The Compassionate and Wise nature of Boundaries
Updated: Mar 3, 2021
Compassion is a concept that had been getting increased attention in mainstream culture, psychology and research in the past few years. One aspect of compassion that I see as integral to the conversation is boundaries. To begin, let us define compassion for the sake of continuity, as there are many different definitions and ways to think about compassion. The following definition comes from a contemporary Buddhist perspective.
"Compassion is a multi-textured response to pain, sorrow and anguish. It includes kindness, empathy, generosity and acceptance. The strands of courage, tolerance, equanimity are equally woven into the cloth of compassion. Above all compassion is the capacity to open to the reality of suffering and to aspire to its healing. The Dalai Lama once said, ‘If you want to know what compassion is, look into the eyes of a mother or father as they cradle their sick and fevered child” (Feldman &Kuyken, 2011).
Boundaries are often thought of as a huge red and white stop sign. “No!” Maybe when you think about boundaries you think of an angry confrontation. This is at times needed and can be incredibly important. But I want to talk about the way boundaries can also be an expression of compassion, even in their potential fierceness. And, when I speak about compassion, I include self-compassion. Self-compassion is needed for boundary setting. “Self-compassion is compassion directed inward…Self-compassion, therefore, involves being touched by and open to one’s own suffering, not avoiding or disconnecting from it, generating the desire to alleviate one’s suffering and to heal oneself with kindness” (Neff & Germer, 2017). It is a way of turning towards ourselves and asking, what is truly happening here? And what do I need to fill myself up so I may heal, and give my gifts to the world? How can I honor myself? It is in honoring ourselves and being honest, we are also given the opportunity to deeply honor another. A meditation teacher recently gave a teaching on love that I attended and she said “true love is truth telling.” That resonated for me.
How would your life change if you saw your boundaries as a loving gift? I have come to see that boundaries, are just that: the beautiful gift of truth-speaking. So many clients of mine share that setting boundaries feels hard and scary, and they often avoid it. Much of the time, folks haven’t had any models of ways to set healthy boundaries that isn’t a full-on confrontation, and they don’t want that, so they avoid it altogether. They come to the conversation expecting their boundaries to be met with hostility, and so they hold a defense mode: ready to meet the enemy and defend their territory. This is sometimes how you’ll be met, no matter how you present a boundary. And we cannot control others, but we do have a choice of what we bring to the table, how we frame it, and how it feels inside of us as we share it. It is the other’s choice how they respond.
Here is a simple idea, imagine it with me if you’d like. What if the next time you wanted to set a boundary, you came to the conversation with the belief and sense in your mind and body that this conversation was a gift of wise compassion? An act of love. What would change inside of you? How might you feel going into that conversation then? If you’d like, let yourself fully imagine this experience for a moment before continuing on. You can let yourself run through the entire sequence of this experience being a gift to another, noting what you feel in your body sensations.
Setting needed boundaries can feel scary in moments, especially if we are not used to using our voices to share our needs, or if the person you need to set them with has historically not honored your boundaries. Many of us were taught to be silent in the face of difficulty, grin and bear it, chin up. Our culture confirms these ideas explicitly and implicitly. But, this potentially unfamiliar territory of boundary setting can also create a sense of coming home to ourselves. A slowing down, a tuning in, and allowing a settling into our own being to digest what has happened or what is happening.
Healthy boundaries are inherently compassionate and wise. The wisdom comes from the ability to look within and see what is truly needed. The compassion comes from the ability to be tender and kind enough toward ourselves to set the boundaries and be generous enough with the other to be truly honest with them. And it takes trust; trusting that setting a boundary is okay and good, even if someone doesn’t like it.
Let us think for a moment about boundaries within a larger social context. When we look at our westernized world today, specifically the United Stated where I am from, seeing the systemic racism and inequity that runs rampant, a healthy mobilizing response would be anger. This is an emotion that is natural and important. This anger can be supportive in creating change, and can lead us to something in Buddhism called wrathful compassion. In the Dalai Lama’s book Be Angry, he says “Suffering should make us angry. This type of anger moves us toward a wrathful compassion to take action to end suffering.” Anger can be the spark to move toward change. When I was going through a very difficult time, faced with a boundary that felt hard for me to set, a meditation teacher of mine told me that wrathful compassion is not destructive. It is like a scalpel, removing only the part that needs to be removed. It is clear, wise and swift. This might look like the people who are marching in the streets holding signs, it might look like folks who are writing new policy to change the system from the ground up. It might look like hard, loving conversations with family members about racism, sexism, or homophobia. These are some clear example of compassionate and wise boundaries.
