Warning: Empathy without healthy boundaries equals disaster.

Are you ready to thrive in what feels like a heartless world without feeling emotionally overwhelmed?

“Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection”. ~Dr. Brené Brown

Empathy — “putting yourself in another person’s shoes”. Not to “understand” what the other person is going through; because unless we have been through that exact situation as them we can never really understand what they might be going through. We are all unique because of our beliefs (the culture we identify with, the environment we grow up in, our parenting, our core values, our life perceptions of the events we go through) that set us apart from each other. Our beliefs become the lens we use to connect with the world around us. Thus in any given situation two people with different beliefs can have different perceptions of the same event. Therefore it is almost impossible to have gone through exactly the same situation as someone else and understand what they might be going through. This is where Empathy kicks in. Being able to hold space for someone else’s perspective that might be different than ours by a way of connecting with them, and supporting them with their trials as and how they would feel cared for. We often love or care the way we want to be loved or cared about but that’s often not the case for others. Gary Chapman speaks about this in his work about love and apology languages. The same holds true for empathy, the way we want to be cared for would not look the same for another person.

Brené Brown, Lists Four Qualities of Empathy as:

  • Perspective-taking — The ability to take someone else’s perspective and recognize their perspective as truth.

  • Avoiding judgments. Judgments cloud clarity.

  • Recognizing emotion in another person and

  • Communicating and understanding.

We live in a world that is very inapt around the word “emotion” and not to anyone’s fault, it's because emotions are often associated with weakness. As Brené Brown points out, the challenge is, empathy requires us to recognize and reflect on the big heavy emotions which a lot of times we are not skilled at or trained on a concept called Emotional Intelligence (EQ) growing up. EQ is learning to be aware of our emotions and knowing how to manage them to have a deeper connection with ourselves and the world around us. So we automatically jump to sympathizing by minimizing, denying, or jumping to fix someone’s issues. Sympathy is feeling pity and sorry for someone else’s misfortune. I often find that when someone is going through mental hardship or a traumatic phase of their life sympathy adds another layer of harm even though unintentional and meant from a good place. Regardless of its intention, it's equally as damaging as the triggering event and the darkness the person going through it is feeling already.

Empathy vs Sympathy

Examples of empathy can look like:

“I am here if you want to talk”, “I can’t imagine what you might be going through, but am here to listen if you need an ear”, “If you need me to I can help you research or find professional help”, “What would you like from me right now or through this time”, “I don’t know what to say, but give them a hug and tell them you care”, “I love you a lot and care about you to see you suffer like this”, “Anything you need let me know anytime, I want to be here for you”.

When someone is going through something dark, overwhelming, and deep, the last thing they want to hear is a solution.

“Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” – Dr. Brené Brown

Empathy is essential and is very important for humanity and our connection to others. The flip side of the empathy coin is boundaries. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we empathize too much and then later feel or develop resentment and dislike towards others for not communicating our boundaries. Just like EQ, and empathy, it is another concept we often learn the hard way in life or through professional help, when we find ourselves in crisis. I wish this was a concept that I had learned earlier in life.

Boundaries are communicating to others what works for us and what doesn’t, what our likes and dislikes are. They are essential life skills required to have healthy relationships with others and live a healthy life. When we pour from an empty bucket we are often left feeling drained, overwhelmed, and resentful. They are not easy to set, they are very uncomfortable to communicate because we don’t want people to not like us, we don’t want to disappoint or hurt people. Since adolescents, until we are hit with crisis and are emotionally drained, overwhelmed, and in complete crisis, we don’t tend to communicate with them or even know that they can exist.

“Boundaries are frickin’ important. They’re not fake walls, they’re not separation, boundaries are not division, they are respect. They are here’s what’s ok for me and here’s what’s not.” ~ Dr. Brené Brown

They are an important first step to

self-love and worth. They are a way of being. If we have poor boundaries we are nice to people but often begrudging and resentful for not having set them. We lose respect for ourselves and over time feel depleted. We are the first relationship we have, if we can’t have a good relationship with ourselves we can’t expect to have good connection with others around us.

Photo by René Molenkamp on Unsplash

Essentials of healthy boundaries —

  1. Identify things that are ok with you and that are not. Our boundaries can look different for different people and situations. Certain situations call for us to be more flexible and others to set a hard line. Boundaries can also change with time as we change. As you explore this concept I urge you to give yourself the permission that — “I give myself the right to say no”, “I give myself the permission to say yes if I want to”, and state assertively and confidently to yourself “that I do not have to provide you with any explanation for my answer, if I so chose not to”. At first, this seems harsh because we aren’t used to it and it seems quite selfish because we often live in a very people-pleasing world. But people who are the most empathetic and compassionate have the most well-defined boundaries and are able to be loving and authentic because of them.

  2. Pause & Recognize when to apply them — Boundaries change depending on our level of connection with the other person. Learn to recognize when you are running on empty even when it is someone very close to you. Like they say on the airplanes “putting your own mask on first”, isn’t selfish. It’s necessary to live a life where you feel fully alive and be completely within your capacity to help others.

