Setting boundaries has always been my WORST NIGHTMARE. I’ve spent the majority of my life doing everything I can to avoid hurting and disappointing people…BUT recently I’ve been trying to make a real effort to set boundaries assertively and to be myself unapologetically. And guess what!? I’ve noticed a huge difference in my life! I’m not the best at it yet and to be honest, I’ll probably always have a little trouble with it, but it’s definitely worth the effort and initial discomfort to get what you deserve!
If you’re an empath and highly sensitive person like me (the two usually come as a package deal), you try to avoid the undesirable feeling you get when you say, “no” or go against someone’s wishes. You avoid setting boundaries because of the instant guilt and sorrow you feel when you do hurt or disappoint someone. Because you absorb others emotions as if they’re your own, it can feel incredibly confusing and painful when you let someone down or hurt their feelings.
You might cry, worry, and obsess about if you should confront and honestly communicate with someone. If you’re like me, you may avoid the entire prospect of setting a boundary, in order to save yourself from feeling such intense emotions! Usually, even after FINALLY make the decision to go forward with setting a boundary, your heart continues to swell with guilt and heartache.
You may feel as though you’re disappointing someone or a group of people by not doing exactly what they want you to do. As an empath, you feel the needs of others, so the very LAST THING you want to do is disappoint them. You go out of your way to please them, by making excuses for them and allowing them to walk all over you.
To say, “no,” to deny someone, to set a boundary, or to go against someone’s wishes is excruciatingly painful. You feel as though you’re directly affecting someone’s emotions negatively, which is something you spend a lot of time in your life trying to avoid doing.
This avoidance technique that you’ve most likely been practicing regularly your entire life may seem like it’s saving you and others from pain and heartache, but the truth is, that you end up hurting yourself far more when you avoid setting boundaries directly from the “get-go!”
Artwork by Caroline at madevibrant.com
BUT FIRST OF ALL, WHAT ARE BOUNDARIES?
The wonderful website, Essential Life Skills, has an excellent definition of what boundaries are. In one of their articles, they state that, “Healthy personal boundaries are the physical, emotional and mental limits we establish to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used, or violated by others. They allow us to separate who we are, and what we think and feel, from the thoughts and feelings of others.”
BUT WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO SET BOUNDARIES?
- Setting boundaries allows you to be your true self. When you set a boundary with someone, you’re telling them that you’re allowed to have different opinions, thoughts, and feelings than them and that they need to be okay with that (or at least not interfere or try to change that about you). It also shows them that you can behave in a way that they may not agree with or want for you, because you are two separate individual people.
- Setting boundaries is a way to show someone that you are not responsible for the way they feel, just as they are not responsible for the way you feel. Everyone is in charge of their own emotions and reactions to the behaviors of others.
- Setting boundaries gives you the opportunity to be yourself, follow your heart and passions, and do what you think is best for you without feeling guilty about it. When a boundary is set, you are telling someone that they are not allowed to make you feel guilty or ashamed of whatever choices you make. They are, of course, allowed to feel those emotions (you can’t stop anyone from feeling a certain emotion), but you’re telling them that you will not allow them to manipulate you by expressing their own disapproval of your choices to you, because you ARE allowed to have differing beliefs and opinions and make differing choices than your loved ones and acquaintances.
- Setting boundaries is how you teach people how to treat you. If they’re walking all over you, taking advantage of you, or expecting you to behave exactly how they want you to, you can tell them that you won’t allow anyone to treat you this way. They can make their own choices, but when their choices are imposing on your own rights as an individual, you’re allowed to set a boundary and tell them that they can treat you better or your relationship can come to a close.
BUT HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT SETTING BOUNDARIES WHEN YOU HATE CONFLICT & DISAPPOINTING PEOPLE?
1. Have the courage to love yourself even when you’re disappointing others.
I hate to break it to you, but if you’re a human being, YOU ARE GOING TO DISAPPOINT PEOPLE- people that you care about, people that you work for, your children, your grandchildren, your siblings, etc, etc. It’s absolutely impossible to please everyone, so it’s essential to love yourself despite the inevitable fact that you’re going to let others down. You’re going to make choices that don’t sit well with them. You’re going to make choices that make others worried, confused, or even angry. AND THAT’S OKAY. You’re not responsible for the way others react to the choices you make.
I love what one of my favorite bloggers, founder of The Blissful Mind, has to say about having self-love, even when (or especially when) you’re dissapoiting others. She explains what it means to be a “high-value” person, which involves setting boundaries. To be a high-value person…
“You also have a great deal of self-awareness (aka your most important asset), which means you recognize your strengths and weaknesses without anyone else pointing them out to you.
How to do it: If you find yourself stretching or hiding the truth from someone because of how they might judge you, remember that the only person you need to impress in life is yourself. Don’t try to hide the things that make you who you are.”
One of my role models, Najwa Zebian, who I’ll talk more about later, often emphasizes the importance of making a “home” within yourself. When you find peace within yourself, you won’t feel as though you so desperately need the acceptance and approval of others.
