Over the years I've had the opportunity to speak on topics like leadership, parenting and relationships. I observed that one of the biggest emotional drainers is this:
We tend to absorb the moods, emotions and reactions of those around us.
Let me give you an example. One of my children used to come back from school emotionally charged, and often vented his anxiety and frustrations by yelling at everybody in the house. I would often get stressed out and end up yelling back at him, “Stop yelling!”
Each of us have people in our lives that tend to be anxious and very reactive to their environment. We often feel that we are walking on eggshells when we are around them, as we don’t know what will irritate them or trigger an explosive emotional reaction.
We may have done our very best to help them develop new coping skills but, at the end of the day, we have to come to terms with the facts: We can't control or change others. We can’t “fast forward” their growth and emotional development, either. We have to respect their journey toward wellness and emotional resiliency - without enabling.
So how do we show empathy without internalizing someone else’s anxiety or anger? Well, we control how we interact with them. While we can’t control others, we can control how we interact with them. It is possible to show empathy and compassion while maintaining healthy emotional boundaries.
Let me lead you in an exercise I often do with my clients. To help them have hard conversations or engage with the more challenging people in their life, we role-play. They first act as the other person. What do others say or do that ticks you off? Then they practice their response. Many have found that writing down an imaginary conversation with the challenging person in their life was the most helpful way to do this. After preparing concise statements in response, they would practice them. Preparing an internal dialogue and deciding in advance how you choose to behave prevents you for being reactive or shutting down altogether.
Here are 5 tips I have discovered:
1: Listen and try to relate.
I have trained myself to listen to my son with empathy, without making his mood my own. Truly listen. Stop everything you are doing, come closer towards the person and look into their eyes. Being fully present helps them respond, rather than react. I validate his emotions - without imitating them. I say things like:
“I understand. That must be frustrating,” or “I’m sorry you had a bad day.”
Another good response is “It is so understandable that ________.” (Fill in the blank.) For example, “It is so understandable that you feel frustrated because you left your homework at school.” Having ready responses helps me listen. I’m not getting caught up in or wading through the other person's emotions.
This also enables me to apply the wisdom of Proverbs 15:1 - “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger."
2: Bring them back to the issue at hand.
When those in our lives are angry or stressed out, they can go on and on about how horrible their life is. One of the most powerful questions you can ask to help the person is, “What do you REALLY need right now?” They may respond, “I need to vent,” or, “I need time alone.” This simple reflection helps them gather their thoughts on something they actually have control over: themselves. It brings the focus back to them owning their present needs and does not depend on you trying to making them feel better.
What if they say, “I don’t know?” Simply communicate presence. You can say something like, “It’s okay. I am here. When you know, you let me know.” Encourage them to take a deep breath, but don’t try to figure it out for them.
3: Decide if you want to support them and how you will do it.
This is your choice. Sometimes we have the capacity for helping, other times we do not, and it is important to know the difference. When we do not, you aren’t going to help anyone if you're doing so out of guilt. It is similar to the idea of putting your oxygen mask on before trying to help someone else with theirs. We understand that this is not selfish; it is wise.
If you want to help, then ask, “How can I support you right now?” If not, show empathy, but don’t offer help. And if they ask for help, simply say that you cannot. You do not need to give a reason why you say no. Just say: “I can’t right now.”
It is easy for us to tell white lies, make excuses, or "spiritualize" the issue when we simply don’t want to do something. Learn to be comfortable with saying no. Jesus makes it pretty clear: “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No;’ anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matt. 5:37)
But what about the people who overstep your boundaries, intentionally or not?
4: Practice self-respect.
If they don’t accept the boundary you have established, simply restate the boundary. “No. I understand that it may be hard for you, but this is what I need, and I hope you can respect me.” It is okay if they don’t respond well - they likely aren’t at a place where they can. Be kind, but firm.
If a person crosses your personal boundary, politely say,
“I have a hard time listening when there is whining (name the behaviour). I am here to listen when I hear calm and clear words (name the behaviour you expect from the person).
5: Walk away when necessary.
There are times when we just need to walk away either for a moment or for an extended period, or for good. God calls us to be loving but not to be a doormat. A wise mentor once told me - You are not a toilet to let people puke all over you -
Gross, but I got the point.
There have been times when I have been able to reach a new level in relationship by just listening to complaints, frustration, and even insults. I was able to simply respond: (If you are done now, are you ready to get to work?) It would stun the person so much that they would calm down and we just moved on. On that specific occasion, I had a special grace to respond that way. Other times, I have just walked away.
People are all different and we must interact with them differently. The important thing is that you carry yourself in a way you can look back upon five years from now and be proud and at peace with the way you handled things. No remorse and no regrets.
Just refuse to absorb their emotions. They are theirs to carry. When you do, you are not helping them, you are just ingesting the venom of negativity, resentment and bitterness. Then you are no good to anyone. So show empathy without entering or absorbing their drama. Your soul will thank you for it!
What do I need most from others in order to feel respected?
What kind of behavior or language is unacceptable?
Instead of absorbing those detrimental elements, what would a healthier response be?