So you are an empath? You might be an educator or you might work with people in some other way or you might find yourself as an "avoidant" due to your level of empathy, but you’re a deep feeler.
You feel other people's pain; you feel their anxiety; you feel their dysregulation. You even feel their disappointments, confusion, fear, and you’re a magnet and a sponge for those people who discharge the anxiety or uncomfortable feelings they don't know how to regulate since we live in a largely emotionally illiterate culture, and, without even knowing it, you take it on as if it's your soul's mission (for the science on this, research mirror neurons--I love brain science).
It isn't, but if you’re an educator in some capacity, you might be a "fixer", someone who feels so deeply for their students, that they want to get in there and make up for, perhaps, an entire lifetime of other people's unmet needs or unacquired self-regulation skills. In fact, you are a good person. You are what Mr. Rogers would call, a helper. I get it. But you may also be a person who experiences compassion fatigue, emotional exhaustion, and a kind of dysregulation in yourself that you don’t quite understand but that comes when you realize you are not able to do the things you hoped you could do to help other people.
You may also be a person who works very hard to understand why people do the things they do but haven’t yet quite admitted to yourself that you do that in order to tolerate, forgive, or dismiss inappropriate, bad, or simply disproportionate, behaviors or actions on the part of others in your life.
Being an empath is difficult. It’s a gift, but there is a dark side that is not yet a mature version of this talent.
Some empaths feel that putting up boundaries means they’re being disloyal or that they don’t care anymore but that is not the case. Poor boundaries and a lack of emotional hygiene just perpetuate the imbalances in our relationships. In fact, we know we are huge models for students, and if we sense/feel/believe they have come into the educational setting with deficits or wounds some of us are driven to help, and some of us are overwhelmed by a job we don't think is ours. On the one hand, that drive to help may come from our own wounding and that resistance to help may likewise come from our own personal background.
Either way, we are modelling self-regulation (intrapersonal skills) in how we interact (intrapersonal skills) with others, and we can do it mindfully and healthily or continue to operate unconsciously out of our own issues.
There is an opportunity for growth in all interdependent relationships.
Right now, there’s more opportunity for growth in our educational settings and relationships than ever.
That’s a nice way of saying that the dysregulation and psycho-emotional volatility in the classroom or educational setting seems to be at an all-time high, and teachers and educators are being asked to do more emotional labor than ever. How do we respond?
Two different approaches are to be more empathic or seemingly so (meaning to erode your boundaries so much that you become depleted as an educator) or, on the other side, there are those who are making their boundaries so firm, so hard, that their own humanity is getting locked in, and they’re not connecting with their students, maybe not even connecting with other people in their lives because they’ve created a kind of vibrational scar tissue around themselves, a form of self protection because they don’t know how to deal with the incredible neediness that seems to be around them.
There is a middle ground, and that’s learning about boundaries in terms of managing one’s own inner world, doing one’s inner work, becoming mindful of one’s energy and vibe, and transactionally, learning and practicing new ways to engage with other people in our speech, mannerisms, and behaviors.
To boundary up! requires self-awareness and mindfulness because the boundaries are not permanent, and they need to shift depending upon the environment, the moment, the power dynamic, and the relationship. The amount of boundaries that one has with an intimate partner is very different than the kind of boundaries one might have in the workplace or the educational setting. That seems obvious, yes; however, even in that educational or work setting, the boundaries may shift dependent upon whether you’re talking to a supervisor or are talking to students, and, even among students that may shift, depending upon the presentation of that student and even the presentation of that student on any given day.
Becoming alert to what’s going on around you with the people that you are engaging with without becoming hyper vigilant takes practice. It also takes a calm and steady sense of one’s own interior, and knowing how to balance one’s own energy, one’s own needs, and having the ability to think both simultaneously and sequentially.
Sequential thinking is being able to see the number of steps that have to happen and being able to focus on one step at a time. Simultaneous thinking means to be able to think about multiple things at once.
Often, we are good at one or the other. Recognizing the difference in the way other people or students think or process can be helpful, but also practicing being able to do both of those kinds of thinking, sometimes even at the same time, is a useful skill.
It is not one that comes naturally to most of us, yet teachers need it. To be able to walk into a classroom of students, for example, with long range goals in mind, short term goals in mind (for the day, the week, the month) while also holding the possibility that you need to make eye contact and assess where each of your students seems to be energetically, physically, academically, and relationally is really difficult.
Most non-educators have no idea how hard just that is, and that the person standing in front of that group setting in a workplace or classroom has a huge influence on what the group coherence or chaos is going to be. It’s no wonder teachers become exhausted and that more and more of us want to change professions.
But we still need educators, facilitators, mentors, and guides. Education is still a passion with a purpose. But boundary up, buttercup! It’s not about stepping away from the hard work of being a mentor, a guide, a teacher, facilitator, a leader; however, it is very much about establishing and maintaining balance and learning the difference between becoming responsive rather than reactive, about knowing our limits and what we are responsible for, about being compassionate while teaching accountability.
These are some of the most "human skills" we can be modeling, no matter whether we are teaching math, history, writing, or running sales teams or work units.
And don't take anything personally, buttercup, because usually it isn't, and even when it is, that doesn't matter. Healthy boundaries do.