Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: November 2008.
This is the fourth in a series of articles on matters especially important to all highly sensitive people (HSPs), at all times in life, but perhaps at your age a bit more important. So far I have discussed feeling different, dealing with your family, and coping with the stronger emotions common to HSPs. This time I’ll consider friendship, the key to surviving almost anything, including high school.
Two Kinds of Relationships
Friends like each other, obviously. Something has drawn them to each other. That makes them want to know all about each other and what’s going on for each other. As friends, they want to help each other as much as they can. Sometimes one, sometimes the other needs the help. Friends stop keeping track after awhile.
Another kind of relationship that sometimes looks like friendship is actually almost entirely competitive. It’s all about who’s best. You may feel less than the other in such a relationship, or sometimes better than the other, or those feelings might alternate. But being with this sort of “friend” almost always brings up in you the question of who’s best, and especially a feeling that you are not as good as your friend. The question always seems to be, who is tougher, smarter, more attractive, more popular, the better athlete, or even more generous. It may seem that it is your fault for thinking this way. But very often the other is encouraging the comparisons and enjoying your feeling inferior.
All friends compete and compare a little, but generally the less they do, the better they feel about the friendship. It’s easy to see and avoid bullies, gossips, and self-centered people who only think about or talk about themselves. But the friendships more in the middle can be most confusing. Maybe you call each other friends. Your “friend” is available when nothing else is happening, as if he or she cannot stand to be alone, so that you feel you are his or her last resort. Or your friend is always busy until you give up trying to get together and start doing things with others, and then this person wants to see you.
What may be happening is that he or she wants to feel in control of you and the relationship. He or she wants to do all the rejecting, but can’t bear to be rejected. If you try it, he or she will be very sweet in order to get you back. Once you are back, the sweetness ends. Or the other needs your help, and you as an HSP respond out of empathy or guilt, but once you have helped, you are treated like dirt again. Ignore the charm and cries for help, and stay out of these “friendships.”
Why You Are Perfect for Friendship
HSPs are ideally suited for friendship. They often have more empathy for others. They tend to want to meet anyone’s needs if they can, so it is natural for them to do that for a friend. HSPs are also less competitive–unless they are sure they will win. But even then they do not want those who lose to feel bad, so they would just as soon not turn everything into a match to see who’s best.
HSPs are also such good observers that they can usually see when there’s something troubling a friend or there is something wrong between the two of them. They take criticism seriously and try to change their behavior to suit their friend. Remember when you are trying to start a new friendship that you are a better prospect than the other may realize at first.
Two Flavors of Friends
People come in two flavors, and HSPs are no exception. Those two types are introverted and extraverted. Introverts like to have a few close friends, or perhaps even only one, a best friend. They like to have deep talks about the meaning of life or help each other through problems and crises. They tend to like individual sports such as swimming or running marathons. They are good team players too, however, since often HSPs can sense what is going on in others–what they are thinking and how they will move.
HSPs are so similar to introverts that two thirds of them actually are introverts, but there is an additional reason for HSPs to be introverts: They don’t like too much going on at once, which is, of course, often true in large groups or when you are meeting strangers.
Still, one third of HSPs are extraverts. How can that be? It seems that some HSPs enjoy lots of new things, as long as they can take their time getting involved and it seems safe. Like all extraverts, the highly sensitive ones enjoy being in a large group of friends and love to meet strangers. They like team sports and big family gatherings. They differ from other extraverts, however, in that they do need time alone to recover from their social life. Also, they tend to see things differently than those who are not highly sensitive. Or they feel things more deeply, and then they can feel embarrassed when others see this about them.
If you are a highly sensitive extravert, it can make you a leader in some groups and gain you many friends, but it can also cause you to get your feelings hurt. Others may find your ideas “too” unusual, say that you take things “too” personally, or think you are “too” emotional. Still, being an extravert, you are the sort who will look for another group, where you will be better accepted, and come back for more.
