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C. Picara Vassallo

Empathy and Boundaries


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Empathy and Boundaries

Picara Vassallo

When I started graduate school for acupuncture, I noticed some practitioners would treat a patient for say, a headache, and by the end of the treatment the patient felt better.  But, the practitioner now had the headache.  

I was fascinated by this process. How is it that we can take on someone else’s pain? And then I realized this was very common within families and intimate relationships. 

I remember being told that my grandfather woke up with morning sickness before my grandmother knew she was pregnant (twice!)  Personally, I remember my mother not feeling well when when I was sick and when she’s been in pain, I’ve felt it.

Lately, I’ve had a number of clients coming in with anxiety, overwhelm, sadness, and pain that is connected with someone they care about. They feel that they are directly effected by what is happening to this other person, that they can’t control their feelings and are powerless to escape the pain. 

But, it’s not necessary to suffer because someone you love is suffering.  

Empathy can be a gift.  By being able to feel what others are feeling, you can have more compassion and love for them.  That’s a beautiful thing.  But, if you feel too much of what others are feeling, especially when they are in pain, then you are just suffering along with them.  That doesn’t seem like love to me.  And it certainly isn't helpful.  Even if you take their pain away and take it yourself, how loving is that to yourself? 

Handing over our power to others emotions and giving up our boundaries can lead to unnecessary illness, pain and suffering.  It saps us of our energy and it may or may not help the other person.

So, how do we manage our empathy and maintain our boundaries?  

  1. Ask yourself - is this my stuff or someone else’s?  Sit with that question and see what you come up with.  Sometimes, spending a few moments in reflection will give you a clear sense of your internal state vs. how you are picking up someone else’s energy.
  2. If you are having a hard time separating out your energy vs. someone else's, take sometime by yourself.  Notice how you feel when you are alone.  Then pay attention to how you feel when you are meeting with one person.  How is your energy different?  This takes time, but it's a simple action that only takes some attention and awareness.
  3. When you feel you are letting someone else’s feelings or emotions take you over, pause. Say something like, “Thank you for this gift of feeling their energy.  I can use this to help them but it’s not my energy and I do not need to feel what they are feeling any longer.” This has worked for me very well with clients and family members. It has allowed me to sense their experience while having the space to send loving energy to them and not take on their suffering.
  4. Accept that you may not be able to fix it. Sometimes, we have to let those we love live their lives, take on their own demons.  We have to accept that their problems aren’t for us to fix.  We can support them, we can assist them, but we can’t always resolve their problems for them.