Guest Post with Lani: Being an INFJ/HSP Abroad

Today I’d like to share a post by my long-time blogger friend Lani of Life, the Universe and Lani. I’ve known her on the web for about five years now, and the more we talk, the more similarities we find.

Lani is also an INFJ/HSP, and she’s an expat living in Asia, as I once was. I asked her if she would share what her experiences were living overseas as an empath, and she graciously accepted.

When did you first discover you were an INFJ/HSP?

I didn’t realize this until I was in my late twenties. I just thought I was prone to crying and therefore too sensitive for my own good. I was living in Portland, Oregon and walking with a freshly returned expat who had been living in Japan. A bus behind us made a noise, like the door opening or a screeching halt and we both jumped. Then we looked at each other and laughed. We were like, “hey, you, too, huh?” and that opened the door to a conversation I never had before about being a highly sensitive person.

Once you found out, how did you react?

Honestly, I felt relief that I wasn’t alone because people have a tendency to stare at you like you’re a freak when you seem to “overreact” to a situation. Of course, my friends always laughed, like the time I thought I was falling off the side of a mountain and screamed. OH, how it echoed.

What are the challenges living overseas as an empathic/sensitive person?

Good question. I don’t know if I can count the ways. I mean, being an HSP in another country looks like you’re simply adapting to another culture or a language barrier. And this is not to say that you aren’t, but I think it gets a little trickier to compartmentalize your overseas experience and being an HSP.

What is the best thing about being an INFJ/HSP?

For me, it’s not being who people expect. Folks have a tendency to think they get you, right? after a particular interaction or two. For example, as an INFJ, people think I’m super social and that I want to go out drinking with them after work. No. Instead, I desperately want to get home, read, and be alone.

Being an HSP doesn’t seem like a good thing at first. It’s taken me a while to appreciate it. If you are quickly moved to tears or “jumpy” folks think you’re weak or a wuss. Okay, I’m projecting. But being HS means that empathizing with people or situations can be done with greater ease. This is no small thing either.

I’ve had many people open up to me throughout my life. Maybe this has to do with trust and non-judgment. But I think it could also be due to the fact that I pay attention, when I ask how you are doing I’m not doing it as a passing greeting and when I see that you are distracted or out of sorts, I gauge the situation. In other words, I’m sensitive to other people and my surroundings, and it has created wonderful connections.

How does your partner respond to your needs?

He’s gotten used to me and how I am. For instance, whenever we’re at a movie theatre, I’ll be bawling my eyes out over the film, and these days he doesn’t even notice that I’m clutching and crumpling up a tissue or that I fished it out of my purse. It’s kind of nice actually. Sometimes you don’t want to be asked if you’re okay. I can’t help it, and yes, I’m fine, thank you.

How does it affect your life? (In writing, teaching, etc.)

Yeah, being an HSP is tough because of the way society perceives tears, sensitivity, and feeling things with great emotion. Non-HSPs assume that you’re a drama queen or that something is wrong with you.

When I’m particularly stressed out as a teacher, I cry in front of my students. I hate it because I don’t want them to think they have gotten to me, but they have, and well, what are you going to do? Sometimes, I walk out. I’m fond of walking away to compose myself. But I don’t even have to be upset to “get the vapors”. I’ll cry if there’s a beautiful video I’m showing them or if I read something touching.

There’s really nothing you can do. I mean, people have tried to give me medicine when I’ve complained about how prone I am to tears because they see it as a bad thing. You have to learn how to handle your feelings regardless if you are sensitive or not. A lot of it for me is accepting who I am, and knowing your self.

What advice do you have for INFJ/HSPs for travel or life abroad?

Regardless of whether you are at home or if you travel, you really do need to figure out what you need and what makes you happy. I like a full fridge, a clean apartment, and some peace and quiet.

I feel like the reason why encounter everyday resistance is to shape us and give us an opportunity to figure ourselves out. Trust me life can become a little bit easier when you do.

It was amazing to read Lani’s answers, because so many of them echo my own. You can read about how I reacted to finding out I was an HSP here.

Thanks Lani!

