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Day 6. Over-Empathy: Reining It In For Healthier Relationships

Do you feel guilty when you know about or guess other people’s feelings? Do you feel guilty when someone tells you about something they’re going through and feel obliged on some level to be a solution?

One thing I can be pretty sure of if you’re trying to develop your boundaries and as a result, improve your self-esteem, is that you care. Sometimes you care too much (yes there is such a thing), and you misuse your good qualities and characteristics by over-empathising and as a result, not staying in your space. Ironically, instead of coming from a place of love, care, trust and respect, you end up coming from a place of fear, guilt, obligation, projecting and even resentment.

When you’re over-empathetic, you remain in situations long past their sell-by-date because you use what you think is empathy to find new reasons to absolve the other party of their responsibility or to explain away something that you definitely shouldn’t. You will agree to things that inwardly, on some level your body is screaming, “Are you on crack? ….. Why did you say yes to that? ….. Can’t you feel how overloaded and undernourished you are on the emotional front?….. What about you?…. Why are you letting this person take advantage again?…. What about your needs? WHY YOU? Why does it have to be you?”

You ‘overfeel’: you try to feel and be responsible for what you assume is everyone else’s feelings when what you’re actually doing is confusing your feelings (and thoughts) with theirs. Unfortunately, it leads to you feeling emotionally short-changed, plus you can’t have healthy emotional, mental, physical and’ stuff of life’ boundaries because you don’t know where you end and others begin.

It can also lead to you feeling incredibly overwhelmed because assuming other people’s feelings means that you tend to anticipate potential negative outcomes or saddle you up with too many tasks and responsibilities which means that you don’t have the bandwidth to take care of you.

It’s possible to ‘share’ in another person’s feelings, i.e. recognise them through empathy, without inadvertently hijacking them and deciding what they’re thinking, feeling and likely to do, and also without forgetting you in the process.

If you forget about your values, if you forget about your boundaries and if you feel responsible even though in reality you’re not, you’re not empathising— you’re over-empathising. 

You can be conscientious, compassionate, sympathetic and basically be the good person you’re likely striving to be, with boundaries. But don’t confuse sympathy with empathy, as the former is actually feeling pity for someone’s misfortune, and when used to drive, for instance, a romantic interaction, it leads to all sorts of Florence Nightingale-related issues.

Make sure that your idea of being “good” and “nice” isn’t pretending to be and feel things that you don’t and putting up with the unacceptable.

Sound familiar?

Good and nice people always help.
Nice people don’t say no.

Not true.

‘Help’ is about offering your contribution in order to make someone’s life easier or to make something possible. Help still has responsibility on both sides. That and your relationships aren’t charities.

“Nice” people do say no. People who mistake nice for doormat don’t say it.

It was a big wake-up call for me to recognise that in my quest to be “good” and “nice”, I felt horrible and the very people I was there for didn’t have respect for me and truth be told, I didn’t have respect for me.

Each time you over-empathise, you’re not taking care of your boundaries, but also, you may unwittingly be crossing other people’s. You will feel so frustrated, hurt, sad, afraid, resentful and even victimised, and this will make you afraid to feel your feelings… which will only lead to walls.

You will feel dependent on people for survival because your inner peace is connected and in fact, conditional on what you imagine are other people’s feelings. By practising healthier boundaries, you don’t have to drive your life on what are often misplaced assumptions and so you feel better about you and the people within your relationships. 

The TAKEAWAY

 

  • The best way to stay in your space is not to spend too much time in your head at the expense of being present and being able to notice and pay attention to what is.

  • Empathy isn’t the same as projecting. The latter is really about taking your own deep-seated feelings as well as your perception of your experiences and on some level, how you hope somebody might give to you in a similar way, and then projecting that onto them and calling it their feelings, their thoughts, their experience.

  • Over-empathy always has a hidden agenda in there somewhere, and these always lead to problems. Sometimes a hidden agenda is so well buried that the owner doesn’t even recognise it. This is why it’s essential to uncover and address those buried (but not gone away forever) feelings and narratives that inform your view of you and your choices, so that unrecognised motivations don’t cause you to end up in unpalatable situations that you know don’t work for you, but for some reason (that would be the hidden agenda), you just can’t seem to step away or get boundaried.

  • Remember, you are you, and everyone else is everyone else. Own your own and let others own theirs.

  • “Good” and “nice” people get to enjoy being all of their qualities and characteristics because they have good boundaries. Embrace healthy boundaries, and you learn to discern where to invest your energies. Why keep sparing you and others who actually have good boundaries and who want to love, care for, trust and respect you, from engaging with you, all while trying to drag a horse to water that doesn’t want to drink? Don’t be the sacrificial lamb that no one has asked you to be. And even if someone has had the brass neck to ask that, you don’t owe anyone that.

  • There are people out there who really do need a lot of help, and your caring energies could be put to fantastic (and boundaried) use by getting involved with volunteer and charity work.

  • Remember, just because you’ve done something that doesn’t honour your boundaries a thousand times, does not mean that you have to again so that these people will ‘continue’ to think well of you. They won’t anyway, and you are allowed to change your concept of boundaries at any time. You haven’t signed a contract!

  • Empathise with you. Empathy is a full circle kind of thing. If you are not empathising with you, you are not as empathetic with others as you think. Compassion works similarly. When you genuinely empathise with you, you are empathising with people from a compassionate place as opposed to one based on fear and trying to control or be of use and on some level hoping that they will return the favour. You must be for you before you can truly be for others.

JOURNALING: What do you think makes a “good person” or a “nice person”? These represent more rules that aren’t really rules. Which of these ‘rules’ aren’t really about being “good” or “nice” and how can you adapt them so that you have the flexibility to be more discerning?

TASK: When thoughts and worries about whether you’re a “good” or “nice” person come out, make a note of it. In that moment where anxiety and other feelings surge up, try saying, “I am safe, I am secure”, or “I am already doing the best that I can”. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth and repeat either or both of these phrases and notice if the feelings change. Note – I’ve found that focusing on repeating a phrase is not only calming but grounding because it connects you to the present.

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