I’m a counselor, and sadly, I see many clients who take care of others before they take care of themselves. The vast majority of them are introverts or highly sensitive people. This very pro-social way of thinking comes from the vast empathy inherent in many introverts and HSPs. Caring deeply about others is something that comes naturally to us. However, it’s this intense need to help that can lead us down the path of exhaustion and emotional burnout.
Let’s take a look at the science behind why some people take on the emotions (and burdens) of others, and how we introverts and HSPs can avoid the dangers of enmeshment.
The Surprising Power of Mirror Neurons
Empathy, in neuroscience terms, is a function of what are called “mirror neurons.” Simply put, these are neurons that help us imitate others. They’re found in our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain right behind our eyes that’s responsible for morality, planning, decision-making, and social behavior.
For example, if someone takes a drink, does your mouth water? Do you get thirsty? That reaction is your mirror neurons firing, creating the same conditions in your brain as in the brain of the person drinking.
This helps us learn as children and explains why toddlers are so good at mimicking our every move. These mirror neurons are also responsible for mimicking emotional states. That’s why, when we watch a movie where the lead loses someone they love, we, as the audience, might feel sadness. Or why, when someone is extremely happy, we feel and understand that happiness, too. The mirror neurons in our brain are mimicking the feelings we’re observing in others in our own brain and body.
Thus we experience empathy. And many introverts and HSPs are highly empathetic.
The Danger of Enmeshment
If you’re an introvert or HSP, you probably already know that this can have a downside. Empathy can turn into a situation we call enmeshment. This is a condition where, instead of being able to understand and feel others’ emotions, we effectively take on others’ emotional burdens as if they were our own. Enmeshment is a blurring of boundaries, and when things get blurry, it can have catastrophic consequences for both people in a relationship.
For example, one of my clients recently discussed that she “has to” take care of her mother because she is sad so much. This client’s mother is more than capable of taking care of her own feelings, but because my client is so empathetic, she takes on her mother’s feelings as her own. This is an enmeshed relationship between a mother and a daughter. The mother doesn’t actively realize how much of her emotional state her daughter is taking on, and the daughter doesn’t realize that in “taking care of” her mother, she’s holding onto sadness and stress that isn’t hers to carry.
The consequences of enmeshment or blurry boundaries can be depression, anxiety, stress, and other mental health concerns. When we carry our own emotions — plus those of others — it can simply be too much.
Many introverts, in particular, struggle with carrying all of these emotions because they have a tendency to analyze and over-analyze emotions. When introverts can’t understand why they’re feeling sad or anxious, they may spiral downward into negative thoughts.
The worst part about enmeshment for introverts is that, once they start, it’s hard to stop. If we look at the case of my client, she began to take on the feelings of her friends, then her acquaintances, and then anyone who happened to have strong emotions around her. It became so bad for her that she started having stress-related illnesses, including GI issues and headaches. When the doctors couldn’t tell her anything but “reduce stress,” she came to me for help.
Together we discovered her blurred emotional boundaries with everyone around her. It was a lightbulb moment when we finally discovered that it was her relationship with her mother, coupled with her extreme empathy, that was the root of her concerns. We were able to start working together on which emotions were hers, and which were her mother’s.
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How to Set Better Boundaries
Not all introverts and HSPs struggle with enmeshment. However, if you do, it can help to start by taking an inventory of your emotions. What are you feeling? Can you pinpoint the cause or beginnings of these feelings?
For example, if you’re angry or upset, could these feelings be traced back to a fight with a friend? A frustrating day at work? Being able to pinpoint the start of your feelings can help you to understand them and learn from them.
If you can’t find a catalyst for your feelings, or they feel distant or unreal, it may be time to look into which relationships are draining you. Are you taking on stress from your coworkers? Is your friend angry with someone, and she just vented to you about it? These may be clues that the emotions you’re carrying aren’t yours at all.
Pinpointing emotions and their roots is the easy part of this equation. The next step, though difficult, is the most important: setting boundaries. This means knowing when to say “no,” when to take a break from a relationship, and how to let others take care of their own feelings.
If you’re highly empathetic, this may be the most difficult part. It helps to remember that the kindest thing we can do for others is not to try to take away their feelings, but to let them learn and grow from them. This does not mean cutting off empathy or never helping others. It means doing the hard work of being there for them while taking care of ourselves, too.
One of the best ways I’ve found to help recreate boundaries is self-compassion. Because enmeshment and blurred boundaries can erode self-worth, self-compassion can bring us back to how valuable we really are.
Remember, your needs are just as important as anyone else’s needs.
Take a Self-Compassion Break
Kristin Neff is a self-compassion researcher and has many exercises and resources for self-compassion on her website, self-compassion.com. One of my favorite self-compassion exercises is the Self-Compassion Break. This is a short but powerful exercise to help you practice self-compassion in your daily life.
To take a Self-Compassion Break, first think of a difficult situation in your life right now and connect to your feelings about it.
- Acknowledge the difficulty of the situation with a short phrase: “This is painful,” or “I’m stressed.”
- Remind yourself that suffering happens to everyone: “I’m not the only one who feels this way,” or “I’m not alone.”
- Give yourself some kindness (it’s good here to think about what you need to hear or what you’d tell a friend in the same situation): “It’s okay to be stressed and to give yourself a break,” or “I can accept myself as I am, failures and all.”
Staving off enmeshment can be a heady task, but with the right resources and the right people in your life, you can have healthy boundaries that allow you to be empathetic and caring while still holding onto your center. The empathy of an introvert or HSP is a precious gift that should be nurtured and prized. But for empathy to be effective, you have to first take care of yourself.
That’s a prescription — go fill it!