Learn / Empathy with Boundaries

Empathy with Boundaries

Sarah Shawaker
 December 7th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Dr. Malasri Chaudhery-Malgeri, Ph.D.

Key Points

  • Caring for others without boundaries can lead to emotional burnout.
  • Boundaries can improve your physical and mental health.
  • Practicing self-compassion can build boundaries, allowing you to better help others.

Having empathy for people you love, and even those you don’t know, is important to form and maintain deep relationships. Learning healthy empathy and setting boundaries can help keep positive relationships between you and your loved ones.

Dr. Kristen Neff1, an expert in empathy and self-compassion, dives into this topic through her research. She wrote a book called Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself2 about these ideas and created a program called Mindful Self-Compassion to help people live aligned with their goals, motivations, and happiest selves.

Using her research as a basis, you can learn to set boundaries, practice self-compassion, and care for your loved ones and your well-being.

Why Is It Important to Set Boundaries?

Boundaries are the emotional, physical, and mental limits you can establish to maintain your well-being. You can, and should, set boundaries with everyone from your spouse to the stranger on the street. 

By creating boundaries, you can prioritize what’s most important to you by aligning your thoughts and actions with your values. Identifying and communicating your needs can boost your emotional and mental well-being. And knowing your limits can also reduce stress, which can directly improve your physical health3.

Boundaries are not only important for yourself, but also for others. Boundaries foster respect and clear communication, which ensures that you and the other person are comfortable and feel seen, creating a stronger, healthier relationship. 

Balancing Empathy and Boundaries

Empathy allows you to understand and share another person’s feelings. It plays an important role in connecting with others, viewing experiences with a new perspective, and developing a deep understanding of yourself in the process.

Striking the balance between practicing empathy while maintaining personal boundaries can take some refining. It’s great to show empathy to others; however, some people may take advantage of that. Without boundaries, your empathy may overextend to the point of emotional burnout4. You may say “yes” to things you don’t want to, avoid conflict even when it’s necessary, and absorb others’ negative emotions.

Boundaries can provide a resolution. Expressing your feelings, acting on your values, and listening to your body are all ways to practice self-respect. Supporting others begins with supporting yourself.

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Kristin Neff’s Approach to Balancing Empathy, Self-Compassion, and Boundaries

Dr. Neff’s work centers around the concept of self-compassion, which is treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would offer to a friend. The 3 elements of self-compassion5 include 

  1. Being kind to yourself rather than judging, even if you make a mistake
  2. Recognizing that it’s part of the human experience to go through difficult times
  3. Practicing mindfulness in how your thoughts, feelings, and actions may positively or negatively impact your well-being

Utilizing this concept, Dr. Neff believes that prioritizing your mental, physical, and emotional health is essential to provide empathy and help to others. In fact, Kristen Neff’s research proved that when practicing self-compassion, you can be in a better position to help someone else6. When you are in a stable, happy state, you may be better at supporting loved ones. 

Setting boundaries can prioritize and protect your well-being. You can learn ways to recognize what your boundaries are, how to communicate them, and how to practice them, so you can be the best you can be for the other person and yourself.  

Strategies for Implementing Empathy with Boundaries

You can practice these techniques to honor your well-being and boundaries:

  1. Identify how much time, energy, and emotional support you can offer without compromising your mental health. This will set the basis for your boundaries. 
  2. Clearly communicate your boundaries to your loved ones. Describe ways that you will be able to show up for them. You may say,
    1. “I want to support you, but this is a difficult topic for me to talk about right now. Can we revisit it when I’m in a better headspace?”
    2. “I have a lot on my plate right now and need to focus on work. I won’t be available for social plans until the weekend. I hope you understand.”
  3. Practicing mindfulness7 can help you navigate others’ emotional responses. You’ll learn to be present with others’ emotions, while still honoring your own to avoid being overwhelmed.
  4. Keep some emotional distance. You can recognize and understand others’ feelings without absorbing them by realizing their emotions are their responsibility.
  5. Practice saying no when necessary. Establish clear limits on what you can take on, and recognize when additional commitments might hurt your well-being.

How Empathy with Healthy Boundaries can Change Your Life

Implementing boundaries can transform your relationships with loved ones and yourself. In addition to emotional health, you may foster greater resilience by staying true to your boundaries. Communicating your boundaries can hone your communication skills and help you be more open with others. And you may develop healthier, more authentic relationships. 

Find Additional Resources

You can browse Kristen Neff’s self-compassion exercises8 to see how self-kindness is the first step towards setting your boundaries. 

If you’re looking to learn more about how you can support yourself, or how you can care for others in need, visit our resource library.

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