Establishing Healthy Boundaries as an Empath
What a hot word.
Buckle up folks, we’re diving in.
As an empath and highly sensitive person, I am constantly learning and re-learning what it means to set and execute healthy boundaries in all of my different relationships.
And so I want to put a disclaimer on this article: I am deep in process, friends. As much as I wish I had all the answers for you in regards to what boundaries mean, how they should look, and how to maintain them…. I think we both know it doesn’t work like that. This topic is highly personal, and clarity only comes through trial and error. Please read this through your own unique lens, take what serves you, and leave the rest behind.
That being said, I’ll wager we might have some similar questions, and there may even be some universal truths that can guide us and connect us. And so, this article is intended to be a safe space to get messy, ask hard questions, reflect deeply, and connect through the shared experience of being human.
Let's face the tough questions.
Let’s start with questions. Since I have approximately a million and a half questions around boundaries, I’ll offer some that stand out to me in the hopes you will resonate with at least one of them, and we can normalize how confusing this can be. I offer these as a place to start on your own reflective journey.
How do we set boundaries in place when they are not always linked to tangible, external objects or events? In other words, how do we delineate and define something that is often abstract, intangible, and likely to change over time?
How do I harness my empathic, compassionate and generous nature without abandoning myself?
What’s the line between holding a boundary and being defensive or closed off?
How much and what am I willing to give, and how do I measure it?
How much and what am I willing to take and tolerate, and how do I measure it?
How do we communicate our boundaries?
What do we do when someone crosses our boundary?
If the boundaries we set are in our best interest to keep us safe and whole, why is executing them so damn hard?!
Phew. Let’s stop there and take a deep breath.
Can we just honor how messy this all is for a moment?
And that’s just it.
It is messy, it is complicated, and I just don’t think there’s any way around that.
Now, that is not an excuse to forego and ignore the topic.
Just because something is hard doesn’t mean we can’t engage with it.
In fact, I’d argue that when there is challenge or resistance around something, it usually means we have some growth to gain from that relationship or situation.
So let’s walk into the mouth of the dragon and break it down to understand why boundaries might be hard. When we can name the thing that’s challenging us, it gives us power over it. Eventually, whatever was so big and scary shrinks in size until we can actually grasp it and transform it into something more useful for us.
Why are boundaries so hard?
After (too) many hours of thought, here are some reasons why I think boundaries are so hard:
Our boundaries are related to our self-worth.
Boundaries require the deepest inquiry and honesty with oneself.
The communication and upholding of boundaries require self-advocacy and often some sort of confrontation.
Boundaries inevitably involve other people, and other people are not within our control.
Upholding a boundary takes courage. It might mean saying “no'' which could upset the status quo or someone you care about, invoke ridicule, judgment, even shame from others. This might lead us to self-doubt and/or feelings of isolation. (Note the word feelings of isolation. I don't believe that upholding boundaries leads to isolation. It just might feel that way at first as we step into uncharted waters.)
Boundaries will change from relationship to relationship and over time as you change. The balance of them is like an ever-moving target.
Where do we go from here? Or rather, where do we begin?!
These 5 factors could help.
While it will look different for all of us, as a place to start, I have identified some key tools that have been my guideposts along the journey. I’ll share them here, with the expectation that this list will continue to evolve.
In order to ask for what we need, we have to know what we need. This takes some real honesty, curiosity, and patience. Sometimes, and for so many reasons, being honest about what we need can be really hard to swallow. But what have I learned? First, you do know what you need, even if it’s hard to find. Second, as hard as it may feel to honor those needs and boundaries in the moment, denying them only ends up being harder and more hurtful (to everybody) in the long run. Meditation, journaling, and creative practices can be a great way to build our self-awareness.
Discernment comes in when we are looking for that fine, elusive edge of balance. I think discernment comes from the gut and intuition, as well as having a clear understanding of one’s self. Practicing mindfulness will build our discernment muscle as we won’t be so good at fooling or denying ourselves; we wise up to our own tricks! Discernment helps us to understand the line between being generous and giving ourselves away. It helps us discern whether we are holding a boundary, or being defensive. Discernment keeps us honest.
We must take ownership of ourselves. As much as secure relationships can provide a real source of support, at the end of the day, we all must be accountable for ourselves and our experience. This can be really hard - especially when there is pushback from others. Learning how to self-advocate and taking responsibility for ourselves, including our actions, needs, and mistakes is a huge step on the path of personal development. It requires strength, courage, humility, honesty, and practice. But I know this to be so true: showing up for yourself is one of the most powerful practices you can do. When we show up for ourselves, we learn to trust ourselves. We send a message to ourselves and everyone around us that our needs matter.
Oh, please take this in. You will make mistakes, and they will be your greatest teachers - if you let them. … So let them! Life is not about “getting it right”. It’s about actively engaging in your own messy and beautiful process with curiosity and compassion; as the Buddhists teach us, “the path is the goal.” My mistakes, while sometimes painful, have given me the most clarity around what I can give and what I can take. Mistakes actively teach us our limits, our boundaries.
When we make a mistake, we are standing upon the perfect ground to practice forgiveness - to ourselves. The ability to show ourselves grace and compassion is the fuel we need to keep walking on the path with resilience and courage. Whether or not you forgive someone else for making a mistake will be your choice. Remember, we can forgive someone and still uphold our boundaries. Forgiveness does not have to come at the cost of yourself, your needs, or your spirit.
The bottom line: You matter. Your needs matter. The relationship we cultivate with ourselves is of the utmost preciousness, and it lays the foundation for every other relationship we have.
We are the ones who must stand up for our own self. And if someone tries to convince you otherwise, they do not have your best interest in mind. Nothing or no one is so great it should cost you your health, your well-being, or your spirit.
So don’t give yourself away, okay? You are worth so much more.