While working on the movie Sensitive and in Love, I was looking at the book Highly Sensitive People in Love and noticed I never discussed boundaries directly, although the subject was there often. Many people now are writing about HSPs and boundaries, so I think I will chime in, first with the basics, then something more.
The Brief Course
If you just want advice about boundaries, most of us agree that the main thing is being able to say “no.” Here’s the brief course.
- Make sure you are clear. Most HSPs give hints and make suggestions that others do not hear for what they really are. Don’t say “maybe,” “I’ll try,” or “if I can” when you really mean no. That’s part of “volume.” You can be clear yet also polite and caring.
- You don’t have to give a reason.
- Only you know if you are overloaded. Probably they would not have asked you if they knew it would be hard on you. You have to decide when it would be, and give them the chance to be kind to you by not overloading you unknowingly.
- Delay if you are having trouble deciding what you want to do: “I’ll get back to you.”
- Don’t answer face to face if it would be easier to say no by voice mail, text, or email.
- The person with “higher rank” gets to set the boundaries: takes the best seat, the quieter spot, the bigger office, makes the rules, assigns tasks, and generally gets his or her way. So you need to feel equally or more important. If the other does not see you that way, work on that.
The Back Story
What are boundaries? A well-functioning, open (not isolated) system, as described by systems theory, has the boundaries that are best suited to its needs. Whatever the system, it tries to take in what is good for it and keep out what is not good for it, whether it is your home, your body, or each cell in your body. Everyone tries to keep out flu viruses and take in air. To keep burglars and dirt out of their house but take in groceries, electricity, and water.
Most systems also produce something, even if just its own autonomy and internal functions. But an open system usually produces more. Even a car, even a coffee maker or a radio, takes in energy and gives out material stuff (radios give out sound waves).
Not all boundaries are visible all the time. Often the boundaries are more psychological or learned than real. Or only on paper. Think of families—some members might be step parents, step children or adopted. Think of the globe with all those national boundaries. Just lines on a map–often no fences, just entry points. But they produce passports, language differences, tariffs, and other very tangible effects.
Systems also have boundaries within the ultimate boundary. Boundaries among states or provinces within a country, or cells and organs with in a body. Could an entire system have “thin” boundaries, both the larger system and its parts? Ernest Hartmann raises this question as it pertains to us.
Thin Boundaries, Another Way to Think about Us
We tend to think of HSPs as having very permeable boundaries in some sense. A fine book on the subject, really about HSPs, is Boundaries of the Mind by psychiatrist Ernest Hartmann. It’s about “thin skinned people,” especially those in the mind: Between conscious and unconscious, waking and sleep, dreams and memory of dreams, adult versus child identity, the preference for tidy versus fluid, the feeling of being psychic, and so forth. And quite a few of them, he thinks, are similar in their thickness or thinness within an individual. His book was written in 1991, but you can still buy it online. I recommend it. It even has a test for boundaries, thick or thin, with over 130 questions.
I was not more enthusiastic about his book at first because the research is sketchy and he is too inclusive. For example, an HSP introvert might have different social boundaries than an HSP extrovert. Nor does he fully delineate causes for variations in boundaries–those that are innate versus caused by defenses or traumas. For example, if someone has been hurt they may have very tight boundaries to keep out pain. The boundaries might be thick to avoid physical pain (gloves to avoid blisters or germs, being extra careful about knives, fires, etc.). Or their social boundaries might be thick to avoid psychological pain (avoidant attachment style for example, or self-defenses against shame such as blaming others).
Thin Boundaries are Not Always Innate
Just as thick boundaries are not always innate, thin boundaries can also be learned as a defense rather than being inborn as is the case with HSPs. They might be due, for example, to never having been allowed to develop the basic boundary that delineates self from others in childhood, through for example making decisions for one’s self, being allowed some privacy, and simply being permitted to protest injustices or avoid cruelty. These all tend to be denied to children who are not allowed boundaries. Since the process of discrimination itself is discouraged, this can atrophy the inner boundaries among parts as well. Really, the boundaries are not just thin but non-existent. Rather than thinking through the complexities of life, such as between reality and the imagined, or among various subtle distinctions, they may oversimplify as adults. That is, there might be a lack of enough boundaries among types of things: “All education is a waste of time.” In fact, maybe some is, some may not be, and some is definitely not.
