The Journey to Empathy

For as long as I can remember, I have felt things so deeply. I recall multiple times when I was in middle school watching a movie where one of the characters died or a show where a parent was ill. My brother would come into the room to see me bawling my eyes out. He would ask me what was wrong and I would express to him how sad the movie was, which he would giggle at and remind me that it was just a movie. I struggled, and at times still do, to separate others’ emotions from my own. I have always been told I am incredibly empathetic, which is likely what led me to this career, as a social worker, and more specifically as a therapist.

Empathy is the ability to feel what another person is feeling, even if you have not specifically been in a situation to feel these emotions on a personal level. I am able to look at a situation and put myself in that person’s shoes, while truly feeling the emotions that they are experiencing.1. For anyone who can relate to this, it can be overwhelming at times. As a therapist, I need to find ways to empathize with my clients, while keeping my own emotions in check. We all experience empathy to an extent: whether it is by crying for victims of a natural disaster, feeling joy for a loved one who had a baby, or simply feeling sadness for those who live in a place with little resources. In the mental health field, it is imperative to have empathy in order to care for and help others in their healing process.

Sympathy vs. Empathy

There is often confusion between sympathy and empathy, many people even use the terms interchangeably. However, sympathy is being able to say I am sorry for how you are feeling or what you are going through, while empathy is saying I can feel how hurt you are. 2. So how does one keep their own emotions at bay, while still being able to empathize with those who they may work with or to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships? The importance of empathy involves this balance, between other people’s situations and feelings and personal feelings. This can mean acknowledging someone else’s feelings or needs without allowing this to discount our own. This can involve setting boundaries with other people, and oftentimes involves becoming more aware of our own feelings, wants, and needs, in order to allow ourselves to draw these boundaries when needed.

Expressing Own Emotions & Looking Out for Gaslighting

Part of the process of being empathetic while not allowing oneself to become immersed in another person’s feelings, is to allow oneself to express personal feelings. This often starts with becoming more aware of one’s own feelings and finding ways to express this, typically verbally. I often tell clients to try to be as clear as possible about their feelings with others, such as saying ‘I feel that…’ This can allow you to remind the other person that you are not saying they had ill intentions, but rather that regardless of their intentions, you want to express what you are experiencing. Going along with this, it is important to be able to recognize when another person may be gaslighting you. 

Gaslighting is a way to manipulate another person through making the other person feel uncertain about their own sanity or judgment. This is a technique often found in abusive relationships, however, it is also important to recognize that this can occur at times in healthy relationships as well. This is done when the abuser creates a false narrative, which then aims at making the victim question themselves and what they believe occured. With long-term gaslighting, one may even begin to question their own mental stability. 3.

It is not always clear cut recognizing that someone is gaslighting you. However, if this is a technique you believe may be used on you in any sort of relationship, there are many things to be on the lookout for. Below are various things you can look out for:

  • Refusing to Accept Responsibility: individuals like this will often be completely unwilling to ever apologize for their actions or accept that they may have done something wrong.
  • Blaming You: this person may somehow always find a way to turn problems around into being your fault, such as by saying they would not have behaved how they had if it had not been for your behavior first.
  • Making you Question Your Own Feelings: this may be done by making you feel you do not have a right to feel what you are feeling or by giving you guilt for crying or showing emotions.
  • Changing the Narrative: this can be done by completely changing how a situation or conversation happened. This person may use so much confidence in what they are saying that you question if you are remembering it correctly at all.

Drawing Boundaries

As an empathetic person, it can be difficult at times to remember it is more than okay to say no or to prioritize oneself. In your work life, this can be things such as setting certain times to answer calls, emails, and text messages; giving oneself a required ‘stop’ time for work-related activities; or passing on tasks if feeling overworked and in need of help. In personal relationships, this may be more along the lines of being able to say no to plans when not feeling up to it or even just not having interest in these plans; being able to put down your phone and not respond to calls or texts, and not allowing others to treat one in a toxic way without consequences.

For example, as a therapist it can be easy to feel guilt if not accommodating a patient’s requests. It is imperative to be able to set limits with a client. It is also important to be able to remind a client if they are emailing, texting, or calling about a problem, that this is something to be discussed during their next appointment. This does not only apply to therapists, though, as there are many careers that involve accommodating schedules or responding to correspondences. It can be easy to feel guilty for not responding to a message right away, yet that is where a separation in self and others needs to be implemented.

In day-to-day life it can be difficult to draw these boundaries as well, oftentimes even harder than in a career setting. With loved ones, we have this idea that we must always put them before ourselves, especially for family. This is absolutely not the case. While it is important to prioritize those we love, it is like the saying goes: you can not fill from an empty cup. If you are not making sure you are doing well, then you will not be of any help to those around you. It is completely justified to say no to plans with family, to say you are unfortunately not able to help with a task, or to decline phone calls.

Tips to Help

Positive Self-Talk

One of the hardest parts about these boundaries we are discussing, is the negative self-talk that can accompany this. It can be easy to fall into thoughts of ‘my client sent me a message and I did not respond, I’m such a bad therapist.’ Yet, instead of focusing on the text message you did not respond to, focus on all of the positive things you have been doing. Remember how often you see your client, how well the last session went, and how you have expressed to clients at what times you are available to them. Many times, we are far too hard on ourselves, feeling like we need to be at everyone else’s beck-and-call at all times. Yet, for overly empathetic people, it can be easy to forget that if they are always there for everyone around them, when is it time for the focus to be on themselves?

Personal Therapy and Self-Care

When dealing with other people’s emotions consistently, whether it be from having a career in the mental health field or being the friend who everyone turns to in order to discuss their problems, it is important to have someone to talk to about your own emotions and problems. Going to therapy can be such a gratifying time, as it allows time to be fully focused on you with no question of bias on the other person’s part. You are able to discuss issues, process feelings, and have self-growth. In this field, going to therapy, as a therapist, is extremely encouraged. While mental health is becoming a more widely talked about subject, we are slowly deconstructing that stigma that makes it uncomfortable or embarrassing to seek help. This is extremely beneficial, as those who may have been uncertain about going to therapy before are now becoming more open to the idea.

The idea behind going to therapy, specifically as an empathetic person, is to remember that you-focused time is important, too. Being able to prioritize oneself will assist in remembering that while other’s feelings are something to keep in mind and even something you may prioritize, your needs and feelings require attending to as well.

Therapy is not the only thing that matters when it comes to caring for yourself though. Self-Care time can be anything that brings you relaxation or joy. Therapy absolutely can be self-care, but this time could be watching a movie, working out, painting, reading a book, going out to dinner, etc. Making time for yourself is priority, as dealing with the heavy emotions of others can be tiring and taking time to enjoy life making those tiring times feel less heavy.


Empathy is Powerful

Having an empathetic heart is a beautiful trait to possess. The world absolutely needs more people who are able and willing to feel for one another. However, in order to make sure to keep a healthy mindset and feel secure in one’s own emotions, it is important to make sure you are not allowing others to gaslight you and what you feel, not being afraid to draw boundaries in careers and in personal life, attempting to use more positive self-talk, rather than allowing yourself to think that you are being selfish by drawing these boundaries, and finally, not being afraid to make time for yourself.

If you would like to learn more about setting boundaries and reducing guilt around saying no, our trained therapists are ready to connect with you! Click here to get started. 



  1. Gordon, Sherri. (2022, January 5). What is Gaslighting? Very Well Mind.
  2.  Stern, Robin, Divecha, Diana. (2015, July 7). How to Avoid the Empathy Trap. Greater Good Science Center.