Wednesday, September 19, 2012

On Boundaries and Burnout

Before I say anything else, I need to point you toward my WIDGET. No, that is not a euphemism. My friend Brigid Kemmerer made me this handy little SANCTUM countdown widget, and now I have it to stare at and watch the seconds fly by. If you would also like to stare at it, feel free to grab and post.

NOW ... as you probably know, writing is not my only job. I still psychologize (though on fewer days than before my writing career began to gobble up everything else). In fact, I direct something called the Center for Community Based Services at my agency, and that means I supervise staff and do all sorts of other training/consulting/meeting type things.

I have the best staff in the world. They are simply the most dedicated, thoughtful, vibrant bunch of people I've ever worked with. Their jobs are difficult--we provide intensive home- and community-based behavioral health services to families with kids who are at high risk for psychiatric hospitalization or for incarceration. It's a job that entails a definite element of physical risk--some staff members have been assaulted by clients who were having a particularly hard time. But the job also comes with emotional risk, and last week we all met to discuss that a bit.

In our weekly staff meeting, we talked about burnout, and what causes it. Staff listed a lot of things that could lead to burnout--not taking good care of themselves, dealing with uncertainty, not seeking or accepting help and support from colleagues and supervisors ... but they also came up with this: not having healthy boundaries.

Not having healthy boundaries can lead to burnout.

And as I thought about it, I realized that is true for many professions, not just for those in the mental health field. It's also true for writers. Here are some ways unhealthy boundaries can manifest:

No feeling able to say NO. To a request for a beta-read or critique. To a guest blog post. To a co-authored project. To a promotional or other group project.

Always being ON. The demands of social media are 24/7. Content content content. Interaction interaction interaction. Now now now. It's difficult to unplug, but what are the consequences for being ... plugged? All the time?

Too much self-disclosure. Really, it's easy to live life online. You can tell others your deepest, darkest secrets and feelings with a series of keystrokes, never having to look them in the eye. And sometimes, disclosure is pure and honest and brave and therapeutic. But sometimes, when the potential risks are not thought through, it leaves a person quite vulnerable and can lead to regret and ongoing feelings of anxiety and victimization. Despite this risk, there's a significant amount of pressure to get personal, I think. It often feels good in the moment, and it's often reinforced by others, which leads to more, and more personal, disclosure. I think the amount of disclosure that's "right" totally depends on the individual and how he/she handles it, but when the balance is off, burnout is a risk.

On Monday, I'll talk about how I manage this personally (and imperfectly) as I get ready for the publication of my first novel.

For now, I think I'll take a breath and ask YOU to weigh in! How do you think about boundaries? How do you maintain them? Are here other ways unhealthy boundaries can manifest?


  1. This is so important! I'm really glad you wrote this post.
    Personally, though I get a huge kick out of twitter, it sucks you in and leads you to links and...I just can't do it. I feel like I can glance at Facebook and feel connected in just a minute or two, but with twitter I always feel like I'm missing something unless I'm on it at least 30 min.
    So I often avoid it, unless I have time to kill at the dance studio waiting room or something.
    Good one, Sarah. :)
    Love the widget.

  2. Oh dear. I'm not doing so well with a couple of them. I am however doing well with self-disclosure. I think I might have burned out a few weeks ago...before the party even got started. LoL


  3. I love this post. I am connected to so many people from so many different arenas of my life, I have to be constantly aware of what I am saying--and where. I do not think this is a bad thing. I feel a second thought given to everything we post and/or comment online should be required. I have so much respect for you--I'm looking forward to your post on how you handle it.

  4. Recently, I've done a much better job in trying to prevent "burnout." I am no longer taking requests for book reviews (until I have my back log cleared, at least) which is hard for a people pleaser. I have also looked down on social media during the hours my children are at school, using the Cold Turkey program. It has done wonders for my Wip productivity.

    (Btw, couldn't see the widget. Not sure why. A Google Chrome thing?)

  5. I've never been good at saying no - and it's come back to bite me more than once. But I have managed to stay away from Twitter. I know I'd get totally sucked in and spend all my time trying to keep up with everyone's tweets.

  6. These are boundaries I struggle with all the time. I always have trouble saying NO to people, and since I'm an internet-y person, I get the pressure of having to be connected 24/7. I think I'm a little better with self-disclosure, though I'm probably not as careful with all of my private information as I should be. It's hard to find the lines, like you said, especially when you make online friends. Unplugging actually isn't too hard for me in general, but it's hard in the aspect of my online friendships because being plugged is how I keep in contact with them and interact with them. So things get tricky in the negotiations there.

  7. I love being connected, but the disclosure part is something I struggle with - I always feel like I could make things more personal. I just can't.

    The widget looks great, btw. :)

  8. Another great post, Sarah (when isn't it?). Saying no is tough for me, but I'm learning. Can't be all things to all people, etc. I can't blame anyone else, either---no one would be angry if I said "no." It is my own doing, and something I'm working on.

  9. Gosh, I agree with you on all counts, especially the saying no part. I've gotten better over the years with understanding my limitations. But understanding those limitations means admitting I have imperfections. That's where my real angst comes from. Brought up in a family where the bar was set high, I sometimes find I set my own adult bar unrealistically high. Like I said, I'm getting better at recognizing that. Boundaries are so important; keeping true to them is just as, if not more important.

    Great post! (BTW - love your new widget!)

  10. This is something I constantly struggle with.

    Amazing post as always.

  11. Being able to say no is huge. Or rather, being able to say no and not feel guilty about it, or let anyone make you feel guilty about it. Or let the fact that they still won't let you off the hook keep you from wanting to smack them with your keyboard.

    And as for constant contact and feedback online, it's definitely unhealthy to feel you have to keep up with the chat or stay in the loop.

    I really liked what Matt's daughter said when asked "Are there things your favorite authors could do that would make you more likely to visit their website, their blog, or become a fan on Facebook?"

    "Not that I can think of," she said. "Writing more awesome books, I guess."

  12. I've been feeling the writer/blogger/day job burn out; and probably for all the reasons listed about. Its hard not to empathize with my clients (we are all just one or two paychecks away from the other side of the desk) as most of us have been through heavy trauma in our lives also.

    And I get too many story ideas sometimes and want to write them all but the words don't always flow - and I have a life outside writing.

    Then blogging; oh, so much blogging to do!

    It is hard to moderate oneself in all areas. You symptoms here are a great reminder, and I'm sure you tips will help too. Can't wait for the next post.


  13. omg, Sarah, LOL! I think a widget like that would make me crazypants--LOL! :D

    Great post about boundaries. It's hard to pull back from helping others, and as writers, we're so limited in people who "understand," I think we turn to online support too often to the detriment of RL individuals. I feel guilty saying no, but we have to learn it's important. And true friends understand that! *runs to read next post* :o) <3

  14. As you know, I'm pretty open. My philosophy is to share first, so that I can never be embarrassed by something discovered later. Is it sometimes too much? Perhaps. But I'm okay with that.