Pa Leo Babaut
I have received several emails from readers asking me how to be compassionate to other people without taking on all their suffering. Opening your heart to another person can be emotionally difficult when you feel all of their pain.
This is an incredible question because it reveals:
- Intention to be compassionate and have an open heart; and
- Realizing that boundaries are necessary when we connect with others
So let’s take a quick look at both before we talk about how to balance openness and emotional boundaries.
The intention is to be compassionate and open-hearted
It can be difficult to feel open to other people when they behave in an unpleasant way or have views that are very different from our own. But even if it isn’t, keeping your heart open and being compassionate when others are suffering can also be difficult because there is so much suffering in the world that it can be overwhelming.
First of all, there is no requirement that we keep our hearts open or have compassion for others. It can be enough to love yourself and find pleasure and wonder in the world around us. But what an opportunity to open our hearts and feel love for other people around us!
Second, nothing says that we have to have open hearts all the time. We can practice opening our hearts a little, and maybe that’s all we can do. Gradually, we develop the ability to open our hearts more often, and this practice of feeling love more often is a rewarding experience.
The key is to check: Do I have the intention to be open with other people in my life? Would I have compassion for the suffering of others – whether it’s people I know or people suffering around the world? Would my answer change if I didn’t have to take on all their suffering?
Think about what your intentions might be.
Emotional boundaries to protect your boundaries
Many people give up on the intention of compassion because it seems difficult, overwhelming, burdensome. Therefore, this possibility is ruled out.
But what if you could do this without overwhelming yourself, without taking on all the suffering of others? What might that opportunity look like, and would you accept it?
It could be acknowledging that you have limitations and that you don’t want those limitations to be overwhelmed by difficult emotions all the time.
Could you keep your heart open while you feel the ability to do so, and then take space for yourself to be recharged and nourished?
Could you feel compassion without experiencing much suffering?
Will you enjoy it?
Finding a Balanced Path
With the recognition of these limitations and with the intention of being open-hearted and compassionate…what might it look like to walk this balanced path?
When you open your heart to other people in your life and they (perhaps unintentionally) hurt your heart…can you admit that you are hurting and find a place to release that pain? To give yourself love and compassion, to feel hurt, to forgive … before opening your heart again? With practice it can be half an hour to an hour, but if necessary it can be half a day, two days, etc.
So your heart doesn’t have to be open, open, vulnerable all the time. You can recognize when you have an ability and discover it…and understand when you need to protect it and take care of yourself. It’s not all or nothing either way. There is a navigation in these waters that can be learned with practice.
If you want to feel compassion for others who are suffering, could you send them love without having to recreate all the suffering in your heart? For example, when I think of people in war-torn countries, I can see the suffering and have a good desire for that suffering to end…without feeling the agony in my heart. Try this now: Can you think of a person who is going through a difficult time and wish for that person to be happy…without taking all of their suffering into your heart?
It is a good wish for others to be happy, for others to find peace, for others to suffer less…it can be a feeling of love, without having to feel so much suffering. In my experience, I do feel some degree of heartbreak when I see others suffer, but it shouldn’t be a big deal or completely drain my battery. It can be something that I feel many times, something that I can appreciate and even love.
Ultimately, walking a balanced path means being willing to open your heart and experience great pain without giving all of yourself away, without losing yourself completely. And that means walking the path with a certain willingness to explore, screw it up, and learn as you go.