Boundaries for Highly Sensitive People: the yes, the no, the confusion
by Caroline Van Kimmenade, TheHappySensitive.com
Jan 12, 2021

I get a lot of questions about boundaries for Highly Sensitive People. BUT – many sensitive souls don't know that their real questions are about boundaries!

They will google overwhelm and exhaustion and physical pain and all kinds of problems and ailments that are the result of not having supportive boundaries.

So, the fact that you are here, explicitly reading an article on boundaries for Highly Sensitive People is very good news. Congratulations! It means you know what it is you need to work on to get closer to your goals and having the kinds of relationships you want.

Boundaries, what are they?
Boundaries are technically flexible stop signs, flexible limitations, flexible filters.

Personal Boundaries are a kind of resistance: you don't just let everything and everyone in. You don't just let everything and everyone happen. That's what boundaries are. They're not walls. They're not moats. They're not canals. They're not fixed in one place. They can move and adjust depending on circumstances.

Boundaries are holding something back. They are filtering something out. They're not just letting everything in. Boundaries are a form of self care. Boundaries happen when you make decisions about how you want to be treated, what you'll accept and when you'll walk away.

What is the key to setting good boundaries for Highly Sensitive People?
Simply and essentially put, boundaries are: really seeing things for what they are.

That sounds really, really easy, but it's actually really, really hard because we people have all these little delusions and fantasies about ourselves, about other people, and those get in the way of boundaries.

One topic that trips up a lot of sensitive souls is spotting toxic people. If you're empathic and always trying to understand others, it's easy to make excuses for inexcusable behaviour.
On the other hand, when you're really struggling to set the most basic boundary, you can end up being one of those thin skinned people who blame everyone and everything for being insensitive. Whoops!

While this sounds easy to differentiate in theory, it can be really hard to know in practice. Is this person really toxic, and do you need to step away from them? Or have you not done enough to communicate how you want to be treated? Some of this is life experience but even if you have a lot of life experience, you can still end up mistaking one thing for something else.

Why is it so hard to have good boundaries for Highly Sensitive People?
For many of us, at least some of our childhood involved dancing around messed up things and then telling ourselves stories to make us feel better. That's where our boundaries got screwed up.

You make allowances for people because you want to stay connected. You don't want to be abandoned. You're afraid to be made fun of. You worry someone won't like you. You worry they won't be o.k. when you tell them no.

When you see what is actually going on, and that honest seeing shows you a difficult problem, you naturally freak out as a kid. The smartest thing to do is pretend you didn't see it so you can all get along and you can feel better.

This is how our boundaries went askew. This is the work we have to do as adults, to get our boundaries realigned: clean up the blind spots that we developed as kids.

How the Elephants in the Room affect your HSP boundaries
By the way, this work is even more intense if you are someone who tends to see the elephant in the room a lot.

Chances are, you saw many many elephants when you were a kid. Most of those elephants were too scary to contemplate. So, you developed blind spots so you didn't have to worry about those elephants.

This is true especially when you know you did see many of those elephants when you were little. For every elephant you know you saw, there are probably at least 2 more that you had to deny to be able to keep the faith.

As little kids, we feel a lot, but we don't have the psychological understanding to put those feelings in perspective. We feel the elephant, but we don't see how the elephant is creating its own problems, or blaming us for no good reason, or just not our responsibility at all.

As a result, many of the elephants we see as kids are just too much to deal with. You had to shut down your awareness of them in order to stay balanced with your little kid brain.

Yet, those blind spots persist and get you in trouble as an adult. As adults, we have to practice seeing more clearly in order to have better boundaries.

Are effective boundaries an inner job, or an outer one?
Boundaries are intimately tied up with understanding yourself. If you have no idea who you are, what you want and what you feel, then you cannot have good boundaries.

You can download some random boundaries from some guy named John and it works for him, but it's not going to work for you.

(This is true even if John is your dad, or your mom (Johnette) or the best lover in the world! John's boundaries are not a blueprint for the boundaries that you need to thrive!)

You might be really good at asserting boundaries, but if the boundaries you are trying to enforce do not suit you, then they won't work.

Similarly, you might know quite well what your boundaries are, but if you are afraid to rock the boat… then you won't act on your boundaries and they won't help much either.

So good boundaries require the inner work of knowing yourself well, and the outer work of speaking up for yourself and enforcing your boundaries.

The link between boundaries and childhood illusions
What happens to a lot of us is that we get taught to use John's limits and do it the way that John does it. And John does things differently than you do. And so you think that you have to live by John's rules or there's something wrong with you.

