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Empathy and Boundaries While Living with Pain

Where is the line between practicing empathy and setting healthy boundaries? More often than not, people are repeating taught behaviors or just living on autopilot and not even noticing how their actions affect others (or maybe there are cultural differences that could explain the “rudeness”). I saw a question on Twitter recently that asked about how to manage being grumpy and rude when you feel bad. This is when empathy becomes especially handy. I put on a happy face because I don’t know who else feels horrible. In moments of flares I know I need additional love and support and understanding—I need others to empathize with my pain they can’t see.

And that’s what I try to give to others whether I’m in pain or not. I don’t want to risk dimming someone’s else’s light because I’m struggling maintaining my own flame. People have been “rude” to me when I felt really bad. I was having an arthritis flare in my hand while working at a movie theater. People were getting irritated it would take me so long to tear tickets and then snatch them out of my hand or say something frivolous I don’t even remember but it stung at the time. No one could see how bad it hurt to tear those tickets or scoop popcorn, but I was doing my best to not only do my job but do it with a smile. But you know what? I don’t know if one of the people who snatched the tickets out of my hand needed to hurry to the bathroom. I don’t know if they needed to hurry to a seat because their back or hip was in excruciating pain. It’d be easy to get mad, but it isn’t too much harder to give someone the benefit of the doubt—especially people I’ll never see again and if I do I won’t recognize them.

When does empathy expression though cause boundaries to be crossed? Is it when it’s with a constant in your life? When it happens a second or third time? We can’t take advantage of our loved ones just because they’re understanding on our bad days. We have to learn to communicate our struggles so they can give us space and we have to do it without biting their heads off. Sure it’ll happen occasionally, we’re humans and get overwhelmed and react. But even if it is more difficult to choose kindness while in pain we must persevere and try. That’s part of helping our loved ones set healthy boundaries for what they’ll put up with. I think for us setting boundaries it needs to be with a person who’s regularly in our life. If you value someone tell them, “I won’t tolerate being talked down to like that.” Maybe they’re having a bad day but if bad days become habits, they have to learn to manage them like those of us with chronic illness do. And if the patterns don’t quit? We have to make the decision on whether or not to keep them in our lives. Which can lead to grief, which is all too common of an experience. It is also not uncommon for people with chronic illness to grieve the loss of their health or the things they once could do that now they can’t do.

Maybe even grieving a sense of normalcy and expectations for yourself. Grieving the peace of mind that you can do what you did yesterday today without a problem. Even with this grief, we have to be mindful of our attitudes and behavior and empathize with those in our life who are also grieving in their own way. Their hearts are broken to see us in pain and even if they say and do all the wrong things, they are simply doing their best. That’s all we can do each and every day is our best.

Some days that looks like 5 am wake up calls and exercising all before going to work all day to knock out huge projects and coming home to make a healthy dinner. Other days it’s brushing our hair and using mouthwash before heading out the door, or even staying in.

Boundaries are healthy for those setting them and for the people around them. When we don’t respect the boundaries of others, we are not only causing damage to them, but we are also giving ourselves false expectations of those people, which will lead us to disappointment.
It can be hard to say no especially when trying to keep up with the rest of the able-bodied world. But we’ll inevitably crash and burn. Boundaries aren’t just for relationship and mental health, they play an important role in our physical health as well.We’re all doing our best and for that we need to respect one another and shoe each other grace. I know that one of the greatest gifts I have ever been given was grace when I was angry and in pain and acted out, and then was met with love. How much of a better place would our world be if we offered this grace to each other?

Now, the people at the movie theater probably will never give me and my slow ticket tearing another thought. That’s okay. At the time I was so focused on doing my job and working through the pain that I didn’t get to empathize in the moment. I remember thinking, “How could these people be so rude?!” Later that evening when I sat on my couch with my then boyfriend (now fiancé) crying and watching Netflix to try to take my mind off the pain in my joints, I had some time to reflect. Being judgmental served no purpose, but empathizing and showing grace? That allowed me to show myself grace as well.

Empathizing and setting boundaries are two powerful tools at our disposal that can make a difference in our worlds. And if we make a difference in our own worlds, isn’t that the first step to changing the whole world?

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