Why your empathy shouldn’t be at the expense of your wellbeing

A few months ago a stranger sent me the most beautiful, thoughtful and encouraging message after I briefly shared about my struggle to stick up for myself whenever I felt let down. I kept the message in my notes and still occasionally read it when I find myself in that same predicament.

We got into a conversation about empathy and how hard it is as an empath to prioritise yourself and your feelings when you’ve been let down; rather than trying to justify or making excuses for hurtful behaviour – intentional or not. She said these words and they stayed with me.

"I completely understand the beautiful gift of giving people grace and the benefit of the doubt. (...) But I just want to offer that you deserve consistency and at bare minimum a heads up when someone is going to take space. Don’t offer your grace and the generosity of your care and attention to someone who can’t even give you that. In choosing yourself you are making the space for the energy you deserve to come to you."

Empathy is described as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. As someone who has empathy, you can’t help but put yourself in another person’s shoes to try and understand what they mean, how they’re feeling, why they’re choosing to act a certain way or say certain things. At times you’ll find yourself taking on their emotions as your own, and finding justification and reasoning for them.

This can be a good thing when people have a genuine need to be understood and validated. But if you’re not careful, showing empathy to the point that you put other people above your own wellbeing or emotional needs will have a detrimental effect on you. Especially when you’re trying to excuse a person’s toxic behaviour towards you.

As much as I believe there’s always a time to extend grace, to be caring and patient (and this is a side of me I don’t think I can ever get rid of); I also believe there’s a time to acknowledge when something is starting to have a negative impact on you.

So this is what I’m working on. Being understanding, because human beings are imperfect. But also recognising when something is starting to hurt, knowing when enough is enough and choosing myself.

If you are of empathetic nature, I do hope you make the conscious decision to put yourself first whenever it becomes necessary to do so. And if this is something you struggle with, here are three simple reminders:

1. Remember that you matter just as much as anyone else.

Don’t feel you need to surpress yourself in order to make others feel important. Even when you want them to feel heard – this should never be at the expense and detriment of your own sanity.

2. Taking on another person’s pain and suffering as your own will slowly eat away at you.

Learn to detach yourself from situations that do not directly concern or affect you. There’s a time to be a listening ear, and there’s a time to acknowledge when you simply don’t have the capacity. Protect your peace.

3. You deserve respect and care.

If you can see that a person’s actions towards you are causing you harm, whatever ‘harm’ looks like for you (trust me you will know), then don’t make excuses for them. Guard your heart and protect yourself.

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