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.


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.


A HSC (highly sensitive cat) and the power of purrs

MissChief  (Missy for short) is our big orange floof. She’s a special cat. She’s pretty much scared of anyone who isn’t me or Boyfriend, and we’ll startle her too if we make loud noises, sudden movements or wear shoes indoors (I swear this is the main reason she resents M-I-L, who is our cat sitter when we go out of town). She pretty much insists on being combed while she eats, she’s too fat to clean her own butt, she purrs so gently you can barely hear it, and she’s also extremely sweet.

It’s taken her about 1,5 years to get this close to our other cats:


We’ve had her since she was a kitten, so I know she’s not skittish because of things that have happened to her in the past, she was just always a bit like this. And it seems reasonable that if 15-20% of people have a neurological difference causing them to be highly sensitive that this could apply to animals as well.

And it’s not like she can’t relax with the best of them… 😉

I do get the feeling that she cares a lot about us and not just because we feed her. She almost always comes to me when I’m crying. I think she’s trying to comfort me, so I try to tell her that it’s OK, that I’m going to be OK.

The other week I was sick. I had a touch of the flu and went to bed with a fever. MissChief stayed with me all night, lying on the bed next to me – which she doesn’t usually do. Now she may just have enjoyed the heat I was radiating, but I like to think that she was watching out for me.

Though of course like any cat, she does enjoy a warm spot and some nice electricity, like my foot warmer:


The next day, when I no longer had a fever but was still collapsed on the sofa, she came to lie on my chest, which is another thing she doesn’t normally do. I think she was trying to heal me with her purrs. And you know what? I think it worked! I was much better already the next day, and it usually takes me longer to recover.


I don’t know how much truth there is to it, but I have read several places that the frequency at which cats purr can help reduce stress and even other symptoms of illness. And even if that’s not the case, there’s no arguing with the fact that for a cat lover, it helps to have your furry buddies close by when you’re feeling down or sick.

Bonus picture of MissChief when she was a kitten, because kittens.


Book review: The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k

4/5 stars.

Interesting theory, with a lot of good points, and a fun read. I’m just not sure it’s something that works for me. From reading all examples throughout the book I should come to the conclusion that I already give very few fucks, as I generally don’t have much of a social life (by choice) and have quite infrequent work (outside office hours at least) or family obligations. Yet, my mind is tied up in worry and guilt most of the time.

So I guess I’m doing the physical part of not giving a fuck by say not going to my boyfriend’s friend’s kid’s birthday party, but emotionally/mentally I’m still wasting way too much time and energy on things I shouldn’t be.

While the book does cover “fucks that only concern you”, I still feel like in essence it boils down to: “Don’t want to give a fuck? Don’t.”, which while sound advice is not necessarily that helpful. But then again, this is my own mental block, and just becoming more aware of it and what causes it is also helpful. I think it has helped me in more of a vague way, just by making it clearer to me what I’m wasting my time and energy on (which to me are one and the same by the way, you can’t spend one without the other). And I have noticed that over the last few weeks I’ve been better at prioritising things that are important to me, and feel more fulfilled. So it’s possible there’s a little something working in the background.

Besides the fucks that concern only myself, I do give some fucks I’d rather not to people or to circumstances beyond my control. But I feel like there’s not that much I can do about that.

Example 1: My M-I-L invited us to a high tea to celebrate her birthday (which was a month and a half ago – I thought I dodged that bullet already), which means we’ll have to spend hours each way on public transport on a Sunday, sit for hours in a hotel restaurant and try to not run out of small talk with my in-laws and everybody’s partners and since there’ll be loads of noise and people I – as an HSP and introvert – will be effectively drained of all energy by the time it’s Monday morning and I have to head into the office again. So I’ll spend most of my day on this, have no energy reserve for the week, and will effectively chat with M-I-L for maybe 5 minutes and for the rest of the time try not to look too bored/trapped/fall asleep. But can I say to M-I-L that I have a “personal policy” against high teas? Not really. Not only because she happens to know I enjoy high teas with friends once in a while, but apparently this is important to her and she’d be really sad if I didn’t come. So I have to consider her feelings. And is my insistence on not giving this one fuck worth hurting a sweet old lady’s feelings? Probably not. And I also hurt my SO by extension since he’s a mamas boy (I love him, but he really is). *

Example 2: In the category of work I have decided that I don’t give a fuck about commuting. But, what does that actually mean? I cannot stop commuting, because I have to do that to get to my job. I could find another job – and I probably should – but I’ve so far be unsuccessful in finding something that’s closer to where I live and that I’d actually enjoy doing (more – because I don’t hate everything about my job). So, I still have to commute but I’m not going to give a fuck about it. Which essentially means I’m not going to let the fact that I have to commute bother me. But 1) that’s not easy, and 2) it has a somewhat more limited effect as I do still have to do it, so even if I manage to care less about overstuffed delayed trains full of smelly and loud people, I will still have to actually spend the time on the trains.

I also think I went about this a bit wrong, as I interpreted it as I was supposed to write down all the things that I had in my “mental barn” in relation to for instance “things” – so I wrote down both positive and negative stuff, just everything in my head. I thought the idea was to then choose which ones were important and which not. But despite it saying “things I may or may not give a fuck about” it seems like you’re only supposed to write down things you’d rather not give a fuck about. One enlightening thing that came out of this is that my “work” list was the list where I basically crossed out everything, so work seems to have more negative stuff than other areas of my life. Again, I know I should find another job, it’s just not that easy.

So, if you’re the kind of person who has a full schedule of social and/or work obligations you’re dying to get rid of but you’re too polite/too worried about what people think – this may just be the life-changing magic you need. For me it had some useful tips and ways to think about things, but I don’t anticipate that it will be life-changing. I did still enjoy the read though.

Other useful things I learned from this book is that leaving a party without saying goodbye is apparently called an Irish goodbye. I did this all the time when I was younger, to avoid being guilted into staying longer. I’m (half) Irish. Go figure.

*In fact my trying not to give a fuck about this particular family event, fighting for the principle of “nobody gets anything out of this and all it does is waste my time”, led to kind of a big argument with Boyfriend which means so many more fucks were given to this than if I’d initially just sucked it up and said “fine, I’ll go.”