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Elaine Aron, Ph.D.

Elaine N. Aron Ph.D.

Graceful Boundaries — Part 3

Controlling your boundaries is all about volume.

This article is the 3rd of a 4 part series.

Being kind yet clear, compassionate yet self-protective, honest yet discreet—it really does require grace. But to be clear, there’s nothing graceful about having no control over your boundaries.

We Highly Sensitive People (HSP) like to consider the needs of others and the situation before we pursue our own wishes. “I wonder what the rest of you are needing right now.” Good. If we have an idea, we start by gracefully making it a very tentative observation. “I’ve been noticing that…” “Perhaps we might consider…” Good.

Sometimes, however, we really need someone to get out of our space, pay attention to our observation, or meet a non-negotiable need. If we are not heard, it is important to the well-being of ourselves and others that we turn up the volume. By volume, I do not just mean loudness, but increasing clarity in our message, bluntness even. You no longer speak in a roundabout way. Often clarity is all it takes. “I need you to…” If clarity is not enough, you use words that begin to hint at real consequences (“You are going to have to, or…”) and a gaze and posture that says you may, or you do, or you definitely do “mean business.” Getting clear may be as simple a situation as this: You say firmly as your driver is about to turn, “Don’t turn there. I did it earlier and there’s construction. It took me a half hour to get through.” A pretty clear consequence right there. Your stubborn driver thinks this is still the best route and has turned. You pull out a bigger consequence: “I mean it. Turn around. If you go that way, it will be faster for me to walk, and believe me, I will get out and do it.” Or, “…we will be very late, I guarantee it, and I know you do not want that.”

What I like about the metaphor of volume is that volume can be ever so soft or straight out yelling, and anywhere in between. As an HSP you by nature start soft. (But at least remember to look the other person in the eyes rather than looking down or away.) As an example, you might start with, “Gee, I’m getting a bit chilly.” HSPs would immediately offer to turn up the heat. But not everyone hears such words. Then, “Are you feeling a bit cold too?” Fine unless they say “No” and go on with what they are doing. Then you get clear: “Could you please turn up the heat?”

Now you might hear that the other person has very good reason not to. However, what if you have someone just being stubborn, maybe your teenager and you hear back, “I don’t feel like getting up.” Or from the manager of a hotel. “No one else has complained about the heat.” (Yeah, sure—this is about saving money of course.) Now it all depends on the situation, but imagine saying, “Turn up the heat now. No more excuses. If you won’t…” And you have consequences, like “…I’ll check out right now and have my credit card company cancel my payment” (they will do it) “… I look forward to contacting the management.” And there’s always Yelp. You do not have to be obnoxious. Just very firm. You should at least be negotiating at this point, and stand firm in your negotiation too. Hard? Let’s look at it with non-humans.

HSPs, Horses, and Volume

When Alane Fruend and I do our HSPs and Horses workshops, we have learned that with HSPs one of our most important jobs is to work on volume. Horses weigh at least 1000 pounds, so your boundaries have to be clear and you have no choice but to turn up the volume until you get what you need for your own safety. Your preference for being gentle is not an option, at least not until it is clear that you will not stop until you have what you want.

This brings us to the fact that humans, horses, and just about all other social animals engage in both ranking and linking. They have dominance hierarchies, they rank each other; and they link, they have “friends,” which does not involve rank. Both.

HSPs generally want to “link,” connect in a loving way (good, of course), not “rank,” not pushing to be the one in charge. But with some individuals, including horses, ranking must come first. They live in hierarchies (as do we all, whether at work, in a family, or in a social activity such as a sport). Horses don’t necessarily want to be the leader—which is always the “alpha” mare, by the way. Women take note. The stallion, alpha among the bachelors, guards the herd against danger and other stallions, but the lead mare makes the decisions for the group. Yes, the alpha horse in a pasture gets your apple. Nobody else. But the leaders of herds also are the ones in the most danger, out there in front when the herd is moving. In particular, horses feel safer when their human leader is decisive, since the human is generally in charge and one wants a good human leader. But if the human is indecisive, the horse takes over. The horse thinks it must do it, to keep you both safe.

Just One Measly Step Back

The HSP’s natural preference for linking is why we have them practice using volume with the horses. It’s a perfect set up. Each HSP stands at one end of an eight-foot lead rope facing a horse, with the other end of the rope attached to the horse’s halter. At first, they are told to let the rope sag, so that it rests a bit on the ground between them. Then the HSP is shown how to make the horse back up just one step by adjusting the volume. They start with a nice suggestion: “I suggest you back up,” and barely moving the rope with a finger. If there’s no response, they go to asking: “I’m asking you to back up,” and moving the wrist so the horse feels the movement. Nothing could be clearer. If that does not get the horse to step back, they move up to tell: “Back up,” and swinging the rope from the elbow. Now the rope is flapping right in front of the horse’s nose. They don’t like that. It is usually not necessary to go to demand: Shouting “Back up” and swinging the whole arm, lashing the rope up and down in the horse’s face. The equine is never struck, but truly annoyed and feeling dominated. They back up fast.

