Why Ending a Friendship Overwhelms Highly Sensitive People

A woman ending a friendship with a bad friend

Emily and I had shared so much. We could tell each other anything. We called each other bawling during our very worst setbacks and moments of hopelessness. We spoke words of truth, comfort, and perspective, telling each other that things would be okay. We laughed harder than we laughed with anyone else. We even took vacations together. In fact, we were so comfortable around each other that being together was like being with family. 

Emily was a true friend — my best friend of two decades — who loved me from the heart, and our friendship had survived countless flaws, mistakes, and even difficult-but-honest conversations. 

Then Emily became someone I no longer wanted to be friends with. It was a highly sensitive person’s nightmare. 

The Hard Feelings of a Changing Friendship

Emily’s friendship was one I never imagined walking away from, and I never expected her personality to begin to change. It all started when she fell into a friend group with a nihilistic worldview. Her perspective — and most importantly her attitude — changed dramatically under the influence of her new friends. 

Over a year’s time, she became fault-finding and reactive. She began to complain about everyone who didn’t share her recently developed perspective of life. She stopped being able to see me in a positive light, and she rejected the uplifting words I offered her. 

I really hoped, and even assumed, that she was just going through a phase. I decided I would do my best to just keep being there for her. After all, what were best friends for? But one year after her personality changes surfaced, I realized that it wasn’t a phase — it was something she was embracing intentionally. 

I had to face the very unpleasant reality that Emily was no longer treating me well and that our conversations were taking a toll on my mental health. I was absorbing her negative emotions, and it felt exhausting. This sudden realization was unexpected, even shocking, to me. I just hadn’t seen it coming. I hadn’t seen my own feelings coming.

Knowing When It’s Time to Walk Away

Two years before things started to change with Emily, I discovered that I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP). I am so glad I did because it helped me acknowledge and honor my sensitivity in this particular personal crisis. For me, it meant needing to avoid unnecessary pain and drama with Emily, which could have easily overwhelmed me and left me with a tormenting regret for years to come. 

But it also meant I shouldn’t be avoidant. Rather, I would need to do or say only what was necessary — not more — to cut ties with Emily. If I had listened to voices other than my own, I would have felt the pressure to sit down with Emily and formally end the friendship — in person, of course. After all, Emily and I had already weathered difficult, face-to-face conversations during our long-held friendship. So wasn’t it only right that I do that now?

No. I couldn’t — just couldn’t — “break up” with Emily. After all that we had been through together over a span of 20 years, there was something incredibly overwhelming to me about that prospect. The idea was so unthinkable to me that it was almost laughable. And given her personality changes, her reaction to such a conversation would be anything but understanding.

Meanwhile, Emily and I had plans to get together for a weekend. As I wrestled with what to do, the clock was ticking. Nothing in me wanted to spend any more time with her. But how in the world was I going to get out of our upcoming plans without either ghosting or “breaking up” with her? 

I had to figure out what was best for me. I had to get creative — fast.

One of the Most Difficult Things I’ve Ever Done

I decided to throw out the advice others had given me about having friendship-ending conversations in person. I also cast aside any pressure to tell Emily officially that the friendship was over. I questioned whether I really needed to be that confrontational — the key word there is “questioned.” As an HSP, I have often found it necessary to question the assumptions some people make about the right thing to do and say in a given situation. 

Although still very stressful, writing to Emily was something that I could handle. So I typed her an email. I needed to share with her what I was experiencing inwardly. I didn’t want to accuse her, but rather explain to her about the hardship I was having in our friendship. I also decided I needed to be specific about why: I needed to let her know that her personality changes were the reason. Finally, I needed to get out of our weekend plans. I couldn’t spend any more time with her at that point.

I typed it all out and pushed “Send.”

I know my email must have been hard for her to read, and her response was quite angry. She and I haven’t seen each other since she wrote me back. It was difficult to upset her, but I still feel that my message was as caring and considerate as possible under the troubling circumstances. 

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The ‘Right’ Way to End a Friendship

If I hadn’t known I am an HSP, I might have succumbed to someone else’s opinion about how to end a friendship. Other people’s advice and opinions can pressure us into scenarios that result in more pain and stress than is actually necessary, overwhelming us and leading to regret. Those of us who are highly sensitive have a greater need to protect ourselves from such things. We know so well that we are more intensely impacted by psychological pain and often require more time to recover than less sensitive people do.

But since I do know and honor my sensitive nature, I came up with a way to walk away from Emily that kept me from being utterly overwhelmed for a long time to come. My story inspired me to write an entire book geared toward highly sensitive people about how to walk away from a friendship. One of the most important steps I write about is taking time to discern the specific issues in the friendship that impact you negatively. Often, once things have gotten bad, it’s hard to see the specific change or changes that caused it. But those are the things that will help you see through the confusion and anger.

Once you’ve done that, ending the friendship is more manageable. Choose a mode of communication that feels the least overwhelming to you, and share just three things with your friend:

  • What you’re experiencing as an HSP in your friendship.
  • The reasons behind your experience.
  • Your present-time decision that establishes the distance you need from your friend. Avoid talking about the future; you don’t actually know what may or may not change, but you do know what you need to do now for your own wellbeing. 

Ending friendships overwhelms highly sensitive people, especially when voices all around offer advice that doesn’t match our experience of the world. Although HSPs are not all alike, I think we can agree with the strong need to listen to ourselves rather than to those who don’t understand the way we can become overwhelmed. 

This sometimes means we need to get creative. We don’t need to act or speak in a cookie-cutter manner. Rather, we can come up with words and actions that, while considerate of others, also honor our sensitivity. I look back on my email to Emily and know for sure that’s just what I did. And I am at peace.

Cara Menae Miller is the author of How to End a Friendship Nicely: An Approach for Highly Sensitive People. Click here to get your copy. You may also want to get a copy of her quote journal for HSPs.

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