Shaky boundaries are a serious issue for HSPs. You have to learn to value your needs and stick up for them, or your inner snow monster will do it for you.

I spotted this spectacular snow monster in a neighborhood near ours. It looks like I feel when I don’t set good boundaries. I turn into a massive lump of frigid crankiness.

I’ve got good company in this struggle. Boundaries are tricky territory for most people, and even more so for those of us who are highly sensitive, because—

  • Many HSPs struggle to see their needs as valid. You can’t set boundaries unless you recognize your needs and see their value and legitimacy. For many HSPs, that doesn’t come easily. I didn’t even know I had needs until I was in my thirties.
  • We value being “nice” and “kind,” and we think boundaries are “mean.” In reality, this thinking is misguided. There’s nothing nice about a person who feels resentful, which is how you end up feeling if you chronically fail to set boundaries.
  • We’re scared of the conflict that might arise if we set boundaries. Faced with the possibility of others’ displeasure, your vivid HSP imagination spins images of catastrophic repercussions. These can stop you in your tracks. Now you are in snow monster territory: angry because your needs are unmet needs and frozen with fear.

Fortunately, the symptoms of shaky boundaries aren’t hard to spot once you know what you are looking for.

3 ways you can tell your inner snow monster has taken over.

1—You feel chronically angry or resentful

Example: You like to get to the movies in plenty of time to get in your seat before the previews start. But your partner is never ready to go when you want to leave. This has happened so many times that you start getting tense well before it’s time to leave, anticipating more frustration.

2—You notice a critical or judging attitude towards someone

Example: You are working on a project with someone who doesn’t reliably respond to your emails, preventing you from taking necessary next steps. You notice your frustration is beginning to color your overall attitude towards this person.

3—You find yourself avoiding a person or situation, sacrificing your own needs in the process

Example: You used to hang out for game night with a group of friends, but one of them would always end up gossiping about people who weren’t there. You were really uncomfortable with this but didn’t know what to do about it, so you made up an excuse to stop going to the group, even though you miss spending time with your other friends this way and feel resentful of the gossiper.

What a shaky boundary looks like

When a person or situation in your life provokes these snow monster symptoms in you, what do you do next? Here’s where most people get confused. Here’s an example.

Imagine you are stressed at work because of your colleague, Dave. When Dave gets angry, he stands a foot away from you, raises his voice to a high volume, and jabs his finger towards your nose. This sends you into overarousal. (If you are an HSP with colleagues like Dave, you might consider finding a different job. But let’s put that aside for the moment.)

What do you do? If you are like many HSPs, you tell yourself you’ve done something wrong. Then you turn yourself into a human pretzel, trying to avoid making Dave mad. But Dave gets mad anyway. Eventually, you can’t take it anymore.

You think long and hard about it. You decide to act. The next time he gets up close, yells, and jabs, you steel yourself and you say firmly, “Dave, I don’t like it when you yell at me. Don’t ever yell at me again!”

Phew. If you’ve ever done this, you know that it feels better than passively enduring treatment that you find intolerable. But—did it work?

I didn’t think so. Telling Dave never to yell at you again is like telling a mosquito not to bite you. The only way to be sure a mosquito can’t bite you is to put a screen between you and it.

No doubt, people can—and ideally, should—be more responsive than mosquitoes. By all means, give them a chance to be responsive to you by letting them know what you wish they would do. But you can’t stop there, because—

You can’t control other people

Dave’s yelling is not under your control. And that brings us to the essential principle of successful thinking about boundaries:

If you want to take care of yourself, you cannot rely on solutions that require the other person to change their actions.

Who among us hasn’t tried to control other people and their maddening ways? We use every tool at our disposal in this futile effort: anger, shame, blame, explaining, persuasion, education. In the end, though, we are forced to face the truth of our powerlessness over others.

In fact, attempting to control other people is the most common—and fatal—boundary-setting mistake. If your boundary requires me to do (or not do) something, it is a house of cards. It will fall if I refuse to cooperate.

In fact, your weak boundary effort will make me less likely to cooperate, because I will experience it as a demand. People hate demands. Demands make my inner three-year-old pop out like a jack-in-the-box. She sticks out her snow monster tongue and yells, “You are not the boss of me!”

