The Challenge of Friendships as a Highly Sensitive Person
HSPs and the Struggle With Friendships
In the roughly twenty years since I first learned about the HSP trait, I have met hundreds (if not thousands) of fellow sensitives both in person and through the Internet. One of the most common laments I hear goes something like this: "Why is it so hard for me to make and keep friends when it seems so easy for everyone else?"
I can completely relate to these sentiments, as I have also struggled with relationship/friendship dynamics for most of my own life. Until at least my late 30s, my friendship patterns were largely shaped by the meta-messages from society that I should be able to make friends with almost anyone, that I should have lots of friends, and then be able to keep those friendships for a lifetime.
In retrospect, you could say that I was more concerned about the number of friends that I had rather than the content of them. Bottom line was that most of my friendships failed because they really didn't feel good. Something had to change.
The Book That Started It All
In 1996, Dr. Elaine Aron published the landmark book, "The Highly Sensitive Person," and as a result, millions of people learned that there was nothing wrong with them.
If you are—or even think you might be—a highly sensitive person, you owe it to yourself to read this book.
During the course of years of serious self-inquiry, it became quite a puzzle for me to understand why so many friendships I formed would start out well enough but would fade away very quickly.
Now, I'm not for a moment suggesting that everyone doesn't struggle with friendships and relationships, now and then. However, there definitely are certain distinct challenges for HSPs, and the whole issue of friends seems more difficult for the HSP than for most people.
In the most general sense, it would seem that HSPs and non-HSPs often interpret and experience the same situations differently...and communication issues arise, even when both people have only the best of intentions.
When you consider that only 15-20% of the population have HSP traits, it will generally hold true that most people the average HSP meets will not be HSPs. This can result in an almost immediate "I really don't get who you are" dynamic, which is a rocky foundation on which to start building a friendship.
One of the things I have learned about us HSPs (both from reading and from personal interaction) is that we tend to be rather deep people. We also can come across as rather intense. Most HSPs I have met in person dislike—or even loathe—small talk and polite chit-chat and would much rather get directly into a profound conversation about the meaning of life, the origins of God, how to end world hunger, or how to create a better world.
So small talk and HSPs do not seem to mix well. However, except for the handful who are very self-absorbed, most HSPs also recognize the need for this idle chatter as a tool to create connection and are generally willing to indulge in it to a limited degree.
The word limited becomes key when trying to understand HSPs in relation to small talk and maintaining friendships because trouble arises when the HSP's desire for deep conversations runs into a non-HSP friend's contentment with keeping a connection purely at a surface level.
A Quick Poll of Friendship Patterns
How have your friendships historically worked out?
The Challenge of Maintaining Friendships
Except during a period where I was struggling with social anxiety, I have really never had too much trouble making friends—it's keeping them that's the issue. This is where the mismatched-expectations issue (almost always centered around depth) comes to the surface. And it's a two-way street.
After a few days or weeks, many HSPs grow disillusioned when they start to realize that a new-found friend is really not interested in discussing anything that extends much beyond little league baseball, celebrity gossip, cookie recipes, and truck repair. The HSP wants there to be more there. One friend said to me, "That stuff is just fluff of no deeper consequence." This desire to explore in depth also tends to come across with great intensity, which can be both off-putting and intimidating to someone who prefers lighter fare.
It works in reverse, too. I believe a lot of non-HS people are initially attracted to the depth and intensity of HSPs, but while we (well, at least I speak for myself) want that intensity to continue, for other people it's like the novelty wears off and they want to return to the less demanding way of interacting they consider their normal. Actually, it feels like they just get tired of the intensity, and want me to lighten up. It sort of reminds me of a saying my former therapist liked to trot out: "Opposites may attract, but they don't necessarily make good bed-fellows."
Either way, a number of HSPs respond by simply leaving the friendship, and quite a few complain that they seem to have developed a reputation for suddenly dropping people out of their lives.
It's Important to Set Healthy Boundaries
There are other factors that sometimes contribute to an HSP's difficulties in keeping friendships, especially in the longer run. Not least of these is the tendency for many HSPs to have what I think of as soft boundaries.
How does this manifest?
