Empathy without absorption: Specific techniques to care for others while maintaining your own emotional boundaries

Is there a line between self-care and caring-for-others? Are there ways we can care for others (either in our job or because it matters to us personally) without risking our own mental health? What are some practical tips for stepping into the role of support person without becoming personally distressed or burnt out?

‘Empathy without absorption’ refers to the ability to understand and connect with the emotions of others without becoming overwhelmed or taking on their emotions as our own. It is particularly relevant for people in caring professions, such as psychologists, nurses, carers, child welfare workers, and people who might regularly interact with people in distress. By maintaining empathy without absorption, these professionals can provide genuine support while preserving their own emotional well-being. Without this skill in place, these professionals are at risk of burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma. In addition, empathy without absorption is a useful skill for anyone who has a tendency towards empathy and compassion in relationships of all kinds – as a parent or caregiver, a friend, a partner, a sibling, or a colleague. Learning ways to provide emotional support and connection to people in pain, while also looking after one’s own emotional wellbeing in the process, is useful for ensuring your own wellbeing while also doing what matters to you – which may be to support other people in times of crisis.

Providing empathy without absorption is a skill that can be developed through practice. Here are some techniques and metaphors that psychologists may suggest to help maintain the distinction between empathy and absorption:

1. Emotional container metaphor

Imagine yourself as a container or vessel that can hold and understand the emotions of others without taking them on as your own. Visualise your emotional boundaries as a container that can safely hold and process the emotions of the person you’re supporting. This metaphor emphasises the importance of maintaining a separate space for your own emotions while still being present and empathic.

2. Grounding techniques

Use grounding techniques to stay connected to your own emotions and experiences while empathising with others. For example, focus on your breath, notice the sensations in your body, or visualise yourself rooted like a tree into the ground beneath you. These techniques help you stay anchored in your own emotional space while connecting with the emotions of the person you’re supporting, in turn helping you to distinguish your own feelings from the feelings of the person whom you are supporting.

3. Emotional labelling

Practice labelling and acknowledging the emotions you’re experiencing during interactions with others. For example, silently recognise within yourself, “I notice I am feeling empathy for this person” or “I am sensing their sadness.” By consciously acknowledging and labelling emotions as belonging to you or the other person, you create a distinction between their emotions and your own, thereby ensuring a boundary and preventing absorption.

4. The MIrror and Window metaphor

Imagine yourself as a mirror and the person you’re supporting as a window. As a mirror, you reflect the emotions and experience of the person,  just like a mirror reflects the changing view of a window. Instead of taking on those emotions as your own, you remain the clear glass of the mirror, able to reflect back what it sees but without etching those feelings onto yourself. As a mirror, you can show empathy by simply seeing what the other person is feeling, allowing it to make an impression on you in that moment, but without those feelings staying with you once the interaction ends. The mirror and window metaphor emphasises the importance of being receptive and understanding, while maintaining a clear separation between the other person’s emotions and your own. It encourages you to be present, reflect their experiences back to them, but not to absorb or internalise their emotions as your own.

5. Know when to step away

It’s ok to know your limits and to take a break from providing empathic support to someone. Being honest about your limits and your own needs is important. If other support people are available, you could ask someone else to take over or check in on the person in need, rather than take the whole task on yourself. Ask for the help of others, speak up when you need to take a break from the support role, and call on professional help or community support services if you feel out of your depth or think the person needs more specialised support.

6. Self-care rituals

Establish self-care rituals to replenish your emotional resources and maintain your well-being, especially after you have spent time focussed on the emotions of someone else. These rituals can include activities that help you recharge and reset, such as engaging in hobbies, spending time in nature, practicing mindfulness, or seeking support from your own network.

Remember, empathy without absorption doesn’t mean you are detached or uncaring. For many people, being supportive to others is an important value. But it is important to find a healthy balance that allows you to understand and support others while protecting your own emotional well-being, which in turn looks after your longer-term ability to be empathic and supportive to others. These techniques and metaphors can serve as useful tools to help you navigate that balance.

Want to learn more ways to look after your own emotional wellbeing? Reach out to us today at Sydney City Psychology to find out how we can support you to live well.