Sensitive people need to do what’s right to protect their energy — and sometimes that means taking a step back from those we consider “friends.”
Recently, I was having dinner with three friends at one of my favorite restaurants when the conversation turned to a topic I always dread: politics.
The friend sitting next to me raised her voice and began angrily detailing why people who disagreed with a certain issue were insane or stupid, or both. I immediately froze in place. My chest and throat constricted and heat rushed to my face. I felt like I was in the beginning stages of an anxiety attack.
A couple of seconds later, my other two friends joined in with their opinions, which were only a variation on all the things the friend sitting next to me had just stated. I was starting to calm down from the shot of adrenaline to my system and could move again, but now I felt shaky and a bit dizzy. I desperately tried to gather my thoughts as I also endeavored to calm my body.
As I settled myself, my intuition came back and began scanning the dialogue of my friends. I could hear the coldness in their voices. I could feel the dismissiveness, the judgment, the separation they felt from the people they were discussing.
The political issue that had come up was one that was complex and multifaceted. It could be viewed in dozens of different lights, depending on the situation and the person involved. In a flash, my mind grasped the depth of the gray area in between the two poles of black and white that my friends were determined to uphold.
And in that same flash, I saw that my friends weren’t really interested in exploring the topic anyway. They didn’t honestly want to find out if there was a solution. They were just angry, and they wanted to judge and blame someone.
A second after this realization, I plunged into sorrow. I was sorry about the attitudes of my friends at the table, but I also felt a bit hopeless about humanity overall. Will we ever get anywhere if we all keep judging and blaming each other? Just as I prepared to dive back into my inner world to try to work this question out, my thoughts were interrupted.
“Well, what about you? What’s your opinion?”
My three friends were looking at me, waiting for an answer. I could see in their eyes that the only way I could avoid an argument was to agree with what they had just said.
But I couldn’t do that. I had just gone through two minutes jam-packed with soul-searching existential questions and had come to the only conclusion I could possibly accept: My truth was radically different from theirs.
And they weren’t really interested in what I thought anyway.
What It Means to Be Highly Sensitive Around Toxic Energy
It was at this point that I wished for the thing I have wished for probably about a million times in my life: that I was “fierce.” That I had the type of personality that was effortlessly assertive, knew how to prove a point through cutting logical argument, and thrived on competition and debate. I wished I was the kind of person who only cared about if I was right. It just seemed like life would be so much easier.
But I’m not any of those things.
I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP). I need to feel emotionally safe and supported before I can express my true thoughts to anyone, and I also need more time than most to process my ideas and speak in front of a group (even if it’s only three people). I also absorb the moods and feelings of those around me — especially strong ones.
So, when people around me go from zero to 10 on the anger scale, I pretty much get gut-punched by all the negative energy. And because I’m intuitive, I see almost every different side of any issue. Black and white doesn’t exist for me. I live in the gray area.
The situation with my friends in the restaurant is something that has happened to me throughout my entire life.. Whenever I’m in a group of people and they start arguing with each other (whether about politics or something else), my body goes into fight-or-flight mode. It’s not something I can control; it just happens.
My highly sensitive nervous system absorbs every ounce of toxic energy like a sponge — and sometimes I feel physically sick.
It’s kind of like I’m drunk or high (but not in a good way). I become flooded with thoughts and feelings, and sometimes I can hardly think or speak. In my most challenging moments, there’s no way to explain what I’m going through or why I need the people who are arguing, judging, and blaming to just stop it.
Sadly, I have a feeling that even if I could explain it, the people in argue-blame-judgment mode at that moment wouldn’t stop anyway.
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You Have the Right to Leave Toxic Situations
So, what does an empathic, intuitive, highly sensitive person do in situations like these?
There is only one answer: Leave.
That night, I excused myself and said I needed to visit the restroom. I locked myself in and breathed deeply for a few moments until I calmed down. I texted my husband and briefly told him what was going on, and he sent me a few much-needed words of reassurance. Then I walked back out to the table and got through the rest of the meal.
But after that dinner, I left the situation in a more drastic way. I had already been feeling a rift growing between me and those friends, so I stepped back even more. I did not cut any of them out of my life completely — I still value them as people — but I shifted our phone calls to text-only exchanges. I unfollowed a couple of them on Facebook and took more frequent social media breaks.
Basically, I put some healthy boundaries in place.
Some might say I was being “too sensitive” for reacting to my friends’ argument the way I did. In this era of social media outrage, those same people might say I should have gotten just as loud and angry as my friends, vigorously defending my views. But as a soft-spoken HSP, that’s just not my style. Besides, what I believe our world needs right now is less arguing, not more.
As sensitive people, we need to do what’s right to protect our energy — and sometimes that means taking a step back even from those we consider “friends.”
The Only Way to Bloom
I also put more energy into nurturing some connections I had made recently with a new group of friends, people who were more mature, grounded, and interested in what good they could do with their lives — instead of judging others for the way they lived.
It’s vital for highly sensitive people to feel understood. There is nothing that can replace a good friend who recognizes your sensitive nature and honors it.
However, the other essential piece of the puzzle is to choose friends who are positive, compassionate, and nonjudgmental. HSPs must keep company with those who have curious minds and open hearts.
It’s the only way we will ever feel safe enough to bloom.
A version of this article was originally published on Introvert, Dear.