January 30, 2023

The Trouble with Boundaries

Guest Opinion
By Emma Smith | Jan. 7, 2023

Boundaries.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last five-plus years, you’re sure to have heard this buzzword floating around within your social circles. But lately when I hear someone mention boundaries, the immortal words of Inigo Montoya come to mind: “You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I’ve been struggling with the idea of boundary-setting. And not just boundary-setting, but also self-care, which arguably go hand-in-hand. More and more often, boundaries and self-care are words that are used to justify prioritizing our own needs not just above but at the expense of others.

I understand the push to stop glorifying burning the candle at both ends. Having worked in various helping professions for the last decade, I too have a tendency toward the unsustainable practice of securing others’ oxygen masks before my own.

But has the pendulum swung too far? What are healthy boundaries, anyway?

Healthy boundaries look different for everyone. In the social work field, good boundary-setting is essential, as it’s not just about preventing burnout but ensuring safety as well. Social workers are taught to be cautious of clients, to not get too close or enable unhealthy dependency. While this is well-intended advice, it also creates a divide between “us” and “them” if interpreted in black and white.

A few months ago, I ran into a former client of mine whom I had heard was doing very well, getting close to reunification with her children. When I worked with her, she had been suffering so badly from addiction that the police called me once asking if I would be able to identify a dead body that they thought might be her. (It wasn’t.)

When I saw her with her kids, it had been about eight months since the last time we talked, but she recognized me. I waved a hesitant hello and we exchanged pleasantries before I made the impulsive decision to ask if I could give her a hug. She nodded yes, and as we embraced I told her I was proud of her and how amazing it was to see her doing so well. She got a little teary and said thank you.

I felt—and still feel—love for her. Among others in the helping profession, that last sentence might raise a few eyebrows. It shouldn’t. The work we helpers do is deeply personal, and it is not only completely normal but admirable to feel love for those we serve.

To my fellow helpers: If my invocation of an emotion as powerful as love feels uncomfortable to you, I challenge you to consider why you chose this line of work.

Maybe you’re a therapist, a social worker, a teacher, or a medical professional. Maybe you, like me, have experienced the fear of being labeled “too involved” or as having “poor boundaries” and that’s stopped you from opening your heart completely.

The overuse of boundary-setting has caused us to drift away from the very core of our mission as helpers: to love others! Losing sight of that when many of us are already desperate for connection seems a disservice to ourselves and our community.

So set your boundaries. They are imperative. But set them with intention.

Allow yourself to experience empathy fully, because that’s what drives you. Keep yourself safe, emotionally and physically, but allow yourself to feel, because vulnerability is not a flaw.

It’s a superpower.

Emma Smith is a Leelanau County native who now lives in Traverse City. She works on the development team at Child and Family Services and is also a clinical mental health therapist.

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