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Using Boundaries to Prevent Burnout

Christina G.

As social workers we see suffering, sickness, abuse and despair; at times we see humanity at its worst. It is our job to help the suffering and many of us feel a deep personal responsibility to address the suffering of others. Similarly as Christians we are taught to care for others and to be selfless by putting others first. We are reminded in Acts 20:35: “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” At times, this responsibility to care for suffering and be selfless can feel overwhelming.

The question for many Christian social workers becomes how do we balance the great responsibility of selflessly caring for the suffering while protecting ourselves from burnout? Early in social work education we are warned about burnout and instructed to use boundaries to protect ourselves against burn out. Boundaries are often discussed in vague ways leaving many to wonder what exactly boundaries are.

Boundaries are like property lines helping us to see what is ours and what is not. Through boundaries we see what are responsible for and what is the responsibility of others. Without boundaries, we end up taking on things that God never intended us to take on. In their book “Boundaries” Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend define the following elements as within our boundaries: feelings, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, choices, values, talents, thoughts, desires, and love. We are not responsible for the feelings, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, choices, values, talents, thoughts, desires, and love of others. We must live within our own limits and develop limits with others.

Developing appropriate boundaries increases our ability to care about and for our clients, be less selfish and also to care for ourselves preventing burnout. Our lives and our work as social workers are gifts from God and we must take good care of them. Much like a shop manager takes good care of a shop; we are to do the same with our lives and hearts (Cloud and Townsend, 1992. See article link below). In Proverbs 4:23 we are instructed to “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”

In what ways do you use boundaries to guard your heart and prevent burnout? For more information about boundaries, check out Scoop on Boundaries.

Christina G., LMSW, is the Clinical Director of Care House of Oakland County and has been a member of NACSW since starting her MSW program at U of M in 2007.

5 thoughts on “Using Boundaries to Prevent Burnout

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful post, Tina. It reminds me that those of us who work primarily with communities or organizations as our clients have both overlapping as well as parallel boundary issues on which we need to keep focused if we are to stay healthy and energized in our work. Yet developing and sustaining appropriate boundaries are a challenge no matter who our clients happen to be; in my experience, doing so is always most effictive with the help and support of our friends and colleagues. In a word, developing and sustaining boundaries are best done in community (like NACSW – okay, I'm biased)!

    1. Rick, the process of developing boundaries is much more effective when done with the help of friends and colleagues. Friends and colleagues provide support and accountability. NACSW offers a great opportunity to develop relationships with other like-minded professionals.

  2. Tina I think this is one of those "level one", basic step kind of things that for some reason we (I) have to keep learning over and over again – the hard way. Sometimes I start to have boundaries only when I'm so frustrated or exhausted that I don't care anymore. Not good. Thank you for your thoughtful reminder.

    1. Sherri, I completely agree. Boundaries are a basic, "social work 101" issue that most of us need to continually work on. Developing good boundaries takes time, effort and prayer. For many (myself included) boundaries are area in my life that is a work in progress.

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