Most HSPs I meet seem to be very good listeners, combined with a natural capacity towards compassion and empathy. How often have you—as an HSP—been told that you are really easy to talk to? How often does it feel like people—even relative strangers—tend to offload all their problems on you?
The potential downside of ever-patient and attentive listening is that sometimes it is simply not good for us to keep ourselves eternally engaged in someone else's problems and dramas. Where our soft boundaries become a problem is when we realize that we really should leave a situation, yet we fail to detach ourselves for any number of reasons, from not wanting to be thought rude to having an almost compulsive desire to rescue people.
The Problem With Non-Reciprocal Relationships
The combination of soft boundaries with empathic listening often combines to create a dynamic in which the HSP gradually becomes someone's therapist rather than simply being their friend.
I'll be the first to admit that I am naturally predisposed to wanting to help those with broken wings, so I am sure that has influenced my friendship choices—and I know I am not alone among HSPs. And yes, I do realize that a natural part of friendship is about sharing troubles. However, when it ends up feeling like constant one-way traffic, and I find myself wondering if everyone really has this much chaos and drama in their life, I know something about the friendship is not working.
And I am sure the fact that I don't tend to say things like, "Take your issues and drama to someone else" (which I understand many non-HS people do quite readily) also plays into the picture. It took me many years to recognize this dynamic, and then to learn how to gently extract myself from the role of being someone's informal therapist.
Of course, there's also the non-reciprocal relationship in which it feels like we are doing ALL the work. We make the connection, arrange all the lunches, and generally are always the one to get things rolling for the next time we see our friend. In such situations, it may be of value to occasionally take stock to see if we want to continue the friendship. If it feels draining, the answer may be no.
The "Drop and Run": An HSP Friendship Quirk
A significant number of HSPs have shared that they seem to be in a pattern where they become friends with someone—become quite close—and then something happens, after which they more or less just vanish from the friendship.
Maybe there was a misunderstanding; maybe the friend wasn't interested in something near and dear to the HSP, so the friendship just ended, even though there was no deeper reason for that to happen.
As HSPs, we must try to remain mindful in our friendships, and be especially careful that we don't end them for the wrong reasons. For example, did that friendship we suddenly dropped truly end because of irreconcilable differences? Or was the problem actually that we were in a state of overstimulation when something came up and a very minor comment by our friend FELT like a huge problem? Good friendships are valuable assets to have, and they do require work to maintain.
Introverts, Friendships, and Faking It
Many (about 70%) HSPs are introverts. While introversion should not be interpreted as antisocial, many introverts tend to feel that their friendships are inadequate, because they compare their circles of friends to extraverts they know and feel like they are coming up short. They also see themselves as part of a very outgoing society and start interpreting their natural inclinations to prefer time spent alone as wrong, which is a big mistake.
Faking who you are in order to make friends with someone will only add to your number of failed friendships in the long run. After all, if you pretend to like lots of people and do lots of stuff when it's really not what you want, how long will it be before your inner frustration at not being yourself reveal itself?
Although it may take some courage, it is often quite important for HSPs to be willing to throw out societal norms for friendships in order to form and maintain healthy connections with others. After all, our friendships are there to serve us, not to impress the greater world!
Friendships and the "HSP Alone Time" Issue
One of the central issues in healthy HSP living is honoring our need to alone time to recharge our batteries. This need for alone time applies equally to both introverted and extraverted HSPs and is essential for an HSP's general well-being.
Alone time means different things to different people. Some HSPs have had enough friend time after a few hours but only need a few hours of alone time before they are ready again. Others can seem extremely social for weeks but then also feel the need to withdraw in solitude for a week or more.
However, this can become an issue in HSP/non-HSP friendships because most people's expectations of friendship include being available to each other all the time. A non-HSP might experience their HSP friend's withdrawal as rejection and aren't willing to deal with a friend who suddenly vanishes for a week at a time.
The need for alone time is one of those issues that needs to be explained in a potential friendship because it is easily misunderstood. As an HSP, you may want to tell your friend that you sometimes need to go away but that it doesn't mean rejection, and that you will be back.