Yet, your boundaries are always very personal. It's always about you. You cannot have good boundaries if you don't know yourself. So when I work with clients, I really help them tune in, connect back in and understand and claim what they really need. This also means learning to trust your intuition.

Boundaries disappear when our illusions creep in. Chances are, you have hopes and dreams that will never be, especially about other people.

You think maybe if I will just do more of this, they will do more of that (even though they've shown you time and time again that they never do that).

In those moments, your boundaries just skedaddle. You think: "no, no, no, no, no, I don't need any boundaries, I just need to think positively, have a good attitude and just try harder and do the same darn thing again and again and again".

Without your intuition and without being connected to your emotions, your brain will just go off into LaLaLand and your boundaries go out the window. Or rather – instead of having boundaries, you will have a house with wide open windows.

What if you can't set any boundaries? Like – it just won't work?
You are the one managing your boundaries. There is always a way! The only thing is: you may not like the options that you have. This where people often get stuck, they don't like the options they have, so they pretend they have no options.

Having boundaries means making a decision based on your available options.

By the way – sometimes your options are to learn more about self care and setting healthy boundaries! Learning new self-care skills is one of the smartest ways to invest in your well-being and success in the world. Especially when you're practicing everything you know and it's just not working.

Chances are – there is a blind spot somewhere but because it is your blind spot, you won't be able to find it on your own!

Good boundaries are a learning curve. As you learn and grow and life gets more interesting, you will need an upgrade in how you do boundaries as well.

This comes back to seeing things for what they really are and not what you wish they were. And that's where boundaries really come in.

When you see things for what they are, boundaries are easy. When you don't see things for what they are, boundaries are very confusing and very difficult.

This is why, when I work with clients on boundaries, a lot of the work on boundaries revolves around helping you understand what you are feeling, what you are wanting and when you are hitting your limits.

That means exploring what is really going on (and learning how to do that) Not: repeating what you were taught your were supposed to feel.

Do you feel wrong for getting tired and overwhelmed more quickly?
As a highly sensitive person, you hit your limits more quickly than most other people.

This doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you. It doesn't mean you can't do things. It just means you need to realize in time: "oh, I've hit my limit". Preferably, before you are in emotional and physical pain!

What happens to a lot of us is that we get taught to use John's limits and do it the way that John does. Because John is smart and successful and whatever. Yet, John does things differently than you do because he is a different kind of person.

When you think that you have to live by John's rules or else there's something wrong with you…then you end up with poor boundaries.

Why? Because you're afraid to be yourself. You were taught being you is wrong. (It's not!)

Questions to ask yourself about your HSP boundaries
Your true boundaries are always very personal. It's always about you.

You need to respect your sensitive nature. You cannot have good boundaries if you don't know yourself. And so when I work with clients, I really help them tune in, connect back in. What is it that they need?

What is it that you want?

What are your own natural limits?

That's often a discovery journey because we're not really taught how to get to know ourselves. There are not a lot of people who will tell you to spend some time getting to understand what really works for you.

(This is why I spent a lot of time learning how to do that, and how to to teach other Highly Sensitive People this!)

Sometimes people will tell you to figure out what you want, but often what people mean is that in your head, you should come up with a story that sounds good. That you come up with a nice mind movie that is acceptable, and then you try to fit yourself into that.

But that's not what boundaries are. Your boundaries come from the inside out.

First you need to know where the line is. Then (second step) you need to practice drawing the line. That line is a decision you make, based on your true limits and needs.

How can you get better at setting healthy boundaries?
If you'd like to learn more about empowering boundaries for highly sensitive people, I have a program called Happy Sensitive Foundations.

This is all about boundaries, self care practices and practical strategies for highly sensitive people. I also teach you about the subtle distinctions you need to understand to thrive: that subtle thing you sense, what is it? What does it mean? What do you do about it?

By the way, there's a free email series that talks more about boundaries and how this can be difficult for sensitive souls, especially if you're someone who wants to do things but you feel like your sensitivity is holding you back. You can sign up for the free series at the bottom of this page.

Your sensitivity is an innate trait that needs honouring. However, that doesn't mean you have to go through life feeling overwhelmed or powerless. Sensitive souls have a deep, meaningful and beautiful experience of life when they know how to protect their limits.

