Compassion… with Emotional Boundaries

I believe it was a Tuesday when I found myself sobbing over the story of someone I’d never met.

There was a tragedy in her family and as she poured herself out over the social channels of Facebook, I just couldn’t. stop. reading. Her story was so much like my own. Her life looked a lot like mine, and her pain started to become a part of my own heart … so deeply rooted in my own reality that I started to experience some pretty crippling anxiety. As the days passed I just couldn’t. stop. thinking. — spiraling, actually — I believed that same tragedy would, without a doubt, also happen to me.

I’d love to tell you this was an isolated incident. That I had never before been emotionally wrought over someone else’s personal suffering. But, it’s happened time and time again. With strangers on the internet, friends over coffee, and family members across the dining room table.

Now, let me be clear before I move on. Empathy is a good thing; God gave us this gift so that we would be better able to care for one another with compassionate hearts. But, unchecked empathy — the kind that takes on someone else’s tragedy as your own and causes the spiraling — can actually be pretty harmful.

So, what’s the balance? How do we both care for our neighbor as we’ve been called to, with compassion and love, while also caring for our own emotional well-being? How do we grow in friendship and intimacy with our closest friends during their great times of need while also staying rooted deeply within reality?

So glad you asked! Here are five tips for creating emotional boundaries that I practice in my own life and would love to impart on you:

1. Take it slow. Today’s social media platform allows us to go “all in,” all at once. Before social media, our deepest struggles were known by only a handful of trusted friends and family. Today, our most personal problems — with our approval — can be known to hundreds and thousands of people. Bear in mind, as you communicate with people online, just how much of yourself you are communicating, and how much of their lives you are taking in. The more emotionally invested we become in people we don’t know well, the harder it is to separate our reality from theirs — and sometimes heal and navigate life in ways that are healthy for our own.

2. Practice good self-care. There is a popular adage that says, “you cannot pour out from an empty cup.” If you are spending all of your time offering your consolation to others who are in need without first filling up your own cup, you will drain yourself. Take time each day for prayer, sleep, and a hobby that brings life to your day (i.e., drawing, reading, music, sports, etc.).

3. Know your limit. If you’re like me — a definite enneagram two (“the helper”) — self-sacrifice is innate and often exerted to the point of my own emotional demise. (See above: “takes on others suffering as her own.”) If the emotional burden being placed on you feels too heavy to share, there is nothing wrong with saying, “I’m so sorry you are experiencing this, and I am praying for you, but do you mind if we talk about a different topic?” Do not be ashamed to take a step back and move on to actively thinking about something else.

Also, take a break, if needed. For me, this break typically happens on social media. The sheer amount of stories that get circulated around the internet can be overwhelming in and of themselves, not to mention when they are heavy or sensitive in nature. Taking a step back and connecting with those close to you in more light-hearted ways may help ease your mind and give you some much-needed perspective.

4. Celebrate each diverse relationship. A very important factor in protecting your emotional boundaries is recognizing that not every relationship warrants the same amount of sharing. You may share something with your mom you’d never share with a teacher. Or something with your best friend you’d never share with your driving instructor. Each relationship warrants that equivalent degree of closeness. If there is a time you ever question if you’re crossing a line, step back and reassess.

5. Focus on your greatest intimacy being with God. While people have the power to reflect Christ’s love to you, there is nothing better than growing an ultimate, eternal, relationship with God, Himself. He deserves our most effort and greatest emotional intimacy. Keep this balance in mind as you pursue and grow your relationships. He will always be a source of peace, joy, and refreshment.

While this topic is incredibly nuanced, I hope this blog does justice to starting the journey (or reaffirming what you are already doing) to achieve emotional balance in your relationships. Know that this balance comes with maturity as well as experience and education, so don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t feel natural at first.

If you struggle to navigate your own relationships or would just like some extra guidance, don’t be afraid to ask a trusted adult in your life for help.

I’m here in prayer and solidarity, friends.

Photo by unsplash-logoJakob Owens