My mom always used to say, “some people are loved best from a distance.” I never really understood the idea of healthy distance until I started working through my own boundaries issues.
As a young adult, I didn’t know how to hold others responsible for their behaviors, nor did I even think it was important. I’m high in empathy, and I could intuitively understand why someone was misbehaving, even when it was at my expense. “He’s lonely,” I’d reflect inside. “I need to respond with kindness.” Or, “She’s going through a lot with her parents. I can’t expect much of her in this situation.” And I’d advise my friends in this same way. For the most part, I was praised for my empathy. I was a young student of counseling. And empathy is a pillar of our profession.
Empathy helps you step outside of your own perspective and into the shoes of another. It helps you show kindness and keeps you from being overly critical or demanding. It’s the seedbed for grace, understanding, and forgiveness.
The problem is, that some of us are so quick to jump into the shoes of another, we don’t know how to fully inhabit our own shoes FIRST.
People who are high in empathy understand why people do what they do, even when it’s hurtful. And as a result, we are often too quick to take them off the hook.
And that’s not only bad for ourselves. It’s not good for others, as I’ve had to learn.
Empathy is still one of my go-to emotions. It wells up within almost reflexively:
I know she’s being a jerk, but I can also see how lonely she must be.
It bothers me that she’s so self-absorbed, but it must have been so hard to grow up with an abusive parent.
His temper is really hurtful to me, but I know how terrible he’ll feel tomorrow.
And the things is—often those things are TRUE. For those of us high in empathy, we know how to look beyond lousy behaviors and see the painful stories. We are quick to acknowledge that pain, even in those who are hurting us with entitled, angry, harmful, or even abusive actions.
But here’s the kicker:
Just because we can empathize, doesn’t mean we should enable.
In fact, quite the opposite is true. For those of us who empathize easily, this concept can be extremely difficult to learn.
As you may have noticed if you’ve followed me for awhile, I shy away from both christianese (religious jargon used in Christian sub-cultures) and psychologese (acadmic jargon used in the field of psychology such as co-dependence, attachment disorder, resistance, etc.) When it comes to growth, fancy words and labels don’t mean much to me. They’re helpful in identifying a problem, yes. But in my experience, they’re not super helpful when it comes to inspiring real-life change.
So I tend to opt for simple words that get down into the brass tacks. And the words that I’ve found most helpful in teaching myself and others to reign in empathy? Healthy Distance.
Empathy is all about sharing, closeness, and feeling with. Distance, on the other hand, is a measurement of how far apart two things are. If you’re struggling with over-identifying with the pain of another, think about what it would mean to find healthy distance. Here’s why:
1.) Healthy distance implies that there are two points that matter. There are two people involved. For those of us high in empathy, we tend to focus only on the other. Distance requires us to separate. As we gain distance, we have to locate OURSELVES in the situation and own our own feelings about the matter.
2.) Distance can be relatively small. But there’s always a little space in between, even if just a sliver. I think that’s a really good way to look at relationships. We should never be fully merged with someone. There should always be a little space between even the best of friends or the closest intimate partners. That distance creates space for two people’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings to matter.
3.) Distance can be really large. You can choose to put an emotional continent between yourself and someone who is not safe. (See this blog post for ideas about how.) And, those people we need to put an emotional continent away? They still exist. They are still located. There’s still an acknowledgement of their humanity. But they are out of your orb of daily consciousness or responsibility.
Healthy distance is the space at which there is room for both you AND me to have a valid perspective.
If you’re struggling to disentangle from your empathy and need to create some healthier boundaries, think about the idea of healthy distance. Imagine a map, and consider these questions:
- How far away would you locate this person to create a sense a healthy distance?
- Now find YOURSELF on the map. Zoom in on yourself for a moment. What emotions do YOU need to own and claim? What’s YOUR perspective?
- Who do YOU need to bring in closer to help you nourish and care for your perspective?
I feel like I need to read this every day for the near future. Thank you so much for this explanation and reminder that it is okay to be empathetic, but that doesn’t get other people off the hook. I’ve missed that in many relationships, including one right now.
Alison Cook says
Blessings to you, Cheryl, as you learn to set gentle boundaries with empathy. Such hard, but rewarding work!
Thank you so much for this post – it is very affirming of some of the things I have been working through and reflecting on this last year.
Thank you again
Alison Cook says
you’re so welcome, and I appreciate your note. Such important work, and so rewarding as it becomes more intuitive. Blessings!
Sandy Powers says
YES!!! I feel like Cheryl: I need to read this every single day! I have so many one-sided friendships because I feel so deeply what they are feeling ! But then, I find my introverted self wanting to disengage fully with EVERYONE! But of course, I’ve tried that for a brief while and didn’t like that either. I will definitely take these truths to heart and practice healthy distance! I love your first point about how healthy distance establishes that there are TWO points that matter! So simple but profound! I have spent entire afternoons with friends, and never even mentioned one thing going on in my life (even big things) because we were so busy obsessing over theirs. No more! I’m weary of people that suck the life out of me like that!!
Alison Cook says
Gosh, I so hear you on this, Sandy. Those empathy skills are beautiful, AND they can make it so challenging for us to know how to show up as ourselves in relationships. I pray you’ll continue to find ways to insert yourself into your relationships. It can feel awkward at first, but is so worth the effort as you discover the people who have the capacity to reflect and value YOU in the relationship.
Thanks for the reaffirmation! But how do I speak with those when they’re overstepping my boundaries and not respecting the distance I try to keep up?
Have a happy weekend, Jessica.
Alison Cook says
Hi Jessica, great question – the “how” is a huge topic, since how we communicate varies depending on the nature of the relationship. For example, communication is different when a relationship is toxic vs. when a relationship is simply experiencing growth challenges. In the former, sometimes actions are the best form of communication. In the latter, communicating on behalf of our boundaries with confidence and clarity is necessary. I’ll be writing more about boundaries with different types of relationships in upcoming blogs. In the meantime, Chapter 14 in our book, Boundaries for Your Soul also touches on speaking up with challenging relationships.
I am an introvert who hardly shares anything about me and very empathetic too!! At times I almost lose my mind and wonder why it’s me who always gets to understand the other person’s story yet they hardly even find time to understand half of mine. It really sucks to the extent that I am starting to slowly but surely give up on some people. Am I being mean ?
Alison Cook says
Hi Dona – you’re not being mean. I get it. It sounds like there are parts of you that long to be heard and understood, even in your introversion. And, you need that to thrive! Pat attention to those longings and get curious about them. These are valuable parts of your soul! You can find more resources on my website here: https://www.dralisoncook.com/resources/
i still don’t understand how to go about the healthy distance.i need a step by step guide
Suzette Reyes says
Starting to think about this. In my loving relationship with my husband I see how we need this. “Healthy distance is the space at which there is room for both you AND me to have a valid perspective.” THANK YOU.