When do boundaries become excuses?

This is one of those posts with no real “lesson” to communicate.

Because it relates to a challenge with which I continue to struggle, pretty much daily.

Sorry for the disappointment.

I read Autobiography of an Execution in one stretch, until about 2AM, awhile ago.

I’m lucky that my husband can sleep with a light on.

And while the whole book was pretty gripping, there’s one phrase in particular that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.

The author calls, “there was nothing I could do” the most immoral phrase in history. He makes the further point that, in the realm of capital punishment, “you don’t want your life depending on someone with dinner plans.”

And that got me.

Because, while maybe few of us as social workers are frantically filing paperwork to literally keep our clients alive, well, sometimes our work does involve life and death. Or, at least, something just as important, in the lives of the people we serve.

And, so, does that mean that we’re acting in a morally indefensible way when we put limits on our commitments to our clients, draw boundaries around our work lives, and say, sometimes, that there’s “nothing more we can do”?

Our Code of Ethics would say no.

But what do our consciences say?

What does yours?

What does mine?

I once kept my (now) husband waiting to propose for more than an hour because I was on a crisis phone call. And I interrupted my wedding dress fitting and our engagement dinner to take calls from clients. (You’re sensing a pattern here, no doubt; at least he knew what he was getting into!)

I have an admittedly hard time carving out “me” time.

And, yet, while I can recognize the unhealthiness, at times, of such focus on our work, I can also think of more than a couple examples, as you likely can too, of social workers (and others) who have used the defense of “professional boundaries” to avoid having to do what they really should have, in order to make a difference.

And that’s what I think the author was getting at–I mean, even he took time to play catch with his son and have dinner with his wife: how can we protect ourselves against the reality that “there’s always something that needs done?” without abdicating what is our actual (professional) AND moral responsibility?

When are our boundaries just that–boundaries there to protect ourselves, and our clients, from the destruction that an enmeshed and overworked social worker can wreak–and when are they excuses we hide behind when the messiness of our work intrudes on the rest of our lives?

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