Not everyone is safe to have in your life, and some are like poison. Here are the five worst types of unsafe people for HSPs.
Highly sensitive people (HSPs) often feel like we attract toxic or unsafe people. While that’s unlikely, we do make especially tempting targets for those with dangerous or predatory personality traits, because we have a strong sense of empathy, avoid conflict, and can fall into people-pleasing behaviors.
These same tendencies mean that some types of unsafe people are especially dangerous to HSPs. In this article, let’s explore the five most dangerous types of people an HSP can face, and what to do if you have them in your life.
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The 5 Worst Types of Toxic People for HSPs
1. The ‘Dark Triad’ Personalities
The first group of unsafe people are those who fit what psychologists call the “dark triad” of personalties: psychopaths, Machiavellians, and narcissists. These three traits represent negative and even malevolent behavior that is dangerous for anyone to be around, but can impact HSPs in uniquely harmful ways.
Psychopathy is perhaps the most frightening of all the toxic traits, because it involves lacking a moral conscience. Psychopaths lack empathy, may not feel other emotions, and have no inner moral sense telling them right from wrong. Instead, they may fake emotions and charm people in order to use them for their own ends. Although there are many misconceptions about psychopaths, they really are are much more likely to break the law — and they can be dangerous to those around them.
Some common features of psychopathy include:
- Impulsive behavior
- Easily bored and seeks stimulation to relieve boredom
- Lack of empathy, remorse, or guilt
- “Shallow affect,” i.e. does not feel emotions deeply
- Pathological lying
- Manipulates and cons people
- May live like a parasite, getting by off of other people
- Frequently has a history of criminal behavior and/or juvenile delinquency
- Nonetheless, has a superficial charm or charisma
The good news is that psychopaths are rare (less than one percent of all people are believed to be psychopaths). The bad news is that HSPs may be especially vulnerable to psychopaths. Why? Because our sincere desire to help can make us tempting targets — it may be easier to manipulate us, and may even be more amusing to the psychopath to do so, since we have such strong emotional reactions and so much sincere empathy. (Remember, too, that highly sensitive people sometimes suffer from people-pleasing behavior — so we might stick around and give the psychopath extra chances long after someone else would have left.)
So what should you do if you think someone in your life may be a psychopath? This is one of the rare cases where you should bypass all second chances and remove them from your life quickly and totally. If you’re not sure, trust your emotional radar: if you catch someone faking their emotions, or exposing a lack of human empathy, trust your gut feeling and assume the worst. Just be careful in how you extract yourself, as the person may be physically dangerous, especially if they are angry at you.
Machiavellianism refers to a person’s willingness to manipulate, deceive, and view people as a means to an end. Machiavellianism is not a disorder; it’s a personality trait, one that everybody has to some degree — even you, dear HSP. If you ever tell white lies to smooth something over, think about how to message something to friends and family, or try to manage your image at work, you’ve engaged in low-key, benign Machiavellianism.
Like all personality traits, however, Machiavellianism is a continuum. While most people are in the middle, some have “high” levels of Machiavellian behavior — they are highly self-interested, have a hard time feeling empathy, and will do anything necessary to advance their own power or careers.
Traits of Machiavellians include:
- View their own goals as inherently more important than the concerns of others
- Are willing to lie or manipulate for their own gain
- Value outward signs of status such as money, authority, or fame
- May not feel empathy for others unless they put a conscious effort into it
- View other people as being cynically motivated, as if everyone were Machiavellian
Machiavellians are bad news for HSPs because they are among the few people who can slip past our natural bullshit detector. They are just as good at tricking people as we are at reading people, meaning it’s an “unstoppable force meets immovable object” kind of situation. You might figure them out eventually, but they can do a lot of damage in th meantime.
Machiavellians see HSPs as especially useful pawns because of our high sense of empathy. This is a lever they can pull on in order to get us to do what they want. If you get the sense that someone is manipulating you, lying to guide your behavior, or using you as a tool rather than as a friend — run. Your gut instinct is probably right, and you’re probably already deeper into their web than you would like to be.
