I recently watched a talk given by Dr. Brene Brown, a renowned social scientist whose work centers on understanding the phenomenon of shame. In her extensive research (over 7,000 people interviewed), she started to notice that a small subset of her subjects stood out as being particularly compassionate, filled with a capacity for natural and strings-free generosity. When the main thrust of her research was done, she resolved to go back to determine what attributes or mindsets the truly compassionate shared in common. What she found surprised her, surprises me, and gives us all something to think about.

Dr. Brown found that the people who were the most compassionate were the ones who established and held the clearest boundaries! Why? Because, as she says, when you take care of yourself, you can care more skillfully and whole-heartedly for others. Conversely, when you abandon yourself on behalf of others, your giving can carry an undertone of resentment, manipulation or powerlessness.

Let’s look at this from a ‘grit and grace’ perspective. If you are someone with a ‘grace’ preference, giving to others is probably very natural. Yet is your giving  compassionate? When giving is not balanced with boundary-setting, it can become a form of self-protection, geared more to our own well-being than to others’.  Take Sarah, a grace-based leader who believed that she had no choice but to say ‘yes’ to every request that came her way. With every ‘yes,’ she told herself that she was being a good team player, that she was caring for others. Yet she was exhausted and seething with resentment. How compassionate was that? It wasn’t until she started setting limits on her giving that her performance ratings at work and her relationships at home improved. While it may sound counterintuitive, stronger boundaries enabled Sarah to be a more truly giving and kind person.

From the grit side of the equation, boundary-setting is likely to come naturally to you. You can probably resist raising your hand when your organization is looking for volunteers, so you’re not as likely to get overwhelmed by giving you can’t sustain. You may be comfortable saying ‘no’ to requests that don’t line up with your own or your team’s priorities, which protects folks from overcommitment. Not getting yourself or your staff in over your heads is an act of compassion. Yet with boundaries firmly in place, the invitation to you may be to soften up those boundaries a bit and offer up more of the resources and knowledge that reside within your purview.

What about you?

What does giving from a place of choicelessness or obligation feel like?  How can you tell when your giving is coming from this place?

What does giving from a place of true compassion feel like?  How is it different from self-serving giving?

How could boundaries increase your capacity to be more compassionate?