Empathy and Self-Determination

As we’ve discussed, a lack of boundaries opens us up to burn out, compassion fatigue, and disconnection with others while holding strong emotional boundaries and nourishing our own well-being leads to a greater capacity for compassion and empathy.


In her book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) (2007), Brené Brown references nursing scholar Teresa Wiseman’s four attributes to empathy:

  1. The ability to see the world through another person’s perspective
  2. Staying out of judgment
  3. Paying attention to, and doing our best to understand another person’s emotions
  4. Communicating your understanding of that person’s feelings

If we drain our “empathy account” without healthy self-nourishment practices, we can become emotionally exhausted.In other words, if we take on other people’s pain without healthy emotional boundaries, we run the risk of overextending ourselves.

We must remember that it’s not possible to take away someone else’s pain. We can listen and bear witness to someone’s pain, but we have limitations to what we can do. If we continue to take on too much, over time we will find ourselves shutting down. That might look like distancing ourselves from listening to people’s struggles because it is just too much to bear. We may find ourselves pulling away because we can’t handle the difficult feelings. No human can handle taking on the pain of everyone around them.

Practicing compassion while taking care of your emotional needs is very important in your peer support role.


Let’s review the core value of self-determination and consider its intersection with boundaries:

  • Self-determination is the right to make one’s own decisions and have freedom from coercion.
  • We support the facilitation and creation of an environment where people can feel free to tap into their inner motivation.
  • Peer support workers don’t fix or save. We acknowledge and hold space for resilience and inner wisdom.

When we support someone’s self-determination, we choose to shine a light on their inner resources so they can tap into their intrinsic motivation. It is not our job to fix or save anyone. When we effectively support someone else’s self-determination, a benefit for us is that it creates a healthy boundary, because we don’t take on the responsibility of fixing someone else’s problem.

We can learn to be empathetic and compassionate AND have boundaries that support our own well-being!

In the Greater Good UC Berkeley article called Just One Thing: Be at Peace with the Pain of Others (2014), Dr. Rick Hanson says the following in regards to doing what we can within our limitations:

Let the pain of the other person wash through you. Don’t resist it. Opening your heart, finding compassion – the sincere wish that a being not suffer – will lift and fuel you to bear the other’s pain. We long to feel received by others; turn it around: your openness to another person, your willingness to be moved, is one of the greatest gifts you can offer…Do what you can—and know that you have done it, which brings a peace. And then, face the facts of your limitations, another source of peace…When you recognize this truth, it is strangely calming. You still care about the other person, and you do what you can, but you see that this pain and its causes are a tiny part of a larger and mostly impersonal whole…This recognition of the whole—the whole of one person’s life, of the past emerging into the present, of the natural world, of physical reality altogether—tends to settle down the neural networks in the top middle of the brain that ruminate and agitate. It also tends to activate and strengthen neural networks on the sides of the brain that support spacious mindfulness, staying in the present, taking life less personally—and with those changes come a growing sense of peace.

Hanson is saying that when we recognize that we can’t fix or save anyone else, it creates a sense of peace within us. We are effectively creating an emotionally healthy boundary that supports our own sense of peace. With this recognition, we don’t take on too much because we recognize that as a peer support worker, we are in someone’s life for just a short season. We can come alongside, listen, bear witness to their struggle, while not taking it on.

When we establish this boundary, our capacity for empathy grows!


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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