Compassion is what makes the world a better place. Being able to use our empathy to imagine what life feels like for others and wanting to do something to help puts the “human” into humanity. It’s not all altruistic as the giver receives the benefits of giving. Research in areas such as Positive Psychology demonstrates that giving is good for your health, happiness and longevity. However, as I often say, everything that has an upside has a downside. For example, exercise is good for you but excessive exercise isn’t and can be harmful, so it is with compassion. Compassion is defined as our emotional response when we perceive suffering accompanied by an authentic desire to help.
Empathy, compassion and altruism are all very well but not when they drain you to the extent that you can’t function, become overtired and lose yourself in the process. There are many wonderful giving people on the planet but many don’t know when to pull back, create and hold appropriate boundaries and engage in self-care.
Two questions I often get asked are, “what is a psychological or emotional boundary?” and “how do I create boundaries?”
A boundary sets a line we will not cross. Healthy individuals set boundaries in relationships that protect themselves. They are a way of letting those around know what is and is not acceptable. A boundary is linked intrinsically to our own sense of self-worth. You cannot be all things to all people at all times, you cannot sacrifice your own needs consistently to meet the needs of others and by knowing your limits you are engaging in healthy behaviour that respects who you are. True compassion takes into account the health and needs of the giver as much as the needs of the person you feel compassion towards.
It is one thing pulling out all the stops when a crisis happens; it’s another when the relationship (partner, friend, family member, colleague etc.) is constantly draining you to the point where you find yourself doing as much as you can to the detriment of yourself. Sitting up all night to support a friend in need who has just been bereaved is very different to being on call day and night to a friend over whose life always seems to be in crisis and for whom there is never an “enough”. A key to knowing when your compassion is becoming unhealthy is when you start to feel it does not matter how much you do, there is always more wanted. There may be a sense of worthlessness and exasperation because you feel that no matter how much you give it is never enough. You may find yourself constantly thinking about what you can do to help. You may feel frustrated and tired but cannot express those feelings for fear of upsetting the other person or coming across as a bad person. You may feel guilty because you experience such feelings towards another. Your negative feelings are an indicator that something isn’t right so it is important you listen to what your emotions are telling you. People who have experienced neglect or abuse as children or suffer from a lack of confidence are more likely to fall into this trap. Such experiences may mean that the individual never experienced healthy boundaries set by others. For example, if nothing you ever did was good enough for a parent.
Once you recognise you have lost your sense of self in the service of another you can move on to question two, “how do I create boundaries?”
Firstly, to be of help to others you have to take care of you. If you fly you will know that when the safety demonstration takes place you are always told to put your oxygen mask on before doing so for your children. If you have passed out due to lack of oxygen you cannot help your children and then you all black out so no one benefits. Knowing what your needs are and taking care of them enables you to care for others more effectively.
Another question to ask yourself is whether giving of yourself to your own detriment is an avoidance strategy. Perhaps it is easier to give than face the difficulty of saying no; taking time for yourself and doing the things that you need to do to maintain your physical and psychological help. Perhaps you fear that saying no makes you selfish or that you fear it means you are an unworthy person. Individuals may become more passive due to underlying fears – so ask yourself what lies at the core of your constant giving.
When working with individuals of faith, I am often presented with an argument that says an individual should be available to others. However, I am taken back to the quote from the Bible (Mark 12:30-31) “Love your neighbour as yourself”. In Islam, “Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself” (Forty Hadith of an-Nawawi 13). Judaism says, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour:” (Talmud, Shabbat 31a). There are also many other statements in religions like Hinduism, Jainism etc.
If you don’t love yourself what quality of love are you giving to your others if that love should be the same?
Working with a coach or counsellor for those who may have had difficult times early in life can often help clarify your psychological and emotional boundaries. However, a good place to start is to think about what you need to function physically, emotionally and behaviourally. For example, I do not function when I have not slept well so it is important that I get my sleep (physical) and like most people I can cope should a crisis occur but not consistently for any length of time. So it is important I ensure that I get the rest I need otherwise I am not effective in helping others. I need quiet time to take a walk and be in the fresh air (behavioural) to clear my head. I also need to identify and challenge my thinking when it is self-defeating (thoughts). As a recovering perfectionist I can have some quite unrealistic expectations of myself.
Decide what matters to you in each of the areas mentioned what works for you and what does not. For example, even when you are emotionally drained you may find it hard to ask for help. If this is the case it might mean asking for help. For example, talking to a friend or asking for practical help to ease the load. When you spot a gap consider how you might fill it. For example, you recognise that you find it hard to say no and decide to attend an assertiveness class. For every area you find a challenge, there are strategies and techniques you can learn to help yourself.
Compassion is a wonderful and precious gift to be given freely and not a tool for self-destruction. Only you can know the difference.