Why Highly Sensitive People Struggle to Make Friends (and How to Change That)

A highly sensitive person hugging a friend

Seemingly nice ‘friends’ are everywhere. So why do HSPs struggle to find friendships that matter?

My experience with friends has always been quite volatile and I had no idea why until very recently. I typically enjoy a flourishing social life… before it all dissolves for one reason or another. In the end, I find myself alone again. 

Being quite self-reflective, I’ve given a lot of thought to this pattern in an effort to understand why I seem to have such transient, non-substantial friendships with people and how I could possibly change that. After all, though I love spending time alone, I crave deep, meaningful bonds with people. If you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP) like I am, I’m sure you get it. 

Some reminiscing made me realize that the recurring pattern in my social life was finding myself in the center of these massive friend groups. Within them were a host of dynamics that were unhealthy, unsafe, even.

The size of these groups was often my fault because I would constantly invite new people into my life and social circles. (I had falsely believed that without hundreds of friends, I would somehow be a loser. I also have a desire to get to know a variety of people on a deep level.) 

I once had a discussion with some friends (both of whom I’m no longer close with) and I got a rare look into the way others perceive me. My friends told me that I was quite approachable. The reason they, and other people in our group, came together was that I made the people around me feel comfortable. 

Of course, this was nice to hear. I always want to be (and come off as) kind and non-judgmental to others, but these words from my friends brought up many questions for me, as well. 

Why, if it was so easy to meet people and invite them in, did I always find myself feeling excluded, isolated, and estranged from my friends in the end? Why did they eventually end our friendship?

While I still wrestle with these questions from time to time, learning more about my personality — and why I experience certain aspects of life differently than others — has offered me some slightly less terrifying answers than the ones I make up in my head when anxious

Not only does my high sensitivity affect the way I experience the world through my five senses, but it also impacts my relationships with significant others, family, and friends. If you identify as an HSP, the same may be true for you. Navigating friendships can be mystifying for all of us, but highly sensitive people face a unique set of challenges in this area — as well as gifts. 

First, let’s look at why sensitive types sometimes struggle to make friends.

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Why Highly Sensitive People Struggle to Make Friends 

1. Mismatched expectations and a lack of common interests.   

In every relationship, whether it’s romantic, familial, or professional, there are certain expectations. These may include how often you’ll see each other, how often you’ll communicate, and what you’ll do together. Mismatched expectations can cause a significant rift in any relationship and cause it to dissolve. 

As an HSP, you may find that your expectations are consistently unmet by friends. Conversely, perhaps you feel that you are always letting the other person down. Why is that? Well, many of the activities that others enjoy — such as loud parties or participating in activities in stimulating environments — are extremely overwhelming for us.

For example, I’ve never enjoyed trips to amusement parks while some of my other friends love them. The pressure to plaster on a smile and take part in activities that actually cause me great distress takes away from my ability to enjoy the time spent with friends. Yet I’d also feel as though I were disappointing my friends if I didn’t choose to join in the “fun.” After all, sensitive people are often people-pleasers.

Another example is the highly sensitive person’s desire for deep, meaningful communication while their friends are just fine with a surface-level conversation that is limited to small talk and gossip. Being friends with people who are different from us can be fun and illuminating, but sometimes those differences get in the way of common ground. 

2. The tendency to enjoy alone time. 

Like all relationships, friendships require a certain amount of initiative for maintenance. Because many HSPs are introverted (about 70 percent), it can be easy for us to prefer our own company as opposed to social gatherings (which can be very draining, not to mention overstimulating).

People who don’t consider themselves to be highly sensitive may not understand why we need so much downtime. Instead, they may interpret our need to be alone as a lack of initiative or interest in the friendship, which is not the case.

3. Blurry boundaries — which can make it difficult for us to know when it’s time to get out of situations where we are being mistreated.

HSP expert Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, touched on the highly sensitive person’s tendency to have permeable boundaries in her blog. What does this mean? Well, the way that HSPs communicate may differ from other people. For example, we can be more indirect and subtle in our language, which can make our boundaries unclear to others. 

In addition, HSPs usually love caring for the people around them. This makes it difficult for us to know when it’s time to get out of situations where we are being mistreated or taken advantage of. (For instance, HSPs may be more prone to attracting narcissists or gaslighting.) According to Aron’s research, this likely occurs for several different reasons. Sometimes our permeable boundaries are an innate part of being an HSP. Other times, they are the result of an HSP being deprived of the ability to separate themselves from others in their childhood

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How to Make More Quality Friendships as a Highly Sensitive Person 

If you’ve ever experienced the challenges discussed above, you might feel as though something is innately wrong with you because your experience with friends doesn’t align with society’s expectations. As humans, we have a need to connect with others so, having difficulties making — and keeping — friends can be extremely distressing. Here are some ways to make more quality friendships as an HSP.

  • Let go of societal expectations. According to what you may have been told about friendship growing up, you might believe that a healthy social life means a lot of friends whom you speak with every single day and party with every weekend. But what if this doesn’t bring you joy? Friendship is all about having fun, connecting, and supporting people you love in a way that feels good for both parties. If a friendship doesn’t feel good to you, don’t force it, no matter what society might have you believe about your social life. 
  • Don’t be afraid of being selective. Despite the difficulties you may experience with friendship, as an HSP, there are many reasons why others might gravitate toward you. Your innate knack for absorbing other people’s needs and emotions makes them feel safe and taken care of. This may attract those who are similar to you, but it might also attract people whose intentions are not pure. When making new friends, don’t be afraid to be selective and follow your intuition — one of your HSP superpowers — when choosing who may or may not be a part of your life.
  • Let your authentic self shine through. Being different in any way can make it difficult to open up. As an HSP, there might be a fear of being judged for who you are because sensitivity isn’t particularly valued in our society. If, however, you let fear get in the way of allowing yourself to be vulnerable, you run the risk of sabotaging your chances of creating real intimacy in your relationships and friendships.  
  • Start with common interests. Because sensitive people tend to enjoy different activities than those who are less sensitive, it can be difficult for us to relate to most people. For example, most of your peers might meet at the mall to hang out, but it always feels far too crowded and overstimulating to you. You’d rather hike with friends on your favorite forest trail and relish the quiet. So why not start on the trail? Perhaps you could join a local hiking group online through an organization such as Meetup. By meeting friends based on shared interests, you improve your chances of developing friendships with people with whom you can do your favorite things. This is particularly important for HSPs who value their inner lives. 
  • Know when it’s time to end the friendship. As mentioned above, HSPs can struggle to set and enforce clear boundaries in their relationships. That, coupled with the fact that we often attract narcissists and energy vampires, makes us especially vulnerable to unhealthy patterns in our friendships. For that reason, it’s essential that we know when it’s time to say goodbye to a dynamic that is no longer bringing positivity into our lives. Some signs it may be time to say goodbye to a friendship include your concerns being met with a dismissive attitude, passive-aggressive comments, the betrayal of your trust, finding yourselves without anything to talk about, and most importantly, finding that you consistently feel bad after you get together with your friend. Use your highly developed intuition to point you in the right direction. If you pay close attention to hunches and bodily sensations, you’ll likely find that you already know what’s best. 

What about you, fellow HSP? What are some ways you make high-quality friends? Feel free to share them in the comments below!

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