As an empath, this is something I struggled with for a long time. I never really knew where to draw a line or how to create boundaries. I honestly believed that having boundaries when it came to the people I love was selfish.
While empathy is essential for developing deep, intimate relationships with others, it is also necessary to know how to balance your own needs and self-care, too. Otherwise you will fall into a vicious cycle of constantly tending to the needs of others, while failing to take care of your own basic needs.
When this happens over a long enough period, you open yourself up to a few mental health challenges, such as:
- Losing the ability to fully understand what you want or need.
- Becoming mentally exhausted and can’t fully show up for other people in your life.
- Having a hard time deciphering what is truly in your best interest.
- Having bursts of anger and frustration and not really understanding why.
- Putting yourself in a vulnerable position to be mentally and emotionally abused, such as someone gaslighting you.
- You find that your mood changes and mirrors what the other person is feeling, instead of holding on to yourself and what you feel.
- You find yourself worrying about what others think of you, rather than focusing on what you think of yourself.
- Becoming more anxious, depressed or just having an overall feeling of emptiness when forced to sit with your own feelings.
As you can see, these patterns can become part of your daily life and can dramatically affect your wellbeing.
So, what does healthy empathy look like? It’s having the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and pay attention to their needs, without sacrificing your own. And for many of us, it is incredibly difficult to even understand our own needs in those moments.
The secret to understanding our own needs is mindfulness. Being mindful of what you need and what you want for yourself. And this is especially true for when you feel the urge to be overly empathic.
For example, say your significant other wants to talk about his crappy day at the office and you know from past experience that those conversations can go on for the whole night. And you’ve had a crappy day, too. In that moment, you might be triggered to be a ‘good partner’, suck it up and be a good listener. But being more mindful of your feelings and needs in that moment might look like this: “Honey, I am sorry you had a bad day at the office. I would love to talk to you about it another time, perhaps tomorrow night. I had a very stressful day at the office, too, and my mind is just shot now. I really want to just unwind and decompress tonight. How about we plan on talking about it tomorrow night over dinner? We’ll both be more refreshed and can approach it from a better place.”
Before giving this response, I might run through the following in my head:
1.) What is my objective? It’s to unwind tonight because I had a horrible day. And I do want to be present when supporting my partner when he talks about his day, but I know I’m not in a good place to do so tonight. I just won’t be effective.
2.) What are my goals for my relationship? I always want to be a supportive partner. And I am hopeful that my partner understands my boundary tonight, because 9 times out of 10, I’m available. And tonight, I know I wouldn’t be the best listener.
3.) How will I feel towards myself if don’t take care of my need to just decompress tonight? How will I feel towards myself if I opt to listen to my partner talk about how messed up things are at his job for hours tonight?
Being mindful and clear with yourself with those three questions is the key to not only having an effective response but being able to create healthy boundaries. Sometimes your objective will be the most important thing, and sometimes your relationship or self-respect will be. It’s all about finding the right balance.
At the end of the day, you are responsible for taking care of yourself and setting healthy boundaries. Remember, what you allow in your life, will continue. And you have the power to determine how things go.