By Leo Babauta
I’ve had a few emails from readers who ask me how to be compassionate towards other people without taking on all of their suffering. Opening your heart to another person can be emotionally taxing if you are feeling all of their pain.
It’s an incredible question, because it shows:
- An intention to be compassionate and have an open heart; and
- An awareness that boundaries are needed when we connect with others
So let’s take a look at both of those briefly before we talk about how to balance the openheartedness with emotional boundaries.
An Intention to Be Compassionate & Open-Hearted
It can be difficult to feel open-hearted to other people when they behave in frustrating ways, or have views that are pretty different from ours. But even when that’s not the case, keeping your heart open and being compassionate when others are suffering can also be difficult, because there’s so much suffering in the world that it can be overwhelming.
First of all, there’s no requirement that we keep our hearts open or have compassion for others. It can be enough to love ourselves, and find contentment and wonder in the world around us. But what an opportunity, to open our hearts and feel love for other people around us!
Second, there’s nothing that says we have to have our hearts open all the time. We can practice opening the heart a little, and maybe that’s all we can do. Slowly, we develop a capacity to have our hearts open more of the time, and this practice of feeling love more often is an enriching experience.
The main thing is to check in: do I have the intention to be open-hearted towards the other people in my life? Would I like to have compassion for the suffering of others – whether they’re people I know, or people suffering around the world? Would my answer change if I didn’t have to take on all of their suffering?
Think about what your intention might be.
Emotional Boundaries to Protect Your Limits
Many people reject the intention to have compassion because it feels difficult, overwhelming, burdensome. So that possibility gets shut down.
But what if you could do it without overwhelming yourself, without taking on all the suffering of others? What could that possibility look like, and would you be a Yes to that?
It could be a recognition that you have limits, and that you don’t want those limits to be overwhelmed by difficult emotions all the time.
Could you keep your heart open as long as you feel the capacity to do so, and then take space to yourself to recharge and nourish?
Could you feel compassion without feeling loads of suffering?
Would this be something that would feel good to you?
Finding the Balanced Path
With a recognition of those limits, and with the intention to be open-hearted and compassionate … what could it look like to walk that balanced path?
If you open your heart to other people in your life, and they (perhaps unintentionally) give your heart pain … could you recognize that you’re hurt, and take some space to tend to that pain? To give yourself love and compassion, to feel the hurt, to forgive … before you open your heart again? With practice, this could be a half hour to an hour of space, but if needed it could be half a day, two days, etc.
In this way, your heart doesn’t have to be exposed, open, vulnerable all the time. You can recognize when you have the capacity, and open it … and recognize when you need to protect it and take care of yourself. It’s not all-or-nothing in either direction. There’s a navigating through these waters that can be learned with practice.
If you want to feel compassion towards others who are suffereing, could you send love their way without needing to recreate all of the suffering in your heart? For example, when I think of people who are in war-torn countries, I can see the suffering and have a wholesome wish for that suffering to end … without feeling agony in my heart. Try that now: can you think of someone going through a hard time and wish for that person to be happy … without taking on all of their misery in your heart?
This kind of wholesome wish for others to be happy, for others to find peace, for others to suffer less … it can be a feeling of love, without needing to feel so much suffering. In my experience, I do feel a degree of heartbreak when I see others suffering, but that heartbreak doesn’t have to be a big deal, or completely drain my battery. It can be something that I experience many times, something that I can grow to appreciate and even love.
In the end, walking the balanced path means being willing to open your heart and be with a big of heartbreak, without giving all of yourself away, without completely losing yourself. And that means walking the path with some willingness to explore, to mess that up, and to learn as you walk the path.