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  • Writer's pictureSigne Jung Sorensen

Why Creating Boundaries is Vital for Compassion in the Workplace




I have needed to build in self-compassion by acknowledging that it is not all on me.

Kimberly Lamar


In this conversation, Kimberly Lamar’s shares her personal insights on why boundaries are important within compassion and how we might think of them in the workplace in the social impact sector. We dive into why setting boundaries can be an act of compassion for self and for others and how moving from empathy into action can support this practice.


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This article features in a series of interviews where I explore how purpose-driven professionals who are dedicated to contribute towards a just, equitable and sustainable world relate to the notion of “compassion”. What does compassion mean and look like in practice in our professional lives? What opportunities, challenges and tensions arise when we think of applying compassion? This series is dedicated to professionals offering their personal stories and perspectives.


 

Kimberly currently serves as a program lead for various corporate and grassroots partnerships at Vital Voices Global Partnership. Her focuses include women and girls economic empowerment, environmental justice and DEI. She has expertise in program implementation, gender consultation, leadership development and community building. Prior to joining Vital Voices, Kim worked at the ONE Campaign as a Manager for College Organizing leading advocacy campaigns with volunteers working towards ending extreme poverty. She first started her career as a service member with AmeriCorps working on partnerships and programs at a local DC arts education nonprofit, focusing on under-resourced communities.


Kim attended the University of Montana where she received a BA in Communication Studies and minors in Spanish and Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies.


 


SJ: I am curious to hear what arises for you when thinking about “compassion”?


KL: I feel that the word “compassion” comes up in the work that I do working at an international women’s non-profit focusing on women’s empowerment and leadership. Beyond that, compassion for me brings up the importance of thinking of the people I am working with internally and externally in an empathetic way. We are not robots, and we are not just here to work towards the goals that our partners want. This has really come at forefront for me during the pandemic.


Within the topic of compassion, I have also reflected on how to have boundaries for myself during the pandemic. Having a “human” approach, supporting colleagues through a tough year has raised questions around how I can accommodate other people’s needs, being empathetic and follow through on the work that is required.


SJ: Tell me more about your thoughts on boundaries within compassion.


KL: During the pandemic I have found it easy to take on more things at work to reduce the burden of other colleagues going through a challenging time — staying a little later, worrying about the quality of projects outside of my own portfolio etc. Colleagues have been good at pushing back at me saying: “Kim, you are doing the best you can — the weight is not all on you”. I find this to be very compassionate while also helping me turn the compassion I have for others inwards in a work setting. If I do not meet a deadline or something goes off rail it is not the end of the world.


In a pandemic world where the work pressure has just been building, I have needed to build in self-compassion by acknowledging that it is not all on me.

So, while compassion has been around me, I have felt that I have not had the capacity to do as much as I have felt like doing.


Having compassion for myself has meant setting a boundary of “this is what it is, and I can just do the best I can do”.

SJ: I think that is an important realisation. It reminds me of Brene Brown’s research indicating that the most compassionate individuals tend to have the strongest boundaries. What has been helpful for you in terms of learning how to set boundaries?


KL: Realising what boundaries actually are. For a while, I thought boundaries were just saying “no” and taking back some control.


I have realised that having boundaries is more about expressing ourselves because no matter what we do, we cannot control other people — which is a hard but useful lesson.

It has been helpful for me to learn and have actual language around what boundaries can sound like. Stating what I am feeling and choosing to do in response to another person’s action and letting them know in advance what the consequence could be is how I have learned to work with boundaries.


For example, in the work place it may sound like “I feel frustrated that you are not able to communicate when you will have this piece of the project done. This is affecting my work and other people’s work, so I am letting you know that if it continues, there is going to be some trust building needed on my end for future projects we work on together”.


SJ: What has been the hardest thing for you around setting boundaries in the workplace?


KL: I have spent a while untangling personal relationships from working relationships and at times felt like a very “non-compassionate” person in the process. It has taken me a while to realise that I can have a lot of compassion for a colleague’s personal situation and still be firm about work deliverables. This does not mean I am not a compassionate person.


In fact, I would say that not setting those boundaries and not being honest about potential work frustrations building up is not compassionate behaviour towards others.

If a colleague does not know how she/he/they is being perceived in the work environment it is not very compassionate to withhold feedback that could improve work relationships.


SJ: What other thoughts do you have on protecting that compassion or “humanness” you feel in the workplace?


KL: I think having personal conversations and relationships are important for a healthy and productive workplace — it is about finding the line. I am realising that setting a boundary for me entails moving from feeling empathy or sympathy for a colleague and into action. This means that I can go from “I hear and see what you are telling me and let us figure out how this play into work and how we can support you”.


It can be easy to get stuck in the heaviness we feel for another person and sink into sadness.

I think we would all benefit from talking and working on how to set boundaries in the work environment.


SJ: In terms of where you are at now on this boundary and self-compassion journey, what do you find that you need to either continue doing or learn how to do to thrive in your work environment?


KL: I personally want to work with how I project and creative false realities about others when they are perhaps not sharing as much about how they feel in the workplace. I over-analyse and create many different scenarios in my head when people are less personable with me, which can lead to unfair judgements.


SJ: That is a powerful commitment. I think inquiring — with kindness! — into our own biases is a cornerstone for deepening our understanding and practice of compassion. What concluding thoughts do you have on this topic?


KL: I am reflecting on the differences between sympathy, empathy and compassion and how they are important to separate to work on projection and boundary setting.


This year has been exceptionally heavy with things happening in the Asian community, hate crimes, pandemic realities etc. It can feel like a lot — also because of the work I do with the women we support across the world. I want to keep these feelings that are important to me and also engage with them in a way that does not keep me stuck in a sad feeling.


 

This conversation is based on Kimberly Lamar’s own personal views. They do not represent the views of any organisation that Kimberly currently works for or has worked for previously.


If you are curious about practical tools on boundaries you may find the book “Set Boundaries, Find Peace” by Nedra Tawwab helpful. Free resources are also available on her website.


 

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