During a workshop on stress reduction that I facilitated last week, a woman noted that her challenge with boundaries – for example, the inner debate she experiences about answering the phone when a client calls at 8pm – was that it felt like a choice between herself and the client. “Them or me,” she said.

Her job? To notify people that they have either tested positive for or have been exposed to sexually-transmitted infections and encourage them to get treatment. Stressful, life-changing, potentially life-threatening stuff. How to choose herself when another person’s health – and the health of those they are sexually engaged with – is on the line?

For so many helpers – especially those whose drive is such that they become professional helpers – one of the gremlins that gnaws on their legs mercilessly come packaged with messages like, “If you’re not giving every ounce of yourself, you’re not giving enough,” and “Your exhaustion is a badge of your dedication and caring,” and “It’s selfish to choose yourself when another person’s wellbeing is in the mix.”

It’s the gremlin voice that leads them – that leads so many of us – to the false dichotomy of Them or Me. This dichotomy presumes that our energy is a pie and if I cut myself a slice, that’s one fewer slice for Them.

While far less delicious, I see our energy as more of a balloon, an amazingly pliant balloon that can grow to great proportions with no risk of popping. This balloon contains all of the energy we have to give to everyone else: our clients, yes, and also our families, friends, community. Everyone. And what is it filled by? If you guessed sleepless nights and martyrdom, we’ve got some work to do.

It’s filled by self-care.

It’s filled by nurturing morning routines, healthy food, regular movement, time-outs to read or craft or whatever you love to do. It’s filled by time with the people closest to your heart and pauses during the day to take a deep breath and get re-centered within yourself.

Rather than refilling our balloons regularly, though, most of us get down to the sad, limp promise of a balloon and we ring that sucker like a rag, trying to get one more drop of give-away out of it. That tends to be right around the time that we start snapping at people we love, losing effectiveness at work, noticing all manner of ick in our bodies, and falling back on our personal brand of short-term, unhealthy and unhelpful numbing habits like eating junk, zoning out to TV, or having an extra drink or three at the end of the day.

So, yes, this caring woman doing this incredibly difficult work could pick up the phone at 8pm and the gremlins would temporarily congratulate her for her self-sacrifice… even as she engages in a double whammy of both giving away a little energy while losing a little of the precious time in which she could refill her balloon, an energy loss that would catch up with her later, but more likely sooner.

Or, she can trust that the person on the other end of the line has the strength, courage, and resourcefulness to wait 12 more hours, even for this much-needed conversation, wishing herself and them a solid eight hours of restful, restorative sleep in the interim.

As hard as that boundary is to draw, it’s ultimately the one that will benefit everyone involved the most.

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