Setting Healthy Boundaries as a Helping Professional

There is a clip in an episode of season 3 of the sitcom Seinfeld where Jerry goes to pick up a rental car and is told it’s not available—despite him having made a reservation for the car. Jerry then critiques the rental car staff, saying “You know how to take the reservation, but you don’t know how to hold the reservation. And that’s really the most important part of the reservation—the holding!”

This is how I feel about how most people are with their boundaries. They will often be pretty good at initially setting healthy boundaries, but the most important part—the maintaining of the boundary—is where they struggle. In the interest of transparency, I’ll admit I fall into this trap quite a bit. In fact, as I was looking ahead to the coming months I wondered if I had once again taken on too many responsibilities. I’ve failed to maintain the boundaries of my schedule. I would curse my boss, but alas, I’m self-employed. 

What Setting Healthy Boundaries Achieves

In this world where the demand for healthcare professionals is higher than ever, I can’t imagine I’m the only one who has had a boundary slip lately. In the book Better Boundaries: Owning and Treasuring Your Life, the authors Jen Black and Greg Enns state that setting healthy boundaries serve three general purposes: To protect you, to present you, and to preserve you.

Many of us in helping professions have learned a great deal about ethical boundaries within our work including power dynamics, professionalism, and appropriate client care. These guidelines inform our boundary-setting in terms of protecting our clients, as well as protecting ourselves.

As business owners, we also have to learn how to use boundaries to present ourselves. This may include choosing specializations, work hours, locations, fees, and our marketing efforts. There’s often a bit of a learning curve for helping professionals as we balance the desire to support people with the sometimes-conflicting demands of a business owner, but we typically are able to find our way. 

Over the past few years, I have thrown myself into learning more about burnout. And through my reading, conversations, and personal experiences, I’ve come to conclude that it’s the boundaries that are meant to preserve us that most caretakers and helping professionals struggle with the most. 

Common Boundary-Setting Mistakes

Although I’ve noticed caretakers and providers struggling with setting healthy boundaries to preserve themselves, it’s not for lack of trying. We fall into traps of unrealistic goals, expectations, and good intentions, and it often comes at a cost to our personal resources such as our time, values, and well-being.

So let’s talk about the most common boundary mistakes that helping professionals make, and some tips about not only how to set a boundary, but how to maintain it. 

Mistake #1: Underestimating time.
Punctuality has never been my strong suit. While it has improved in recent years, it continues to be a struggle for me. I’ve come to learn that the main cause of my tardiness is that I underestimate how long a task will take me, or I fail to account for the inevitable unexpected time demands that come up in daily life. 

But even some of the most fervently punctual people I know fall into traps of setting unrealistic deadlines and then pulling long hours to catch up. I watch as they find themselves overworked and overwhelmed. It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that there is an imagined future around the corner where setting and maintaining those boundaries will be easier. Does “Once I get through this month, things will be quieter” sound familiar? 

More often than not though, the future comes and something else has filled the time. What if you took time back? If you’re used to a packed and frenetic way of moving through the world, it can be scary and intimidating to look at a schedule that suddenly has some breathing room built into it. But imagine how productive and well-rested you could be if you set more firm boundaries. Can you take a critical look at your schedule and move anything around to give yourself more time? 

Mistake #2: Assuming good boundaries in one area means you’re good in all areas.
Again, I’m guilty of this. Throughout my career, I’ve worked with clients who were known to be boundary pushers and I learned quickly how to be firm, consistent, and professional in my interactions with them. It’s a satisfying feeling, though not one that should be generalized. While it’s okay to take some pride in the places where you have set and maintained effective boundaries, it can cause you to miss other places where your boundaries are not so clear. 

Perhaps you have great professional boundaries, but when it comes to family and friends you find it difficult to say no, or vice versa. Or maybe you’re good at setting the boundary of leaving work on time every day, but you haven’t taken a lunch break in years. 

Take inventory of the many ways boundaries are needed in your life. Go ahead and own the areas you’re doing well in, and also look closer at what you could be doing better. 

Mistake #3: Forgetting to factor yourself into the equation.
I remember a few years ago, I cozied up with my young kids and read Goldilocks and the Three Bears to them. This was a story I was quite familiar with from my own childhood, but on this read, something new struck me—Mama Bear’s porridge is cold. As I read that, it occurred to me that it had been a long time since I had a cup of tea that was “just right.” My kids’ baths, food, and bedrooms were always the perfect temperature, but what about mine?

This doesn’t just apply to parents. Any sort of caretaker role can leave us consumed by the needs of others while we neglect our own. Find opportunities for setting healthy boundaries, so you can pay yourself first and have the energy to support the people you care for. 

Mistake #4: Not wanting to let other people down.
For the first several years of my career, I refused to take a sick day—no matter how run down I felt. I was driven by a worry of letting down my clients and inconveniencing my co-workers. I naively thought that a sick (and maybe contagious?) version of myself was the better option. It seems ridiculous to say it now, but you couldn’t have convinced me otherwise at the time. 

Now a few steps removed from that time, I can see that the things I was trying to do to not let people down in the short-term led me to letting some people down in the long-term. This doesn’t just apply to sick days. Have you ever over-committed yourself because you didn’t want to say no? How did that turn out? 

Consider thinking in terms of trade-offs. If I say yes to this, what am I saying no to? Something has to give. And usually, it’s one of our personal resources—like sleep, health, time, well-being, or relaxation—that gets traded away. And if we trade those personal resources away, our ability to be consistently effective caregivers goes with it. 

So, while I typically don’t use 90s sitcoms as a source of guidance on how to live, I refer you back to the Seinfeld rental car scene. I encourage you to not just name the boundaries you need to set, but also find ways to hold them. 

Popular Articles