Boundary basics: Taking care of you when you are there for others

Knowing your limits and setting boundaries when you are caring for someone in distress.

02 December 2019

Dear Maddi,
I'm trying my best to help a friend who isn't in the best mental state, but sometimes it rubs off on me. Where do I draw the line?


Dear Helper,
Caring for someone who is struggling can be rewarding but also challenging when it starts to affect your own mental health. Knowing where to draw the line means knowing your limits and learning to set boundaries. Our emotional boundaries might be harder to see sometimes but we can all feel it when they are being crossed. Feeling overwhelmed, being preoccupied by the other person's life, or actions, or feeling resentful are among some of the common complaints. When someone you care about is in distress you may want to do whatever you can to help them, but this is not always possible nor feasible. Fortunately, there are a few things you can consider to help you decide where and how to draw the line to ensure you're also taking care of yourself.

To learn about your boundaries, reflect on your feelings and what led to them. Consider the following questions:

  • What feelings are you experiencing?

  • What was happening that led to these feelings?

  • Was it something they said or did? Something they didn't do?

  • What kinds of thoughts crossed your mind as this happened?

  • Does it relate to the amount of time or physical and emotional energy it's taking?
  • Once you know where your boundaries are being crossed, you get to decide what has to change. This decision might depend on the type of relationship you have with the person, your level of physical and emotional energy, or how much time you have available to help them. Decide what level of support you feel comfortable with and that might include stepping back altogether and/or referring them for professional help.

    Next, it's time to communicate your boundaries. You can do this in many ways depending on your level of comfort, skill, and access to the person. Some decide to do it face to face while others prefer email or text. Try the Community Helpers three part formula:

    1. I want to help…

    2. Here's why I can't…

    3. This is what I can do...

    Let's look at a specific example. Suppose you have a friend who wants you to stay up late texting them about a recent break-up. You could communicate with them using the above formula.

    1. "I want to support you getting through this break-up."

    2. "I can't stay up late texting, because I've been really tired lately and need to get some sleep."

    3. "I am happy to talk to you during the daytime, if you would like to meet up for coffee or lunch."

    I can appreciate that it's sometimes hard to pull back. Feeling guilty or responsible, feeling selfish, or worrying about being rejected are among some of the most common reasons. But without boundaries we can become easily stressed out and maybe even a little resentful. For some, caregiver stress or compassion fatigue can develop.

    Setting boundaries is not selfish, it's healthy and necessary so that we have more to give to our loved ones and ourselves. It's just like they say in the pre-flight safety demonstration, "you should always fit your own mask first before helping children, or any persons requiring assistance".

    Your emotional wellbeing is just as important as those you are supporting Helper and it is okay to be a little hesitant if this is your first round at setting boundaries. Like every new skill it takes practice and to help you get started here is a great module by local psychologist Christina Bell, it's called the Boundary Starter Kit. It is full of reflection exercises, information, and examples that easily build on what we began to cover in this article.

    Great question!

    Written by Maddalena (Maddi) Genovese, Counselling and Clinical Services Satellite Psychologist for the Faculty of Science

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