Today, I took the day off to take care of things at home. My husband had gotten into a car accident (thankfully uninjured) yesterday and I wanted to be around to help take care of things as we adjusted to the challenge. I needed to be around, not because he couldn’t take care of things himself, but because I wanted to be present so I could support him, just in case an extra pair of hands, a set of eyes, or a driver was required. It was a good choice, because instead of being distracted by my immediate work stress while I was concerned about my home stuff, I could take some time and space to put one set of responsibilities aside and focus on the home and family ones that are really much more important.
Right after the accident happened, he called me. Thankfully, he opened with “I’m okay” then proceeded to tell me what happened, where he was, and that he was pretty rattled by the whole ordeal. Of course, I immediately went into fix-it-help-him-make-it-better mode, left work, and dedicated the rest of the afternoon to getting him home safely and taking care of the crunched-up car.
Whenever I’m in helper mode, it is usually ignited by an emotional spark – someone I love needs me. They are hurting, anxious, confused and need some support to manage their tough spot. I can’t help but to feel some of what they are feeling. As an empath, I absorb people’s energy. Whether it’s in person, online, positive or negative, I sense people’s tone, mood, affect and word choice and I interpret and internalize what I think it means. I ruminate over how I should respond, what is appropriate, whether I should step away, who needs me, and who would be better off with some space. It’s a juggling act that can be particularly tricky because empaths have trouble separating themselves from other people’s emotional stuff.
As a result, I am in the category of those people who are the fixers/healers/problem solvers. Most teachers and parents are. Whether it is required of me or not, it is the natural place for me to land. It’s my niche. I acknowledge that I am good at it, evidenced by the fact that a lot of people look to me to be the “helper.” I take pride in that role and at the same time, there is sometimes a burden to bear. Along with my designation as an empath, I also hate to disappoint people, so when people actually reach out to me for something, it’s hard for me to say no. It’s hard for me to set emotionally protective boundaries.
Why is it so hard? Well, I am also perceived as a “strong” woman. That identifier is one that I work hard to maintain. I want to be a role model for my children (now adolescent women finding their power), for my students (also adolescents finding their power), and anyone else who crosses my path. I like being a strong person. There is a powerful feeling that comes with it, like I am capable of more than I can even think of in this moment. There is less limitation on what is possible when you feel strong. The caveat is that you feel you have to continue to prove to the world (and yourself) that you deserve that title of “strong woman,” even though you don’t have to prove anything to anyone.
My older daughter, in particular, has struggled with the definition of what “strong” means. In the past, she has expressed the notion that being strong means not showing weakness (excessive emotion), not allowing oneself to succumb to being overwhelmed. Of course, my husband and I have tried to demonstrate the balance in the force; that you can be strong and sometimes feel the weight of the world on your heart, which is so hard to bear sometimes. At the same time, we have also been measured in our outward emotional responses, as we have learned to navigate the balance of teaching love, discipline, work ethic and everything that comes with parenting young women. Sometimes, that measured response can be confusing to the adolescent female brain – if we aren’t showing how hard it is, then we must not be feeling it. If we are making the choice not to show just how bad we feel, then masking our feelings must be what being strong is all about. The struggle is real.
One of the biggest lessons that I think we have taught is to be there for the people you care about. “Being there” can be tricky. Sometimes, you show up, no questions asked, and deal with whatever comes with the situation. In the case of my husband’s car accident, there was no hesitation or pause. Drop everything and go – do whatever you need to do in order to get him home safely. That was the easy scenario. A no-brainer.
There are other situations however, when you may have to think twice about your role as the helper. The creation of boundaries is blurry to the strong empath, because part of our identity is about putting on the superhero cape and swooping in to save the day. It’s what we are good at. Problem is, we don’t always take into account how that “savior” role will affect us emotionally. Sometimes, we forget just how much the cape can weigh us down.
This morning, before everyone woke up, I decided to take a long walk. Work has been particularly stressful of late, and I have been processing a lot of ongoing personal stuff. Exercise is one of my self-care practices. It helps me to feel physically strong and stable, which helps me to support my mental health, especially when I am feeling emotionally fragile. I decided to scroll through my podcasts, which have largely gone ignored in recent months, since I haven’t had the time to go on my daily long walks/runs like I did last summer. I came across one that I had saved a few weeks ago, the SLD Wellness Podcast, hosted by Stephanie Lauredent-Diasio.
Stephanie was one of my dance and theatre students well over a decade ago. She was always smiley, a hard worker, super smart, and was one of my favorites (yes, teachers have favorites). The ones that stick in my brain as the years roll on are the people who I know I want to know as adults. There’s something about them that I respected when they were adolescents – despite the angst of being a teenager, they possessed a mixture of integrity, character, class and kindness. Many are empaths, like me, and Stephanie is definitely one of them.
