While boundaries can sound harsh, they can be kind. They are integral to self-care, keeping your needs from being put last.
As a compassionate person, you’re likely called in when someone is in need or you’re there immediately offering your help before anyone can ask. Whether it’s a shoulder to cry on or practical help, you’re used to making yourself available to others.
But this offer or expectation of help can become a burden, as you may feel overwhelmed by the dependency others have on you or burnt out by compassion-fatigue. While pulling away can rid you with guilt, it’s important to prioritise self-care. Compassionate boundaries will not only protect your energy, they can also lead to healthier relationships and improved self-esteem.
Differentiating between compassion and empathy
Compassion and empathy, while often used interchangeably, are not the same thing. Psychotherapist and counsellor Natajsa Wagner says that we all have a great capacity for compassion, while empathy is finite. “We can’t continue to give empathy without replenishing our own energy reserves. When we move into the dark side of empathy, we can become overloaded,” she says.
While compassion involves being aware of another’s suffering and becoming motivated to take action, empathy can lead us to become overly engaged. This is where lines can blur as to what we feel and what the other person feels, as we move into their experience.
Empathy and compassion can still go hand-in-hand with what Natajsa refers to as being “compassionately detached” — “where we are holding space for ourselves as well as the other person,” she says. “This means that we are not numb or aloof when it comes to others’ pain, but we are also not flooded with their pain. It’s where we can still connect to ourselves but not lose touch with our own body and own emotions.”
Letting go of “should”
So in the past you may have dropped everything when your friend wanted to relay their latest gripe, but you’re now feeling stretched and drained. Maybe your parents are pressuring you to call more often than you’d like, and you feel the burden of what it means to be a good daughter or son.
Let go of the notion of what you should do, as this doesn’t always take into account what is best for you. It is also worth exploring what it means to feel needed and why this is important to you — do you not feel like you are enough without being of service to others? Counselling and journalling can help you make breakthroughs on what is likely to have become a long-term pattern of coming to the rescue.
Comparing yourself to others is unhelpful, too. Just because your colleague is working themselves to the bone or whipping up a batch of cupcakes for the charity bake sale, that doesn’t mean you have to as well.
“We all have different capacities when it comes to what we might be able to
offer another person at any given time; we need to learn to honour our feelings and emotions around this rather than thinking we should be doing more,” says Natajsa.
“People who have taken on roles in relationships as caregivers or are highly sensitive people (HSPs) or empaths are at risk if they don’t have awareness of their own feelings and emotions and find it difficult to express these.”
Examining your guilt
While we know the ability to say “no” is important in maintaining our boundaries, it can be hard to put yourself first without feeling a flood of guilt.
Understanding the role of guilt can help you realise that it’s not always applicable. “Guilt is intended to be a reparative emotion,” says Natajsa. “Guilt happens for people when they feel they have done something wrong and they want to make amends. In the case of people who feel selfish because they put boundaries and limits in place or are putting themselves first, it’s clear that this isn’t something to feel guilty about. There is no repair that needs to happen here because we haven’t done anything wrong.”
Yet while we can understand this intellectually, we can still feel burdened by the feeling that we are not doing enough, or are enough. In this instance, Natajsa says it’s worth embracing the guilt instead.
“While guilt might not feel great, the presence of it is a good sign for over givers,” she says. “It means they may be taking care of themselves, and this is something they can usually afford to do more of — even when they think they are being selfish — because usually they lean more towards taking care of others.”
Detaching from the response
Not all boundaries are understood or respected by the person at the receiving end. In fact, you’ll often find that the people who react the worst to boundaries being put in place are the very people who need them!
“It’s important to expect that change can be difficult and that people may react with shock or anger when we start to change the rules of the game,” says Natajsa. “We can be prepared to hold our ground and also explain the changes and why we need to make them. We can come from a place of compassion when we are doing this; where we feel grounded, calm and confident so that we don’t get drawn into the other person’s shock and pain in the moment.”
And if you experience anger or resentment from someone when you set a boundary, it’s likely the relationship is not reciprocal. “When there is an imbalance in a relationship, one person requires the other person to give more time, energy and resources, while you’re left not receiving anything in return,” she says.
Leaning into generosity, not obligation
If you’ve felt overloaded before, you may be more cautious about lending a helping hand again. What if that “every now and then” food shop for your elderly neighbour becomes a constant obligation? Or that offer to drive a friend to an appointment becomes an expectation that you’ll be available at the drop of a hat?
Never helping anyone due to the fear they will overload you isn’t the answer, but instead, decide who and what to give your energy to. This decision should come down to mutual respect, as this results in healthier boundaries. “When someone respects our thought, effort and time, this really sets the tone for all of our interactions,” says Natajsa.
Set expectations from the beginning by understanding what is being asked of you, and check in so both parties can talk about how the arrangement is going. For example, if you agree to do a weekly food shop for your elderly neighbour, make sure that you both understand when you’ll do this and for how long. If they start expecting daily shops, be open with them about what is and isn’t possible — you may be able to do this, but don’t feel bad if you can’t take this more time-intensive task on.
Remember that while others’ needs are important, they aren’t more important than your own. “When we decide to put another person’s needs above our own, we abandon ourselves and what our needs are,” says Natajsa. “This is about recognising and honouring our feelings and emotions as valid, just as we would honour another person’s.”
Samantha Allemann is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and editor who has written for Being magazine since issue 01. When she’s not writing, she’s usually daydreaming or reading (preferably surrounded by cats).
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