Q&A

How do you set strong boundaries when you are an empath and feel everything?
For empaths, setting boundaries is extra hard because:

  1. You acutely feel what the other person goes through when you don't do what they want. You don't have the luxury of not knowing what that's like for them. So you have to set boundaries knowing and feeling how it impacts the other.
  2. Some people will emotionally and energetically lash out when you don't do what they want. You might be so shaken by that that you try to avoid it at all costs (and don't set boundaries)
  3. You make a lot of careful observations and pick up on a lot of subtle cues. The sheer sensory overload of that overwhelms you and makes it harder to do something. You spend a lot of time trying to figure things out – and then the moment for action has already passed.
  4. You're so wrapped up in what others are going through, that you don't know what your own limits, needs and boundaries are much of the time. How can you set strong boundaries when you don't really know yourself? You can't.
  5. You have a lack of boundaries because you want to connect with and be on the same page as other people. In a way, many things you value are the opposite of having boundaries. Yet – you also need boundaries to adequately handle the complexities of life. It's a big dilemma!
  6. You get stuck in one stress response after another and lose sight of your options. Then later, when you are alone and have calmed down, you know what you should have done or said!
  7. Because your observations are often different from what people around you notice, you get stuck in self-doubt. Maybe you're wrong? Maybe you're just crazy? Maybe you're imagining things?

When you're an empath, setting strong, healthy boundaries requires learning:

  • How to know what is your energy and what isn't
  • How to let go of what isn't yours in the moment (so others can have their reaction and it doesn't overwhelm you)
  • Plus, you need to learn how to let go of energy from others overall so that you start to feel who you are.

This is not a simple or easy to figure out process.

For empaths who are tired of struggling, dabbling and mucking around with this on their own, I teach all the steps in my From Suffering Sponge to Sensitive Savant Programme.

How do you set boundaries without hurting, upsetting or offending other people?
Ah, this is the Million Dollar Keep the Peace at All Costs Question!

The first thing you need to realise is: if keeping the peace is your number one priority at all times, then you can't set boundaries. Sorry kid. It's like asking how you can lose weight and be on a junkfood-only diet. It just doesn't work.

So when clients have this question, what we do first is some digging and healing around why keeping the peace is your number one priority. Usually there is a lot of fear beneath this desire! And some strong beliefs about not being important enough to rock the boat as well.

Of course you can set boundaries without needlessly offending or hurting people. That said – there will be people who are hurt and offended simply because you don't do what they want no matter how you do or say it. That's the risk you must take.

And then… some boundaries simply are painful to set because you are saying "hey, sorry, but that thing you really really want, is something I really really hate!" And if you water down that statement until it's completely unclear, you're just stringing someone along which is worse and a lot more painful in the long haul.

Do you need permission to say no?
A lot of sensitive people want to only set a boundary if the other person gives them encouragement and permission. This is 100% understandable, but also completely impossible.

Boundaries are for situations when your needs and wants clash with those of someone else. They are – by nature – not happy affirmations of shared goals and desires!

In a very good relationship, you'll be able to find a common goal – despite different needs and wants. (E.g. "We both value honesty. Even though this conversation is difficult, it is honest and that brings us closer!"). However, most boundaries will need to be set without being able to agree on a higher benefit!

If you are worried about offending and hurting others, chances are you also:

  • feel really stressed when there is tension in a room of people
  • try really hard to keep the peace
  • are uncomfortable with feelings of anger – in yourself and others
  • see conflict and disagreement as a very bad thing
  • try hard to smoothe things over when people get upset

The good news is, you are not alone and because this is such a big concern for many empathic people. I've taught classes on these topics that are available for you to listen to.

You'll learn about the purpose of anger, and how to stop fearing it.

You'll learn how to deal with tension and conflict between people and you'll get a totally different understanding of real inner peace.

It's all in the Happy Sensitive Library in the Tension Tactics Class and What to do with Anger Class. These classes are an important key to healthy boundaries for Highly Sensitive People.

By the way, the Happy Sensitive Library is the self-study resource I've created for Highly Sensitive People. I'm continually adding resources there to help you with all kinds of practical aspects of being Highly Sensitive. If that sounds like something that could be helpful, you can take a look at everything that's inside here.

How do you set boundaries when you need time alone (as an introvert) but others want to spend more time with you?
This is a question that links back to the previous question. At root, you have to accept that your needs differ from theirs and that it's o.k. to let people know about your limits.

What many introverts do though is that they cancel plans last minute or quietly disappear on people. When you do that, this is a sign that you don't really know your own limits and/or are afraid to communicate those limits (so you put off telling anyone and then opt out last-minute).

Warning: Unfortunately, some introverts can be incredibly disrespectful to others and do a last minute "F.U." in the name of self-care. They give themselves a Universal Introvert Cop-Out in the name of overwhelm when… really, they just have a really negative attitude in general ("people suck, I hate socialising, nobody says anything interesting anyway, people are beneath me, enjoying get-togethers is for losers…" ). For those introverts, it's their attitude that is making things hard, not their introversion.

