Ep. 34 How to Practice Empathy with Boundaries
Today I want to talk about caring for others while not being careless with yourself.
Empathy with boundaries is a concept that I don't think is talked about nearly enough. Empathy without boundaries can be very dangerous and it's something that I've done for too long in my life. I've been learning to have better boundaries over the past few years, and it's been so freeing. I'll share that with you here, but first, let's talk about empathy in general.
What is Empathy?
There seems to be a lot of confusion about what empathy actually is. So let me set the record straight. Empathy is the ability or practice of seeing life through someone else’s perspective. Over the years, I have learned that we all have different natural levels of empathy innately, . But regardless of your natural ability, it's also something we can each practice and grow more of. Like any type of growth in our life, we have to work on it. We have to pay attention. We have to want to improve.
I used to think that empathy is something that anyone who had gone through a hard time would have. I dated a guy who had lost his mother and been through a divorce. I assumed that someone who had gone through that would have a lot of empathy. I'm not saying he was a bad guy. He was a really nice guy, in fact. But he didn't have the kind of empathy I expected from someone who had been through some difficult things.
I began to learn that it's something you can be born with to a certain degree, but also that it's a practice, even for someone like me who is more naturally empathetic. I have had to learn to really take the time to make sure that I am really listening to someone and working to truly see things from their viewpoint.
Why is Empathy Important?
We all need to be seen. This is true in so many areas of life, but especially in our pain. And that's the type of empathy we're really talking about today: empathy in situations where someone is going through a lot, and we want to care for them in a way that's actually helpful.
So how do we do this? It really comes down to two steps: listen and learn.
I've previously talked about misconceptions and how they can be so dangerous. Sometimes when we're trying to help someone, but we have misconceptions about their situation, we can actually do harm, regardless of our intentions. This is why empathy is so helpful.
Here's an example . . . a friend may be talking about a movie, and then realizes that because of my experience of sexual assault, that particular movie may be very difficult and triggering for me, so they let me know that I may want to avoid watching that movie. I am so grateful for that insight, that act of empathy, in those moments. It has made me feel very comforted, seen and protected.
By listening to the people we are trying to help we really get a better idea of what they're going through. Don't just assume. Truly listen to what they're saying. Ask them questions: “How can I show up for you?” “Are there things that are not helpful for me to do?” “Are there things that are helpful or not helpful for me to say?” You can also ask them how their viewpoint has changed, or what struggles they're now experiencing.
For example, for months after I was assaulted, when I was out with friends, I would always scan the crowd to see if I saw the man who assaulted me. He's very tall, so every time I saw a tall person, I needed to see if that's him. I was on a constant state of alert for several months. When other people were aware of my high alertness it made me not feel alone—just feeling seen meant the world.
Also, if you don't know what to do for someone, you can always look online. There are always people to learn from. Of course, it's still important to check-in and ask questions, because everyone responds differently to different things. And doing that is how we build our muscles of empathy. I can't tell you how many friends of mine have appreciated this muscle that I have. While I do feel that I'm more naturally constructed this way, it's also something I'm always growing. And it's something that is usually very appreciated by others.
Empathy Without Boundaries
Although empathy is important, it can get very dangerous when we practice it without boundaries. And unfortunately, that has been the way I've practiced it for most of my life. So what is empathy without boundaries? It's truly taking on other people's feelings and emotions. That was something that I would do for the longest time, I felt that I needed to feel everything that they were feeling in order to help them not feel alone.
But in reality, that was only hurting myself, which meant I was less able to help that person. By trying to really internalize their sadness, it's not as if I'm actually taking it away from them. Another way that empathy without boundaries shows up is when we prioritize other people above ourselves.
There's a book, Boundaries, by Henry Cloud. He describes a situation in which your neighbor's grass is dying. So you take your own hose and water your neighbor's lawn. As you're tending to their lawn carefully, your own grass starts dying.
I have always loved that visual, because it's so true. I realized a lot more this year how I prioritize other people's feelings and thoughts above my own. But what I have seen is that when we practice empathy without boundaries, we become exhausted, we have health problems, and many areas of our life become neglected.
You need to take care of yourself, because you're the one that's keeping yourself going. You need to attend to all the areas of health in your life: physical, mental, emotional, etc.. Other people in your life can help, but you're the one that is ultimately responsible for your well-being.
When we take care of ourselves first, then we can take care of others. And then we're taking care of them from a place that is healthy, a place where we are constantly replenishing ourselves. We are constantly getting enough rest so that we can continue to show up for those other people as needed.
Empathy With Boundaries
So let's talk about empathy with boundaries. Boundaries allow you to keep on caring for others without being careless with yourself.
I've been reading a great book, Not Nice, by Dr. Aziz Gazipura, about breaking patterns of people-pleasing, lack of emotional boundaries, and more. One thing I love that he says in the book is that taking on other people's struggles is very different than helping them through their struggles.
One tactic that Dr. Gazipura shares in the book in regards to how to be around people and not take in their emotions is imagining an energy bubble. Visualize a bubble around you extending out two to three feet on all sides. And this bubble is permeable—things can enter and leave. So when you see anything in your bubble that isn't from you, you can just push it away from you and let it go back outside your bubble, where you can observe it without internalizing it. Imagery such as this works really well for our brains. Try this tactic to avoid taking on others' emotions.
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Another tool I learned when I did 1:1 counseling is setting boundaries with my time. The counseling I was doing was as a volunteer, so people had my personal phone number, and I would always be available. I had no boundaries. There were times that I left family meals to go help someone. It wasn't their fault for contacting me. It was mine, for not having set and abided by good boundaries, and it wore me out and sometimes made me resentful.
Eventually, I learned to put this helpful tactic into place: When someone would call me or text me, I would take a moment to look inward. I'd take some deep breaths and listen to my intuition. I’d ask myself, “do I need to be helping this person in this particular moment?” The more I learned to do that, and really listen to my answers, the better off I was, and the better I was able to help people when I did feel like I should answer because I wasn’t as burnt out. I had to learn that I am not here to help every single person. None of us are supposed to be that. We are not supposed to be other people's saviors.
There are plenty of times when I was processing my own trauma, and as much as I wanted someone to be there in the moment, sometimes what I really needed was not to be able to reach anyone, because sometimes part of healing from the pain is just sitting with it. Thus I learned sometimes there is purpose in not always being there for everyone.
That practice of checking in with myself before saying “Yes” to someone has really has helped me so much over the years.
Your Next Steps with Empathy
Today we talked about empathy and boundaries. It's possible to care for others without being careless with yourself. While empathy is important, it can be dangerous and harmful to practice empathy without boundaries, and there are ways to put boundaries in place that allow you to still be there for others while not burdening yourself with their emotions.
What about you? What next step do you need to take in empathy? Do you need to grow that muscle a little more? Do you need to learn how to put boundaries in place? Do you need to learn to listen to your own intuition when it comes to helping others? Whatever is that next step, take it. It’s worth it.