I Worry About Other People’s Problems Like They’re My Own. How Can I Set Healthy Boundaries?
You don't need to take on someone's stress in order to be a good friend.
The people closest to me (and maybe a barista or two) would likely label me as a worrier. I fret endlessly about suspected health concerns, possible failures and trivial matters. And when I’m not overwhelmed with my own fears and anxieties, I borrow the concerns of a friend or family member. Since I know how it feels to be stuck down a worry hole, I feel obliged to help them get out, as many have done for me. It’s like an empathy exchange program. But this habit means my default state is “worry.”
During the pandemic, forced to spend too much time alone with ruminating thoughts, my worry mode got dialed up to an unsustainable point. I wondered if others could relate—and how they were coping. “I’m looking to speak to Canadian women or gender-diverse people who take on other people’s worries, which is impacting their mental health,” I wrote in a tweet.
I received a reply almost immediately, from Lesley A. Tarasoff, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Health and Society at the University of Toronto: “so that would be most women…” And she’s right—research indicates women report more worry than men. So why are we taking on other people’s worries, on top of our own, and how can we create healthy boundaries in relationships?
The science behind worry
“It starts with empathy—you obviously care about the person and what they’re going through,” says Dr. Janet Miller, a counselling psychologist in Calgary. The increased concern has physiological roots, being what researchers have identified as mirror neurons.
“When we see someone who’s in distress or worried, we feel it and take it on, on a neurological level,” says Miller. “We’re mirroring what the other person is experiencing.” Everyone has mirror neurons, but the amount varies from person to person. Someone with more of these neurons may be more empathetic, says Miller, and that’s certainly not a bad thing.
“Our response to people in distress is based on what’s happening in our brains on a chemical level, and there’s something beautiful about that,” she says. “It creates reciprocity, closeness and compassionate responses.”
Worrying about everyone
After seeing my tweet, Toronto-based writer Lara Ceroni reached out. “I feel honoured when people come to me to share how they’re feeling and know they have someone who can absorb that,” she tells me. Ceroni says she considers herself an empath and finds a range of people, from family to acquaintances, lean on her for support. “It can sometimes be a lot—physically, emotionally, psychologically exhausting at times,” says Ceroni. “[As an empath,] you’re genuinely putting yourself in other people’s shoes, feeling what they’re feeling, understanding where they’re coming from, and relating to their worries, stresses or anxieties.”
Some people, particularly those with anxiety, use worry as a coping strategy to stay on guard for threats, says Miller. As someone who has worked with a doctor to find tools to manage my anxiety, which was the cause of my insomnia, I can certainly relate. In my case, coping with anxiety is about learning how to manage distressing thoughts and also accepting that worrying doesn’t get me anywhere. Our loved ones don’t need us to be worried—they need us to be compassionate, which Miller says is “a combination of empathy and action.”
Change your response from being worried to being supportive
To look after our mental health while remaining a good friend, we need to change our response to those mirror neurons. Instead of worrying, we offer support.
“I think that’s totally appropriate because that’s part of loving someone,” says Miller. “We don’t need to sit with the awfulness of what someone’s just gone through or facing, we can be a witness to their hardships, stand alongside them, be present and show up.”
Try to find ways to ease the pain, to “buffer the effects” of the circumstance, says Miller, but leave the problem solving to them. Instead of sitting in a slew of someone else’s worries all day, devote time to them daily or weekly to listen, encourage, keep them company.
“Unless you have the specific skill-set to offer help [ex. you’re a psychologist], you’re probably not in a role to fix it,” says Miller.
(Related: Here’s What Good Listeners Do)
Setting boundaries in relationships
Ceroni says she was initially consumed by trying to fix her friends’ problems, but now realizes that isn’t the most effective approach. “It’s better just to listen, let them speak in a non-judgmental space where they can share how they’re feeling,” she says.
Ceroni admits she’s not the best at setting boundaries, but recognizes the importance of doing so. “You can’t be a sounding board to everyone because that depletes your own reserves to be able to take care of your own host of worries, struggles and anxieties,” says Ceroni.
The drain that Ceroni is describing is more formally known as compassion fatigue. Commonly experienced by healthcare and community service workers, compassion fatigue is the feeling of mental and physical exhaustion caused by secondary traumatic stress or burnout from one’s environment. To alleviate and prevent compassion fatigue, Miller suggests building boundaries around your “degree of investment or connection with the person.” “There might be some friends I would answer the phone for at three in the morning, and there are others I wouldn’t be that available for,” she says. If you’re unable to alleviate such feelings of worry, stress, or anxiety, it’s always best to contact your doctor.
I’ve realized I worry for other people and invest so much energy into their problems because that’s what I thought I’d want them to do for me. As if worrying was a sign they care. But it isn’t. “When you try to fix someone’s problems, it suggests you don’t trust them to solve the situation, cope with hard times, or find a way out on their own,” says Miller. As author and international speaker Gabby Bernstein puts it: You can’t deprive anyone of hitting their bottom. “These are opportunities to pivot,” she says. “When you try to fix someone else, you just get in the way of their potential to experience this miracle.”
Turn empathy into action
Of course, just because we’re not worrying about others doesn’t mean we don’t care—we’re just changing our response to be more beneficial to those on the receiving end. And that extends to the people outside our inner circle as well.
This year in particular, I, like many others, found myself concerned for the broader community. News about COVID-19, horrifying acts of racism and violence and the ongoing trauma of the pandemic was added to my list of worries. These are issues that deserve our attention and compassion, but at times, can feel overwhelming. What do I do?
“I don’t think it’s just feeling it and then finding a container for it and putting it away,” says Miller. “I want to be uncomfortable, and called into doing things differently.” She says this is the time to get involved, help dismantle and rework symptoms, educate yourself, check your privilege. To turn your worries into actions. That’s what I’ll do.