Professional Comment

How To Set Boundaries For People Who Work In Care

By Jess Baker and Rod Vincent are Chartered Psychologists and the authors of The Super-Helper Syndrome: A Survival Guide for Compassionate People (Flint Books, available in hardback £18.99 and ebook)

What are boundaries?
Imagine a house with a white picket fence all around the perimeter. Any onlooker will see where that boundary is and they will know not to cross it.

Personal boundaries help to define how we see ourselves and how others perceive us. Think of them as guidelines for how we behave in any given situation or relationship. They also help others predict what they can expect from us, and how we expect them to treat us. Boundaries protect you; they keep you safe. They are important for your integrity and emotional wellbeing. They keep the good in and the bad out.

Why is setting boundaries difficult?
Setting personal boundaries can be a challenge. Partly because they are invisible and intangible, and partly because they require assertiveness to maintain them. All of this is even more challenging for people who work in care. One reason for this is that those you care for have a high level of need and are dependent on you. It can feel like part of your duty is to put your own needs aside. A second reason is that many of the kind of people who are attracted to caring professions also readily sacrifice themselves.

How carers’ boundaries get broken
There are many ways that carers’ boundaries can be broken: working beyond your paid hours; feeling responsible for the family and friends of those in your care; feeling responsible for your colleagues or manager; experiencing rudeness or abuse at work; being exploited by the organisation you work for. Perhaps you can think of others if you reflect on the challenges of your own situation.

Signs that your boundaries are being broken
Often people don’t identify their boundaries in advance; they only discover them when their internal alarm system goes off. You experience a sense of unease, exposure, or wrongness. You don’t like someone else’s behaviour towards you. You feel compromised. And when that happens it’s essential to take action to protect your boundaries.

Communicating your boundaries
If your boundaries alarm system is going off you have to learn to speak up about that. To communicate clearly. To say how you feel while acknowledging how others might feel too. That takes courage and assertiveness. If you don’t communicate your boundaries, how can you expect anyone else to know that they have been breached.


Choose your helping boundaries
Are you going beyond the call of duty? If, as well as a caring job, you’re also volunteering, looking after dependent relatives, or trying to help everyone you meet, then you don’t have any boundaries to your helping. It’s essential to consciously decide when, who and how you help. For example, you might decide to limit most of your helping to your professional role.

Know your limits
As well as listening out for your boundaries alarm system, there are other signs that you’ve reached your limits and need to reset your boundaries. Typically signs are if you are feeling exhausted, resentful or exploited.

Agree your boundaries
You don’t have to do all of this on your own. Talk to the people you work with and discover what you can expect from them and what they can expect from you. That’s especially important when you start a new job or join a new team. Agreeing your boundaries in this way could make it easier to support each other to maintain your boundaries.

Know the importance of looking after yourself too
If the focus of your attention is entirely on other people, most of the consequences for you are negative – you are the one who ends up suffering. It might help you to remember one thing: as well as your responsibilities towards those in your care and to your employer, your ultimate responsibility is to yourself… to looking after your own needs, protecting your own boundaries, and asserting your human rights. Because if you aren’t doing these things who is going to?