Living as an HSP Expat

Do you live in a country other than your native land? Do you wish you could, but feel that your sensitivity might hold you back or make the whole experience traumatic? Being an HSP and living abroad does present some unique challenges, but it is also an amazing and totally worthwhile adventure even for us sensitive types! Before I delve into that, I want to take a moment to elaborate on something Elaine Aron says in her book about Highly Sensitive Persons;

The Brain’s Two Systems

One system, the “behavioral activation” system is hooked up to parts of the brain that take in messages from the senses and send out orders to the limbs to get moving. This system [moves] us toward things, especially new ones. When the activation system is operating, we are curious, bold, and impulsive. The other system is called the “behavioral inhibition” system. This system is said to move us away from things… It makes us alert, cautious, and watchful for signs. …This system is hooked up to all parts of the brain…noted to be more active in “inhibited” children.

(My note; Aron gives the inhibition system a new name; the pause-to-check system, and notes that though this system seems stereotypically undesirable, it is vital for survival and that everyone has this. HSPs merely have a more sensitive inhibition system.)

Some [HSPS] might have only an average-strength pause-to-check system but an activation system that is even weaker. This kind of HSP might be very calm, quiet, and content with a simple life.

Another kind of HSP could potentially have an even stronger pause-to-check system but an activation system that is also very strong – just not quite as strong. This kind of HSP would be both curious and very cautious, bold yet anxious, easily bored yet easily overaroused. The optimal level of arousal is a narrow range. (My note; Arousal here meaning stimulation to the nervous system by sounds, sights, social interaction, work, stressors, etc.) One could say there is a constant power struggle between the advisor (pause-to-check) and the impulsive, expansive warrior within the person.”

Aron goes on to ask a series of questions; “What type are you? Is it easy for you to be content with a quiet life? Or are the two branches that govern you in constant conflict? That is, do you always want to be trying new things even if you know that afterward you will be exhausted?”*

I’m this way. I love novelty. I desire to get out there and see new things; experience life. That’s why I love to travel. But there’s always been this tension within me, and I realized after reading Aron’s book that it was because I had both a strong activator and a strong inhibitor. I was always bold yet anxious.

I’ve moved abroad twice in my life (talk about bold), once with a friend and once alone. But it was challenging when literally everything around me was stimulating to my nervous system. I couldn’t rest my eyes or ears anywhere around me. There was nothing familiar or safe.

As an HSP, how did I handle that? I’m going to share with you some tips if you’re an HSP looking to travel long-term or move abroad. It may not work for you, as each HSP is unique, but hopefully, these ideas will put you on a path to adjusting well wherever you go.

Research the Country

I did a huge amount of research about Taiwan and Korea prior to moving. I read books about the culture, language, stories, blogs from other teachers who lived and worked there and watched documentaries and Youtube videos. (Eatyourkimchi is the best for Korea and, more recently, Japan.) I even looked up the area I’d be moving to in Google Earth and virtually walked around the neighborhoods. It was incredible! But more than the fun factor, seeing it – the differences in building types, car designs, road layouts – helped me acclimate before I ever moved. Sure, it’s wonderful and exciting to see how different cultures live, but as an HSP, you have to adjust slowly or the shock could be devastating.

Keep a Low Profile at Work

My first semester at school I hardly spoke up. I wasn’t a total newbie at teaching, but I was new at my work, new to the culture, new to the team, new to everything. My ideas wouldn’t have fit at the time.

I listened at meetings. I listened to the other teachers, to their problems and solutions, their ideas and complaints, and absorbed it all quietly. Only after my first few months did I start offering my own suggestions, and by then I’d built enough of a reputation as being reliable and efficient that people listened to me. This advice is good for anyone entering a new workplace, but it was essential to me as an HSP. I couldn’t have handled taking on the extra responsibilities I have now. I lead committees, head events, organize camps, and do a whole host of other jobs besides teaching. My first semester, as a new teacher and new expat, I needed to survive. And that meant doing only what I could handle at work. I don’t like to advocate the bare minimum, but it’s hard enough adjusting to a move overseas and a new job even for extroverts. Hang back at first while you get your bearings, and then start to be more adventurous.

Practice Intense Self-Care

I qualify self-care here because when I think of self-care, I tend to think of bubble baths and pedicures and those small, luxurious, unnecessary to survival but fun things that adults do. For HSPs, those things are nice, but often what we need is something more. We need quiet, dark places to rest. We need a home that feels welcoming and safe to return to every day. Some of us need our books or art or whatever it is we love around us.

