red and white bullseye with heart in the middle on wood wall

You know how sometimes you look around your house and realize that your house is full of homeless orphaned drug addicts and you’ve gone broke paying for your brother-in-law’s best friend’s new car and you’re still feeling sore from donating your kidney to someone you saw on the news? Don’t you hate it when that happens?

DON’T WORRY, I’M JOKING!!! The paragraph above is a huge exaggeration of something that really does happen to compassionate people. Sometimes, we want so much to help everyone that we drop our personal boundaries very low—so low that our efforts to care for others leave us completely exhausted.

As this new year begins, we might all remember something Brené Brown found in research on compassion. In one study, she said, researchers found a group of AMAZINGLY compassionate people, a group so kind and loving they made Mother Teresa look a little anti-social. What other trait did these ultra-compassionate people share? They had very high, very solid personal boundaries.

Most of us don’t get a lot of instruction or support learning to set our boundaries—in fact, most of us are socialized not to. So here are a few hints that might help when you feel “caretaker syndrome” burning your bones.

(Many of you who came to the Gathering Room on December 16th asked for more on this topic: here you go!)


Integrity check for your boundaries

First, remember that any level of authentic connection between two people requires two “yeses” to exist. If they fall in love, they offer each other maximum intimacy, with total integrity. But if only one person is in love, and wants total intimacy, while the other doesn’t want that, the “no” from the reluctant person is what must set the limits of sharing in that relationship.

Second, learn to check within yourself to see how intimately you REALLY, TRULY want to connect with any given person. Here are some methods I use:

  • Ask yourself how much time you really really really WANT to spend with a given individual. I don’t mean putting up with that person. I don’t mean feeling basically okay with them being around. I mean WANT TO SPEND TIME WITH THEM.
  • Imagine yourself in a room with a given person. They advance toward you. What level of distance feels good, free, safe to you? Is it ten feet away? The length of a football field? Right next to you, touching you?
  • Check whether the intimacy of a current relationship matches your authentic desire. Do you feel yourself leaning toward that relationship with joy and anticipation, or pulling back and trying not to breathe until you have more space?
  • Do a mind-heart-body-spirit check to see if a relationship is working for you. When you think of interacting with a person, do you feel mentally clear, or do you have nagging worries that things may be too close or too distant (that’s mind)? Do you feel any anger saying you need to pull back, or any longing pulling you closer (that’s heart)? Do you feel physical tension, or physical relaxation (that’s body)? And do you feel any intuitive hunches that Something may be hinting you need more or less intimacy in this relationship (that’s spirit)?

In this case, it takes four “yeses” and only one “no” to establish where your boundaries should be. If either your mind, heart, body, or spirit says the level of closeness and giving doesn’t feel right, you need to tend those boundaries.


Setting boundaries: A couple of techniques


Ideally, we set clear boundaries before anyone gets uncomfortably close, or we start to feel drained. In other words, don’t invite vampires into your house. They can only come in with your invitation, and once they do get in, you’ll have one helluva job getting them out.

So what do you do when someone wants more closeness than you do? You tell them the truth, kindly but firmly “I’m comfortable with and no more.” They will probably push, like a puppy begging for food. Then use what my former therapist called the “broken record” technique: no matter what they say, you repeat your boundary statement over and over. “I hear that you want keys to my house, access to my dog’s Prozac, and a nightly movie date with me. I’m not comfortable with that. I am comfortable having coffee with you once a week.” (Again, I’m being hypothetical here.) Most people stop pestering you after 3-5 repetitions.

If the person will not back off, use what that same beloved therapist called “Escalated Assertiveness.” Get firmer, clearer, and if necessary, louder. Say, “This is me setting a boundary with you. Please respect my boundaries. The fact that you want me to feel differently is not my business.” Say, “Okay then, restraining order it is!” Say, “I know karate, and if you come any closer I’m going to use it.” (This last example works best if you do know karate, so if you’ve ever had your boundaries seriously violated, you should take at least a self-defense class.)

By the way, if you want more closeness from someone, just ask for it. If they say “Yes,” enjoy! If they say “No,” respect that. Grieve if you need to. Then make other friends.


Coping with all that intense social pressure


Setting boundaries often leads to social conflict. The drug addicts in your house and the friend-of-a-friend who’s driving your car want what they want, and expect what you’ve already given. They may pitch a big old ruckus, like a toddler tantruming when someone takes away her candy (whoever coined the idiom “Easy as taking candy from a baby” had clearly never dealt with an actual baby).

Fear of this tantrum phase is what keeps many of us from setting healthy boundaries. We try to persuade other people to agree to our boundaries, instead of drawing a clear line and holding it. Know that there will probably be a tantrum, and refuse to violate yourself and reward the tantrum by giving in. Hold your ground. Hold your ground. Hold your ground. Call someone else who’s read this and get some support. If you hold steady, the tantrums will eventually end.

Finally, remember these words from Melodie Beattie’s astute book, The Language of Letting Go:

“We cannot simultaneously set a boundary and take care of another person’s feelings.”

Seriously, memorize this. Put it on Post-It notes all over your house. Make it your phone’s ringtone. Burn that knowledge deep into your brain-box, because it will keep you sane. By helping you hold the tension that arises when you set a healthy boundary, it will save you and everyone else a world of hurt in the long run.

The more we can all use these strategies—or anything else that helps us know our authentic boundaries, set them clearly, and hold them consistently—the more we’ll feel free to love unconditionally. When we let people too close, our compassion withers along with our health and all our other resources. When we trust ourselves to give only what feels healthy to us in every relationship, we can love the whole world. Let’s talk soon! Remember, you can catch me live every Sunday in the Gathering Room.