You might be under the impression that there’s some tension, or even conflict and contradiction, between compassion and personal boundaries. Although surely this is a widely shared, culturally pervasive impression, it could hardly be further from the truth. In this post I’ll elaborate on how and why true compassion and appropriate personal boundaries are intrinsically linked, drawing heavily on the words of two teachers and one researcher.
Compassion and Boundaries
It’s interesting how things come together sometimes. Recently, I’ve come across three different authors connecting compassion and boundaries. More specifically, they all said that having great compassion, and setting firm, appropriate personal boundaries, are mutually requiring.
The first was Brene Brown, a sociological researcher and author who might be best known for her work on vulnerability. In an interview with Russell Brand, she said that she had gathered a lot of data and information about compassion and highly compassionate people, and the one thing every highly compassionate person had in common was, in her words, “boundaries of steel.”
When she questioned some of these highly compassionate people about having such strong personal boundaries, the typical explanation went something like this: “Because I have compassion, I don’t subject myself to abuse from others.” Presumably, these highly compassionate people set similar boundaries for themselves, also, and for the same reason (having compassion), not permitting themselves to subject other to abuse. And compassion is, after all (at least in classical Buddhist teachings), directly contrary to cruelty.
Compassion and Oneself
All this points to compassion actually having a great deal to do with oneself, or with one’s relation with oneself, even though we might tend to think of compassion as being all about others. And maybe this in turn points out a problem in our usual notions of compassion; maybe we conflate dysfunctional people-pleasing, destructive self-sacrifice, and fear-induced fawning behaviors, with the feelings, intention, and actions of actual compassion.
Contrary to this misguided notion that compassion requires subjecting oneself to mistreatment, meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, best-known for her writings on metta or loving-kindness, explains in Lovingkindness Meditation that in Buddhist traditions of intentionally cultivating a compassionate heart and mind, there is an emphasis on beginning with one’s relation with oneself, a clear instruction to begin by developing compassion for oneself, and that in the absence of such a foundation there follows and unhealthy loss of boundaries.
Self-hatred must be replaced by self-love and self-compassion. “If we practice love for others without the foundation of love for ourselves, then we experience a loss of boundaries, a loss of self-worth, and a painful and fruitless search for intimacy.” We need to value and validate our own deep desire for happiness, then shape that with wisdom.
This also points out the importance of true self-esteem. Not a merely contingent and possibly misnamed “self-esteem,” but an authentic, intrinsic self-esteem. See my post about what intrinsic self-esteem is and why it matter so much here. Or see this article by martial artist and self-esteem enthusiast Steve Grogan.
The esteemed Buddhist teacher and abbess of Gampo Abbey, Pema Chodron, in Getting Unstuck, addresses this same topic in response to a question that asks, specifically, about how to establish both boundaries and compassion, given that there seems to be some conflict between the two. She states unequivocally that “there is no conflict” between having compassion and drawing clear personal boundaries. And I appreciate her explanation: boundaries are a matter of wisdom (compassion, by the way, is a key part of wisdom); boundaries help everyone and in fact “are extremely compassionate.”
In the case of an abusive or potentially abusive situation, setting boundaries
- removes confusion;
- prevents the abuser (or would-be abuser) from harming someone; and
- prevents the person setting the boundaries from being harmed.
Boundaries are rooted in self-compassion and love, as is compassion itself. From there, boundaries benefit everyone involved. From there, compassion expands to include and benefit others as well.
The link between Compassion and Personal Boundaries
Appropriate personal boundaries are necessary to establishing compassion, and actual compassion will necessarily manifest in boundaries, as anything else would be unwise and lead to harm. Thus the most highly compassionate people also have a very strong sense of personal boundaries.
Compassion and boundaries are discussed in Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection
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