This lack of personal boundaries can also happen in adults who are enslaved in some way or those with very few rights for any reason. (“Yes boss, whatever you say boss.”)
In contrast to a lack of boundaries that are due to adapting to domination by others, we think HSPs are generally born with thin boundaries as a strategy for general survival and which are then adjusted by life experience. That is, as a social or physical defense they might even thicken, so to speak. But that original thinness remains in some ways and allows them to be more sensitive to their environment, good or bad (sometime misperceived as good or bad), and adjust accordingly.
I like that Hartmann, along with most HSPs, tries to be very objective, neither thinking thin nor thick is better. Not surprisingly, however, in his extensive experience on the subject, he has met many people thinking one or the other really is better. (How difficult it is for humans to see two things as equal). At the extremes they are certainly quite different.
I think it is easy for us to get stuck on the idea that HSPs have “poor boundaries” and need to thicken them by learning to say no, and that’s it. It requires more than that to make full use of our thin boundaries gracefully. If you think of a window, it can be wide open, closed but no curtain, covered with a lace curtain, heavily draped, or shuttered and barred. Personally, I love how the French handle windows: You can see a charming French woman hanging out of her open window chatting or watering her window box. When she withdraws, you see her lace curtains swaying in the breeze. If she wants quiet, she closes the windows but you still see the lace. When day is done, the shutters are closed over the windows. Discriminating. Graceful.
What about the charm of wide open windows? Letting things in more easily than others? We do not want to rule out letting things in for the sake of keeping things out–toss the baby out with the bath water, with the soap, soup, supper, baby blanket, baby powder, or baby sitter. Out the window. My point there was that thin boundaries among many subtle types or categories we have observed can help us see unusual, interesting connections, so that we can be creative or even just funny or silly. That is, thin boundaries are another way of understanding DOES. Our depth of processing is due to letting more in.
For example, many of us have thin boundaries among categories. Not just what a baby might be thrown out with, but, for example, “good” or “bad” food may be this, this, or this, not simply one category or what the label says it is. We also have thin boundaries between past, present, and future. We can think back over all of our experiences, make use of our careful observations in the present, and have better ideas to act on in the future. Depth of processing also flows out of thin boundaries between conscious and what is presently not conscious, but stored in memory. And what others’ are feeling and what we are feeling. We let it all into the mix. Hence we can be more conscientious, more reflective when making decisions or more attuned to others’ subtle cues.
Next time, in Part II, we’ll think how HSPs can unwittingly violate the boundaries of others due to their trait. We’ll explore more about “volume.” And see what horses have to do with it.
Thank you for this richly nuanced look at boundaries. I am a clinical social worker in southern US, 66 years old, a senior who has cut back on work but does not wish to fully retire. I am thinking of the overlap of boundaries and social/cultural values. In my opinion and experience, we lose value or social capital as we age in the West. The thinning of boundaries seems to be associated with aging and in some cultures would be respected as a source of wisdom. Instead, thin boundaries in American seniors might likely be dismissed as a health issue or a path to dementia. While self-awareness of when a thin boundary is not serving one’s needs is a good idea, my hope is that through the research, such as Dr. Aron’s, the culture will be more educated as to how very diverse we all are in our perceptions of others, ourselves, and the world around us. This educational piece encourages choice and compassion. Thank you for your contributions to a gentler society.
Fiona Da Silva says
Yes, all of this describes me to a tee and the advice re-boundaries others and my own, which definitely need work.
Thanks so much,
Wonderful piece, thank you. I want to mention that it’s also difficult to convey any sensitivity of body awareness to the medical community. When I announced to my female Ob/Gyn that I was pregnant she replied “you can’t know that.” She had me take a lab test and of course I was pregnant. This was before the days of drugstore home tests.
Also, when I pick up on conflicting information in interpersonal relationships which alert me that what is being said is not completely truthful or causes that individual discomfort, I have to be super careful most times to allow folks to have their secrets. It’s a tricky business. I’ve gotten much better with this through the years.
I look forward to reading more here.
“I have to be super careful most times to allow folks to have their secrets. It’s a tricky business. I’ve gotten much better with this through the years”
So THAT is how that is said/conveyed…..Thank you.
“I have to be super careful most times to allow folks to have their secrets. It’s a tricky business. I’ve gotten much better with this through the years.”
