The Secret to Compassion? Boundaries!

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?


4 replies
  1. Lorrie
    Lorrie says:

    To me, this is so true it stings: Conversely, when you abandon yourself on behalf of others, your giving can carry an undertone of resentment, manipulation or powerlessness.

    While I do not want to own the manipulation part, honesty requires I look deeper into the aversion. The other two qualities, resentment and powerlessness, are a tension I have learned to recognize and step into earlier and earlier in the process of giving.

    It’s a growth edge, isn’t it Leslie, to be authentic in our ‘yes’, in our ‘no’, and in our ability to honestly say, ‘This is my journey and I will live it fully.’

    • Leslie
      Leslie says:

      Lorrie, I am really touched by your reflections. I especially like the way you work with timing with regard to resentment and powerless, ‘stepping into’ them earlier in the process. I also like your flagging of authentic ‘yes’ and ‘no’ as a growth edge. I think it will be one of those edges that will stay with me all my days. One of those ‘bone marrow’ issues that travels with me for a lifetime.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and advancing my insight.

  2. Virginia Colin
    Virginia Colin says:

    This is so important! I work regularly with couples or ex-couples whose relationships are falling apart because one or both built up resentment and/or felt powerless because they did not get clear about their needs and their boundaries.
    Thanks for a very helpful article.

    • leslie.williams
      leslie.williams says:

      Virginia, thanks so much for your response. Although I write the blog with the organizational world in mind, the issue of boundaries doesn’t come up any more than in the home. And, as you say, it’s a two-tiered process. First is to get CLEAR about one’s boundaries, and the second is to advocate for them. With so many of the ‘grace’ people I coach, they’re not even sure what their needs are, so it’s doubly difficult to attend to them or to make the appropriate requests of the people around them. Thanks so much for contributing your views from the perspective of a mediator!

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