The first weeks in a new country are the hardest. You’re adjusting to it all, and everything that should be easy is new and scary. Grocery shopping, figuring out bills and trash, getting a phone and internet; it’s all different, and if there’s a language barrier, even harder to access.

If you know what to expect, even if what you can expect is tough, it helps. Try to build familiarity with your area as soon as you can, which will mean pushing yourself out of your comfort zones for a while. You need to pound the streets, getting used to the sights and smells and sounds of the place. My grocery store down the road feels safe now because it’s familiar. Same with the local cafe and convenience store. There might be better ones just as close, but since those are where I went during my first months, they’ve stayed in my zone. Small things are also a huge help when you’re adjusting. Find a drink from home, or a drink or snack you love that you can return to again and again to get that feeling of familiarity.

Find Your Tribe

After you settle in and have found some safe places, find a tribe. It might take longer to do this, but that’s natural.

For me, this was D&D. I had never actually played in the US, but the people I met in Korea were like me; nerdy, introverted, witty. For you, it might be joining a writing club, or a jogging or photography club. One guy I know goes to soccer games every weekend and volunteer coaches. Another friend volunteers at homes for orphans and with North Korean refugees. Find a church, a club, a gym, something you can go to to find like-minded people. Even for introverts, it’s nice to have somewhere and someone to help you feel integrated into the new world.

Make a House (or Apartment) a Home

If you don’t intend to live overseas forever, it can be hard to make your latest abode feel like yours. Especially in Asian countries, the apartments provided by the schools tend to be small. Really small if you’re single. When I first moved into my new place, I felt like I had reverted to a dorm. It was much smaller than my old apartment. We’re talking one room, kitchenette type. I resisted putting anything on the walls for ages. I just couldn’t make myself do it. I knew I wouldn’t stay in that place, even if I did stay in Korea. But after a year, I decided to try and decorate.

It really does make a difference. Adding in my own touches makes my small apartment feel more welcoming, and more like me. I look around and see things I like. I see my imprint, which makes it more comforting.

There are tons of ways you can spruce up a tiny living space, even on a budget. Pinterest, of course, has millions of ideas. My solutions? Paper flowers, printed quotes, floral themed kitchen supplies, cute mugs, and a really pretty wall calendar. Simple, small touches.

Connect With Other HSPs

It was important for me not to feel too weird and out there as an HSP. I’m sure some of my friends are, but I had no one who identified as one besides me until I went online.

This is more general advice for HSPs than for expats specifically, but it’s doubly important when you need comfort overseas. Finding other HSPs helps in many ways. If you’re new to the idea, knowing how many others like you are out there helps the disingenuous feelings that sometimes come when you discover something new about yourself.

It’s also nice to reach out and say, “Help!” when you’re not sure what’s going on and connect to someone who’s gone through something similar.

Fandoms are also a nice way to stay involved with people who share your interests. They might not all be HSPs, but being able to geek out together is precious. 🙂

Are you an HSP living overseas? Was it easy or difficult to get adjusted? I look forward to hearing from you!

*P.S. If you think you are an HSP, or you might know one, I encourage you to read Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person. Reading this passage without the background and further information might give it a false connotation.

Excerpts from my journal; Spring 2017


Today is the kind of day that makes me thrilled. It’s the kind of feeling that Korea translates as heart-fluttering. Sure, the sky is overcast and a thick grey that puts me in mind of fog porridge, and the temperature dipped down twelve degrees, but apart from all that, today is a wonderful day.

We’ve been very busy lately, to put it mildly, and I haven’t had space in my head to breathe. Everything was pressing down, my pace was quickened, just enough to keep everything taught. Now I can relax, take a step back, and let it out for a bit.

I’m eating better, drawing again, writing more, going out with friends, and feel more inspired. My life is going well, and I realize how the bad things that happen are so transient and don’t last. Stuff doesn’t last. Yeah, I’m happy now.

That could also be because I saw cherry blossoms about to burst today. Hmm, maybe.


Plant our own mound. Start a little molehill and turn it into a mountain. Mmkay.

