Are you “highly sensitive?” Do you know what “highly sensitive” is?
I didn’t until I read The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron.
Wow. What an eye-opener.
If you’ve ever been told that you’re “too sensitive” and you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend you do. If you’ve read it and you know you’re highly sensitive, you already have some key insights into your unique nature.
It’s one thing to be a highly sensitive person, though, and another to be a highly sensitive writer.
All the things we deal with as sensitive people in general can have a huge effect on our writing, and our writing practice. Many times I’ve tied myself up in knots over some issue in my writing only to realize down the road that oh, yeah, that was that sensitive thing showing up again.
The faster we can recognize the signs of high sensitivity in ourselves as writers, the more quickly we can either a) work around them, or b) use them to empower our writing—oftentimes both.
What is High Sensitivity?
The trait of high sensitivity is normal, but it can be difficult to deal with, particularly in today’s society where outgoing personalities are most rewarded and sensitivity is seen as something that should be overcome.
If you’re not sure whether you’re highly sensitive or not, Aron has a self-test on her website that will help. A few characteristics of the trait include:
- You’re easily overwhelmed by strong sensory input, such as bright lights, loud noise, strong smells (perfume aisle anyone?), coarse fabrics, and siren sounds.
- You tend to get rattled when you have a lot to do and not much time.
- You avoid movies that are too violent.
- Sometimes you feel the need to withdraw into a quiet room to have some time away from all the stimulation.
- You have a rich and complex inner life.
- Your parents and teachers described you as sensitive or shy when you were a child.
- You are deeply moved by music and/or art.
- You are sensitive to other’s needs and moods, and are usually the first to notice when something’s up, or when someone is uncomfortable.
- You usually notice more than other people do—you are the one in the room that can best describe the other people around you.
- You’re able to focus and concentrate deeply for long periods of time.
If most of these describe you, you may be a highly sensitive person. Aron says the trait is found in about 15-20 percent of the population. I haven’t done any studies, but I’d guess that the percentage might be higher among writers.
It makes sense. We’re moved by art, we’re highly observant, we have rich inner lives, and we don’t mind at all being alone with a computer for at least a few hours every day.
But that doesn’t mean everything is roses and chocolates. Below are seven of the common challenges we face.
7 Challenges for Highly Sensitive Writers
Whether you’re highly sensitive or not, you may experience some of the following challenges. If you are highly sensitive, though, they’re likely to be even more difficult for you.
The good news is that when you’re aware it’s your sensitivity driving how you feel, it benefits you in two ways:
- You can relax about it. You know what’s going on, so you can deal with it. That’s lots easier than just experiencing the symptoms and remaining confused about where it’s all coming from.
- You are more likely to be able to take care of yourself, and use how you feel to your advantage—and to the benefit of your writing.
Let’s take a look at the seven challenges, and what highly sensitive people can do about them.
1. You’re Highly Sensitive to Your Characters’ Fates
Most writers get involved in their character’s lives. It’s the way we’re wired. Highly sensitive writers take that to the next level. We wince even when our characters get a paper cut, and consider going back and editing that paragraph. If we have to kill one of our characters off? We drag around depressed for a week.
The trouble with this challenge is that we can end up being too “nice” to our characters. We don’t want to see them get hurt, so we may subconsciously seek to protect them. Even though we know that conflict is critical to a good story, and that we’re supposed to put the protagonist through hell, we shy away from it. It’s who we are.
To Cope: We’re dealing with two things here—our emotions surrounding our characters’ fates, and our tendency to be too nice. Let’s take these in reverse order.
If we don’t address the “too nice” problem, we’ll never advance as writers. As bestselling author K. M. Weiland says, “In fiction, nice characters are conflict-sucking vampires out to sap your story’s life’s blood and leave it pale and limp in your reader’s hands.”
That means for us, we have to push the envelope. We have to make it worse for our characters than we think we should. We have to review our stories with an understanding of our sensitivity, and make sure we’re challenging our people enough to keep readers interested.
