3 Tips for Maintaining Professional Boundaries

Emily Bushell

Many of us are drawn to the helping profession because of a strong desire to help others. When this is our focus and our drive, we can easily lose track of ourselves and become stretched beyond our own boundaries and limits in service of others. We know having and asserting our boundaries keeps our careers sustainable, but many of us become so disconnected from ourselves that we don’t know what our boundaries are to begin with.

Before we begin to set, assert, and maintain our boundaries, we first need to uncover what they actually are. If we approach our boundaries with curiosity and allow ourselves to slow down enough to explore various facets of our experiences, we can discover where boundaries actually exist within us rather than artificially creating them.

Here are three questions to begin your journey of uncovering and discovering your boundaries:

How do you feel in the moment?

Do you ever experience a sense of dread before you go into a session? Do you feel overwhelmed just by looking at your calendar when you start your day? Maybe your stomach drops, a heaviness sets in across your chest, or you just feel fatigued. Depending on the day, perhaps you carry a nervous feeling, are “amped up,” or even a little nauseated. All these experiences are valid.

When we get curious about our experiences and tune in to honour our feelings, we can gain wisdom about where our boundaries actually exist.

If you are walking through your days feeling drained, overwhelmed, or nervous, your body may be giving you a hint that you are overextending yourself. Now imagine saying no to those scenarios where you feel weighed down or amped up. What happens in your body? Do you feel a sense of lightness or relief?

Respecting your felt sense as a source of valuable information is an important step in uncovering your own boundaries. On the other side of the spectrum, it’s important to pay attention to the pleasant and energizing sensation that comes from working on something that feels meaningful and is suited for your skillset. Only when we slow down, suspend self-judgement, tune in to what our bodies are telling us, and honour the information that emerges, can we discover our true boundaries.

What are your personal signs of compassion fatigue?

Pay attention to your early warning signs of compassion fatigue. Do you feel so spent at the end of your workday that you have no empathy or compassion left to offer your loved ones? Perhaps chronic pain or digestive issues are flaring up, or insomnia has moved from a one-off experience to a nightly ritual. When your well-being is suffering, it is quite possible that you’re overlooking or not respecting your own professional boundaries.

Our professional boundaries are as unique as we are.

Take these early warning signs as an invitation to get curious about what is happening professionally. Perhaps it is a difficult relationship with a colleague or a certain type of therapeutic modality that doesn’t fit for you anymore. Get curious and experiment with making changes to the areas of your professional life that don’t work for you.

It’s okay to prioritize our own wellness when we are serving others – we can actually be more effective when we do so. Often we ignore our own warning signs to make ourselves available to help other people with their struggles. If we can start to notice what brings on bouts of insomnia, IBS, or irritability, we can start making decisions about where to draw our professional lines.

What makes you feel stuck?

Are you ruminating about a difficult decision you had to make? Do you find yourself repeatedly engaging in supervision or consultation on the same topics? Of course, there is always a personal aspect to professional boundaries. I think it is safe to say that most of us have been trained to get curious about our own lives and address any underlying issues that keep us stuck professionally. Just as important is allowing ourselves the self-compassion to acknowledge that we are all works in progress.

Perhaps a professional stuck point does have roots in our personal lives. However, we don’t have to endure everything professionally while simultaneously addressing things personally. It is okay to allow our limits to emerge and to respect these limits as boundaries. Once we uncover our professional boundaries, it is up to us to assert and maintain them for as long as we need to.

Our professional boundaries are as unique as we are. Too often, we push through our discomfort for the purpose of our own growth and development, and for the service of others. In our training, we are encouraged to dig deep and challenge ourselves. However, in our professional career, we are faced with the delicate balance of acknowledging when we want to push ourselves for the sake of growth and when we are crossing our own internal sense of our boundaries.

When we get curious about our experiences and tune in to honour our feelings, we can gain wisdom about where our boundaries actually exist. We can uncover a deep knowing of what truly works for us and what doesn’t so that we are prepared to set, assert, and maintain the healthy boundaries we need to do this work well.


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Author: Emily Bushell (MA, RCT, CCC)
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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