Empathy without boundaries is not empathy.

A “boundary” is a divide between you and another person. It is you owning your behaviors and feelings and others owning theirs. It is knowing and asserting your own perspectives and needs and allowing others to know and assert theirs.

Would you believe me if I told you that the MOST empathic people are the ones that have the MOST well-formed boundaries? Yes, it’s true.

If you want to be more empathic, more compassionate, more loving…..


It sounds counterintuitive. In order for someone to be loving toward another person, there has to be a divide between them? HUH?


Empathy without “boundaries” is usually projection of one’s own feelings. (Mary feels sorry for the janitor, but doesn’t consider that it is Mary herself who would hate scrubbing floors while the janitor may actually enjoy listening to music and cleaning.)

Compassion without “boundaries” is commonly martyrdom, obligation, or approval-seeking. (Mary donates to the charity without considering whether she actually wanted to, and then later gets huffy with the woman who asked for her monetary support.)

Love without “boundaries” is typically codependency or addiction. (Mary just can’t leave Jack, even though Jack and she are clearly a mismatch. Mary doesn’t consider whether or not her needs are met, let alone assert her needs, and feels responsible for Jack’s feelings despite the fact that Jack is a grown man who makes his own choices.)


The Giving Tree: A lovely book to teach kids about martyrdom, enabling, and codependence.

Empathy with “boundaries” is pure. (Mary is truly present and able to imagine her friend’s pain about her infertility even though she has never experienced it herself.)

Compassion with “boundaries” is genuine. (Whenever Mary volunteers at the hospital, she does it simply because she cares, not because she feels obligated or gains the approval of others.)

Love with “boundaries” is true. (Mary actually loves her best friend for who she is, respects her during disagreements, and is not using her as a means of ensuring her own worthiness or emotional comfort.)

Just something to think about, says the therapist who thinks “the boy” is kind of a dick but also “the tree” made him like that (to his actual detriment) because she got something out of his dependence on her, and that fo sho ain’t love.


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