Sh*t To Help You Show Up May 21, 2021
On Boundaries, Integrity, and Compassion
We need to find more compassion for each other in this world, but how do we increase our capacity for true compassion? We have to have a clear sense of boundaries.
Empathy, the capacity to feel with someone else, is a necessary foundation for compassion. But if I cannot maintain a clear sense of the boundary between your feelings and my own, I will lose myself in the vast sea of your emotions.
If I try to take responsibility for your feelings— fixing, placating, anticipating, managing, controlling— then I am also displaying a lack of clear boundaries around what is mine to carry and what is yours.
Compassion is empathy for someone else, and the desire to reduce both of our suffering. If I can’t maintain a clear sense of self separate from you then I cannot actually express true compassion for you, or prevent myself from creating unnecessary suffering for both of us.
Developing the capacity to know and communicate, clearly and respectfully, my boundaries is essential to me living with integrity and compassion in the world.
So, how do I develop the capacity to know and communicate my boundaries?
Accept that boundaries make me more generous, not less
We misinterpret compassion when we picture it as “soft”. Compassion is both tender and tough. It does not look away from suffering, separation, darkness, or shadow. Instead, it accepts that we share those human conditions as much as we share light, connection, and unity.
In order to be generous to you and find compassion for you, I have to stand clearly in my own wholeness, all the warts and wonder, claiming the boundaries of my Self. Only then can I be in my integrity.
“They’re not fake walls. They’re not separation. Boundaries are not division, they’re respect.”— Brené Brown
Understand when to shield and when to invite
There are different types of boundaries. Circumstances, and your own instincts, dictate when you need to create a shield to protect yourself and when instead you need to reassert the limits of your responsibility.
What author Hailey Magee refers to as shield boundaries “protect us from others’ unwanted behavior. Shield boundaries ward off unwanted physical touch, defend against others’ anger or cruelty, or protect our time, belongings, and material goods.”
They are clear-cut and can be encapsulated in a single word: NO.
Magee refers to boundaries that involve letting go of feelings, patterns, or relationships that no longer serve us as sandbox boundaries. In other words, looking around at what you and everyone around you brought to the table and only picking up what belongs to you. Not carrying away other people’s emotions, responsibilities, or projections, but taking full responsibility for everything you brought— both the gifts and the mess.
Setting sandbox boundaries can be an invitation for others to continue to play and engage, but not everybody will be able to accept that invitation. At that point, shield boundaries and finding another sandbox may be required.
Having to leave the sandbox can be painful, even if you choose it. We want people to welcome us, see, understand and love us, and we want to extend the same positive regard. But some people can only be understood and loved at a distance; that distance being the amount of space that allows you to love them and yourself at the same time.
Sometimes we have too few boundaries. Sometimes we have too many.
If we grow up in environments where there are little to no boundaries, as adults we may need to swing the pendulum extremely far in the other direction to reassert a sense of control over our lives. When I was a kid my parents had a generous open-door policy in our home. They were always helping people out, inviting them to visit or stay with us. When away in high school I would address all of my letters home to The Confer Traveling Circus Home for Wayward Strangers.
I was making light of the whole thing, but the somewhat sarcastic joke also masked a profound lack of a sense of safety. Hosting shy Russian violinists is one thing. Employing alcoholics and coke addicts (admittedly, supposedly in recovery) with access to firearms and knowledge of how to access your house is another, even if each instance is guided by a desire to help people.
As a result, as an adult, I have never wanted to have people in my home. I don’t want to be the party house. I don’t want people crashing on my couch, or people passing through town to stay in the extra room. But a few years ago, after some failed attempts at navigating roommates in order to cover my mortgage, I reconsidered my boundary. I didn’t want to submit my family to whatever psychological baggage unknown people might move into my house along with the rest of their stuff, but I wanted to share what I had. A friend led me to an undocumented mother and her son who were desperate for a safe place to stay. We met; she was gentle and sweet. I showed her my extra room, and asked if she’d be willing to help me stay on top of keeping the house clean, which I’m not great at, in lieu of money, which she didn’t have.
She was happy to help and be safe. I was happy for the help and the company of another single mama. I trusted my instincts and we lived together, quite happily, for about a year and a half.
Figuring out whether you have too many or too few boundaries, overall or in a specific relationship, is an ongoing process. In my case, it has involved mistakes and some heartbreak. I’m always learning. I don’t expect I’ll ever be done, and that’s okay.
Finding a place in yourself that is inviolate
Through growing into my own integrity, I’ve come to appreciate that the boundaries most important to maintain are more internal than external. I want to be in the world. I want intimacy and family. In the midst of all that chaos, clamor, and connection, the most important boundary to maintain is around the clear, quiet space inside where I meet that of God within me. No one else can enter that sacred space. They’re not meant to. Only I can protect it. In that place, I am whole, safe, and infinite.
I love this interview between Oprah Winfrey and her mentor, the great Maya Angelou. Starting at about minute 25:00 Ms. Angelou talks about the importance of finding that inviolate internal space. It’s worth a watch, in part or the whole thing. I could listen to Ms. Angelou talk all day.
What helps you develop and maintain healthy boundaries? Do your boundaries help you show up with compassion?
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