For a long time, just like other sensitive people, I searched for ways to make myself feel less. Everyone else thought I shouldn’t be so affected by the world, that it wasn’t normal. And believing that it was abnormal to feel so much, I tried to contain it.
Experiments With Self-Protection
I tried to push my feelings down. I tried to will them away into oblivion. It felt like trying to contain an ocean in a bottle. Then, at some point, I happened upon more alternative techniques and the idea that you could “shield” yourself. Visualize a bubble around you, surround yourself with white light.
I gave that a half-hearted attempt but something seemed off about it. How could you keep on doing that? It felt unpragmatic, like putting a Band-Aid on a way of being. Again, it felt like the idea was that something inside me responded in too big a way.
This can feel like a Catch-22 for emotionally sensitive people. You are expected to cut your big, intense feelings down to size and make them fit other people’s version of what’s “normal.” Then, you are also supposed to guard against feeling in the first place.
Boundaries And The Sensitive Nature
But what if we gave up these expectations and built our lives on the foundation of our own true nature?
- First, we need to honor our unique needs when setting boundaries. The very definition of highly sensitive person says that we are the kind of person who is affected by other people’s moods and feelings. Then, there’s also differential susceptibility, which means that both good and bad experiences affect us deeply.
- Next in setting boundaries, we have to take our own nature, our own needs into account. Sometimes, other people will think you are overreacting if you set a boundary of limiting talk with a person like this. But if you are the one who is affected and you are the one who feels drained after these interactions, pretending that they don’t affect you is not the healthy way.
So, set your boundaries based on what gives you energy. If you look around, you will find that everyone sets boundaries based on what they individually value and need. Some people get very affected by negative talk, so they completely avoid people who are in the victim-mode. Some people don’t want to talk about personal stuff, so they always keep conversation at a surface level with most people. These are their boundaries, whether other people like them or not.
Honoring Ourselves In Relationships
I think, as sensitives, just because someone is not okay with our boundaries, we can almost feel like we have to give them up or there’s something inherently wrong with the boundary we are setting. But a boundary is a separation in some ways. It demarcates territory.
Understanding that and understanding that it’s okay to need what we need – kind words, space to explore, more time to do things because we get overwhelmed when we’ve a lot going on – can help us construct and honor boundaries. Then, we can approach the world from a set of rules we’ve made for ourselves. Then, when we see someone who is genuinely in trouble or needs empathy, we can refer to our own self.
Empathy As A Guide
When you are full, let yourself respond more fully than other people “normally” do. Instead of trying to “be normal” or do what everyone else does in situations like these, we will let our own empathetic self be the guide. We can listen more, give more, do more, depending on what feels right to us.
Instead of shielding ourselves from pain, we can see that if we are the kind of people who respond to people’s pain, then we need to channel that gift of service in a healthy way, by volunteering or by creating a service we can charge for.
As highly sensitive people, I think it’s not about detachment, but about attachment to causes that truly, deeply move us. Instead of protecting ourselves from intense responses and feelings, we need to channel our grief and anger at the wrongs we see in the world and do something about them.
Boundaries: My Lesson
This has been the glimmer of my lesson this year. I have to be more of myself, not less. I have to be more responsive, not less. I have to be the intense, feeling, thinking person that I am and not make myself into some lighter, more digestible version of myself.
Feelings move things. What will the ocean of your messy, beautiful, powerful feelings move and shift in this world?
Image: Jonathan Farber at Unsplash