Controlling Your Empathy

Author: Samantha Thuesen

It is our moral duty to listen to the problems of others, but it is not our responsibility to make those problems our own. You may be familiar with the phrase “therapist of the friend group.” This is the friend who everyone goes to for rant sessions and leans on for advice. If you are the “therapist,” then you’re familiar with taking on large amounts of responsibility. You may also be familiar with the toll that responsibility takes.

I recently read an article written by Malia Bradshaw from Tiny Buddha called “How to Be There for Others Without Taking on Their Pain.” She gives great advice on how to listen to your loved ones without trying to “fix them.” Malia offers four pieces of advice, which she then expands upon with stories and plans of action. I would like to share her pieces of advice here, as well as provide my own stories and perspective.

“Realize that being supportive doesn’t mean fixing their problems.”

I’m guilty of wanting to fix everyone’s problems; it’s only natural to want the people around you to be happy. However, sometimes you just need to listen. Malia says, “…my loved ones never tried to fix me. They didn’t become obsessed with finding a solution, and they didn’t rush me to get better. All of that would have increased my anxiety tenfold.” I can understand the frustration in being given unwanted advice; sometimes I just want to complain, and I want someone to understand my frustration—not try to fix it.

On the other hand, sometimes advice is justified, even if your loved one doesn’t want it. Some people have trouble seeing a solution when they’re so engulfed in their emotions. It’s alright to point your loved ones in the right direction, but make sure you’re not belittling their emotions. I’ve had a friend point out my fault in a situation when I was complaining to her, and I’m thankful she did. It allowed me to reevaluate and redirect my emotions.

“Allow them to find their own way.”

When I was younger, I’d always ask my Mom for help with my math homework. She’d provide me with possible solutions, but I’d inevitably get angry with her. Why? Because I didn’t want there to be a solution. I liked being frustrated with my homework; I wanted to give up and be angry. Eventually, I’d get over it and figure out the problem, and that benefited me more than asking someone for the answer. That sounds confusing, maybe immature, but it’s normal for a range of people in difficult situations.

For instance, I had a friend who would ask me for advice about his relationship that ended, but when I’d give it to him, he’d get angry with me. I like to view this situation in the same way as my example above. He may like being frustrated. Of course, I may be completely wrong; I’m not inside his head. However, I know eventually he’ll be able to find his own solution, and he’ll be stronger for it. Sometimes you need to step back, because your advice may be feeding into the frustration.

“Realize that you’re only responsible for yourself.”

You can’t help everyone, because then you wouldn’t have any time to help yourself. Malia writes, “You can’t control who suffers and who doesn’t. And what a burden that would be if we felt we needed to safeguard everyone in our lives from pain. That’s too overwhelming.” A few years ago, I was approached by someone from my past who needed advice. Every day we would talk about her problems, and how she could possibly fix them. Just when things were starting to look better, they got worse. This went on for months, and one day I decided that I couldn’t help her anymore. I was feeling anxious all the time, and I had my own problems to manage. I cut ties, and it was beneficial for both of us. I was finally able to focus on my life again, and I heard through other people that she was also doing well.

You shouldn’t feel guilty for not being able to help someone. Airlines got it right: put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.

“Practice grounding back into your own body and energy field often.”

I need to turn off my phone sometimes to get away from people—to focus on myself and how I’m feeling without everyone else’s problems weighing on me. Malia writes, “Immerse yourself in nature. I love to go hiking when I get overwhelmed with others’ energy, and allow the grounding energy of the earth to support me. Spend time alone.” Her advice has encouraged me to go hiking more often. I couldn’t agree more that nature grounds us; nature is where we originated, so it’s only natural that we go there for comfort. Spending time alone is something I do often as well. After a long day of being with a lot of people, I need time to wind down and be alone with my thoughts. Read a book, take a bath, lay on your bed and stare at the ceiling, meditate—do anything to clear your mind and get back in tune with your own emotions.

Being empathetic is a great thing, and you can help a lot of people, but don’t forget to make yourself a priority from time to time. You don’t owe everyone everything, but you do owe yourself happiness. Read the rest of Malia’s article for the entirety of her great advice!

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