As for how it feels when your characters suffer? I’m afraid we can’t change that, but we can bring some self-awareness to the picture. Instead of feeling like we shouldn’t be affected that way, we can realize why we are, and take steps to deal with it.
In other words, if you need some space to grieve, allow yourself that space. Don’t succumb to the pressure to “be fine” if you aren’t. Honor your own process and your own emotions, and put coping techniques in place, such as planning a long walk in the park after a tough scene, or taking a weekend to get away after finishing an emotional novel.
Remember that there’s an advantage to this tendency, too: those who truly feel what their characters are going through often write more effectively in those scenes.
2. You’re Greatly Disturbed When the Writing’s Not Going Well
No writer enjoys it when the writing isn’t flowing, but highly sensitive ones are likely to get a bit more worked up about it.
You may have despaired when, halfway through your novel, you realize you didn’t know what to do next. You may have questioned your purpose as a writer, or thought you should just throw in the towel.
Again, any writer may experience this, but if you’re highly sensitive, it can be even more intense.
To Cope: Realize this is your sensitivity talking. Every writer goes through ups and downs. Whatever’s going on (or not going on) with your writing at the moment, realize that it’s temporary. Trust yourself that you can find a solution, and remember that the intensity of your emotions does not mean they’re right—that you should give up, for example.
Instead, bring your head into the picture. Get help from an editor if you need it, do some reading on plot and character development, or just take a day or two to let it stew. Tread water for a while and have faith that you’ll break through. Meanwhile, tend to those exposed nerves with some soothing music or other calming activity.
3. You Have Frequent Physical Symptoms Related to Writing Challenges
Highly sensitive writers often experience headaches, stomach upset, joint pain, back pain, and other physical symptoms during challenging writing times.
Let’s take rejection, for example. You may send the submission out and suffer stomach upset because it makes you nervous. It’s natural to fear the rejection, and our bodies respond. It can be worse when you get that email or letter in the mail carrying the message you didn’t want to receive. Common symptoms include fatigue, headaches, loss of appetite, and a desire to be alone.
To Cope: Do something physical. Taking a walk is one of the most effective options. Any physical activity, though, will help disperse the negative energy and help you regain a sense of control. Don’t try to squash the feelings. Accept them, but then do something active to cope. Don’t sit on the couch—move!
4. Writer’s Conferences and Other Events Can Be Difficult
Lights, noise, crowds, different smells, different time zones—all these and more can make writers’ conferences very challenging for highly sensitive writers. You’re more likely to suffer physical symptoms and to find the whole experience a bit too overwhelming.
Yet writing conferences provide wonderful opportunitie. It would be a shame to avoid them because of your sensitivity.
To Cope: Schedule in some decompression time. The typical conference schedule is jam-packed and the environment is usually noisy and busy—the type that naturally taxes your reserves. Look for times when you can withdraw to your room and block it all out for a little while. You may have to miss a class, but if you don’t build in this time, you’re likely to be frazzled and overwhelmed and may not do as well as you’d like in your pitching and networking activities.
Even just a few minutes in the stairway or the restroom can mean the difference between enjoying the experience and wishing you’d saved your money! Make the conference work for you and your temperament. Don’t feel pressured to thrive in the busy atmosphere like some of your friends do. Give yourself that quiet time you need, and then get back out there.
5. Your Sensitive to Lights and Noise
Highly sensitive writers notice lights, noise, and smells more than other people do, and they are more affected by them. That means that it may be harder for you to write in an environment that is too stimulating.
Most of the time this isn’t a problem if you have your own quiet writing area of office. But what if you don’t? Your sensitivity could be interfering with your daily word count.
To Cope: Realize that you must have a quiet space to write. I know a lot of people who simply try to “make do” with the kitchen table or the corner café. If this isn’t working for you, make it a priority to find a better set-up.
