May 19, 2010

Boundaries and Feelings

One time I idly accused a spiritual director of saying something just to make me feel better. He reacted somewhat sternly, and I wrote down what he said:

Don't say that; I would never try to manipulate you. That's violent and disrespectful. I just tell you the truth. Whether the truth makes you feel better is your business. I don't take responsibility for your feelings.

That has stuck with me over the years, and I have even used it myself. I've learned how important it is to have such boundaries in ministry. From what I can tell, taking responsibility for our own feelings is very difficult, and we are often eager to absolve ourselves of this responsibility by blaming them on someone else.

It might sound a little paradoxical, but it seems to me that disidentifying with feelings helps us to take this responsibility. To me this is one of the most important fruits of mental or interior prayer. Through prayer, which gets me in touch with the more interior levels of my being, I can enjoy the freedom of knowing and believing that my thoughts and feelings are things that I have, but are not me per se. Yes, my thoughts and feelings are part of me, but they float around on the periphery of my real self, the person whom God created and holds in being. I think much of our spiritual difficulty or confusion derives from an over-identification with our feelings, moods, and negative beliefs about ourselves. If these things are who I really am, of course I will go through my days thrown about, tired, and confused!

Once we have realized that we are not our thoughts and feelings these can be treated in a more objective way. Those that are good and useful--because they correspond to the truth--can be nurtured, and those that are false and destructive can be dismissed.

To refuse to take responsibility for someone's feelings--as my spiritual director did with me--can be 'tough love.' It can be very hard, because many people would rather have you be nice to them than love them. Real charity works to offer the tools the other needs to set himself free. It is not the palliative care of niceness.


A Bit of the Blarney said...

I particularly like your Twitter quote..."To give niceness instead of charity is to deny people the freedom to get better. It is misdirected palliative care." I hope that this is what I get from my spiritual director and I think I do. All very well said. Thank you!!! Cathy

The Ironic Catholic said...

This is absolutely excellent. Thanks for posting it.

Jeanne said...

Love it. Same goes with people who say mean things just to hurt you. What they say - nice or not - should not affect the truth, and it certainly should not dictate a response.

Author Greg said...

Profoundly true. In mediation, as in Taming the Wolf, I have found that niceness can impede the process when, in contrast, a deep love that allows a party to turn to issues of integrity can bring about reconciliation.