Years ago, I was having a date night with my boyfriend at a restaurant (Thai Market on Amsterdam Avenue if you really want to set the scene). Because it was warm, all the doors were opened to the sidewalk. We were in the middle of dinner when someone approached us with individual, single-stem red roses: he was going around all the tables with couples and trying to sell the roses to the men. My boyfriend didn’t buy one for me though he declined very politely–and his gentle and naturally kind manner of being in these types of situations always really won me over. Still, I immediately felt really, really bad for the man. I felt his pain trying to make a living while everyone is just having a good time. I worried for him.
And then I simultaneously felt self-reproach for feeling empathy. At the time I was very closely in daily contact with some people who, in that situation, would have felt at worst, disgust (‘why are you interrupting my dinner? you filthy nobody’) and at best, utter indifference. Significantly, these people were more powerful than I was and *seemed to enjoy themselves* a lot more. I took it as a sign that in order to make your way in life (or at least in NYC), you have to be more like that. So my next thought was, ‘Stop worrying so much about other people and focus on saving yourself!’
So much for that plan: the other day I felt that same pain when I was on the subway, and saw the door close on someone. It’s not my business that this stranger didn’t get on the train but for a second I felt equally as bad for him, as I would have for myself in his shoes. And it’s like that way seeing a restaurant owner in an empty restaurant, or a picture of an animal at a shelter…until you feel bombarded. Does this ever happen to you?
If so, it might be an indication that you have weak emotional boundaries. Though “weak” is a word with negative connotations, having weak emotional boundaries (okay, let’s say fluid) isn’t always a bad thing. At its best, it allows you to connect with people easily and/or very deeply. You live a richer life for finding meaning in not just deeper, intimate relationships, but also more fleeting interactions with other human beings. Plus, you get amazing art appreciation experience (crying uncontrollably while reading a book, seeing a work of art, or watching a movie? Check, check, check).
But weak emotional boundaries also make you more susceptible to outside triggers. It may tie you up in unhealthy, codependent relationships, or add guilt and emotional baggage you don’t need. Some signs that you might need to strengthen your emotional boundaries:
– You get very wrapped up in drama with family or friends. You either love them but they still drive you crazy, or you hate them and you still can’t get away from it.
– You often feel like you’re the one who is doing and giving everything. But when you try to set boundaries, you feel guilty.
– You prioritize other people’s needs above your own until you’re so drained, you end up in tears.
– You let other people’s opinions affect you a lot, whether it’s strangers, acquaintances, close friends, people you actually dislike, or family members. Even some objectively small thing not meant to be a put-down can make you feel dejected.
– You don’t want to burden others or seem selfish, but sometimes feel resentful when, as a result, others see you as low-maintenance or not very demanding.
– You become attached to people (romantic or otherwise) to the point that you become extremely vulnerable.
– Other people’s sorrows (including strangers and animals) affect you. A lot.
– You sometimes think you “care too much” for your own good.
If you said yes to these, it’s time to create nice strong emotional boundaries! Here are some reminders next time you feel attacked by external forces.
1. Your feelings are as valuable and valid as anyone else’s: It’s easy for super-empathetic people to think, “well, I know Jill would feel bad if I said no, so I’ll do it even though I really don’t want to.” While this might seem like a “nobler” path, it puts Jill’s feelings above your own. An important question to ask in this situation: Would Jill ever put *your* feelings above her own? If the answer is No, then why are you valuing her emotions rather than taking care of your own?
2. Draw the line: With drama- and headache-inducing people in your life, be firm about what your boundaries are. Say your parents are going through a difficult time and your mom calls you every night to unload–for an hour. You could say, “Mom, I know you need me right now and I do want to help. But these conversations are going around in circles, and even though I’m older now, *I* need *you* too. Is there anyway we can put off this particular discussion until I see you in person?” Sometimes you do need to remind people that you have your own needs, no matter what is going on in their lives.
3. Carve out a sacred personal space: Boundaries can come in different forms: time (your “me time”), place (your own room, corner, desk), or activity (no one is allowed to interrupt when you’re writing or on the mat!). This is your place to feel for yourself. When within this “space,” refuse to get sucked into feeling bad because of other people. If you really focus on finding your true feelings without any external influence, you will be surprised by the sense of freedom.
4. Be pragmatic about your empathy: Empathy has power to do great things. Having said that, you are not responsible for everything and everyone’s happiness. It’s overwhelming, and also doesn’t really accomplish anything. So instead of crying uncontrollably while on Petfinder.com for hours at a time (uh, guilty), put your empathy to good use by becoming vegan, adopting or fostering an animal, etc. Focus on doing good where you can affect change.
Anyone else have any experience dealing with weak emotional boundaries? Or perhaps you have the opposite problem of holding back? Please share!
Related: Feeling Stuck? Try Giving Self Love
Photo: The Shopping Sherpa via flickr