You know, I’ve noticed something lately that I thought was mainly just a problem for me…
But after talking to some of my readers over the last few weeks as research for my new course, it seems that this might be a really common problem for a lot of people, especially sensitive, caring folks on a path of self-growth (and if you’re reading this, that’s probably you too!)
I’m talking about being able to set clear boundaries with others and being able to walk that fine line between being compassionate and caring towards others without it being at the expense of your self. And being able to balance sharing your time and energy with others vs replenishing your own stores.
Do you know what I mean?
I’ve spoken to women who feel pulled in so many different directions and as the lynch-pin of the family, feel like they have to put everyone else’s needs first and then end up completely exhausted with nothing left to give as a result.
Or people that are so afraid of being judged (even if only by their own very harsh, internal critic) that they are trying to live up to these impossible standards of perfection and achievement that they push and push themselves relentlessly and feel guilty if they take time out or attend to their own needs.
And I’ve also spoken to people (and struggled myself with this) who are trying to set boundaries with “toxic” people who can be very draining emotionally. I’m not talking about friends or relatives who are going through a temporary crisis and need some extra TLC or support, but those people who are constantly embroiled in drama and negativity and just want to complain and hold a pity-party – with you as the perpetual guest of honour!
But at the same time, if you are on a spiritual path, you may also be striving to be a better person: compassionate, selfless, loving, generous. And I think there is a bit of a stereotype out there that truly “spiritual” people should just give and give to anyone and everyone with nothing but a calm smile of equanimity on their faces.
This has definitely confused me. But recently I listened to a wonderful talk by Ethan Nichtern, an American Buddhist teacher and author of The Road Home who spoke about the difference between what he calls compassion and “idiot compassion”.
It was very interesting and refreshing, as he explained that real compassion is not wanting someone else to suffer, while “idiot compassion” is being a doormat.
Compassion is so central to Buddhism (and all religions) because of the notion of ïnter-being or interdependence – the fact that nothing exists in isolation, we are dependent on each other and we essentially are all one. Unfortunately most human egos are completely caught up in their own wants and needs, that they forget about others and cause suffering. Compassion is about seeing that we are no more or less important than anyone else, we are all equal, and we must consider how our actions affect the greater good of everyone around us.
Which brings me to my next very important point: if you are giving to others because your ego believes you are less than, that your needs are not as important as someone else’s, then you are not being compassionate to others you are simply causing suffering to yourself. (And operating out of low self-worth…it is still ego, just a fearful ego with inadequacy issues!)
And if we look at the example of the mother who is putting herself last and feeling burnt out, is that truly conducive to the greater good?
Most likely her depletion is resulting in snapping at the kids or feeling resentment towards her husband or even modeling an example to her children that women should sacrifice themselves for others. Perhaps taking on too much responsibility is robbing her family members of the important lesson of being able to share responsibilities. And if she was feeling truly refreshed and nourished, what might she be able to achieve, imagine what she would be able to really offer her loved ones and the world around her?
Sometimes true compassion, like “tough-love” requires courage and firmness. Perhaps the very best thing your friend who is embroiled in negativity or drama needs, is a gentle but honest wake-up call? Some genuine feedback about how her behaviour is impacting others and how it has become a pattern that is robbing her of the chance for happiness and peace and making it hard for others to enjoy spending time with her. (I do know this is easier said than done though, believe me!)
Nichtern also spoke about how compassion does not mean “enabling” the harmful behaviour of an agressor, sometimes it means standing up, even if it means being unpopular or getting “off the fence” on an issue. I found this especially interesting as I have had a background in human rights activism when I was younger, and I remember posting something on Facebook a few years ago about a country that was causing a lot of suffering and human rights abuses to a minority population, and a fellow yoga teacher I know (who happened to be from that country so probably had a bit of a patriotic bias) got upset and said that spiritual people shouldn’t get involved in politics. Her idea was that we just “rise above” it all and “be positive”…but to me it just smacked of denial and apathy. What is the point of spirituality if it is not to help those in need and to try to make our planet a kinder, more humane place? Some of the most inspiring spiritual teachers have been very vocal and active in world affairs, such as the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Anyway, I digress! The point is, if you see someone doing something harmful to someone else (including to yourself!) , sometimes the most compassionate thing to all concerned is to stand up and call them out on it.
And if you think you are someone that has some issues with feeling inadequate or being a doormat, then the very first thing to do is start to develop self-compassion. Once you see yourself as equal to anyone and everyone else rather than less-than, you can then start offering that compassion to others. And as you become more kind and compassionate towards yourself, you will notice that it becomes much easier to extend that natural compassion to others…being kind to yourself truly is for the greater good!