On clarity, crapness & tiny flames

One of the hardest things about being on this personal development path is facing up to the truths about who you are. Just when you think you have it all figured out, something happens that makes you question all you thought you knew. Although that makes it sound like it’s a smooth process from something happens —> new realisation. How this usually goes down (for me, at least) is: something happens —> I feel like crap about it for months —> new realisation finally dawns.

I am not a particularly gregarious person. I can be chatty and animated when I feel at ease, but large groups of people make me want to run for the hills. This year I attended a conference with 1,000 people, a retreat with 80 people, another retreat with 50 people, I did book readings for groups of 20-30 people and co-lead a retreat in Morocco for 10 people. This is a lot of in-person stuff for an introvert who functions best on her own. What I learned was I am at my best with groups of no more than 30 people. Anything bigger than that and I feel utterly overwhelmed and have to slink away to decompress (add jet lag and PMS to that and I’m TOAST, as I discovered while in North Carolina in October. The place was beautiful and the people were lovely, but I was not at my best by a long shot).

I’ve been reading up on the traits of Highly Sensitive People, a term that’s been bandied around the blogosphere a lot recently. It’s like the introversion/extroversion thing — suddenly stuff is making sense for a lot of people. I’ve always been overly sensitive to stimuli — strong smells, bright light and loud or invasive sounds are particularly hard for me — but I always just thought I was a “bit fussy”. After a recent bout of (what i thought was) uncharacteristic anxiety, I started to add it all up. (Reading this article was my proverbial a-ha.) When I mentioned to Sas last week that I thought I might be an HSP she laughed and said ‘You think?’


I turn 40 in February so there’s a lot of reflecting going on in my dimly-lit corner of the world. I feel very far away from the young woman I was at 30 let alone the girl I was at 20. I know myself so much better but that doesn’t mean I love myself so much better. There are pieces of my personality I’d change if I could. I don’t for a moment expect to be perfect all the time — ha! What a notion. No, I expect that I will be thoroughly imperfect most of the time, but within that I hope to do my best. And sometimes that means taking myself out of situations where I can’t BE my best. The older I get the less I’m striving for the Big Achievements. I don’t need to do a TED talk. I don’t yearn to be on a best-seller list. That all feels very external to me, when what I truly crave is peacefulness. Self-acceptance. A sprinkling of ease. A pinch of grace. And the ability to forgive myself when I screw up.

So I continue to practice: something happens —> I feel like crap about it for months —> new realisation dawns. Then something else happens —> I feel like crap about it for months —> new realisation dawns.

This HSP tag has brought some useful clarity with it. For years I thought it was my bereavement that made me so sensitive, but now I see that it’s just part of my make-up, like my blue eyes and flat feet. So I’m trying to accept that sometimes my overwhelm makes me seem aloof. That sometimes my awkwardness makes me appear unfriendly. That sometimes I feel another’s energy so acutely it makes it hard for me to be around them, let alone talk to them. Because I also know this sensitivity is why I arrange my books by colour, why I keep a bowl of perfume oils by my side when I write and why I could take a 1000 photographs a day, I see so much in this world.

I didn’t sign up for the easy path this time around. If you’re reading these words I’m guessing you know exactly what I mean. When I read about the heartbreaking things that have happened lately I stop for a moment and hug my loved ones in my heart. I try to let go of the fear of something happening to them, and I recommit — for probably the umpteenth time that day — to heal my hurts so I don’t pass them on. To nurture compassion for my self so i learn to have compassion for others. To shine my light even if it’s just a tiny flame. It’s the best I can do.

43 responses
  1. jane

    did you hear my YES from there? i had an incident yesterday where my awkwardness caused an eyeroll from an acquaintance (and of course i was up at 3am worrying about it) i have retreated from a connection because i just felt steamrolled by my friend’s lovely but overwhelming RAHRAH energy… it is HUGE in my life…and being compassionate with myself and owning that instead of pushing it aside to assume some plastic facade that would make me more palatable seems to be my work in the world this time around… bless us all who fall and get up and fall and get up and….

  2. The Dame Intl

    A long time ago I started reading The Highly Sensitive Person and it all finally made sense why I was bullied at school (my explosive reactions were highly entertaining to the bullies) and why it was so easy to tip me over the edge.

    I am an ENTP, so considered an extrovert and my friends know me to be bold and outgoing and straight talking, but I am also a hermit and often dont leave the house for weeks on end. I find loud noises, people and high energy overwhelming and become burnt out very quickly.

