Since highly sensitive people tend to be people-pleasers, creating (and maintaining) boundaries can be a challenge. But it is doable — and crucial.
We highly sensitive people (HSPs) have a lot of amazing traits: we’re empathic, deep thinkers and listeners, and notice all the little things others may miss. But we also tend to be people-pleasers since we don’t want to disappoint others. However, this can make setting boundaries difficult, as well as maintaining those boundaries.
Although it has not always been easy, I’ve found that the more I adhere to my boundaries, the better off — and less overwhelmed — I am. While HSPs are on a sliding scale of sensitivity and everyone is different, some sensitive people may have a harder time sticking to boundaries than others. I find that when I don’t maintain mine, I suffer the consequences — I’ll be more irritable, have a shorter temper, or get emotionally overloaded. Here are a few areas of life where I think boundaries are most needed for HSPs, followed by ways to maintain them.
4 Key Boundaries to Make as an HSP
1. Boundaries around time — others demand your time, but you need to leave some for yourself, too.
For highly sensitive people, time anxiety is real, and when we give all our time to others, we often leave little (if any) for ourselves. But we must remember that time is one of our biggest commodities. Even with a full work schedule and/or kids, we still have to clean, cook, do laundry, run errands, and so on… so it can be hard to find the time we need to nurture ourselves.
Others will demand our time: Work. Relationships. Friendships. Children. Being clear about your boundaries regarding your precious time will give you space to breathe, expand your energy, relax your nervous system, and give peace back to you in ways that recharge your HSP batteries.
2. Boundaries around emotional energy — absorbing others’ feelings is an HSP strength, but you can’t do it 24/7.
We HSPs are known for holding space for others, listening, and being an emotional support to anyone who needs us. While we (usually) enjoy these things, they can also become draining when done in excess. For example, in long conversations, people who talk only about themselves without pausing or asking about you can be “emotional vampires” and suck all the energy from us.
I am pretty hard about this boundary, as it can be extremely exhausting. Depending on your relationship with the person, you can excuse yourself from the conversation or simply say exactly what’s on your mind (politely, of course!), such as, “Sorry to interrupt, but I need to take a minute to process everything you’ve said.” Sometimes, I have reached my breaking point and have even snapped at the person-in-question to stop — something I would not recommend.
Bottom line: It’s about protecting your energy, whether that means leaving a party early, saying “no” to an event, or turning down a commitment you simply don’t have time or energy for. By enacting boundaries, you’ll maintain the balance you need to keep your sanity.
3. Boundaries around personal space — protecting your physical environment is important.
For sensitive people, their environment greatly impacts them. This could mean environmental stimuli like loud noises, foul smells (chemical sensitivity is real!), or violence on TV. Having a safe and quiet space to retreat to when needed is essential to recalibrate our nervous systems after a day out in the overstimulating world.
Unfortunately, not everyone is afforded the luxury of living alone or having their own personal space — some have partners, kids, or roommates who try and knock the door down any time an HSP seeks alone time. This is why it’s important to communicate your need for space and quiet time (while reminding the person it’s not about them but about you and your needs).
You can create an “HSP sanctuary” at home, a corner or room to call your own where you can recharge in peace: You can read, listen to music, or take a nap. Getting out in nature is also the perfect antidote to a chaotic environment for sensitive people.
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4. Boundaries around mental space — making sure your headspace is calm.
When highly sensitive people get overstimulated and overwhelmed, it can lead to increased anxiety. We begin to second-guess our decisions and compare ourselves to others (not in a healthy way). Well, close the door on that bully in your brain! Negative thoughts, especially on repeat, create stress in the body. Unchecked, this can almost certainly lead to even more overwhelm since we feel the effects of our thoughts.
Plus, aside from our inner critic, we may hear the voice of those who have a strong influence over us — partners, parents, bosses, you name it. On top of the challenge of living our daily lives, these negative thought tracks can be on repeat. It’s like having a negative person in our house following us around and influencing our moods and decisions. Would you let someone into your house and follow you around and tell you things that made you feel sad or irritable? Never!
So, similarly, mentally close the door on the negative mental influences in your life, even your own. Anything that invites negative thoughts or comparison (say social media, for example), give it a break, close the door on it, or simply say, “You are not welcome!” At times, I have done this out loud during really incessant brain-bully days. I know: This may feel like an overwhelming task, but it just takes practice one day — and thought — at a time.
It can also be helpful to create a mental HSP sanctuary through things like breathing and visualization exercises. And setting up an “HSP mental health toolbox” can be beneficial, too, which includes getting outside, as nature is healing for sensitive people.
Once you do the above, how do you maintain your new boundaries? Good question. Here are some things to remember:
- Become intimately acquainted with where your personal boundaries lie. Everyone’s boundaries are going to be different. How much time are you willing to give to your job? How much mistreatment and burnout can you tolerate before walking away? What is essential for total harmony in your environment, both externally and internally? I suggest journaling as a way to really dig deep to discover your boundaries. See what triggers you most often, what drains you, and perhaps what makes you angry — and then explore them. Dig deeper and deeper.
- Get comfortable with upholding boundaries, for this is essential in maintaining them. In my experience, if someone with ill intentions knows you struggle with your boundaries, it’s more likely they will routinely challenge them. I had a boss who would routinely ask me to come in on my day off. Seriously, weekly! Initially, as a people-pleaser (I’m working on it!), I would jump at the opportunity to show my dedication. But, over time, I grew angry and resentful… and I started to say “no.” While so insanely aggravating, it was a wonderful practice for me to practice saying “no.” It can be such an uncomfortable experience, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes. And the more you draw clear boundaries around you, the more you may find you get flooded with personal power. And you, my dear, deserve to feel that.
- Saying “no” doesn’t have to be a big, emotional showdown — it can simply be a “no thank you” and that’s it. But, beware, those who don’t have a strong concept of boundaries are more likely to have their feathers ruffled and take it personally when you tell them no. But just keep in mind that their reaction is a reflection of their own internal struggle and nothing to do with you. Stand tall in your decision to draw your boundaries. Hug yourself. Hooray, you did it — you are standing up for yourself! Remind yourself you are protecting yourself through your boundaries. After all, it’s the ultimate act of self-love.
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