On Mental Health

Empathy Loops

I’ve been writing here a lot about boundaries and trying to set them but I have found that where I struggle is that I keep thinking, “Is it fair for me to set a boundary if the other person doesn’t need it?”

I am learning that this is exactly why some types of people are toxic for me. My tendency to overvalue someone else’s feelings and undervalue mine, is why I need boundaries in some relationships. But that tendency is also what keeps me from setting them.

I call it the Empathy Loop – where I keep obsessively seeing my actions from the other person’s point of view as a way to decrease the value of my perspective. I want to do things that are healthier for me, but I can stop looking at it through the other person’s eyes. For example, if I declare that I’m going to stop going to certain types of gatherings to avoid certain types of interactions, my brain can’t help but then go: But if everyone else can handle those interactions, you should be able to as well. If they can do it, then you should be able to. And so I talk myself out of that boundary like this:

Everyone else is fine these situations with these people, so your feelings must not be real.

Another way this Empathy Loop shuts me down is when I try to justify my boundaries. So, I’ll think to myself: I have to set a boundary with this person because their actions negatively affect me in this way. I’ll be practical about framing my reasoning to setting a boundary. But then my brain immediately starts looking at the ways my actions created the same hurt in the other person and then I start thinking:

Maybe if I just change my behavior in this certain way, then maybe I wont need to set a boundary.

It’s like…I can’t stop shifting my perspective in a way that undermines my experiences because I keep putting more value on the other person’s perspective. Or worse, I keep rotating everything in a way that puts the blame for the problems, or the responsibility for solving them, on my own shoulders.

And like…when I write all of this out I realize THIS IS ALL WHY I NEED TO SET BOUNDARIES. But it is just so hard to commit because I feel like a failure.

I was reading an article about the guilt that rises when you set boundaries.

(Sidenote…my Google search history is cry for help lately. It’s all about boundary setting and if I wasn’t constantly venting to my family about this stuff they might feel bad if they discovered my search history after I get run over by a pack of buffalo or something.)

Anyway – there was a line in the article that said, “Just because I feel guilty doesn’t mean I’ve done something wrong.” And that line just knocked me over because…REALLY? IT DOESN’T? WHY DID MY CATHOLIC UPBRINGING TEACH ME OTHERWISE?

But seriously. That’s part of the mantra I guess I just need to keep repeating to myself.

I need to set boundaries to preserve my mental health and just because I feel guilty about setting them, doesn’t mean I’m wrong to do it.

5 thoughts on “Empathy Loops”

  1. Have you read the book, “Boundaries”? If not, I have it and will bring/mail it to you if you’d like. When I was 19-20 years old, I had to do major boundary work and found this book really useful.

    Here’s one of the principles that helped me in my boundary setting. Part of having compassion for the other person can be setting the boundary because that helps the other person become personally responsible for their own happiness. Then, they don’t have to rely on your behavior for their happiness.

    My guess is that one of your caretakers early in life made you feel guilty for setting boundaries and their happiness was, in part, dependent on your behavior, so as a child, maybe you were taught to prioritize the other person’s mental well-being over your own for a long time. Undoing these neural pathways is one of the hardest things you’ll do, but so worth it.

  2. Also, I want to point out that by strengthening my boundaries, it’s reduced my anxieties to some degree, which has also improved ADHD symptoms. I still have so much work to do but its much better than it was about 7 years ago.

    There’s a weird thing about self-improvement. You know you’re getting better when some people will start to try to make you feel guilty because you’re not doing the things you used to do for them. It’s a test but once you can let that roll off of you, hold those boundaries, and not feel bad about it, it is SO LIBERATING. AND the other person becomes more independent as a result!

  3. Once you have some success with setting boundaries, you start to let go of the resentment you held for the other person because you’re no longer sacrificing your needs for theirs. Setting healthy boundaries is the best thing for both parties, even though it doesn’t look like it when the other person is suffering. For me, it had gotten to the point where the other person threatened suicide to control my behavior. And they were truly depressed and miserable but I could not make it better for them. They had to learn to do that themselves.

  4. I saw a quote that said something along the lines of, “Pay attention to the people who are angered when you set boundaries. That in itself is very telling.” SO VERY TELLING.

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