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Knowledge Share #10: I Walk the Line: Creating Deep Connections While Maintaining Professional Boundaries

By Elyse Thornburg, Lead Residential Counselor

“I’m kind-of like a house mom,” I explain to people curious about what my role as Residential Counselor at Hope House is like.

Residential Counselors staff Hope House’s Residential Program on evenings and weekends and have the joint task of keeping the house in order and intentionally building relationships with the residents. The Residential Counselor position is arguably the most relational position at Hope House: we’re the ones around for that late night heart-to-heart and the ones who get to see kids take their first steps.

Rewarding and complex are the best descriptors I’ve found for my work at Hope House as a Residential Counselor. Anyone who works in a helping profession can relate to the complexity of being relationally close to their clients while still maintaining authority and professional boundaries. Allow me to humbly share four lessons I’ve learned along the way.

1)    Avoid the temptation to be Lorelei Gilmore. It may work on TV to be simultaneously the BFF and the authority figure in a young woman’s life, but this model gets messy and results in role confusion in real life. It’s totally natural to want to be accepted and liked by those you serve, but compromising professional boundaries for this to happen will be detrimental to the level of authority you have with your client. If, like me, the word authority makes you cringe, I would encourage you to spend some time reflecting on the difference between healthy and unhealthy authority. Those in helping professions have the unique opportunity to model healthy authority: I’ve found that our residents rarely have a framework for healthy authority, yet they are desperate to have adults in their lives who are both able to engage with them relationally on a deep level and provide the structure and order needed for them to move forward to achieve their goals.

2)    Self-Care is a non-negotiable. Burn out and compassion fatigue are ever-present realities in the non-profit/social work arena. Caring deeply for others requires a long haul mentality: is my level of investment in this relationship sustainable long term? Am I advocating for myself as strongly as I am advocating for others? I’ve had to learn the hard way that I can’t just expect my life to magically provide everything I need to remain healthy and whole, able to consistently be giving of myself to others. Instead, I’ve had to take steps toward becoming more disciplined in self-care and ask for what I need from others. The myth about self-care is that it’s for weak, low-capacity people. However, the truth is that the most wise and effective helping professionals are those who prioritize a balanced and life-giving personal life. Am I speaking directly to you? If so, an easy exercise is to download this fillable self-care wheel and fill it in with a goal for each area. Then, share your goals with your supervisor, coworker or spouse in an effort to gain some support and accountability on your journey.

3)    BOUNDARIES, BOUNDARIES, BOUNDARIES. Relational closeness and boundaries are not mutually exclusive: we must draw the lines, but be flexible and wise enough to break them. In an interview on boundaries, social worker and researcher Brene Brown clarifies that, “Boundaries are not division. They’re respect: Here’s what’s okay for me and here’s what’s not.” An example of a boundary I’ve set in place is my 20% rule. When it comes to talking about my personal life, I will share 20% of the stories/details with the residents. I’ve found that any more and I lose respect and any less and I can’t connect. This being said, if a resident comes to me one-on-one, asking for advice on a particular situation with which I’ve had significant personal experience in, I might find it appropriate to confide 50% for the sake of her growth and our ongoing relationship. What are your boundaries and what are the circumstances that would warrant an exception? I found Henry Cloud’s book, Boundaries, to be a helpful resource for me at the beginning of my career and use his framework often as I walk this fine line.

4)    You are enough. One of my wise seminary professors once told me, “You are your ministry.” What he meant by this is that my character, God-given gifting, and gritty life-experience are far more important than my professional accomplishments, formal education, and practical skill set. Yes, education and training are important, but when it comes to being an efficient guide for young people, perfection isn’t the goal. This morning, on our commute to her daughter’s daycare, I asked one of our residents, “What qualities does a good RC possess?” Without hesitation she answered, “Someone supportive who can give good advice, is caring, and is good with kids.” Funny how she didn’t list perfect. Are your expectations for yourself through the roof? Do you operate primarily out of perfectionism? Are you stuck in an over-achieving pattern? Let me be the first to affirm: You are enough. Your client will be empowered to be her best self only when you model what that looks like by showing up, blemishes and all.

Let me leave you with this quote from Shauna Niequist’s book Present Over Perfect, “What I can do is offer myself wholeheartedly and present, to walk with the people I love through the fear and the mess. That’s all any of us can do. That’s what we’re here for.”

