Setting Boundaries Is Also Compassionate

We don’t usually connect “kindness” and “boundary setting.” At least I didn’t for many years. I imagined that kindness is about listening with empathy, responding with compassion, treating others with dignity, doing random (and not so random) acts of kindness, and the like. What did this have to do with boundary setting, which is ultimately about saying “no”?

Over the years I have learned, the hard way, that kindness and boundary setting balance each other, and when they are balanced they allow for true compassion. An experience I had
provided a powerful illustration of this principle.

At the end of a week-long spiritual retreat, my friend Sam approached me with a perplexing situation. His co-worker, Sally, asked him to help a person in need by doing something
Sam could not do, since it would violate a promise he had made. Sally explained that it was for a good cause, and nobody would notice the broken promise.

Sam responded gently, asking Sally to understand his unwillingness to do this (even though it was indeed unlikely that anybody would find out), and offering to find alternative
solutions for the person in need. But the more Sam explained and asked for understanding, the angrier and more hostile Sally became. Finally, Sam could deal with the situation no longer. Angry and frustrated, his relationship with Sally collapsed. What, Sam wanted to know, had he done wrong?

I invited Sam to role-play with me. Playing “Sally”, Sam asked that I help out the person in need by doing something that my contract prohibited. I responded as Sam had–explaining, asking for understanding and offering alternative solutions. I asked Sam how he felt as I was doing this. Sam said he felt himself becoming increasingly agitated.

We then role-played a second time, and I responded very differently. In a clear and firm tone, I said I was unable to do what was being asked, that I would not even consider breaking my promise, and that it was not a subject for discussion. I expressed my willingness to help find another solution for the person in need. I then asked Sam again how he felt hearing this. Sam said that, much to his dismay, my firm response calmed him, and that he felt ready to work with me on a mutually acceptable solution.

“This seems counter-intuitive”, Sam exclaimed. “How could a compassionate response lead to greater agitation, while a firm ‘no; created calm and cooperation”?

While indeed it is counter-intuitive, what Sam learned is that clear and timely boundary setting effectively puts an end to the other’s “out-of-control” behavior. As long as Sam was pleading with Sally, he gave her the idea that with just a bit more pushing she might get her way. Rather than put an end to Sally’s pushing, Sam’s pleading only invited more of it. In the words of a graduate of Communicating with Compassion, a psychiatrist in private practice, “Compassion in the face of abuse is enabling behavior”.

Boundary setting, however, has the opposite effect. It makes clear the parameters of what is acceptable. The only way Sally can achieve her goal is to work respectfully and cooperatively within the parameters of what Sam considers acceptable. There is no longer anything to be gained by pushing. Sam, in turn, can then open his heart to help Sally, secure that he will not be compromising himself.

(There is something else boundary setting accomplishes. By making clear that we won’t compromise ourselves, and by not getting involved in “people-pleasing”, we are less likely to be angry. It is when we don’t set clear boundaries and end up being inauthentic with ourselves that we feel anger at ourselves, and this anger tends to be projected outwards on the other. This is a longer discussion for another article.)

The key is to set boundaries that are firm, to set them in a timely manner, and do so without condemnation. People understand, and honor, firm and respectful boundaries. These are the “good fences” that make for good friends.

(I am grateful to these people for their input: seminar leader and trainer extraordinaire Patricia Clason—; life coach John Seeley—; parenting coach and Sue Bryan—

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