Dear Therapist: I definitely consider myself an empath because I can feel myself emotionally taking on the hardships and struggles of my friends and family. I know I break my own boundaries but I can't help it. Right now for example my friend is going through a divorce and I have become her rock, happily so! I’ve joined her at meetings with her lawyer, I’ve cried with her, I’m helping her pack and it’s all so sad and heavy. I want to be there and be as involved as I am but if you have any advice on how to show up, be supportive, be a rock, but not to let it affect me so much that would be really helpful. Thank you!
Frame Community Therapist Lisa Paer weighs in...
You care deeply about your friends and family and want to help them however you can. As an empath, you’re highly emotionally intelligent and are naturally drawn to helping others. This can be very fulfilling, and at the same time, incredibly exhausting!
Empaths who struggle with boundaries are at greater risk for vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and burnout. Here are some things you can do to take care of others and yourself.
Clarify your boundaries. You mentioned that you “break [your] own boundaries but [you] can’t help it.” Do you know what your boundaries are? I ask this because empaths often have a hard time defining their boundaries. They want to endlessly give and give, and wind up feeling utterly depleted because they struggle to notice when their tank is nearing empty.
To remedy this, you’ll need to learn what your limits are. This can take some trial and error. On the days you find yourself more energized, think about what you did earlier in the day or the day before. Same with the days you find yourself more drained. This will give you clues as to what zaps your energy and what replenishes it, and will help you determine your limits.
Next, create predetermined guidelines for yourself before going into an emotionally heavy situation. To do this, ask yourself questions like:
- How much time can I (honestly!) spend supporting others today?
- How much emotional energy can I give to others today?
- What’s on my own to-do list today, and how much time do I need for these?
Now, here’s the hard part: Stick to these limits! As an empath, you might get tempted to overextend yourself and “break your boundaries.” When you hit your predetermined limit, honor it. I know it’s easier said than done, but it’s very important to remember that you can’t pour from an empty cup.
Next, prepare yourself for the big emotions you’ll likely be exposed to. One way to do this is by visualizing a protective shield/bubble/light around you, noticing the sense of calm and ease it brings. You can then imagine yourself in a space with your loved one, with this protection around you, repelling the heaviness instead of absorbing it. Continue visualizing this protection while you’re physically with your loved one.
If you notice that you’re still absorbing emotional energy, use grounding techniques. Take a few deep breaths to center yourself and calm your nervous system. Subtly rub your leg and notice the sensations on both your hand and your leg, reminding yourself that you are separate from your loved one and their emotions. It can also be helpful to ask yourself, if you’re having an emotional reaction, “Is this a reaction to my stuff, or am I absorbing theirs?” These techniques can help reinforce your emotional boundaries and keep yourself emotionally stable.
Before and after emotionally charged experiences, practice self-care and do things that you know recharge you. Take a walk, spend time in nature, meditate, listen to your favorite music, journal, take a warm bath, read, take a nap, spend time with a pet or a supportive person, whatever helps you relax and recharge.
Finally, consider therapy. A therapist can help you identify and practice the skills and techniques that work best for you, and will help you clarify and honor your boundaries. Getting professional support can make a huge difference in how you show up for yourself and others.
About the Therapist: Lisa Paer is an LMFT, LPCC, and certified EMDR therapist who provides teletherapy in her private practice in California. She specializes in trauma and anxiety and loves working with empaths, highly sensitive people (HSPs), and neurodivergent folks.
Follow Lisa on Instragram @therapyinsightout
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