Learning about compassion for self and others, and setting boundaries are two issues that often come up in my sessions. Boundaries are of utmost importance in taking care of ourselves, and is one of the first tools we must practice when learning self-compassion. But have you ever thought about how setting boundaries with others can also lead to more compassion towards them?
Nobody is born with boundaries. We are taught about boundaries by our parents. Some of us have no sense of boundary; others have built walls instead of boundaries. Still others have boundaries with holes in them.
Few people are fortunate enough to grow into adulthood knowing who they are, and what their rights are and aren’t. They don’t trespass other people’s territory and they don’t allow others to invade theirs. They have healthy boundaries and a solid sense of self.
Unfortunately, more of us emerge into adulthood with damaged, scarred or nonexistent boundaries. Or we may have constructed such a thick shell around us so people can’t get close.
Many events contribute to this. It happens when healthy boundaries aren’t role modeled or taught to children, when children’s boundaries and rights are invaded or violated, and when children are forced into inappropriate roles with those around them.
Abuse, humiliation and shame damage boundaries. They leave gaping holes where the violation occurred. If we were emotionally, physically or sexually abused as children, we may grow up without healthy borders around that part of our territory. As adults, we’ll be vulnerable to invasion in that area until we repair and strengthen that part of our border.
Inappropriate generational roles among family members, and inappropriate roles between our family and other families can damage boundary formation also. We may not have learned to identify or respect other people’s territory or our own. Our original boundaries with our primary caregiver determines how we bound with others. Our boundaries determine how we fit or bond with those around us.
Without boundaries, relationships will cause us fear. We feel vulnerable to losing all we have, including ourselves.
With boundaries that are too rigid, we will probably have very few relationships. We won’t dare get too close, because we don’t trust. We may fear people will leave us.
The goal, as we get healthier, is to develop healthy boundaries, not too pliable or too rigid. And we need to patch any holes in our borders. Developing healthy boundaries is our responsibility. We cannot afford to put the responsibility for taking care of ourselves, or looking out for our best interest, in anyone’s hands but our own.
As we develop healthy boundaries, we develop an appropriate sense of roles among family members, others, and ourselves. We learn to respect others and ourselves. We don’t use or abuse others or allow them to use or abuse us. We stop abusing ourselves. We don’t control others or let them control us. We stop taking responsibility for other people and stop letting them take responsibility for us. We take responsibility for ourselves. If we’re rigid, we loosen up a bit. We develop a clear sense of our self and our rights. We learn to have a complete self. We learn to respect others as well as ourselves. We do that by learning to listen to and trust ourselves.
So when most of us think about setting boundaries, we see it as a way to protect ourselves. They are how we draw the line in the sand and communicate that “this is my sacred space, and you can’t cross this line”. It is extremely important for each of us to become the whole, healthy person we want to be. But I repeat: We learn to respect other’s as well as ourselves.
In a new program by Brene Brown she talks about boundaries. She repeats a concept I have tried to practice for years: If we can believe everyone does the absolute best they can at any given moment, we can feel more compassionate and less judgmental.
It requires boundaries and integrity to be generous. Brene shares how surprised she was when she realized that the most compassionate people she interviewed in her research were people who set the best boundaries.
It’s impossible to extend generosity to someone who is taking advantage of us, being disrespectful, hurting us, not hearing us. We can only be generous to those people with whom we have set boundaries, and from whom we demand boundaries.
The only way we can extend true compassion to other people is from a place where we are clear on our own boundaries. We respect them, we are clear on their boundaries; we are standing solidly in our own integrity. And from this place of integrity, we can be generous in how we view them.
In my own experience, when I have allowed others to dictate my boundaries, I have become resentful of them and disappointed in myself. There have been times I have allowed someone to guilt me into doing something they wanted, and I ended up doing it (not out of generosity or choice), but because I felt forced.
Most of us were raised to be giving and easy to get along with, but that does not mean we need to let others walk all over us. Always saying yes is the easy way out – until it’s not.
When we impulsively say yes, it’s usually about thinking we have to please everyone or need everyone’s approval; or we want to fit in. But what it really amounts to is that when we don’t set healthy boundaries with another person, they end up with all the power. When we learn to set boundaries, we begin to take our power back (personal power/not power over any other person). Consequently, we have the choice of how to use that power. We might feel more free to be compassionate, which will give us much more of a sense of connection with that person than we would have had otherwise.
It’s uncomfortable in the moment, but if we can project ourselves to the consequences of saying yes to something we really don’t want to do, we’ll get past the discomfort. (Brene calls this “embracing the suck”).
It’s hard to say no – especially to those with whom we have a difficult or guilt-laden relationship. I’ve learned I don’t have to give an answer immediately. What works for me is to slow things down; visualize myself having done whatever I agreed to, and then allow myself to feel how I will feel, (knowing I’ll be disappointed in myself or upset that I gave up time or energy for something I really didn’t want to do). I practiced saying, “Can I call you back? And the minute I hang up the phone, I realized, “Hell no, I can’t do that!” But in that moment before, when I was on the phone or in the presence of that person, I felt compelled to do whatever they asked.
And once I learned to say, “No, I can’t do that,” I realized that I was much more generous with my time and energy with that person the next time we were together. I didn’t feel forced to do anything. I felt genuine care and respect for them.
So setting boundaries can not only be self-protection. It’s a wonderful tool that helps us be more compassionate with others, as well.