Dealing with Bad Behavior: Compassion and Boundaries

Sometimes in the earlier stages of becoming more emotionally healthy, the pendulum can swing too far in the opposite direction of our prior behavior. This is especially common when it comes to dealing with other people’s bad actions. We may go from the unhealthy, counterproductive responses of anger, avoidance, rage, passive-aggressiveness or the silent-treatment, to now thinking that we must have “compassion” for the awful things people do. Or we go the other way, from always being the “nice” one who doesn’t stand up for ourselves, to being overly reactive and sometimes harsh. Both responses are normal, often temporary, over-corrections from our past experiences and with some careful self-reflection and clarification we can avoid being in this stage for long.  A healthy mix of compassion and boundaries is the key to finding a balanced middle ground when people do things we don’t like.

First and foremost, the word compassion is often misused in society. Compassion doesn’t excuse bad behavior, what it does is allow us to step back. We see a more complete picture of the other person as a human being, with feelings and motivations that are not related to us. Melody Beattie, who writes about codependency, has a great saying, “People don’t do things to you. They just do things.” When someone acts badly towards us, we should try and step out of our self-focused worlds and realize that the other person is acting in a way that may have very little to do with us!  This is clearly easier said than done, however if we can start by seeing the other person as an independent individual separate from ourselves, we take a huge step towards compassion. This understanding of someone’s behavior, however does not mean we have to accept it, even when the other person is going through something very difficult. We can show concern, understanding and support but never need to feel guilted into accepting being treated poorly.

At the other end of the spectrum, being too “nice” and allowing people to take advantage of us neither helps the other person nor, more importantly, ourselves. Genuine compassion is having a deep and accurate understanding, without endorsement and without causing ourselves suffering. This is why boundaries are so important, we can show genuine support while making it clear how we should be treated.

Finding the right mix of compassionate support for others, while maintaining self-care and healthy boundaries is not an easy feat to achieve.  It takes constant monitoring, and adjustment. Simply asking the following questions can go a long way:

  1. Boundaries:  Is my kindness and compassion for others hurting me?
  2. Compassion:  Am I able to see things from the other person’s point of view, and recognize the things about their behavior that aren’t related to me?

Compassion without boundaries doesn’t help anyone. Boundaries without compassion often leads to resentment, isolation and frustration.  Be kind to yourself as you work through these differences, and know that there are trained professionals who can help. The journey towards emotional health is about making progress, not achieving perfection.

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