If you can’t control other people, what can you do?

To set a clean boundary, avoid telling other people what to do. You can certainly let them know what you wish they would do. But then, you must take the essential next step: tell them what you will do, depending on what they do.

Now you’ve based your boundary on something you can control: your own actions. Simply do what Visa does. If I pay my card balance late, Visa doesn’t get mad. They simply charge me a $45 late fee. That’s a clean boundary.

Take your imaginary colleague, Dave. You have no control over Dave’s yelling, but you do have control over your words and your actions. The next time Dave yells, you might say, “Dave, I’d like to hear what you have to say. I’ll be happy to hear it when you can talk to me in the volume I’m using right now. In the meantime, I’m going back to my office.” (Or to the bathroom. Or onto the roof. Anywhere but where Dave is.)

Even better, you can take Dave aside and say something like this:

Dave, I get so overloaded when you get angry and raise your voice at me, I can’t take in a word you are saying. I want to hear your concerns. It would be so great if you could say what you need to say without raising your voice. But I understand that may not be realistic. So if you see me put my hands up like this and start backing away, it means I’m getting too overloaded to take in what you are saying. We can try again later when we can do it at a normal volume.

You can’t control other people…but you may be able to influence them

When your boundary issue is occurring in a close relationship, a Visa-style, hard-stop boundary should not be your first resort. Let’s go back to the example of my real-life partner and the movies. (Yes, that was me. I used to drag my feet. But I’m mending my rotten ways.)

He could set a Visa-style boundary, saying, “Em, I’m going to leave at 7:05 pm for the 7:30 show of Guardians of the Galaxy. Would you like to join me?” For this to constitute a clean boundary, he’d have to be genuinely willing to leave without me.

In an intimate relationship, though, it’s worth the trouble to try to influence the other person. My partner might be able to get me to willingly leave at 7:05 PM, if he’s able to share his feelings and needs with me about leaving earlier, and to hear my feelings and needs.

This kind of needs-based conversation can only happen if my partner–the boundary setter—is feeling friendly towards me, or at least respectful. To pull that off, he will need to have a “Plan B” in place, in the form of a Visa-style boundary that will meet his needs even if I don’t cooperate.

If he has no such “Plan B” in place, and I don’t respond like he’d like me to his wishes, he’ll inevitably end up feeling angry, resentful, or critical. His energy will take on the quality of a demand. Unless I’m feeling particularly resourced and angelic at that moment, my three-year old will react. Then we’ll be off to the races instead of the movies.

In short, to attempt to influence your partner in an exchange of needs, you need a firm boundary ready as a backup plan.

Boundary-setting is a commitment and an art

To sum up, you can’t set clean boundaries unless you—

  • Recognize, value, and accept responsibility for your own needs, and
  • Accept your powerlessness over others’ choices.

Although accepting your powerlessness over others is radically liberating, you may also find it painful, even heartbreaking. Sometimes the only workable boundary you can find is to walk away from a situation or person altogether.

For example, I attended a personal growth workshop years ago in which the presenter revealed confidential information about me in front of a large group of people. I thought long and hard about what had happened. I even tried to talk myself into believing that what happened was no big deal, because I valued the work itself.

In the end, though, I realized that I never wanted this to happen again. I also realized there was no conversation I could imagine having, and no request I could imagine making, that would guarantee that. I accepted these two realities. Now, my course was clear. I never went back to one of those workshops.

In effect, I set a Visa-style boundary: I just did it retroactively. The fact that I was able to do this marked a sea-change in my inner relationship. Ironically, this incident spurred me to stand up for myself, within myself, in an unprecedented way.

Effective boundary-setting requires high levels of personal integrity, self-responsibility, and creativity. You need models, and you have to practice. I’ve shared real-life examples in this video.

Boundaries present a big challenge for many HSPs. The better you understand what clean boundaries look like, the more effectively you’ll set them, and the happier you’ll be.

Photo: ©Emily Agnew 2017
Note: this article is an updated version of one originally published on May 1, 2017