A study out of Yale University—lead by sociologist Nicholas Christakis—documented a variety of interactions of approximately 5,000 people living in one town over the course of 32 years. When discussing the results of this study, Christakis says, “We were able to show that as one person became happy or sad, it rippled through the network.” The study demonstrated that this can happen even through the small interactions that occur with others on a daily basis, such as smiling at someone you pass on the street, while of course there are even larger effects with those we have one-on-one interactions with.
As this research shows, our emotions “spread” to others. Structures in our brain replicate the feelings of others. Biologically, that’s another sign of the way God created us for communion. Our ability to actually feel the emotions of others gives us an opportunity feel connected to them, to identify their needs and work for their good more effectively. The downside is that we can get too caught up in other’s feelings or allow their emotions to drag us down. The key is remembering the personalistic norm. It isn’t enough to feel what others feel. We have to always orient ourselves to working for their good, for our good, and the good of the relationship– whatever that means in the situation. We might start by empathizing, but then we have to ask “what does God want for me, for this person, for this situation?” And move in that direction. Doing this allows us to be generous in our response to other’s feelings while not getting stuck in their feelings.
The question is, how do we set this personalistic norm to ensure that we are always working for the good of others and ourselves? Here are a few tips!
Empathizing isn’t Wallowing–It is good to want to be there for others who are experiencing emotional pain, but there is a difference between empathizing and wallowing. Empathizing allows us to have enough of a taste of what the other person is experiencing that we are able to make them feel truly understood. But research shows that once we have made that emotional connection, staying in an emotional place actually makes things worse. Once we’ve made that empathic connection, it’s time to ask, “What do you think you’d like to do about this?” and start helping the other person find even tiny things they can do to respond a little better to the situation at hand, to take a little better care of themselves, or at least be more effective at gathering the resources they need to make a better response. Feelings are not an end in themselves. Neither is empathy. Empathy exists so that we can make enough of an emotional connection with each other that we can stop each other from falling into emotional holes in the first place or help each other not get stuck in the emotional holes we do fall into. By all means, be willing to meet someone where they are at emotionally, but once you have made that emotional connection, be sure to ask God what he wants you and the other person to do to respond to the situation more effectively and gracefully.
Keep Up Emotional Boundaries–Being willing to support someone who is going through a bad time emotionally doesn’t mean that you have to be willing to put up with abuse. At first, it can be appropriate to “bear wrongs patiently” as you realize that a person who is upset, frustrated, or hurting isn’t really meaning to take it out on you, but if their bad behavior persists or becomes habitual, then it’s time to set some gentle but firm boundaries. For instance, you might say, “I love you and I want to support you, but when you treat me like this its hard to be what you need me to be. I’m not your enemy and I need to you stop treating me like I am.” Setting these gentle boundaries can make all the difference between allowing yourself to be a safe landing place for the people you love versus being their punching bag.
Know Your Limits–It’s good to be there for others who are suffering, but our responsibility to work for their good requires us to know when someone needs more than we are able or qualified to give them. Sometimes, we can get in over our heads when we feel like someone needs us so much. We might suggest that they talk to the person they are having problems with or seek professional help, but they either don’t do it or they tell us that they just need more of us. Then, we feel guilty pulling back because they need us so much. It’s important to remember that in a case like this, we actually make things worse by trying to be the other person’s only or primary source of support. Instead we need to say, “I wish I could do more, but this is the point where you need to talk to so and so, or seek help from this and that. If you can’t or won’t do that, I’m not going to be able to be here for you either because you need more help than I can appropriately give you.” Knowing our limits allows us to be there for others in a way that actually works for their good instead of allowing them to stay stuck and dragging us down with them.