HSPs really struggle with this activity, showing us vividly what HSPs need to learn. At the start, with a hesitant person and a bored horse, getting the horse to back up may require considerable volume, going past suggest and ask to tell. (Demanding is rarely required, since these horses know this exercise, know what they are supposed to do, and would prefer not to go there). The horse is willing to obey if their HSP means it. But they can feel when their HSP is only halfhearted about it. So the bored horse may be looking around, being clear that it is more interested in what else is going on than attending to this indecisive bother.

Why does it often take a long time for HSPs to get what they want, that single step back by the horse? They explain that they fear they will hurt the horse, the horse will come not to like them, or they just don’t like being so mean, aggressive, or whatever. They just don’t like doing it. Maybe they want to pet the horse and ask it sweetly to back up, which never works unless maybe you have already established your higher rank. Once you do, horses are often immediately cooperative and fond of you as well. And what is the choice, we point out, when the issue is who is in control? You are being ignored, and next the horse may come up and get in your space, so that you are at risk of being stepped on by huge feet, or what if you are being charged by a dangerous horse (not the ones we use)?

You can see the parallels in your own life. You can walk yourself through this exercise (although it is hard to substitute doing it physically with a horse). But next time you have to use your volume, consider whether you are worried that you will hurt someone else’s feelings or that the person will not like you anymore, or you just find asserting yourself distasteful. Impolite. Okay, but if this person pushes you around as if they weighed a thousand pounds, ignoring you or stepping on you, remember you are connected by the invisible rope of your relationship, and flap that thing! You may find that you are both more respected and better liked.

Becoming an Expert at Linking and Ranking in your Human “Herd”

Power means influence, and you have seen people influence either a person or a horse by hitting, yelling, or threatening them; or else by gently teaching and showing the advantage of their way, or by being a leader because of having a reputation for being wise, kind, usually right, or simply a good and trustworthy person. It pays to earn respect in this more HSP way, by becoming a skillful listener, negotiator, and persuader, at each level of volume (suggest, ask, tell, demand). You can earn that respect, or you may already have it, as many HSPs do, and not know it.

Remember, however, that some people are in ranking mode most of the time (not very nice to be around) and can easily hear politeness as weakness or low rank. They think they can ignore you or talk you into something or push harder and get their way. How do people indicate rank? Mainly, the one higher in rank gets to set the boundaries. They can use your stuff, you can’t use theirs. Tell you what to do, but you can’t tell them anything. Enter your office without knocking; you are not allowed to enter theirs. Sometimes it is as subtle as sitting down in the more comfortable chair or not being on time and then not apologizing.

Of course, we all live in hierarchies and we may have a low rank in some of them. But usually with humans, underneath the formal rank, there is an additional sense of informal ranking, the respect or power granted to some more than others. Why not be among the more influential? True, the alpha mare is exposed to risk, but she does it for the greater good. Maybe, like her, your experience and sensitivity mean you can see better than others what should be done. So step up in rank, by being forthright, by simply continuing to raise your volume (suggest, ask, tell…and you rarely need demand), expressing your opinion, standing your ground. Demanding may seem too hard, but if you know that you will go to demand if necessary—exactly what you will say and the consequence you would and could impose—you rarely have to go to that demanding level. People, like horses, can sense whether you would.

HSPs often underestimate their power. For example, if you are the best at some difficult task at work, that gives you concrete influence when you ask for something. Use it. “I’d like to work from home more, and if you give me a month at it, I can prove that I can be even more productive.” “Please turn off the radio. Otherwise, I cannot solve this problem you just gave me.” If you are low in rank, find a way to move up before you ask for things. Just the fact you are an HSP is not enough. It is not a disability so do not give that impression. As you can, demonstrate that it is a benefit to the organization.

Grace Again

You see graceful boundaries with the best horse trainers. They make it look easy. Horse and trainer come to be of one mind. It is not all about dominance. Horses, like HSPs, can notice things most humans miss. Good horse people respect this and pay attention to a horse’s natural sensitivity when the animal signals being overstimulated, in pain, hesitant, cautious, anxious, or just that something’s coming (long before the human knows). Similarly, good people generally can learn to pay attention to HSPs when they signal something, whether a warning or an opportunity, that others need to know.

Reaching an easy understanding of each other’s boundaries is not as difficult as it sounds, once you establish yourself as deserving respect for your sensitivity. A lot of it is feeling you deserve respect, and not messing around with those who cannot see that. If you are a skilled and sensitive horse trainer, and you have just a plain mean horse to deal with, you don’t take it on. You don’t try to dominate it. You might watch closely to try to understand the meanness. Maybe it has to do with past abuse. But if that fails, you just walk away. If it’s a plain mean human, do the same.