For highly sensitive people, friendships can feel tough. It’s not that we’re anti-social or awkward, it’s simply that we have unique needs in relationships that not everyone gets.
Some highly sensitive people may find it difficult to connect with new people. Others may be able to connect with ease at first, but maintaining the friendship may be the tough part.
I heard from one client who said he struggled with feeling like an outsider because the people he’d meet seemed to lack the depth he was seeking. Another client of mine reported feeling a strong connection to her friend, but felt her friend didn’t seem to put in as much effort. This left her feeling like the relationship was one-sided.
I happen to be a sensitive person who can connect with most people fairly easily. But the deep, fulfilling relationships in which I can really be myself are rare.
In the two years between college and graduate school, anyone I would have called a friend moved away. I found it extraordinarily difficult to meet new people in a way that could lead to true friendship.
The close friendships I do have are largely due to certain experiences and environments that lent themselves to meeting genuine friends. I’ll share more about what I mean by that in a moment.
Let’s first take a look at why friendships are so tough for highly sensitive people in the first place.
1) We’re easily overwhelmed by activities others enjoy.
Social gatherings and activities in loud, crowded, visually-stimulating places overwhelm us. If you’re like me, you may find it takes all your energy to listen to someone in a loud bar or even in a smaller gathering where several conversations are happening at once.
And while I enjoy live music and may even have fun at an occasional party (with people I know and like), my energy is zapped for weeks. Our non-sensitive peers may have difficulty grasping just how tough stimulating environments can be for sensitive people.
2) We crave deep, authentic connection.
Small talk just doesn’t do it for highly sensitive people. Many typical social interactions may feel boring or shallow to us. We desire connection with kindred spirits with whom we can talk about life’s wonders, personal growth, and just be our vulnerable selves.
This can be tough to find if you don’t know where to look. I’m connected to a lot of good people, but the people I feel really close to are few because of my need for great depth.
3) We may be too empathic.
Most highly sensitive people are excellent listeners and have a natural sense of empathy. While these are wonderful skills to possess, we may too easily fall into a pattern of listening to the problems of people who may not be able to reciprocate. When we do this, we can become emotional sponges absorbing the problems of our friends.
Further, we tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. Despite our keen awareness of some subtleties, we can be far too patient and take a while to realize that some friendships are not equal. When we do come to said realization, it can be disheartening and cause us to refrain from opening up to others.
4) We can’t keep up appearances.
Most highly sensitive people don’t do well with societal norms. We sense the subtleties of people around us behaving inauthentically in order to be part of the broader society. We notice the hidden emotions behind such posturing.
So when people are unwilling to remove their masks, we feel disconnected. We’re incapable of pretending to be someone we’re not. This can be challenging if you find yourself in a friendship with someone who seems to be pretending.
5) We may tend to isolate.
About 70 percent of highly sensitive people are also introverts. Introverts and highly sensitive people need adequate alone time to recharge. I frequently feel overwhelmed by social obligations and overstimulated by everyday environments.
This means that when I have the chance to find alone time, I take it. The downside to taking too much alone time is that we might end up isolating ourselves rather than nurturing a friendship that actually does lift us up.
As for meeting friends as a highly sensitive person…
The few people I’ve been able to truly connect with in my sensitive way are those who have come into my life either from a young age, graduate school (social work), yoga teacher training, and my travels.
Aside from my friends from high school, you may notice a common theme running through those last friendship avenues. People who gravitate toward interests such as social work, yoga, and traveling likely have a natural sensitive side and care about deeper human experiences.
But you don’t have to enroll in an educational program to meet like-minded friends. I often encourage clients to consider joining a Meetup group as one way to meet friends. Several years ago, a Meetup group for “outdoorsy entrepreneurs” led me to meet a special friend, who is now my partner, as well as three other friends with whom I feel a special connection.
Once we meet those kindred spirits, we have a lovely opportunity to intentionally feed these friendships.
What about romantic relationships?
It’s not just friendships that can be challenging for highly sensitive people. HSP relationships come with their own set of obstacles. But it is possible to build fulfilling relationships, even if you’re sensitive and easily overwhelmed.
I share concrete tools to overcome communication problems, build intimacy, and get close, in my Highly Sensitive Person’s Relationship Guide. Get the Guide (It’s Free).
Melissa Renzi is a Licensed Social Worker and Certified Trauma-Informed Yoga Teacher. She helps sensitive souls transform anxiety and cultivate lasting self-love. She leads global retreats designed for introverts and highly sensitive people. Access her Highly Sensitive Person’s Relationship Guide.