We empaths find it easy to connect with other people and take in their emotions, problems and expectations. This often happens to the point where we believe the emotion or problem in question is ours! One of our greatest gifts is our ability to feel what others are feeling, to deeply understand their circumstances, and to see things from their perspective.
This is more than just sympathy or empathy, we can pluck ourselves out of our own bodies, throw ourselves into the middle of someone else’s existence and know what it’s like to be that person. Compassion is our superpower.
But if you act as an “unconscious empath” (someone who doesn’t know he or she is an empath yet), your superpower may be more likely to be your kryptonite. For many people, that means they have suffered from codependency (co-dependence) in the past or perhaps still today, without the prospect of healthy boundaries. At that moment you do not understand where you end and where the other begins. Therefore, it is practically impossible to distinguish what is or is not yours.
It’s probably obvious that if you’re good at connecting with others and absorbing their emotions, thus feeling responsible for something that doesn’t belong to you, you can’t even spell the word boundaries. It’s the curse that comes with being an empath, and I’ve never met a sensitive soul who hasn’t suffered in a life without boundaries.
So what exactly do I mean by limits? Two very important things in setting boundaries: the ability to say no and ask for something you need. If you don’t know where the line is between who you are (including what you want, like, and care about) and who the other person is (including what he or she wants, likes, and cares about), chances are that you take over the wishes of the other. When you’re so deep in it, you probably don’t even realize what’s happening. Does any of the examples below sound familiar?
- “I’d like to go fishing with you this weekend.” (I hate fishing.)
- “Yes, let’s get married!” (I need more time to decide and don’t want to rush this, but I feel how much this means to you so I say yes.)
- “Of course I can look after your children tonight.” (I have three projects to finish by tomorrow.)
- “Sex sounds great!” (I have a migraine and haven’t slept well for the last two nights, really needing my rest.)
- ‘I am so sorry. It is my fault. I didn’t mean to upset you.’ (You acted like an asshole and I really want to point that out to you, but I’ll shut up and make you believe you’re right because it’s not worth standing up for myself.)
I could give many more examples, but I assume you get the idea. I’ve behaved like this for decades, so I know what it’s like to surrender to other people’s expectations, beliefs, desires, and dreams. I have been very dependent almost all my life and there is no doubt that I was a people pleaser . But remember… there is always hope.
- Learn to recognize your triggers (what things make you fall back on codependency or ignore your boundaries?)
- Taking the time to see what works for you in certain situations (rather than giving in to the pressure you feel to make an immediate decision or go for a particular decision) and also be brave enough to say so.
I wish I could tell you it’s easy and you can change your life in a day, but it can sometimes take decades to get rid of unhealthy habits you’ve had for years and start a new way of living. But it’s so worth it. And necessary.
Identifying your triggers
So let’s dig a little deeper into these three steps. What do I mean by identifying your triggers? Well, ask yourself this: who is the person you can’t say no to? Your children, husband, your boss or your mother? Several people maybe? Under what circumstances do you immediately give in or say yes to what the other person wants? If you can’t say no, you often feel regret, shame, or resentment towards the other person. Some experience these feelings consciously and in others these feelings are buried so deeply that they do not experience them consciously.
If you know about yourself to whom or in which situation you often give in, even if you don’t want to, then hats off! Whether you realize it right away as it happens or hours or days later, you’ve made progress! At that point you can proceed to the next step.
Take a deep breath… and take your time. If you’re faced with something you can’t say no to, remember that you don’t have to answer right away! Really and truly! It’s okay. The world won’t explode if you don’t answer right away. (It took me a lot of years to figure this out.) By giving yourself some time, you give yourself the opportunity to focus, isolate yourself from the influence of another and think carefully about what you really want. It’s perfectly acceptable to say something along the lines of:
- “I need some time to think about it, when should I give you an answer at the latest?”
- “First I want to check my diary before answering.”
- “I’m feeling overwhelmed right now, I’ll get back to it when I can think clearly again.”
I’ll tell you a secret… If you’ve already said yes and only catch yourself days later, remember that you can say no after you’ve said yes! Of course it’s not nice to go back on your answer, but you can absolutely do something like that (even if you’re an adult and that’s not childish at all). You can say no after you’ve already said yes in the following ways:
- “I’m sorry, I said yes to your request, but now that I’ve thought about it, I realize I can’t help you (or) I don’t have the time (or) you really want this and I want you don’t disappoint.’
- “I have two hours to help you with____, but I don’t have time to do everything you ask of me.”
- ‘I looked in my agenda and then found out that I already have plans. Can we reschedule for ____?’
By the way, if you find these examples useful, in my book Am I an empath? I’ll go deeper into this topic.
Finally, once you recognize the situation that is triggering you and take the time to find out your true feelings, all you need to do is say them out loud. For some, this can be terrifying. If you freeze completely at such a moment, then I recommend that you practice in some harmless situations where you can’t piss anyone off. Things that don’t have much of a consequence if you say no to them. For example:
- “Would you like some more?” – ‘No thanks. I am stuffed.’
- “Want to watch TV?” – ‘No, but I don’t mind if you do that. I’ll do some reading then.’
- “Would you like to join us after work for a drink?” – “I appreciate you asking me and I think that would be nice too, but I need some alone time tonight.”
Keep in mind that you can’t do this all at once either. When you learn to set boundaries, you get rid of habits that have probably been ingrained for decades. Be gentle with yourself and give yourself permission to experiment, make mistakes, and even risk making someone angry. It’s a radical way of self-care to set boundaries. Don’t forget to use all that compassion, your superpower, on yourself!