On boundaries

• 7 min read
On boundaries

photo: Josh Hild (Unsplash)

Managing my boundaries has always been a challenge. In my younger years I really wasn't great at it, or rather I was (as yet) unaware of my sensitivity. It is this gradual awareness around my high sensitivity that has helped me better understand what I need to function well, which includes the big piece that is managing the boundaries in my life.

I feel this is something all of us have to contend with, but I'm sure that my being a highly-sensitive and empathic individual is what makes boundaries an extra deal for me and other INFPs and INFJs.

See also: A Myers-Briggs/HSP mini-study

Here are some of the things I've thrown down on the page, which came up for me when I was reflecting on 'boundaries', and some of the things I've learned which have helped. You'll also notice that we need to manage our boundaries both in person and online these days, with the added complications that digital messaging/social media can bring to those of us who want to work on managing our boundaries better:


In the past, I've been a people-pleased and over-extended myself when it comes to others, in whichever setting. Interestingly, pretty much everyone I came across in group therapy admitted to struggling with people-pleasing, and these were people from different walks of life and ho had been diagnosed with different mental health conditions.

People-pleasing can manifest both in-person and online. Whether it's an email I send/respond to, or someone I meet for the first time in person, people-pleasing seems to come from a need to be liked, one that's human but can become unhealthy (hence the negative connotations associated with 'people-pleasing'). It's something I've had to work on, and I'll share some of those ways. For many of us 'boundaries' and 'people-pleasing' go hand-in-hand, so I'm not surprised this is what came up for me first.

In my first proper job, I remember the beautiful, lengthy, individually-crafted emails I used to put together for candidates and clients. In return, I would either receive no reply, a rejection ('no thanks/I'm not interested') or some sort of curt response even if it was a positive one ('Sure, let's talk'). One of the many subtle yet not-so-subtle pieces of evidence that corporate life wasn't for me...

I soon had to become OK with sending shorter emails and responses, and I realise that this was actually an opportunity for me not to people-please, and better manage my digital energy and boundaries by not being so over-the-top-polite to everyone under the sun, and to someone I probably wouldn't hear from - let alone hear back from in as polite a way as I'd reached out to them. Also, these were/would remain folks I'd never met and might even only meet the once in any case, rather than become trusted friends.

To emphasise, this has very much been a process. But it has been a necessary one, especially as I've transitioned from employment to working-for-myself and I continue to navigate this transition; inevitably, working for yourself involves interaction with others - for me, that's mostly over email/social channels but also over video and sometimes in-person/over the phone.

Interactions with people

Part of this process had for me been about limiting interactions, both the number iof them and whether I start/choose to engage with them in the first place. For example, if I receive a tutoring enquiry, I might send a perfectly polite response back with any information requested and finish with "Just let me know if you need anything else" - but I won't go out of my way to over-extend myself, an approach which feels better and most likely feels more comfortable/less pushy for the person at the other end, too. Granted, this can be difficult when you're starting out and are trying to secure those first clients.

And, of course, away from 'work', we all have in-person relationships to contend with which brings me onto my next point...

Offline (IRL)
Just like with digital comms, I am conscious about my people-time, too. I've realised that when it comes to meaningful connection, real-life is the way to go and so that's what I've doubled-down on. It's not to say that, for example, WhatsApp isn't useful for maintaining friendships but for me that's what the purpose of messaging is; the magic of trust and connection and relationship-building happens for in-person. We are social creatures, and we all have an innate and primal need to interact IRL, and not rely on messaging which is the trap it's easy to fall into, and one I've done many-a-time. (Especially as messaging appears to be such an introvert-friendly method of communication, it's easy for me to fool myself into thinking I'm being 'social' through WhatsApp chats and groups when, really, my soul gets the nourishment it needs from in-person interaction. Even video calls aren't the same, and lockdown has made me realise that I can't survive simply on video calls (they're 'higher quality' than digital messaging, but no replacement for IRL/in-real-life ones).

I'm more concerned with using WhatsApp for some interaction (rather than endless back-and-forth messages which encroaches upon my day and the boundaries I have set for myself; especially during the week, my days have an outline and even at the weekend, when I give myself [time to switch off], I would much rather be doing something 'in the real world' rather than endlessly be messaging and letting other interactions interrupt/drain my day.

At the same time, I also have to resist the urge to make too many plans I'll later regret, or will otherwise feel exhausted after. At the moment, 2-3 times a week seems to be working well for me (a mixture of a walk/playing sport with a friend, or spending the evening with a small group of friends, usually 3-4). 'Late social evenings', of which there might be 1 or at most 2, are reserved for the weekend.

Letting go

I've also heard this been referred to as energetic cord-cutting, and this one has been another challenge for me. When conflict/tension arises, even if it's not-so-obvious or seemingly minor to others, I can really feel this and it can affect me. It might be something seemingly as minor as just feeling that something in the air is 'off' (perhaps because I felt uncomfortable with something that was said, or there's something that's been left unsaid), and can often find myself distancing myself from that person/people rather than face the situation head-on.

Increasingly, where possible, I'll try to have an honest conversation and express how I feel, and especially if it's with a friend with whom the relationship is important to me. It can be more challenging when it's someone in a work/non-social setting; in this case, I try to be careful not to let work/social lines to be blurred, even though I struggle to maintain the professional facade and would much rather be myself, I have realised in the long-run it's better to protect myself and keep others at arms' length and not get too invested.

Recently, after several weeks of having communication with a couple of customer service agents of a service I used, things went a little sour when there was some miscommunication on both sides. Looking back, I was too giving and had let myself be taken in by the sort of polite/happy customer service these companies give to everyone. When a minor issue arose, the friendly facade dropped and the professional/business one showed its face, I was left taken aback and feeling a little hurt.

It occupied by headspace on-and-off over the weekend, which wasn't nice. I tried dealing with it by:

  • Posting what had happened in a couple of forums I felt comfortable in, asking what others had made of the situation and whether I had been unreasonable, even if unwittingly so
  • Writing about it in this article is helping (I actually could have journalled about it over the weekend which probably would have made me feel better)
  • I apologised to the 2 members of the CS team who had been answering my queries to the part I played in the misunderstanding/awkward situation; though, I'm not sure how I now feel about having done this - especially as I received no direct response/acknowledgement of my apology, and part of me feels I had nothing to apologise for in the first place. (In-person, I'm sure a reconciliation would have felt more balance/mutual).

Ideally, if an uneasy situation like this arises for you, if you're unable to speak to someone else about it for whatever reason, I'd really recommend scribbling your thoughts and feelings down to process it, and also giving it a couple of days for your feelings/emotions to soften so you can take action with a clearer head and in a more grounded state.

Another thing to add is that spending quality time with others this weekend, both with my family and with friends, was just the ticket for me. In the moment I received that email that, in essence, gave me a telling off, I felt disconnected and hurt. By spending time with others in my life I feel good and comfortable around, this helped re-ground and re-connect me with others. Had I spent the weekend along, there would have been more of a chance that I would have continued to dwell and get more catastrophic with my thinking.

What about you?

This probably won't be the last time I write about the topic of boundaries, as it's a big one and I feel it permeates my life in various ways. I have benefited from being aware of boundaries, and learning to manage them better.

How do you manage your boundaries? What challenges do you experience?

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← episode #24: On being a highly sensitive person (HSP)
TV moments that gave me *the feels* →

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