Some people are physically, emotionally, or sexually unsafe. Here’s how to get rid of them — without escalating things.
As a highly sensitive person (HSP), does this scenario sound familiar to you? There is someone in your life who is difficult, unhealthy, or unsafe. Despite all the efforts you’ve made to change that relationship, it continues to leave you energetically and emotionally drained. You don’t want to hurt the other person, but you’re also tired of being hurt by their demands and criticism. How can you get this person out of your life, especially when they don’t seem to take a subtle hint that you’d like some distance?
As a psychologist specializing in working with highly sensitive clients, I hear many versions of this story. It might be a boss, romantic partner, friend, neighbor, or relative.
Oftentimes, the relationship started out well enough, but somewhere along the way, it goes sour. The HSP gives more and more, without any reciprocity. They often feel frustrated with themselves for either not being able to make the relationship healthier or to extricate themselves from it once and for all.
Highly sensitive people are incredibly intuitive and empathetic. So why are so many HSPs struggling with relationships gone awry? Let’s start by looking at the common characteristics of “unsafe” people.
What Makes Certain People Unsafe, Especially for HSPs?
There are certain qualities that make someone unsafe to others. Someone who threatens your physical, sexual, or financial integrity is not capable of having a healthy relationship with you. These signs of an unhealthy relationship are recognizable, but that does not make it easier for someone to end an abusive relationship.
Other unsafe behaviors may be harder to recognize, especially if they only stand out when a pattern emerges over time. This includes things like verbal or emotional abuse, disrespect, a lack of equality and fairness in the relationship, unhealthy communication styles (especially if the other person feels invalidated or unable to have a voice), strategies that isolate you from other people or take you away from your individual interests, or feeling like you need to walk on eggshells to take care of the other person and avoid conflict.
Individuals whose behaviors fall into the category of high conflict people — a tendency to place blame on others, use all-or-nothing logic, struggle to appropriately manage their emotions, and react in dramatic or extreme ways to ordinary situations — tend to be especially problematic for highly sensitive people. These high conflict behaviors can overwhelm HSPs with their emotional intensity, and make it hard to get the time and space needed to self-soothe.
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What Does It Mean to be ‘Safe’?
While there are clear-cut patterns of abuse that can never be framed as healthy, many times, safety falls into shades of gray. I help my clients recognize that “unsafe” is in the eye of the beholder.
If you have a hard time navigating conflict with someone because of your history, your identity, or especially because of your high sensitivity, that person is unhealthy and unsafe for you. The threshold for safety can vary from person to person or be different in certain kinds of relationships, such as sibling relationships versus intimate partner relationships.
One example of how safety can be subjective is around teasing in relationships. Some people feel comfortable — or even see it as a sign of closeness and playfulness (“we tease because we love one another”). To others, it can be very painful to be in any relationship where there is teasing, making jokes about the other person, or when attention is drawn to someone’s perceived flaws or mistakes. Many HSPs feel like they’ve been cut to the bone when this happens, especially by someone they trust and to whom they’ve made themselves vulnerable.
Interpersonal safety also depends on the roles and closeness of various relationships. For example, I might be open to being teased by my best friend, but not by a new acquaintance or my boss. A person also may find teasing problematic if it happens in a relationship where there is an undercurrent of criticism, jealousy, vindictiveness, or a power differential where only one person is “allowed” to tease.
Are Unsafe People Narcissists?
I am not a fan of labeling people I do not know, especially with labels that are as loaded as “narcissist.” Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is characterized by things such as someone having an extremely high sense of self, they tend to look down on, and are critical, of others, and they lack empathy for others and don’t recognize their needs and feelings. Aside from the fact that, as a psychologist, I’m ethically bound to avoid diagnosing someone whom I have not personally assessed, I find that labeling directs our attention away from ourselves and what lies within our control.
We are responsible for our own responses to other people’s behaviors. It really is none of our business if their behavior stems from them being a narcissist. When we recognize behavior that is unsafe to us, we have a duty to take care of ourselves, not focus on the person’s inner dynamics.
With our tendency to have strong empathy and deeply think about the subtleties of our experiences, HSPs can get caught in a trap of trying to understand whether someone is a narcissist, has an attachment wound, is the product of emotionally immature parents, or whatever else might explain bad relational behavior.
How Do You Learn to Recognize the Unsafe People in Your Life?
