If you want to be more compassionate, set better boundaries

“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”

― Brené Brown


God I love Brené Brown! She’s sassy and funny and smart. And 23 years clean and sober to top it all off. During a recent interview, Brené Brown and Russel Brand discussed sobriety, vulnerability and compassion among other things. And one of the things that surprised me most was what her research taught her about compassion. When she asked Russel what he thought the most compassionate people had common, I paused the video, I wanted to guess. I guessed empathy, self-love, self-compassion — that all made sense to me. But her research showed that when they analysed the data about what the most compassionate people that they had interviewed had in common, there was one variable that they shared:

Boundaries of steel.

Very compassionate people who were interviewed repeatedly said:

I’m compassionate because I do not subject myself to the abuse of other people.

From this research, Brown and her colleagues developed the idea of BIG:

“What Boundaries need to be in place so that I can be in my Integrity and be Generous toward you”

Wow — I don’t know about you, but from a young age, I learned to people-please; I learned to say yes even when I didn’t want to do something; I learned to smile and laugh things off even when they hurt; I learned to ‘go with the flow and not make waves and get along with people.’ I certainly did not learn to say no.

Most of us who grew up in chaotic and abusive homes learned to survive and/or escape by doing whatever it took, I learned to be a people pleaser and to numb the pain of losing myself.

“We do that by numbing the pain with whatever provides the quickest relief. We can take the edge off emotional pain with a whole bunch of stuff, including alcohol, drugs, food, sex, relationships, money, work, caretaking, gambling, affairs, religion, chaos, shopping, planning, perfectionism, constant change, and the Internet. And just so we don’t miss it in this long list of all the ways we can numb ourselves, there’s always staying busy: living so hard and fast that the truths of our lives can’t catch up with us. We fill every ounce of white space with something so there’s no room or time for emotion to make itself known.” — Brené Brown

It was only when the pain got too much and the numbing out didn’t work anymore that I started to do my own work and learn about boundaries. I learned about boundaries in recovery rooms and in therapy rooms and by reading a lot of books!

Brené Brown’s books have all been instrumental in my healing journey. I love her Ten Guideposts for Whole Hearted Living from Rising Strong:

1. Cultivating authenticity: letting go of what people think

2. Cultivating self-compassion: letting go of perfectionism

3. Cultivating a resilient spirit: letting go of numbing and powerlessness

4. Cultivating gratitude and joy: letting go of scarcity and fear of the dark

5. Cultivating intuition and trusting faith: letting go of the need for certainty

6. Cultivating creativity: letting go of comparison

7. Cultivating play and rest: letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth

8. Cultivating calm and stillness: letting go of anxiety as a lifestyle

9. Cultivating meaningful work: letting go of self-doubt and “supposed to”

10. Cultivating laughter, song, and dance: letting go of being cool and “always in control”

And I would add to this:

Cultivating boundaries of steel: letting go of people pleasing and resentment, and developing compassion.

In my on-going desire to grow and be the best person I can be, again I turn to Rising Strong, and take this list to heart. I strive to cultivate these traits:

  • Boundaries — I create clear boundaries and will respect your boundaries; and when I’m not clear about what’s okay and not okay, I’ll ask. And I’m willing to say no.
  • Reliability — I’ll do what I say I will do. I will be aware of my competencies and limitations so I don’t overpromise and am able to deliver on commitments and balance competing priorities.
  • Accountability — I own my mistakes, apologize, and make amends.
  • Vault — I don’t share information or experiences that are not mine to share. I need to know that my confidences are kept, and that others are not sharing with me any information about other people that should be confidential.
  • Integrity — I choose courage over comfort. I choose what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy. And I choose to practice my values rather than simply profess them.
  • Non-judgment — I can ask for what I need, and you can ask for what you need. We can talk about how we feel without judgment.
  • Generosity — I extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others.

That’s a potent list, and I know it’s a matter of progress not perfection. I will keep cultivating these traits. And for today, I will choose to be compassionate. And that might mean that I say no, and that might mean that someone is less than pleased with me. And that’s OK.

I’ll Close with that incredible interview between Russel Brand and Brené Brown.  Take time to watch it, it’s really great!

I’d love to hear about how you set and keep boundaries, and does it help you stay more compassionate?

And as always, thank you for taking the time to visit.  I appreciate it.


6 thoughts on “If you want to be more compassionate, set better boundaries

  1. Hit the nail on the head again, Patti! So often I have sacrificed what was good for me to please my family. I have always thought that is what you are supposed to do. But many times it has made me sad and resentful. I did it again this week. And I need to practice “gracious” boundaries. With my family I have none yet with certain friends I will just flat out say no before they even finish their request. It’s not right for me to take it out on them when my resentment (and anger) is coming from a completely different part of my life. I have a lot of work to do yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for your comments Kathleen. I so understand your sentiment. ME TOO! It’s hard to change such an in-grained behavior. That need in me to make people happy, to people please. Interestingly, I was thinking about this when I was writing this post (obviously!) – and I thought about how much of my ‘people-pleasing’ behavior influenced me getting “Friendliest” in our class? Not sure – but I know I didn’t want anyone to dislike me… hmmm


  2. Very timely for me and much appreciated. Compassion would seem to be most-well exemplified by a lack of boundaries.

    If we see someone offer help to a stranger, and to inconvenience themselves while doing so, most would regard such help as compassionate.

    Lately, I’ve come to believe that I am too generous with my time and energy. I feel like I’m giving too much and worse that the things given don’t seem to result in the betterment of my friends.

    Here’s where things get complicated. I find that I’m usually reaching out to help friends who are fundamentally pessimistic. It took me a long time to notice this. I had failed to associate my fundamental optimism and willingness to help with their fundamental pessimism and inability to benefit from help.

    That realization was a real mind blower. What if the people we are most likely to try to help are also the people who are least likely to benefit from the effort?

    Perhaps in my case, those are the places where steel boundaries might help.

    Thanks again for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment. I know right? That’s exactly what I thought. I assumed really compassionate people would have such loose boundaries, always ready to help. For me though, what I realized while I was doing this research is that there is a very loose line between wanting to help from compassion and wanting to help out of co-dependence. I love this quote by Brene Brown where she quotes Anne Lamott:
      ‘The co-dependence stuff is something I’ve learned to recognize and work through in healthy ways. Turns out that resentment is a shitty but effective indicator light when I’m taking care of others in the wrong way. And, by wrong way I mean trying to control situations by looking generous but really trying to protect my own self-interest. I love what Anne Lamott says, “Help is the sunny side of control. Stop helping so much. Don’t get your help and goodness all over everybody.”
      Food for thought for me. I have to really check my motivation for ‘helping’ – and if I feel a resentment building, I gotta stop!
      Thanks again for commenting Paul, I appreciate it.

      Liked by 1 person

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