How to Avoid Toxic Friendships as an HSP — And Make New Friends Instead

A highly sensitive woman laughs with her friends

HSPs can be prone to attracting narcissists and finding themselves in unhealthy friendships — but here’s how to change that.

Do friendships look different for highly sensitive people (HSPs)? My own experience says they do, as I’ve had my share of toxic friendships. These “friends” were women with strong personalities who forged their way through life, like the proverbial bulls in China shops.

Even though commonalities usually brought us together in the first place — going to college together, working together — the friendships would then sour and become unhealthy. And, like most HSPs, I am very uncomfortable with conflict. 

Some recent events have got me thinking about what friendships look like, and how, decades later, I navigate friendships in order to avoid toxic ones. After all, HSPs are sometimes prone to attracting narcissists more so than non-HSPs.

If you find that you’re eliminating more unhealthy friendships lately, here are some strategies that can help you make new friends. 

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4 Ways to Make Friends as a Highly Sensitive Person

1. Understand what an unhealthy friendship looks like.

 In her book, The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron, there’s a chapter on social relationships that helped me better understand why I was drawn to negative relationships. It also talked about how to develop better ones and overcome what may be holding people (like us sensitive types) back. 

According to Dr. Aron, about 70 percent of HSPs are also introverts and may have been told that we’re “quiet” or “shy” — or grew up seeing ourselves that way. I know I did. I mean, how often do you have to be told something by those around you until you embrace it as an identity? 

But it turns out that I wasn’t shy as much as I lacked social skills. And that lack of social skills led me to developing one friend at a time, someone whom I could glom onto and ride their social coattails. 

In addition, some toxic people may be drawn to us because of our empathy and people-pleasing tendencies. I once even had a man I was dating, who had an unsavory past, tell me he was hoping I could “fix” him. (I was 19 at the time, so you can guess how that turned out. Not well.)

2. Learn new social skills and join groups (which will also inadvertently introduce you to new people).

When I started my own business in my 30s, I knew learning some new social skills would be a necessity. After all, I’d have to go out and win business for myself. So I joined a local chapter of a national networking group, Business Networking International (BNI), that offered communication and networking skill-building. I also took every training opportunity I could.  

Another good organization for learning these skills is Toastmasters, where you develop public-speaking skills. Other organizations might be civic organizations, like Rotary International, Kiwanis, or Lions Club. Once you start looking for such groups, you’ll find many — trust me. Then it’s just a matter of choosing which are the best fit for you.

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3. Seek a variety of friends with different interests.  

I believe I have a “rainforest mind,” a term coined by therapist and author Paula Prober in her book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth. Many HSPs likely do, as we have varied interests and talents. (Prober’s even written pieces about this for Highly Sensitive Refuge, too.) As someone with a “rainforest mind,” I need my mind to be engaged, am avidly curious, and am a voracious learner and seeker. I also crave novelty in all things, from the gourmet meals I make to the books I read to the places I travel.  

Having this “rainforest” mindset has led me to develop friendships with several people rather than relying on only one friend to meet all my social needs. While I still have a few people I consider my closest friends, I have different friends for different purposes. Some, I go to plays and concerts with; some, I discuss politics and weighty world issues with; and, with others, they’re seekers interested in understanding human nature and exploring deeper meanings.  

As Prober writes in her book, don’t think that all your friends must be around the same age as you either. Several of my friends are decades older than I am, and I appreciate the wisdom they bring to the friendship table.

4.  Get involved in causes that speak to you.  

I’m passionate about depolarizing our politics, chiefly because my HSP senses tell me that we can’t hope to solve any of our national (or even local) problems if we don’t figure out how to speak to one another. So I’m involved with a few organizations doing just that.  

Whatever cause you’re passionate about, in addition to helping make your corner of the world better, you’ll make new social connections around an issue you all care about. Plus, it gives you a purpose, as well as a shared purpose. 

Once You’ve Made New Friends, Keep a Couple Things in Mind

Once we’ve been burned by friendships, we may be hesitant when it comes to befriending new people. So there are a couple of key things to keep in mind. 

  • Set boundaries and enforce them. Being conscientious of how friendships have become toxic in my past — and the ways in which I allowed myself to be sucked into those relationships — helps. I don’t pretend it isn’t still a present threat, so I try to be present and aware, and  look for signs. I’ll sometimes check in with myself by asking if I’m giving in and agreeing to things I wouldn’t otherwise — just to avoid conflict. I’ll also ask: How much time am I devoting to any one person, particularly if I know they have the stronger personality? Is it excessive? Am I still maintaining my other friendships and interests? Am I giving myself permission to hold my own opinions?
  • Some conflict is unavoidable, so don’t avoid it.  As part of a book club, I recently read the book Now What? How to Move Forward When We’re Divided by Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers. While not specifically written for HSPs, these two authors (and unlikely friends) write about showing up as your authentic self and navigating both political (and other) conflicts in various aspects of our lives. (They also have a podcast Pantsuit Politics, that I recommend.) So, as much as you may opt to avoid conflict as an HSP, it’s good to have some conflict now and then — as long as it’s managed well and not constant. 

In any case, just know that there are healthy friendships out there, and your future friends are out there waiting to meet you. So go get ‘em!

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