Big hearts need strong boundaries (Strategies to help it happen)

You can not get sad enough to make a sad person happy.

As women we tend to have a large capacity for empathy.  Empathy is tremendously powerful in intimate relationships because it heals without the need to find a solution.  Just the act of feeling understood can relieve worlds of pain in a person’s life. 

But sometimes, if our own emotional boundaries are not strong, when we feel another’s pain, discomfort or difficulty- instead of holding a space for understanding, we take on their pain and allow it to influence and change how we are feeling and experiencing life.

This is where empathy can get unhealthy. 

The truth is we are wired to always be receiving and internalizing the emotional landscape of those around us.  In fact more than monitoring it, our brains are designed to try and mimic it.

This can get dicey when we have people in our life that hold a lot of intense negative emotions.  They can begin to override our own emotional sovereignty and soon we become like a ship at sea tossed back and forth depending on what wave hits us next.

Empathy at it’s best requires us to have a clear boundary between what is someone else’s emotional truth and our own. 

John Medina in his phenomenal book, Brain Rules for Baby, outlines the 3 step rule for activating healing empathy in your relationships. 

While the following steps may seem overly simplistic because they can happen in a microsecond’s time, it’s important to distinguish them to see where in the process you get stuck.  

Let’s say your spouse comes into the room full of fiery energy.

Empathy would go through these three steps:

1.  You recognize and identify the change in someone’s emotional affect.  “You seem angry.”

2.  You “try on” the feelings you identified to imagine what the other is experiencing and explore why that may be happening for them.  “It seems that Brian’s tantrums are really getting to you.”

3.  You form a boundary that clearly identifies the anger as his not yours. Softly, “I see how angry you are.  If you’d like to talk I’m here, but I’m going to first give you a little space until you are ready.” 

Now the above scripted scenario can only happen when you are coming from a clear and calm place. 

But so often not only are these interactions happening fast but we are dealing with our own stressed and noisy emotional landscape that we tend to stop at Step 1.

Your husband walks in.  You read his anger.  Your anger spikes too. And your internal dialogue has just run wild with how furious you are with his inability to handle his emotions better and not impact the family like he is.

Hmm.  Sounds a little like a cat and mouse scenario, right?

Now instead of responding to his energy, you’ve reacted. 

And in fact, more than reacted, you’ve allowed his energy to dictate your own.  And on and on the spiral can go.

In a webinar I taught called The Radical Game-Changer (click here to listen to the webinar if you’d like- it’s a good one!), I share how we tend to first try and heal our lives by tending to all our outer connections. 

We try to be a better wife, a better mother, a better daughter, a better worker…when all the while the common denominator in all of these relationships (you) is the place where the real work and healing needs to happen. 

In three weeks from now, I’ll be leading the summer run of my signature course, Designed for Wellness.  The course was created to help moms make the inside changes they need to get their own life and well being back on track. 

My mission is simple.

Healthy, self-connected women = Happy, calm mothers

Happy, calm mothers = Loving, vital marriages

Loving, vital marriages = Strong, vibrant families

Strong, vibrant families = A transformed world

Guess who it starts with?  You in?

What landed for you in this post?  Do you find yourself succumbing to the energy and emotional landscape of those around you?


11 responses to “Big hearts need strong boundaries (Strategies to help it happen)”

  1. Thank you for this. My only problem with this is that I didn’t have it 10 years ago. LOL Brilliant and so true!

    1. Liberty, I so love the quote from Maya Angelou, “I did my best back then. And when I knew better, I did better.” So full of grace. 🙂

      1. misty Avatar

        lisa, i love this quote. full of grace indeed.

        and the above cycle has certainly seen its fair share around these parts. i am still on the journey of righting emotional bad habits. it’s hard work (dang sin-ha!), but i’m seeing little bits of payoff here and there, and that progress helps in the times when it all feels futile. thank you for this post, and i’m headed for the webinar later!

  2. Awesome post. I haven’t heard #3 – really helpful step to have in mind. Thank you! 🙂

    1. You’re welcome, Katie!

  3. Allison Avatar

    Brilliant. Here’s where I get stuck though — often I am very vigilant about using my empathy effectively, until I hit THE WALL. I get so worn out working so hard at being the calm and compassionate adult that resentment begins to build and either seep out (typically) or erupt (very rarely). How do I stay empathetic without experiencing the resentment that comes with feeling like I am the only one even trying?

    1. Mmm, yes, Allison I can relate as well. Maybe a simple perspective shift…For whom are you exhibiting empathy- for you and your well being and health or for others?

      I think there are times when we can put on empathy in a hopes that it will solve for another person the issue they are going through. And while I believe it will surely help in many situations…I’ve found boundaried empathy is first for me- so I can manage the intense emotions of others without getting swallowed up in them. And from that place, my boundaries get much clearer (and sometimes much tighter) and there is not the resentment that follows.

  4. My husband & I are currently in therapy b/c of years & years of this painful cycle. I have been on a rampage the past 6 months trying to get him in therapy, fix my angry children w/ behavioral specialists. All along, there was a nagging feeling inside that I was missing something (& yes, I said to myself, “Who’s the common denominator?”) And really the past few weeks things are stable enough that I have been able to realize how much *I* am the emotional center of this family. I knew it before, but resented it. I thought, “I am not the only adult here.” but it doesn’t matter. & now I can accept it & I’m working on being the best emotional center I can be. Still a lot of work to do here, but thank you for this timely message. I’m off to listen to the webcast. Thanks for all you do for free, Lisa. I really, really appreciate it!

    1. Oh so beautiful to hear this S- thank you for sharing. And I’m so grateful for the opportunity to do my blessing in the world. You are so so welcome!!

  5. Hey Lisa – I had kind of tuned out and stopped reading the past month and 1/2 or so, but for some reason I clicked on this one and boy I needed it, so thank you. I agree with S – thanks for all you share for free. Have a great night!

  6. Lisa, This sounds right what I need to hear today. I am somewhat like “S” above, looking at all the things around me, so weary of trying all the outer fixes like you talk about. So weary of the anger in myself and in our home. I watched the video “The Secret” last night, and am glad to hear many of the same principles filtered through a Christian world view. I will hope on tonight and listen fully to this webinar. Your voice is so soothing to me, even if I have a webinar on in the background while I am cooking dinner and have to relisten to it. So full of truth and grace and authenticity. You are a light!

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