Narcissists are the perennial bogeyman of the internet, and as we’ve all heard, they’re much rarer than people think — only about one percent of people are clinical narcissists. (Technically, narcissism is also a personality trait like Machiavellianism, but when we talk about narcissists we usually mean those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder — an extreme form of the trait.)
Pathological narcissism is characterized by:
- An insatiable hunger for praise, admiration, and attention
- An expectation of special treatment
- Believing themselves to be unique and special
- Grandiose thinking that is not backed by results
- Lack of empathy
- Initially coming across as charming or even intensely charismatic
Narcissists also commonly use a pattern of “love bombing”: showering you with extreme displays of love or attention in order to win your trust and bring you under their influence. Inevitably, the extreme love/praise will not last, or will eventually be doled out only when you do what the narcissist wants. Then comes gaslighting, blaming you for their own faults, and relying on you to re-inflate their ego when they get crushed.
Unlike Machiavellians, however, narcissists may not be using you as a pawn in a greater scheme. Instead, they use you for how you make them feel. (Did that sentence give you as much “ick” as it gave me?) They want your support, your reassurance, your praise, your love, your obedience, and most of all your attention — not in order to take over the world, but because it feels good.
(Some of your HSP traits can actually help make you immune to narcissists. Here’s how.)
2. Untreated BPD
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is one of the less well-known personality disorders, but an extremely destructive one. People with BPD feel intensely lonely and insecure, and may even feel empty inside — leading to some extreme behaviors. This translates to a pattern of impulsive actions, chaotic relationships, and uncontrolled emotions (especially anger).
I need to be clear that many people with Borderline are well aware of their issues, and with treatment they can manage it and keep it in check. It’s untreated BPD that is so unhealthy to be around — for anyone, but especially for HSPs.
What makes untreated BPD so dangerous for HSPs is the person’s sincerity and need for love. Unlike psychopaths, people with BPD don’t necessarily lack empathy, and they don’t intentionally want to “use” you. Rather, they feel and wounded, and they want your affirmation, reassurance, and love. This may cry, yell, blame, or beg in order to get that love, and this cuts deeply at the HSP soul — we want to provide them with what they need, whether they be a friend, romantic partner, or relative. And just when you start to stand up for yourself and draw boundaries, the person with BPD may break down weeping, excoriating themselves for their behavior, and asking you to forgive them and please, please not leave them. It’s heartbreaking. How can an HSP say no?
Still, as much as the person with BPD means this when they say it — they really do think they are the problem, and they are urgently afraid of being abandoned for it — the chaos will continue. BPD tends to lead to risky behavior, substance abuse, promiscuous sex, problems at work, unstable relationships, constant crises, and even self-harm and suicide attempts. No amount of HSP empathy can break this cycle, and no amount of HSP love can fill the empty spot inside them.
If you are an HSP and have someone with BPD in your life, you need to take a step back. Until and unless they seek treatment and start to show signs of progress — on their own initiative, not as their latest promise to you — you cannot expect the pattern to change. You do not need to totally remove this person from your life, and you can still feel love and sympathy for them, but you need to minimize contact or be very disciplined about the ways in which you engage them.
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3. High Conflict People
Roughly one in ten people qualify as high conflict people — individuals who have a pattern of creating, escalating, and being unable to resolve conflict. Being a high conflict person is not a formal diagnosis, and a person does not need to have any mental disorder at all in order to qualify. This is one of the great advantages of this term, as it is flexible enough to describe anyone who fits the behavior pattern, without needing a degree in psychology.
High conflict people are can be identified by four signs:
- Blaming others for problems or conflicts that they themselves started. This can include “turning the tables” by projecting their own behavior onto others.
- All or nothing thinking. High conflict people are unable to see more than one acceptable outcome, which means they cannot accept middle ground or compromises.
- Unmanaged emotions that are often over-the-top compared to the situation, such as screaming at a waiter who gets an order wrong.
- Extreme behaviors, such as lying, spreading rumors, spying on someone, threatening people, or getting physically aggressive.
