For those serving in professions where they are working to help the needs of others, having boundaries such as limiting communication between yourself and those your serving is essential rules which constantly need to be reinforced. Additionally, while those in serving professions are constantly surrounded by those dealing with grief, suffering from prolonged illnesses, or living in challenging conditions, there is often guilt for these professional caregivers in not taking calls while they are not working, limiting contact time those they serve to certain hours. However, in order to continue to help those in challenging situations, professional caregivers need to put boundaries in place not only to maintain professionalism but to keep from burning out from their work.
According to Good Therapy, boundaries are “limits people set in order to create a healthy sense of personal space. Boundaries can be physical or emotional in nature, and they help distinguish the desires, needs, and preferences of one person from another.”
But it’s not just in serving professions where individuals feel burnout. For those working in high-pressure environments with high levels of toxicity between co-workers, or with supervisors who don’t value their employees’ skills or needs, the emotional health of individuals is often comprised– leading to depression, weight gain, tiredness, and other physical consequences.
Unfortunately, burnout is a large problem for individuals in our American workplaces. According to a recent survey by Forbes magazine of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23% reported feeling burnt out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burnt out sometimes.
However, when it comes to burnout and a struggle to have boundaries, our spiritual lives are affected as well.
For those working with underserved populations who are dealing with illnesses, loneliness, grief, and brokenness—in addition to working in an environment where systemic injustices continue to go unaddressed— therapists, teachers, clergy, social workers, nurses, and other caregiver professionals often find themselves finding passion, purpose, and less of a presence of the spiritual divine in their lives. Often there is a feeling of hopeless that accompanies the signs of emotional and physical burnout, as caregivers who entered their professions to help others no longer feel as if they are being effective in the work they do.
When I first began my career as a hospital chaplain and was serving in a training program several years ago, I found myself overwhelmed by the emotional pain of my patients combined with the many systemic injustices of seeing individuals dying of treatable diseases. As a young recent seminary graduate, I had arrived at my training hospital feeling affirmed God had chosen and empowered me to be a spiritual presence to those in pain. However, after the first couple months of dealing with the emotional stress of my program, and neglecting to put boundaries in my life to prevent me from taking home what I experienced in the hospital each day, I felt like I was losing my spiritual purpose –as if I was losing hope that anything could be done to help my patients.
Looking back, some of my issues during my residency were neither addressing my emotional and physical burnout nor engaging in any proper self-care. And when I found myself neglecting my spiritual self-care, I lost my spiritual calling to be a chaplain.
For any professional in a serving position or anyone in general who deals with the emotional needs of others, creating emotional boundaries by limiting the hours you work, setting guidelines with your supervisors or those you’re serving about when you will and won’t be working, engaging in emotional and physical self-care activities, and committing to taking care of your emotional and physical health in addition to the health of those you serve are critical. But the need to set spiritual boundaries with others and yourself is also an important part of continuing to serve.
The first way this can be done is by setting a boundary for when you will engage in spiritual self-care exercises and activities. Whether it’s attending a weekly religious service, engaging in spiritual reflection through reading or discussion, or volunteering, setting a boundary with others for when your spiritual self-care activity will take place and setting a boundary for yourself by committing yourself to do it each week will contribute to your success.
The second boundary when it comes to engaging in improving your spiritual well-being is finding ways to avoid taking home with you the emotional distress you are witnessing and experiencing. This, of course, is not always easy to do. Working in a hospital environment where I encounter so many in emotional distress, it’s hard not to think about my patients on my drive home or the next day.
But choosing to find ways to properly reflect on your difficult experiences will help you not to lose spiritual purpose in what you do. This leads to the third boundary exercise which can be explored when it comes to protecting your sense of spiritual purpose.
Whether it’s through a spiritual director, clergy person, spiritual support group such as meditation, yoga, or spiritual support group, finding ways to reflect on what you are experiencing by surrounding yourself with people of a spiritual nature who can provide support to you will help ground you.
The final way of setting a spiritual boundary is not necessarily an action one can do but is more a reminder for those who often find themselves feeling helpless in aiding the distress of those they serve. This final method is exploring the idea that all brokenness will be only temporary and in the end, ultimate healing and grace will be found.
In my faith tradition of Christianity, it’s the reminder that through Jesus, those who are hurting, grieving, suffering, or lost will find liberation from their pain. For me, it’s the reminder that it’s not my job to save humanity but merely be a spiritual presence in the brokenness of others to share that there is still hope. For those of other faith or spiritual traditions, it’s finding hope for humanity that will allow you not to feel it’s your responsibility to save everyone.
In closing, I am reminded of the starfish story of the young boy picking up starfish which had washed ashore. When an older man spotted him and asked, “why even bother, you can’t save them all,” the boy replied, “No, but each one I throw back into the sea makes a difference to that one!”
“Compassionate people ask for what they need,” writes Brene Brown. “They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”
While you may find yourself overwhelmed by the pain of others, be reminded that the work you do, even though it may seem so small and insignificant, is making a difference in the lives of that person. And while you may not see the results, rest assured the positive work you are doing is notably making a difference.