“Today, I will be aware of the hooks that snag me into the care-taking acts that leave me feeling victimized. I will ignore the hints, looks, and words that hook me, and wait for the directness and honesty that, I, and others, deserve.”
–Melody Beattie (The Language of Letting Go, 1990)
Many empathetic people are drawn to the healing professions because of our natural tendency to care for others. We spend our days holding space for their well being and laying hands on their aches and pains. Our minds tune in to their emotional states and for many, the release of negative emotions accompanies the physical work we are engaged in with them. At the end of the day, we are covered in an energetic film of their stuff. Long ago in the early days of my program, an instructor told us of the importance of creating an energetic boundary between ourselves and our patients or clients. He called it a cloud – nothing could penetrate it, so whatever came off of them during a session would stay locked in the cloud. He was honest in saying this would be easier said than done. Even today, at almost 8 years into my massage therapy practice, I still have moments where I’m not sure if what I’m feeling belongs to me or to the clients I saw that day. Guess my cloud isn’t always on point.
What muddies the energetic waters even more is the expectation in our personal lives to be the bearers of the emotional burdens of others. How much space can you hold when you’re already at a deficit? When do you get to hold it for yourself? If you find that you’re sacrificing your own well-being for the sake of “showing up” for the people in your life, you have to do a serious self-inventory. There’s no faster way to burnout than being hooked from every angle. Many of these people are family, lovers, close friends and even colleagues. Some hook consciously and deliberately; others aren’t even aware of this automatic need to reach out to you to shoulder their load. Either way, when the hooks are cast, we always seem to bite.
Hooks come in many forms. They can be, as Beattie described, a look, a sigh, a word or an action that triggers us to feel responsible for helping them. With that responsibility comes the behavior that isn’t in our best interest. Beattie refers to it as codependency. Another way to think about it is when you care more about their issues than they do and do the work for them, no one wins. They “depend” on you, but offer nothing in return. In their minds eye, you are the one that will predictably show up and take on their troubles, so they won’t have to. Since when did you become emotional waste management?
The best way to avoid getting hooked is to demand, as the quote states, honest and direct communication of one’s wants and needs. If you’re too tired to listen, say that you’re too tired to listen. Say exactly what you feel. If a loved one walks into a room, sighs deeply, then slumps into a chair, acknowledge it with your eyes, but not with words. They want you to ask them what is wrong. They want you to offer help. Let them ask for it directly. Then, you can check in with yourself and empathically decide whether you can do it or not.
Saying no with love is better than saying yes with guilt.
The passive aggressive hook is one of the worst guilt provoking mechanisms out there. It also has the power to conjure up feelings of anger, helplessness, shame, and inadequacy to name a few. It’s hard not to bite on it, but it can be done. Let’s say that loved one, after slumping into their chair, turns to you and says, “You know, I had a really bad day today, but you probably don’t care. (pause) Nevermind.”
To an empath, this may feel so counter intuitive, because we do care. We care A LOT. However, trust that this simple answer is preventing you from participating in a guessing game that will inevitably lead to the tidal wave of feelings described above. They may continue to bait you, especially if they cannot tell you directly what is wrong with them. Their attempts might end up conjuring up those feelings of guilt, shame, etc. for you anyway. Trust that they know you care, which is why they are doing this manipulative hooking.
“Tell me what’s wrong.”
Do not ask, but calmly command them to tell you. They may not answer you, but the boundary has been drawn. If they want access to your care, they will have to be clear about what is going on with them and what they need from you. This involves some level of pause and mental regroup. For the ones who do it unconsciously, it sort of turns off the autopilot and gives them a chance to think about why they are baiting you. If the issue is small or comes from a place of uncertainty rather than a true need for help, it will give them the space to reflect and the opportunity to do their own waste management. For the ones that do it deliberately, it provides a clear boundary – this hooking will not work anymore.
I don’t think I will ever be able to step out of the care taking role, nor do I want to, but my personal and professional lives could benefit from a little boundary building. Just last night, I was tested with a massive bait from a former patient. My body reacted with all the feelings of a nervous system peaked for attack with appropriate text responses at the ready. I did not use them. I chose not to respond. It was extremely hard to do that, but I was able to lay down that boundary even if the aftermath cost me some sleep.
“My care for you is not limitless. It is not at the expense of my own well-being. Just as you demand I hold space for your troubles, I must make the same demand of myself. And in the totem pole of priorities, I am always at the top. I will win out every time. It’s the only way I will be of any good to myself and others.”