Boundaries and Burnout

Finding healthy boundaries is an issue with a lot of resonance for me.

The reason this issue sets off bells ringing is because I experienced severe burnout a couple of years ago. A friendship evolved into something that was so demanding and painful that something in me finally snapped. I've now been left with the effects of post traumatic stress and anxiety. This still feels like something that is foreign to me, as I have a naturally placid temperament. (I was one of those smiling "easy" babies). I had no idea what was happening to me when my first panic attack hit... all I knew was I was shaking all over and couldn't stand up.

This experience made me realise that if burnout can happen to me (naturally laid back soul that I am!), it can happen to anyone.

This is a really difficult issue to balance as a Christian. Part of the life of discipleship is caring for others, part of the life of discipleship is going the extra mile, part of the life of discipleship is "laying down your life". Christians speak of the ideal of unconditional love; of loving others as Christ loved us. What are the boundaries around such a love? Such love took Christ all the way to the cross.

Yet there is a difference to responding to the invitation of the Holy Spirit to lay down our life in service of others, and responding to the needs, wants, demands and even manipulations of other people. Somehow in responding to the invitation of the Spirit we find life, even when this entails sacrifice. But responding to the needs, wants, demands and manipulations of other people can lead us down some dark and dangerous places. Instead of finding life, we can find our life and health being squeezed out of us. We suffer... and then find we have not been bringers of life through our suffering, but creators of unhealthy co-dependency. Only God should "play God" in the life of another.

Discerning what is an invitation of the Holy Spirit, and what is a human response to wants and needs and demands requires wisdom. We need to find a deeper life of contemplation and awareness to keep our paths straight. We may serve others not so much for love of Christ, but to make ourselves feel better, or to relieve our conscience, or to fill the ache of loneliness, or because we dare not say no, or because we dare not risk rejection from others, or because we expect ourselves to be perfect. There are 101 unhealthy ways to serve... but responding to the invitation of the Spirit is the one healthy and life-giving reason to give our life away.

There are places of weakness and vulnerability in every life. Awareness of our own points of vulnerability, and putting strategies in place to manage these, can help prevent “emotional shipwreck”. There is no substitute for a strong network of supportive relationships, intentionally working as a team in ministry with others, and strong personal accountability (supervisor, spiritual director, mentor). Healthy life rhythms (regular exercise, family time, recreation, sabbath, space for spiritual nurture, time for positive social contact) are also protective. Even with all this in place, we are not “bullet-proof”… we need to be able to take our emotional temperature from time to time, and attend to our “warning bells”. We need to be willing to display “tough love” to those who would trample on our boundaries; we need to give ourselves the gift of renewing time when our stress levels start climbing; we need most of all to listen to the Spirit who invites us to real life.

In Luke 4, Jesus heals Peter’s mother in law, engages in many acts of healing and deliverance, and has the crowds clamouring for more. We then read:

At daybreak Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them. But he said, "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent."

The rhythm of solitary space we see in Jesus’ life kept him from being at the beck and call of the crowds. Instead, Jesus kept in step with God’s Spirit: "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.” (John 5:19 – 20)

The demands of people did not crush our Lord: for Jesus ministry involved “doing nothing by himself” but doing what the Father was doing through the power of the Spirit.

How do you manage boundaries and life balance? Have you ever been burnt (or at least singed) from overstretching your limits? I'd be interested to hear your perspectives.


As a corporate director for a fortune 500 company, the decision I made and the work I perform often affects thousands of people. My main course of action is to pray continually and ask God for wisdom. I also keep in mind a saying that was printed on my "next oil change" sticker (what an odd place) Relax, God is with you today. The connection between spiritually and business success is obvious to those who want to scratch beneath the surface. In my new HR book, Wingtips with Spurs, the longest chapter in the book is devoted to the spirit and the successful career. It also covers the connectiveness of our actions and the important of spiritual wisdom. Michael L. Gooch, SPHR Author of Wingtips with Spurs: Cowboy Wisdom for Today’s Business Leaders
Janet Woodlock said…
Wow Michael... thank you for visiting my little blog... a real author and all!!!

I have to confess I'm a business ignoramus... although I have read a couple of Stephen Covey's books, and so I immediately resonate with what you say. His ideas that private victory preceed public victory strike me as completely parallel to what is also true in ministry... the outer sphere of ministry is impacted most by the life of prayer and spiritual disciplines and obedience to the Spirit that no one will ever see. And even when there isn't tangible "success" in ministry, faithfulness actually IS "success" from God's perspective.

I'm glad there are deeply ethical and prayerful people like yourself working in business... because whether we've experienced it first hand or heard of it second hand, we all know how miserable, soul-destroying and counter-productive egotistical (and unpleasant) bosses can be in the lives of their employees and in the culture of their companies. Actually, the friend of a girl from my MOPS group was recently crushed by the experience of working for the "bully boss from hell"... full blown post traumatic stress and panic attacks resulted.

