By: Christine Martin Byers, M.Ed., LCMHC
Self-compassion, once mastered, can bring a sense of self-worth, self-empowerment, and peace with what is. Self-compassion, however, can sometimes lead to an endless amount of giving of oneself to the point of burnout. This is because when we embrace our shadows and learn to love the darkest corners of our souls, we also tend to build our empathy meter. That is, after all, the beautiful thing about learning how to love ourselves, for we are more patient and open to love others where they are, for we realize the power of loving our flaws. But here is the key: to build self-compassion, we must capture the negative thinking and habits that make it difficult even to begin to see the light of self-worth and value. When working with my clients on building their self-compassion meter, I also discuss the benefits of boundaries, which is where this article is going. Self-compassion and boundaries are valuable assets of compassion. If we do not have one without the other, we can set ourselves up for burnout and open doors for others to walk all over us because we have so much compassion and empathy for others that we tend to turn a blind eye. Just as if we turn a blind eye to doing the work it takes to change the negative self-talk around late-night eating when we are trying to get healthier or blowing off another walk when we are anxious or stressed even though we know deep down, it would be helpful. When we turn blind to our boundaries, we cannot break unhealthy habits/boundaries our ability to set goals and follow through. We need first to acknowledge what exactly our boundaries are.
The definition of boundaries, simply put, is what is okay and what is not okay. The first step to identifying such is sitting down and making a list of what is okay and what is not OK for our job, family, friends, and unhealthy habits. Then remind us that it is okay to set limits with ourselves and others to honor our needs and honor the needs of others so to start building the ability to put them and follow through with them. Becoming okay with setting boundaries is where the work begins. Brene’ Brown states that some of the most compassionate people she knows have the most substantial boundaries, and I couldn’t agree more. Setting those boundaries once established can be challenging. I know this firsthand, for there was a time when my boundaries were too soft, too rigid. I did not have healthy boundaries; I was always frustrated with other people taking advantage of me. I am naturally a caretaker and giver, so I would get angry with others who did not meet my needs. I would think how dare they or that is so rude or, the one I think we all use the most, I would never do that, say that, or act like that until I had an epiphany. I was going through a divorce that was emotionally taking a toll on me. I was so angry at my children’s father because he was not whom I wanted him to be. I think I was so in disarray at that time that I had no choice but to surrender to what is. I had to accept that this is who he was, this is where I am at, this is what it is, and it was from that point that I started to love myself out of that dark space. This is where the work began for me with radical acceptance, self-love, and finding healthy boundaries.
Once I did the job it took to build a healthy foundation for myself, I then had to understand that if I could not change what was going on in my outer world, I had to change my inner world—let light in such a light shine out. It started with self-compassion work, then moved into understanding that we are all doing our best—compassion. Suppose it is true that we cannot change another person. In that case, all I can do is set my boundaries so that I am no longer an emotional hostage to my anger because I wanted life, friends, family, coworkers to be something other than what it was and who they were. Boundaries were my way of getting control where I could get control. I can now help others with more love and compassion because I have more love and compassion for what is okay for me and what is not. It was hard to stand up for myself, but I would always remind myself that it’s okay to say this does not work for me. A great way to start is using the acronym RAIN as an outline for practicing mindfulness and compassion. R—recognize what is going on; A—allow the experience to be (this step can be challenging, for it is our nature to try and get away from uncomfortable feelings); I—investigate with loving kindness, for we tend to move into the negative self-talk. The most crucial part of RAIN, in my opinion, is N—nurture. I would drop the ball on this one every time. Nurture may look like walking away from an unhealthy conversation, going for a walk, taking a ten-minute nap, meditating, calling a friend, and so on. We ask ourselves what we need right now to help us navigate this complex emotion in nurture. RAIN is one of many tools to help us build internal awareness of what yanks our chain.
After reading this article, I hope you will take the time to think about where you are the most frustrated in your life and what boundaries and acceptance need to take place to make amends with your emotions and current frustrations. There are many books and workbooks on boundaries and self-compassion and websites. A therapist can also help guide you toward a more compassionate lifestyle with healthy boundaries. If you prefer to do the work independently or with a therapist, Nedra Tawwab and Kristin Neff are two of my favorites, but you must find what resonates best with you. Remember, it takes work to make changes, and work takes courage. Therefore, always remember that we all have what it takes to work toward our goals; we must not forget that we are worth that effort.