The Power of Boundaries for the “Highly Sensitive”

Boundaries 2Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own & take responsibility for gives me freedom.” – Henry Cloud in the book, Boundaries: When to Say Yes & How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. [ A book I highly recommend. ]

If you are like me, the word boundary may feel a bit worn-out. Similar to being repeatedly told not to worry,  we have all been directed – likely countless times- that establishing boundaries with friends, family members, and co-workers is important. Most of us have experienced hearing more than a few of the warnings below, including…

“Don’t be a doormat and let them run all over you.”

“Stand up for yourself!”

“People will take advantage of you, if you let them.”

“If you give them an inch, they’ll try and take a mile.”

“Sometimes you just need to show tough love.”

I find myself cringing a bit when I read this list above. While the deeper message holds true [ setting boundaries is important in protecting ourselves ],  these statements sound a bit cynical, carrying almost a sense of  “us-versus-them” attitude.  For many of us – and especially those of us who tend towards being highly sensitive – these challenges can leave us feeling stuck in the fear of hurting those we love and care for. Perhaps the idea of defining boundaries feels like a daunting/near-impossible task as a result.  And this is exactly why I believe boundaries get a bad rap

Messages like the ones listed above may mistakenly teach us that boundaries represent “walls to keep the enemy out”, promoting an almost-aggressive and certainly defensive mindset.  However, as revealed by the portion of the book Boundaries quoted at the beginning, relational boundaries are not mean or a threat to others. Instead boundaries that encourage emotionally healthy living focus less on the actions of others and more on what your individual needs and capabilities are [ “knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for…”]. Valuable boundaries do not box us in, and neither do they entail rejecting the people in our lives. Rather, the opposite is true. Healthy boundaries mentally & emotionally set us free, allowing us to not merely survive but thrive personally & in connection with others.

“Boundaries are a part of self care. They are healthy, normal, & necessary.” ~Doreen Virtue

The Highly Sensitive (aka “Feelers”)

According to the Myers & Briggs Foundation, those with a preference for  Feeling (over Thinking) as a function for making decisions tend towards believing,  “I can make the best decisions by weighing what people care about and the points-of-view of persons involved in a situation. I am concerned with values and what is the best for the people involved. I like to do whatever will establish or maintain harmony.”

Establishing and sticking-to relational boundaries can present more of a challenge for the highly sensitive, or what the Myers & Briggs Foundation would define as “Feelers.” I can say this because, well, I am one.  Being sensitive to the needs, values, and emotions of those around us can be a beautiful gift and tremendous benefit; however, pitfalls include potentially loosing sight of “where I end and someone else begins” [ Boundaries ].  As a defining feature of “Feelers,” such sensitive persons are more inclined to allow the reactions of others to influence the choices they make. This presents problems when we notice the following tendencies developing:

  • Inability to say ‘No’ to requests, even when physical, emotional, & mental resources have been exhausted.
  • Sacrificing personal [ and reasonable ] goals out of a fear of the reactions of others.
  • Moving past healthy expressions of empathy and taking-on the responsibility of others’ decisions & problems.
  • Failing to structure personal ‘re-charging’ time into one’s day, in order to regain emotional & physical energy. [ And this involves more than merely time sleeping ].
  •  Refusing to notify close friends and family when in need of support & help.

And if you have fit one or most of these criteria at some point in your life [ perhaps even now ], you are not alone. When I consider a man or woman described by the bullet points above, I get an image of a water pitcher.  The pitcher of water continuously pours without stopping to re-fill.  After a period of time, it simply runs dry.  I don’t know about you, but when I am thirsty, I get cranky, frustrated, and even a bit resentful of those around me.  I may even expect others to magically know my pitcher is dry and understand how I am in need, without voicing my emptiness.  Over time, my anger & anxiety may build under the surface, erroding away my peace.  Yet who is in charge of re-filling my water pitcher?  Who is responsible for creating (or not creating) boundaries in my personal, relational, & professional life?

Boundaries = Advocating for My Needs & Respecting Yours:

How do boundaries set us free? If we establish wise boundaries in our lives – from how often we check our email, to the major decisions we make with our children and spouses – we can find ourselves leaving behind unneccesary and damaging feelings of guilt, frustration, & disappointment. And this is where I believe “Feelers” get stuck.  The highly sensitive may fear that advocating for needs appears selfish and is a sign of not caring for others. Yet, nothing is further from the truth. By taking care of myself, I enable my “water pitcher” to re-fill. I am my best for others when I am emotionally and physically healthy and strong. Putting in place boundaries is a form of self-care. It means we appreciate and respect who we are: human beings, rather than perfect beings.

So, how do you re-fill your heart, mind, and spirit? And how are you respecting & loving yourself by drawing lines and acknowledging your limits?


Learn more about Lydia Minear, MA, LAPC’s Counseling practice @ East-West Psychotherapy Associates here.


Less is More in 2014 [ Five Resolutions for Your Emotional Health ]

The New Year can be a time of feeling refreshed – of experiencing excitement and purpose in leaving old habits in the dust, creating new goals, and perhaps even pursuing challenging adventures! Maybe 2013 was full of disappointment and heartache. As a result, you are nothing but utterly ready to shed those bad experiences and discover new beginnings. Oppositely, perhaps your 2013 was a year of great joy, love, and achievement. Possibly, you are eager for what awaits in 2014, hopeful that good things continue in the positive direction they have been headed.

Either way 2014 is upon us. What will it mean for you?

