Be a Grocery Store, Not the City Dump – 5 Ways to Preserve Compassion with Boundaries

Danny Silk

Is it a good thing to be someone people often come to for help with their problems?

The answer is that it could be a good thing, and it could also be a not-so-good thing. It all depends on how you are responding to those problems. Here are a few quick ways to check if you are responding in a healthy way:

  • When people come to me with their problems, do they leave either with their problem solved, or with a solution they are going to work on?
  • When they leave, am I releasing them and their problem to God?
  • Is my hope level as high when they leave as when they came?

If you are answering “no” to any of these questions, then there’s a good chance that you need to work on setting healthy emotional and personal boundaries with the people you are helping.

Failing to set boundaries is a common trap for compassionate people to fall into, but we must avoid it at all costs, because it ultimately compromises our ability to offer help and leaves both us and the person worse off in the end. Falling into this trap leads to:

  • Codependency—We start working harder on the person’s problems than they are. This is unhealthy, disrespectful, and never solves anything.
  • Grief and Hopelessness—We go beyond mourning with those who mourn and carrying another’s burdens, and start to agree with the person’s hopeless and powerless outlook on their situation.
  • Bitterness and Resentment—We start to take and carry offenses, either toward the people or on their behalf, which poisons us.
  • Compassion Fatigue—In cases where we are being exposed to other people’s traumatic experiences, we can develop secondary traumatic stress, which has a range of harmful mental, emotional, and physical symptoms.

In short, being a helper without boundaries is like being the city dump—people come to you, drop off their mess, and soon, your life is messy and stinky.

Being a helper with boundaries is more like being a grocery store—people come to you, you choose to offer them certain resources to help them work on their problems, and then they leave so you have the time and space to clean up, restock, and be ready for business the next day. Being a grocery store is the only way to preserve your compassion and ability to offer help.

Here are 5 important boundaries that will help you be a grocery store and not a dump:

1) I will only participate in respectful conversations.   

One of the quickest ways to weed out the people who don’t want help is to require respect. When someone comes to you and starts spewing gossip, slander, cynicism, and complaining, don’t engage. Try to use questions to redirect the person to talk vulnerably about themselves rather than others. If necessary, say, “I realize that you are hurt and upset, but those people aren’t here now. Let’s talk about you and what you can do about this situation.”

2) I will emotionally let go of people and their problems after I help them.

Showing empathy and compassion necessarily involves feeling pain and sadness for others. That is a nonnegotiable part of helping. It is part of bearing one another’s burdens. However, only God is strong enough to carry the full emotional weight of another person’s life and problems. He tells us, “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). That word for “be still” means to let go. We must have the emotional wisdom and strength to look at people’s problems with them, offer our help, and then let them go by placing them into the hands of Jesus. We should also do something that helps us think about something else and is emotionally restorative—connecting with a friend, exercise, reading Scripture or encouraging testimonies, etc. 

3) I will forgive.

Human problems are filled with mistakes, sin, and injustice. This means one of our jobs as helpers is encouraging and guiding people through the process of forgiving themselves and others so they can get free and whole. It also means that we have many opportunities to take up offenses. We must keep a clean heart and forgive. Forgiveness is one of the ways we let go and restore our emotions.

4) I will say “no” when I need to.

Once you get to a certain level of helping others, there will be no end to the demands on your life, and if you do not proactively manage this, the demands of others will end up controlling what you do with your time and energy. To combat this, it is critical to clearly define and commit to the things you’re saying “yes” to in life. This will set you up to say “no” when you have to and manage yourself in the presence of others’ demands.

5) I will rest and enjoy my life.

In the movie Braveheart, William Wallace says, “All men die, but not all men truly live.” If we hope to offer the benefits of our lives to help others, then we must be building a life in which we want to live—a life that inspires. The best way to do that is by taking care of the things that will bring us life—spending time in the presence of God, being creative, investing in our dreams, enjoying healthy relationships and hobbies, and practicing recreation that truly “re-creates” and restores us.

In “The Gifts of Imperfection,” Brené Brown says, “Compassionate people are boundaried people.” If we want to grow in compassion, we can only do it by learning to set and keep healthy boundaries.



PS) This blog was inspired by the message found in our new track in the Life Academy called People Helping People. If you want to learn more about helping people in your life, join us here.

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