You’re a highly empathic person. You fully and intently listen to others. You tend to focus on others’ emotions, often feeling them more so than your own. In fact, it’s like you feel someone else’s pain deep inside your bones.
It’s that visceral.
And you frequently find yourself utterly exhausted because tending to others comes more naturally to you than tending to yourself, according to Joy Malek, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in working with people who are intuitive, empathic, creative and highly sensitive.
And this struggle includes setting boundaries. Your discomfort with boundary setting may stem from these three reasons, Malek said: You don’t know your needs in the first place—and only realize that a boundary was necessary after the fact. You fear that the validation you receive for being so caring and nurturing will disappear, and when you say no, others will no longer see your value. And many of the suggestions on boundary setting stress assertiveness, which to you might actually feel aggressive.
So you have a tough time ending conversations when you’re tired, or declining requests when you’re completely drained and desperately need downtime. So you remain silent when you’re uncomfortable, or don’t ask for help when you’re hurting, too.
When you do try to set boundaries, you might find yourself over-apologizing, and minimizing your concerns so you can again focus on the other person’s feelings, Malek said.
Ultimately, you conclude that you’re just “bad at boundaries.” In reality, however, “you haven’t found a style that feels organic to your nature.”
Here, Malek shared invaluable insight for setting boundaries that protect your needs and boundaries you feel good about.
Identify your own needs. “Empathic people can especially benefit from boundaries that put limits around the amount of time and energy we give to others,” Malek said. “Without these limits, we often find that our needs are met last, or not at all.”
Take the time to think about your needs. How much space and solitude do you need to feel your best? What genuinely refreshes and recharges you? What tends to drain you? What people tend to drain you? When do you feel your best? When do you feel your worst?
Start creating boundaries around your responses, and check in with yourself regularly. Because our needs change and evolve. You might check in with yourself every hour or so for only a few minutes. Then you might do a more thoughtful check-in every evening, and journal about your thoughts and feelings for 15 minutes.
Pause before saying yes. When someone asks you to do something, you might blurt out, “yes, of course!” without even thinking about it. Your automatic response is to help—and you might feel awkward saying anything other than yes. Plus, sometimes the other person creates a sense of urgency that doesn’t exactly exist (or we somehow feel one).
However, Malek suggested simply pausing before committing. You can always say, “I’m not sure. I need some time to think about that,” or “I need to check my schedule, but I’ll definitely let you know tomorrow.” “In that pause, we can ask ourselves how we actually feel, and whether we have the time, energy and desire to accept the request.” Which means that it’s totally OK if you have the time and energy but simply don’t want to. Your wants count, too.
Shift your perspective. When you want or need to say no, think about how you’d like someone to decline your request, Malek said. For instance, this might include expressing empathy for the other person, and explaining that you’re unable to meet their request, she said. What does this actually look like?
For instance, Malek shared these examples of kind, empathic personal boundaries:
- “I know you’re hurting and I really want to be there for you, but the truth is that I’m struggling right now, too. I’m looking forward to supporting you once I’m back on my own feet, emotionally.”
- “I’ve really enjoyed this conversation, and part of me doesn’t want it to end! I’m noticing, though, that I’m getting really tired, so I’m going to head home.”
Malek also shared these examples of professional boundaries:
- “I’d really like to take that project on, but I know I’d be compromising the quality of the projects that are already on my plate. It’s my priority to do a great job with what you’ve entrusted to me.”
- “I’m in the office during business hours Monday through Friday, and I return calls, texts and emails during those times. If you reach out in the evening or on a weekend, I’ll look forward to following up with you during the next business day.”
See reactions as valuable signs. Pay attention to how others react to your boundaries. Do they push against them? Do they have a hard time taking no for an answer? Do they make you feel guilty or bad about yourself in some other way? Do they take you seriously or think your boundaries are unreasonable or don’t apply to them?
All of this is helpful information about the quality of that relationship, Malek said. Of course, it really hurts when the people we love and care for don’t have the same consideration for us.
However, “It makes sense to invest more in relationships where our boundaries and needs are respected than in those where they are not.”
When you’re a highly empathic person, setting boundaries can feel impossible. But it can absolutely be done. The key is to find a style that works for you, and to keep practicing. Boundaries can be kind and loving—and remember, as Malek said, your needs are legitimate, too.
Also, don’t wait until you’re completely exhausted and overwhelmed to care for yourself and to protect your energy. Start setting boundaries that are respectful of yourself and your natural tendencies right now.