If you need more alone time than most, you can claim that time gracefully by taking into account what other people need and want. This doesn't mean giving up your alone time, but it does mean finding a compromise and planning ahead.

P.S. A HUGE indication that you need to work on your boundaries is when you have no way to predict what you will and won't be able to do tomorrow, next week, next month. You avoid making any plans, because you never know how you'll feel.

The exception to that is when you're so burned out that you're at home with sick leave and your days are truly hit or miss. In all other cases though – and also when you're burned out – learning your Happy Sensitive Foundations will make all the difference!

A practical boundary example for HSPs:
Years ago, when I had chronic fatigue and very little energy, I made some boundary adjustments for my grandmother's birthday. I knew the whole family would be there, we'd be eating late and I'd have to travel far to get to the restaurant (2,5+ hours!).

This was more than I could handle, so I thought about how I could honour my grandmother's birthday and meet my own needs.

I realised that if I could travel during the day, be home in time, and not have to deal with the whole family, I'd be happy and able to spend time with grandma.

Ultimately, I just needed a quieter spot to meet with her, and a better time to meet. So, I called her up and arranged to meet her on a Saturday afternoon instead. She really enjoyed that time! Truthfully, at her advanced age, those big family gatherings were probably much too overwhelming for her too.

If you have a "how do I manage this social situation" dilemma, set up a time to talk with me here. I'd be happy to brainstorm with you on how you can make it work for both you and them.

Boundaries for Highly Sensitive People are one of the cheapest and most effective self-care tools there are. One well-spoken No can save you an hour of massaging to get the knots out of your shoulders!

Last but not least:

3 common yet unhealthy boundaries many Highly Sensitive People use to cope

Unhealthy Boundary 1: Dissociating and leaving your body a lot
This means you avoid any and all conflict by tuning it out, in any way possible. It makes you really uncomfortable, so you "leave"!

You run away in your head when someone gets angry, or tense. As a result, you don't know what you're feeling much of the time because you're so busy trying to avoid feeling something you don't like.

When you do this, you will also end up being very sensitive to energy from other people.

Some people might congratulate you on your intuition! Yet actually, this kind of knowing is very destructive to your own health and peace of mind because you become too focused on others and lose touch with yourself.

I have a solution for this problem here, it's called the Energy Sensitivity Starter Kit.

This kit teaches very specific boundaries for Highly Sensitive People who are sensitive to energy. This is for you when you know what everyone else is going through, but you're not really sure what you are going through – that part is a little fuzzy! This Kit will bring it back into focus.

Unhealthy Boundary 2: Putting up with something much too long, and then exploding (or imploding)
When you put up with something for too long, and then implode or explode, you're lacking awareness of the build up of stress. You don't notice until things get really really bad.

As a result, you can't intervene in time and life tends to suddenly overwhelm you, seemingly out of nowhere. I discuss this problem more in this video.

By the way – this is a very common issue! Most people do this and I used to do it too. (Which is how I know how hard it is to change this without the right approach). Boundaries are hard for us Highly Sensitive People when we were taught to toughen up, be the strong caretaker and ignore our own needs!

Unhealthy Boundary 3: Shutting down, blocking, isolating, running away and avoiding
Your motto is: "I make sure nobody gets the chance to overwhelm me!"

But all this avoidance also means you miss out on what life has to offer. It's hard to do something meaningful in the world when your coping mechanism is to run away from everything!

Do you know your boundaries are not really working to keep you feeling safe, confident and productive?
Set up a call with me here to get Clarity on what you can do about it!

Spoiler alert: there is always something you can do about it!

But when it's your own life, you often can't see the forrest for the trees. That's normal, and it's why I'm available to talk to.

I've been helping Highly Sensitive People, Empaths, Clair-sentients and many others on the sensitivity spectrum, since 2014

Everything I teach comes from what I learned myself – the hard way!

Boundaries are so so so important for Highly Sensitive People, but you can't learn them from a book – not even from a great article like this

That's because boundaries are deeply personal. When I work with a client to help them get to know, honour and assert their boundaries, I use a systematic approach (we don't just talk willy nilly!).

Yet, I don't know in advance what the exact "formula" will be for you. I don't have a list in advance of what your exact boundaries need to be. That is something we have to discover together!

Another reason boundaries are tricky is because they are intertwined with your beliefs and emotions. Finding a healthy new boundary often requires some emotional disentangling first! It's not just something you can decide to change in your head and be done with.