ctedu logo
Open Menu

The Role of Boundaries & Empathy in Relationships

January 20, 2023 by Mari Pfingston-Bigelow

Sandra is meeting her old friend Sam for lunch, because Sam is going through a hard time with her recent divorce. Sandra’s glad that she carved out this time from her busy work schedule, even though the pressures from client needs and managing her kid’s activities has turned her lunch hour into precious alone time. While they’re at lunch, Sandra is nearly feeling the hurt herself in witnessing Sam’s pain and heartbreak. Sam asks if they can meet for lunch weekly and Sandra immediately agrees, clearly seeing that Sam could use more emotional support.

The Role of Boundaries & Empathy in Relationships

The next morning, Sandra looks over her calendar and feels overwhelmed at her tight schedule. She starts to feel resentful towards Sam for taking up more of her time, but she keeps the upcoming lunch dates since her friend needs her.

The situation that Sandra is in may feel all too relatable, as it’s very common to accidentally violate our own boundaries out of a sense of care for others. This can happen when our empathy goes a bit too far and overrides our internal compass of recognizing our own needs. This overstepping of our personal boundaries ultimately creates an unhealthy dynamic of how we treat ourselves and relate to others.

What are Boundaries?

Boundaries are the invisible barriers that we establish around us in order to keep ourselves safe, happy, comfortable, and in the right relationships with others. The word ‘barrier’ may make it sound like boundaries serve to keep other people out or at arm’s length, but the effect is quite the opposite; verbalizing what we need is another way of allowing others to get to know us, and creates the safety and communication needed for deepening relationships.

But recognizing and verbalizing our own healthy boundaries isn’t something we’re all masterful at, and can become more challenging depending on how we express our care and empathy toward others. It can also be a challenge when your relationship with someone has been a certain way, for a long time. Our ability to recognize and feel the emotions of others may lead us to want to help, which is natural and healthy. But this can go awry if we end up being overly invested in the emotional response of others, leading us to sacrifice a personal boundary out of concern for another. 

Establishing Healthy Boundaries Can Be a Painful Process

Setting new boundaries can feel so challenging because we’re establishing a new dynamic with the person we’re in relationship with, and it’s a change that the other person may not be agreeable to. It’s much easier to go with the flow, even if it means we’re uncomfortable. But ultimately, the unease that’s created within us will manifest in other ways, creating disharmony within our relationship to the other party and within ourselves. In the end, a moment of discomfort in setting those boundaries is better than a lifetime of it, leading to resentment and the potential for a fallout of the relationship.

Setting boundaries may feel uncomfortable if you experience the following:

  • Have people-pleasing or codependent tendencies
  • Feel guilty for not helping others
  • Seek validation from those around you
  • Can’t easily distinguish between your own pain and the pain of others
  • Place your sense of worth in how much you help others
  • Find it unbearable to see the pain or discomfort of others

If we go back to Sandra’s story, we can see that her over-empathizing with Sam led her to prioritizing her friend’s wishes, which led to violating her boundary of the solo lunch hour being time that’s just for her. And due to some possible combination of care, guilt, and obligation, Sandra kept her plans for future lunches despite starting to harbor resentment toward Sam, while Sam had no way of knowing this because that boundary was not communicated. 

How To Recognize When You Aren’t Maintaining Boundaries

So how can we recognize when we aren’t keeping our boundaries while relating to and supporting another? It can take practice and self-awareness. It’s a learning process to be able to recognize and speak about our boundaries in real-time. When we look at Sandra, she didn’t recognize her need for precious alone time in the moment; she recognized it later, when she became overwhelmed and resentful.

Here are some ways you may know that you’re not maintaining your boundaries:

  • Your brain listens to the emotions and desires of the other person more than it listens to your own emotions or needs.
  • Words of ‘I should’ or ‘I have to’ are part of the decision-making process.
  • You experience an immediate reaction of fear of disappointing the other person.
  • You have a gut-reaction sense in your body that what is happening does not resonate.
  • Your brain begins to scatter into anxious or rapid thoughts.
  • Your brain recognizes your needs, but dismisses them.

If you can relate to one or more of these indicators, you can now compassionately reflect on the pattern, the context, and the ‘why’ behind it. Remember that it’s both healthy and vital for connection to empathize with the ones we love. And it’s also healthy and vital to have boundaries to support the health of this connection. 

This process is like building a muscle; it takes muscle memory, repetition, and growing outside of a comfort zone to achieve results. For greater awareness and growth, it’s helpful to have the outside perspective of a coach or a mentor to develop this muscle. In recognizing the process and pattern of overstepping your boundaries, you have the ability to shift this behavior and develop healthy relationship dynamics born of ease and clarity.

Transform your journey with
Coach Training EDU