Good boundaries protect us from our own tendency to sacrifice ourselves for other people. When we are protecting ourselves, when we have clear boundaries, we don’t get hurt as much and the hurts we do experience are less painful.
The truth is, picking up other people’s emotions always does more harm than help. It’s not like we take their burden and carry it for them. They have that sorrow for a reason. We call it a weight on their shoulders, but it’s more like the leaves on a tree. It comes from the roots inside of them. So when we take those leaves off and put that weight on our shoulders, they just grow more leaves on the tree. So now both of us are carrying that sorrow. In other words, by taking on their sorrow, we didn’t cut it in half – we’ve essentially doubled it!
We need to depend on our boundaries to protect ourselves. Using good boundaries to avoid taking on other people’s issues ensures that we function at our peak. To have joy and be loving, to be a great parent or a great partner or employee or boss or caregiver, we need to be clear and light so that we have the energy and clarity to do what needs to be done in those important roles. If we’re totally exhausted from carrying other people’s emotions, if other people are taking our energy and putting weights on our shoulders, we’re going to be way less productive. We’re going to be exhausted, stressed and much more inclined to make destructive, unhelpful decisions.
Burnout is good example of this effect. Burnout is when helping professionals have taken on other people’s pain for so long that they develop this hopelessness. They can no longer carry that external pain. They no longer care about anything. I call it empathy exhaustion, and I’ve experienced this process personally. You don’t care about anything, you are not making good decisions, and yet you’re still in that position where your decisions affect the people you’re trying to help. You end up completely un-doing whatever good you started doing. Or you end up bitter and jaded. That is why we must protect ourselves; we must set boundaries. It’s all about knowing, according to Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend’s book Boundaries, “what is our job and what isn’t.”
We cannot just take on other people’s pain. It’s not our job. We can see them in pain and support them as they work to solve their issue or their difficulty, but we must honor our boundaries, we must protect ourselves, so we do not double the world’s pain in the process.
So, if picking up other people’s emotions is not helpful, why do we do it? I think one reason we pick up other people’s energy is that we want to help. I believe, for many highly sensitive empaths, that’s really at the heart of it. It’s a good instinct; it’s good to want to help people. Especially for those in the helping professions, so many people are drowning, and you want to save them. But in practice, it’s not a good idea. It’s like trying to save someone who’s drowning even though you don’t know how to swim. Before you really can help that person, you have to learn to swim, and that means investing in yourself. You need to know your strengths and your limits. You need to be clear and light. You need to be in a place from which you can actually help, but when you’re burnt out or exhausted or overwhelmed, you’re not in that spot. So instead of helping that person, you’re going to drown with them and make the situation doubly bad; to really help them, you have to go for the lifeguard, you have to get them professional help.