Highly Sensitive People are intuitive, feel things deeply, and can be easily overwhelmed. High sensitivity is a wonderful trait, but it does come with some challenges. One particular challenge is setting boundaries. April Snow, a psychotherapist specializing in helping Highly Sensitive People understand and meet their unique needs, wrote this article to provide us with some practical strategies for setting boundaries.
How often do you accommodate requests from friends or loved ones despite being too tired or overwhelmed? Does it feel easier to bypass your own need for downtime rather than risk disappointing someone or admitting your limitations? This has certainly been my experience. In order to maintain connections, whether they be personal or professional, we often develop a strategy of saying “yes” when we really want to say “no”. Constantly obliging the wishes of others when we’re on empty is harmful to everyone, but especially for the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).
Due to our ability to process information deeply, notice subtleties in our environment and be emotionally responsive to others, HSPs have a tendency to get easily exhausted and overwhelmed. When we are constantly depleted we risk feeling anxious, irritable, distracted, or even depressed, therefore it is vital to set limits on the time we give to those around us.
Why is it Difficult for the Highly Sensitive Person to Set Boundaries?
Empathy for Others
- One of the core characteristics of High Sensitivity is a strong capacity for empathy. Sometimes we say “yes” simply to avoid disappointing or hurting someone. Even when not expressed outwardly, we have the perceptive ability to pick up on subtle changes in tone of voice or body language that indicate displeasure. To avoid the possibility of causing harm to the relationship, especially since relationships tend to be very meaningful for us, we bypass our own needs to take care of others.
Fear of Conflict
- Our highly tuned brains and nervous systems help us notice little subtleties and sensory input (sounds, smells, etc.) but leave us vulnerable to overstimulation. If there is a risk of criticism or confrontation for setting a boundary, then we may help someone simply to avoid the stimulation and emotional reaction that a conflict causes.
- Although Highly Sensitive Persons make up 15-20% of the population, many people are not aware of this innate trait. HSPs often feel different than their peers and are mislabeled as shy, weak, overly emotional, neurotic and so forth, resulting in low self-esteem and self-doubt. When we see ourselves as flawed, we will try to override our needs in order to fit in and please others, making it difficult to set limits.
3 Ways Highly Sensitive People Can Set Boundaries and Get Our Needs Met
1. Be More Direct
With our high capacity for empathy and the ability to pick up subtle social cues, we often notice what others need before they say anything. We may hope others identify our needs in the same manner. However, not everyone has our gift of perception, so it’s helpful to remember that we may have to take a more direct approach. Instead of hinting or suggesting the next time you need something or have to say “no”, speak openly.
Indirect: “It’s been a long day.”
Direct: “I would love to go to the movie with you, but I’m tired and need to go home.”
2. Set Limits on Communication
Our nervous system and brain process everything we see and hear thoroughly, so it can be difficult to expect to move at the same pace as non-HSPs. Although your coworkers and loved ones may expect you to respond to emails and text messages all day, you will have to set limits to avoid getting burned out. It’s essential to establish boundaries in regards to your communication with others in order to give yourself time to decompress throughout the day. One way to convey these parameters is to set up a simple email auto-response, as shown in the example below.
“Thank you for your message. I will get back to you between the hours of 9am-5pm, Monday through Friday.”
3. Say “Yes” On Your Own Terms
Setting boundaries doesn’t necessarily mean always saying “no”. For those times when you genuinely want to accommodate a request, but feel too tired or overwhelmed in the moment, say “yes” on your own terms. Saying “yes” on your own terms can include offering a few times that you are available and/or simply letting someone know you’ll get back to them after you have thought it over. Pausing to reflect before responding to a request ensures your brain will have time to process the request and increase the likelihood that your reply will be in alignment with your needs.
“I would love to help you with that project. How does next Tuesday work for you?”
Setting boundaries and prioritizing yourself can be difficult as a Highly Sensitive Person, but these self-care practices are essential to avoid overwhelm, anxiety and fatigue. Being more direct about your needs, setting limits on communication and saying “yes” on your own terms will help you maintain your energy levels and engage more fully with the people that are most important.
Read more about Highly Sensitive People:
April Snow is an Associate Marriage and Family Fherapist in supervised private practice in downtown San Francisco, helping her Highly Sensitive Clients discover more about their sensitivity, manage the overwhelm and emotional intensity that goes with it and have more fulfilling relationships. Her belief is that being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) doesn’t have to stop you from living a fully engaged life, it’s just a matter of knowing yourself and making adjustments to care for your unique temperament. Get the free guide “Self-Care Tricks to Reduce Overwhelm” and follow her on Facebook. She is also passionate about supporting other Highly Sensitive Therapists (HST), to help them clear the storm of overwhelm in order to access their therapeutic gifts and feel more fulfilled. Therapists: Get your free “Sustainable Practice Checklist” and join the HST Facebook Community.