self-loveSometimes bad boundaries can disguise themselves as compassion.

I didn’t realize this until eight or nine years into therapy. I always thought I opened my arms for anyone and everyone who needed help because of my years training to be a nun, as my responsibility to “let peace begin with me,” the final refrain to “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” a favorite hymn we sang at St. Charles Borromeo Grade School.

Only in the safe place of therapy did I discover that much of my rescuing others had more to do with a fear of setting boundaries than with my generosity. Yes, I have a good heart and am extremely sensitive to the hurting people in this world. But I am also scared to death to say, “Stop. I’m sorry. I can’t help you.” Because every time I did that growing up, the emotional consequence was brutal. It hurt so much that it was much easier to give in to the needs to those demanding something, than to try to fight back for my own needs.

The last four days have been full of the same type of nausea, adrenaline, confusion, and anger I felt in junior high and high school when I tried to assert my needs. Five months ago, I built an online support group for depression in which I state as points ONE and TWO: this is NOT A SUICIDAL HOTLINE. We are not equipped with mental health professionals to help you. HERE ARE THE NUMBERS TO CALL FOR HELP.

Nonetheless, four days ago, one woman tiptoed over the line and started writing suicidal posts. There were a few people in the group who alerted me to her posts, and I could tell the tone of them was starting to trigger issues for people in the group. After all, the majority of us in the group are not that far from suicidal thoughts ourselves. To protect them, and to protect her, I reached out to her with a hotline number and asked her to call it, that we can’t handle the kind of intense posts she was writing. And then I deleted the darker ones.

It was truly one of the most difficult things I have done in my life because boundary-setting is so ominous for me.

Her response: “It is no wonder why my brother took his life, because when you reach out for help, there is none.”

I started to shake.

My heart raced.

I could feel poison running throughout my veins.

I tried to catch my breath.

Then I sent a message to my other admin: “I CAN’T DO THIS!!!!!!!!! Can you take over?”

That night I dreamt I killed the woman and her brother with a shotgun.

I have been on the verge of tears for four days, and I have been afraid to log on to the group.

I tried to forget it during my daughter’s birthday party last night, but I couldn’t. That feeling I knew all too well as a young girl and a teenager–as if my actions had, indeed, killed someone–was there, breathing over me the entire night.

I shared all this with my very compassionate sister-in-law, who today texted me this passage from Sanaya Roman’s “Living with Joy”:

“The path of compassion does not obligate you to love everyone regardless of how they act or who they are. It is a path of seeing the truth of who they are, acknowledging all their parts. It is the path of looking at people and asking is there anything you can do to heal, assist, or bring them in touch with their higher vision? If there is not, then you are pulling down your own energy by spending time with them.”

A few hours later I heard from the suicidal woman again. Somewhere in the message of thanking me, she told me that my deleting her posts had caused her to self-harm. She asked if I would pray for her and if I would still send my book to her.

“Of course I will pray for you,” I responded. “I have been praying for you all weekend. And yes, I will send you a book.”

That’s all I can do, I thought, thinking of the Roman quote.

I was getting ready to absorb the guilt of making her self-harm, but I caught myself.

“You didn’t make her self-harm,” I told myself. “You are not responsible for the decision on whether or not she chooses to live. You are not responsible for her brother’s death. You provided some peer support, and to protect people in the group, you made rules. She broke the rules. What happened is a result of her choice to use the group in an inappropriate way.”

I would compose narratives like this over and over again in therapy. The voicemail bombs that have been dropped over the years…. The silence treatments I’ve had to endure…. All the very cunning and convincing efforts to hook me into a codependent role…. I have worked so hard to identify the behavior and begin the path to self-compassion, even as it feels so foreign and wrong.

I am stronger now but I am still so very vulnerable to this kind of shame.

“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete,” said Jack Kornfield.

I suppose I’m realizing just how incomplete my gestures of compassion have been in years past.

My health has certainly suffered for it.

Here’s to rounding them out.

Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.

Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.

Join the conversation on Project Beyond Blue, the new community for persons with depression.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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10 Responses
  1. Shel


    There will always be desperate people who will not respect the guidelines for joining a group. I hope that you can focus on how helpful your groups are and also, though you might not hear from them. all you have helped with your books and posts. The “silent majority” applauds all you do and is supportive of your continuing efforts to educate and to console those afflicted with mental disorders.

  2. Tracy

    Maybe it’s enough that you write books, organize mental health groups, and contribute to other web sites and press outlets on these topics. Seems to me that your granular level participation is not healthy for you / and I imagine this was the thrust of this post about “self care” I hope you have truly internalized it. Of course, you have the “recovering Carholic” experience to shed :-). Leave the granular level stuff to your admin – this probably won’t be the last situation where a distraught person oversteps the boundary of the group.

  3. Kathy Rothermel

    You empathized with her and cared more for her in her distress than maybe anyone else ever has. You prayed for her. You felt deeply for her. You wished her profound wellness. You ached for her. You did your part the best you could with all your heart. Well done.

  4. Therese, you just have to honor your own boundaries. I’m very proud of you, you did exactly what I would have done were I here. Since you know this is a hard place for you to be, send those tasks to others, don’t even get involved.

    Just let the poster know you will refer the matter to an Admin. You have to protect you and the many people you are destined to help. God had others put their footprints in the plan~

  5. Compassion means sharing and support, so that is what I’d like to do. (I just recently read your latest post on Psych Central). I’m not a professional myself so anything I say is only from personal experience, etc.

    Your analysis was right, you did what you could, and did what was best for the people of the support group and for the person having suicidal thoughts. Suicide Hotlines are there to address specific situations and needs. They have the resources and training for that, so they are the people tot all with to address suicidal thoughts and thinking. That is the best treatment available to people.

    Sometimes writing is easier for people than talking on a phone, so maybe as compassion there needs to be something that makes people comfortable calling a Suicide Prevention Hotline, about talking with someone and feeling it’s ok to call them and that they will address their needs much better than you would be able to.

    You sent her a message with a hotline number. Her reaction is not your fault, and you did not cause it. How people accept help is not something you can control, as they are their own person with their thoughts processes and ways of reacting to the world.

    As the Sanaya Roman quote says, if you can assist them by connecting them with people who can help them, than that itself is an act of compassion and will get them the help they need. Its work that takes many people working together, each contributing and doing what they can while also knowing the boundaries that are best for each. One organization is limited by what it can do in the world, which topics it focuses on and addresses , so too as individuals we work within specific fields of work.

  6. Whoa..just read this. There are many trolls out there who will take advantage of other people and groups for there own perverse amusement. Until you sight every one of your group members psychiatric diagnoses I’d be giving them all a wide berth. I’d be blocking more than you have. I bet you’ve blocked no-one? Block em.

  7. Grandma

    Once when my four children were little and my abusive husband (ex) had me to my limits, I called my sister and said: “I’m just going to commit suicide”. She said, “can you wait until Monday, I’m busy right now”. I wasn’t prepared for that answer and just sat there, staring at the bright, yellow kitchen wall. No, I did not commit suicide, I just felt like it at that moment.