When you’re sensitive to the needs of others, it’s easy to be swayed — even if it’s bad for you. Here’s how to change that.
Boundaries have always eluded me. I didn’t realize until a few years ago that being a highly sensitive person (HSP) was actually a big part of why I’ve always found boundaries so mind-boggling. Not because sensitive people can’t be good at setting boundaries — but because we’re often more attuned to the needs of others than ourselves.
It was Dr. Elaine Aron, the godmother of sensitivity research, who first introduced this idea. According to Aron, as early as childhood, we highly sensitive people have an acute awareness of changes in the people around us — particularly adults like our teachers and parents.
As a result, many highly sensitive kids adopt a way of altering our behavior to put others at ease, because we may have picked up on a subtle shift in their mood, body language, or even their energy.
As beautifully intended as this is (and it’s part of what makes HSPs so special), it can also lead to us struggling with boundaries because we can be so affected (and our behavior, mood, and energy as well) by those subtle changes in others.
People talk about boundaries as if they are easy to establish and everyone understands them. But if you’re an HSP who has never really had boundaries, that can be easier said than done.
It might be a relief to hear that you’re not the only one who has read the articles and seen the posts on social media about WHAT boundaries are and WHY you need them…but you haven’t really worked out the HOW of it.
Here are five things I’ve learned about the ongoing and ever-evolving process of creating better boundaries as a highly sensitive person.
How to Set Better Boundaries as an HSP
1. Learn to notice when you’re influenced by others.
One of the most straight forward definitions of boundaries is establishing for ourselves — then telling others — what is okay for us and what isn’t.
But for those of us who are sensitive to the needs of others and have heightened empathy, it can be a natural reaction to be swayed by bigger energy, or what we sense somebody wants from us.
This means saying yes even when we want to say no. To a friend, partner, parent, boss, coworker. Anyone, really.
It’s taking on someone else’s responsibility at work because we sense something needs to be done and no one is doing it.
It’s having sex with our partner even when we don’t feel like it.
It’s saying yes to go somewhere when we’d rather stay home.
It’s not saying anything about the dishes and just cleaning them up to avoid being a nag.
It’s keeping quiet when we feel strongly about something and letting someone else’s voice speak over ours, even if we disagree.
As highly sensitive women (in particular, but I’m sure we all have boundary issues, regardless of how we identify), we mostly seem to be afraid of what others will think of us.
But on an energetic level, we can struggle with strong boundaries because our energy is so heavily influenced by the bigger, stronger energy of others, or the instinct to shift our behavior to comfort someone else.
Everyone aligns themselves with the strongest energy in the room, so it’s important that as HSPs, we start to notice and be aware of when this is happening, who it happens around the most, and how we can stay true to our sensitive nature — but also be strong and boundaried so we’re less affected by others.
2. Practice the ancient art of saying NOPE.
When someone asks something of us, it can take a bit of time to process the information in order to determine how we feel and make a decision. When we’re put on the spot and don’t have time to step away, our natural reaction might be to say yes to end the conversation or to put the other person at ease.
But this can then lead to saying yes to things we want to say no to and feeling resentful or not-so-great about the impact of our decision.
It can be challenging to say no to a loved one, boss, or coworker, and it’s a muscle we have to practice flexing.
We can start by saying no to small things such as people selling something on the street or giving away free samples at the supermarket. Then we can build up to saying no to things we genuinely don’t want to do, as well as working toward taking the time and space to feel into a decision, instead of agreeing just to suit another person.
You can simply say, “No thank you.” You can still be polite, but firm and clear that no is your answer. And when you say no to things you don’t want to do, you can say yes to things that are so much more meaningful.
3. Check your body’s physiological response.
Part of being an HSP is the sensitivity of our nervous system to external stimuli. As a result, we can learn so much from the physical reactions we feel in any given situation. It takes time and effort to learn to observe what’s going on instead of getting lost in the reaction, but it can be so helpful in identifying when you need to create boundaries.
This can look like so many things, and it’s important to get to know what your body does when it feels unsafe or as though a boundary is being stepped on. It might include a sinking feeling in your stomach, an increase in heart rate, heat rising in your cheeks, feeling frazzled or at a loss for words, feeling irritated or angry all of a sudden, and in fight, flight, or freeze mode.
People are always going to ask us for things or need something from us. It’s not their fault if it’s more than we’re able to give. Sometimes our body gives us clues when we’re not okay with something long before our mind realizes what’s going on. The more we can be aware of it, the better we can get at checking in and saying, “Thanks but no thanks.”
4. Notice when and where you feel most overwhelmed — and with whom.
Everyday occurrences can overwhelm and exhaust highly sensitive people. Loud noises. Big crowds. Being at work all day, talking to lots of people. Bright lights. Heightened emotional situations.
It can help to know, generally, what affects us the most, but it’s important we check in with ourselves regularly to be aware of what’s going on for us (because we’re unique, individual beings).
There is no black and white to this. Sensitivity (like most things) is on a spectrum. Start paying attention to the interactions, events, and responsibilities that leave you feeling exhausted or drained of energy. This is the first step to truly understanding your own energy and being able to have clarity on changes you’d like to make, conversations you need to have, and things you’d like to create boundaries around for your own personal peace.
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5. Call your energy back in.
As sensitive souls, naturally good at holding space for others and often affected by other people, we can feel quite drained by the end of the day, or after a big life change.
It’s so important that we look after our own energy and have a practice to keep on top of it. This can be as simple as learning to stop, breathe, and call any energy you’ve sent out or leaked away back to you.
Visualize it however you please — I focus on a golden orb in the center of my body and all the energy I’ve been sending out like golden threads. I see them unhooking from whatever or whoever I’ve been thinking about (either consciously or subconsciously) and reel them back to me, making the golden orb grow brighter and bigger and better than ever.
It can feel a bit silly at first, but it is an effective practice that can soothe the nervous system, re-energize us, and create energetic boundaries that allow us to take our personal power back.
This is not an overnight shift in suddenly having super strong boundaries and letting no one stomp on them. We’re all fluid, energetic beings that adapt and evolve over lifetimes, not necessarily overnight. For highly sensitive people, this can be something we’ve never really done. It takes time.
Even after years of learning boundaries, we can still suddenly find ourselves giving our time, energy, or power away because someone we really loved asked something, and we said yes without even thinking about it. Or we can find ourselves in a new situation, realizing we definitely never want to be there again, so we’ll change something for next time (say, an awkward encounter at work, or with a client, customer, or stranger).
The key is to not be too hard on yourself. With time, you’ll look back and realize how far you’ve come and how much easier you say no. You can get to a good place with the people in your life when you’re not constantly giving all of yourself (and feeling fed up or resentful because of it).
It feels like such a cliche to say it doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s true. For highly sensitive people like you and me, boundaries are so important for our happiness, our relationships, and how we show up in our lives.
You might like:
- Why Highly Sensitive People Get Overwhelmed Easily (and How to Fix It)
- Why HSPs Hate Busy Schedules and Feeling Rushed
- 13 Problems Only HSPs Will Understand
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