If you’re like me (a quirky woman with an active imagination) when you think of the word ‘boundaries’ your mind might conjure up a ‘strong powerful women’ from a film – perhaps a kick-arse female ninja avenging her family by throwing her foes across the room in battle or a high powered woman firing the chauvinist men in her office or maybe that’s just me…?

Personally the symbol of a strong and powerful woman comfortably asserting her boundaries has always been a powerful myth. In real life I have unconsciously sought out women who have a self assured confidence, strong boundaries and who by nature didn’t fear conflict – and they became close friends, mentors, therapists. They felt vindicated to say ‘no thank you’ – in all its soft and harder forms in ways I found uncomfortable or challenging at the time, they embodied and modelled healthy boundaries for me. 

I would go to them for advice, ‘test out’ conversations and encounters which had occurred that I felt unsure about – then when they would say something in response like ‘that was outrageous they said / did that, did you tell them to get lost?!’, then I started to learn that the squirming feeling or the mental confusion I was experiencing was in fact a sign my boundaries were being crossed, that my discomfort was speaking to me. Usually they would then help me understand and argue why it wasn’t okay, then find the words to approach the situation either for next time or to go back to the person who said it to discuss it. I began to learn about my personal boundaries. 

So what are our personal boundaries?

Boundaries are not just about creating energetic bubbles around us – which my clients often ask about, or for managing challenging people in our lives (although obviously this is important too). Our boundaries are also the limits we place around our time, energy and inner resources which create the structures of our lives influencing – how we live, how we work and who we love. 

Our personal boundaries are not a brick wall we build to ‘protect us’ but a marker for our personal limits, i.e. of what we commit to engage with and what or who we withdraw from. We can have hard boundaries, our ‘absolutely no way’ but we also have soft boundaries that are more flexible, fluid and stretched. But we have to become aware of what our limits are, which for highly sensitive people (HSP) are not always clear due to: overriding our feelings as we keenly feel the needs of others, denying our needs to ‘stay safe’, over giving to please or keep the peace or confusing our needs with the desire of others (as we are so sensitive to their emotions for example). 

For HSP’s who can also often feel uncomfortable exercising or communicating their needs in favor of supporting others; starting to develop healthy boundaries can feel uncomfortable and it can help to take a gradual approach to it. We can begin by having a very real look at each area of your life, one at a time, and honestly evaluating with specific enquiry – what do I need to feel happy, content and resourced as well? Then begin to make changes and adjustments to our circumstances and relationships (where possible).. This will help to move towards our ideal needs and thus to achieve fulfillment in both large and small ways.

So how do we do it?

We learn what our boundaries and limits are by developing our somatic awareness then beginning to notice your body’s physical and energetic response to certain: people, places, situations or events and so on. Noticing when you think of that aspect of your life (see exercise below), by watching what happens to the energy in your body – ie does it sink or drop, does the ‘light inside’ diminish or body contract or does it do the opposite and brighten or feel lighter? This simple exercise can then become your intuitive barometer for learning about what you want or need, enabling you to understand and acknowledge what your personal limits and boundaries are. 

You can then use this knowledge to refine your life decisions where possible to make choices that work for you by exploring and questioning the: who, where, when, how details of your exchanges. Asking yourself what is working for me, what do I need ideally and how can I move towards that? So you can start to put practical boundaries around your time, energy and resources from the seemingly small exchanges to the large issues, to help you manage your energy, feel more resilient and increase your capacity.

Let’s test it out with this exercise:

WHO: Bring a friend or family member you like to mind. Now think about spending time together. Notice what happens in your body – does your energy rise and fall?

WHERE: Imagine connecting and communicating with them in each of these methods and notice what happens to your energy as you think about it. Close your eyes and listen to your body as you say each method in your mind: Chatting on the phone / Speaking on zoom to them / Seeing them in a noisy bar / Meeting in person, for a walk with them on a beach or in the woods. 

HOW: Now think about spending time with them on Saturday say and watch what happens to the energy in your body – as you imagine about spending different amounts of time with them – noticing when you hit a limit and your energy starts diminishing: 15 minutes / 30 minutes / 1 hour / 2 hours / 4 hours / 8 hours / 2 days

WHEN: Now think about meeting with them in the morning / afternoon / and evening and notice what happens to your energy with each. 

