How to Set Boundaries When You’re An Empath or Highly Sensitive

A client called me last week in a panic. 

Her voice was shaky and she was crying, sputtering words between short, labored breaths, all the while keeping her voice low as if someone were in the room that she didn’t want overhearing.

After confirming her life wasn’t in danger and her health was okay, I managed to calm her down with some intentional breathing, long enough for her to tell me what happened. 

Externally, nothing extraordinary happened. 

She was home with her husband and 3 kids, ranging in age from 6 to 10. It was a typical Thursday, like any other day in the last 5 months of the world’s new stay-at-home normalcy. The kids were being kids doing kid things around the house and the husband was being a husband doing husband things around the house. 

And she was in a back corner of the dark basement, in the narrow closet that holds the water heater, whisper-crying to me on the phone. She didn’t even turn on the basement light for fear of being found, and had used her phone’s light to find her way there. 

It was all just too much.

Too much noise. Too much talking. Too much energy.

Too much “Mom, what’s wrong with the wi-fi? Mom, I’m bored. Mom, Eden hit me.” 

Too much “Honey, have you seen my workout shorts? Honey, come see this funny video on Facebook. Honey, what’s for dinner?”

Too much everyone else, not enough HER. 

She had been in the home office answering work emails when her 6-year-old daughter came in looking for a pencil. That was the last interruption she could handle, and in a moment of complete and total overwhelm, instead of snapping at her family (which is what she felt like doing), she ran to the only place in the house that didn’t have people, and people’s energy, and where people and people’s energy wouldn’t look to find her. 

Squeezed in the 2 foot gap between the unpainted drywall and the water heater, standing barefoot on the cold concrete floor, feeling the grit of dirt beneath her feet, she found her moment of quiet. 

A moment of ME. 

Not mom. Not honey. Not you. 

Not anyone else but ME. 

 

Unhealthy Boundaries

 

My basement-hiding client, let’s call her Kaitlyn (not her real name), has graciously agreed to let me share her story openly to help others who might recognize themselves in her. In fact, if you’re reading this post from inside a dark closet (or wish you were), this was written especially for you.

We’ve been working on setting healthy boundaries. Empaths and sensitive souls who have not yet learned their own worth and value have an extremely hard time setting, and sticking to, boundaries. If you’re in the first two stages of your empathic awakening, this is likely how you feel about boundary setting:

When I try to set boundaries, I feel:

  • Incredibly guilty
  • Selfish
  • Bad for putting my own needs ahead of others
  • Like I’m hurting someone else’s feelings when I say “no”
  • Ashamed
  • Like a bitch
  • Mean
  • Uncaring

This is how Kaitlyn feels when she sets a boundary with her family. On top of that, she also feels like a bad mom and wife. After all, isn’t she supposed to tend to her children’s needs? Isn’t that what good mothers do? And isn’t she supposed to be attentive to her husband’s needs? Isn’t that what good wives do?

Kaitlyn feels that if she tells her family she needs space, they might take it personally. She then starts ruminating and tells herself that she hurt their feelings, that they think she doesn’t care about them, or that there’s something wrong with them that she doesn’t want to be with them. 

Whether they’re actually disappointed or not, she’ll either feel their disappointment or will project a feeling of disappointment onto them, and take it in as her own, becoming disappointed in herself for being uncaring and selfish. 

And she’ll do what most empaths and sensitive people do when they haven’t yet learned to set healthy boundaries…

She’ll give in to her guilt and break her own boundary. 

And because of this, she’ll end up feeling resentful toward them and disappointed or even mad at herself for not being “strong enough” to stick to it. 

This is an example of unhealthy boundary setting:

Setting boundaries is even more difficult for an empath and sensitive soul because we can actually FEEL what the other person is feeling. We can see it in their eyes, and looking into a child’s or loved one’s disappointed eyes is heartbreaking for many of us.

If they truly are disappointed (vs us projecting disappointment onto them), we take their disappointment into our beings and then we become disappointed too. Not just disappointed because we feel like we disappointed them, but now we’ve added their disappointment to our energy. It’s a double whammy for us. 

And that’s why it’s so hard to not only set the boundary (because we want to avoid all those bad feelings) but also to stick to it (because when we start to feel those bad feelings, we want to make them go away). 

In Kaitlyn’s situation, her family isn’t used to her asserting her needs. Over the years, they’ve developed a familial status quo of mom always being available at any given moment. They’ve unconsciously carved out a groove in the habitual functioning of the family and any attempt to climb out of that groove and carve another disrupts the way the family functions. 

For some families, it’s not a big deal, they learn to adapt to a new groove and become a better, stronger and happier unit because of it. 

For others, it’s more difficult and takes more time to get used to. Not only for the one carving the new groove but also for everyone else who’s affected by it.

