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jenny jackson consulting

Consulting, Jenny Jackson, Organisations, Women

Empathy and Boundaries (Caring, not Carrying):

It probably isn’t surprising that empathy and the “cost of caring” have been in the ‘top 5’ on the list of things discussed with me during mentoring and workshops in 2020 and so far in 2021. 2020 was a unique year – that’s for sure. And while we were all in the same storm, we weren’t all in the same boat. For empaths, it may well have been a particularly challenging year. Watching the suffering and lives lost through the pandemic, ongoing international conflict and also the politics of the US, for example – were all difficult to watch; whilst also seeing so much suffering, loss and hurt closer to home. For me and I am sure many of you, it was impossible not to care. And most of us wouldn’t want not to care. But we don’t want to burn out, either. So it started me thinking more deeply about “carrying” and how this differs from caring or being empathetic.

So many times over recent months I have had conversations with people about the “cost of caring” and it has led me to think about it in terms of “caring or carrying”. Reflecting on my own experience and choices over the years, I have started to really notice boundaries and the importance of these in the setting of being empathetic. Same caring, less carrying.

SYMPATHY is acknowledging that the other person is going through an emotional or physical struggle, supporting them and giving them comfort.

EMPATHY is something more, it’s actually understanding what the other person is feeling because you’ve had a similar experience yourself or you’re able to put yourself in their shoes.

Empathy involves honouring and respecting the other person’s experience without trying to take it from them by rescuing, comparing, or minimising and without taking on the experience ourselves. It is really vital for us to all understand that empathy is not sympathy, nor is it rescuing someone from their experience or relieving them of it. Empathy without boundaries will soon become “carrying”.

Many of us will relate to these scenarios…

  • The phone rings, but you hesitate, knowing that after speaking to this person you will feel depleted, sucked dry. Despite this, you answer the phone. Because you care.
  • Why is it that you’re always the one to offer to take the minutes at the meeting or join a committee? Because you care.

With good boundaries, it is entirely possible to care, without carrying. By being able to say “no”, “not now” or “I can do this much”, we protect and preserve our ability to have empathy for the longer term. We avoid burnout. I have noticed that resentment, or feeling resentful, is a sign for many (me included) that we need to pay attention to our boundaries and our “carrying” of too much stuff. This paying attention to boundaries might come easily sometimes. Sometimes we are really clear about what we are feeling resentful for, and why. But at other times we might feel generally resentful to many things and it might take some thought to work out what is at the core of it. However it is that we come to the core of the resentment, having arrived there, we should take some time to put some boundaries in place. It might be sharing the load with someone by asking for help. It might be saying no to someone or something. It might be turning your phone off and prioritising time for you and what you need. It might be having a conversation with someone about putting some limits or boundaries in place.

While setting boundaries is often not an easy task, it may well engender greater respect from others and in a way, provide others with the ability to see that they can do this for themselves too. As a leader, it is essential to set boundaries whilst also showing true empathy and kindness. For example, an “open door policy” should not mean that staff can come in to your office at any time for any matter. This is likely to result in you carrying their issues and not having capacity to address your own priorities. Setting clear boundaries about an open, respectful communication channel coupled; with boundaries for you to attend to your own priorities is important and may take some practice. But it will be worth it.

My top tips for managing boundaries!

  1. Ask yourself am I caring or carrying? Are you sitting with someone, alongside of their joy or pain or are you trying to ‘make them feel better’ by taking it on yourself?
  2. Pause before you say yes! Don’t feel the need to agree to things in the moment – otherwise you’re likely to feel resentful or regretful by the time you get home!
  3. Get comfortable with “no” and “not now” or “not yet”
  4. When you say “yes” – mean it! Then dive in!
  5. Use technology to help you put boundaries in place. Turn off your notifications, set it to “do not disturb”, put an out of office reply on to “buy” you some time before you have to respond. \
  6. Train yourself and others to not set the expectation that you will respond immediately.

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