How to Set Boundaries as a Highly Sensitive Person
Do you ever have a hard time saying no or have the fear of letting other people down? Do you also feel your emotions deeply and have been told you're "too sensitive" or "think too much" a handful of times? If so, you might be a Highly Sensitive Person or HSP.
This term was coined by psychologist Elaine Aron, and this personality trait exists in 20% of the population who exhibit something called sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). Those with the trait have a heightened nervous system response, making them more reactive to physical, emotional, and social stimuli.
"Highly sensitive people tend to process information more deeply," Sharon Martin, MSW, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist, tells HelloGiggles. "As a result, they are often sensitive to environmental stimuli, such as bright lights and loud sounds, and tend to get more drained by emotionally charged situations than the average person."
This is not a diagnosable condition or disorder, but rather a personality trait that describes increased responsiveness. Like anything, there are certain strengths and challenges associated with being an HSP. On one hand, people who are highly sensitive exhibit high intuition and empathy for other people. On the other hand, this can be a catalyst for people-pleasing and a lack of boundaries.
"Boundaries" may come with some negative connotations of being harsh, mean, or rigid, however, it is quite the opposite. Martin defines boundaries as limits people set to protect themselves, specifically when it comes to feelings, needs, and responsibilities. "Because HSPs are strongly affected by external stimuli, they need boundaries to serve as a filter—to let in what they can cope with and keep out things that are harmful, draining, or overwhelming," Martin says.
Boundaries can be anything from putting an away message on Slack when you need to focus to asking for more space in your relationship. These limits help to create realistic expectations, which is especially important for HSPs who tend to overextend themselves for other people.
Because HSPs also pick up on the subtle shifts in people's moods and behavior, many learn to sacrifice or ignore their needs. They genuinely love to help others and make people around them feel good in order to keep the peace around them. However, putting others before themselves can bring up many unresolved feelings. "Many HSP's would rather sit with their own feelings of depletion over the guilt and anxiety of feeling like they disappointed someone," Carolyn Cole, LCPC, LMFT, a psychotherapist says.
If you're an HSP reading this, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to learn to set healthy boundaries. Protecting and managing your energy can help you be the best version of yourself. While asking for what you need may feel out of your comfort zone at first, with the below tips from Martin and Cole, you'll be able to take some of the power back.
Pay attention to what you need and how you feel.
Awareness of your own needs and feelings will allow you to set clear boundaries. It's common for HSPs to feel out of touch with their needs since they are taking in and processing so much data, including other people's feelings. And because they absorb the emotions of others, some might even need to learn to separate what emotions belong to them as opposed to someone else.
"Your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations will let you know when you need to set boundaries," Martin says. "For example, when you feel tired, think about what boundaries you need to set so you can replenish your energy. Or if you feel resentful, consider whether your anger is the result of not setting a boundary or speaking up for what you need."
Your body is sending you signals of what you need all the time, including when you feel hungry, tired, or in danger. However, we're so used to ignoring the cues from our body in favor of continuing to push ourselves. Taking time to quiet your mind through body scan meditations or a relaxing activity can help you intuit what you need for yourself.
Learn to ask for what you need.
Once you're aware of what you need, the next step is knowing how to ask for what you need. HSPs may struggle to vocalize their needs for fear of rejection or letting someone down, but ultimately this can lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding.
"Many times, a need to please others stems from insecurities and wanting to feel liked and accepted," Cole says. "This can stem from experiences when HSP's felt judged for 'being too sensitive,' which leads HSP's to believe something is inherently wrong with them."
At their core, HSPs want to be accepted for who they are. However, being passive about their needs can lead to feelings of overwhelm and resentment. Look at being direct about what you need as a way to create stronger connections with others built on love and understanding.
"It can be scary to ask for what you want or to say 'no,' Martin acknowledges. "However, when we ask directly and clearly for what we want or need, we're more likely to be understood and to get our needs met."
Start with small requests.
Rather than trying to set boundaries all at once, Martin suggests easing into the process by starting small. That can be telling a friend you need to leave a gathering at a certain time or choosing not to reply to a text or phone call immediately.
There are many boundaries you can also start setting with yourself, such as sticking to a budget or not working past a certain time. The more consistent you are in setting these small boundaries, the more confidence you will develop in setting larger boundaries to reduce any anxiety and stress.
Cole recommends for HSPs to ease into boundary setting by using "soft no's." This gentle approach turns a hard no into a "not right now." She suggests using any of the following examples:
"I would love to help you with that. I have a lot on my plate right now so is there another time soon that may work for you?"
"I have another commitment so that date/time won't work for me, but let's figure out another time that would work better."
"I love helping you, but it feels a bit stressful to me when you want me to drop everything to help you immediately. Would you be able to ask me at least a day in advance?"
Using soft no's is a great way to start putting yourself and your priorities first. When using this tactic, make sure it's something that you actually want to commit to in the future. However, if you want to say no entirely, but aren't sure how to do so, you might try giving a suggestion instead. Say, for example, you are approached with a creative project that's not in your wheelhouse. You might know someone who would love to take on the project or give that person a resource to look into. Of course, you don't owe that person anything, but it might make saying no a little more comfortable.
Slow down and make time for self-care.
We live in a fast-paced world where immediate responses are the norm as people are just a text or an email away. This can feel especially demanding for an HSP who's processing eons of information on a given day. Many HSPs feel that deep pressure to keep up when deep down, they're craving rest and recovery.
"Take your time when deciding what to say 'yes' to," Martin says. "Slow down and take time to carefully consider requests or invitations before agreeing. It's okay to say I'll check my calendar and get back to you."
This is why self-care is essential for HSPs, according to Cole. Having a routine that allows you to unwind can help you make decisions from a clearer place. Cole says to take note of the things and activities that feel as though you're replenishing yourself. That could be reading a good book, going for a walk, exercising, watching a funny movie, or even taking the time to do nothing.
After all, you can't pour from an empty cup, and taking time for yourself allows you to show up better for both yourself and other people. HSPs generally need more alone time than non-HSPs because they're more easily overstimulated by the day's events.
"It's important to carve out time at a minimum once each week to say yes to yourself in this way," Cole says. "It's a beautiful way to commit to yourself and your wellbeing."
Remember your worth.
It's important for HSPs to stay connected and validate their experiences, especially as some may grapple with loneliness or feeling like an outsider. While HSPs need more alone time, they also crave deep and intimate connections and may benefit from support groups or online resources where they can feel seen and validated.
All in all, accepting yourself instead of suppressing or denying the things that make you "you" will help you start living on your own terms. For instance, you may need more alone time than others, and that's okay. You may take more time to make decisions because you need to carefully weigh each option, and that's okay too. These are all little ways you can start creating boundaries to support yourself and what you need in order to show up as your best.
"Sensitivity is a beautiful gift," Cole says. "How can you start to look at the parts of yourself that have been criticized by others as something special, unique, and to be cherished? The more you are able to recognize the inherent worth you have by just being you, the more empowered you will feel."
Remember, boundaries aren't "bad" or "mean" on any level, but rather a way to guard yourself, your energy, and your wellbeing. When you learn to set these limits in a loving way, the stronger your relationships will be, and the more you will be able to embrace all of the amazing gifts you possess.