 

Healthy Boundaries

 

When Kaitlyn learns to set healthy boundaries, it will look like this:

As in the image above, the guilt may or may not be gone. But the more you do it, the less the guilt controls you and eventually, it’ll go away. When we go back on a boundary we’ve set, it’s typically because we gave in to the guilt, disappointment and any other bad feelings we felt when stating it. 

One way to help you through the negative feelings of setting your boundary, so that you can stick to it, is to focus on the positive outcome it has and give in to those positive feelings instead. 

You may be wondering about these positive feelings since it may not feel positive at first, especially if others around you don’t like your boundaries and push against them or outright walk over them. 

Here are some deeper, positive truths to take in and remember on your boundary setting journey.

 

We’re not responsible for other people’s feelings.

Many empaths feel responsible for other people’s feelings. Because of our compassionate nature, we have a tendency to want to “fix” things for others, make it better for them. Since we also take on people’s pain, it hurts us to see others hurt, so we instinctively want to help, either by taking away their pain (and hence, ours) or easing it. 

But this is an unhealthy response and in fact, when we try to take responsibility for someone else’s feelings, we take away their power and turn them into a victim. We do them a disservice rather than truly helping them. 

We might ease their pain in that one moment, and they’ll feel better, and we’ll feel good about ourselves that we could help, but it doesn’t stop in one moment. It becomes a string of moments over a long period of time. And the more we “help” them in each moment by “making it better for them,” the more we condition them to depend on us each time they feel hurt, and the more we keep them stuck in dependency on us. Over a period of time, both people become resentful, one for being so needy, the other for being so needed. We carve out a habitual co-dependent groove in our relationship with them, and it’s hard to get out of that groove.   

The healthy response is to support them in meeting their own deeper needs. The surface need is to feel better in the moment. The deeper need is to find their own inner strength and emotional resiliency within themselves. This is how you truly help someone for life, by serving the deeper need, which is permanent, instead of the surface need, which is temporary. Rather than taking responsibility for their feelings, we can empower them to take responsibility for their own feelings. 

When you set a healthy boundary, you’re not only supporting yourself in meeting your own needs, you’re also supporting the other person in meeting their deeper need. You’re empowering both of you (whether they agree with you or not).

 

We’re helping everyone by setting healthy boundaries.

While others might not like our boundaries, when we don’t set them, we become a doormat for anyone to wipe their needs all over us, expecting us to clean up the dirt. It’s not their fault, we teach them it’s okay to treat us this way. They not only lose respect for us, but they also lose self-respect since no self-respecting person would treat another disrespectfully.

After a while, our energy drains, we become exhausted, resentful and taken advantage of. We carry this feeling inside us and bite our tongues every time someone asks something of us or unintentionally invades our space. We cuss under our breath and we do what they want with a smile sewn on our faces because we’re avoiding all the bad feelings that will come up if we speak up.

With our own needs largely unmet, one unspoken, frustrating moment piles upon another and another and another, and before we know it, our daughter asks us for a pencil and we hightail it to our basement closet.

As I teach in all my work, emotions are nothing more than energy in motion. 

When energy doesn’t move through us (because we’re biting our tongue, holding things in), it becomes stuck in us, and its desire to flow becomes stronger the longer and harder we try to keep it down. It’s like holding your emotion prisoner. It WILL escape at some point. Until then, it chips away at our peace and joy, like a prisoner chipping away at their prison wall, piece by piece, month after month, year after year, relentlessly, until freedom is found. 

Emotion HAS TO move through us. We can keep holding it down, using all our might every day all day (ever wonder why you’re so exhausted??) but eventually, it WILL move through. More often, it happens when we least expect it. 

Like when our daughter asks for a pencil and suddenly all hell breaks loose. 

When we set consistent healthy boundaries, resentment, exhaustion and emotional martyrdom doesn’t pile up. Nothing explodes because there was nothing trapped. The people in our lives are not forced to witness the storm, we’re not forced to clean up the aftermath and everything remains on a steady even keel. 

More so, when your needs are consistently unmet, you typically turn to other people to get them met, and you’re putting those people into an unhealthy groove with you, perpetuating the vicious cycle with them, as they too likely feel guilty if they don’t help. 

When you set a healthy boundary, you’re breaking the cycle of unhealthy relationship patterns and teaching others to not only treat you with respect but also have some self-respect themselves. You’re also creating a safe and happy place for your loved ones by not putting them in the wrath of a potential storm from your trapped energy. You can be more present with them and genuinely enjoy your time with them, rather than counting the moments they’re interrupting you or asking you for something.

 

Guilt does not mean you’re doing something wrong.

The Oxford dictionary defines guilt as “the fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime.” It’s no wonder many of us equate guilt with doing something wrong, it’s the literal definition of it. 