    I am turning 34 in February (5th) and going through yet another transition in my life, Im not sure what it is, but Im feeling it out. I also tend to get stuck on things for a long time until I have a realisation and then I move on happily, and then the cycle will repeat.

    So, you are not alone!

    The first night I moved into my new apartment, I had to call the police on my new neighbours for domestic abuse. It took me a week to calm down from it, I was extremely anxious and crying on the night, but the days afterward, my mind obsessed over it. Now, thankfully, the boyfriend no longer comes round, but the baby is constantly crying, for hours on end every day and I cant relax so I have taken to playing music or wearing earplugs to block out their noise. When they stay away for a few days, I revel in the silence.

    I think being a HSP is an asset, too many people are numb to the world, I think we just need to learn how to deal with being so open to so much more than most people.

  3. Helen

    I am right there with you on this one. I am standing up and giving you a round of applause. Marvellous post!

  4. Barbara Harrison

    Welcome to the HSP club. Lots of people think I’m stuck up ’cause I’m basically shy. Unlike you, I can speak to a room of 500 – just don’t ask me to do a presentation for 6 strangers. I’m 60 now and it took me about 50 years to figure it out.

  5. Brigitte Gleissner

    Oh my, thank you so much for posting this today and being so incredibly honest about how you feel. When I read this, I felt that I am not alone with my high sensitivity. This post came at a time when I didn’t protect my sensitive self enough and confided in people who couldn’t relate and who projected their judgment onto me. I felt deeply hurt but reading your post, I feel that it’s ok to feel like crap for a while and I will learn to protect myself better on this path of personal development by being more self-loving while trying to create my own path and business. THANK YOU!

  6. Lindsay

    Wow, that is spot on. Thanks for sharing I didn’t know there was such a thing. I sort of feel like I found my people.

    I love the advice in the PT article… surround yourself with beautiful things. It’s kind of like herbal tea for the eyes.

  7. susan black

    I love you … your blog, your photos, your book, your insight and your honesty. I’ve been diagnosed over the years with an assortment of mental afflictions – depression, anxiety disorder etc … but I know I’m none of those things I too am an HSP but so many people won’t believe it or accept it.

    I am definitely on a path and especially recently your blog and it’s content is like a guide & friend for me on this journey so thank you Susannah !

  8. susannah

    i honesty thought i had shades of OCD, but HSP explains so much more x

  9. Gemma

    This is such a timely post for me too, I just went through the HSP self-test list with my husband and got a resounding yes for 21 of them. It’s so unbelievably comforting to read this article. I’m so ridiculously self-aware and finally at 31 I am finally figuring out that I am ok the way I am. I’ll never stop learning about me, so long as each year I get closer to acceptance I’ll be a happy lady. This post helped push me that little bit further again into acceptance. Thanks :)

  10. Nicola

    I don’t know what to say… Except yes!
    I have known for years that I see,hear and especially recently smell things others can’t… I have found the world overwhelming on many occasions… But because I have a son with severe autism and diagnosed sensory processing dysfunction I thought my symptoms were tiny compared to his! Then I developed sound sensitivity… Also known as misophonia… Another little recognised complaint…. And then depression and anxiety crept in , for other reasons! And the sensitivity went off the scale…
    Anti depressants have helped a lot with the sensitivity…
    BUT what I wanted to say was thank you for making me realise I am not alone … That there is a more normal level of sensitivity and I am not a freak!
    I have waffled away… Sorry ! Thank you for your openness by the way, it has really helped me heal myself in so many areas of my life…
    Take good care of you xxxx

  11. Tina

    Oh, this is so beautiful, and I so understand!! Nodding my head the whole way through this, I always feel so different from everyone else in the world. Trying to tell myself it is ok everyone is different. Thank you for sharing, and for shining your light. I’ve always known I was an introvert, but knowing that fact, and giving myself permission to be gentle with that fact and gentle myself are life changing. Thank you again!

  12. Debbie

    Hello? Wow! Explains a lot? So what now? I have already given up the love of my life, maybe needlessly because I couldn’t stand the “noise” & “drama”. I always run away.

  13. melissa

    thank you for sharing these honest reflections. I deeply trust you because of your truth-telling. grateful to and for you.

    and yes, I too notice that at 41 my focus is less on doing/striving/achieving/going big and more on feeling ease, being with what is with some grace, loving fully.

  14. Tracie Hanson

    I don’t think I’ve commented on your blog before – I’ve been lurking for quite some time. But I recently read your book and have been reading your posts ever since. I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your writing – this post in particular is right on target with how I’ve been in a “season of gaining personal clarity” lately. As a somewhat HSP person myself – and being a teacher too, this is really helpful. Thank you!

