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Compassionate Boundaries: Saying No Without Guilt

“Some people think it’s holding that makes one strong–sometimes it’s letting go.” ~Unknown

Today I’ve been thinking about fences, I guess as a metaphor for boundaries in life. There are many different kinds of fences, but that they all have the same purpose: creating a boundary.

Whether it’s a sweet white picket fence with roses or the electrified chain fencing at a federal prison, what it signifies is a line drawn in the sand. This is either a starting place or a stopping point, depending on your point of view.

Creating boundaries has always been a challenge for me. Until now, maybe still, I have needed to use anger to build my fences, to re-enforce my boundaries.

I recently became so angry with a family member that the anger seemed totally disproportionate to the deed. But I felt invaded, used, taken advantage of. I accused, I shouted, I slammed out the door. Nothing like being really, really mad to build a very solid fence.

But the effect on my body was like hauling the heavy cement blocks into place and then pounding them into their position. It took a huge toll, not to even begin to mention the effect this had on my emotions and on my spirit.

After my “anger fence” was firmly in place, I was exhausted; muscles rigid with residual fury, unable to even appreciate the fence so firmly planted. Yes, I had created a very defined boundary, but at what great cost, both to myself and to my family?

Isn’t there an easier way? Something that gets the job done and doesn’t leave me incapacitated during the recovery? Could creating a boundary be justified by just a need, a respect for my and others’ positions and not by the burning wrath I have required in the past?

How would it feel to simply state my requirements for my needs and for my comfort with the simple assumption that they would be respected and acknowledged? Why is it so difficult to just say “no” or “I can’t” or “I don’t agree with that”?

These are simple words, used regularly by toddlers, and yet for me, they represent the most complex foreign language. These small words are some of the most difficult for me to pronounce.

In my own life, I think the bottom line is a sense of unworthiness. Because I have not felt I had the right to set limits, I have needed to create a lot of anger to give me the energy to take care of my needs. I have regularly created huge arguments with the sole purpose of building fences to protect myself.

Surely there is a simpler process that does not involve so much collateral damage both to myself and to the others involved. I am willing to say that my old method is now too costly, for my body and my soul.

I’m ready to finally do a U-turn on the freeway of life with this one. I am heading in a new direction; I’m naming this destination compassionate responsibility—learning to responsibly care for my own needs but with compassion, both for myself and for others.

It’s a country with new words, but I’m practicing it until it is easy–a new second language. I’m using this new dialect in small conversations; a “No, thank you” uttered with kindness but firmness, an “I’m sorry but I can’t do that now” bravely responding to a request.

And the outcome is a softer fence, perhaps more of a hedge. Still a boundary, still a limit, but so much easier to maintain. So much lovelier to have in my life.

And an added bonus for this decision is the fact that when any of us makes a change, it affects us all. Perhaps my softer, gentler fence will give way to one for you. Maybe we’ll all meet at compassionate responsibility and have a party!

Photo by Edgar Zuniga Jr.

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About Karen Mead

Karen Mead is an alchemist, an explorer and a fellow traveler on this journey of life. Visit her blog, The Peaceful Journey , or check out her website, A Peaceful Path .

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  • adabada

    wow, this is so right on for me in this moment. I just had a situation with an older sibling in which I realized I had been doing this. I’ve usually just done what they ask, when they ask because it was “easier” but have been wanting to create more boundaries. I initiated an argument yesterday as a justification for putting the boundary in place and now feel terrible and will have to clean the situation up. So much better to come from a place of compassion for yourself and others- thank you!

  • Bsain

    Lovely message. Thank you for these thoughts.

  • r t

    “The amount of happiness that you have depends on the amount of freedom you have in your heart.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh There’s only one woman that has ever come close to making me feel free at heart all while wishing she would be the one to guide my heart as her own. She’s recently put up a fence and I miss her like crazy. I know it’s hard to understand, I don’t understand it myself…but I sure would like to spend the rest of my life just enjoying her…her laugh, her smile, her touch, her love. I may not know what love really is, but I sure would like to spend some time with her….my only fear is that once I was able to spend time with her that it would pass too quickly and I would be an old man, all wrinkled and smiling at the precious time I was fortunate enough to spend with this amazing woman. If only…

  • r t

    “The amount of happiness that you have depends on the amount of freedom you have in your heart.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh There’s only one woman that has ever come close to making me feel free at heart all while wishing she would be the one to guide my heart as her own. She’s recently put up a fence and I miss her like crazy. I know it’s hard to understand, I don’t understand it myself…but I sure would like to spend the rest of my life just enjoying her…her laugh, her smile, her touch, her love. I may not know what love really is, but I sure would like to spend some time with her….my only fear is that once I was able to spend time with her that it would pass too quickly and I would be an old man, all wrinkled and smiling at the precious time I was fortunate enough to spend with this amazing woman. If only…

  • michele

    What I’ve realized over time is that for me, the difficulty with saying “no” has been linked to a sense of co-dependency. As I’ve learned to deal with and diminish this sense of co-dependency (that some one cannot function without my help, they’ll be lost without me, etc.), it has become easier for me to objectively analyze a situation and determine if I really need to help or it I can say “no” without guilt.

    It’s really important to view each request for help objectively – and determine if you can honestly help, with your heart and soul, too, and not just your time. If you find that you cannot give with an open heart, then that is a time to say “no”. It’s better for you and everyone involved, otherwise you will just be sending negative energy into the world – and there is enough already out there!

    Of course, sometimes our loved ones are in true moments of crisis and indeed we should help. But then you will be helping with an open heart, and boundaries will break down! Trust your heart, not your head!

  • http://twitter.com/rachelwhalley rachelwhalley

    This is so synchronistic. I write a Thought of the Day, and the most recent one on Sunday was “Boundaries are like wooden fences–they need ongoing maintenance.” (http://www.facebook.com/rachelwhalley)

    Boundaries must really be in the collective conscious right now. Reminds me to keep both eyes on mine!

  • http://www.expectwonderful.com Meredith

    This is so brilliant. It’s so healing for everything and everyone if we can say, “No” without making someone else wrong, or making ourselves wrong, or using anger as the way we give ourselves permission to do so! The clarity too, of simply stating what we need also seems to be very hard for many of us. Thanks for sharing a first hand vista of working with these essential human elements. Permission is freeing. Thanks Karen!

  • http://twitter.com/Shag007 Fernando

    I was reading about “Will” and there is a paragraph that is perfect for what you realized and wrote about. I think you will enjoy it.

    “But it is not enough that the will should be merely strong; such a will is liable to errors and excesses which may
    lead the individual astray and bring about dangerous reactions. There are psychological laws as exact and
    certain as natural laws, and their neglect or violation brings inevitable and often severe punishment. Thus we
    frequently see people of strong will misusing their precious instrument by violent clashes or exaggerated
    efforts; they use methods which are too harsh and aggressive, resulting in inner and external conflicts and in
    nervous and psychological troubles. Instead, by using more skilful and harmonious ways, based on a sound
    knowledge of the constitution and functioning of the psyche, they could make headway more easily; they could
    handle the opposing forces so as to utilize them constructively, thus attaining the desired ends with a minimum
    of effort.”
    THE TRAINING OF THE WILL
    By ROBERTO ASSAGIOLI, M.D.

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  • Kimmysuerubylou

    what a lovely post…i incorporated a link to it in my blog, where i am dealing with the same thing…thank you!