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Highly Sensitive Person

Graceful Boundaries

Part 1: How highly sensitive people can create graceful boundaries.

This article is the first of a four-part series.

While working on the movie Sensitive and in Love, I was looking at the book Highly Sensitive People in Love and noticed that I never discussed boundaries directly, although the subject was there often. Many people now are writing about HSPs and boundaries, so I think I will chime in, first with the basics, then with something more.

The Brief Course

If you just want advice about boundaries, most of us agree that the main thing is being able to say “no.” Here’s the brief course:

1. Make sure you are clear. Most HSPs give hints and make suggestions that others do not hear for what they really are. Don’t say “maybe,” “I’ll try,” or “if I can” when you really mean no. That’s part of “volume.” You can be clear yet also polite and caring.

2. You don’t have to give a reason.

3. Only you know if you are overloaded. Probably they would not have asked you if they knew it would be hard on you. You have to decide when you're overloaded and give the asker the chance to be kind to you by not overloading you unknowingly.

4. Delay if you are having trouble deciding what you want to do: “I’ll get back to you.”

5. Don’t answer face to face if it would be easier to say no by voicemail, text, or email.

6. The person with “higher rank” gets to set the boundaries—takes the best seat, the quieter spot, the bigger office, makes the rules, assigns tasks, and generally gets their way. So you need to feel equally or more important. If the other does not see you that way, work on that.

The Backstory

What are boundaries? A well-functioning, open (not isolated) system, as described by systems theory, has the boundaries that are best suited to its needs. Whatever the system, it tries to take in what is good for it and keep out what is not good for it, whether it is your home, your body, or each cell in your body. Everyone tries to keep out flu viruses and take in air, to keep burglars and dirt out of the house, but take in groceries, electricity, and water.

Most systems also produce something, even if just its own autonomy and internal functions. But an open system usually produces more. Even a car, a coffeemaker, or radio takes in energy and gives out material stuff (radios give out sound waves).

Not all boundaries are visible all the time. Often the boundaries are more psychological or learned than real. Or they're only on paper. Think of families: Some members might be step-parents, stepchildren, or adopted.

Think of the globe with all those national boundaries. Just lines on a map—often no fences, just entry points. But they produce passports, language differences, tariffs, and other very tangible effects.

Systems also have boundaries within the ultimate boundary, boundaries among states or provinces within a country or cells and organs within a body. Could an entire system have “thin” boundaries, both the larger system and its parts? Psychiatrist Ernest Hartmann raises this question as it pertains to us.

Thin Boundaries, Another Way to Think About Us

We tend to think of HSPs as having very permeable boundaries in some sense. A fine book about HSPs is Boundaries of the Mind by Hartmann. It’s about “thin-skinned people,” especially in the mind: between conscious and unconscious, waking and sleep, dreams and memory of dreams, adult versus child identity, the preference for tidy versus fluid, the feeling of being psychic, and so forth.

And quite a few of these aspects, he thinks, are similar in their thickness or thinness within an individual. His book was written in 1991, but you can still buy it online. I recommend it. It even has a test for boundaries, thick or thin, with over 130 questions.

I was not more enthusiastic about his book at first, because the research is sketchy, and he is too inclusive. For example, an HSP introvert might have different social boundaries than an HSP extrovert. Nor does Hartmann fully delineate causes for variations in boundaries—those that are innate versus caused by defenses or traumas.

For example, if someone has been hurt, they may have very tight boundaries to keep out the pain. The boundaries might be thick to avoid physical pain (gloves to avoid blisters or germs, being extra careful about knives, fires, etc.). Or their social boundaries might be thick to avoid psychological pain (avoidant attachment style, for example, or self-defenses against shame, such as blaming others).

Thin Boundaries Are Not Always Innate

Just as thick boundaries are not always innate, thin boundaries can also be learned as a defense rather than being inborn, as is the case with HSPs. They might be due, for example, to never having been allowed to develop the basic boundary that delineates self from others in childhood through, for example, making decisions for one’s self, being allowed some privacy, and simply being permitted to protest injustices or avoid cruelty. These all tend to be denied to children who are not allowed boundaries.

Since the process of discrimination itself is discouraged, this can atrophy the inner boundaries among parts as well. Really, the boundaries are not just thin but non-existent. Rather than thinking through the complexities of life, such as between reality and the imagined, or among various subtle distinctions, they may oversimplify as adults. That is, there might be a lack of enough boundaries among types of things: “All education is a waste of time.” In fact, maybe some education is, some may not be, and some is definitely not.

This lack of personal boundaries can also happen in adults who are enslaved in some way or those with very few rights for any reason. (“Yes, boss, whatever you say, boss.”)

In contrast to a lack of boundaries that are due to adapting to domination by others, we think HSPs are generally born with thin boundaries as a strategy for general survival, and which are then adjusted by life experience—as a social or physical defense they might even thicken, so to speak. But that original thinness remains in some ways and allows them to be more sensitive to their environment, good or bad (sometimes misperceived as good or bad), and adjust accordingly.

I like that Hartmann, as with most HSPs, tries to be objective, neither thinking thin nor thick is better. Not surprisingly, however, in his extensive experience on the subject, he has met many people thinking one or the other really is better. (How difficult it is for humans to see two things as equal.) At the extremes, they are certainly quite different.

Graceful Boundaries

I think it is easy for us to get stuck on the idea that HSPs have “poor boundaries” that need to be thickened by learning to say no, and that’s it. It requires more than that to make full use of our thin boundaries gracefully. If you think of a window, it can be wide open, closed but with no curtain, covered with a lace curtain, heavily draped, or shuttered and barred.

Personally, I love how the French handle windows: You can see a charming French woman hanging out of her open window, chatting, or watering her window box. When she withdraws, you see her lace curtains swaying in the breeze. If she wants quiet, she closes the windows, but you still see the lace. When the day is done, the shutters are closed over the windows. Discriminating. Graceful.

What about the charm of wide-open windows? Letting things in more easily than others? We do not want to rule out letting things in for the sake of keeping things out—toss the baby out with the bathwater, with the soap, soup, supper, baby blanket, baby powder, or babysitter. Out the window.

My point is that thin boundaries among many subtle types or categories we have observed can help us see unusual, interesting connections, so that we can be creative or even just funny or silly. That is, thin boundaries are another way of understanding does. Our depth of processing is due to letting more in.

For example, many of us have thin boundaries among categories—not just what a baby might be thrown out with, but, for example, “good” or “bad” food may be this, this, or this. It's not simply one category or what the label says it is. We also have thin boundaries between past, present, and future. We can think back over all of our experiences, making use of our careful observations in the present, and have better ideas to act on in the future.

Depth of processing also flows out of thin boundaries between the conscious and what is presently not conscious but stored in memory, and what others are feeling and what we are feeling. We let it all into the mix. Hence, we can be more conscientious, more reflective when making decisions, or more attuned to others’ subtle cues.

In Part 2, we’ll think about how HSPs can unwittingly violate the boundaries of others due to their traits. We’ll explore more about “volume.” And see what horses have to do with it.

More from Elaine N. Aron Ph.D.
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