We were created to be in relationship with others. Yet, at times, those very relationships that are so important to our positive and healthy balance in life can also have an opposite effect. They can steal our joy, demand more than we feel able to give. They can leave us feeling angry, hurt, or resentful. This is particularly true in intimate relationships. So, what can you do if you feel your spouse, partner, or loved one is taking more than their fair share of your time, your energy, your love?
If it is an abusive relationship, it’s important to realize that the other person is probably not trying to make your life miserable! It may be that they are overly focused on their own issues and problems, and can’t seem to find resolutions. It may also be that you feel unable to hold firm in your own strength without being emotionally drawn into your loved one’s issues. There can be a diminished tolerance for dealing with problems that are not your own.
At the same time, your love for the person creates a need in you to help them. In such a situation, the best help you can offer is to remain strong in your own sense of ‘self.’ This means that you listen and care, without entangling your emotions to such a degree that you ‘take on’ their issue. It’s a hard distinction to sort out. True empathy and compassion require actually ‘feeling with’ the other person. But, even as you’re ‘feeling with’ them there’s a need to remain objective and personally free from destructive entanglement. Here are three small tips to help ride this slim line between selfishness and empathy.
- Try to identify what you need to remain centered and strong. Is it time away? Is it silence? Is it self-awareness? Is it confidence in your ability to remain engaged but not entangled? If you can identify what you need, there is a greater likelihood you will have the ability to be empathetic without suffering yourself, as a result.
- Ask your loved one if they can identity what they need. A significant amount of stress in personal relationships is generated simply because each person is not really aware of what each need. Once there’s some clarity around need, it’s much easier to actually ‘do’ something that will help alleviate your loved one’s distress.
- Know your limits. Love is costly. It is also a treasure beyond measure. The trick is finding out how much empathy you can realistically offer before your own bandwidth becomes overloaded. If you go past your limits then there are two people struggling, rather than one. When you’re clear about your limits, you have the capacity to care with authenticity and, at the same time, step away before becoming unhelpful to your loved one, before becoming angry and resentful about their need, and before feeling your stress level is escalating higher than theirs!
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