The Surprising Truth about Boundaries

Having strong boundaries is pretty important. 

But why so hard?

Several reasons really.

We (women especially) have an ingrained bias against demonstrations of assertiveness. Anytime we reinforce a division, it is met with either our own guilt or other people’s judgments.

And that is the other thing: we hate being the bad guy.

It’s not such that we are weasels. It is hard-wired, our primal urge to be liked and accepted into a group: there’s no fighting it. 

All of this adds up to mean one thing: a human that is consistently awesome at enforcing boundaries is a rare human indeed. 

Author and shame researcher, Brene Brown, linked the seemingly opposing qualities/concepts of compassion and boundaries, after being ‘astounded to discover’ in her research that the most compassionate people were also the most ‘boundaryed’.

And as she says of herself since developing clearer boundaries: ‘ I am not as sweet anymore; but I am a whole lot more loving.’

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This distinction – that there is a relationship between compassion and boundaries – can assist us at a very practical level. 

We can get better boundaries indirectly by practicing compassion Click To Tweet

That is because it gives us something tangible – our ability to exercise compassion – to work with, in among the steady stream of misty advice to love ourselves better and raise self-esteem. 

This post looks at how we cultivate the kind of compassion we need to be better at boundaries.

Compassion is a form of presence 

As its essence, compassion is presence. Uncompromised, unwavering presence.

In her wonderful book, Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach identifies compassion as being one of the two ‘wings’ of self acceptance – the other being awareness. Through awareness, we get to the reality of our situation and emotions. Compassion honors it. Together, they get us to self-acceptance.

We often confuse compassion with ‘kindness’ and ‘being nice’. And it is true that being compassionate allows us to become truly generous.

Being truly compassionate might sometimes look unkind on the face of things Click To Tweet

But being compassionate is really much closer to an ability to be with truth. 

Boundaries are subjective 

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Probably obvious but: my boundaries are different to your boundaries.

Sometimes asserting healthy boundaries looks like saying no, refusing to do something, or refusing to interact in a certain way, when not refusing would cause us some kind of anguish and upset. 

Things that stress one person out might be enjoyable to another, so exactly where we set out personal boundaries is an individual decision.

Interface of compassion and boundaries

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Let’s get totally clear on how the two interact.

When I am able to be really present with your requests, demands and desires, because I myself have spent enough time examining my own soft spots to know what is and what is not okay for me, that changes my response to you.

It means I am more likely to be direct with you, without you feeling the weight of my anger, guilt or condescending.

Absent this kind of rich relationship with our emotional lives and our pain, existing alongside others is a fraught business. 

Here are just a few manifestations of that fraught-ness:

  • We live in fear about communicating our needs for privacy/respect to others.
  • That fear comes out in overwhelm, anger, or losing our sense of self.
  • We blame others for not respecting our boundaries. 
  • We handle other people’s grief badly.
  • It limits our engagement with the world’s suffering in general – which limits how effective we can be and our choices in how to direct our time and attention. 
  • We go unconscious.

Having clear boundaries on the other hand, enables us to:

  • Stay in our integrity.
  • Make the more generous judgment of others. 

One very clear illustration of the relationship between compassion and boundaries becomes apparent in our response to grief.

If we haven’t practiced compassion, we cannot properly respond to a person who is suffering grief. We do not know what to do with their pain. We either take on too much or we turn away from it.

If we haven't developed compassion, we can't be with people's pain - or their joy Click To Tweet

Practicing compassion helps us to be with a grieving person in a way that comforts them with its frank acknowledgment, without taking anything away from us.

The wider issues here shouldn’t be overlooked. Whenever pain is denied, that’s how people learn not to trust their experience. When we do that to children, it is gut-wrenchingly awful. Through our denial, a disparity is created between their inner reality and the circumstances of the outside world.

Cultivating compassion: good cop; bad cop 

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Let’s start with bad cop.

The poet Rumi said: ‘Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.’ This is the essence of bad cop’s work. 

Our first step in cultivating self-compassion is a willingness to be with ourselves in a truthful way. This is brutal because what we discover is very unflattering. Having the openness and spaciousness to see both the conditions and the context for our emotions and upsets without getting lost in them takes a lot of courage and discipline. 

For the emotions that we are able to identify, we can develop a simple practice for transmuting them.

Owning your Shadow Self

This is where you go really, really bad cop on yourself.

If we are going to be with ourselves fully, then we need to have a practice for uncovering ‘Shadow material’. Bear with me here because this gets messy. 

In our emotional lives, we have primary and secondary emotions. Our ‘primary’ emotions are the natural states, such as joy, gratitude and happiness.

Our secondary, inauthentic (because they originate from our ego self) emotions are states such as fear, anger, shame and guilt, etc. When we experience these states, that’s our clue to Shadow material – the traits that we have disassociated from early on in life, in order to be accepted into our clan. Your Shadow material also either makes you overly sensitive and ‘triggered’, or attracted and compelled.

Having a practice for pause when that happens, observing it and having a conversation with yourself, is a compassion practice.

Feminine compassion 

There is a second kind of compassion we need to engage in.

With bad cop compassion, we have discernment, the unflinching courage to face unpleasant realities about ourselves and others, and the will to choose and enforce new behaviors in the place of old habits.

We need to develop both masculine and feminine compassion to know and integrate boundaries Click To Tweet

In channeling good cop, we are gentle on ourselves as we are dealing with unflattering aspects of our psyche. 

This other kind of softer compassion ‘greases the wheels’ on the whole process. We soften against the harsh inner critic, and bring kindness to ourselves.

We need to mobilize both these kinds of compassion.

Telling the truth – some nuance 

When we start to get better with boundaries, we sometimes find ourselves in a moral conflict over telling the truth. How can we explain to a person that their behaviour is not okay whilst not softening the blow? Do we simply go around cranking up the honesty dial without discrimination?

Having strong boundaries doesn't mean telling the undiluted truth at all times Click To Tweet

Not necessarily. 

The reality might be a little more grey because we can’t always tell the whole truth about all things to people. There is a huge difference between compassionately and open-heartedly speaking as much truth as can be heard, and it’s alternatives.

Summary

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Living consciously requires clear choices, limits and boundaries. Without them we are drifting aimlessly and we lose our identities to fear, chaos and emotional enmeshment. 

We cultivate compassion through a rich relationship with our emotional self Click To Tweet

Cultivating compassion through commitments to presence with our emotions, Shadow work and loving kindness, has the indirect effect of improving our effectiveness at boundaries.