Empathy can be a wonderful way to connect meaningfully with people around us. It provides the ability to understand other people’s perspectives and experiences and relate to their feelings and emotions. Naturally empathetic individuals are good listeners, can connect emotionally in the various relationships in their lives and are often those who people turn to in their moment of need.
However, empathy without boundaries can be problematic. Highly empathetic individuals can feel the inherent temptation to extend their help or comfort, often going the extra mile to be there for those they care about. Setting boundaries may appear selfish and cold so they often start to prioritize everyone else’s needs and wellbeing before their own. Or worse, they may even lose sight of their own needs over time since they become so preoccupied in other people’s troubles. This can lead to emotional burnout where they might be left feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated from other people’s emotions. It may lead to feelings of helplessness or guilt if there isn’t anything in their power that they can do to fix a situation or help a loved one in need. This stress can even lead to anxiety or cause physical exhaustion.
Setting boundaries is therefore important for practicing empathy in a healthy way. Boundaries are meant to protect your emotional, mental, and even physical wellbeing, while enabling you to still care for those around you. It helps you regulate your own emotions and attend to your own needs so that being there for others doesn’t come at the expense of your own health. It can also ensure that others don’t always rely on you for problem-solving or take your good intentions for granted. Moreover, if you find yourself in the habit of jumping in to offer solutions, fixing problems, or trying to get people to avoid inevitably poor outcomes, you may be taking away opportunities for other people to have experiences which they can ultimately learn from themselves.
Here are a few ways to set some healthy, loving boundaries while remaining empathetic.
- Identify your own needs. This helps preserve your own time and energy and ensures that helping others doesn’t always come at a cost to yourself. Once you’re aware of what you need to feel genuinely refreshed and energized, ensure that you find the way to prioritize them, so you don’t feel emotionally or mentally drained. Don’t forget to actively check in with yourself occasionally since your needs can also evolve over time.
- Pause before diving in. If your instinct typically is to say yes or jump in with help or advice, it might be worthwhile to pause before committing. It doesn’t make you a selfish person if you take the time to assess if there’s a conflict with your own needs or if you even have the bandwidth to take on an emotional load at that point in time.
- Learn when to let go. Sometimes there’s only so much you can do for someone. If you’re highly empathetic, you might be plagued by lingering feelings of helplessness, guilt, or inadequacy if you weren’t able to accomplish your goals of helping your loved ones. Don’t get caught up in the endless spiral of “what if …” or “could I have done x instead …”. Understand your own limitations and know that ultimately you are not responsible for everyone else’s wellbeing.