4 Types of Unsafe Friendships for Highly Sensitive People

a highly sensitive person and unsafe friends

Not all friendships are good for you as an HSP, but it can be hard to spot the difference early on. Here’s how.

My best friend at university was a crazymaker. Crazymakers, according to Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, are “those personalities that create storm centers. They are often charismatic, frequently charming… and for the creative person in their vicinity, they are enormously destructive.”

My friend fit this description perfectly. It took me some time to realize it, and I’ll never blame her or judge her for this, but I do know our friendship was a toxic one. She was the parent; I was the child. I did as she said, and often, as she did. I listened to her dramatic tales (and because I had no boundaries, I let them affect me much more than was good for me) and pandered to her — often irrational — demands.

While I occasionally stood my ground, this caused more trouble than I felt it was worth — she would be understandably shocked at this dramatic, often furious, switch — and over time, I learned to just do my best to obey.

It wasn’t until a couple of years after graduating that I had enough distance and security built up in my life that I took the plunge and “broke up” with my unsafe friend. 

If you identify as a highly sensitive person (or HSP), you might feel like it’s harder for you to make friends (and keep them) than it is for others. You might also have received the message from society that the more friends you have, the better. Or that you need to keep all of the friends you make for the entirety of your life.

But the truth is, you don’t. And not all friendships are good for you as an HSP. Let me explain.

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What HSPs Need From Their Friends

The truth is, friendships are not about quantity: they’re about quality. An HSP can be fulfilled in their relationships even if they have only a few close friends, so long as those friends are a good match for the HSP’s unique needs.

An ideal friendship for an HSP is a truly meaningful one. We thrive on strong, solid, and deep connections. It’s a bit like the HSP heart is always seeking a signal, like your phone does when searching for Wi-Fi. If that signal is weak, the connection is weak and not enough sustenance comes through — much like a slow-loading video on your phone. The HSP just can’t get what they need.

For an HSP, connection means being able to get vulnerable, yet still feel safe. To listen and to be heard. To have their inner depth reflected back to them. Anything less than this can feel superficial, and it isn’t going to feed a sensitive person. At its worst, a shallow friendship can be extremely draining for a highly sensitive person, who gives so much of themselves in each authentic connection. 

Holding onto unsafe friendships is going to have a dramatic impact on an HSP’s wellbeing, arguably more so than for others. For one, HSPs are much more prone to feeling overstimulated, from either their outer environment or their inner environment. Friends who demand an HSP hang out at busy, loud places are naturally going to trigger that overstimulation, as will a friend who burdens the HSP with emotional baggage, negativity, or chaos. 

So it’s not being “picky” or “unfriendly.” HSPs truly benefit from being careful with who they call a friend. And if you’re an HSP yourself, you may be relieved to know that some friends are best left out of your life. 

There are four types of friendships in particular that I believe are unsafe for highly sensitive people.

4 Types of ‘Unsafe’ Friends

1. The Shallow Friendship

Small talk is something most HSPs will firmly agree is not their favorite pastime. An HSP would much rather connect with a friend through profound conversation about the meaning of life, the origins of the universe, and other high-minded topics. A friendship based on superficial gossip or chitchat about the weather is unlikely to appeal for very long.

The problem with small talk is it doesn’t return the energy it requires for an HSP: You don’t get out what you put in. A deep and meaningful conversation might require more cognitive capacity but is much more rewarding for the sensitive mind. A friendship that allows for this is much more beneficial for an HSP.

2. The Judgmental Friendship

Owning their high sensitivity as a trait to be celebrated is key for the self-confidence and wellbeing of an HSP. We need our loved ones to be supportive, not judgmental — especially as we go through periods of self-discovery and self-understanding.

A judgmental friend will subtly (or not so subtly) suggest that there is something fundamentally wrong with being an HSP. “You’re too sensitive,” they might say. They may judge the choices the HSP makes, berating them for their preferences and behaviors. Or they may simply show impatience and annoyance every time the HSP needs a little extra time to process. 

A friend like this is no fun to be around, and not healthy in the long run. An HSP will do much better around people who love and accept them as they are — high sensitivity and all.

3. The Draining Friendship

Most HSPs are blessed with the skills of compassion and high empathy, which naturally attracts others who wish to make use of their listening skills. That on its own is healthy; it’s one of the gifts HSPs offer the world. A draining friend, however, will take advantage of the HSP by offloading any and all of their own emotional issues — without ever giving in return. 

While sharing burdens and helping each other is a vital part of a good friendship, there is a boundary that must be drawn especially for highly sensitive people. Without strong boundaries, an HSP can feel drained of their energy and personal resources. Many can “pick up” or “absorb” the energy of others, and if this is felt in a negative way, it can have some serious negative consequences for the HSP.

A reciprocal friendship is founded on respect. Both individuals are there to listen to each other and support each other through challenges. Both sides will also agree to respect each other’s energy needs, and give each other space without overly burdening the other.

4. The Straight-Up Demanding Friendship

The need for space is crucial for HSPs, whether they are introverts or extroverts. HSPs use quiet time to avoid overstimulation and process everything we’ve taken in. This doesn’t mean HSPs need to spend all their time alone, but it’s important to have some space in between events or interactions.

But some friends refuse to give that space. They may demand that the HSP stay out at the bar later than they would have liked. Worse still, they may even berate the HSP for leaving early or not attending an event. This kind of demanding behavior can become incredibly stressful, forcing the HSP to choose between two hurtful outcomes: letting someone down by leaving early or suffering overwhelm and burnout by staying out. This can build up as resentment — sometimes offloaded in an explosion of emotion at a later time.

For an HSP, a good friend respects their needs for space and alone time, and supports any decision they make to come or go to an event. Even a friend who likes a faster pace will accept a sensitive person’s need to take things slow — if they’re a good friend. 

Not every friendship is perfect, of course. But an HSP can save a lot of time and energy if they remember what behavior is and is not acceptable in the people they consider friends. It’s time for HSPs to stop worrying about the number of friends we have and the longevity of the friendship, and start looking for the people in our lives who are truly supportive of our personalities and all that makes an HSP shine.

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