Goddessing Self Care

Reconciling Compassion and Healthy Boundaries

For today’s #GoddessingSelfCare Sunday, I will be examining what it means to be compassionate within the context of healthy boundaries. Compassion includes feelings of empathy and acting in ways that are caring and kind to others. It does not apply solely to other people, in fact, I believe it has to start with compassion toward ourselves. In this way, self-care and compassion are intimately related.

Compassionate behaviors are habits I am forming, not ones that comes naturally to me. I’ve shared about some of my personal journey in my #Embodied Heart posts. The traumatic experiences I’ve faced, among others, have made it difficult for me to respond with empathy to others, even though I can intellectually see things from different perspectives. I am especially afraid of acting like a martyr or being taken advantage of by others to whom I might offer gentleness. Given my struggles, I felt a desire to determine what it means to be compassionate and to remain boundaried at the same time.

Compassion Antidotes and Their Function

Before I fully explore what it means to be compassionate, I first need to look at what I’ve held in its place inside. In my studies of social psychology, I’ve come across several concepts that can serve to blunt or mute our responses of compassion. These include at minimum hatred, prejudice, self-righteousness, dehumanization, self-importance, greed and detachment. My particular drugs of choice are hatred and self-righteousness.

I have been able to hate with the same intensity with which others love. A part of me is actually proud of the sustained force with which I can hold grudges and feel anger towards certain people. When I sit compassionately with this part of myself, what is revealed to me is that my hostility serves as a yardstick, shoving away any attempt to treat me with disrespect or to humiliate me. Somewhere in me, I believe that if I am filled with sufficient hate, no one can hurt me or take advantage of me. The truth, thought, is that my Inner Being, which is infused with love, is much stronger than any outside individual’s attacks could ever be. No one can possess my soul or the core of who I am, no matter how they treat me. Now I just need to convince the hateful part of me of this truth.

Self-righteousness is especially complicated for me because I was raised in a religion that eschewed even “false humility.” We had to be humble, really humble, and even acting humble wasn’t enough. The odd thing was, there was a lot of arrogance and I-know-best guised in “God told me…” My scientific education has only served to increase my propensity to self-righteousness, because I can quickly pull on my body of knowledge to correct any errors in logic that I perceive when another person is talking with me. A good part of my internal dialogue during conversations with others, especially when they are sharing a struggle, is “shut up, shut up, shut up” not because I doubt myself but because I can tell I am speaking from “I know best” instead of “what do you need right now.” After a few decades of low self-esteem, my high self-confidence is all too happy to make herself known. What self-righteous behavior protects against, at least for me, are feelings of helplessness and uncertainty. I feel a ton of uncertainty about how to fix the things I don’t like in my own life, but I often believe that I have ten solutions at the ready for anyone else who needs help. I have a lot of work to do to form a solid trust that other people know what is best for their own lives and that building them up with a compassion that celebrates their Inner Being is the truest solution of all.

Acts of Compassion That Respect Our Inner Beings

With the ways in which I normally disengage myself from compassion in mind, I turn now to ideas about how to elicit compassionate behaviors. I opened this piece discussing boundaries, but I’m also inspired to conceptually consider Inner Beings as a point of departure. I feel very confident that I am my own best healer, and I am beginning to see that this is true of other people. In this light, choosing actions becomes simpler.

In cases where someone is acting in a way that provokes feelings of hatred in me, I can respond with love. I believe that we each have a responsibility to turn to our own Inner Being first, so I first would need to engage in self-care and seek the wisdom of my Inner Goddess (this behavior would take on different forms, depending on someone’s religion and culture). This would often mean that I would not respond immediately to a provocation but would take my time to soothe myself and remind myself of my worth first. From this empowered and embodied place, I can set boundaries and speak my truth, doing so in a way that broadcasts genuine care for the other person as well as myself, instead of malevolence. If the other person is not treating me in a way that I feel is respectful of my Inner Being, I can speak to them in a way that acknowledges their “best self” in the hopes that they will then access this part of themselves. If this fails, I can stand firm in my expectations that I be treated respectfully and can show them this same respect. As I write this, I realize that I do actually already engage in this behavior in professional settings in terms of how I hold boundaries, but I frequently forget to turn to my own Inner Being and acknowledge myself first. In my personal life, I’ve put minimal effort into doing any of these behaviors. It is much, much easier for me to hate than to love. Recognizing the energy that it takes for me to be compassionate seems like a positive self-care step I can take right now.

In cases where my self-righteous, fix-it-now, and intolerance of incompetence are heightened, I can sit with the part of myself that resists any feelings of helplessness and uncertainty. I can remind myself that other people have access to their own Inner Being who is standing by, ready to help them at any moment. Perhaps, in relating to others who are feeling overwhelmed or indecisive, encouraging them to check in with that part of themselves is wise. In addition, if I do give advice, I need to do so from the place of my Inner Goddess, not from a place motivated by impatience, anxiety, arrogance or frustration. When someone makes a mistake, I need to show them the same kindness I would want to be shown in the situation.

As I write these thoughts, I find myself wondering why other people, in fact, a good number of people with whom I’ve become acquainted, are so much more able to show compassion than I am. As I listen to my Inner Being, I see immediately that I was not shown genuine compassion growing up, likely because my parents did not receive it earlier in their lives either. Within my religious context, compassion came with a huge price tag of self-desecration. In order to be cared for by a higher being, one had to believe that they were scum and unworthy of being loved. I cannot stomach this viewpoint and I think it is a perversion of true compassion. Compassion honors and cherishes; it does not demean and demand a discarding of all parts of self.

Empathy and compassion are likely, at least in part, learned behaviors. If there was no one who taught us how to act in these ways growing up, I suppose we must teach ourselves. With the viewpoint of an Inner Being in each of us, it has become clearer to me as to how to navigate boundaries and needs when engaging in acts of compassion. I believe I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on it. What is your relationship to compassion as well as to compassion “antidotes?” How do you determine how to act in situations that cause you to feel anger or helplessness? What for you represents your “Inner Being” and how do you access this part of yourself and/or Divinity during times of struggle?