A truly ethical workplace is a foretaste of the kingdom that is coming! God bless you in your work and life Michael.
AbiSomeone said…
Hello, Janet!

Have you been following me around taking notes? ;^)

Welcome to the heart of the Purple Martyrdom! It is not about being injured or other incapacities ... it is about letting God glory in our weakness.

You will remember my 40 Days story ... that was one of those times when the only way I could have done it was being totally in the center of God's will. Otherwise, I would have crashed and burned.

The challenge, as you have said, is to discern that which God is asking of you and that which others are putting on you (or you are taking on yourself). Unfortunately, too often proof is in the pudding, and we don't always realize the truth until we are looking back at it.

It is only as we love and lean on each other that we are able to truly hear and see what the Father is doing so that we may join him.

That's were I always want to be. I don't know why I let so many other things creep in. :^(

Janet Woodlock said…
Well, it's interesting... my spiritual director yesterday asked me to write all of the positives and the learnings that had emerged from my own experiences of burnout and PTS... and there are a lot of them!

Probably some of the learnings are around false self sufficiency... when we are weak, He is truly able to use us.

Sigh. I still wouldn't wish panic attacks on my worst enemy... they are ghastly. Still, God can redeem all things eh?

Yes, so many things do creep in. Like my essay on theological issues in the early church. Uggh. Back to it!
AbiSomeone said…
Hey, Janet...I tried to e-mail you, but the address I had failed. Do you still have my e-mail address? Would you send me a note so I can reply? :^)

Janet Woodlock said…
Hi Peggy... I've sent you my email on your "Contact Abi" thread!

Love Janet
Baba said…
I just post a comment on Deb's blog, and mentioned a bit on how God led me through burnout... simply REST...listen and obey...not being controlled by my own human thoughts and ideas, nor by other people's expectations, nor by the so many needs around me...
God gave me a picture ...
a mother asking her child to set up the table for dinner... the child, in her best intentions, not only sets up the table, but cleans the whole dinning room, dusts, sweeps and mops the floor, etc... in the end she's exhausted, but excited to show her mom how nicely she prepared the room...her mom comes with dinner and looks forward to have a nice chilled time with her daughter and nice conversations... but what happens is that the child is so exhausted of all her labor that she hardly enjoys the meal and asks permission to go to bed earlier...

Isn't like that sometimes with us?... God knows our boundaries, and He will only ask from us what we can handle... the thing He desires most from us is our time with Him, resting, listening and sharing our hearts...

I guess He already told you the same things :-)
Bless you

Janet Woodlock said…
Thanks for sharing that Baba... it's a beautiful picture of the heart of God for us.

I'm not personally someone who's particularly driven (a quick glance around my messy study confirms I'm not a perfectionist!!!) However, I think in most of us there lurks a desire to be accepted and to be significant... this is God-given but a potential source of vulnerability.

My experience has a bit of resonance with the phrase "vicarious traumatization"... but whatever the cause, burnout ain't much fun!

I've read your comment at Deb and Al's blog too... it sounds like you've come to live in a really healthy and grounded space.

Well... I'm a work in progress!

Thanks for dropping by.
Baba said…
well, I'm a work in progress too...never ending :-)
it's nice to read your thoughts.
now I got to go...I need rest's been quite hectic these last days...I like that Jesus made Rest an invitation and not a commandment :-)
"come all who are tired ..."... so I go :-)

Janet Woodlock said…
I'm a little weary myself... so I won't be far behind.

I sometimes think being a touch more legalistic about Sabbath would do most of us some good ("the sabbath was made for man"). It's interesting to me that the rise of the "24/7" world correlates rather nicely with the currrent Western world epidemic of depression. Not that I wish to advocate the simplism of diagnosing complex problems with single causes... but I have a hunch this is one of them... we run too hard for too long until our adrenal systems try to shut up shop.

Mmm... perhaps that's a whole new post brewing...
Baba said…
O.k, now I'm more restful after a nice comtemplative sunday :-)
I also believe sabath is a very important issue/law/discipline..whatever word you prefer...for me is vital...and I often consider the importance God gives to it...everytime His people would turn their backs on Him He would say "...keep my commandments and the sabath", as He would emphasize the sabath among the other, it must be really important :-)... I believe for our own balance, spiritual, physical and emotional...
I also believe the lack of rest in many people's lives is what leads them to depressions and other sorts of same problems we see today... even in nature... we don't give it a rest as well (as God also asked us to do)... I wanna practice this is the place I'm in...I live on a community farm and want to live from its products...and I really want to give it a rest every 7 years as God told us to...
I guess we live in a world too greedy to get a rest... :-(... time is money that's what the world says... and money is the root of all our problems...
no wonder people don't know how or when to rest anymore...
That would be worth a good post :-) let me know if you write something about it ...
bless you

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