One of the perks of knowing your former students as adults is that they often have lots to share, often to teach. They graduated from high school, college, and picked up a few things on their path to adulthood. The greatest full-circle moment is when your student offers something valuable for you to learn – a “give-back” of sorts. These lessons are what help me to be a better teacher to my current crop of students, as well as a better mom.
In the podcast queue, Stephanie’s most recent podcast was simply called Episode 20: Creating Boundaries . I knew it was time to listen. I’ve been in need of some emotional support in this realm (other than my therapist, who has noted my need for creating boundaries). While I am a great proponent of boundaries when I am giving counsel to others, I have a hard time heeding my own advice. It was time I started listening to someone else giving me good counsel.
Some important takeaways from Stephanie’s episode that resonated with me:
- Givers/healers/helpers need to establish boundaries. They must practice regular self-care routines. Agreed. I’m working actively on that. Filling your own cup so that you can give some of your good stuff to others is essential. Flipping on trampolines, taking long walks outside, becoming one with the couch, digging in the dirt and writing have been some of my go-to self-care strategies. For me, self-care is usually a solitary practice, but once in a while, a good date night also serves the purpose.
- Relationships must be reciprocal. This is the tough one for me. When people are in need, they aren’t always in the position to reciprocate the help that they are receiving from you. They may not even know that you are in need of something. But when you are in a relationship with another person, it is essential that there is a balance created between the two people. It’s not about quid pro quo, where I do for you and then you must do for me, but there has to be an understanding that there is a limit to what one person can keep giving before they need to pull away. Perhaps I need the other person to have a sensitivity to the idea that when they are leaning on me, they should be aware of my limits. They should be mindful that there is a point where I need a release from being the helper. That mindfulness does not always happen. Since my strong desire is to help people, I will often jump in to do what I can. Inevitably, I start to get that feeling in my gut that enough is enough, and I don’t advocate for myself the way I might need to. This is part of what I am currently working on – to take the time to know what my boundaries are and establish them quickly, so I don’t have to rely on the awareness of others to know where my limits are. It’s a work-in-progress.
- When you feel the need to retreat, or you feel overextended, it’s time to create boundaries. Others will figure their stuff out. Maybe it’s my role as a parent/teacher, but it is hard for me to keep this in check. People ask me for help for a reason – they trust that I am willing and able. They specifically want my help. Maybe they think I’m their only option for assistance. They trust me over others. Whatever their reason for the ask, my heart always goes out to them and I want to help. More so, I do not want to be the source of their disappointment. That is my sticky place – the balance between my desire to be the “savior” and my need to protect my valuable personal (emotional) resources. Stephanie very clearly and emphatically states that “you have to respect yourself in order for others to respect you.” It is wise advice. Respect your own needs for time, space and quiet. When you give up on that, your capacity to help exponentially diminishes.
- Be okay with saying NO. If a situation or relationship makes you feel drained, resentful or overwhelmed, you need to re-evaluate your place in it. You may need to re-draw the boundary lines to better suit your needs. It is not your job to martyr yourself for others.
As part of her podcast, Stephanie takes the listener through a guided meditation on the topic covered. It is usually something uplifting, centering or empowering, and a good way to close out the listening experience. In this episode, she poses the thought, Imagine that you are in your most powerful form – what does that look like?
I continued on my walk, thinking about her query. At first, I drew a blank. It was such an open-ended question that I had trouble honing in on an answer. Then, it hit me. I feel most powerful in front of a roomful of connected students who start to feel their power from my influence. The same feeling happens when my own children use their power to take a step forward in their lives. I am starting to see a connection: I help others to find their own power so that they can help themselves, and then they can help others. I think this is part of my mission, my identity as a person. My empathy enables me to see when others need the boost. It’s part of my superpower and the way I can put on my super cape and “save the day.” I have the skills and resources to offer them to help guide them, teach them, support their journey. It is also, in part, my kryptonite, the foil to my power. Left unchecked, it will overwhelm and bury me, putting my mental health and my precious relationships at risk.
As I said earlier, there must be balance in the force. We empaths must tread a middle path (as my therapist always tells me), where sometimes we must be unavailable for a while, giving us time to recharge so that we can be available once again. Self-care, self-respect and space is the sunlight that rejuvenates our superpower.
For more information on Stephanie’s thoughts and the services of SLD Wellness, visit her website at sldwellness.com.
Or, visit her Facebook and Instagram @sldwellness
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