When you are your own “home”, instead of making other people your “home”, you’re able to make the decisions that you know are best for you, without worrying about if your “home” is going to be destroyed. When you rely on someone else (or several people) to be your “home”, you’re going to feel lost in the chance that those homes are destroyed if you lose the acceptance of those people.
Don’t get me wrong, personal relationships are important, but the only person you really need to base your decisions on and impress in your life is YOU. Make yourself, at least your “main home,” so that when things go awry with others, as they sometimes do, your entire life and self-worth won’t be uprooted and destroyed.
2. Remember that you are not responsible for the way that people react to the boundaries you set or to the decisions that you make in your life.
Najwa Zebian, the wonderful lady that I mentioned earlier, is a HUGE role model to me. She’s a poet, an empath, and an advocate to “the silenced souls” out there. She sees her sensitivity as a power and uses it to help others understand that kindness is always the answer. Although she believes in the power of kindness, she has the strength to set boundaries when she needs to. She tries to always set them kindly but firmly. She’s a great example to me of a sensitive and empathetic woman who has found (with a lot of practice on her part) the strength to be assertive.
I’m just going to mention a few of the wonderful things she said in her interview (above) with The School of Greatness, incase you don’t have time to watch it (though I HIGHLY recommend that you do- she is AMAZING and has such a wonderful heart).
When asked about setting boundaries with people, she said,
“I’m an empath, so I believe in people. I give people excuses. I don’t like hurting people’s feelings, but I do have to recognize that the way people feel isn’t my fault.”
As an empath and very sensitive soul, I have trouble not feeling selfish when I set a boundary or go against someone’s wishes. I’ve even thought of myself as “controlling” when I set a boundary. BUT, I’ve come to realize that it’s NOT controlling or selfish AT ALL.
You’re not FORCING them to obey your rules or boundaries. You are simply saying, “I want to be treated well. If you don’t want to treat me well, than you won’t be able to be a part of my life.”
I want you to read the following assertive statement carefully:
Empath: I would really appreciate if you’d respect my need for alone time. I need at-least an hour or two a day by myself in order to recharge, so that I can stay healthy and happy. I understand that you like us to spend a lot of time together. I love spending time with you and want to continue to do so, as long as I get a couple of hours a day to myself. If you’re unable to respect this boundary, than we will need to take some time apart, because this isn’t something I’m willing to budge on. This is something I need.
Was the empath being selfish?
Was the empath being controlling?
Was the empath being rude?
No, she was not.
She was kind and loving, but firm about her needs. She was not forcing her partner to respect her boundary, but she was clear about what the consequence will be if he doesn’t respect them.
Her partner can choose to be angry, to call her selfish, or to tell her that she’s the worst person on the planet for saying what she did. The empath must remember that she is not responsible for the way he reacts and she should not feel guilty about the emotions her partner feels. He’s responsible for his own emotions and reactions.
What’s truly saddening is that many empaths are scared to set a boundary, even when it’s said as kindly as the statement made by the empath above- even when it’s crucial for their health and happiness.
They feel responsible for other’s feelings, when, in reality, they are not their responsibility- AT ALL. Even if the empath had been rude, she’s STILL not responsible for how her partner reacts. Everyone is responsible for their own feelings and actions.
Does that mean you should be rude and act however you want towards other people? No. But it does mean that no matter what, you aren’t responsible for the way someone else feels or reacts.
That leads us into our next point on being assertive!
3. Understand differentiation and be assertive about your unique needs and wants.
Demonstrating assertiveness shows that you know yourself- what you think, feel, want, and need. When you’re assertive, instead of aggressive or passive, you’re able to express your needs and wants in a way that makes it more likely that you’ll be responded to in a positive way. Being assertive also allows room for differences- from both parties.
Empaths have the gift of being highly sensitive and being grounded in their own values, opinions, and beliefs. The problem is that they’re often scared to stick up for themselves. When you think about it, that’s terribly sad because empaths are the ones that could change the world. They’re the ones the world needs to hear more from. They’re the ones that understand the feelings of others clearly and would be a great asset to making the world a better place. That’s why I shutter to know that they’re also the ones that are afraid to confront and disappoint.
That’s just one of the many reasons it’s so incredibly important that empaths understand the importance of being assertive.
Before I delve into how to be more assertive, I just want to go over something extremely important in regards to assertiveness…and that is differentiation.
WHAT IS DIFFERENTIATION?
Another one of my role models in life is Dr. Julie Hanks. She owns a clinical practice here in Utah and she’s simply brilliant! You can check out her blog here, which has great resources (including her new book) on being assertive.