Convert a closet into a writing space, use your car, or find another favorite spot you can go and actually get some work done. Some examples include the library, the park, or the kitchen table before anyone else gets up. Highly sensitive people are used to doing things during “off” hours specifically to avoid the noise and the crowds. (Late-night grocery shopping anyone?) Use that skill to your advantage to find times when you can write undisturbed, with the lights low, of course.
Remember—you can get noise-canceling headphones if you need to!
6. Big To-Do Lists Are Overwhelming to You
There are times in every writer’s life when the to-do list grows just a little too big—like during book launches, the time surrounding book edits, or when working to meet a self-publishing deadline.
All writers feel the pressure when these events are going on, but highly sensitive ones tend to get really rattled. The stress ramps up to high levels and we can start to come apart emotionally—not a good thing when we have so much to do!
To Cope: When you start to feel the stress creep up on you, escape for ten minutes. Nothing drastic will happen in that time. Close your eyes, put on some good music, and escape. Completely. Forget about everything. Give your emotions the chance to calm down a little.
Once you feel better, you can return to your tasks. Realize that you may need several of these breaks throughout the day. Consider adding in some aromatherapy or quiet music at various times to engage your senses in a calm, pleasant way. Don’t forget to continue to get at least 7 hours of sleep—it’s critical if you want to continue to manage your to-do list and your emotions at the same time.
7. Criticism Can Be Devastating
Writers have to get feedback if they want to improve, and criticism never feels good, but to a highly sensitive writer, it can be devastating.
It’s easy to feel discouraged after receiving edits on your work. You may feel like you have no idea what you’re doing, that you should quit, and that you were silly to think you could write. Criticism will do that to you. But that doesn’t mean you can avoid it.
To Cope: Know what you’re in for going in. This isn’t going to be easy. Know at the same time that you need feedback to improve your craft. Think of it like a root canal if you will. That tooth has to be fixed or it’s only going to get worse. You make the appointment, go in, grit your teeth (so to speak), and get it over with.
Do the same with your critiques. Face them head-on. Submit your work to contests that provide critiques. Hire an editor for your novel. Attend a workshop. Then practice listening. Listen to the feedback without commenting or defending yourself. Ask questions if you need to, but mostly, just listen.
Then go take care of yourself. The negative emotions will be there. Plan for it. Give yourself some space and time. When you’re ready, you can go back and review the comments, and decide which ones you want to pay attention to (trust yourself to know which ones aren’t helpful).
Do your best to honor your emotions, but don’t allow them to spin out of control. Tell yourself you will succeed, and that getting feedback is an important step toward that goal.
Was It Something I Said?
One more thought for all the highly sensitive writers out there.
Sometimes, our behaviors may confuse other people. That’s because for many of us, our imaginary worlds can be just as attractive (and sometimes more so) than the real world. We often daydream, and may find ourselves thinking deeply about something we just saw on the way to work, or mulling over a scene in a movie long after we’ve left the theater.
After a writing session we may fall quiet for extended periods of time, or even feel a bit sad or depressed. On the other hand, we may bounce off the walls because the scene went so well and we’re so full of excitement.
We may dabble in the mystical, as we’re often so empathetic we sense auras around other people, or feel the energy changing in a room before something happens. We may shield ourselves from negative people, and have to leave the room when someone raises their voice.
We may sometimes feel like something is wrong with us because we can so easily drift away, but this is actually a strong point for writers. It means that we’re able to more easily sink into our made-up worlds, and feel more keenly our character’s emotions. That translates into more powerful writing, so don’t be afraid to cultivate this gift.
When you feel like you need to change to accommodate the people around you, resist. Instead, encourage yourself to go deeper, farther, further under. Explore your unique way of seeing the world, because it’s through that lens that you’ll find your most powerful creative voice.
Late, by myself, in the boat of myself,
no light and no land anywhere,
cloudcover thick. I try to stay
just above the surface, yet I’m already under
and living within the ocean.
Rumi, from “Saladin’s Begging Bowl,” The Essential Rumi, transl. by Coleman Barks New Expanded Edition (HarperOne, 2004)
How do you cope as a highly sensitive writer?