Most of this post is an excerpt from my book: “Embracing High Sensitivity: Your HSP Guidebook to Eliminating Overwhelm, Handling Difficult Emotions, and Becoming the Boss of Your Life.“
If you’re a highly sensitive person, chances are you’ve been told that you need to create better boundaries.
Which is probably not wrong.
What rubs me the wrong way about this kind of advice for highly sensitive people (HSPs) is that it’s assumed that you’ve done something wrong for not having boundaries, not instead that other people weren’t just being assholes. It puts the burden of responsibility firmly on the shoulders of the most sensitive and receptive rather than placing responsibility squarely where it belongs: split between two (or more) people.
Learning to build boundaries is important, but before we can learn to build them, we first need to learn where the burden of responsibility actually resides. This can help us figure out just where our boundaries should be placed.
In simple terms, you are responsible for your emotions, reactions, words, and actions. Which means, inherently, that others are responsible for the same in themselves.
We’re often told in a heated discussion that, “You made me feel this way!” This is a misplacement of responsibility. While our actions may have been harmful, it did not directly cause the other person to feel their specific emotions, because emotions and emotional triggers are personal, based on our lived experience of the world.
Similarly, another person cannot “make” us feel a certain way. They can engage in actions that affect us, and to which we have an emotional response, but they are not responsible for our feelings. We are.
This concept of what we’re responsible for and what we’re not, especially in terms of emotions and feelings, is incredibly important. It sets the basis for discerning between empathetic and compassionate action, and taking personal responsibility to heal the self, repair a relationship, or make apologies where needed.
Because of our emotion-phobic culture, it’s common for us to feel that someone else is responsible for the way that we’re feeling. This is blaming, and blaming is a way to try and off-gas difficult sensations or challenging emotions. If our emotions are someone else’s fault, we subconsciously think that we don’t have to do anything to fix them. While this can make us feel powerful or in control, it actually makes us powerless and, in the long run, eshews personal responsibility.
Truth is, your emotions are your responsibility.
So, does this excuse hurtful behavior from others? Or excuse us when we hurt someone else? No, not one bit.
If we say or do something that hurts someone else, we should apologize for causing that hurt. And vice versa. As empathetic humans, we should care when we have hurt someone else. We should apologize sincerely because we don’t want to wound our fellow humans.
However, we are not responsible for transforming the other person’s emotions, just as they are not responsible for changing ours. If we have caused someone else a lot of hardship, we often really want to help make the other person feel better, which is sometimes an attempt at ridding ourselves of the guilt we feel. The truth is, the only thing we can do is apologize sincerely, ask if there is anything the other person needs from us, do that thing, and try to be better next time.
Yes, division of responsibility can be difficult, especially with emotions. When we use it, we very quickly see who is responsible for what, understand blaming for what it is (an attempt to thwart responsibility), and set things to balance. The process demands vulnerability and self-awareness.
Creating personal boundaries as self-care
When we start to understand the division of responsibility between ourselves and others, we begin to see where we end and the rest of the world begins.
In other words, we recognize where our boundaries naturally lie and take steps to intentionally set boundaries with others in order to protect ourselves and honor our relationships.
Just as a self-care container actually creates more of a sense of inner freedom, setting boundaries with others creates more room to be yourself, honor others, and create relationships based on respect and love rather than transactions.
Setting boundaries is probably the most important self-care skill you can have. When we’ve been unboundaried most of our lives, setting them can feel like really big work. The tools I give you in my book help you get started on what will likely become a lifelong practice (at least, it is for me!).
People talk about the art of not giving a fuck, or running out of fucks, as if it’s an easy thing not to care about others. These people always sound so boundaried to me. They make it seem easy to turn others away at the drop of a hat. This movement, as I’ve seen it, elicits a sense of freedom and a feeling that you are untethered to the wants, needs, desires, and actions of others.
While I’m drawn to that sense of freedom, the truth is that I care about others. My guess is, so do you. So how do we, as caring, highly sensitive people, create boundaries that help us preserve our energy and meet our need for compassionate response to people and to the world?
We must define exactly what it is we care about, and then use the division of responsibility to help us determine where our boundary needs to be.
For example, I care about the emotions, feelings, and experiences my friends have. I care about honoring their feelings and doing my best not to hurt them. Therefore, I give a fuck about their feelings. No matter what else happens, I will use compassion to tend to my friends’ feelings, make repairs when I hurt them, and make an effort (when I have energy available) to hold space for them work through theirs.
I don’t always have the energy to care about everything my friends are up to. The simple truth is that I am a human with a finite amount of energy. I love and want to be invited to things my friends are doing and putting together; at the same time, I am cautious to say yes to something without checking in with my energy levels, capacity, and vitality. In the long-term, I value those more. If I choose to say “no” to an invitation from a friend, I will do my best to check in with their feelings (because I care about those), but I know it’s okay to say “no” to them in order to say “yes” to myself if that’s where my values are.
In order to allocate your bucket of fucks, you have to understand your priorities and values. As a highly sensitive person, you have to value and prioritize yourself and the time you need to restore, build resilience, and build capacity. Those are the things that will help you maintain a sustainable, happy, and healthy life.
Want help figuring out your boundaries?
I go deep into this in my book, including practices to help you understand the division of responsibility, clarify your negotiables and nonnegotiables, draw clear boundaries, and then hold them!