Empathy and Boundaries

Human beings are wired for connection. For our continuously evolving ancestors, connection meant survival, and although it looks different in today’s context, we continue to need and crave connection to others. Living without our modern conveniences, our ancestors grouped together to obtain food and ensure protection, ultimately cultivating increasingly social beings. Describing this in his book, Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, scientist Matthew Lieberman explains that “our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water.” Because of this fundamental need for connection, being with someone in their pain is tantamount to experiencing the full range of human experience. Having and expressing empathy remains the most effective and meaningful way to share this collective experience.

What is empathy?

Empathy involves our understanding of another person’s feelings and our ability to show this understanding to them and to immerse ourselves in their experiences. Although the two words are often used interchangeably, empathy is quite different from sympathy. Ultimately, empathy allows you to feel with someone, not simply for them. As Brene Brown explains, empathy, not sympathy, nurtures the connections we make with those in our social sphere. Sympathy can often feel superficial or even patronizing. Empathy, on the other hand, communicates a deep knowing of others’ suffering and the ability to share in that pain. However, if we do not maintain personal boundaries, empathy is simply not possible.   

5 Signs of Healthy Boundaries

Boundaries keep us safe and secure in our relationships with others; they draw the lines that let others know what is and is not ok. When we set and uphold firm yet flexible boundaries with each person in our life, we essentially create spaces in which we can develop healthy and thriving connections. Having physical and emotional boundaries in place for each of our relationships ensures a few crucial things happen:

1.  We know where we stand. The very act of setting boundaries involves a high level of awareness for what we want, what we will tolerate, and what we will not accept. This knowledge helps us determine the characteristics and practicalities of our boundaries and allows us to communicate them.

2.  Others know where we stand. Communication is pivotal; simply knowing our limits does not lead to successful relationships; we must tell others where and what our boundaries are.

3.  Our wellbeing remains intact. Knowing and communicating where we draw the line helps maintain our emotional and physical health. With boundaries in place, we often avoid emotional burnout and feelings of disrespect and frustration.

4.  Others’ wellbeing remains intact. Boundaries are a two-way street. Ideally, if others are respecting your limits, they will benefit from the boundaries you set.   

5.  The relationship thrives. Boundaries exist for the health of the relationship; without them, lines become blurred and disrespect often abounds. Relationships grow and thrive when both people set and keep their respective boundaries.

Can I set boundaries AND have empathy?

Yes! In fact, boundaries permit us to experience and express empathy for and with others. Imagine you work as a nurse in the ER. The nature of your boundaries, both physical and emotional, will determine how well you can maintain working in such a fast-paced and demanding environment. For example, if you fail to take breaks because you are always at someone’s bedside, you may burn out quickly. If you do not ask for help in a crisis, you may inadvertently cause harm to those in need. Or perhaps you “take home” your work too much and find yourself ruminating on the pain you see daily. Setting firm, yet flexible, boundaries will help prevent such experiences because you know what you need and have expressed those needs to those around you.

5 Ways to Cultivate Empathy

1.  Pay attention. Having empathy requires a level of attentiveness- both to yourself and to others. Listen to what others say to you and pay attention to the unspoken emotions behind their words.

2.  Develop this awareness. Work on simply noticing when someone is in pain and recognizing those signs early. You will find yourself noticing others’ emotions and experiences easier and on a deeper level.

3.  Communicate. Let others know you notice their discomfort or pain and begin a dialogue with them about what they are experiencing in the moment. Reassure them that they are not alone in this: you see them, you hear them, and you want to connect with them where they are right now. 

4.  Respect their boundaries. Do not overstep their boundaries: perhaps they do not want to talk about their experiences for their own reasons. Respect that and know that it is not a personal attack against you.

5.  Follow up. Revisit the conversation the next time you talk to them. Ask them how they are doing and listen actively to their response. Your relationship will ultimately benefit from this continued care and connection.

Counseling can help you develop boundary setting skills while processing any guilt or shame that comes up as the result. Working with a counselor can help you explore and understand the internal and external factors that make boundary setting difficult and provides a safe space to voice the fears and objections that often come up when advocating for one’s own needs.

About Michael Hilgers, M.MFT

I’m a Licensed Professional Counselor working remotely with clients around the world. I believe that everyone has the potential to change; to create new paths, to go in new directions. Life is hard. Counseling can help.

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