The ability to understand or feel the state of another person from their perspective, the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, is empathy. Many of us confuse empathy with rescuing, enduring, and caring endlessly for others. This often stems from the role we had during upbringing or because parents didn’t know how to validate your feelings (and therefore their own). This way, you continuously prioritize others, thinking that your feelings and needs are not equally important.
What you need is the development of self-awareness – about your feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations. About who you are and where your boundaries lie in relationships.
Empathy without boundaries is destruction, and I write more about it in the article: Empathy Without Boundaries Is Destruction. Because it is not sustainable, it leads to emotional exhaustion and unhealthy relationships.
It doesn’t require you to betray yourself for the benefit of others.
It doesn’t ask you to be unaware of where your boundaries are and how you are while being an empathetic listener.
Empathy requires self-awareness and awareness of your inner world.
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In order to be genuinely empathetic, it is necessary to take care of yourself while being there for others.
How to Take Care of Yourself?
I have written more about empathic fatigue in the article From Empathy to Empathic Fatigue and how to protect ourselves from “burnout” in the role of a helper.
Here are a few guidelines that can help you:
- Take your feelings seriously – acknowledge their existence, even mild frustration, sadness, or restlessness that may arise while listening to someone else’s problem. Become aware of where that emotion is in your body, what thoughts arise, support yourself through gentle touch, or clearly communicate to the person that you currently don’t have the energy or strength to listen. Take care of your own feelings.
- Slow down – don’t rush to solve other people’s problems and fears. Check in with yourself to see if you have the energy, time, and resources (strength, patience, etc.) to engage with other people and their problems.
- Continuously be aware of how you are during the conversation and practice distancing yourself emotionally and mentally from someone else’s problem. No matter how much you want to help someone, their life is solely their responsibility.
- Choose wisely to whom you will give your time and empathy. If you repeatedly listen to stories and problems and notice that it exhausts you, maybe it’s time to set clear boundaries and let the person resolve their own problem or seek help from a therapist.
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