Boundaries: A Prerequisite for Compassion and a Tool For Healing

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the value of boundaries lately. There are a whole slew of reasons for this—but suffice it to say that a couple of situations in my life were depleting me for a few weeks. The common denominator? I needed to get honest with myself and set some new, healthy boundaries around work and in relationships.

Boundaries are a common focus in my work with clients, especially when honing in on stress management, self-care, addressing unhealthy relationships, and brainstorming ideas for a better work/life balance. One of my client’s recently told me in a life-changing ah-ha moment, “My lack of healthy boundaries is THE underlying cause of everything out of balance in my life.” She was putting together how her poor boundaries played a key role in physical dis-ease, an overscheduled, anxious and “busy” lifestyle, resentment in relationships, and ultimately many life regrets.

I recognize that my ongoing struggles with boundaries stem from a deep fear of disappointing someone, of being disliked, and of being perceived as selfish. Others have told me their issues with boundaries stem from good ol’ fashion FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). No matter the root cause, boundaries are resisted in our culture.

Brene Brown, a scholar, professor, and researcher who studies human connection, defines the act of setting a boundary as deciding, in a given situation, what’s okay and what’s not okay for you. Her research indicates that the better understanding we have of what’s okay for us and what’s not okay, the more effectively we can serve others with genuine compassion. Brown states that boundaries “are the key to self-love and the key to treating others with loving kindness.” What a mindshift! (Whenever I need a boundary refresher, I watch this video of Brown’s to inspire and guide me.)

On the surface, setting boundaries can feel like saying “no,” but the reality is that setting boundaries helps us meet our own needs in a way that then better enables us to meet the needs of others. In essence, we are saying “YES” to what we need so that we are better able to show up for and help others — true altruism.

5 signs that you might need better boundaries:

If you feel…

  1. Burned out
  2. Drained by others
  3. Resentful
  4. Chronically stressed
  5. Used by others

I work with many of my clients to reset areas of their lives where they need to start redefining what works for them. Just as boundaries are critical to self-love, they are a key component of healing and vitality. Here are some lessons from the field:

Your physical health is directly impacted by boundaries.

I supported a client who experienced uncontrolled premenstrual symptoms. She found that the ultimate solution to her hormone imbalance and symptoms was the need to shift her lifelong habit of “caretaking” and saying “yes” to everyone in her life, and not as much the diet that she initially focused on. Saying no — to that social invite, to doing a favor for a friend, or to that extra volunteer opportunity — was very difficult for her. So we found a new strategy. She learned how to say “yes, and…” For example, she could say “yes, I want to support you during this hard time, and I am able to meet with you for lunch next Wednesday for an hour.” Or, “Yes, I want you to get the help you need. My schedule doesn’t allow me to show up for you in the way you deserve, let’s figure out what other resources you have to help right now.” Another good trick for those who intrinsically say yes to everyone and every opportunity that presents itself is to give space before answering by saying, “Let me think about it and get back to you.” You can then put thought into how the request will impact you and respond in a way that includes your needs.

Lesson: Boundaries don’t have to mean saying “no” in a harsh and uncaring way. Try saying “yes, and…” to convey care and support AND owning what is okay for you. Slow down and give space between a request and your answer so you can respond in a way that also meets your needs. Notice what happens to your physical wellness when you do this.

Living a life of no regrets requires boundaries.

One of my client’s with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis has been noticing how her poor boundaries at work have contributed to her autoimmune symptoms and are impacting her quality of life. She often feels so drained at the end of the day that she doesn’t have much energy for her family and friends, where she really wants to be spending her quality time. The idea of scaling back at work seemed terrifying. She’d come to form a lot of her identity around her job and performing well at work. Who would she be if she reprioritized? Talking through the question of what she wants her life’s legacy to be helped her to reshape her approach to work. She wants to look back at the end of her life and know that she put her energy where it really mattered to her: into her family. It took a long time and many tough decisions, but she has gotten to a point where she is no longer bringing work home on weekends and has committed to limiting her workweek to 40-45 hours. As a consequence, she now has energy to focus on quality time with her spouse and friends, and finds it easier to engage in joyful, fun activities that she previously did not have time or energy for.

Lesson: What does a life with no regrets look like for you? Get clear on what you want and need in your life. What do you want your legacy to be? Create some boundaries and start living it.  

Damaging habits can be triggered by poor boundaries.

Another client wants to feel a sense of connection with people in her life so badly that she says “yes” when they ask almost anything of her. As a result, she often feels disappointed, drained, and out of balance, and turns to comfort food to cope. A cycle begins. She feels burned, so she overeats. Then she feels bad about it, and in an attempt to feel better, she says “yes” to whatever favor a family member requests. They in turn don’t provide the connection she longs for, leading again to disappointment…and the cycle repeats. She is working to identify when saying yes is actually okay to her. Her relationship with food is shifting as she begins to feel empowered in how she gives more mindfully to others and is clear about how her needs can be met.

Lesson: A lack of boundaries may be the at the root of lifestyle habits that have been hard to shift. Use boundaries as a tool to support positive change.

Making the Shift

  • Self-care, self-awareness and self-respect are core components of boundaries. Nurture connection with yourself by SLOWING DOWN, looking inward, and making soul-centered self-care a non-negotiable part of your every day. This is not selfish, egotistical, or indulgent, it is a necessity in knowing who you are, what you need, and communicating boundaries effectively.
  • Let’s cut each other some slack as we practice healthy boundaries. Be gentle and understanding when someone is trying to set boundaries and isn’t the most skillful. Listen between the lines for what they are actually trying to communicate about their needs. Also, let yourself fumble, mess up, and be a little sloppy as you develop this new habit. A learning curve is inevitable with any new skills.
  • Check in with others about their boundaries and ask questions to help identify needs and what is actually okay. I was recently negotiating work-related matters with a woman and at the end of our discussion she said, “I want to thank you for valuing boundaries in a work setting and asking questions that help me be honest with myself about what is best for me. It is rare that you find that in the business setting and I appreciate it.” It takes one person to inspire the tone and direction of an interaction.

About Sarah Kolman

Sarah Kolman RN, MA, CHPN is an AIP Certified Coach, Registered Nurse, Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, Contemplative Psychotherapist, wife, and mom of three boys. Sarah offers unique one-on-one health coaching that blends her nursing and psychotherapy experience with holistic and nutrition-based health concepts. Learn more about Sarah’s coaching services by visiting her website, www.this-one-life.com. Her book Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family’s Whole Health in a Busy World is available on Amazon and her website. You can follow Sarah on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

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