Keeping Emotional Boundaries as a Highly Sensitive Person
Boundaries can be difficult for anyone in relationships, but emotional boundaries can be especially challenging for those of us who struggle with our mental health. I identify myself as a highly sensitive person (HSP), a term coined by Elaine Aron to describe people with sensory processing sensitivity.1 Sensory processing sensitivity involves processing sensory information more deeply and feeling emotions more strongly than the average person. Sensitivity applies to all experiences: Sound, sight, touch, smell, taste, internal sensations like hunger or pain, and both our own emotions and the emotions of others.
I describe my sensitivity as experiencing the world in high definition with the volume on full blast. Every experience for me is magnified, and I feel the emotions of others as if they were my own. This has always made relationships complicated for me because it is hard to maintain healthy boundaries when the lines between myself and others are blurred.
Is Sensory Processing Sensitivity a Mental Illness?
Sensory processing sensitivity is not itself a mental disorder but rather a natural trait that 15-20 percent of the population is born with to some degree, and research has observed it in many other social species. Having someone who is on high alert and more attuned to small environmental changes may be able to warn the rest of the group of danger, so a group would benefit from having at least one individual with this trait.1
The downside to being an HSP is that we can't turn off our danger radar, which can exhaust us and affect our mental health. We may be more prone to anxiety and depression because we are constantly noticing, processing, and feeling so much, so deeply, that it takes a toll on us. An estimated 50 percent of clients seeking mental health counseling are HSPs.1
Empathy and the Highly Sensitive Brain
Brain scans have shown HSPs to have extra activity in specific brain cells called mirror neurons, which are responsible for empathy.1 This means when I see another person happy, my mirror neurons fire and I feel their happiness almost as strongly as if it were my own. When someone around me is angry or sad, I also absorb those feelings and the pain that comes with them. The natural instinct is to make the painful feelings go away, so I try to placate the other person instead of focusing on what kind of support they actually need. This comes at a cost to healthy boundaries and my ability to be fully present with the other person.
Emotional Boundaries When You Have Sensory Processing Sensitivity
Ideally, when someone close to you is unhappy, you want to show them empathy and compassion without taking responsibility for their feelings. Cheering someone up when they're unhappy isn't always the right choice. Sometimes, people just need someone to be with them while they feel their feelings and accept them. We can't give others the support they need from us if we're taking on their emotions as our own. Overidentifying with others also brings about feelings of responsibility for their feelings because the lines between their emotions and ours aren't clear. It can feel like a need to control the situation when it isn't ours to control.
Boundaries are so important in relationships and something I wish had been taught to me at a younger age. If you can relate to my experience, bringing awareness to the times when you find yourself overidentifying with others is the first step. Reminding yourself to take a step back and remember their feelings are not yours can help you achieve healthier boundaries in your relationships. Watch my video below for more about how sensory processing sensitivity can affect our relationships. Let me know about your experiences and what you do to keep emotional boundaries below.
- Aron, Elaine N., The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. Harmony Books, 1996.
Sabatello, J. (2021, April 26). Keeping Emotional Boundaries as a Highly Sensitive Person, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, February 8 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/relationshipsandmentalillness/2021/4/keeping-emotional-boundaries-as-a-highly-sensitive-person