The reason high conflict people affect HSPs so strongly is because HSPs are naturally conflict-averse. Most highly sensitive people get overwhelmed by conflict, especially when people get nasty or raise their voices. And HSPs crave resolution and peace, which can be impossible to get with a high conflict person, leading to emotional situations that seem to go on and on. Thus, a high conflict person can trigger HSPs and leave them on edge, always afraid of the next argument, or emotionally shellshocked.
What should you do if you have a high-conflict individual in your life? You can moderate their behavior to some extent by changing the way you interact — don’t try to give them insight into their behavior (it backfires), don’t bring up the past (you’ll be re-litigating things that happened years ago), and don’t talk about emotions (they will only escalate). These are really workarounds, though. The best thing to do is to create distance from high conflict people and minimize interaction as much as possible.
4. People Who Are Proudly Anti-Sensitive
You know this person. You have (at least) one in your life already, and quite possible a whole gaggle of them. It’s the person who sneers at the idea of being sensitive, the one who thinks you are “too” sensitive and finds ways to snipe at you, the one who goes out of their way to prove they are not sensitive themselves. If you’ve told them you’re an HSP, they mocked the very concept; if you haven’t, they find their own words for it and mock you nonetheless.
Frankly put, this type of person disgusts me. And they are all around us — most often nestled within our own families, but also found at work or school and at the fringes of our friend groups. There are two very important things you must know about them:
- The reason they pick on your sensitivity is because they feel some inadequacy of their own, and
- They are absolutely terrified of being seen as sensitive themselves, which may mean they are self-denying HSPs.
Even so, these “anti-sensitive” loudmouths are bullies, and they will exhaust you. You cannot waste your time or mental space on their negativity — period. That’s easier said than done, I know, especially if they are family members and you are therefore stuck with them to some degree.
But remember: it is okay to take a step back from troublesome family members. I did this with my own dad, who revels in being the opposite of sensitive (jury’s still out on whether he’s a secret HSP). I told him I needed him to respect when I said “no” to something, that I was tired of our fights, and that I’d be taking six months without visiting and without responding much to communication unless it was an emergency. Our relationship actually improved after that, as it often does when one sets boundaries.
5. An Unbalanced Friend Group
I’ve often been asked whether highly sensitive people have a hard time being around less-sensitive people. Not necessarily — sure, some “low” sensitives can be a handful, but many can be a grounding force in our lives. By contrast, spending time exclusively with fellow HSPs can get problematic. Although they understand you on a deeper level than anyone else, they can also be emotionally reactive, and you might find yourself drained if you spend too much time with them — especially if they’re not well-regulated or haven’t yet learned how to manage their high sensitivity.
On the other hand, if your friend group includes few or no fellow HSPs, you may find yourself feeling isolated, alone, or unsatisfied. HSPs are capable of deep, intimate conversation; they understand your feelings at a glance; and they know what it’s like to be sensitive and feel “different.”
Thus, while it may be more of a group dynamic than a specific “type” of person, I think it can become toxic for HSPs to have an unbalanced friend group. I firmly believe that highly sensitive people need both fellow-HSPs and non-HSPs in their lives (and at least the occasional “low” sensitive person). Without it, you are either the perennial misfit or you’re in an echo chamber, and neither one is good for your long-term mental health.
Protecting Yourself Is More Important Than Being Nice
HSPs don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and we often default to being polite even when someone is aggressive, belittling, or shows bright red flags. But when you are confronted by an unsafe or predatory individual, the time for being polite is over. It is absolutely okay — and essential — to be blunt in drawing boundaries, to cut off contact without warning, or to break off an interaction and leave if you can do so safely.
Some situations are more complex, of course — such as leaving a spouse you have kids with. It can help to learn how to set boundaries the HSP way and, if needed, to take steps to get an unsafe person out of your life.
Your physical, emotional, and sexual safety come first, and protecting yourself is more important than being polite. Remember, dear HSPs, you are a treasure, not just a target, and you deserve to have to healthy, balanced, supportive people in your life.
You Might Like:
- HSPs, Do You Have a High Conflict Person in Your Life?
- 4 Types of Unsafe Friendships for Highly Sensitive People
- HSPs, Here’s How to Finally Get Unsafe People Out of Your Life
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