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Trauma, Empathy, Boundaries, Oh My!

when empathy is the enemy

Our trauma, their trauma, that countries trauma, the neighbors trauma, our friends trauma. We can’t escape it. We live in a world that has (thankfully) made a great deal of space for the disucssion of trauma and its effects on us as individuals and groups. And we’re told Be empathetic. Put youself in their shoes. Feel what they’re feeling so you can understand and love them better.

But amidst all this emphasizing of empathy (the appearance of the word “empathy” in books has done nothing but increase since the 1950s, a simple look at Googles Ngram Viewer will reveal) we have forgotten about boundaries.

In schools, especially, empathy takes center stage. Schools want to push out well-rounded, open-minded, empathetic students who won’t dismiss the effects of trauma in their peers and the world, but embrace those who endure through it, not to mention their own. But they don’t consider that the cost of highly empathetic children is often anxiety, depression, a lack of boundaries, savior complexes and a normalization of dysfunction and toxicity (read: trauma). Empathetic individuals are much more willing to endure trauma for the sake of another person and to loose themselves in someone elses struggle. Empathy is sacrificial, but not of mental health, personal boundaries or identity. And it requires boundaries.

Empathetic individuals are much more willing to endure trauma for the sake of another person.

The discussion on empathy has to include a discussion on boundaries, how we can learn to find and draw their line, as well as a license to remove ourselves from the constant stream of the trauma narrative we encounter on social media, in the news, and in school to care for our own mental health. If we are being called to empathize with another persons or communities trauma, we shouldn’t ever feel guilty for drawing healthy boundary lines, for wanting to watch a happy movie instead of watching the news, for not wanting to talk about trauma with a friend, or for needing to distance ourselves from a situation. If we are the ones who have experienced the trauma first hand, we shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting to leave the trauma narrative behind as we heal either, for wanting to be surrounded by healthy individuals instead of those still struggling. In another season, we might find that we can re-engage with the trauma narrative and share what we’ve learned, be that outside force that helps people out and towards a better way. But before we can do that, we have to realize that trauma though frequently occurring, is not a narrative we need to settle into, that empathy while noble, has its dangers, and that boundaries are not selfish, but a sign of strength.


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