To sum up Graceful Boundaries Part I, when needing to say no, of course it is important, especially to us, to be graceful by being polite, but without sounding weak. I also said that we do have innately somewhat thin boundaries, which is part of what gives us our depth of processing and empathy. But like all boundaries in any system, we should aim to let in what we want and keep out what we don’t want, such as stimulation to the point we are overstimulated–perhaps, for example, by tasks or social events we need to exclude by saying no.
Part II contains a bit more about the usefulness of thin boundaries, thanks to a poem I wrote years ago that I discovered coincidentally after writing Part I. In that first piece, I used the metaphor of windows—windows as boundaries between the world and ourselves. To my surprise, the title of this long-lost poem was “Windows.”
Next, I explore in this part whether we HSPs ever unintentionally violate the boundaries of others. I was going to then return to “volume” (the overall “amplitude” of our message, not only in sound but in bluntness, etc.). The sensitive use of volume is the key to graceful boundaries. But this entire subject of boundaries lacks boundaries! So I will discuss volume in Part III and boundaries in close relationships in Part IV. If there’s a Part V, feel free to set a boundary for us and delete it!
Now that poem, written in about 1992:
Flung open at dawn to a subtle sky,
Now they gape black, too wide.
I already smell the wrong smells—
Wet wool, wet wood, wet raffia and silk.
I turn on the light to apologize
To the marred dresser
And take the blame for the blurring of the bold Gujarat rug.
Things inside should not be so exposed
To defend all day, all alone,
Their inferiority (that modesty and shyness
For which I myself have praised them)
With nothing but shuddering lace
Between them and the vagrant storm.
Another Time Thin Boundaries Can Be a Strength
I came upon the poem while trying to sort and mostly toss stuff from way back in my past. I had completely forgotten writing it, probably on purpose. The poem dated back to a time when I was a patient in depth psychotherapy, being inundated by painful forgotten memories and horrific dreams. My boundaries between past and present, conscious and unconscious, were super thin. The poem was about just that, the boundary between the stormy process and my tidy ego had been left open.
Yet this is another case where I am convinced that an innate tendency to thin boundaries was helpful. If the sources of the “presenting problem” run deep, psychotherapy that does not get down to these basics is often only a band-aid. And while the research is not yet clear on this point, I am convinced that HSPs can heal faster just because they can go deeper. So that is another advantage of thin boundaries. Further, I was functioning fine in the outer world, even when I felt depressed or anxious, so there was a boundary there between the inner work and the outer work that was thick. HSPs can do this (and it is necessary when doing such deep work.)
When We Compensate with Overly Thick Boundaries
But do we ever overcompensate by becoming mostly a system with thick boundaries? Do we temporarily or generally shut out not some but all of the pain in the world, or our own pain, or even new ideas? “No, I will not think about that.” “No, I am not going to feel that.” Can we end up not saying “yes” enough? Not saying it even in a “thin” sort of way, with uncertainty? “Well, okay, maybe I will try it.” “I’ll considerate it.” “Yes, I will think about it.”
When I showed my son the script for the film Highly Sensitive and in Love, which was emphasizing the need for boundaries and self-care, he commented that it all sounded kind of self-centered. He thought HSPs were more compassionate and generous than others.
I think we are, and we corrected the movie to show that caring side. Again, it’s important to be kind, even while we set good boundaries. If we have the energy to help, of course we do. But helping can be harder and less effective when we are exhausted. That’s why we emphasize boundaries and self-care, to be able to be more helpful, in the way that works best for you.
When it comes to setting boundaries gracefully, I like aiming to “Speak the truth but speak it sweetly.” We can emphasize what we can do, even if it is less than requested, or why we can’t but still value the person or event or the commitment of the person asking you. Overall, I like the analogy of having a soft front and a firm spine rather than a hard front and a soft spine.
