Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else – is a wonderful skill to have.
It can make you an emotionally safe partner to be around, but without boundaries it can leave you vulnerable to the common hallmarks of an unhealthy relationship – such as manipulation.
Perhaps your partner blamed their aggressive outburst on a panic attack, or maybe their constant checking of your phone can be explained by them having been cheated on in the past.
When you’re able to empathise, you’re able to understand someone’s actions.
Issues suddenly feel more palatable because there’s sense behind them – even if you can’t personally identify with, or would never act that way yourself.
The trouble is, not every action deserves your empathy, even if you’re able to understand why it has happened.
This is an issue that is rarely spoken about, because empathy is always seen as such a positive quality to have.
Surely it couldn’t be the cause of any emotional pain?
In a video with more than 300,000 likes, artist and author Florence Given claims that: ‘Empathy without boundaries is self-harm.’
She explains: ‘Just because you can explain someone’s (abusive) behaviour through their mental illness or trauma, that does not excuse their behaviour.’
In the comments, people said they felt ‘seen’ and tagged friends who they thought needed to see the message.
In a similar vein, Jo Westwood, also known as The Codependency Coach, posted as a warning, a series of questions that could serve as warning signs in your relationship. The questions all related to people looking to empathise with problematic behaviour – e.g. ‘Why is nothing I do ever enough?’
If you’re asking yourself questions like this, your empathy in your relationship might be a cause for concern.
Relationship counsellor for Relate, Holly Roberts, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Being empathetic doesn’t mean you’re more likely to be a pushover, it just means you have a good ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes.
‘Empathy is about connecting with another person on an emotional level and helping them feel heard, which means more about listening than doing.
‘You can feel empathy for someone and not feel compelled to help them.’
But if you feel as though you’re constantly hearing your partner out, or forgiving behaviour that feels off, it could be an issue of not placing firm enough boundaries of what you will and won’t accept.
It can be hard to spot you’re in this trap, though.
Holly says certain signs suggest empathy within a relationship might be out of balance.
‘You might notice that you feel drained all the time and you’re lacking in energy to keep on giving,’ she says.
‘Sometimes it can be referred to as compassion fatigue.
‘This can be a sign that you need to focus on yourself because you’ve not enough emotional strength in you to give to yourself, let alone anyone else.’
In this mindset it can be harder to uphold your wants and needs in a partnership.
Holly adds: ‘It’s helpful to check in with yourself when you think you might be too understanding or being too empathetic.
‘Notice whether you feel stressed or if spot some tension or tiredness.
‘If you start to feel these physical symptoms, you might recognise that your levels of understanding are reaching an unmanageable point.
‘When your emotional output starts to show up physically, then it’s time to make a change.’
Making room for someone else’s error or complexity shouldn’t come at the cost of your wellbeing, despite wanting to see the best in them.
Empathy should be a reciprocated effort within yourself too, rather than weighted more heavily towards your partner.
Holly explains: ‘In a balanced and emotionally supportive relationship it will be easy to have loads of empathy and understanding for the other person as well as looking out for yourself. One doesn’t need to cancel out the other.’
So what should you do if you’re in a relationship that has this problem?
The best solution is to talk about it, Holly says.
‘If you approach by saying that it’s something that’s impacting you, and you use language such as “I’m finding it draining to offer so much empathy” or “I’m struggling with being able to give emotionally” then it may be less of a confrontational conversation.
‘If you don’t feel heard then think about how you can be really clear so that your partner does recognise what is going on.
‘Being clear, open and honest helps them to understand what is going on for you.’
Though if your concerns aren’t met with empathy, or you’re noticing toxic patterns, it’s probably time to leave.
No relationship should be pulling on your emotional capabilities quite so intensely.
Moving forward into new relationships with healthy empathy
Holly, a counsellor at Relate, tells us: ‘Firstly acknowledge that this is a trait you have, then try to understand what you get from being so empathetic and helpful. Consider:
- Do you need to be needed?
- Does being empathetic help hide any upset you might have because you would rather focus on others?
‘When you understand why you are drawn to helping others it might help you understand what is missing in you that you are trying to fill by being super empathetic.
‘Working on this might help you feel more able to give more kindness and compassion to yourself, which is really what you need and deserve.‘
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