it does. But there’s more to it. Now this is the part where I do not blame society, but rather try to explain why society and my upbringing in general was not suited to HSP traits. It’s really not anybody’s fault.

I believe my parents were both pretty extreme HSPs, but they both had their ways of repressing it. My mother was very strict with herself, always working really hard, always “pulling herself together” and powering on and through. Because that’s what she had been taught. She did not always have a lot of understanding for my sensitivity either, as she did not accept it in herself, so she would transfer the lessons she’d learnt to me – and so I also learnt that I should pull myself together, and that it was not OK to be tired, overwhelmed or to not be able to do as much as others.

I was sick a lot as a child, and also had long bouts of unexplained illness that were actually a little ME-like (but this was the early 90s so that wasn’t really a commonly known term). Looking back, I think this was my body’s way of dealing with being overwhelmed and overstimulated and not having anybody in my life who accepted this or knew how to deal with it. When I read Elaine Aron’s book on HSPs last year I remember that it said that children who were HSPs and were accepted and even appreciated for their sensitivity tended to be sick less often than other children. I guess in my case the opposite happened. It made me very sad for what could have been.

I’d like to emphasise again that this is not about placing blame, and I genuinely do not blame my parents, society or any other person or instance for the troubles of my childhood – I say this just to illustrate my path and how it has shaped me. And maybe some of you can recognise yourselves in this.

My father’s way of repressing his sensitivity was turning to drugs and alcohol. Which is something I’ve done myself later in life as a way of dealing. My drug just happened to be food rather than marijuana. My father had a very rough life, and given the time and the circumstances he was born into, I have nothing but understanding for the way in which he chose to deal with (or actually not deal with) his sensitivity. But again it makes me sad for what could have been. He was a wonderfully sensitive and creative spirit, but he blunted his creative instrument with drugs.

So, led by two bad examples, and having no one to explain to me what it was to be highly sensitive, how to deal with it and how it can bring you joy, it’s no wonder I’ve faltered a little.

In my next post I plan to elaborate on how I’m currently dealing with (rediscovering) my sensitivity – so if you enjoyed this post, stay tuned!

And I very much appreciate anyone sharing their own experiences with sensitivity. It always helps to know you’re not alone.

Love, Sarah