That's because, like almost any personality trait, empathy has a dark side that tends to show up when it’s embodied too often or to an extreme extent. “Being an empath allows you to connect deeply with others, but the downside is that regularly absorbing the pain of others can be burdensome,” says clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, author of How To Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. “If friends and family members routinely come to you because ‘you’re such a great listener,’ you may take on a disproportionate burden of pain. And over time, you could feel resentful and ineffective as a result.”
“An empathetic person who is tired, stressed, burnt out, or in any fragile state will be more prone to receiving others’ negative energy alongside their feelings.” —clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD
That downward spiral is also more likely to occur if you, the empathetic person, are not in an emotionally strong place yourself, according to clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Joy From Fear. “An empathetic person who is tired, stressed, burnt out, or in any fragile state will be more prone to receiving others’ negative energy alongside their feelings,” says Dr. Manly. “That can lead them to feel overwhelmed, stressed, attacked, or confused.”
And the same negative consequences can happen when you allow others’ past trauma to become your own burden to bear—a common tendency among sensitive empaths who are undernourished in the realms of self care and self-development, adds Dr. Manly. For empathetic people, the best defense against that scenario comes from setting boundaries in order to avoid taking on the weight of everyone’s feelings—good and bad—all of the time. “Healthy boundary-setting can allow for much-needed mental and emotional rejuvenation,” says Dr. Manly. “And when you feel replenished and rejuvenated, you’ll be even more capable of holding appropriate, loving space for the people in your life.”
Below, the experts share strategies for setting up those boundaries and sticking to them—for the sake of your own well-being.
3 boundaries worth setting for empathetic people, according to psychologists
1. Set aside some alone time every day—for real
Whenever you’re in the presence of others, as an empathetic person, you’re setting yourself up to naturally embody those peoples’ feelings alongside your own. And if you're always placing yourself in that position, you're sure to run out of mental space for all those feelings in no time. The simplest fix is to remove that possibility by spending some time each day in the quiet presence of no one—which will give you the space to process and address anything that might be bubbling up inside of you personally.
“Empaths do best when they assess their own emotional and mental states before taking care of anyone else,” says Dr. Manly. So, if a friend or loved one were to reach out to you during the time you’d set aside for yourself, you might say, for example, “I had a very long day at work, and I’m exhausted. I can surely make space to talk with you in an hour after I’ve had a chance to rest and get a bite to eat,” suggests Dr. Manly.
2. Offload the responsibility to "fix" everyone
In many cases, an empath or empathetic person might take it upon themselves not only to listen to and connect with the feelings of a loved one, but also, to offer solutions for negative feelings. If you’re constantly taking on this role of the fixer, though, that’s a sure route to emotional burnout. Instead, Dr. Manly suggests embracing the role of the guiding supporter: “You might say, ‘I’m here to listen and support you. And after we talk, I will give you some additional resources.’” At that point, you could pass along the name of a therapist or a relevant support group.
3. Detach yourself from relationship- or friendship-related guilt
Just because you can create and hold space for the feelings of others doesn’t always mean you should (particularly if your own emotional state is in need of some TLC). And remembering that distinction can keep you from feeling guilty every time you don’t extend—or overextend—yourself for someone else. After all, if you find that your desire to carry someone else’s baggage is about feeling less guilty, it may even be driven more by people-pleasing than true empathy, says Dr. Hendriksen.
When you can remind yourself that it’s not always your place to take on someone else’s burden nor is that always a helpful thing to do, it’s easier to feel okay with turning down certain requests for hangouts. And by saying “no” to commitments and obligations without guilt, you’ll create the space you need to properly recharge and heal, says Dr. Manly.
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