While learning to set boundaries is an important skill for all of us to learn, it can be especially tricky for empaths and highly sensitive people whose nervous systems are more vulnerable to their environment.
Whether you’re an empath or highly sensitive person (HSP), boundary setting will help you better protect your energy and your health — and it’s essential if you’re working to heal from trauma.
Trauma’s impact. There are mixed opinions about whether or not childhood trauma causes a person to develop empathic or HSP traits, or if these are strictly personality traits you’re born with. In my experience, both have some truth. One is born an empath or a highly sensitive person and it’s not caused by trauma. And the experience of trauma for these people will likely have more impact due to their high sensitivity and empathic traits. AND, for non HSP and empath folks, childhood trauma can cause changes in the brain that increase their sensitivity and/or empathy. For example, research suggests that the development of empath and HSP traits in the brain can be rooted in childhood trauma resulting from learning to constantly “read the room” for threatening behavior or emotions.
Childhood trauma can interfere with the formation of healthy boundaries because a child who is abused or neglected didn’t have the safety net to explore their identity, needs or values. According to Theravada Mental Health, “When boundaries are difficult, it’s because trauma taught us to fear getting hurt….This fear manifests in our bodies by making our nervous system feel dysregulated, activating our fight, flight or freeze response.”
Why you need boundaries. Boundaries are like personal guardrails that give us a greater sense of agency in our lives, helping us to actively defend our values and our needs. These guardrails create a bubble of space around us that protects our mental, physical and emotional well-being.
When we define and clarify our boundaries for ourselves and communicate them with others, we’re less vulnerable to feeling used, taken advantage of, or carrying the burden of other people’s emotions and problems that aren’t ours to carry.
Many empaths and HSPs have a tendency to help others even if it means sacrificing their own desires or needs to accommodate the other person. Consistently putting yourself last can lead to poor mental and physical health, exhaustion, anger, resentment, and burnout.
If you’re also a trauma survivor, a lack of boundaries can aggravate your healing journey because you’re frequently triggered by other people’s traumas. And because your boundaries may not have been fully developed as a child, you can be more susceptible to the will of others.
The benefits of setting boundaries include:
- Stronger relationships.
- More energy for yourself.
- Improved self-confidence/less self-doubt.
- Greater sense of contentment and personal fulfillment.
- More time to spend on the activities that nourish your mind, body and spirit.
Where should you set boundaries? From social media, work and personal space to energy, time, finances and sex, boundaries help you make decisions about what works best for you according to your personal values, desires and needs.
Boundaries can be set with anyone in your life including partners, friends, coworkers, family members and strangers.
How to set boundaries. Define your boundaries and then communicate those boundaries politely and firmly. Here’s how:
Assess your needs. Identifying your personal needs helps you confidently show up in your life with more joy, energy and fulfillment. Ask yourself questions like:
- How much time alone do I need to recharge and feel good?
- What activities and/or people genuinely nourish me?
- What types of activities and/or people drain me?
Plan your day or your week around your responses to the above questions. Check-in with yourself throughout the day or at the end of the day to assess how you’re feeling.
Keep in mind that your needs can change from day to day. Some days you may have the capacity to listen to a friend struggling through a personal crisis and other days you may need time alone to rest and recharge.
Also, get clear on your priorities. For example, if you’re working on building a stronger relationship with your partner, you might draw a sacred circle around Thursday nights for “couple time.” To honor this boundary, you’ll both have to agree to say no to other invitations that will inevitably crop up. Consider circumstances that could interfere with your Thursday night commitment and ways you can address those obstacles.
(By the way, I provide couples counseling if you’d like some support!)
Give yourself the gift of time. Often it’s impulsive yeses that get us into trouble. Take time to consider any requests you receive from others. It’s okay to say, “Let me think about that” or “I’ll have to check my calendar, but I’ll let you know tomorrow.”
Then, consciously decide if you have the energy, time and interest in accommodating the request, knowing that it’s okay to say no. In fact, it’s kinder to politely say no to something you don’t want to do rather than giving a vague yes or maybe.
Establish a felt sense of your boundaries. It’s difficult to know what boundaries feel like if they were never well-respected or established in childhood. Through boundary rupture repair sessions, I help you recover your sense of safety and recognize the sensation of strong boundaries. We practice techniques like identifying your safety zone, saying no to what you don’t want (so that you can say yes to what you do), processing stress and anxiety, and releasing stuck fight-flight-freeze patterns.
Over time, you learn to recognize the difference between times when it’s okay to have more permeable boundaries (when you’re feeling safe) versus more rigid boundaries (when you’re feeling threatened).
In this video, therapist Inga Larsen explains the difference between healthy boundaries and those that are too rigid or too soft.
Seek therapeutic support. Establishing boundaries can be extremely difficult for a trauma survivor. Nearly 70% of people have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. Trauma can also be a result of recurrent childhood abuse, neglect, bullying or adversity in the home. Additionally, it can be intergenerational, in which the effects of trauma are passed down through generations.
If you’re a trauma survivor, supportive interventions like Somatic Experiencing with a trained professional can be instrumental in your healing journey and help you begin establishing necessary boundaries.
Somatic Experiencing is a type of therapy that helps people move through chronic stress and unresolved trauma by providing tools, resources and interventions that help the nervous system find safety again.
Tools to support your boundaries.
- Daily journaling can help you observe and track what worked well and what didn’t and help you assess your emotions and energy.
- Did you find yourself dropping something you wanted to do to attend to a friend or loved one’s need? In hindsight, was it something they could have handled on their own?
- How did you feel after helping? Resentful? Drained? Satisfied? Relieved? Annoyed?
- How did your body react when you said yes to something you didn’t want to do?
- Regular meditation and/or breathing exercises can help you soothe your nervous system and make clear, supportive decisions.
- Use your calendar in a way that supports you. As you plan your week, take into account upcoming appointments and social engagements that you’d like to do but you know will be mentally and/or emotionally taxing. What days or portions of the day can you set aside to recharge? Are you including non-negotiable activities in the week that are fun for you and personally supportive? Block off time during the week for personal time to recharge, rest or focus on activities that bring you joy and energize you. And don’t forget to honor that time just as you would for a friend!
Communicate your boundaries. Practice communicating boundaries in everyday situations to help you honor your personal limits. When we are crystal clear about what we will and won’t do, people usually respect that.
“Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” ~ Brené Brown
For example, if someone in your life is perpetually late, let them know that you only have one hour to talk. If they plan to be late, ask them to let you know beforehand.
Some people will test your boundaries. Stay firm and repeat as needed. You may need to reevaluate or end relationships in which the person repeatedly disregards your communication boundaries.
Remember, boundaries aren’t selfish. They are an act of self-love. As a highly sensitive person or an empath, boundaries provide a sacred container for you to heal, protect your health and well-being, and honor your needs and desires.
I’m here to help. As a licensed professional counselor and certified Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, I can help you heal from unresolved stress and trauma and strengthen your boundaries. Contact me with your questions to learn more or book a counseling session.