There are going to be times when our truth isn’t welcome. Especially in our greater systems that people are fighting hard to change, with equal forces wanting things to stay the same. And in personal boundary setting, it is good to remember that we are all dealing with our own internal hurts from past experiences, and may have reactions to other people’s boundaries. We get to show up to the process with what the Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach talks about as having a strong back and a soft heart. Our strong back is the wisdom and clarity of the boundary and our soft heart is the openness, the honesty, the realness. In my time studying compassion and psychotherapy, I have come to see that boundaries are a way we can touch into our own innate wisdom and remember that we are not separate, but might need some physical separation sometimes to fill our cup back up. Boundaries can be an incredible act of self-compassion, acknowledging that we are part of the whole, and just as important as any other being. Interestingly, research in the United States indicates that individuals who rate high in self-compassion experience greater psychological health and resilience than those who lack self-compassion. Self-compassion is positively associated with life satisfaction, positive relations with others, wisdom, personal growth, happiness, and adaptive coping with failure, while being negatively associated with depression, anxiety, thought suppression, and perfectionism. (Neff, 2003a; Neff, Hsieh, & Dejitterat, 2005; Neff, Kirkpatrick & Rude, 2007).
If your compassion does not include that same kindness directed back at you, you are excluding yourself from the fullness of your gift to the world. My wish for you is that you remember to include yourself in your compassion, and that next time you give of yourself, you also give some back to yourself for nourishment.
If we are under nourished, we cannot do our work in the world.
Compassionate boundaries may look like something as simple as turning your phone off for the weekend or even an hour when you notice you are spinning in compulsive phone habits. It might look like not responding to your boss unless it’s a workday. It might be asking a new person you’re dating to allow for more physical space so you can fully process what is happening, the good or the bad.
Boundaries can let the people in our lives know what we are and aren’t up for, and a relationship based on this truth-speaking creates a foundation of deep trust.
It may not always feel great, and it may ruffle some feathers, but for me, knowing that a person is being honest with me instead of just *nice* allows me to settle inside in a deep way. And practicing this truth-speaking personally has allowed me to have a deeper trust in my own voice, seeing that when I set boundaries and others honor them, this can create a sense of safety and connection. When the boundaries I set are not honored, it gives me a moment to pause, collect the information at hand, and an opportunity to have a deeper conversation about what is happening in the relationship, and voice courageously what I need. There are many contexts in which the experience of boundaries not being honored might show up, and I want to acknowledge that a deeper conversation is not always the best nor safest course of action.
I was recently talking about boundaries with a friend and colleague of mine, Lior Alon, a wilderness therapist in Boulder, CO. She shared that boundaries are not always to keep people or energy out, but they are also to keep your health and what is precious in. She has found incredible transformation personally and with her clients in working to explore setting boundaries from a place of self-worth and personal power, rather than from a place of hurt or fear. Working to feel empowered in boundary-setting is an unfolding process of noticing the patterns we have learned, and unwinding them from within so that we may be more present, and have more nourishment in our lives. And it can all start with a simple moment of slowing down, tuning in and asking with a gentle curiosity, what is needed here?
Invitation to go deeper: Journal prompts:
What was boundary setting like in your family of origin? Do you notice similarities or differences in yourself?
Have you wanted to set boundaries, but felt scared/avoided it to avoid potential conflict? With who? Do you find yourself setting boundaries with an anger defensiveness from the beginning?
When you think about setting boundaries, how do you feel in your body? What emotions, sensations and or thoughts/beliefs are in the foreground of your awareness?
When you think about setting boundaries as a wise gift, what sensations do notice in your body? What emotions come up?
Christina Feldman & Willem Kuyken (2011) Compassion in the landscape of suffering, Contemporary Buddhism, 12:1, 143-155, DOI: 10.1080/14639947.2011.564831
Dalai Lama XIV,; Ueda, N. (2019). Be Angry. Hampton Roads Publishing.
Neff, K. D. (2003a). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2, 223-250
Neff, K. D. & Germer, C. (2017). Self-Compassion and Psychological Wellbeing. In J.Doty (Ed.) Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, Chap. 27. Oxford University Press
Neff, K. D., Hsieh, Y., & Dejitthirat, K. (2005). Self-compassion, achievement goals, and coping with academic failure. Self and Identity, 4, 263-287.
Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K., & Rude, S. S. (2007). Self-compassion and its link to adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 139-154.
Neff, K. D., Pisitsungkagarn, K., & Hsieh, Y. (2008). Self-Compassion and Self-Construal in the United States, Thailand, and Taiwan. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 39(3), 267-285. doi:10.1177/0022022108314544