I write a lot of about empathy, because I think that getting out of our heads and into the focused and idiosyncratic realities of others is crucial to our happiness and wellbeing and the happiness and wellbeing of those we love or encounter every day. But I tend to write about empathy as if it’s always and unanimously a challenge, something that everyone must learn to make a part of them. I tend to write about empathy as if it’s a journey for everybody.
The truth is that it’s practically deceitful of me to preach empathy as a lesson I’ve learned, as a place I’ve reached, because the truth is that I was always here. Like many, needing to move towards a place of empathy and giving has not been my journey. The journey, for me, has been one of needing to learn to not be a doormat, to stand up for myself. Empathy is not what’s difficult for me. Boundaries are.
I live largely in the heads of others. I’m always trying to make others more comfortable; it’s more important to me than my own comfort. I’m always trying to make sure others are safe, protected, feel loved; it’s more important to me than giving safety and protection and love to myself.
I live in others’ bodies too. I feel others’ pain and grief so physically that I’m unable to walk into hospitals, read about others’ tragedies or hear about the accident scenes of my sister’s EMT volunteer gig without starting to feel a sharp and undeniable pain in the center of my chest or finding myself in tears.
The most dangerous part of all of this is that we who feel empathy so freely appear so “good” on the surface. We seem to be the protectors. We seem to be the real-life superheroes. We’re the ones who reach back and pull others up. We find happiness in our ability to do this; we seem to give endlessly without ever needing to take.
But this isn’t all true, or ideal, or “good.” We’re very much not all “good.”
We rescue and we comfort and we empathize. But we also reason out so many excuses for the people who hurt us that we often end up wrongly turning fault on ourselves.
We take care of others, nurturing them, placing their needs ahead of our own. But we also teach ourselves that we don’t matter and chip away bit by bit, more and more, at our already-low confidence.
We take the load off of others, hoping to alleviate them, to help. But we also bury our own pain, not wanting to allow it to hurt others, preferring to let it hurt us.
And maybe a part of us likes this – our kindness, our generosity, everything we give. Maybe there’s a satisfaction in others seeing us as martyrs.
But if you’re anything like me, there’s a dark room inside you that secretly, loudly weighs at the back of your mind, reminding you that in many ways you’re a fraud. Because a part of us knows that our selflessness and our empathy are not entirely made of goodness and kindness and purity. A part of us knows that our selflessness and empathy are made of need.
Need – to be safe.
Need – to be protected.
Need – to be loved.
And so we offer up everything. We give out our compassion and kindness and empathy; we give it all away. We empty ourselves of all that’s inside us for others and we hope for the love we can’t give ourselves to be given to us from them in return. We try to fix what’s lost and broken in others and hope that it might fill up what’s lost and broken in ourselves.
And we’ll do this for as long as we allow ourselves to lie, for as long as we can keep that room inside of us quiet and hidden away, until we’ve given so much to others that we’ve started to lose big parts of ourselves. Only then might we start to realize that we need to make a change, one of boundaries.
“Compassionate people are boundaried people,” writes shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown. If you’re like me – if you want to be able to believe that your kindness and empathy are only genuine – you initially cringe at reading those words.
How can that be so? How can being less giving make us kinder? How do love and prudence coexist? How could compassion and boundaries intersect?
But if you’re like me, this also pulls at that part of you that knows you’re not all “good.” It forces us to walk into that room that we quietly know lives inside of us. It forces us to confront that our seemingly all-beautiful empathy is actually our biggest weakness. And it doesn’t make us feel great.
Here’s why we secretly feel ashamed of all that we give: at the root of it is a fear of holding others accountable. There’s something easier to us about rescuing and covering for someone than there is in asking for what we want or challenging how others treat us.
Here’s why we secretly feel like a fraud about our “kindness”: at the root of true kindness is warmth and acceptance, and it’s just not possible to feel genuine warmth and acceptance towards those who we let walk all over us.
And so each time we let our boundaries recede more and more, we teach others how much more we’ll tolerate and how much less we’ll ask for, and we teach ourselves to feel worse and worse about our worth and more and more phony.
So building boundaries may in fact come down to compassion. In having compassion for ourselves, we allow our kindness to come from a truer place, one that’s less of secret need and more of authentic warmth. In looking out for ourselves – in protecting ourselves, in giving ourselves love and safety – we allow what we give to others to be pure and healthy.
I don’t know that this is a change that we’ll make overnight or ever, fully. In being our biggest weakness, it may be something that we wake up having to tackle every day for the rest of our lives. But I also think it’s possible and important to work at harnessing our biggest weaknesses, to make them ours, because directly in the center of our biggest weaknesses is where our greatest strengths lie, curled up and untapped and waiting.
Directly in the center of our biggest weaknesses is the raw, unalloyed form of the thing that makes us most beautiful.
Simple awareness of where we fall short seems to be a good first step in getting to that place. Because as we make ourselves conscious enough to look at all the ways we act out of over-empathy and low confidence, as we look at all the ways we let ourselves be treated unkindly, we allow ourselves the awareness to make a change.
I like the part of me that will be at someone’s side when they need it. I like the part of me that’s reliable, that prioritizes giving, that can care about others so wholly that I can make room for their needs. But I also want to know that I can give to others in the most authentic and kindest of ways, that I’m not the one holding myself back from doing that.
So whereas in other areas of life we may need to break down barriers, this is one where we need to build up walls. Not the kind that shut out or shut in, but the kind that protect, that are born out of self-love and self-respect. I think only then, once we’ve built our walls, will we be able to truly and freely give, without restraint or secret agendas, with purity and goodness at our root.