Why I took a class about compassion

and what I learned

Part 6: Next: set boundaries

In the Christian tradition, we gain boundaries through religious teachings. Some are invaluable to support society, like the golden rule or ten commandments. However, we may not see how Christianity teachings support us to discover our own boundaries regarding who we are. What does it mean for someone to overstep for you? What is too much? What is not enough? What do you need to be happy? 

Formal religions provide us a guide for how to live in a society; it doesn’t always dictate what is right for each person. Its guidance often treats us as if we are all the same and if we follow the same life recipe, we’ll be happy, joyful, and content. That’s just not true. We each have our own path. It’s why our faith needs to be personal and why Christianity universally doesn’t work for everyone. Everyone needs something different to be happy.

Honor and set boundaries

I came to compassion after decades of personal work and therapy around setting personal boundaries. The boundaries I created during that time allowed me to protect myself from potential emotional harm from others. I would observe someone’s personality traits and actions to see if they were consistent with their words and then set boundaries to protect my feelings. Such boundaries supported me in learning to be okay saying “no thank you.” If you are feeling particularly emotionally vulnerable, this is necessary for survival. Some boundaries I had developed may have seemed excessive to some, but they provided me shelter from unhealthy actions. 

For example, when using dating apps, I spent a lot of time having conversations with men to see if they were consistent in their stories before I met them. If there were any inconsistencies in their conversations or a demonstration of odd conversational behavior, I’d let them go. I’d also let them go if I went to research them online and their information wasn’t consistent. In one case, after I told a man that my mother had dementia, he thought he would be funny and claimed that he thought he had dementia too because his memory was getting challenged as he got older. The joke fell completely flat for me, and that signaled that he didn’t understand how to take serious matters seriously. In another case, a guy who seemed logical and pleasant told me he didn’t understand why he was single. But after a few days, he started demanding to meet in person. I suggested we meet via webcam first – I wasn’t ready to meet him in person and invest that time. Something didn’t seem right. But he wasn’t flexible. Before you know it, his personal story started to crack about just moving to Dallas, and his job start dates. There were many contradictions. In another case, the guy I was talking to had a phone number owned by a woman in Houston. He couldn’t explain how this was true. He insisted that he was single, but I refused to meet him, especially when he asked to meet in a remote area of Dallas. In all cases, I used a boundary to protect myself from the disappointment of yet another liar and to maintain my own safety.

After compassion training, I learned that there are two types of boundaries: those you create to protect yourself from anticipated pain and boundaries that allow you to be who you are. It’s the difference between knowing what you don’t want versus knowing what you want. When you know what you don’t want, you are wandering, using the process of elimination to figure out what you want. When you know what you want, you pursue that exact item. It’s a different experience between being directed versus experimenting. Self-compassion leads you to know what you do want so you pursue that and are more directed in your life.

I have found that people who know themselves with a strong sense of self join work environments that have team members who share their values that will support their success. If you don’t know yourself or you are experimenting with a new identity or self, you are more open to trying something new and don’t always try to align yourself with where you are. You may have a different goal to achieve while in the team you join besides belonging. You may want to earn more money, learn a new skill set, try a new field, or get a title on your resume. In all of these cases, you may accept working with a team that’s not quite right for you to see what happens. Such situations will help you grow to realize who you are. But in these environments, you quickly realize that you need life rules and boundaries to keep your heart safe because your motivations to join the team wasn’t about selecting people who possess and show specific qualities. You were looking to complete specific tasks and achieve specific goals. And in such cases, you may be experimenting with new experiences to learn what you do want and what’s right for you. As you get to know yourself during this time, you’ll build boundaries so your heart can live and thrive. So rather than be entirely goal-focused, you may be people-focused or mission-focused or vision-focused, finding environments that match your goals.

For example, I have worked in jobs and with clients who are okay. They aren’t verbally abusive, I get paid on time, and I can do my work. I’m not doing particularly innovative or thoughtful work, which is what I really want to do, but I am visibly helping the organization. I realize at some point in such jobs that I can’t do work or lead initiatives that radically transform the organization. As a consultant, I’m used to people taking my ideas and not giving me credit – that’s my job, and in fact, I find it flattering when someone steals an idea or phrase from me and uses it in their jobs. I may see issues with the client getting in their own way, and yes, it’s part of my job to help them fix that. But at the same time, if they do this frequently, can I help them help themselves? I often have my doubts.

One client I worked with had a lot of dramatic happenings in the executive ranks – a new executive was added to the team who didn’t blend with the others. Coaches and friends encouraged me to stay for the money and tried to show me how this situation wasn’t so awful. They kept trying to show me how I could add value and reminded me of the money I was earning. I suspect that they thought I was looking for the “perfect client.” But I realized that although this client supported my boundaries so I could protect myself in life and keep me fed, pay my rent, and keep the lights on, this client was not supporting my boundaries for me to fully express the value I could provide to them or any other client. I was holding myself back every day, not able to be who I am and help them the best I could. They met my needs for self-protection and my self-interest, but they didn’t help me actualize myself. When I would speak up to recommend new ideas or approaches, I was silenced or ignored. Or there just wasn’t room for me to speak, or they weren’t ready to hear me yet. I moved on to find new work when I realized that it was not a fit for me to have boundaries, so I grew. They weren’t a match for the path where I chose to take. 

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According to Gottman Institute-trained therapist, Hanna Stensby: “boundaries are all about becoming clear on your values and your priorities, and then setting limits around people or activities in your life that don’t bring you joy or don’t make you feel fulfilled.”