Sense and Sensitivity

The ups and downs of daily life as a Highly Sensitive Person

Developing Healthy Boundaries

How HSPs can set clear boundaries in their relationships.

Photo by Alex France
In my last post, I talked about how highly sensitive people can be vulnerable to narcissists and why we so often, unwittingly and unhappily, find ourselves in relationships with them. Whether or not someone is a narcissist is not as important, however, as how we feel when we're with them. Knowing that as HSPs we are vulnerable to others is the first step to keeping ourselves safe. The next step is to develop boundaries.

Boundaries are healthy limits we set between ourselves and other people. They define who we are and who we are not, what we are comfortable with and what we are not. And because we absorb so much of what's happening around us, including the feelings and energies of other people, boundaries are essential for HSPs.

Relationships test our boundaries, so it's important to know where to draw the line. The key is to listen to your own feelings. No matter what anyone else tells you, if it feels bad, it is bad for you. For example, perhaps your partner wants to go to a party but you don't. Your partner then gets angry at you for spoiling their fun. Perhaps they try to talk you into going and staying out late. Knowing what you need, and realising that your needs are as important as theirs, means you can and should establish a boundary, such as telling them that you will go to the party but you do not approve of their getting angry at you.

Of course the challenge comes not only in establishing boundaries, but maintaining them. It's one thing to draw the line. But what happens when someone crosses it? When this happens, many of us, HSPs and non-HSPs alike, can feel taken advantage of and victimised. Sometimes we get angry and lash out, but end up feeling hurt. Or perhaps we are afraid to enforce our boundaries and say no for fear of losing that person's love. But real love does not make you afraid. Real love accepts you and respects you for who you are.

Once you know where your boundaries are, it's important to have consequences. People will often test you to see if your boundaries are weak or strong, and whether you really mean what you say. You don't have to get angry or argue. You just have to be clear. If your partner bullies you into going to parties, for example, and you find it upsetting, you need to talk about it and be clear about your needs. Tell them how you feel and then explain that if they bully you again, you will not go to parties with them anymore. Or you may decide to find your own way home so you can leave when you want to. Decide what will work for you and make it clear. In a good relationship, both partners will respect each other's boundaries. If your partner continually crosses the line, you may be involved with someone who doesn't respect you, in which case it may not be the right relationship for you.

Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries can be challenging for anyone, but for highly sensitive people, they are essential. Understand who you are and what you need, make your needs known by establishing clear boundary lines, and then enforce them by creating consequences and acting on them. Don't try to change others. Begging someone to be nicer to you will not work. What will work is to change your response to them. Tell them clearly that you will no longer tolerate their bad behaviour and that if it continues, you will leave. And then follow through. Your boundaries are there to protect you. You need and deserve protection. And a good relationship will let you and your partner both maintain and respect each other's boundaries and each other's needs. By setting and maintaining clear boundaries, it will be a lot easier to avoid the wrong people and find the right ones.

Deborah Ward's new book, Overcoming Fear with Mindfulness, is available now.

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