So if setting boundaries is right, why does it feel wrong and why does guilt overcome you?

Because there are other, deeper beliefs at play, hidden under the surface, causing the feeling of guilt. 

Beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, such as:

  • When I don’t put others first, I’m being selfish and only thinking about me
  • I’m a bad mom (insert your own label) if I don’t care for the needs of my child (insert other person’s label)
  • Putting their needs before my own is the kind, compassionate thing to do
  • If I don’t give them what they need, I’m uncaring
  • I’m responsible for their comfort and happiness
  • I don’t deserve to have my needs met
  • Who am I to ask for what I want?
  • I can handle disappointment, they can’t, so I’ll give them what they want and suck it up
  • I don’t want to seem demanding or worse, bitchy
  • They’ll think I’m stuck-up, self-serving and entitled
  • I should be able to handle my energy better, it’s not their fault I need more space

The guilt you feel when setting a boundary is not because the boundary itself is wrong, it’s because of all the deeper, limiting beliefs you have that tell you it’s wrong. 

You don’t have to believe every belief you have. 

And even more importantly, as an empath and sensitive soul, you don’t have to believe every feeling you have. 

Many of our feelings arise due to our unconscious and limiting beliefs about ourselves and life. But feelings don’t lie. Beliefs lie. Feelings will follow and support any belief you hold, whether that belief is true or false. 

That’s why it’s important not to question the feeling, but to question the belief which caused the feeling. It’s only then that we come to the truth of things. 

Guilt does not necessarily mean you’re doing something wrong, it could mean that you only BELIEVE you’re doing something wrong. 

 

How to set healthy boundaries

 

Learning how to set healthy boundaries is a practice, like developing any physical muscle, it’s a matter of doing it consistently over a period of time. 

Unfortunately, or fortunately, no one can do it for you. Kaitlyn said half-jokingly, “can’t you just call my husband and kids and tell them I need my own space and explain it to them?” I can, but it will rob her of the strength and confidence she’d gain by doing it herself. And it will weaken her position in the eyes of her husband and kids so that when she does set a boundary on her own, they won’t take it seriously. 

In the same way that sitting around and talking about exercising (or hiring a coach to sit around and talk about exercising with you) isn’t going to develop your body’s muscles, consuming more information about setting boundaries (like reading this article) isn’t going to develop your boundary setting muscles. 

Knowing more can certainly help inform you when you start, but:

You actually have to start setting boundaries. And sticking to them.

Knowledge is valuable but action is transformative. 

I gave Kaitlyn three action steps to be completed prior to our next call. 

 

1. Start with a small boundary and state it to your loved ones.  

If it’s space you need, start with 5-10 minutes a day, whatever feels reasonably doable to you, even if it’s uncomfortable. 

You can’t start out lifting 100 pound weights, you’ll get hurt or discouraged and never try again. Start with a 10 pound weight (or whatever you can manage in the moment) and work your way up consistently as you build strength. 

When you start with a small boundary, something that’s not too upsetting or disruptive to the family’s pattern, you not only build your own boundary muscles so that you can set bigger boundaries later, you also teach your loved ones to get accustomed to you fulfilling your own needs and them fulfilling theirs. After you’ve built up your boundary muscles, you’ll have more confidence and strength to set a bigger boundary and it won’t seem so scary or feel so bad. And your loved ones will be more prepared for it, even if they still don’t like it. 

2. Stick to the boundary no matter how bad you feel.

Just like weight lifting, it’s going to feel sore after using muscles you haven’t used before. You’ll feel guilty, wrong, disappointed and all around like a bad person. Your loved one might even reflect those feelings back to you by calling you selfish or getting angry with you.

Manage those expectations by knowing that’s how you’ll likely feel the first and possibly the next 20 times. Instead of giving in to those unpleasant feelings, remind yourself they’re the result of false beliefs and turn your focus toward the positive outcomes of boundary setting, which include less stress, resentment and frustration, more confidence, inner strength and respect as well as better, healthier relationships.  

Visually step forward into a future where your loved ones are happy, healthy and independent, and where everyone is respectful of everyone else’s needs, including you of your own.

3. Praise yourself for finally doing it.

For those of us who aren’t used to speaking up for ourselves, expressing our own needs or saying “no”, this is a big deal! It takes a lot of courage to finally do it and then to stick to it! Good for you! This might seem like one small step for mankind but it’s one giant leap for YOU! You did it!

Reward yourself for taking that step, as small as it seems and as bad it feels. The doing of it is reward enough, but considering it still probably feels pretty bad and unrewarding at first, acknowledge yourself for stepping over the hardest hurdle and taking that first step. 

It only gets easier and easier from this point forward.

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