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If you identify as an empath, chances are that you have been taken advantage of for your innate kindness and sensitivity toward the needs and feelings of others.
You have likely even heard or read about how boundaries are essential for your survival, and yet you may instinctively resist and struggle with the very idea of having boundaries as an empath.
Perhaps the very word itself conjures up images of thorns or barbed wires that close the door to the very connections you deeply seek to cultivate with others you know or encounter in life.
The modern concept of boundaries, indeed, is often presented in a rather harsh way that can feel cold, selfish, and lacking empathy for the ones we need to set them with. By the time empaths typically reach the point of needing to set boundaries, we have also been taken advantage of to the point of anger toward the people we need to set boundaries with.
This anger can cause us to express these boundaries in a resentful and frustrated way. Lashing out at others goes against the very nature of an empath, which can lead to guilt for getting angry in the first place. If we suppress our anger, then we may find that we end up boiling over with unexpressed resentments.
Either approach is not healthy for us, nor the ones we need to set limits of any kind with.
The ancient Vedic spiritual wisdom of Vedanta, which informs yoga and Ayurveda, offers us a different perspective on boundaries that I personally find brings a lot of clarity. In Vedanta, boundaries can be “fragrant” and practiced preventatively, versus reactively.
Fragrant boundaries are limits through which we can assert ourselves with actions that are guided by a pure heart toward a higher ideal for all living beings. Even when we have to take particularly strong actions toward others who may take advantage of us in some way, with the spiritual practice of fragrant boundary setting, we can set limits in a way that wishes for the highest and best for others.
With fragrant boundaries, we are not looking to simply cut away negativity and anger, but to only remove that which blocks us from realizing the higher ideals we have set for our lives. This is important to clarify, as this is what makes fragrant boundary setting a preventative practice that allows us to define parameters for our lives in service of something higher, versus setting boundaries from a hostile inner space of reactivity.
Genuine empathy, and the emotional purity that elicits it, is a beautiful trait to have and to keep cultivating. The spiritual path is very much about connecting with the common Self that exists within all living beings, according to the Vedic spiritual tradition.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna beautifully expresses how a true yogi is one who sees the one Self in all beings when he proclaims:
The infinite joy of touching Brahman [supreme consciousness] is easily attained by those who are free of the burden of evil and established within themselves. They see the Self in every creature, and all creation in the Self. With consciousness unified through meditation, they see everything with an equal eye. (Chapter 6, Verses 28-29)
Once we make oneness our intention, this means setting limits with anyone who prevents us from doing what we need to do to care for ourselves or to be of service to others. We then have the opportunity to practice meditating on the oneness within ourselves and the ones we are setting boundaries with. It’s not about pushing others away in a harsh manner, but about moving ourselves closer to embodying our highest ideals, and hence, our purpose for being here on this planet at this moment in time.
The most direct way I have learned to awaken the wisdom that comes from within, which can allow boundaries to be expressed in a beautiful, fragrant way that is in service of a higher ideal, is by the process of internal inquiry.
Here are some practices and questions I personally have found supportive on this path that you can also engage with in your own life to start manifesting the art of fragrant boundaries.
Carve out time and space for solitude and silence to be able to tune into your inner voice.
There is a great deal of reverence in ancient wisdom traditions for the practice of silence as a way to tap into your own inner wisdom. It is said that silence gives birth to wisdom. Practicing conscious silence empowers you to go to the very core of life, to find your own answers, and to connect with the eternal presence of your own soul, which connects you with all living beings. You can start your practice of silence by carving out a few minutes each day, or perhaps a whole hour or more, to sit in silence.
Define your values. What is most important to you in life? What higher ideal do you, accordingly, feel called to be in service to?
In the space for reflection that the conscious practice of cultivating silence allows, ask yourself what you most value. It might be wisdom, abundance, beauty, creativity, responsibility, freedom, integrity, or love. What most inspires you in life, and what do you want to make your life about? For me, freedom and integrity are the top values that inform my ideal, which is to support the liberation of all living beings.
To strengthen your ability to own your reality, an essential part of practicing fragrant boundaries, ask yourself: What is my reality in this moment or situation? What must I prioritize right now to honor my existing commitments?
To understand your reality, it helps to start by checking in with how you are truly feeling in any given moment. Sometimes I have to ask myself how I am feeling over and over again to arrive at my reality. This can be the case for anyone who has been told by others that your feelings are unacceptable.
When considering your current priorities and commitments, be sure to check in to ask yourself if they align with your own higher ideal or if they are motivated more by the prospect of gaining approval from others. This will allow you to course correct your priorities in service of your ideal.
Assess what other people are seeking from you. This may be time, energy, love, touch, connection, or support.
When you are in situations that necessitate you saying no to someone you may have previously (even always) said yes to, do take a moment to put yourself in their shoes to assess what it is they are looking for from you. This is important, as many people don’t always clearly express what they actually want on a deeper level when making requests of you.
Ask yourself: Is there any way I can offer words or solutions that somehow express my care for this person while also honoring my own reality in this moment?
If, after you’ve discerned that doing what another person wants you to do would take you off the course of your own priorities that are rooted in your higher ideal, you can briefly express why you are unable to do something by stating what you need to do to honor your own values. A helpful practice is to write out what you need to do so you are clear about that.
Next, ask yourself: What is the most pleasant way you can express your care for those people while also being real and genuine about where you’re at? This will help soften your boundaries to the point where they are fragrant, making them easier for others to understand and accept and allowing you to still empathize and offer care to other people. This approach can help reduce conflicts and model for others how to express fragrant boundaries as well.
As an empath, making your boundaries fragrant makes it easier to express them. For those in your life who accept these boundaries, a gateway can be created to a deeper understanding that enhances the quality of your connection—even if the quantity of your interactions may need to be reduced.
Support yourself with 20 affirmations for empaths.
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