Something you need to be mindful of when you have a keen sense of empathy and can pick up, for instance, on what people are feeling or where they’re coming from, is not falling into a role of accommodation and overcompensating

So, for instance, you notice that a friend tends to blow up and have pieced together little bits of info that indicate that they’re wrestling with issues from childhood or that they’re not so keen on boundaries. 

When the next instance for potential conflict (aka boundaries) arises, you swallow your feelings about it. You remind yourself that they have their issues. Instead of addressing even some of these, their boundary-crossing continues and you focus on being ‘understanding and supportive’. On some level, you hope your approach will cause them to modify their behaviour, or at least limit its impact.

As your suppressed and repressed feelings intensify, your friendship alters. You’re very aware of the problems, but they’re not. The friendship is imbalanced and you might even gripe about them to another friend. All the while, this person might believe the friendship is ‘fine’ or deeper than it is. 

No, you’re not going to ‘get into something’ with them, but you find yourself distancing and dreading their calls or texts. When you think about addressing the situation, you decide that it’s ‘not worth the hassle’. There might be this sense that because you have stronger awareness and can ‘manage yourself’, you’re ‘taking the higher road’.

Believing that this is empathy, you think you’ve put yourself in their shoes and treated them accordingly. Side note: you haven’t.

And inevitably, it all gets too much. Or, despite your efforts, they still blow up at you. Of course, it’s the straw that broke the donkey’s back. Maybe there’s a confrontation, or perhaps you step back altogether. 

Here’s the thing: As well-intentioned as you may be in using your awareness of someone else’s struggles and habits to ‘adapt’ your behaviour with them, you’re not being boundaried.

You think this is empathy, but it’s not; it’s over-empathy, and it’s a breeding ground for guilt, frustration and resentment. What you’re actually doing is carrying the load by accomodating the issues and overcompensating for them, not just at your expense but the relationship’s. The lack of honesty damages the integrity and intimacy of the relationship.

Empathy doesn’t mean ‘Don’t ask for help’, ‘Don’t bother being honest’, ‘Don’t have boundaries’ or ‘Don’t address issues.’ It doesn’t mean ‘Do it all yourself because other people can’t handle honesty, intimacy or responsibility.’ Empathy definitely doesn’t mean ‘Take what we think we know about someone and use it as a reason to expect less from them’.

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