Compassion v. Boundaries

We all want to be compassionate. Unless, of course, the other person doesn’t deserve compassion. Oh, wait, isn’t that exactly when we are supposed to be even more compassionate? But what if the other person is a jerk? What if compassion isn’t working?


Boundaries can be beautiful and useful; you have to plan them that way.

That’s what boundaries are for. Boundaries are limits we set for ourselves and other people. It is completely unrealistic to think that you have unlimited compassion, patience, and ability to shift to please other people, even if they are family or friends.

Sometimes, people’s bad behavior, demands, or blame-game is theirs to own. Your job is not to fix, educate, or change them. Your job is to set a clear boundary and enforce it.

Boundaries are not a judgment of others. It is calling them to a higher level of discipline. If they can’t make it, or don’t want to, that’s fine. That’s why boundaries work so well. You can walk away cleanly from abusers. When they try to blame you, you point to the clear boundary.

When you set a boundary, make sure you can live with it.  Not enforcing

A line in the sand can be a ditch or a design; it's up to you.

A line in the sand can be a ditch or a design; it’s up to you.

the boundary is equal to not having a boundary and putting a doormat on your chest and saying, “please walk over me.”

Be clear about the boundary and enforcing it. No fair saying, “if you forget to put gas in the car one more time, I’m leaving you,” and then not leaving. Don’t create a threat you won’t carry through. Boundaries are not threats, they are reasonable lines that show the level of your discipline and self-care.

Saying “No” is your responsibility. When you set a boundary, you can expect your family and friends to think it doesn’t apply to them. When it does, learn to say “No” and mean it.

Steer clear of “If you loved me, you would. . . ” Don’t say it, don’t fall for it. It’s manipulative and untrue. People you love will disappoint you and you will still love them. That’s how you know you are compassionate. People who try to get around your boundaries will use it to push your people-pleasing button. Don’t fall for it. If you do, it will be the first in a long string of manipulative “if you love me. . .” demands. Be firm. “I love you, but . . no, I will not do this.” If their love is defined by how much you do for them that is against your values, you are learning about their definition of love. And it’s not yours.

Boundaries are healthy for your own well-being and help those around you be clear about what they can expect from you. Think them through and set them. Then enforce them. That is true compassion.

—Quinn McDonald is still learning the difference between “No” and wanting others to approve of her.

24 thoughts on “Compassion v. Boundaries

  1. Great post. Hitting middle age and working as a managing editor did wonders for my ability to have compassionate boundaries. Certainly increased the opportunities to practice this!!

    • It’s tricky to navigate, but love, when tied to an action, as proof of love, falters. All the way around. You can ask for what you need, and should, but if the person can’t give it to you, it may have nothing to do with love. A big hurdle.

  2. A member of my family has such tight boundaries she could be in danger of strangulation. Anyone who gets within a mile of them suffers judgement and criticsm that could curl your hair at 50 paces. She imagined I was at her walls and shut me out without a hearing . . . she remains unenlightened about the situation and I imaged at first that it was both our loss. As time goes by though I realise that I don’t miss my boundaries being nudged by hers at each meeting and she will likely have a perverse satisfaction in rehashing an inacurate version of events adding to her old store of bitternesses. It makes me very sad for her and really tests my boundaries . . . the one that says “You don’t need to be hurt any more, you don’t need judgment, others love you.”

  3. Did you write this for me today, Quinn? My phone still hasn’t rung. Actually, the switch has flipped for me…finally. I’m not waiting for the phone to ring and I’m letting go. I feel such relief (even though I’m still aggravated)!

    • Aggravation may be good for you. Aggravation helps you build boundaries and stick to them. This is so hard for you because it goes against your values of helping, giving, and caring. Which will drain you till your hair droops, but do nothing for your heart.

  4. This is particularly difficult for people, like myself, who tend to be people pleasers. Someone once told me that ‘No’ is a complete sentence. I have to practice saying ‘No’ and meaning it.

    • I say that all the time, Rhonda, but I still have a hard time doing it in certain situations or with certain people.

    • It’s super hard for people pleasers. It’s even harder when a friend of relative says, “If you really loved me, you would . . .” I finally learned to say, “I love you, but No.”

  5. When other people harm you by slander or other hateful words, remember
    what you retaliate with you are responsible for…don’t say things you wish
    you hadn’t and you will be the one sleeping at night and not them…do not
    lower yourself to their level! You don’t belong there and you will feel so
    much better when your words back to them never left your mouth…pray
    over our enemies…we cannot change them and we will be better for it….
    patience, it works great in the mind…try it….Gramma Donnna

  6. Quinn, I so appreciate your writing about Compassion vs. Boundaries; my boundaries have been so flexible and permeable that I realise (looking back – oh! The benefits of 20/20 hindsight!) that in fact I had never thought my boundaries through. They were invariably reactionary.

    No is still a hard word to say, but remembering “No is a single sentence” (Don Miguel Ruiz) helps me when having to keep my boundaries up when it’s loved ones trying to knock ’em down!
    Thank you!

    • Putting up boundaries is a dare for your bolder relatives and friends to decide it’s not about them. Boundaries put up as a reaction almost always don’t work. You will be right if you make a wild guess as to how I know that! But the joy of firm boundaries is that they establish sanity–for you.

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