Why might someone choose to avoid feeling compassion or empathy for others?
Most individuals avoid feeling empathy for others because of the concern that it would require too much mental strain for them to bear. The willingness to understand and feel the emotions of another requires a person to decenter from their own position to accommodate the perspective of another. That decentration process requires a significant amount of effort and energy as folks might be concerned that it will require action to protect, caretake, or help others that they might not be willing to supply. However, these concerns are usually preemptive and do not coincide with the more likely outcomes of empathy which are usually prosocial behaviors and strengthened feelings of connectedness.
Others may avoid feeling empathy because historically they’ve been taken advantage of or struggle with setting boundaries. As a result, their solution is to keep everyone at a distance, sacrificing connection and intimacy with others to protect themselves. While they might not get hurt, they prevent themselves from closeness and more connected attachment.
What are ways to set boundaries to not overwhelm yourself with other people’s emotions?
When you feel empathy for another, there is usually a visceral reaction, in which you might physically take on the other person’s pain. Feeling another’s emotions so deeply usually leads to the desire to take action on their behalf. The growth edge for folks learning to set boundaries with others is making themselves a priority while still maintaining connection with others. Usually highly empathic people are more inclined to prioritize the needs of others before their own. They learned, usually though early relationships with caretakers, that in order to maintain connection from others, they need to sacrifice their own needs and tend to those of others.
This is where assertiveness training is useful as you begin to set boundaries and can prove to yourself that you still hold value even if you are not nurturing another’s every need. Building boundaries begins with understanding and identifying what you actually need and then making sure those needs are met when others threaten them with their own needs. Part of this reflection process is understanding what you enjoy, your level of energy, and insight into who or what types of conversations drain your energy.
What are some ways people can come with empathy for others when it becomes taxing?
When empathy becomes taxing the way you communicate becomes very important. Usually, people have extreme approaches when it comes to boundaries, they either say yes without reflection or they withdraw completely from others. Instead, when someone makes a request of you, pause, and genuinely consider if it is something you are willing and able to take on. If not, communicate your intention: you do want to help them, but at this time you’re not able to accept their request. This is a firm way of bringing yourself and other people’s needs into the situation so they can understand that although you want to help, at this moment you are not able to, and it may in fact cause harm to yourself. It also leaves the door open to revisiting the situation when you are in a better place in the future.
It is important to track how others respond to your boundaries. Are they respectful? Do they take you seriously? Remember that although they may try to use guilt, their reaction is more reflective of who they are as a person. This is important when considering the quality of your relationships as knowledge and understanding of who might drain or disrespect your needs is vital to building your own healthy responses to these situations so you do not personalize their attacks.