After my banana bread manifesto on radical empathy was published, I spent the day extremely grateful for the kind responses, especially by those close to me. I spent the rest of the week making wild logical leaps while criticizing myself and my friendships. I started wondering if my most distinct and important personality trait was giving, and if the friends I had were perpetually expecting gifts of care.
Obviously, this is ridiculous—the friends I have now are neither parasitic nor entitled. However, the anxiety I felt is not quite so absurd. Like many of the young overachievers on this campus, I hate being bad at things. By advocating for an abundance of care on this campus, I brushed aside one of my underdeveloped skills: setting and upholding boundaries in my relationships.
Sometimes, I’m struck with the idea that if I cannot follow through on my promise to be consistently empathetic and accommodating to others’ needs, my presence in their life will no longer be valuable. Then I remind myself that this idea is logically invalid. The value of a person should not be measured in any unit—acts of care, kind words, or signs of affection.
However, defining emotional boundaries is extremely difficult on a campus like ours. The valiant attempt to balance outward kindness with internal stress is a recipe for an anxiety-induced stomach ulcer. Instead, the value of a relationship depends on the mutual respect shared between its participants. We must have empathy for each other’s busy, incredible lives in order to meet each other’s needs. We must be careful to avoid taking advantage of those who show us kindness, even accidentally.
When I first came to this campus, I had a best friend who would get a little too handsy when he was drunk, despite my protests. During my first Bacchanal, I spent the day on the floor of my room, letting him sleep off a bad trip in my bed for six hours, while I missed out on the festivities. A few months later, he confessed his feelings for me, and I didn’t reciprocate, so he ignored me for two months. I reached out to reconcile, and when we finally hung out, I confessed that I had been followed home from a party the night before, expecting sympathy. He responded, “You know, it’s kind of your fault that men treat you that way.”
I wish I had only one story like this. Often, those who overstepped my boundaries and caused me distress were unaware. As a result, they are unapologetic, and their behaviors do not change. To be fair, so many of the men whom I’m friends with are lovely, smart, and caring individuals. However, many of them also expect a lot of maternal care from their female friends and don’t know how to recognize it when women set boundaries for that care.
This problem is two-fold. Firstly, friends are not surrogate mothers or caretakers. So stop expecting them to behave as such and ask, frequently, if your expectations are okay. Secondly, you are allowed to have needs and express them directly; you cannot expect people to change their behaviors unless you communicate. Do this, and the people who respect you for it are the ones worth holding onto.
This is not always a gendered problem. In fact, the only person with whom I’ve ever asserted my boundaries was a close female friend. I’m not proud of it, but after a year of consistently meeting her emotional needs while she minimized mine, I didn’t even communicate clear boundaries. Instead, I essentially ghosted the friendship, separating myself only after we had a five-hour conversation where she asked me nothing about myself except to get cocaine for her through my “frat connects” (referencing a boy I had gone on about four dates with). To be quite honest, I only stopped talking to her because I didn’t want to enable her drug problem.
Put simply, I have always been uncomfortable with asserting my needs, especially when it feels like my needs are a small sacrifice to help resolve a seemingly pressing issue. I can now recognize that I felt lighter after stepping back and acknowledging the psychological toll this friendship took on me. While I was always minimizing my needs, so was she, which violated the principles of friendship. I felt extremely guilty for abandoning her, but I had to admit that ours was not a proper friendship—it lacked mutual empathy, communication, and understanding.
Then, what is a proper friendship? While kindness builds mutual care, other simple acts maintain our healthy relationships. Check in with each other. Ask your friends if they have the time and brain space to listen to your rant. Always communicate (even if, like me, talking about bad feelings comes out messy and slow). Apologize if you hurt each other, even if you didn’t mean it. When your friends are very giving, remind them that giving is not required of them. When your friends are asking too much of you, remind them that you only have so much care to give. You must value each other more than the acts of care you exchange, in order for a truly and deeply meaningful relationship to develop.
I don’t know who needs to hear this right now, but I certainly do: stop putting energy into relationships that drain the care from you. Claim space away from people who only like you for what you do for them, and do not value you for the brilliant and beautiful individual you are. The moment caring starts to feel obligatory, it loses its invaluable meaning. The sanctity of kindness is in the decision-making process: you can’t expect me to care about you, but you know that I do.
Natalia is a senior double majoring in neuroscience and English. If she could care about everyone, all the time, she probably would. Unrelated, her boundary-setting progress is a work in progress, so send her tips at email@example.com
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