She explains differentiation like this:
“In my book, I write a lot about the concept of differentiation of self, which means that a person can simultaneously be close to someone else while still maintaining a distinct identity. Individuals with poor levels of differentiation have a hard time separating themselves from their family, friends, or romantic partner and can really struggle with making their own unique needs and wants known. When it comes to raising girls, we have to remember that they are still learning and developing who they are in relation to you and others in their lives. It can be frustrating and even painful when a daughter won’t obey you, doesn’t think like you, or maybe even breaks the mold of a family tradition or culture. While there are certainly times when a girl or young woman does need to act according to certain standards that her caregiver sets, we as parents and mentors need to recognize that she needs permission to develop her own beliefs, interests, and identity separate from us.”
Dr. Julie Hanks was addressing parents in this instance, but I love how she clearly states that you can remain close to someone even when you have differing beliefs, opinions, and ideas.
BUT HOW DO YOU MAINTAIN A UNIQUE IDENTITY?
You maintain a unique identity by realizing that you’re a WHOLE person. You’re a unique, whole, individual person even if you’re a wife, husband, mom, dad, daughter, son, or best friend to someone.
When you realize that you have an identity apart from your children, husband, family, friends, and acquaintances, you’re able to see yourself as a whole person and you won’t be as afraid to disappoint people.
Recognizing that you’re a whole person who can have differing beliefs, values, goals, and feelings from the people you’re close to will help you remain an individual with self-worth.
And guess what!?
Recognizing your “wholeness” and implementing it into your life will actually enhance your relationships because you’ll be able to be more open, honest, and assertive with the people you love and will therefore feel less resentment and bitterness towards them
BUT HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT EXPRESSING DIFFERENCES WITHOUT RUINING YOUR RELATIONSHIPS?
The truth is that not everyone has this healthy mindset about “individuality” and “wholeness.” Some people are going to be upset when you tell them that you’re going to do something they don’t approve, when you tell them you think differently than they do, or when you tell them that they need to respect your personal decisions.
There are three things you can do to help them respond at-least a little bit more positively to what you have to say.
1. Start soft– You may be upset or at your wits end but it’s crucial to start soft. If you start off harsh, you can guess how the rest of the conversation is going to go! Starting soft gives you at-least a chance of having and open and respectful conversation with them. Let them know how much they mean to you and how much you appreciate everything they’ve done for you. This isn’t “beating around the bush.” It’s just helping the other person feel less like they’re being attacked and like they need to defend themselves.
2. Be clear about your wants and needs– Prior to your discussion with someone (or even in the midst of it), it’s important for sensitive people to really get clear about what they want and need.
This might mean that you need to take a break in the middle of a conflict. Yup, I said it! If a discussion has turned to a more heated argument, you’ll probably start feeling overaroused, which can potentially lead to name-calling, angry outbursts, and hurtful words said.
When my husband and I were dating, we actually argued a lot more than we have since we’ve been married (which was mostly my fault…I was terrified of getting married and never having alone time again, which hasn’t even been an issue because I married a gem who respects my boundaries). After experiencing a few heated arguments, we decided together to have “code sentence” that we said when things got too heated.
One of us would say, “I love you and I’m not leaving you but I need some time to think and calm down.” As unrealistic as it sounds, this method actually worked wonders for us! We were able to separate for a bit, calm ourselves down, and get clear about our own wants and needs, while also considering the wants and needs of the other person. We’d always come back to the discussion with more patience and we’d be able to talk about:
- each of our own wants and needs
- how we could compromise to make sure both of our needs were met more fully
If things are heated, neither of you are going to be able to express your desires clearly. It’s going to end up a jumbled mess of unclear and aggressive demands, with hurtful comments thrown in here and there.
Make sure you’re calm and collected before expressing yourself and be clear about what you need.
3. Respect the other person’s wants and needs as well, but stand your ground– You’ve done a hard and difficult thing by addressing an issue that needed to be addressed, which you should be very proud of!
If you’ve done it assertively, you’ve done it in a way that leaves room for the other person to share their opinions and feelings with you about what you said. When someone does this, it’s important to remember that just as they should (even though they may not) respect your feelings and desires, you should respect theirs.
Does that mean you have to do what they say or take back everything you’ve said? No. It just means that you shouldn’t completely blow off their feelings and thoughts. Acknowledge them and respect them, but make sure to stand your ground. If you came in with set boundaries that you know you don’t want to budge on, than don’t change them. Don’t ever let someone convince you that your own wants and needs and emotions aren’t valid. They are. And you should not feel guilty about them!
A CALL TO ACTION
For all of my fellow sensitive souls out there, I beg of you to take control of your life! Please remember your worth. Please remember that you’re allowed to think, feel, and act differently than the people you’re close to and that you SHOULD NOT feel guilty about it.
I urge you to set proper boundaries in your life and to do so in an assertive way so that your voice can be heard. I promise you that if you do this, you’ll be healthier and happier, you’ll improve your relationships, and most of all, you’ll be able to be more true to yourself.
Please let me know what steps you’re going to take to become a whole person who can assertively set boundaries in the comments below. I would love to hear about your improvements and efforts!
MY VERY FAVORITE RESOURCES FOR HSP’S & EMPATHS ON SETTING BOUNDARIES: