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Elaine Aron, Ph.D.

Elaine N. Aron Ph.D.

Graceful Boundaries - Part 2

Do us HSPs ever unintentionally violate the boundaries of other?

This post is part 2 of a 4 part series.

To sum up Graceful Boundaries Part I, when needing to say no, of course, it is important, especially to us, to be graceful by being polite, but without sounding weak. I also said that we do have innately somewhat thin boundaries, which is part of what gives us our depth of processing and empathy. But like all boundaries in any system, we should aim to let in what we want and keep out what we don’t want, such as stimulation to the point we are overstimulated–perhaps, for example, by tasks or social events we need to exclude by saying no.

Part II contains a bit more about the usefulness of thin boundaries, thanks to a poem I wrote years ago that I discovered coincidentally after writing Part I. In that first piece, I used the metaphor of windows—windows as boundaries between the world and ourselves. To my surprise, the title of this long-lost poem was “Windows.”

Next, I explore in this part whether we HSPs ever unintentionally violate the boundaries of others. I was going to then return to “volume” (the overall “amplitude” of our message, not only in sound but in bluntness, etc.). The sensitive use of volume is the key to graceful boundaries. But this entire subject of boundaries lacks boundaries! So I will discuss volume in Part III and boundaries in close relationships in Part IV. If there’s a Part V, feel free to set a boundary for us and delete it!

Now that poem, written in about 1992:

Flung open at dawn to a subtle sky,
Now they gape black, too wide.
I already smell the wrong smells—
Wet wool, wet wood, wet raffia and silk.
I turn on the light to apologize
To the marred dresser
And take the blame for the blurring of the bold Gujarat rug.
Things inside should not be so exposed
To defend all day, all alone,
Their inferiority (that modesty and shyness
For which I myself have praised them)
With nothing but shuddering lace
Between them and the vagrant storm.

Another Time Thin Boundaries Can Be a Strength

I came upon the poem while trying to sort and mostly toss stuff from way back in my past. I had completely forgotten writing it, probably on purpose. The poem dated back to a time when I was a patient in-depth psychotherapy, being inundated by painful forgotten memories and horrific dreams. My boundaries between past and present, conscious and unconscious, were super thin. The poem was about just that, the boundary between the stormy process and my tidy ego had been left open.

Yet this is another case where I am convinced that an innate tendency to thin boundaries was helpful. If the sources of the “presenting problem” run deep, psychotherapy that does not get down to these basics is often only a band-aid. And while the research is not yet clear on this point, I am convinced that HSPs can heal faster just because they can go deeper. So that is another advantage of thin boundaries. Further, I was functioning fine in the outer world, even when I felt depressed or anxious, so there was a boundary there between the inner work and the outer work that was thick. HSPs can do this (and it is necessary when doing such deep work.)

When We Compensate with Overly Thick Boundaries

But do we ever overcompensate by becoming mostly a system with thick boundaries? Do we temporarily or generally shut out not some but all of the pain in the world, or our own pain, or even new ideas? “No, I will not think about that.” “No, I am not going to feel that.” Can we end up not saying “yes” enough? Not saying it even in a “thin” sort of way, with uncertainty? “Well, okay, maybe I will try it.” “I’ll considerate it.” “Yes, I will think about it.”

When I showed my son the script for the film Highly Sensitive and in Love, which was emphasizing the need for boundaries and self-care, he commented that it all sounded kind of self-centered. He thought HSPs were more compassionate and generous than others.

I think we are, and we corrected the movie to show that caring side. Again, it’s important to be kind, even while we set good boundaries. If we have the energy to help, of course we do. But helping can be harder and less effective when we are exhausted. That’s why we emphasize boundaries and self-care, to be able to be more helpful, in the way that works best for you.

When it comes to setting boundaries gracefully, I like aiming to “Speak the truth but speak it sweetly.” We can emphasize what we can do, even if it is less than requested, or why we can’t but still value the person or event or the commitment of the person asking you. Overall, I like the analogy of having a soft front and a firm spine rather than a hard front and a soft spine.

The key is being able to discriminate, and anticipating when to shift from thick to thin and back to thick as needed. Your friend would like a loan. You’ve loaned money before and he had to be reminded to pay it back. You drifted apart, but still like him, money difficulties or not. He promises to do better this time. You listen a bit more, then maybe close the money shutters. But if he sounds sincerely changed, thoughtful of you, and understanding of the importance of trust between friends; if he is truly in need and you could afford to lose this sum in the worst case, that’s like a friend serenading you at your window. Whether he sings perfectly or not, you open up.

Can HSPs Violate the Boundaries of Others without Noticing?

Hmm, that could be not very graceful. Someone asked me that and I had never thought about it. Yes, of course, although rarely intentionally, knowing how much we dislike others doing it, and being so quick to notice the boundaries of others. You know, the grocery shopping thing. We tend to know where other shoppers are around us and when they want to pass by, and often put our baskets somewhere out of the way to avoid jamming the aisles. How many others bother? About 20%!

Still, it seems very important to explore how we might violate the boundaries of others. I can imagine myself asking a question that is deep and interesting to me, invoking personal opinions or experiences, and a less sensitive person finding the subject a trespass, at least at this stage in our relationship or with others around who can hear. I know I have probably wrongly said, “It sounds like you and your mom don’t get along very well. What happened?”

Or I have assumed communication skills that were not there. “I’m sure you didn’t mean that—the last thing you want to do is shame the other person if you want to make your point.”

Or I can imagine myself being bored with chit chat with an acquaintance and conjuring up something from the depths such as, “I wonder, do you think the human race is making progress?” There’s a conversation stopper—a demand (a push on a boundary) that someone less in the habit of processing deeply ought to conform to my interests, whatever theirs.

Or “Time travel fascinates me. What’s the evidence that we can travel in time? The space-time continuum for one. It makes you think, doesn’t it?” The other’s face says, “No, it never has.”

Ever had anyone bothered by you because you often seem to know “the best thing to do”? It’s like you are bubbling over with opinions based on your depth of processing of whatever is up at the moment. “No, that hike will be too hot today.” “No, we’ve already tried that restaurant and you hated the food.” “If you go that way, we’re going to be stuck in traffic.” And once again you have traipsed through their thoughts and plans as if jumping right over their causally considered little fences, those feeble boundaries, which they might have preferred you to respect.

Ever had people felt you could almost read their minds, which felt like a violation to them?

What about when we “get in a complex,” about politics or the state of the world or the environment. Or health. Have you ever had someone, probably another HSP, shower you with advice if you mention a sore back or repeated indigestion, but the advice leaves you anxiously doubting the solutions you are already pursuing? Have you ever been told about the dangers to your health or to the environment of certain foods (that you happen to love)? Okay, now think, have you ever done this to others? If someone is having trouble at work or with a friend, have you ever so gently slathered on advice from when “the very same thing happened to me”? We are certain we are being helpful, but have we checked whether our opinions are really wanted?

If we have so much intuition and empathy, we need to apply it to rein in our depth of processing and strong opinions when it is too far ahead of the person we are with. Be graceful.

Anyway, I have now rethought why one version (there are two) of a line in the Christian “Lord’s Prayer” is “forgive us our trespasses against us.” It says that our “sins” are all about boundary violations. It could go, “Forgive us for ignoring others’ boundaries as we forgive those who have ignored ours.”

Okay, in our distress or over-zealousness, we can trespass. But obviously, this is not our main issue. So in Part III we will return to the subject of maintaining our own boundaries. Boundaries are a metaphor for something invisible most of the time, so we will take up another metaphor, volume (you might say amplitude of response in all its forms) for how boundaries are made at least audible, and sometimes quite visible. Remember the old cartoons with one person hitting another over the head with a frying pan? Now that’s high volume.