I had a revelation a few days ago about setting boundaries with a toxic person while still being kind and socially appropriate. I was being coached by one of my life coaches. I was talking about someone who I see regularly in the setting of a shared group activity, whose negativity is very difficult for me. And I was working on a deeply rooted belief I hold, that I have to be ‘nice’ to everybody. My coach asked me what being ‘nice’ meant to me. I talked about feeling like I was required to pretend I liked the person. And I mentioned that this person likes to give everyone hugs, and how fake I felt hugging someone that I don’t like, yet how intensely I felt I was required to be ‘nice’.
My coach helped me do some thought-dissolving on the belief, “I have to be ‘nice’ to everyone.” (Thought-dissolving is an amazing coaching technique that I wish I could teach every last person I know because it’s so powerful. Not enough space here to explain, but email me if you want to experience it!) As we were doing the thought-dissolving, one of the questions she asked is what it would be like to see this person coming toward me to hug me if I didn’t hold the belief that I had to be nice to her. I imagined myself without that belief, and suddenly, when I no longer had the obligation to be ‘nice,’ I just felt waves of compassion for this hurting, negative person.
And I suddenly understood something about setting boundaries that has been puzzling me for years: how can I set a boundary with someone I can’t avoid, and still be genuinely kind and also socially appropriate? I have to take a little detour here to explain a technique, and then I’ll explain how it all tied together for me. There is a Tibetan Buddhist breathing meditation you can use when you are empathizing with the suffering of others, or even when you are feeling the suffering of your own inner child in a situation. It’s called ‘tonglen,’ and it works like this. You breathe in the pain and suffering of the other, and hold it close to your heart with the prayer, ‘May you be free from suffering.’ Then you breathe all that pain back out again with a prayer such as, ‘May you know peace.’ For just that moment of breathing the pain in, you allow yourself to experience their pain and identify with it, but as you release your breath, you breathe every last speck of it out and return to your own core of peace. I find I sometimes need to do this for quite a while, but eventually I feel a release and a knowing that it’s all in the hands of the divine.
So here’s what I understood a few days, in one of those magical moments of insight, about setting boundaries and being ‘nice.’ As I see this difficult person coming towards me to give me a hug, I don’t have to assertively set an external boundary in order to stay true to myself. I don’t have to say, ‘I can’t hug you because it’s fake and I don’t like you.’ Instead, I can set an internal boundary. I can breathe in her suffering, but ONLY into the place of compassion in my heart. I can set a boundary that I will allow her pain to enter my compassionate place but not poison my mind or my emotions. And then I can maintain that boundary by breathing out every last speck of her pain as I send out a prayer for her to know peace. I also had a visual image that went along with this revelation. I saw myself with a bubble of my own protective energy around me, but in the moment of hugging her and breathing in her suffering, I reshaped my bubble so that my place of compassion was on the outside of the bubble where it could reach her. Then, as soon as I breathed out her pain with a prayer for her peace, the protective bubble sucked my place of compassion back inside itself.
Does this sound totally wacky or hard to understand? Maybe it’s something you have to try out and experience before it makes sense. It’s always hard to describe the processes of our minds and hearts, so I’d love to hear your questions.