The key is being able to discriminate, and anticipating when to shift from thick to thin and back to thick as needed. Your friend would like a loan. You’ve loaned money before and he had to be reminded to pay it back. You drifted apart, but still like him, money difficulties or not. He promises to do better this time. You listen a bit more, then maybe close the money shutters. But if he sounds sincerely changed, thoughtful of you, and understanding of the importance of trust between friends; if he is truly in need and you could afford to lose this sum in the worst case, that’s like a friend serenading you at your window. Whether he sings perfectly or not, you open up.
Can HSPs Violate the Boundaries of Others without Noticing?
Hmm, that could be very ungraceful. Someone asked me that and I had never thought about it. Yes, of course, although rarely intentionally, knowing how much we dislike others doing it, and being so quick to notice the boundaries of others. You know, the grocery shopping thing. We tend to know where other shoppers are around us and when they want to pass by, and often put our baskets somewhere out of the way to avoid jamming the aisles. How many others bother? About 20%!
Still, it seems very important to explore how we might violate the boundaries of others. I can imagine myself asking a question that is deep and interesting to me, invoking personal opinions or experiences, and a less sensitive person finding the subject a trespass, at least at this stage in our relationship or with others around who can hear. I know I have probably wrongly said, “It sounds like you and your mom don’t get along very well. What happened?”
Or I have assumed communication skills that were not there. “I’m sure you didn’t mean that—the last thing you want to do is shame the other person if you want to make your point.”
Or I can imagine myself being bored of chit chat with an acquaintance and conjuring up something from the depths such as, “I wonder, do you think the human race is making progress?” There’s a conversation stopper—a demand (a push on a boundary) that someone less in the habit of processing deeply ought to conform to my interests, whatever theirs.
Or “Time travel fascinates me. What’s the evidence that we can travel in time? The space-time continuum for one. It makes you think, doesn’t it?” The other’s face says, “No, it never has.”
Ever had anyone bothered by you because you often seem to know “the best thing to do”? It’s like you are bubbling over with opinions based on your depth of processing of whatever is up at the moment. “No, that hike will be too hot today.” “No, we’ve already tried that restaurant and you hated the food.” “If you go that way, we’re going to be stuck in traffic.” And once again you have traipsed through their thoughts and plans, as if jumping right over their causally considered little fences, those feeble boundaries, which they might have preferred you to respect.
Ever had people feel you could almost read their minds, which felt like a violation to them?
What about when we “get in a complex,” about politics or the state of the world or the environment. Or health. Have you ever had someone, probably another HSP, shower you with advice if you mention a sore back or repeated indigestion, but the advice leaves you anxiously doubting the solutions you are already pursuing? Have you ever been told about the dangers to your health or to the environment of certain foods (that you happen to love)? Okay, now think, have you ever done this to others? If someone is having trouble at work or with a friendship, have you ever so gently slathered on advice from when “the very same thing happened to me”? We are certain we are being helpful, but have we checked whether our opinions are really wanted?
If we have so much intuition and empathy, we need to apply it to rein in our depth of processing and strong opinions when it is too far ahead of the person we are with. Be graceful.
Anyway, I have now rethought why one version (there are two) of a line in the Christian “Lord’s Prayer” is “forgive us our trespasses against us.” It says that our “sins” are all about boundary violations. It could go, “Forgive us for ignoring others’ boundaries as we forgive those who have ignored ours.”
Okay, in our distress or over-zealousness, we can trespass. But obviously this is not our main issue. So in Part III we will return to the subject of maintaining our own boundaries. Boundaries are a metaphor for something invisible most of the time, so we will take up another metaphor, volume (you might say amplitude of response in all its forms) for how boundaries are made at least audible, and sometimes quite visible. Remember the old cartoons with one person hitting another over the head with a frying pan? Now that’s high volume.
I think I replied to this chapter in chapter 1… Getting ahead of myself. I can definitely relate to trespassing others boundaries.
My aphorism (usually directed toward myself) is, “‘Don’t be a KIA.’ Better to ease your way into it.”
