Want to be a truly compassionate person? You need good boundaries.
That’s what author and social work researcher Brené Brown says, anyway — and I’m inclined to think she’s right.
I’ll explain, but first let’s get our terms straight here.
Boundaries & Accountability
What do we mean by “boundaries”?
It’s drawing an interpersonal line in the sand. By setting boundaries, you’re saying — to yourself and to the other person — “This is what’s acceptable to me, and this is what’s not.”
You won’t always lay this stuff out in advance. (Although it can be very helpful when establishing formal relationships — e.g., setting ground rules for a new team, or clarifying a relationship between a coach and client.)
What’s critical is recognizing when the line has been crossed, or when a crucial expectation is going unmet, or when you yourself are being asked to to do something you’re not ok with — and then to respectfully communicate that fact.
What about accountability? How does that relate to boundaries?
Boundaries without accountability are worthless.
Why? Because, as Brown points out in her wonderful book The Gifts of Imperfection:
If we don’t follow through with appropriate consequences, people learn to dismiss our requests — even if they sound like threats or ultimatums. If we ask our kids to keep their clothes off the floor and they know that the only consequence of not doing it is a few minutes of yelling, it’s fair for them to believe that it’s really not that important to us.
So what does it mean to hold someone accountable for violating a boundary?
As suggested above, it means developing and enforcing consequences for crossing the line once the person is made aware of it.
(That awareness is key, though. It’s not fair to hold someone accountable for something they wouldn’t reasonably expect, and if you do you’ll undermine the relationship.)
What You Should Do
This means there are four essential steps to take if you want boundaries to work for you:
Step #1: Clarify boundaries. Know what behaviors are and are not acceptable to you.
Step #2: Decide on consequences. Determine what you will do if the boundary is violated.
Step #3: Communicate. Let others know what your boundaries are and what the consequences are for violating them. (You might do this in advance. Or you might do it once the line has been crossed; in this case you’d tell the person what was unacceptable to you and what will happen if they do it again.)
Step #4: Follow through. If a line is crossed, you need to do what you said you would. Otherwise, people will learn not to take you seriously.
Obviously, it takes courage even just to get through Step #1. Because once you’re honest with yourself about what you will and won’t tolerate, then you either have to hold people accountable or acknowledge to yourself that you’re letting people walk all over you.
How Boundaries Make You Compassionate
This brings us to what Brown says about the connection between boundaries and compassion (the emphasis here is mine)…
One of the greatest (and least discussed) barriers to compassion practice is the fear of setting boundaries and holding people accountable. I know it sounds strange, but I believe that understanding the connection between boundaries, accountability, acceptance, and compassion has made me a kinder person…
During the interviews [I did as part of my research], it blew my mind when I realized that many of the truly committed compassion practitioners were also the most boundary-conscious people in the study. Compassionate people are boundaried people. I was stunned.
Here’s what I learned: The heart of compassion is really acceptance. The better we are at accepting ourselves and others, the more compassionate we become. Well, it’s difficult to accept people when they are hurting us or taking advantage of us or walking all over us. This research has taught me that if we really want to practice compassion, we have to start by setting boundaries and holding people accountable for their behavior.
We live in a blame culture — we want to know whose fault it is and how they’re going to pay… [W]e do a lot of screaming and finger-pointing, but we rarely hold people accountable. How could we? We’re so exhausted from ranting and raving that we don’t have the energy to develop meaningful consequences and enforce them…
Wouldn’t it be better if we could be kinder, but firmer? How would our lives be different if there were less anger and more accountability? What would our work and home lives look like if we blamed less but had more respect for boundaries?
So, if you want to be kind, compassionate, and truly accepting of the the people in your life — including your colleagues — then you need to get rid of sources of anger and resentment in your relationships. You need to set boundaries and hold people accountable when they cross them.
Maintaining Compassion While Enforcing Boundaries
Here are some tips to help you use boundaries in a way that is consistent with a quest to be more compassionate:
Tip #1: Remind yourself of the value of setting and enforcing boundaries — for you and for the other person. (If it helps, make a list of all the ways it will benefit BOTH of you to address your specific issue.)
Tip #2: Address the violation promptly. Letting it fester only increases the likelihood of negative feelings and makes it harder to constructively work through it.
Tip #3: Separate the person from the behavior. Remember that this is not about who they are as a person, but rather about a specific choice they made.
Tip #4: Don’t let your discomfort seduce you into attacking or dehumanizing the other person in order to help yourself feel better about holding them accountable.
Tip #5: Affirm who they are as a person even as you are giving them feedback about an unacceptable behavior. (For example, “I’m sure it wasn’t your intention, but I felt disrespected when you…”)
Tip #6: Avoid making these two destructive assumptions and instead maintain a curious stance about what led the person to make the choice they did.
Tip #7: Use empathy and these other compassion techniques from Leo Babauta to maintain a compassionate stance toward the other person.
When I first read that passage in The Gifts of Imperfection, it was one of those lightbulb moments when something that should have been obvious suddenly becomes crystal clear.
For me, I knew this would help me feel better about the times when I need to stand firm or address a source of tension and conflict.
And I sensed that making explicit the connection between boundaries and compassion would be a powerful thing for my clients too, as many of these kind-hearted folks find it difficult to give constructive feedback and hold people accountable.
My hope is that it will make a difference for you too.
And if you know of others who would benefit from this idea, I hope you’ll share it with them. You can use the social media buttons on the left side of the screen to do so.