We Need to Stop Teaching People to Be the Bigger Person if They Don’t Want to Be

Most empaths struggle with too much empathy, not too little. Yet, since empathy is the new norm, they’re told that they should be even more empathic. If you’re a therapist, most of your work emphasizes the importance of boundaries, rather than of empathy, since few people are clinically narcissistic, despite contrary popular assessments. So, the equally popular opinion pieces that champion fostering empathy for those who’ve harmed them make if difficult for us to treat and help empaths.

Shame is the currency of many high profile therapists, who implicitly utilize guilt to convince other therapists and, sometimes, just other individuals to accept aggressive and hurtful behaviors. The idea accompanying the shame is that it’s the other individual’s job to understand and not personalize the bad behavior, that she has to rise above. And I see that message imprinted in many of my clients, especially the women, who were raised with the notion of rising above because “you know better.” When certain personality traits are perceived through the lens of illness, it’s easy to explain the actions as indicative of destiny or one’s inability to be virtuous. Thus, it’s then up to the “healthy” or mature one to do and be better.

And being better is often even recommended to therapists who refuse to treat severely mentally ill people. The argument goes: because they’re clinicians, they’re ethically obligated to treat everyone in the same way doctors are. So, regardless of how many times the clinician’s boundaries are violated and how many times they’re insulted or threatened, the responsibility of emotional stability is on them, not the aggressor. And what you get is empaths, who were trained to be “good” as children, feeling ashamed for even considering refusing to see a potential client or to end treatment with a current one; the ethical structure one was raised with extends into the present, pummeling the therapist into submission. But, how many of us ask if those standards are realistic or hurt the people abiding by them?

The idea that one ought to empathize with someone struggling with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, to me, is a given. But, to take it further and utilize it to excuse the behavior, I believe, isn’t and shouldn’t be. If we agree that behavioral change stems from a combination of genuine concern and practical consequences, then it can’t occur without both of them. And when therapists hold the perspective of “I have to treat this person regardless of how they treat me,” it begs the question of what those consequences can be without the outright termination of treatment, especially if the client went too far. So, if you were to ask me whether or not it’s the clinician’s duty to treat anyone who seeks their help, I’d say it depends on what they can handle.

Some therapists have the emotional bandwidth and resolve to go forward despite the client’s self-destructive behavior. They can set boundaries within the sessions and decide to continue to see these patients despite the attempts to manipulate their therapists. And other’s can’t. It isn’t that they’re bad people or practitioners; they struggle with dealing with their own feelings and personalize the antagonism. As hard as they try, some therapists never get over it, even with supervision or a strong support network, and that’s okay. If we continue to ask every therapist to treat each antagonistic person who comes their way, we’re asking them to cease protecting their own well-being, which is necessary for the treatment outcomes of their other patients.

And, as always, the answer is found within the middle, in the concept of compassionate assertiveness. To be compassionately assertive, one has to possess a mix of empathy and resolve, to know that the other is suffering but to acknowledge that that suffering doesn’t justify his cruelty. The idea of rising above is implicit in this notion because one can easily do the opposite and become an asshole in turn. In this way, the boundaries, saying no, protects both the innocent and the aggressor. We tend to think of being good as meaning the willingness to excuse the other’s unwarranted and harmful actions, continuing to behave as though nothing ever happened, yet one can be good while just acknowledging his struggles. In saying, “I’m sorry that you’re suffering, but I’m unable to see you,” the implication is that the suffering is unjustifiable and seen as such. The no, in essence, doesn’t negate the fact of the other’s humanity and the injustice inflicted on him.

It’s a difficult, but necessary, balance for both parties, as one is bound to break if she’s constantly experiencing verbal or physical abuse, even if that individual is considered to be mentally tough, and the other needs to know that their actions carry limits. So, instead of shaming people into rising above, we should just teach them to be kind when they set boundaries. That’s it; that’s the simple goal: just don’t be an asshole. And feel free to walk away.

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