Boundaries, Overstimulation, and High-Maintenance HSPs
There's an additional context in which HSPs must stay mindful of their own needs. Namely, when you're highly sensitive, you tend to become easily overstimulated. This basically amounts to the need for alone time—again, the length of alone time needed depends on the person.
In a friendship context—even a good one—this means that everything can be going along just fine when we realize we're becoming frazzled and need to leave. Unless our friends understand—and honor—that this is normal for us, it's easy for us to be perceived as oddballs, quirky (or even difficult), or unreliable flakes when we feel the need to be by ourselves.
Thus, we must choose carefully when it comes to friends. Though I may get some pushback from some members of the HSP community for saying this, the truth is that quite a few HSPs are high maintenance by often imposing lots of special needs and considerations on people around them.
Please understand that there's nothing wrong with setting healthy boundaries and asserting one's needs, but a lot of people simply don't have the patience and determination to maintain a friendship with someone who doesn't want to participate in a wide range of activities and insists they can't participate unless a laundry list of special accommodations and conditions are met. Friendship is always a two-way street.
Statistics and the Right to Choose
So is there any hope? Are HSPs doomed to always struggle with friendships and social interaction? Not necessarily. However, it is very important for HSPs to revisit and restate their assumptions about being friends with people and what friendship means to them—away from public expectations.
How do friendships happen? It seems they primarily form because of some kind of common ground. It is common sense that if your "ground" (because you're an HSP) is a little bit different, there will simply be fewer people who share that ground in common with you.
From what I have observed, many HSPs' distress over friendships can be traced back to unhealthy comparisons with the so-called standards of western society. We're shown messages—through Madison Avenue, Hollywood, our local communities, and even our (non-HSP?) families—that we should have lots of life-long friends. The medical community even says that people with many friends can live healthier and longer lives. The keyword in reading that last sentence is "can." The rules do not necessarily apply to everyone.
Statistically speaking, there are simply fewer candidates who are good friend material for HSPs. Maybe that sounds defeatist or elitist, but the simple truth is that we all have the right to choose our friends. We also have the right to choose rewarding friendships that fit our individual needs for closeness, depth, and amount of face time.
Fairness and Unfairness in the Realm of Friendships
Is it unfair that HSPs—who typically aren't the most socially outgoing people, to begin with—have to work harder to make friends? Maybe it is, but so what? We owe it to ourselves to choose our friends wisely, even if that means we don't get to choose as often as some other people.
Dr. Elaine Aron—who originally identified sensitivity as a trait, rather than a pathology—is a big proponent of HSPs befriending their peers. Now, that may sound a bit exclusive, but the truth of the matter is that friends are ultimately a bit like our chosen family. While it may sound all nicely egalitarian and politically correct to choose diversified friends, the basic truth remains that we choose people to be with because we enjoy their company.
Speaking from personal experience, I happen to like the company of HSPs, and I highly recommend finding and making some HSP friends. Maybe that sounds hard, but it needn't be. Most of my HSP friends started as friends in cyberspace that eventually turned into real-life friends. Remember, you always have the right to make friends at a pace that feels right to you and the relative slowness permitted by the Internet often works well for HSPs.
When you do choose non-HSP people to befriend, be aware that maybe the relationship will have its limitations—and don't make the mistake of imposing your needs on someone who really doesn't understand where you're coming from. Take the friendship at face value and allow it to be what it is: Maybe you can only connect with Susan in the context of gardening, so allow that to be rather than dropping Susan because you can't talk deeper metaphysics with her.
It's Important to Define What Friendship Means to You
So, are friendships truly more difficult for HSPs? Yes and no.
Successful and rewarding HSP friendships ask us to be mindful and to choose wisely. We must be willing to make our own friendship rules and to learn not to be upset because our friendships—and friendship patterns—look a little different from everyone else's
Bottom line: As an HSP, the first step towards better friendships is to let go of societal and family expectations about friendships. Stop worrying about how many friends you should have and take some time to figure out what being friends with someone means to you. And it's really OK to be particular. Make it clear to your friends that your desire to spend time alone does not mean that you no longer like them.
Try to have realistic expectations about friendships. Understand that many others will not be looking for the "depth and intensity" you might be. Accept that you may be able to make a good friend without them having to be perfect.
© 2007 Peter Messerschmidt