As an empath or highly sensitive person, the idea of trying to set a boundary may feel uniquely scary and challenging for you! Yet boundaries are a key aspect of the journey to self love and becoming a joyful empath. Empaths and highly sensitive people (HSP) often experience the world in a more fluid, boundary-less way than other people. This way of being can offer great gifts when you have choice, intention, and support around it! However this can also leave empaths and highly sensitive people open to depletion, confusion, overwhelm, and even harm.
Boundaries are also deeply culturally-situated. Your unique cultural legacies, present day community and contexts, as well as the impact of trauma and oppression deeply influence the concept of boundaries and how you can understand and relate to them. For example, in white european-american culture the concept of boundaries is deeply situated in the overarching belief system of individualism. However in other more community oriented cultures the concept of boundaries may be very different. It is important to explore the gifts and challenges of any concept of boundaries in the cultural contexts you engage with, as you develop your own relationship to boundaries.
A boundary is a barrier that separates the sacred space of you from the rest of the world. They can offer a sense of what you do want in the sacred space of you, what you do not want, and what you will do in response to that.
It’s important to remember – boundaries are for you.
Think of boundaries as embodied limits and needs that show you what you are available for in a situation. They clarify your wants, needs, and limits. They also give you options on what actions you will take if something you do not want happens.
This can get very confusing! Especially for empaths and highly sensitive people, who tend to struggle to feel a separation between themselves and others. It can feel scary to re-center into yourself and embody your needs, instead of focusing on other people and their feelings, needs, and wants. This is one reason why boundaries are essential for empaths and highly sensitive people. Without them, the gifts of empathy can turn into people-pleasing and create imbalanced relationships on all sides.
5 Ways to Set a Boundary
Here are some ideas to practice setting a boundary for different types of needs: physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual. Please know that in different cultural contexts, these may not align to what is expected or even supported. Trust yourself here! Tailor these ideas to what feels right within you, with the cultural expectations of the situation, and to the level that you feel safe and ready to explore. Only you can know what a good boundary is for your life.
Boundary – “I need to be asked before receiving touch”
Practice – Start by just visualizing what it would be like to tell a safe and supportive friend that they need to ask before they give you touch or a hug. Imagine that this friend agrees, and celebrates your courage in asking for what you need. Once you’ve imagined this, you can move to actually having that conversation with your friend.
If that all goes well, you can ask your friend if they would practice with you for different situations. Practicing with a safe and supportive other person helps the nervous system feel secure with this new experience, and makes it easier to try with more challenging relationships. Once you feel ready, you can explore telling other people your boundary as well. You can start by saying something along the lines of, “Hey! Fyi, I’ve realized that I’m someone who needs more personal space. Please let me know if you want to give me a hug or show physical affection. I’ll let you know if I’m able to receive it.”
Boundary – “I am not available to offer emotional support right now”
Practice – Ah, this one is especially hard for empaths! Remember – listening and holding space for other people is one of your gifts. That does not mean you owe it to anyone! Instead, it means that you have to learn to have choice, intention, and support around your gift. You can check in with yourself first and see if you are in a place where you are able to offer this gift without hurting or depleting yourself. Just because this is “invisible” labor, doesn’t mean it isn’t labor. Don’t overwork yourself!
If you someone comes to you wanting emotional care or support, check in with yourself first. Are you able to stay centered in yourself and not absorb their energy and feelings? Are you available to freely offer emotional labor right now without draining yourself? Does this relationship feel balanced and nourished in such a way that you also feel cared for? If not – set a boundary for your own actions. You can imagine saying something like, “Oh, I’m so sorry that’s happening! I really care about you, and I just don’t have the emotional capacity to listen right now.”
Boundary – “I am not available to learn any more news about trauma or suffering today”
Practice – This can be challenging as news is often designed to flood us with painful, scary, and traumatic stories. It can be helpful to look at where you get your news from, and how it is being presented to you. Choosing news sources that provide information without sensationalizing or re-traumatizing can be very important, when possible.
Having separate social media accounts can also help you to set a boundary with this. Set up a “joy account” where you engage with only things that are comforting, nourishing, and inspiring! This can be especially helpful if it is hard to stay off social media for any reason. Otherwise you can limit your exposure to social media to certain amounts each day.
You can also practice letting people know that you are all out of space to learn about news for the day. Imagine saying something like, “I’m at capacity for hard news stories today. If you’d like to share something uplifting or hopeful, I’d love to learn! Otherwise let’s talk about something else for now.” Prioritize taking time and space to cultivate joy, love, and pleasure throughout the day with yourself and other loved beings – whether through social media, conversations, or experiences that feel good. (Cats are purrrfect companions for this!)
Boundary – “I need to be able to step away from parties and gatherings to re-center myself”
Practice – If others are inviting you to a gathering, set a boundary by letting them know that you will need the ability to step away from the gathering freely at times. Ideally you’ll have a quiet place where you can check in with yourself from time to time. This space can be a spare bedroom, your car, a quiet yard space, or ideally a designated quiet room for anyone who needs it!
I like to invite folks to put together a little “bag of comfort” that can help regulate their unique nervous system to bring with them. This is a way of making sure your needs are met. Some resources to start with are noise canceling headphones, your favorite healing sounds, essential oils or aromatherapy, stones and other nature pieces to hold and connect with, fidgets, or a journal.
If you would like to stay at a party but need some time to recenter, replenish, and restore, go to to the quiet space and enjoy the resources from your bag. When you’re ready, without rushing, you can come back. Or if you don’t want to step away, you can bring out your journal or sketch book and let your creative process bring you back to yourself. Drawing, photography, and journaling can all be great ways to stay present and connected with yourself while in a group. You might feel strange at first, but often people will think it’s cool or interesting and ask you about it after! If you can’t have that space you need, practice leaving the party early. This is way of prioritizing your needs for regulation, which is an important self love practice.
Boundary – “I need to re-center in myself and stay separate from the energy of others around me”
Practice – When you feel pulled into the feelings, experiences, or energies of others – remember this core boundary and practice bringing yourself back. Using grounding and centering resources that feel aligned for you, practice guiding yourself back into your body. Explore the idea that separating from the energy of others actually allows you to build more intimacy and closeness with them. Centering in you gives you a sacred space from which to connect and be known, instead of losing yourself in the process.
You can imagine a powerful sphere or circle of energy around you that contains your unique ecosystem. This sphere or circle has defined edges that set a boundary between you and the energy around you. Clear out any energy, emotion, thought, or feeling that does not feel like it is yours. Imagine a clearing sun ray, rain fall, or cool breeze washing away any residual aspects that do not belong to you. Visualize the boundaries of your space as guides and protectors – letting in what serves and grows you, and keeping out what depletes and hurts you.
Setting a Boundary is Self Love
Remember – setting a boundary is a way of giving love and protection to the sacred space of you. Boundaries show you what you need and are available for in a given situation, how you stand for what you need, and what you can do to protect yourself against anything unwelcome.
Be compassionate with yourself! It takes support and slow steps over time to practice setting boundaries. There is no rush. You are always allowed to grow at your own pace.
As always, if you would like support on exploring how to set boundaries as an empath, intuitive, or highly sensitive person, 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.
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