I'm a therapist, just not YOURS! And other adventures in setting boundaries
Sometimes it seems to me like the world is divided into two groups of people
There are those that set boundaries like they are going out of style and those that set boundaries with agony and over thinking. I got lucky enough to be a member of the second group and it’s been a journey pretty much my entire adulthood to try to fix this pesky problem. Setting boundaries can be extra hard when you work in a helping profession when you are pretty much primed to thinking about the well being of others all day long.
Consider this: I’m a therapist with a degree in Social Work.
Quick! What pops up for you when you imagine a social worker therapist? Did you think of a kind hearted, patient, loving, giving, selfless, devoted, understanding helper? Do you imagine someone in out of date clothes, nodding patiently while you tell them all of your troubles?
Yeah, that’s not me. Well, at work that’s MOSTLY who I am (minus the out of date clothes, I try to look cute!). My job is to listen intently and connect with others who are in pain and to give them my unconditional positive regard. I am paid to understand and make sense of what I am told in session and to not take personally anything negative that is directed towards me. I am real and passionate and present to what happens in sessions with my client. But… That is who I am when I am when I am working.
In the rest of my life, I am just like you.
I lose my temper, I gossip, I procrastinate. Sometimes I’m bitchy for no reason. Sometimes I’m too lazy to shower. Sometimes I yell at my kids. I definitely don’t have my shit anymore together than the rest of you. What makes it even worse is that I KNOW BETTER! I know about using “I” statements in an argument, or taking a 5 deep breaths or staying positive. AND I CERTAINLY KNOW ALL ABOUT WHAT IT MEANS TO SET BOUNDARIES AND WHY I NEED TO SET THEM.
Sorry for CAPS yelling but I piss myself off sometimes thinking about how many instances I’ve said Yes instead of No, especially when it comes to taking care of people in my off work hours. The countless conversations about someone’s mental health or the mental health of a family member or friend. The leg work I’ve done looking up resources for someone or connecting them with another provider. And I’m not even talking about helping family members! They are acquaintances, friends of friends or a seatmates on a flight where I’ve made a mistake telling them what I do for a living.
As I was reviewing the previous paragraph, I realized to an average person I sound heartless and stingy with my gifts. But care providers get it. I can’t always be “ON” nor do I want to be. Providing and helping takes emotional energy. Each of us has a limited quota of emotional energy per day. If I used up my quota by 1 pm listening to the life story of a stranger in the supermarket, how much do I have left for my family?
Back to boundaries.
Because I am in the second group that I mentioned in the first paragraph, setting boundaries is difficult with strangers and become increasingly more difficult the closer that I am to someone. But setting boundaries is absolutely key in maintaining any level of mental health or balanced relationships with people in my life. So I have learned some rules to setting emotional boundaries, and if you are in any profession where people always want your feedback or advice (doctor, nurse, religious leader, psychic, etc) maybe these can be useful to you as well:
We do not talk about being a therapist
WE DO NOT TALK ABOUT BEING A THERAPIST!!!!!!
If someone starts telling you their problems and you know you don’t want to/ don’t have the emotional energy to listen, quickly change the subject. This can be accomplished like so: “Our phone connection is terrible! Hello? Hello?” Then hang up. Or “You have a big booger in your nose, go check in the bathroom” or if you are really desperate “What time is it? Shoot, I have to run or else I’ll miss my malpractice trial!”
Some people really don’t get the hint so you may need to up the ante. Act confused. Continually ask them to repeat names, dates and other unimportant details of their story. Eventually they will realize that you are an idiot and stop asking for advice.
Move far away and start over. Maintain no personal relationships so that you never have to set boundaries.
OK, OK some of these tips are really really bad, unprofessional and unethical so here are some healthier ways to address setting emotional boundaries.
When you are not feeling up for providing emotional support, be honest. Tell the person that you have a lot on your plate and that now is not a good time or suggest someone else in their life who is better suited to support them. When appropriate let them know that according to your license you can’t give clinical advise unless you are treating them and offer to refer them to a competent provider. If you have no relationship with them, give them your card and suggest that they schedule an appointment to talk.
I know that the self talk that often prevents me from setting boundaries is that people will be mad at me, they will think I am rude or that they won’t like me anymore. Most of the time I am able to override this thinking. This skill comes from counseling that I have PAID FOR over the years. It is usually this self talk that prevents most people from setting boundaries and results in feeling overwhelmed and overextended.
So… even if you will never be a member of the “setting boundaries like it’s their job” group, what are you committed to doing to protecting your emotional boundaries? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!