  3. Repeat and become consistent — Like any new skill to be established into your sense of being consistency is the key. Every thought we pay attention to has a neural network in our brain. Our body consists of 86 billion neural networks, each neuron connected to 10,000 other neurons. In order to set behavior in place, it's important that we pay attention to the skill, we are building and do it a few times in a day or a week to establish a solid neural network which then becomes an autopilot and gets etched into your subconscious. Remember the time you learned to ride a bike or drive a car, it didn’t happen in a day, right?

The more we set boundaries, the more we learn to recognize them. In setting boundaries, we

help people show up for us, and we also get better at showing up for them.

In the words of Dr. Brené Brown, “Clear is kind.”

Different types of boundaries —

(Psychological, Emotional, Personal Beliefs, Physical, Sexual, Spiritual, Material, Time, Intellectual). Here are some examples of healthy boundary setting.

Physical & Sexual boundaries

Physical boundaries include your need for personal space, your need to eat, drink, rest etc.

Healthy physical boundaries might sound like:

  • “I am really tired. I need to rest for a few.”

  • “I am not a big hugger. I am a handshake person.”

  • “I do not drink and I don’t want to be peer pressured”

  • “Don’t go into my room without asking first.”

Sexual boundaries include consent, agreement, will, respect, preference, desire, understanding between two people, connection.

Healthy sexual boundaries might sound like:

  • “Is this comfortable for you?”

  • “Tell me what you don’t like.”

  • “I don’t like that. Let’s try something different.”

  • “I don’t want to have sex tonight. Can we cuddle instead?”

Emotional boundaries

Emotional boundaries entail respecting and honoring other peoples’ emotions by not belittling them, dismissing them, invalidating them because they do not seem to cause us the same emotions. It also means distancing yourself or limiting emotional sharing with people who continue to disrespect you or treat you poorly.

Healthy emotional boundaries might sound like:

  • “When I share my feelings with you and get criticized, it makes me totally shut down. I can only share with you if you are able to respond respectfully to me.”

  • “You seem like you are going through a tough time. Right now, I am not in a place to take in all of this information. Do you think we can come back to this conversation later?”

  • “I am having a hard time and really need to talk. Are you in a place to listen right now?”

  • “I really can’t talk about that right now. It isn’t the right time.”

Personal Belief boundaries

At times our beliefs are different than the people we are associated with. Shaming/guilting someone not holding the same values as yours, or dominating others, or dismissing or invalidating someones’ beliefs and identity. It could also mean criticizing other people’s beliefs and values about politics, gender, sexual orientation, religion, spirituality

Healthy personal beliefs boundaries might sound like:

  • “We believe in very different things as it relates to politics or religion, so if we want to continue having this relationship it's best if we don’t impose our beliefs on each other.”

  • “You seem very zealous about your beliefs [insert here], but I have my own so we will just agree to disagree on this.”

  • “I would appreciate it if you do not keep bringing this topic up in my presence otherwise I am going to have to ask you to leave.”

Intellectual boundaries

Intellectual boundaries refer to your thoughts, ideas, and curiosity. Healthy intellectual boundaries include respect for the ideas of other people, and they can be violated when your thoughts and curiosity are shut down, dismissed, or belittled. Respectfulness and willingness to have a dialogue are a better way to manage intellectual boundaries.

Healthy intellectual boundaries might sound like:

  • “I know we disagree, but I won’t let you put me down like that.”

  • “I would love to talk about this more, but I don’t think talking about it right now in front of the children is the best time.”

  • “When we talk about this, we tend to get heated. I think it is a good idea to stop this conversation right now.”

Boundaries do not mean accepting people’s thoughts, opinions, values, and beliefs, but it's important to recognize the difference between healthy and unhealthy discourse for you. If you leave feeling drained, unhappy, exhausted, overwhelmed, or stressed then it is time to consider setting healthy boundaries in place.

If someone is sharing an opinion that is inherently harmful to your psychological well-being such as — i.e., racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc. — then you have every right to put a hard line. You can set the boundary in your own way. Boundaries are designed to let the person know you will not tolerate that kind of disrespect, distancing yourself from them, or cutting them off depending on the situation is the best plan of action. It is hard but staying in that dysfunction over time leads to other more detrimental mental health concerns.

Photo by Dominik Lange on Unsplash

The most compassionate people in the world practice healthy boundaries. It may not come easy at first due to fear (of rejection, abandonment, confrontation), safety concerns, guilt because we are not taught this growing up so it seems quite foreign at first. But setting boundaries helps maintain your integrity, agency, self-worth, self-respect. They empower you to make healthy choices for yourself. They are very integral life skills one learns while going through “Therapy” or seeking professional help.

Sign up and become a part of my blog community, and comment below: how do you practice boundaries in your life and how did you learn them? So we can inspire each other to improve, learn, and become better people.

Reference and other resources

  • Violence Intervention and Prevention Center from PositivelyPositive.com, outofthefog.net and Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin by Anne Katherine.

  • Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Boundaries: When To Say Yes, When To Say No, To Take Control of Your Life. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2004. Companion workbook available.

  • A lot of this article was inspired by Brené Brown, PhD, work who researches and teaches vulnerability, shame, courage, and worthiness at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. (I admire the thousands of hours she has invested in doing her qualitative research on vulnerability, connection, and empathy).

  • Read more: http://www.oprah.com/spirit/how-to-set-boundaries-brene-browns-advice#ixzz6fXUGbZTC

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