KIA = know-it-all
Kelly Houlton says
Yes, this resonates with me. One boundary is when people expect me to answer or give advice but the topic is so banal (in my experience) or so far beyond my own scope that I just sit there like a toad on a log. Like, “I really wish I hadn’t gone out bowling and drinking last night with my friends when all I really wanted to do was go home and put my jammies on and be alone with some quiet.” And I sit there thinking, “Yes. That’s what I would’ve done.” Instead of suggesting that it’s okay to say no and spend time alone. It seems like such a no-brainer to me! I’m pretty good at saying no; I wonder if I need to say yes more often.
I hear this, Kelly! Sometimes when people talk about things that seem like old news I find it difficult to engage (I’m sure there are others in the world who experience this with me too). It’s very nourishing for me when I can connect with people who seem to be around or just ahead of my current growth edge. That’s what came up for me when I read your comment – thanks for sharing.
Rosemarie Mexted says
I’ve found that the main reason I have ever violated other people’s boundaries unknowingly is because I assume that their boundaries are thin, like mine. And that was when I didn’t realize that my boundaries were thin. I found other people (non-HSPs) to be aggressive with their boundaries.
So, please help me understand, what do horses have to do with it?
I also want to know please.
And how exactly do you protect yourself from being overwhelmed by what other people are feeling. My boundaries are almost non existent.
I notice some ways I heal faster because I can go deeper. When I was dating in my 20s, I remember being alone, sobbing and wailing after important breakups. I quickly tuned deeply into the details of what happened and why. I got to see what it was about, and was over it all usually the same day. This has happened with devastating deaths, hurtful relationships, etc. Broader perspective from the bigger picture.
On the other hand, it’s taken decades to sort out my unsupportive, psycho, and sometimes violent childhood, and all the feelings of anger, resentment, weakness (I know I’m not doing this right, but I don’t know/ can’t follow the healthy way to do it.) Giving to my kids the goodness that I needed is healing. All the deep introspection and examination of what happened and why, and applying the knowledge to my life changes me. Also, my senses help me hear answers in the air. Another significant healing comes from deeply understanding my true self via HSP info, my astrology chart, Human Design chart, numerology, archetypes, etc. My past doesn’t define me. We are each quite unique– each an entire world unto ourselves.
Emily K Harrington says
I understand what you mean, and I empathize, especially with having an abusive childhood. As an HSP who, like many other HSPs, has mental illnesses, I beg you to eliminate the word “psycho” from your vocabulary. I’m not angry about it. Using terms like that are deeply ingrained in our society. Many people think it’s okay to call themselves ADD if they are forgetful or inattentive, or OCD if they are particular about the way things look. Some people say they’re bipolar if they change their minds repeatedly. All of this comes from a deep-seated misunderstanding of what mental illness actually is. Psycho refers to psychosis or psychotic, meaning that the person is currently experiencing hallucinations, delusions, and/or paranoia. Psychosis does not cause violent or evil behavior. I completely understand where you are coming from, and I urge you to not feel guilty about this. I am sure you meant no harm and will take my words to heart in your future interactions. I know us HSPs can place a great weight of blame on ourselves for innocent mistakes. You absolutely do not need to feel guilty. I’m just putting this information out into the world in places where it can be addressed.
Wow. I’m pretty sure that’s what Elaine meant with the frying pan metaphor.
Marcia Pearson says
I survived by strength of character, by a powerful spiritual life, and great compassion and unconditional love for those around me. I accepted their insensitivity, even what I felt as betrayals, abandonment. There was great pain and because of it, great joy and understanding. But boundaries and real protection in and to the exterior world were missing. I gave myself up to this expansion, a higher love, and feel successful in myself. Strength, courage, perseverance, has been my mode. But after reading your book which was so beautifully written and vital, revelatory, something opened up and I saw clearly that I have never known truly how to love myself. It’s so painful, this vacuum, the lack of that softness. I am seventy and the breadth of all the years of this division in me, an interior fullness and knowledge, mastery, but unliberated, even unreal, in the outer world, not full, not really trusting to be loved, unconditionally accepted, and somehow hiding in this secret life, that boundary has kept me from a very real, palpable loving myself. It’s shocking but now I am facing it and I know what is missing and can find my way there.
