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  • Amy Smitke

Creating Boundaries in Practice

Many of us get into the field wanting to help people, a noble cause. However, for many reasons we may find ourselves not maintaining appropriate boundaries that protect both us and our those we serve. We may come into the field not having solid boundaries, not with poor intention, but lack of understanding and self awareness. We may find that out place of employment pushes us to become flexible with our boundaries, against our better judgement or even possibly reinforcing already in place poor boundaries.


You may find that you supervision isn't addressing these issues or that you are struggling to accept your supervisors feedback. In the mental health field we must remain open to feedback and take the opportunity to look inwards. If your supervisor isn't addressing issues with boundaries at the work place, ask yourself why. Are they unaware, are they struggling to maintain their own boundaries, do they feel a lack of control, are they reinforcing an unhealthy work environment, or are they the source?


Don't always assume that your supervisor has all the answers, little fact - WE DON'T HAVE ALL the answers, and we often can have little to no control over certain situations given the circumstances. Take this into account, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't have boundaries or that it makes it ethical or okay to forgo them, but meeting people and places where they are is important. If you find yourself under a supervisor who isn't willing or able to fight for you, or a place of employment that creates and reinforces the same toxic environment without any concern for change, the boundary may be thinking of a change in your job.


As I work towards my dissertation on understanding how to create education, supports, knowledge, etc., around reducing the risks for mental health professionals developing burnout, compassion fatigue, and ultimately secondary traumatic stress, I have found a few factors that among all the current research states are big indicators of risks. These include but not limited to job satisfaction, professional support, supervision, and mindfulness practices. Do you feel that you have all of these protective factors in your life right now? If not, what can be done to change it?


Back to boundaries. Although this whole time, we have talked about boundaries, you may have thought, this writer is rambling. Identifying unhealthy aspects in all areas of life is how to identify boundaries issues and aim to correct them. If you don't have a good understanding of boundaries look it up, read a few books, read the code of ethics, obtain an outside or new supervisor. Asking for what you need is setting a boundary for yourself, which trickles down to those you serve.


Understand the need to have separation from work, from those you serve, learn to say no, learn to have balance in your life. Not everything is your cross to bear and you know what, that is OKAY! You, myself, nor anyone else needs to take on the responsibility of everyone around us. As mental health professionals we may come into the field from our own experiences and wanting to create a space or opportunity for others we did not have or we simply wish to be of service, again that comes with limitations, and for good reason.


You have probably heard "you can't pour from an empty cup," dozens of time, but it's a good rule to follow. We are created of energy and we can only recharge so much without receiving energy back from life, others, balance, basic needs, etc. If we continue to give more than we receive we are inevitably destroying our ability to help others as we cannot truly help others to our best ability and therefore to their greatest benefit if we do not first ensure our cup is full.


How are you caring for yourself? How are you refilling your cup or recharging your battery, or how are others doing part of that for you? Don't expect others to do it all for you but do set boundaries and expect that relationships are a two way street and that if someone, anything in your life is only taking, sit back and reevaluate.


Here are a few areas I find often my supervisee's have struggled with boundaries related to the work environments.

  • Working more than 40 hours a week - if they are paying you for 40 only work 40. You may need to look at your time management and if anything is sucking time and fixing it, you may need to address the concern with an onsite manager, etc.

  • Taking calls, emails, texts, outside of work hours (if you are scheduled to be on a crisis line list) - One avoid clients having access to your personal number, two set time limits for them and yourself (AND STICK TO THEM), your clients should have a "safety plan" that they are utilizing outside of working hours if they are too high risk maybe they need a higher level of care.

  • Not creating breaks in your workday for yourself

  • Not taking on projects, caseloads, or other work that is not part of your job description - it's one thing to be a team player and helpful, but again you can't pour from an empty cup, manage yourself and your work first, prioritize, if that is caught up and managed and ONLY if - then you can help others out.

  • Stop letting toxic work environments burn you out. We continue to allow work places in the field to overwork us and under pay us (and yes in some realms there are limitations to pay for certain reasons) but we need to advocate for ourselves, even when no one else is.

  • Your clients or those your serve are not your friends, you can be friendly but not friends. Maintain clear boundaries with personal matters, opinions, beliefs, social media, etc. Sometimes the same may be true for colleagues.

This is not an exhaustive list, just common issues to be mindful of and to continue to be self-aware of other areas where boundaries may need to be created and reinforced.


How do you feel your boundaries are?


Until next time...Stay motivated!

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