Why HSPs Need to Stay Away from High Conflict People (And How to Get Rid of Them)

A high conflict person scowling

It only takes one high conflict person to ruin a sensitive person’s life. Here’s what to do about them.

One of the many strengths of being a highly sensitive person (HSP) is our incredible ability to empathize and quite literally feel the emotions of others — good or bad. “Negative empathy,” or the understanding and/or sharing of others’ negative emotional states, is heightened in HSPs. That can spell trouble — especially if they find themselves in contact with a “high conflict person,” someone who emanates negative emotions and compulsively stirs up conflict. High conflict people are hard on anyone around them, but they are especially debilitating to HSPs. 

As a therapist who works with HSPs I see the impact of negative empathy and conflict quite often. Many HSPs who are in relationships with, work with or spend time with a high conflict person express that they themselves start to become less harmonious both emotionally and physically when around the negativity of a high conflict person. At its extreme, the presence of a high conflict person in their lives can leave them, walking on eggshells, traumatized, and afraid. 

So how should HSPs deal with these conflict-driven individuals? Here’s what I’ve learned actually works — starting with why the problem exists in the first place. 

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What Is a High Conflict Person?

A high conflict person is someone whose behavior consistently intensifies and prolongs conflict. High conflict people tend to avoid potential resolutions, increase distress in those around them, and struggles to admit when they are wrong. 

Because conflict is a normal part of interpersonal relationships, it can be difficult to determine whether someone is truly “high conflict” through and through or if they are just someone who is “higher conflict than average.” In fact, author and conflict resolution coach Tammy Lenksi cautions against the overuse of the term “high conflict.” Lenski says that people are often wrongly labeled as high conflict when they are assertive and comfortable addressing issues head on — which is not a bad thing — or if they have strong emotional individuality and the ability to disagree with others. While those traits may rub any given person the wrong way, they don’t fit the pattern of a compulsively high conflict individual. 

Instead, according to Bill Eddy, therapist and co-founder of the High Conflict Institute in California, there are four universal behavior traits found in high conflict people:

  1. Blaming others
  2. All-or-nothing (black or white) thinking 
  3. Unmanaged intense emotions
  4. Extreme behaviors/threats

Eddy estimates that high conflict people make up roughly 10 percent of our population. 

While nearly half of high conflict people possess some form of a personality disorder (such as narcissism or psychopathy), Eddy says that half do not. High conflict is not always synonymous with a personality disorder, and there are distinct nuances between them. For example, a narcissist who thrives off of an inflated sense of self will diminish another person to uphold their own self-worth, but their methods are not always high conflict. Instead, they may be passive aggressive, stonewall people (refuse to communicate or dismiss another), or divert (ignore an issue), which are not high-conflict behaviors. To be a high conflict person the individual’s pattern — intentionally or unintentionally — is to increase tension and drama by any means possible, even it includes lying, threatening, yelling or physical harm.

Are High Conflict People Drawn to HSPs?

In order to engage in conflict there must be someone listening and responding on the other end. HSPs are incredible listeners and conversationalists, and often gravitate to deep and meaningful conversations. This style of communication is highly appealing to high conflict people, as the more someone cares about an issue, the more harm the high conflict individual can inflict in an argument. A high conflict person gets some kind of thrill or rise in upsetting others — not because they want conflict, but because it feels more familiar and comfortable to them — and the more sensitive someone appears, the more the high conflict person may target them.

Depth of processing is another HSP trait that may draw in high conflict types. Depth of processing means highly sensitive people think deeply about information in their environment. That includes how HSPs think about the people around them, leading to slower, more thoughtful decision making in how to engage their inner world to their outer world. Taking more time to craft thoughtful responses sometimes leads HSPs to feel they cannot keep pace in intense conflict or may “not know what to say” until they have time to process and come back to an issue. In contrast, high conflict people are highly practiced at verbal assault and skilled at quick retorts; they may employ cutting words, accusations, threats, and black-or-white statements in order to prove their point. 

In other words, it may be easier for high conflict people to dominate a conflict when the person on the other end is sensitive. Does that mean high conflict people actively seek out HSPs? Not necessarily. But it may mean that HSPs are the convenient targets or the ones that the high conflict individual makes the most headway with, at least initially, leading to more frequent, prolonged conflict situations. 

And that may have an even bigger impact on HSPs than it does on others.