“Our lives are not determined by what happens to us but how we react to what happens, not by what life brings us but the attitude we bring to life.”  ~ Wade Boggs

Many resolutions focus on the external actions and decisions we make, and this is great! However, it is important to recognize that our behaviors spring forth from the beliefs, thoughts, and attitudes we hold. I have created a list of moment-by-moment internal resolutions, which can greatly impact the way you react to the events & people awaiting you in 2014.

1. Less Ruminating : As a therapist, I am a big fan of introspection (thinking carefully and processing thoughts and feelings deeply). Introspection is important and can provide clarity, self-awareness, & direction. Yet, ruminating carries us into a darker realm where obsessive thought &  worry reside.  We may think of it as getting “stuck in our own heads.” It can occur when we are so focused on one idea, event, or worry that we are distracted from the here-and-now. Unfortunately, feelings of anxiety and depression often coincide with ruminating. Instead of ruminating, perhaps there is room for More Writing.  I often encourage my clients to journal. When our minds are overwhelmed, writing can be a great way of getting jumbled thoughts out of the darkness of our heavy minds and into the light in a very tangible manner. By carving out time in your day or week to journal, you are providing yourself with practical boundaries in the expression of certain thoughts & feelings. Writing can be empowering in that it gives voice to the activity of your mind & can provide peace and at times even closure when challenged with difficult thoughts and situations.

2. Less Negative Self-Talk : I have discussed self-talk on the Blog several times before because I believe it to be critical to individuals’ overall emotional health. Self-talk quite simply includes the words we tell ourselves.  Negative self-talk can appear as, “I’m a failure.” or “I look hideous today.” or “I will likely embarass myself in this job interview.” Negative self-talk is nasty and by participating in it, we are often setting ourselves up for failure. Negative self-talk is not only degrading, it is simply untrue. By viewing ourselves with only our imperfections or mistakes in mind, we are wrongly filtering-out the beauty and capability alive within us.  Instead of negative self-talk, consider offering yourself More Kindness. In contrast to negative self-talk, positive self-talk implies taking a position of kindness towards oneself. Many people so easily give kindness to family, friends, & even strangers yet struggle to see themselves through the lens of understanding and grace. In my Blog post, “The Good News of Being ‘Messy”“, I discuss this idea of valuing how you are created uniquely and dare I say beautifully.

3. Less Comparison : This is an important one, and it is closely tied with #2 above. In my Blog post, “Shaking off Comparison,” I discuss the very common hole many of us find ourselves in when we constantly measure our own worth by comparing ‘me to you.’  For so many reasons this is unhealthy and can lead to negative self-talk (mentioned above). And while self-degradation is reason enough to work on issues of comparison, there is another nasty side effect of comparison we often forget: damage to our relationships with others.  When we compare, we are- perhaps subconsciously- viewing the other person as an enemy. How often does this damage our ability to genuinely connect with those around you? Instead of comparison, how about this one: More Encouraging OthersTaking note of others’ accomplishments does not have to equate de-valuing your own abilities and personality.  In fact, praising the success and the positive qualities of family members, friends,  colleagues, and classmates displays a level of humility, which can be a reflection of genuine confidence in oneself.  Appreciating and vocalizing encouragement to others can also offer relief from the often draining cycle of continual self-appraisal. Looking outside of oneself and authentically supporting another individual can deepen healthy relationships, build the other person up, and simply stated- feels good.

4. Less Assuming : Working with couples and experiencing marriage myself has served to highlight the importance of this one. Jumping to assumptions and often the ‘worst-case’ conclusions in both romantic relationships and friendships hurts you, the other person, and your relationship together. In relationships, we may notice we tend do this as a form of self-defense. Fearful of being hurt or having past mistakes repeated, we may defiantly assume that we know the thoughts and intentions of the other person. Doing so can create unnecessary stress for us and anger on the part of your partner. I talk more in-detail about hostile communication, including the tendency to assume wrongly in my Blog post, “Throwing Paperclips: Relationship Conflict & Communication”.  In 2014, how about More Listening. What do happy and successful couples do? They listen. And it is the same with close friendships. It is simple but often overlooked that in relationship we cannot 100% know the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of the other person. We so desperately need to be intentional in asking questions and listening to the answers. Anger may block us from this – feeling frustrated may propel us in the direction of blame and shaming; yet, this only leaves us and them with relational scars. Listening – rather than attacking – can save not only your relationship but rescue your emotional health.

5. Less Fear : Each of us experience fear – it is a natural response to an unpredictable world. Some of you have experienced very real, deep pain in your lives. Perhaps 2013 presented you with more than you thought you could bear at once. For you, perhaps fear is very much alive.  For others of you, possibly you have been living in fear for a long time. Either you experienced hurt many years ago or you witnessed damage inflicted on loved ones, and this has left you feeling paralyzed – fearful of moving forward.  Lessening fear is a process – not a quick fix. It means More Healing than anything else.  In my work as a counselor, I have spoken with individuals who do not feel worthy of healing. They believe that their situations are ‘not bad enough’ and that ‘others have it worse’ or that they themselves ‘do not deserve to feel better.’ People have assumed that their struggles are punishment for past mistakes. There is nothing further from the truth.  In truth, seeking the process of healing from emotional wounds takes time and it takes courage.  I am daily honored to sit with individuals who invest deeply in themselves, willing to do the difficult work of looking pain and fear in the face and committing to the process of healing. I talk a bit more about this process of healing in my Blog post, “Vulnerability in Counseling: The Face of Courage“.

I hope this list provides some ideas for stepping forward into the New Year and that you allow yourself Grace & Kindness along your 2014 journey!


Learn more about Lydia Minear, MA, LAPC’s Counseling practice @ East-West Psychotherapy Associates here.