  15. Dani

    I love how you talk about things I feel.

  16. kelly collins

    Susannah, I met you for 20 minutes in Brooklyn this summer. I read your book. I’ve gifted your book. I took your photo challenge and then a course. and now as i check your blog, it is like checking in with a friend. This blog makes me know why. You speak my thoughts so succintly. I have the HSP book on my shelf. Perhaps, after all these years, I should read it. But I think we should be proud to be HIGHLY SENSITIVE PEOPLE. Happy Holidays!

  17. Lynda @homelealass

    That makes so much sense to me – apparently I’m a highly sensitive person! Ah huh!

    Thank you for sharing, it’s helped me.

  18. Anna

    Me too! I read about this is one of Brene Brown’s books I think, and it was a revelation of self-acceptance to me. I am not over sensitive and difficult and dramatic. I am just honestly more sensitive. I was so glad to learn that this is a part of what makes mu unique, gifted, and special.

  19. Catherine Denton

    So many times when I read your tender words, I feel like you know me and can see into my soul. Thank you for sharing this.
    Catherine Denton

  20. Helene

    So glad you found something that makes sense. It helps to feel validated :) I hope your months of feeling like crap are shortened to weeks, days, hours, then perhaps, (gasp), just minutes. Months is far too long to feel bad :(
    Love, light and grace on your journey.

  21. Susannah

    I am off now to read more about HSP – so much of what you said felt like you were describing how I feel – appearing aloof when I am actually just shy; better in small groups; wanting to document all that I see in photos; needing the right type of personality to bring me out of my shell; wow, reading this has definitely been an ah-ha moment for me, so thank you!


    Thank you for your honest and insightful words Susannah…from reading your blog and all that you do I would never have guessed you were a highly sensitive person – there you go! I have never heard that there is such as thing as HSP but find it hugely comforting to find I’m not alone with the seemingly endless internal struggles I find myself in – all because I’m highly sensitive! Who would have thought…makes perfect sense and now perhaps I can stop beating myself up about it! Thank you for the insight and thank you for your honesty – it’s a pleasure to meet you :)

  23. Rach

    wow….your post has had a massive impact on me. I was up at 5:30am with my 9wk old baby boy, flicking through google reade; when I read your post the “small me” sighed, said “of course!” and wearily laid down. I now believe this “small me” has been my sensory gatekeeper all my life, valiantly fending off injuries to my senses & becoming exhausted and ineffectual most of the time. I’ve been treated for depression and anxiety and after the recent traumatic birth of my boy and subsequent sleeplessness I really thought I’d have a breakdown, then I felt guilty about thinking like that. After barking orders at my husband then breaking down in tears because I thought I’d hurt his feelings, he once again said “You’re so fantastic Rach, why can’t you ever see that?” I think that the gatekeeper just decided to fend off all sensory onslaughts, even the good ones, so that a lot of the time I feel numb. Reading up on THSP has begun to shed light on all those dusty corners I’ve kept protected. Anyway I hardly ever comment on blogs but I just wanted to say thanks, you really made an impact! I loved your book by the way and your Unravelling course which I’ve yet to finish because the boy arrived 4 wks early…. how insensitive of him! ;0)

  24. Tara

    To all those sensitive souls commenting here, and especially to you Susannah, please go out and get yourselves a copy of “Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain.
    It is a wonderful book that reminds you the world needs people just like us!

  25. Becs

    Thank you so much for this, beautifully written as always. A bit of a lightbulb moment going on over here – for me and for my daughter. Thank you for the links too, very helpful.

  26. Jo

    Ha. Just did the ‘get more than 14 and you’re it’ test and got 23 : ) I doubt you’re any more surprised by that than I am by your realisation. Thing is, I remain convinced that HSP are incredibly powerful because if we can train ourselves to tune into the good bits then we have a potential Charmed scenario going down. But with better scripts. Love you x

  27. michelle gd

    tears in my eyes, tugs at my heart…because i understand this. all of this. so well.

  28. Janice

    I have been enjoying your photography and writing for only a short time, and while I don’t appear to be and HSP person, I try to be sensitive to those around me, and to my environment. I do take time out each day for some reflection and planning.
    Your blog, and e-course Photo Meditations have been wonderful. Both your blog and your e-course have been a piece of the puzzle on slowing down, and being present in the moment, and taking more connected images rather than just pretty pictures.
    I hope you find a balance; but at 50+ I have found that it is a little like walking, the ground isn’t always even, and we have to make adjustments as we go. It just gets easier to know what those adjustments are going to be!

