Personal Boundaries and the Limits of Compassion

I came across an article today on personal boundaries. You may not think it is relevant to you.  With the benefit of age, my suggestion is that the subject of boundaries is relevant to all. If you don’t need this article now, at some point in your life, you will.


The article I am referencing is from a secular website. As a Christian, I want to add something to what the writer has said. Having been born into and raised in a fundamentalist/evangelical Christian (pan-denominational) environment, there was precious little teaching on things like personal boundaries and the limits to compassion. (Those subjects were routinely dismissed as “psychobabble.”) Christianity teaches that, like Christ, we are to pour ourselves out for others. I am not here to contradict that. What I will say is that this teaching, unbalanced with the need for limits in giving, can turn into tragedy and ruin for all involved. It’s that simple.

Some reading this article would say, “How self-centered.  If someone is hurting and causing us misery, well, we’re supposed to suffer for others,” or something like that. Having seen the utter destruction of co-dependency and what it looks like long-term when compassion becomes  enabling ,  I can tell you, with authority, that this is not of God. Why? Because if the results of your compassion efforts are  personal destruction and an inability to live the life God gave you, something is seriously wrong.

Being an empathetic person,  this author’s  words resonated strongly with me. There are some in our lives who do not care in the least that their rotting sin problem is a permanent stench in the lives of those who are trying to show love and compassion. They simply don’t care. We offer ourselves up like some kind of gruesome self-sacrifice when we are not in the least called to do so. But without boundaries, we let it happen and then complain that we have too much stress in our lives. Yes.

We need compassion in our hearts and to be willing to help where we can. I believe that with all my heart.  I have been helped by truly kind people over the years, and for their good sense and sound advice, I am grateful.  That is not the same thing as this good article discusses.

“Imagine you have this house — your dream house. The house and everything in it fills you with joy, and you work diligently to keep it clean and organized. You are comfortable there. One day, your mom/partner/friend is coming for a visit. You see them coming down the road, straining under the weight of a ginormous sack, quadruple their size. You walk out on the porch to meet them. “Come help me with this thing, it’s heavy!” they shout. You suggest they just put it down. They refuse. As they get closer you catch a whiff of what approaches. It smells awful. Putrid. Nauseating. You start to panic. Are they bringing that to your house? They reach the porch with their giant bag of trash and again ask for your assistance in bringing it inside. “Why don’t you leave that outside? It doesn’t need to come in,” you plead. They balk at your insistence. “No, it comes in. I want it with me. I feel better when it’s with me.” You nervously insist. “But I just cleaned, and it seems like it will make a really big mess.” They aren’t having it. “It comes in with me. I need it. It will be fine.” With a sigh of defeat, you open the door and they haul their trash inside…”

Read the article by Shannon Ghallagher.

I’ve learned that drawing  boundaries when there were none is costly.  But the spiritual and emotional cost of not drawing boundaries is far higher.


4 thoughts on “Personal Boundaries and the Limits of Compassion

  1. Denise says:

    This article is timely for me. I felt guilty and struggled with how much is enough when a “friend” insists on bringing their drama and emotional trash into your home for years. I tried to help because that’s what Christians are supposed to do, but it becomes a bottomless pit of need that only God can remedy. I realized that when no boundaries are set, it can destroy a person. The stress affects your health and consumes every aspect of your life. It’s especially painful when the other person is also a Christian, and they chastise you for failing to meet their expectations. I look forward to your postings, Ingrid. They lift me up!

  2. Barbara J Abel says:

    Ingrid, just an excellent letter. The one from last week about forgiveness was also excellent. I have shared both with quite a few people. You’re a treasure. Love you much, Barb

    Sent from my iPad


  3. biggardenblog says:

    [J] Around our garden wall – An Garradh Mor is Gaelic for both The Big Garden and The Big Wall – both garden and wall are Garradh. The garden and wall are set right by the shore, looking out across the Sound of Barra and the Atlantic. It’s an extremely exposed site, and believe me we get violent weather. Everyone assumes that the garden wall shelters us from the extremes – that the abundance they see within are because it is so sheltered inside. Everyone assumes … But they are wrong! The wall causes much turbulence, and whilst a certain nook may be sheltered from one wind direction, it may be battered even more violently from another. The value of the wall is debatable. It was built in the 18thC because that was what a gentleman of means would have back then. Now this is where we come to the point Ingrid makes. The reason the garden is so full of life is because the wall sets down a boundary that is as much idealogical as it is physical: outside is wild and barren; inside is for peace and productivity – which are established not by the wall, but the gardeners. The more they grow, the better they tend the garden, the more sheltered it becomes: it is the plants themselves that shelter each other, not the walls that do so! The only way that the wild and barren can get in (and before we came here in 2002, it was wild and barren inside!) is through neglect. If we loosen, neglect or abandon our tending of souls, then the result is a regression to the wild and barren: to borrow an horticultural expression – we revert to type. Boundaries good tools to have in the work of crafting ourselves towards perfection.

  4. Ingrid says:

    That is beautiful. A truly wonderful analogy. Thank you for this! Would love to see your lovely garden!

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