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.