Of course all my characters are me. I’m still trying to figure myself out. So I keep inserting my mini-me into different situations and seeing what I’ll do. Maybe one day I’ll make sense of me.


Listen, little soft girl. I am not “was just like you as a kid.” I am just like you. I am soft and unsure and wide eyed scared of everything. Only I seem larger than life and bright and confident, leading you here. But it is armor I have crafted, and not even that well. At night it shatters so I have to remake it before morning. Sometimes the light shows through. My light. But that light means the darkness can get in. Anyway what you think of as admirable is only my shoddy imitation of other bright people I have seen. I am like you. I am not like me.

I feel like way too many people idolize kids. I mean, I’ve taught kids. Kids aren’t magical and sweet and wide eyed, breathless with innocence. Kids pick their noses and make fart jokes and think calling the rash on a kid’s hand a brain is clever. Kids are just little drunk people with terrible jokes. 


Excerpts from my journal; Early 2017


What matters? The story. It’s always in the back of my mind, or should be, the ever running, ever-evolving storyline. I hold my imagination most precious, most dear to me. It is my greatest asset and more dear to me than anything. My imagination keeps me warm, keeps me entertained, keeps me happy, keeps me thinking and feeling and buzzed on life. The only thing that matters is the story.


This past Saturday I ran my brother through the D&D Death House, the intro to “Curse of Strahd.” I was amazing, even starting out the encounter wearing a raven mask and with an amazing greeting. It was wonderful. And I had great music and didn’t flub or forget much. It made my throat ache and my head pound, but it was so worth it.

So no matter what happens, I am amazing.


I was thinking today about the fact that I used to read a lot of military history books. I was quite the ridiculous nerd in high school, and at one point I was absolutely enamored with tales of wars, prisoners, daring escapes, battles, politics, and intrigue. I remember reading “Ghost Soldiers” and really loving it. Which is odd, as that book entails graphic descriptions of some of the worst things a human can do to another. It didn’t really bother me. I think I was genuinely less sensitive to it than I am now, and I don’t really understand that.

I think if I read that now, I would cry. I would feel so much more deeply the horror and cruelty and wonder so much more at the things that made those soldiers do those things, that it would affect me far more. Why, when I am more mature, wiser, and have more worldly knowledge, would I be LESS capable of hearing about the horrors of life? I don’t get it. It’s interesting to me how much more things affect me. As an HSP, of course things will, but why does it get more pronounced as I get older? Is that normal? 

Excerpts from my journal; 2016


Zoom in and smoke is seeping between the windows and the wall. Someone is burning rubbish behind their house and it tickles our noses and turns my teaching voice raspy. It’s spring, a fit time to burn, since the smoke couldn’t possibly be worse than the drifts of pollution, yellow dust, from China. A sign of the change in me; I now have an app to tell me pollution levels, and check it obsessively. Will breathing kill me today?


I have decided to be like Ernest Hemingway, and write clear and hard about what hurts. Right now, my lower back hurts from doing the dishes. I had to do the dishes because in Korea dishwashers are only for the rich, and people wear rubber gloves because they have to do the dishes and don’t want to mess up their hands. So two more things that have changed since I came to Korea. I have started wearing rubber gloves when I wash dishes, and I care about what my hands look like.

Today I also had to scrub up some mold that had grown on the bottom of my utensil jar and had crept to the cutting board behind it. I wonder if the mold on the cutting board made me sick. I’m sick now, by the way. First time in a long time, and it’s the season. It’s also PTA week this week. I shall tell parents their children are progressing nicely through a clogged nose. That will add to my emotional appeal, if not my rational one.

I talked to two people today. I talked to the cashier at the bakery where I bought my dinner. I didn’t want to make tuna spaghetti, and that’s all I had, so I had to go out. The other person was my brother. I was supposed to play video games with him today but I got sick and had no energy. So I laid on my bed while he made pan-fried fish in America at 1am. We talked about getting old. We talked about life being boring. We talked about what we wanted for the future.

My lower back still hurts. Is that clear?

October 31

Happy Halloween! I work at a Christian school and wore ears for Halloween, and when the students asked me about it and I told them, one child told me that God hates Halloween. Okay, thank you, please let me wear my ears. Always a hard decision to make on how to address that.

Anyway, had my first D&D last night! It was amazing!!