Compassion requires boundaries. I don’t mean putting boundaries on compassion itself; heaven knows, it’s hard enough to come by as it is. I mean that we need to clarify our own boundaries in order to feel safe enough to engage with compassion. You see, I’ve recently discovered that compassion requires a safe space in order to manifest.
It’s easy to feel compassion for those who are downtrodden, ill, poor, far away, and otherwise no threat to us. Of course, that ease doesn’t mean that compassion is any less valuable, but it does point up a difference: It’s difficult, if not impossible, to feel compassion for someone who threatens you, who makes you feel unsafe.
Case in point: I grew up in an abusive family. I was in physical as well as emotional and psychological danger from them all the time. I feared them, felt anger and distrust toward them, pretty much every negative emotion possible and then some.
Then I found it necessary to separate myself from them in order to protect my own daughter. After I spent some time (a great deal of time, actually) sorting out my own thoughts and feelings about the situation, I realized I felt compassion toward them. They are wounded, damaged, mentally ill. At least one of them is tormented by their actions (though that never stopped the actions, I might add). From this safe distance, I can feel compassion for them. I can see how much they suffer, how miserable they are. That’s something I couldn’t do while I was within ‘threat distance.’
Now, I’ve offered you an extreme example. But the concept applies in more average, moderate situations as well. If you’re constantly worried about keeping your job, you can’t step back and see how your supervisor’s failing marriage is causing her to lash out at work. If a busybody relative pries for sensitive personal information at every family gathering, you’re so worried about maintaining your own privacy that you can’t see how lonely and aimless he feels since he retired and his wife died. If a friend calls at all hours of the day and night, interrupting your private family time to talk about pointless trivialities and you just can’t get her off the phone no matter how hard you try, it can be difficult to see how overwhelmed she feels since her ailing grandmother moved in and she became the elderly woman’s main caregiver.
To a certain extent, we’ve been taught that compassion means having no boundaries, letting people in (literally or figuratively) at all hours of the day and night, into our private lives, no matter how that makes us feel. But I think that’s incorrect because when we feel violated like that, we can’t actually experience compassion.
It can be terribly difficult to set boundaries, especially with close friends and family members, and especially if you’re female. Women in our society are taught that we must be available, both physically and emotionally, for everyone at all times, though obviously men aren’t exempt from this issue. When we’re fighting to maintain our own sense of security we don’t have the emotional room, the expansiveness to embrace compassion.
So in addition to providing us with a sense of safety, boundaries give us the space to open up to compassion. And from that vantage point, we can move forward to help others in whatever way we can.