I pick up on this too. And there can be another explanation for seeming-secrets, that aren’t actual secrets: Sometimes this piece of information, and that piece of information about a person, are independently true, even while seeming to contradict each other. The listener erroneously bridges the two pieces in a way that makes the other person seem deceitful. This is a frustration of mine that I believe stems from pre-conceptions about a person– looking for what we WANT to find.
I absolutely agree with you Laura, I have always felt how people purposely want the crossfired information they cannot make sense of in their head to be made sense of by an external person they can feel confidential with and as you said they “erroneously bridge the information in a way that makes the listener seem deceitful”, which in turn makes the situation uncomfortable. I know that best because I have done it myself many times as well.
I’m not sure if I have an issue with boundaries. Possibly I do cause many times I have invaded others boundaries by giving my opinion where it is not needed. I do, however, know my body and physical sensitivities, temperature etc very well. And I know when someone is not saying something. I need to learn to keep my mouth closed in these situations…
“Possibly I do cause many times I have invaded others boundaries by giving my opinion where it is not needed.” I too have this problem. I need to keep my mouth shut and my ears open. It’s not always easy, but its getting better.
Thanks Elaine for opening a discussion about boundaries. I’m not sure when western culture realized that “setting boundaries” was a way to empower everyone in our society to stand up for themselves but I sometimes wish whoever got the ball rolling had added some guidelines. It really is an empowering tool that can help soft spoken people protect themselves from being treated unreasonably or abused by others. Unfortunately, many people justify treating others unfairly by calling their own wants and desires “boundaries” and insisting that they are entitled to have their “boundaries” be respected. Maybe as HSP’s we can help the world learn that “boundaries” are about basic human rights and dignity and not about entitlement to individual wants and desires.
I like the reminder that it is okay for HSPs to choose thin boundaries at certain times. I think as HSPs we do think of ourselves as weak unless our boundaries are thick. Like everything else in life, balance is good. I love the example of the French windows. That imagery will help remind me to choose my strength of boundary based on the situation, and to enjoy the times I chose to have thinner boundaries.
When I read discussions about ‘boundaries’, I want to add that I never heard this term until modern psychology introduced it. I am old enough to remember that the basics of setting ‘boundaries’ were well served by good manners. Good manners were about treating others with dignity and respect. Practicing good manners was about more than knowing which fork to use. What happened to that concept?
Today’s ideas about violating another person’s ‘boundaries’ used to be considered brazen rude behavior. We did not need psychologists to define it for us. It was obvious and it was considered unacceptable. Maybe if we returned to some old-fashioned standards about how to behave and how to treat others properly, we would not have to spend so much time discussing ‘boundaries’. My 2 cents!
Angela L Siegfried says
Not everything is like chicken soup. For somebody like me that finds this very helpful to know and believe in the fact that everything evolves including sociology, psychology and humanism. Through learning about sensitivity when it comes to my son I am grateful for people that are not generalizing Humanity. I get where you’re coming from, however; it is those thoughts that brought negativity to my son’s situation. 2- cents
Roxane Carbery says
This was amazing to read.. i feel more accepting of myself in understanding myself with more depth. I also feel sad how the world can cripple HSP sense of self and how unconsiously the people around can do it. But i think this is amazing work and research and I hope in the future there is more understanding of different systems xo
Angela L Siegfried says
I am so happy to have found this information what I consider to be a great resource for continuing to learn more great things about my son who I have literally been deeply studying him for the last 15 years as well as loving being his mom for the past 18 years. He and I have both always known that he was more complex than the average person and I have always felt as though I won’t stop until I know him like more than he knows himself and the journey has been most rewarding. He has told me so many details over the years and I have finally found an explanation that truly fits. His thought processes are so incredibly deep and complex and until he was about 8 years old I thought it was going to cause him to have a very stressful and socially more difficult life but he is amazing and he has always stayed true to his sensitivity and he’s worked it out to be a positivity in his life. Though it hasn’t always been, and does not always begin positive, we tend to figure it out. But now we have resources other than our own findings which is very comforting. He’s eighteen now and he’s the coolest guy I know. He’s my best friend. I have also and almost 20 year old boy and an amazing husband. We’re a very close-knit family. Looking forward to learning so much more with you and having this tool to Branch from. Thank you
Are there any books you’d recommend for male HSP that struggle setting boundaries in relationships?