There is a lot to be gained from therapy, journaling, spirituality, mindfulness, or any practice that helps us step out of our automatic patterns and reflect on our experience. They enable us to gain access to parts of our high sensitivity that can help us recognize whether a relationship feels safe or high conflict. We can use our intuition, as well as our ability to recognize complexity, to turn an empathetic gaze toward ourselves.
How does a safe, healthy relationship feel? Probably warm, comforting, and something we are drawn to overall, even if there are moments of disagreement that are difficult.
Conversely, in unsafe relationships, we will likely feel a sense of tension, avoidance, dread, or exhaustion. With the benefit of some distance, and perhaps support from others, we will recognize problems with trust, loyalty, openness, honesty, respect, and equity. We may notice that there is not a balanced sense of “we” — either there is excessive distance or a closeness where two people’s lives dissolve into one. And we probably don’t feel supported by the other person or like our lives interest them.
7 Ways to Get an Unsafe Person Out of Your Life
When you have admitted to yourself that a relationship is unsafe for you, it’s time to stop trying to understand that person’s inner workings and empathize with them. You need to shift your focus to taking care of, and protecting, yourself. Here are some ways how.
1. Prioritize your physical and emotional safety.
If necessary, get in touch with someone who specializes in abusive relationships to help you stay safe and protect your legal rights while you end the relationship. For instance, contacting the National Domestic Violence Hotline is a good start.
2. Cut back gradually on this relationship while you build your resources.
Engage with the person less often and in less intimate ways. This will give you space to build support from other people and prepare for the change by building skills for being more assertive, setting boundaries, and tolerating the discomfort of changing.
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3. Ask yourself what a non-HSP would do in your situation.
Highly sensitive people have many admirable qualities, like seeing the best in someone else, giving people lots of chances, and putting others first. But when we recognize that a relationship needs to end, we can’t give that much to the other person. Instead, give yourself those HSP gifts. You deserve to experience care and compassion, especially at a time when you’re making uncomfortable changes.
4. Have a contingency plan for when the going gets tough.
This is a helpful outlet for that deep thinking. What are you going to do when they want you to take them back? How are you going to handle your own feelings of guilt, loneliness, sadness, or boredom? Since every relationship has at least some perks at the beginning, how will you get your needs met now that this person isn’t a part of your life? A contingency plan empowers you to honor your commitment to yourself. If you don’t know how to create one yourself, a therapist can help.
5. Make a clean break and stick to your plan to be done with the relationship.
If you’re telling someone a relationship is over, you must be explicit. Communicate that you will have no further contact — and then stick to your word. If you’re choosing to end a relationship without explicitly telling the person, you still need to make a clean break in your own mind and honor that commitment to yourself.
6. Fill the void with things you can control, like supportive friends and new hobbies.
Rekindle familiar activities or connections that may have fallen by the wayside. Engage with people who are supportive and healthy. Work on your self-esteem by setting goals for a hobby, at work, or in your personal growth. The worst thing you can do as an HSP is nothing — your big heart and your overthinking mind will convince you that it wouldn’t be all that bad to reengage in the relationship you’ve just worked so hard to end. But don’t give in to temptation!
7. Grieve the relationship and practice self-compassion.
Even though you are the one ending the relationship, you will still need to grieve this loss and practice as much self-compassion as possible. Give yourself permission to feel a whole range of emotions, from happy and hopeful to hurt, bitter, sad, angry — or however you may be feeling. Don’t rush yourself to focus on the positive or forgive the other person. Your hard feelings are there to remind you of how important it is to stick with the decision to end this relationship. Be gentle with yourself and your process through self-compassion.
You Deserve to Feel Safe and Supported in Your Relationships
As hard as it can be for highly sensitive people to say goodbye to a relationship that isn’t working, you deserve to be free of unsafe people. Only then do we have room to give and receive love in ways that nurture us as highly sensitive people.
Remind yourself that relationships come and go. They may be very important to us for a season of our lives, but they may not be a part of our lives forever. And that’s okay.
We change. So do other people. Our relationships should evolve to reflect those changes. If someone can’t grow with us, they can’t go with us to the next phase of our lives. Even though your natural instinct as an HSP is to be empathetic and put others first, when it comes to unsafe people, you must put yourself first.
Please visit my website to learn how my Singularly Sensitive approach helps HPSs improve the quality of their relationships without feeling overwhelmed or shamed.
You might like:
- How to Manage Conflict When You’re a Peace-Loving HSP
- HSPs, Do You Have a High Conflict Person in Your Life?
- These Are the Roles HSPs End Up Playing in Their Families — And How to Change Them
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