As an empath, intuitive, or highly sensitive person, it can be incredibly challenging to set boundaries.
Because of your natural tendency to intuit, feel, and absorb other people’s emotions and energy, it can be confusing to even know when you need a boundary. Furthermore, it can feel painful – you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Or you fear setting a boundary would make the other person upset. Not to mention needing to navigate cultural and societal messages that serve to discourage and negate boundaries.
So, where to start? Let’s explore.
What is a Boundary?
A boundary is a barrier that separates the sacred space of you from the rest of the world.
This can be a literal physical boundary, like how close you want people to stand to you, if it’s ok for someone to give you a hug, or even who comes into your room or apartment.
Or it can be an emotional boundary, like what you need and expect from others in relationship with them. Emotional boundaries include things like how you expect others to speak to you, if/when you are available to listen and offer support, or how much emotional labor you want to do in a relationship.
Physical boundaries can be easier to recognize, but still hard to maintain. You may feel obligated to give someone a hug when you don’t want to, or to stay up late with friends when you’re exhausted and want to go to sleep.
Emotional boundaries can be more nebulous and harder to recognize. You may feel confused about what you’re feeling, feel responsible for another person’s wellbeing, or even believe that you are “bad” or “mean” for not giving support or care. Often times, you may not recognize your boundary until well after it has been crossed.
How to Set Boundaries
First it’s important to practice recognizing and building relationship with your own boundaries.
Before going into a situation, take a moment to check in and identify your needs. Do you have capacity to listen to your friend vent today? Do you need to be home, snuggled in bed by 9pm? Practice getting to know your own needs in the way you so intuitively do with others. Then ask yourself what boundaries can help honor your needs.
If you’re already upset and think an unexpected or unrecognized boundary has been crossed, take a moment to check in with yourself. Offer yourself space and care for any feelings that are coming up. Acknowledge your hurt, resentment, or anxiety to yourself with love and compassion. If you’re with a trusted other, you can let them know that something’s come up for you and ask if they can listen and help talk it out. Or just take the time you need to figure out what you’re feeling, and what you need to help the feelings move through with love and spaciousness. Then try to identify the unmet need you have and the corresponding boundary that has been crossed.
2- NAME & COMMUNICATE
The next step is take the time to name and acknowledge your boundary to yourself. Then to directly and clearly communicate it to others involved.
This can feel quite challenging as you are learning how to set boundaries! You can let trusted others know about your journey to understand your boundaries. If comfortable, you can even ask for their support in bringing this new practice into the relationship. Sometimes you might want encouragement and affirmation from them to share your boundary. Remember – it’s not their job to set your boundary for you. Only you can do that. But if they’re up for it, they can affirm, support, and celebrate your process along the way!
If you are not able to directly name your boundary because of cultural expectations, simply use the actions and ways of communicating that are most acceptable to embody your boundary. For example, if you can’t say no to your parents because of cultural expectations, but saying you are busy is acceptable, then practice that. You get to decide if, when, and how you want to introduce more direct boundary communication. Until then, you get to embody your boundaries in the way that is safest and most reasonable within the cultural expectations.
However – if you are in a cultural context where you can directly say your boundary, but you are anxious and new at it, seek out the support you deserve to practice that!
3 – OBSERVE & RESPOND
After you communicated and set your boundaries, observe the person’s reaction. Resist the urge to go back on your boundary or take care of their feelings in response to it. It’s ok for others to have a reaction to your boundary. For example, they may feel sad that you are not available to listen to their problem right now. However it’s their job to care for their feelings and needs. They should be able to respect your boundary (which means not cross it), even if they have feelings about it.
Even if the person says they hear your boundary, check for understanding. Listen to how they understood your boundary, and how they communicate it back to you. Give yourself space to listen to your own intuition and internal knowing as they respond. Are they saying they understand your boundary, but then repeat something different back to you? Do they agree to your boundary but then immediately cross it? These are all signs to watch out for. It may mean the person is truly confused about your boundary. Ask more questions to discern if they willing to learn, and do their own work here. Or it may mean this person is unable or unwilling to respect your boundary at this time. Further work must be done to determine if this a relationship that can work for you. Trust your discernment here.
Practice living your boundary. For example, if you’ve asked your friend to check in with your capacity to listen before venting, and the next day they start venting without checking in – stop! Name and remind them of your boundary and expectation, observe how they react and choose your response to that, and continue to embody the boundary. Moving forward, this is a boundary you have now had deep engagement with! If it comes up again in other situations and relationships, draw on your previous experiences to support you.
Remember- you get to decide how to communicate your boundaries in every situation. Because of cultural differences, as well as oppression and power dynamics, it is not always seen as acceptable or safe to directly communicate your boundary. Practice your discernment here.
Visualize How to Set Boundaries
It can be very helpful to visualize certain situations where you may need to enact a boundary beforehand. You can walk yourself step by step through the scenario, starting with identifying your needs and boundaries going into the situation. Imagine how your body feels as you state your boundary, and notice any emotions, internal messages, or anxieties that come up for you.
Take the time in your visualization to address those with care and love. Imagine what you might offer yourself to affirm your right to have boundaries after the situation. Visualize all the ways that you can take care of you in the situation, before it even comes up.
You can also call upon metaphorical visualization when working with boundaries. Visualize a powerful forest’s edge encircling the sacred space of you, allowing no one, no thing, and no energy that is not wanted within its borders. Or you can visualize a protective barricade, that only opens with your consent.
You can also visualize your boundaries as alive and responsive to your unique needs in any situation. Perhaps with one person you have a stone wall that extends far in every direction, encircling and protecting you and your life. However with another person you have a permeable hedge, where depending on your needs and wants in the moment, they can come closer into the sacred space of you with your consent and blessing.
Remember, boundaries grow and change in relationships and with ourselves! They can become more firm and protective, keeping things that are not welcome or safe at a distance. And they can become more permeable and soft, allowing those people, beings, and energies that align with you to enter more deeply into your world.
Boundaries Are an Act of Self-Love
Boundaries protect and honor the sacred space of you. They show others how you expect to be treated, and what is allowed and not allowed in your life. They are the forest’s edge, keeping your rich, complex, and sacred self safe, protected, and nourished. It’s ok if others don’t fully understand them, as long as they can respect them.
Boundaries are sacred protection for you.
As always, if you would like support on exploring how to set boundaries, I am here for you. Please feel welcomed to reach out. As an empath and highly sensitive therapist, I deeply understand the challenges of this journey. I would be honored to support you.