What happens when an introvert and an extravert decide to become friends? This can work very well. Extraverts find introverts better listeners and that conversations with them go deeper and are more interesting and helpful. Extraverts may especially turn to a sensitive introvert friend when they are troubled about something. Extraverts like to “discover” introverts and introduce them to others, which can be good for the introvert, too. Sensitive extraverts often find introverts a good change if they have been around too many extraverts who are not HSPs.
An introvert can enjoy extraverts because they are warm and talkative, so that the introvert is sure of being welcomed and liked. An extravert will point out what the two of you have in common, another way to feel close. The only problem is that extraverts can be friendly to everyone, so an introvert can overestimate how close the relationship actually is. Highly sensitive extraverts, however, are far more likely to be careful about that.
Shyness can get in the way of starting new friendships, and you always need to be making a few new friends to take the place of those that end for some reason. Shyness is the fear of social judgment. It is not simply hanging back and watching before joining in, which is what even the most confident HSPs will often do. Yet many people assume if you hang back that you are shy–afraid, lacking confidence. It never occurs to them that you are just wanting to observe first, which comes naturally to an HSP. If they look down on you for lacking confidence, that means you really are being judged and then you really do become shy. What a mess. I call it the slide into shy. Worse, fearing these judgments, you start to avoid people, and the more you do that the more awkward and nervous you will be when meeting new people. Then you hear even more comments about “why are you so shy?”
Shyness often begins or reaches its height in junior high and high school. You start comparing yourself to those few popular kids, as do most of the other kids you know. You feel inferior, judged by them, or just ignored. Well, guess what? They almost always go on to be very boring adults. Stick with the kids you enjoy, even if they are not cool. Find a group that you feel comfortable in, and even if it isn’t perfect, stay with them through these years. Even one good friend will get you through. Chances are that you’re going to make a better adult than a teenager.
Perhaps the worst part of friendships is that they end. People move away. Or one person moves on into a new group or new friendship and one is left behind. Especially if others know this has happened, the person left can feel ashamed. If this is you, you want to hide. You say you want to die. Well, if it helps to know, it has happened to absolutely everyone sometime in life. Quite often the person who leaves you was not a real friend anyway, but wanting to be with whoever is cool right now. This is not in the spirit of friendship but of competition. Stay out of the contest.
A betrayal can occur in other ways besides being left for another. Maybe your friend gossips about you, is dishonest, breaks an agreement, or takes something from you in a way that feels like stealing.
The most important thing to do when you feel betrayed is to be sure you are right that it was a true betrayal and not simply a misunderstanding. If someone seems to have left you for another or seems to want to see you less often, is that really so? Many HSPs are quick to think they are not liked (we’re different, after all). But even if a friend does lose interest for a day or is trying out other friendships, people often change their mind and return to their old friend if you let it be. So give it time.
In the case of other kinds of betrayals, even if you feel the other person did lie, steal, or gossip, and is entirely at fault, do try to put yourself in his or her place. What would you really have done in the same situation? HSPs do not like to risk being hurt again. But it may be best to give your friend another chance–forgive and forget, unless the problem happens again. If you fight, things may be said that cannot be taken back.
On the other hand, if you are betrayed over and over, obviously it is time to leave the “friendship.” If the other tries to lure you back, say no, even if it means you have no friends for awhile. Chances are no one else has been able to get near you while you have had such a controlling friend taking up all of your energy.
Friends Are What Get You Through
All of us who have survived the teen age years will tell you that friends (and family) are what get you through. Love gets you through, and not usually romantic love, which is so complicated. What you need is one true friend. A couple of them or a small group is even better. Here are the rules for making it happen:
- Look around for someone else quiet and thoughtful like yourself, someone others may have overlooked. Or if you are an extraverted HSP, look for someone as creative and passionate about things as you are.
- Look for friends in places like volunteer organizations or youth groups at a place of worship, where you are likely to find other sensitive people and an atmosphere of acceptance.
- If you like someone and would like to be friends, be sure he or she knows it. Don’t hide your interest in order to avoid being hurt. You have to take some chances.
- Spend time together and listen to each other, each taking turns sharing more and more of how you really feel about things.
- When one of you is having trouble, help out.
- Do not stay in a “friendship” with someone who does not show interest in you or a desire to be helpful to you. Hold out for a real friend.