We live in a society that values quantity over quality; there is a constant striving for more, for pushing *way* beyond our limits. As helpers, we may internalize this - we want to help every client that walks through our doors - and quickly!
But what happens when we take on too much? We get exhausted. Irritated. Overwhelmed. Resentful. The infamous 'burnt out.'
The solution is self-knowledge - to really learn what our limits are! To pay attention to when we feel overtaxed, and conversely, when we feel more comfortable. The goal is to find that learning edge - the place where we are working and learning and striving, but there is also some sense of ease.
For me, right now, this looks like taking 30-minute breaks between clients, having a lunch hour, and not seeing more than 5 clients a day. I have learned that when I do, it doesn't go well for me. I am beyond exhausted, irritated, and it's just not sustainable.
Admittedly, I enjoy an unusual amount of control over my schedule, which I am very grateful for. You may be asking - "Is this realistic for me?! - I have steep financial goals, my supervisors have large productivity goals for me, I have my own goals for what I want to achieve!" How do we account for these goals when we are working to identify and honor our limits?
This indeed necessitates a complex process of finding balance. It can involve asking for help - such as from supervisors or colleagues. It can involve learning how others have succeeded in setting limits in your specific workplace. The trick is finding the place where we do have some control, some ability to decide and live out our priorities. To make sure that we are pursuing our goals in the present in a way that is sustainable, compassionate, and leaves us more energized than miserable.
I'll offer another, non-work example from my own life. Like many Torontonians, I see a physiotherapist for back pain. I obviously want to progress to 100% functioning and zero discomfort asap. However, if I push beyond my limits, I will no doubt hurt myself, aggravate my condition, and delay my healing. If I instead work with my provider to find that sweet spot - where exercises feel challenging but don't give me more than 3/10 of pain, I can build my strength, and progress slowly but surely.
It is very important to note that we all have different limits! One example to take into account is the personality trait of high sensitivity - studied by psychologist Elaine Aaron. This is a biological trait that 15-20% of the population has - many of whom are helpers! It comes with certain superpowers that contribute to skill in helping: super-feeling, super-sensitivity, empathy, intuition, creativity, strong people skills, often a certain sense of spirituality and desire to help others. It also comes with certain limits - such as being easily overstimulated, and requiring significant down-time and limits in order to preserve these super-powers.
If you are curious about whether you could be classified as a Highly Sensitive Person, take this online quiz.
So, the path to finding and honoring our limits is certainly an individual one. And it is no way a static process - even those of us who have worked hard to identify and honour our limits are ever-reworking them in order to account for life's inevitable changes - changes in our own capacity, in our priorities, in what we are holding on our plates.
All this said, the very first step in honoring our limits is getting curious about what they are! On a day at work in a helping profession, if I come home feeling energized and inspired, what happened that day? On a day I feel completely burnt out - how much was I holding? Did I work with particularly difficult cases that took a good deal out of me? Did I see more clients than usual, not have as many breaks as I needed, take too much on (or have too much thrust upon me)?
Once I have a rough sense of what my limits are - how do I enforce these in the real world of my job? This might involve a courageous and vulnerable conversation with a supervisor - something like - "I care deeply about this work - so I need to honor my limits so that I can do my best work here. Can you help me?" Admittedly, asking for help can be a challenge for many and a topic unto itself - one that I have covered in past posts and intend to continue to write about in the future.
So - honoring our limits is not simple. It involves a complex process of continuously identifying them - since they can change, on a daily, even hourly basis! This isn't about perfection - it's about trial and error - getting curious about how we feel when we take on too much (which is, again, very individually determined!) and experimenting with easing up when we are overwhelmed.
Though not a simple process, the rewards of honouring our limits are large. It allows us to thrive in a helping profession in a manner that is sustainable, to actually stand a chance to enjoy our work, and to give from our abundance - our filled-up cups - rather than running on empty.
In the long run, there is no doubt in my mind that honouring and working within our limits is the best way to achieve our goals and dreams as helping professionals.