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Why HSPs Should Guard Themselves 

When sensitive people end up in the orbit of a high conflict person, the HSP’s negative empathy response can become so strong that the HSP can feel physically ill, emotionally flooded, and even experience symptoms of panic such as muscle tension, stomach ache and shallow breathing. In fact, in general, conflict hits HSPs especially hard. In addition to physical symptoms there are common, unhealthy thinking patterns that emerge such as:

  • Increased negative self-talk
  • Feeling hypercritical of others or a situation
  • Self-doubt
  • Pessimism 

Together, this means that high conflict people — who may come back to an HSP over and over — can quickly ruin a sensitive person’s health, happiness, and even self-image. The sensitive person may be more likely to blame themselves for the conflict or to make unsafe, unfair compromises. If you are a highly sensitive person dealing with someone who seems to be driven by love of conflict, it’s vital that you get away from them and get free.

How to Extract Yourself from a High Conflict Person

Because HSPs soak up the emotional energy of others, it is crucial that they create distance, both physically and mentally from high conflict people. Having an intense reaction to a high conflict person is not a sign that the HSP is not “tough enough” but rather that they are highly perceptive and can detect the toxic nature of a high conflict person, even before others can. 

First of all, if it’s possible, the best thing you can do is to break ties with the high conflict person altogether. It may be worth breaking off a friendship, ending a romantic relationship, or even looking for a new job if it means you will remove the high conflict person from your life. (Remember: high conflict people lack self-awareness of their own conflict patterns, and they see the conflict as entirely someone else’s fault. The normal approaches that reasonable people take to end conflict — apologizing, compromising, and talking it out — will never help with a high conflict person. They only stir up the high conflict person all the more.) 

Severing ties is not always possible, of course, which means you need to set and practice healthy boundaries.

Practicing healthy boundaries with a high conflict person may look different than it does with others. Some necessary steps include:

  • Exit cyclical arguments started by the high conflict person. It doesn’t matter if you seem rude or if the conflict wasn’t resolved; just say you’ll need to stop talking about it and do so. 
  • Create physical distance in the room or space where you find yourself in with a high conflict person. This is more than symbolic. When they aren’t near you, you’re less likely to become their immediate target.
  • Understand that their goal is not to resolve conflict or understand your point of view. High conflict people lack to the self-awareness to sincerely do this. Instead, share your thoughts and feelings with the people who will listen.
  • End future interactions or establish limited contact with high conflict people who have an ongoing presence in your life (such as the other parent of your child, a coworker at a job you cannot easily leave, or a family member). You may not be able to break ties entirely, but you can decline to speak about certain topics, filter emails from them to a separate folder, block or mute their text messages, or clearly tell them you will only have contact in certain ways — such as telling a coworker you will only speak about work projects, and re-assert that boundary when they sprawl to other topics. 
  • For written communication, use BIFF. The BIFF method stands for Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm and refers to the ideal way to write emails or other short messages to a high conflict person. Brevity is often the hardest of these for HSPs — stick to the facts, the relevant facts, and the minimum possible context. A good example of a BIFF message would be: “I appreciate your concern about being unable to make the meeting. As I mentioned previously, the meeting could not be rescheduled. I’ve attached the agenda so you can see what we covered. You’ll see that our team’s project timeline has changed; your part is due Friday. Have a good day.”
  • For spoken communication, use EAR. In-person interactions are harder, but using EAR statements — statements that express Empathy, Attention, or Respect — often help the high conflict person avoid escalating. You can use just one of these statements near the start of a conversation and then keep the rest brief and focused on the facts or a specific proposal. Examples would be, “I understand it’s important to you that we don’t overlook X” (empathy), “I’ve seen how hard you’re working hard to make sure of Y” (attention), or “I admire how thorough you have been about Z” (respect). Don’t lie in these statements, and don’t throw yourself under the bus — you can respect how much someone is focused on (for example) your child’s education even if they’ve been a jerk about it, and without saying that your own approach has been wrong. 
  • Do not apologize to a high conflict person. Many of us are in the habit of apologizing more out of politeness than because we did anything wrong. This habit is especially common among women, who are criticized if they don’t seem accommodating, and among highly sensitive people of all genders, who prefer to smooth things over when possible. This habit leads to major problems with high conflict people, however, because they will see it as vindication that they are the good guy and you are the one to blame — you may never hear the end of it. (In fact, even sincere apologies are often a bad idea with high conflict people — it may be better to just let the topic pass and move on.)

There is hope for HSPs when it comes to dealing with high conflict people. Just as HSPs are more deeply impacted by negative environments and people, so too are they more positively influenced by healthy situations and relationships. The sooner you cut ties or create distance from a high conflict person, the sooner you will feel a greater sense of peace, balance and reconnection with your authentic self. 

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