  29. Lydia kimble-wright

    From one hyper sensitive individual to another, thank you for raising the topic. It is nice to know that there are so many of us around. I used to think that something was wrong with me because of my reactions to circumstances that did not appear to affect others. For example, I don’t know if they are still around, but Kodak commercials would have me crying like a baby. I feel things intensely, and for that reason, I’ve been the butt of many jokes. At one time, I started counseling and shared with her my concerns about being overly sensitive. She recommended the book “The Highly Sensitive Person,” and told me that nothing was wrong with me and that I should view it as a gift. We all should. Blessings and happy holidays.

  30. sas

    beautiful. just like your heart

  31. Shandi

    I ‘m truly grateful for your honesty. Your blog feels like such a haven. Everything you mentioned in this post truly resonated with me.

    I had heard of the book before, but had never read it or researched the concept of HSP. Having a name for it and knowing that I’m not alone have encouraged me even more on this path of self acceptance.

  32. Leigh

    Susannah, thank you for writing this post. I am a HSP and to read your words was like a mirror to my mind and world. I so needed to know there are more and more sensitive souls out there in this big old world. So lovely.

  33. Rachel

    I am not an HSP. I’m an introvert who loves being with people (in fact my only gripe about self-employment is sometimes I miss the office banter). But reading that book helped me understand myself and others so much better. A life-changing read in fact (and oddly I’ve just been writing a blog post for Friday about it!)

  34. Mary in VA

    Thank you. HSP explains so much – including how I can be an extrovert and still need solitude and regular quiet time to “detox”. This post definitely resonated!

  35. Kelly

    I visit you here often with my tea in the quiet morning before my busy (and often quite overwhelming) day begins…I don’t often comment, it’s just how I am…but today, here, thanks to your post I have had that tada moment…taking time to process it and feeling quite settled knowing this speaks so much to who I am…and I have been thinking the more I become aware lately telling myself that perhaps it is pre menopause or just myself catching up with me (I have been this way all along)…many things are very clear…so much thanks to you Susannah for the post and your lovely little space here;)

  36. paulette rees-denis

    Your beautiful little tiny flame is fabulous, and needed in our world…You are an inspiration…thank you for your honesty, creativity, and light!

  37. Victoria Smith

    Oh yes, I’m also an HSP – diagnosed by myself and shortly thereafter by a councilor around 1998. It was such an aha for me too. Explains so very, very much. I haven’t thought much about that in a very long time and am so grateful for your post. Your shared realization made me understand that it’s important to keep this on my radar and be kind to myself when overwhelm feels like weakness. Brava for a wonderful post!

  38. Ashley

    Since I read this post I have found this Webpage. Pretty cool. More info on HSP!
    Thanks for always putting words to how and what I’m feeling Susannah!

  39. Adam

    “That sometimes my awkwardness makes me appear unfriendly. That sometimes I feel another’s energy so acutely it makes it hard for me to be around them, let alone talk to them”

    This spoke to me so deeply. Thank you!

  40. Becky

    This post gave me chills. I too am a HSP and the words you write speak so true for me. Thank you for sharing your heart in this space, it is comforting knowing that I share the same kinds of awkwardness or aloofness that others feel and it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with me. It’s just my sensitive nature. And while it can be hard sometimes, there’s also much beauty and grace in being sensitive. Your words always strike the right note – thank you, thank you!!

  41. terry butler

    Thanks so much for sharing and the HSP really hits home for me.

  42. Nina

    Hi Susannah,

    I read about your 2013 workbook on Heart Handmade UK and wanted to come over to your site to thank you for that, but then I saw how great your site is…and then I read this post…wow!
    I discovered I’m an HSP years ago but then managed to ignore it until the universe/life basically told me to stop living the way I was living my life in a very hard way. I’ve been reading books again about it like a crazy woman lately, and it’s funny that exactly now I stumble upon this. Best. Thing. Ever. It’s all so true, thank you so much for sharing!!

  43. Sabrina

    I stumbled across this older post yesterday while browsing the blog posts which were filed under “UNRAVELLING”. I have never heard of HSP before, but after checking the link and found 18 of the statements to be true for me.
    Today I spent some time to research HSP. Wow. Now I know what’s “wrong” with me. That nothing is wrong with me. It’s such a relief, and so many things in my life suddenly make sense!
    Thanks so much for writing about HSP! I can only guess about the future, but I am pretty sure this will change my life!
    Thanks, Sabrina

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