Like many other highly sensitive people (HSPs), I often felt misunderstood — especially in my teenage years and early twenties. Many classmates, friends, romantic partners, and even family didn’t understand why I was so “sensitive” or “dramatic” in response to EVERYTHING: that funny-but-actually-mean joke they said, that really corny but romantic movie scene, or the smell of dirty sweat coming off someone’s clothes. No one else seemed affected by these things — except me.
People consistently told me things like:
Don’t take it so seriously.
Wow, you’re really sensitive.
You’re not tough enough.
What’s wrong with you?
Being bombarded with dismissive comments drove me to a deep sense of isolation. I really did start to believe there was something wrong with me, that I was an inconvenience, that I was inadequate in some ways and “too much” in others. That feeling was reinforced each time I entered a new life period, from high school to university to dating.
You’d think this would turn me off from the people who made me feel this way, but paradoxically, in some ways it made me need them more — it made me codependent. I needed their approval.
Being treated as an inconvenience made me feel not just depressed but also unworthy in a crucial, human way. It made me believe that I didn’t deserve love. So I clung to the loved ones I had, no matter how toxic they were.
Codependency Means Dumpster Diving For Love
If you’ve never seen codependent behavior in action, it’s not pretty. My low self-esteem led to a pattern of poor boundaries in my relationships (and friendships, too). I couldn’t learn to love myself, so I looked for someone else to prove to me I was worthy of love. Obviously, it set a very low bar where anyone who gave me affirmation became a crucial part of my life, even if they treated me terribly. I would seek out and accept love in whatever form it was offered.
Let me tell you, it was not the type of healthy love and understanding that a person craves. In my desperate bids for affirmation, I ignored red flags for abusive or neglectful behavior. I let myself stay in a position of no power and let the people I dated get away with selfish, even cruel, behavior — simply because I was terrified of losing their “love.” And I didn’t set any emotional boundaries because I had so much trouble saying no. It left me with no defenses against this behavior.
Even when I finally became aware of the emotional abuse or neglect, I found it hard to leave. Not only because of my own fear of being unloved, but because of the highly sensitive person’s greatest strength: empathy. I was able to understand my partner’s point of view, and I started justifying their bad behaviors.
My internal reel would sound something like this:
- “Of course I was the wrong one in all our conflicts; it was my fault for being too sensitive.”
- “I was being too picky, so of course I seem high-maintenance.”
- “It’s okay if they’re taking their anger out on me, because I should be tough enough to put up with it and be there for them.”
All those old dismissive comments I had internalized were now weapons that I used against myself.
Healthy Boundaries Start With Self-Validation
Not all HSPs will deal with codependency (thankfully), but because HSPs are already so focused on others, it’s crucial for us to set boundaries in our relationships. And there are ways to learn to set those boundaries. But it’s also important to know where healthy boundaries come from: a sense of self-worth.
When I was “dumpster diving,” I didn’t really understand the way my insecurity translated into unconsciously seeking out codependent partners — partners who triggered and therefore validated those same insecurities. For a long time, I felt victimized by my partners. (And family. And peers.) But truly, the source was the negative internal dialogue I kept alive inside me.
Only now that I’ve recovered a sense of self-confidence can I see that I was looking for love from people who would further enforce my own negative self-image. I definitely didn’t deserve the emotional abuse and neglect I suffered in my relationships, but my lack of self-worth contributed to the codependent nature of them.
Building that confidence is a long, slow process, and it’s easy to backslide. Which means that, as you learn to love yourself, you need to know how to recognize the people who will be unhealthy for you — the very people you will unknowingly be drawn to.
3 Ways to Spot (and Avoid) a Toxic Partner
Codependent relationships distort your view of what healthy behavior from a partner looks like. Here are three of the biggest signs that a partner is toxic for you as a highly sensitive person:
1. They shame you for your sensitivity.
If someone responds to your emotional reactions with words like, “You’re too sensitive,” or “You should be tougher,” take a step back. It’s a red flag.
I received a lot of criticism from men I’ve dated about my sensitivity. It always made me feel judged, and that’s never a good feeling for someone you’re intimate with. If the person you’re dating is put off by your ability to feel emotions deeply, it’s more a sign of their own inability to empathize — or, at best, a sign that you’re not compatible. Be especially careful of people who use your sensitivity to justify their own bad behavior or selfishness!
What a good partner does: A good partner doesn’t have to necessarily understand your sensitivity out of the gate. But they should be open to understanding it, and when you react strongly, they’ll respect it.
2. They ignore your limits about stimulation.
Highly sensitive people process stimuli (like lights, sounds, smells, and crowded spaces) much more deeply than other people do. This can be a superpower, but it also drains our mental energy rapidly in certain environments. Every HSP has their own unique limits on how much they can handle and what kind of stimuli overwhelm them the most.
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If a person dismisses those personal boundaries (“C’mon, it’s not that loud! Let’s stay…”) it shows that they fundamentally don’t understand how your high sensitivity works — or, worse, that your needs just aren’t that important to them. Your needs may seem a little different or even extreme, but they are still valid.
What a good partner does: A good partner for an HSP may go through a learning curve (“Babe, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize the restaurant would be draining for you. We’ll find a quieter place next time…”) but, in general, they care about not seeing you get overstimulated. They should take you seriously about your own personal limits — or, if they’re truly a keeper, even act as a “wingman” who looks out for your needs and speaks up for you before you need to say anything at all.
3. They use your compassion as a band-aid for their personal wounds.
No one should take advantage of your empathy and compassion. It’s your most precious trait, and part of what makes HSPs invaluable in the world. If a person seems to take, and take, and take of your emotional labor, they’re not healthy to be around. The same is true of a person who does something inappropriate and then looks to you to soothe their emotional wounds for the aftermath.
(It goes both ways: it’s not the HSP’s job to “fix” the people they’re dating. Nor should the HSP demand their partners “fix” any low self-esteem issues they may be having.)
What a good partner does: A good partner takes turns being the one who is caring, soothing, and supportive. They give as well as receive, emotionally speaking. Or, if they are the emotionally unexpressive type, they are comfortable and self-sufficient in who they are, and they provide the “strong silent” type of shoulder to lean on — with a gentle touch, not a constant critique.
HSPs, You Are Your Own First Love
It took me an uncomfortably honest analysis of myself to understand that I shouldn’t (and don’t have to) expect someone else to validate my traits as an HSP. There’s nothing wrong with me if I cry at every rom-com or if I can’t stand to be in hospitals or if I get overwhelmed at parties.
I don’t have to accept love from a person who can’t accept my sensitivity. I don’t have to dumpster dive for love just to feel some form of validation. And neither do you.
HSPs, it’s okay to love yourself. You are your own first love, and only you can give yourself the kind of validation you need.