Having read Graceful Boundaries again more thoughtfully, I would like to offer something a little contrary. Having struggled with offending people, the trespasses, and self-recrimination for it I appreciate both the humility and responsibility it inspires in me, even at a cost of excessive self-deprecation. But I also found that we will always, as imperfect human beings, all of us not just HSPs, overbear and infringe and offend each other at any level of development- that is often the challenge of connecting with another, unearthing what is there between us and our boundaries. Minor conflicts and touchy arousals can often be the opening, though uncomfortable and messy, of real friendship and deeper relationship. And certainly aids discrimination. And as confidence and “normality” go, it is sometimes better to speak freely, less tenuously, and care less about offending (as long as our intentions have no malice or anger) so that we become less sensitized and allow ourselves the freedom and unapologetic openness to cross our and others’ boundaries, make mistakes, appear rude, even express the inexpressible to those who can’t or don’t want to hear it because we have a right to be fully human and vocal and wrong and right. Like everyone else, who are making zillions of mistakes. As a funny sage said: There’s no karma for rudeness!
Just a thought!
Priscilla Atkins says
Marcia, your reflections are so beautifully uttered. Reading through comments and replies to comments on this thread I am reminded that communication/language is an attempt at saying what may not be fully sayable. What offends one person may help someone else open up and feel connected, in a healthy, positive way (and I’m not only talking about the speaker; a listener, as well). To your words “it is sometimes better to speak freely, less tenuously, and care less about offending (as long as our intentions have no malice or anger) so that we become less sensitized and allow ourselves the freedom and unapologetic openness to cross our and others’ boundaries . . .” I might add “also, so that we become, live, breathe, experience the depths and heights (and whimsy!!) of we are.” Gads HSPs are so intelligent and alive, as your words and others’ here attest. Thank you!
Bea Sanz says
Hi! I have been searching for a hsp teenager like me for a long time. A few days ago i found this blog so i started reading comments to see if someone looked like a teenager or something. I’m actually Spanish but i love languages so much that i would learn everyone. And English is my favourite for sure. Anyway, i would like to contact with people like me, and if it’s possible around my age. My name is Beatriz (well but you call me Bea) and i’m 16. Thanks.
Caro Eardley says
Hi Bea – I’m replying to you to say how sorry I am that no one else has replied.
You are very brave to reach out and ask for resources aka a friend your own age to talk to, and, sadly, it isn’t me. I’m old too.
I do remember very clearly being your age but most of the people here have, like me, had to wait far too long for someone aka Elaine Aaron, to show us HSP survivors that there is a way to understand, acknowledge, and change, the way we are in this world.
Just wanted to reach out to you and say ‘you go, girl!’ You can and you will find others to share your way of being.
Just never give up and keep on looking for the 1 in 5 around you that can relate to you as an HSP. They’re out there, you just need to figure out how to recognise them – and then you will find your friends and allies.
Wishing everything of the very best this life has to offer you. Feel free to get in touch if you want someone old to talk to! reply to me here and I’ll work out if there is an acceptable way to support you s I can.
Just know you are a wonderful and worthwhile person.
I am a 66 year old woman, and only realized a year or so ago that what was ‘wrong’ with me is, I am a highly sensitive person. I know my boundaries are an issue in some senses and not others. For instance, as a child I learned to stick up for myself, and saw that I was the only one who could really do that. So in the case of more ‘obvious’ boundaries, like not being ‘snowed’ by someone who thinks you are weak, well I am no easy target. Where I fall back on my childhood patterns, is being there, compassionate, for others I am close to. I have allowed my close friends to continually call me on the phone, for instance, when suffering a relationship break up, and I have a seemingly endless patience to listen and be there for them. I know this is because as a child, I was sensitive to the suffering of both my alcoholic father, and my mother who put up with it. I comforted and listened to them, too, when I was still a small child. So when someone ‘needs’ me, I put aside my own problems when they seem lesser, and devote myself to just listening and let them tell me their problems.