May you go forward, caring for others whilst simultaneously caring for yourself, finding the peace and strength in your boundaries to connect deeply with those you serve. I stand with you in solidarity.

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Blog Archives

January 2018

Organizational Growth Cycles: Stages that Lead to a Mature Nonprofit - 01/23/2018

November 2017

Knowledge Share #19: Creating Unity: The Power of Mealtime - 11/20/2017

October 2017

Knowledge Share #18: The Power of Networking - 10/12/2017

September 2017

Knowledge Share #18: Engaging the Millennial Generation - 09/19/2017

August 2017

Knowledge Share #17: When the Dream Seems Too Big - 08/17/2017

July 2017

Knowledge Share #16: Personalized Learning - The Cornerstone of our GED Program - 07/18/2017

June 2017

Knowledge Share #15: Special Needs and Special Moms - 06/08/2017

April 2017

Knowledge Share #14: Creating Connections through Children - 04/18/2017

March 2017

Knowledge Share #13: Managing Volunteers: Benjamin Franklin had it right! - 03/13/2017

February 2017

Knowledge Share #12: Advocacy and Self-Sufficiency: Finding the Balance - 02/14/2017

January 2017

Knowledge Share #11: Effective PR and Spot On Communications - 01/18/2017

November 2016

Knowledge Share #10: I Walk the Line: Creating Deep Connections While Maintaining Professional Boundaries - 11/15/2016

September 2016

Knowledge Share #9: "Fundraising for Non-Profits: An Insider's Perspective" - 09/22/2016

August 2016

Knowledge Share #8: Breaking Out of Poverty - 08/18/2016

July 2016

Knowledge Share #7: Creating a Home - 07/11/2016

June 2016

Knowledge Share #6: The Power of Mindset - 06/14/2016

May 2016

Knowledge Share #5: College or Bust! - 05/17/2016

April 2016

Knowledge Share #4:Understanding Addiction - 04/07/2016

March 2016

Knowledge Share #3:Mentoring Empowers Teen Moms - 03/21/2016

February 2016

Knowledge Share #2: Healthy Relationships - 02/11/2016

January 2016

Knowledge Share #1: Brain Development - 01/12/2016

December 2015

Teen Mom Barrier #8: Communicating the Barriers - 12/16/2015

October 2015

Teen Mom Barrier #7: Homelessness - 10/09/2015

July 2015


June 2015

Teen Mom Barrier Number #5: Domestic Violence - 06/03/2015

May 2015

Teen Mom Barrier # 4 The Challenges of College - 05/12/2015

April 2015

Teen Mom Barrier #3: The Unexpected Bill: Car Repair, Doctor's Visit, Broken Pipe - 04/03/2015

February 2015

Teen Mom Barrier #2: Childcare - 02/18/2015

January 2015

Teen Mom Barrier #1: Society's Negative Expectations - 01/26/2015

December 2014

Teen Mom Misconception #7: Teen Moms Are Completely Self-Absorbed - 12/29/2014

October 2014

Teen Mom Misconception #6: Teen moms drop out of school because they want to - 10/31/2014

September 2014

Teen Mom Misconceptions #5: Success is Impossible - 09/22/2014

July 2014

Misconception #4: Shaming Teen Moms is an Effective Approach - 07/22/2014

June 2014

Misconception #3: Mentoring Teen Moms is Complicated - 06/05/2014

May 2014

Because they want someone to love them? - 05/21/2014

April 2014

Teen Moms - A Persecuted Population? - 04/22/2014

March 2014

Connecting across the Continents: Teen Moms and the People Who Love Them - 03/18/2014

February 2014

Can you break out of poverty with a vocabulary of just 900 words? - 02/17/2014

January 2014

Community - 01/20/2014

December 2013

8 Pennies - 12/18/2013

November 2013

"The most courageous young women I know." - 11/14/2013

September 2013

Our Graduates: In their hands, they hold the future! - 09/30/2013

August 2013

The Cliff Effect and Other Perils on the Journey to Self-Sufficiency - 08/30/2013

July 2013

Breaking the Cycle: Do Poor Teens Have to Become Poor Adults? - 07/30/2013

June 2013

Measuring the Intangible - 06/15/2013

May 2013

Grown-Up Mom - 05/01/2013


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