Repeat this exercise but bring to mind a friend who perhaps is struggling a little at the moment or someone you find a little challenging (but nothing too stressful). Notice how your answers might change and your needs adjust. Now this is an exercise you can repeat when reflecting on your preferred boundaries in different areas of your life ie: for work – the environment you are in,   how you commute, how often you commute, whether you attend an event or for how long etc.

Then we have an opportunity to think creatively, by simply asking – how could I do this differently? Or if the possibility is already available, to re-negotiate or be clear about what we need. I’ll give you an example. I had a client who was invited to a wedding reception by a friend who wasn’t incredibly close. But it turns out she wasn’t offered a plus one, the venue was quite far away, she wouldn’t know lots of people and she didn’t have a car so it was going to be a struggle to get there. She was feeling overstretched by a lot of different commitments and wanted to cancel but felt that she couldn’t as she didn’t want to upset the bride. So I thought about this and suggested why don’t you ask your partner to drive you there, just go for an hour solo to make an appearance, then leave and go and get a drink with him for the rest of the evening, make it a date night? Then it’s a win win, you get the support you need to get there, he gets to have fun with you later in a new place, you don’t feel drained by being there too long and the bride gets to see you which is what they did and it went well.

I use this as an example of how creating boundaries doesn’t need to be all or nothing in many circumstances, as that’s not always practical. (However we need to recognise that sometimes hard boundaries are completely necessary). It can be about giving yourself permission to acknowledge your needs and limitations then asking how can I do this differently? Workshop different ideas, then when something lands and feels good honor the need and take action. 

Here is another example; you decide that you don’t want to see the in law’s as they have been very difficult of late but if you don’t see them it will increase the problem. So you feel into your boundaries around the details of meeting them to see what would work for you: agree to go but only for a cup of tea for 2-hours (length), once a month (frequency), at their house / or a cafe (location), with your partner and children (who) and then you promptly leave (firm agreement). Identify your limit, what boundaries feel firm or more flexible then communicate this or negotiate. Being clear about your boundaries doesn’t mean you become inflexible or uncaring, there can still be an exchange taking place driven by a desire for it to be optimal for all involved. 

What does this teach us?

Hopefully that our body holds a great deal of answers for us. Our mind can be derailing – making up all sorts of tales about what you ‘should, or shouldn’t’ do with your time and energy, or in different situations – but our body will tell the truth of what WE need in that exchange or situation – and that is just as valid. It’s time we listened to our embodied truth and act on that. That’s when life can really start to transform, from one exchange to another, becoming clear about what we need and are able to offer, which can actually end up increasing our capacity and what we are able to give as we are more selective about out time.

But why do HSP’s avoid doing this, to define and assert clear boundaries? Well for different reasons, firstly because the truth might be uncomfortable and we may realise some situations need to change; perhaps drastically in some cases – which we may feel fearful of addressing. We fear upsetting people or losing relationships as you change the status quo. Also coming back to the body can also feel triggering if we are living with unresolved turmoil from the past, to be in our body might actually not feel safe or comfortable for us. Lastly, learning to work with our boundaries can also trigger strong fears from times when our boundaries were violated and the patterns we developed to stay safe evolved. 

So what do we do to move forward?

Start practicing embodied awareness to be clearer about your boundaries. You can get support in different forms if you need it. EFT for example is fantastic for resolving past emotional trauma and working with our triggers which might come up. Doing that inner work can change our perspective and we begin to feel empowered to make change. It can also be helpful to let close friends know what you are trying to do so they can support you in your endeavors, helping you to feel safe and comfortable with practicing saying no, or cancelling / adjusting your plans with them – knowing they have your back and want you to feel good will help give you confidence.

Remember to be kind to yourself when practicing listening to your responses and expressing your boundaries as it might feel clunky at first – like a toddler learning to walk, but gradually it will feel more and more natural, you will know what you need very quickly, the phrases you use will become more articulate, until you don’t think about it anymore and instead you’ll be running towards your empowered authentic potential self. 

Further reading 

Six reasons why healthy boundaries are transformative for highly sensitive people

10 signs you struggle setting boundaries as a highly sensitive person

Lessons, I learned as a highly sensitive person from friends with badass boundaries 

Nicole Drummond, Intuitive Therapist for Highly Sensitive People and mentor to Souls with a Mission www.nicoledrummond.com