Highly Sensitive People (HSP) and Boundaries

Written by: Tiffany Oh, Psychotherapy Practice Management Intern

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Boundaries are important for Highly Sensitive People (HSP). Some of the most defining characteristics of HSPs are that they have hypersensitivity to stimuli (internal and external). This can look like physical things in our environment like nature or our thoughts and emotions too.

It is easier for those who experience this sensory-processing sensitivity to feel overwhelmed because they tend to feel intense emotions towards some of the same things that would not necessarily cause the same reaction for others. This provides the need for stronger boundaries for themselves to better understand and manage the world around them. As an HSP, I find myself struggling with my own boundaries, which affects my relationships with others, but most importantly, my relationship with myself as well.

Here are some things I keep in mind regarding this topic:

1.Being sensitive is not a bad thing Many people have told me that I am “too sensitive.”  If anything, it gives me the power to empathize and relate to friends and family and those I do not know as well. It gives me the ability to be more self-aware of my own emotions and pick up on cues from those around me. This is a double-edged sword, as much as it is useful to feel slight changes in my environment, it can be quite overstimulating at times. I think it is best to get a better understanding of high sensitivity and utilize that in various contexts to combat the difficult moments of being an HSP.

2.Practicing saying “no” This is one of the hardest boundaries to keep because I hate the feeling of rejection, and this causes me to overthink the whole situation. I tend to think about the other person and what they would think if I said no. Maybe they are too overwhelmed and need help or maybe they would think I am rude and don’t care about them. These thoughts crowd my mind as I try to say “no,” and then I often do not say it because my mind is focused on something else. What I find to be helpful is to be honest and communicate. Saying something like: “I really appreciate you asking me for help, however, I feel like I have too much on my plate right now. I will let you know when and if I can help if the offer still stands later,” really works in terms of maintaining personal boundaries and helping others at the same time. It is important to know that it is possible to agree or disagree to a request on your own terms while knowing and communicating your limits. Make sure to be direct and clear with intentions, so it does not confuse others or give the wrong message.

3.Listening to yourself When I feel overwhelmed or feel like I am pushing a boundary too much, my body lets me know that there is something off— and I honor that. Whether it’s my stomach twisting and turning or my thoughts bouncing off the walls in my head, I think it helps me to stop what I am doing, take a couple of deep breaths, and take a five or ten minute break. After starting a habit of doing this when I feel overstimulated, I find it easier to keep this in the back of my mind for different situations. It almost becomes second nature as soon as I feel discomfort with my own feelings. This will eventually lead to finding limitations and knowing where to draw the line when it comes to boundaries; it lets me know when I am uncomfortable with something and if it’s possible to “filter” the stimuli that is making me feel that way whether it’s another person or external like a physical location. 

4.Acknowledging that you come before others You cannot control others’ feelings and actions. You can control yours though, and the only thing you are responsible for is how you show up in situations. This is why it’s extremely crucial to know that you come before others. I know that when I feel swamped with my own thoughts, I tend to be more reactive emotionally and say or do things I do not mean. I am still in the process of navigating this as it seems hard to feel all these emotions from several stimuli, but I can’t do anything about it. It feels more frustrating and upsetting that even the slightest change can have such a big impact on someone. However, you aren’t directly responsible for another person’s behavior and/or actions. Something you might have done may have contributed to one’s emotions, but you aren’t the only factor in the equation. Accepting the other factors can provide some support for the unhelpful feelings within you when you feel guilty about someone or something else. Learning this is tough, but I know that it is a personal boundary that can be beneficial when sustained. Drawing that strict boundary is what makes the difference between helping others and helping others at the cost of your own mental health. 

In light of the emphasis on mental well-being, boundaries have become a conversation for a lot of people. The world and circumstances are constantly changing, and it’s okay to re-evaluate boundaries at any time that you feel is necessary for that. They are essential to help you preserve your own health.

Being an HSP, I recognize that this is difficult. The continuous hyper-awareness of our surroundings makes it a great challenge to effectively maintain boundaries when we are also being told that it’s okay to feel our feelings. However, it becomes a concern when it impacts one’s mental health. Starting off small with acknowledging when and what specifically makes you feel uncomfortable can help when you don’t know where to start. Your mental health can only improve from there as you become more mindful and comfortable with yourself.

Remember that boundaries are there to help you! They are set in place by you, for you.

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Want to read more? Here are a few of my related blog posts you may be interested in checking out!

“HSP 101″

– “Perfectionism, How Does It Affect You?”

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