My real issue in this is; when I myself have been deeply troubled and needed someone on a similar level, those friends were unable to be there for me. Sometimes to even hear me when I tried to speak of it. Then when I have tried to tell them of the pain this has caused me, I attempt to be non-blaming but honest, and express myself in a balanced way (just like I learned from my therapist!). What I have noticed is, I can be vilified for honesty, and do not understand what I am ‘doing wrong’. I find this to be rather passive aggressive, as if you are not being ‘nice’ if the hearer does not wish to acknowledge their own part in dysfunction. Like being told one is ‘too sensitive’ as if that is the problem not the behavior of the other.
What I did to work on this was I found some new friends. I am learning that I don’t ‘have’ to be friends with someone who does not value and appreciate me, but I still second guess myself and will think there must be something I am doing ‘wrong’.
Anne, I sobbed as I read your comments, as if you were speaking from my heart. I also am 66, and am only now learning, through this website, how my life has been formed by being highly sensitive. It is such a welcome revelation to know I share these experiences with others, like yourself, so thank you. I don’t feel so alone anymore. What I have lived with so long I can now view as strengths and power.
Anne and Nina, I am also 66 and can really relate to having always been an excellent listener for people with troubles, even as a child, but when I am deeply sad or troubled I usually cannot think of anyone I feel would understand or want to spend more than a few minutes hearing me pour myself out to them. I usually end up dealing with it all myself and no one even knows. Some of this is because I don’t want to inconvenience anyone and figure they are all busy, and some is because the one time when the emotional pain was unbearable and I turned to a couple of close people, it was fine for that once but they were not available for any subsequent followup even though the painful situation was not over. It really has been good to know there are more like me, but I do not easily find them.
I can relate to so much of that. Over 50 now, still learning more about myself. Also an alcoholic parent, not much nurture or guidance growing up, having to sort it a whole lot out on my own. Still working on it. Not feeling like I’m not the only one makes a huge difference too.
Wow! Anne, Nina, and Jan, your words express exactly what I would express. I too am tearing up as I’m realizing there ARE people out there who understand what I go through in my daily life. Im assuming you have all read this book? You highly recommend it? I’m not usually one to go on forums, but a stroke of luck brought me here. I don’t feel so alone any more!
You are making me reflect a lot on being graceful as a way of mindfulness and taking a step back to actually not be so impulsive. I am very quick to give advice to people, I am usually right and my institution never fails but it has caused me a great deal of pain, sometimes as you said we should really reconsider the situation and people we are disclosing such information to before doing so.
Diana Moss says
In your reference to the Lord’s Prayer, I believe the wording is “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
The Lord’s Prayer reads in most versions:
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
It is the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples how to pray to him with praise, confession, thanksgiving and intercession.
I have been talking with my daughter, who discovered Elaine’s HSP work and has found it helpful. I too have found that this lens has brought tremendous compassion and illumination to my own judgment about what I’m able to do and not do in my life as an HSP. As a member of Alanon years ago, I found that program’s discussion about boundaries to be essential, and I’ve incorporated it into my life. I’d recommend it to any HSP who has also struggled with an alcoholic family.
Another tool that broadens my understanding and compassion re “mental illness” and many forms of “disease,” is to think of a continuum instead of a diagnosis. Increasingly (like autism) we seem to be discovering that many conditions exist along a spectrum instead of a black-and-white diagnosis, and I am beginning to think of HSP this way as well. We are all so unique, so differently impacted by our childhoods, etc. — it is a complicated and mysterious brew that forms our complexes. Instead of wondering if “X” is or isn’t “HSP,” I am beginning to wonder if we all exist somewhere along a spectrum of intensity.
Thanks you, Elaine, for this groundbreaking work. It is changing my life.