Why empathy without boundaries is a self-destructive act

The term ”boundaries” often strike feelings of ambivalence because, for many people, the act of boundary setting very often gets viewed as controlling.

Silvy Khoucasian said, ”empathy without boundaries is self-destruction .”

When it comes to dealing with toxic people, this couldn’t be any truer.

What boundaries are

It may be more beneficial to describe what boundaries aren’t rather than what they are.


Boundaries are a form of self-care. Many people would likely experience emotional burnout and exhaustion a lot faster than the average person without boundaries.

A boundary is a line that marks the limits of an area, a dividing line. In boundary setting, you decide how far your limits extend.

To cultivate positive mental health – people must seek to understand their boundaries, what behaviors they are willing to put up with, and what they deem unacceptable.

What boundaries aren’t

It can be impossible to discern peoples’ intentions in human behavior – most humans are generous – we like to see ourselves as good friends, partners, and fantastic parents to our children.

We also like to see ourselves as empathetic towards others – to show up for someone when they need our help. 

However, there is a dividing line between supporting a person we love and overextending ourselves to the point that our energy gets depleted.

Myths about boundaries

There are plenty of myths surrounding the topic of boundaries. Below are some typical assumptions about boundaries that often cause confusion for those seeking to set healthy limitations with the people they love.

Myth #1. Boundaries signify a lack of compassion


There tends to be a warped sense of understanding about the relationship between boundaries and empathy, in that empathy and boundaries cannot co-exist.

Emotional wellbeing

The myth that boundaries and compassion cannot possibly inhabit the same space couldn’t be any further from the truth – to show kindness to others, we must first demonstrate this balance of wellbeing to ourselves.

Boundaries don’t signify that you do not have empathy and compassion for others. They are there to limit how much you let other people impact you.

It’s entirely possible to be present for those we care about, listen to, and give them a thoughtful response to an issue they may be having while asserting our boundaries. 

It is essential to our mental health to be mindful of how much we extend our mental and emotional capacity to others.

Be empathetic, not emotionally exhausted.

Boundaries give us direction.

They teach us that it is perfectly okay to listen and offer support when someone is going through a difficult time.

However, that doesn’t mean that we must give people all our time and energy or feel depressed and sad just because they are.

Myth #2. Boundaries are designed to control others

One of the critical challenges to boundaries is cultivating the understanding that boundaries are not there to control other people.

In reality, we cannot control anyone no matter how hard we try, and attempting to control another person is ineffective and disrespectful.

Boundary setting is about you, not the other person.

People who set healthy boundaries understand the power of kindness and empathy while having the ability to prioritize their own needs first – they also know that it’s not possible to pour from an empty cup.

Myth #3. Boundaries are for mean people

Since boundaries are a balance between accommodating other people while looking after yourself, cultivating boundaries does not make a person mean.

Cultivating healthy relationships

For instance, let’s say your friend comes to visit every Sunday.

But they often stay late, and you have to get up for work early the next day – it might be that you need to have a conversation with him or her about how early you need to get up in the morning and set the precedence for the time you’d like to go to bed.

You could say something like, ‘‘ I wish I didn’t have to get up so early tomorrow morning so that we could spend more time together! I’ll probably need to head to bed at about {insert time} otherwise I won’t be able to function.”

Another way to handle the above situation might be to offer an alternative day to get together with your friend, likely on a day that you don’t have to get up so early the following morning!


Self-care and compassion don’t have to be orchestrated in a mean or cruel way (as demonstrated in the above examples).

Boundary setting is simply giving yourself what you deserve in an empathetic, non-aggressive manner.

Myth #4. Boundaries are about the other person and not you

Helping others in recovery

In a world where emotions run rife, it can be challenging for people to set boundaries with their closest people. Therefore, people need to understand the value of boundary-setting.

Boundaries are YOUR business. The other person’s actions and behaviors are not.


When people truly understand all this – they will feel a lot less guilty about drawing the line and allow themselves to experience inner peace and calm instead of giving into fear and guilt.

Boundaries are not ”Please do not treat me like that”; instead, they are ”If you do _ then, I will _”.

Managing self-destructive behaviors

It’s perfectly reasonable to tell someone that their behavior is making you feel uncomfortable. You may even comment that if it continues, you won’t be sticking around, that the person is free to do whatever they want – but you won’t be around to witness their behaviors.

Some situations may require asserting firmer boundaries, such as when violence is involved or when a loved one has a substance abuse issue and turns up at a family event drunk.


Having boundaries doesn’t mean that you are okay with another person’s destructive behavior. You can still offer compassion and support to those you love while being mindful of your own emotional and physical wellbeing.

The critical thing is to realize that you don’t have to take responsibility for other peoples’ thoughts, actions, and behaviors or feel guilty and end up blaming yourself for whatever they say or do.

Myth #5. Boundaries are restrictive

When someone constantly violates our boundaries, it can sometimes create tension and frustration in the relationship. It would help if you remembered that the other person is free to do whatever they want. You are also free.

Boundaries are about minding our own business while taking conscious action when the need arises. It is never about being restrictive or controlling another person.

Setting boundaries

Practicing the art of setting boundaries may come more naturally to some people than others. 

But like anything else, practice makes perfect (or will, at the very least, make us that much better at boundary setting!)

Boundary examples

There are plenty of helpful boundary examples that people can use -some of which are set out below:

‘If you continue to yell at me, I will end the call.”

”If you call me after 10 PM, I will let the phone go to answer message and call you back when I’m available the next day.”

”If you continue to make negative comments about my image, I will stop coming to see you.”

”If you turn up at the house drunk again, I shall not be opening the door.”

Empathy without boundaries

A boundary is an action that a person takes. It is not about forcing someone to act or behave in a certain way since that is impossible.

Without boundaries, people are likely to feel taken advantage of, which is conducive to positive relationships. Not cultivating healthy boundaries is an act of self-destruction since we cannot have empathy without clear guidelines.

To cultivate positive relationships, people must balance being empathic and considerate toward others while taking care of their own needs first.

Get in touch

If you or someone you care about is having trouble setting healthy boundaries, it may be a symptom of a deeper issue or something that needs to get worked on.

Get in touch with the team today to find out how we can help you identify your boundaries and start to explore a more confident version of yourself.

David Scourfield

David Scourfield is a Camino Recovery team member since 2017, focused on facilitating communication with Clinical and other professionals to ensure a comprehensive understanding of Camino's program.

Combining his marketing skills and lived experiences, he joined Camino in 2017, contributing to external publications and the Camino website. With a strong belief in solidarity during the recovery process, David helps clients build support networks by connecting them with others in recovery.

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