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Why Your Empathy Gets You Nowhere

Practicing healthy boundaries are a key ingredient to healthy relationships and personal happiness.

Notice I didn't say "having healthy boundaries", I said "practicing healthy boundaries". Like most other aspects of emotional health, there's no clear cutoff. No pass/fail. No "good enough". There's simply practice or decline.


Photo by Derek Howard

So what does it mean to practice healthy boundaries? It starts with an understanding of what boundaries are.

Boundaries are not a wall. They're a fence, with a gate. They let good things in, and keep undesirable things out. Boundaries define what is you, and what is NOT you, what you are responsible for, and what you're NOT responsible for. In real estate, things work better when we have clear boundaries about what is our land, and what is not. Imagine if you and your neighbor had no idea who was responsible for the land between your homes and the problems that would cause?

Boundaries establish this same understanding between you and those around you. They establish who has responsibility FOR something - generally emotions - although it can be time, energy, or even money. You are responsible for your emotions, others are responsible for their emotions.

The most common way we violate our boundaries is through a lack of clear responsibility for emotions. In relationships, we often falsely learn that we are responsible for and in control of others' emotions. If we have an unhealthy relationship with emotionally immature parents, we learn that if we are good, our parents are happy, and if we are bad, they are not. We begin to feel as though our actions create our parent's emotions.

In my own life, as I grew up, my older sister was very rebellious. I then learned that I could make my parents "happy" by being a "good boy". So I studied hard, didn't get into trouble, and built up all kinds of wrong ideas about what it means to be a "good person".

These habits then extend into our adult relationships, especially our life partnerships. We learn to "manage" our significant other. We adopt behaviors simply to control the emotions of the other person.

"She always gets mad when I stay out late, so I'll stop spending time with my friends", or "He gets so angry when I am late getting ready, so I'll stop worrying so much about how I look".

Don't confuse these behaviors with willingly sacrificing for others we care about, "she likes to go to sleep at the same time as me, so I'll finish up what I'm doing early so I can be home with her" or "He likes to arrive early so I'll leave work early to give myself extra time to get ready".

What's the difference? It's simple. Unhealthy boundaries are ultimately a form of selfish manipulation. We are trying to manipulate the other person's emotions so that WE can be comfortable. Our primary goal in this situation is our own comfort. When you have unhealthy boundaries and let others "walk all over you" it's because you are trying to control the emotional state of someone else. You fear what will happen when you don't "control" them with your own compliance.

It's both amazing and appalling to have the realization that all those "nice" things you do, are actually a form of selfishness. I remember exactly the moment I finally realized this for myself.

That doesn't mean that it can be easy to tell the difference between sacrifice and unhealthy boundaries, but a good litmus test is simply your own resentment. The difference between willing sacrifice and unhealthy boundaries is that sacrifice doesn't cause resentment, unhealthy boundaries do. So get mindful, and examine your own emotions. Are you resentful? Then it's a boundary issue. Are you happy to sacrifice? Then it's not.

Happy coding!

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