Selfless: Why We Have Boundary Issues

fence bird

Hello, my name is Sheena Greer, and I have boundary issues.


Perhaps my mother ate too much canned tuna, or swallowed a radio-active spider when she was pregnant, but for some reason I was born with an over-developed empathy bone. I have always felt compelled to give and be helpful, often to a fault. Because of my tendencies to over-give, I often attract people who need to take.

But I keep giving. Because it was what I was built to do.

Many of you in our sector are the same. I know this because I’ve had conversations with you about it. I see how passionate and driven you are. And I’ve also heard you confess your own desires to have stronger boundaries.

It seems like many of us are in the same boat. We are compelled to give. And we often allow others to take far too much.

So why do people in our sector have such a difficult time with boundaries?

This is a difficult question, but I believe the answer is a simple math equation.

Individuals + Systems = Boundary Issues

Let’s unpack this a bit.

What kinds of words are used to describe people who work in our sector?

Do gooder. Hero. Passionate. Community Minded. Bleeding heart. Selfless. Humanitarian.

Truly the list goes on. And while these are all positive attributes, I believe there is a darker flip side to them.

Think of the word “selfless” even. When we talk about someone who is selfless, it is often in their relation to serving the community. But what kind of toll does being selfless for a living take on such an individual? Certainly, from my experience and from experiences shared with me by others, there is a literal loss of self.

I’d like to bring in another perspective now. Certainly, we all know who Dan Pallotta is, and I’m certain we’ve all seen his TED Talk about Charity Overhead. A few years ago I stumbled on a blog post he wrote for Harvard Business Review called “Nonprofit Pathology” and in it he takes a deep (and perhaps scathing?) look at people who work in our sector.

He says

Maybe people get into the compassion business full-time not because they’re more compassionate than others but because they’re codependent. Maybe the driving force is really inverted narcissism — an unhealthy and unexamined addiction to care-taking or to self-neglect.

Ouch. Dan! Danny Boy! I thought you had my back! That feels like a harsh dig.

I don’t think we’re a bunch of codependent self-neglecting caretakers.

But his strongly worded article pushes the boundaries of what we think about ourselves.

And he asks the most important question of all.

“At some point we have to ask ourselves why” he says.

Why would we choose to go into an industry where our compensation is not tied to our value? Where we are constantly told that there are not enough resources with which to fulfill our potential to make a difference? Why would we do that if I really do want to change things? And why would we choose to work on problems that are so intractable? What in our personalities draws us to frustratingly difficult — perhaps unsolvable — problems?

I would like to suggest that the reasons why we choose this work are likely very closely tied to the similar ways which we experience boundary issues.

I’ll pick on myself again here.

Why am I here?

Because of that overly-developed empathy bone. Because of my draw to being responsible. Because of my personality type. Because of my drive to help and save and make a difference.

And why do I struggle with boundary issues? For all the exact same reasons.

There are giving, compassionate, selfless people in every sector. But I would argue that our sector has the highest percentage. I feel like I’m in the best company imaginable, because every day I meet people just like me who a driven to do something.

And sometimes I’m also in dangerous company because we seemingly struggle with the same issues that make us so vulnerable.

In his article, Pallotta also draws quotations from Thomas Merton, a 20th century American Catholic mystic and writer.

Merton says

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by non-violent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork.

Overwork as violence. Wow. Again, very strong words, but a statement that I think pushes the boundaries of how we think about the work we do.

To surrender oneself to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help  everyone with everything, is to succumb to this violence…The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace.

The ways which we come to and are driven to do good things works to neutralize the good work we are trying to do.

But individuals only play a role in this potential for dysfunction.Of course, the systems and beliefs which our sector is built upon also play a role in these issues we face.

What are some common, dare I say universal non-profit challenges?

No resources – be that people, time, or money.

Lack of leadership, or aging leadership that is stuck in another day and age.

We’re dealing with the world’s most wicked problems – poverty, hunger, disease, displacement, racism, inequality, sexism – to name a few. Problems that have been problems and seemingly get worse as much as we work to make them better.

Pay inequality – both between our sector and the business sector, and between individuals within the sector itself.

A full menu of dysfunction – be it staff, board, volunteer, humans in general, or the crappy office equipment we are forced to deal with on a daily basis.

We all work in silos – whether it be internal departments or externally with other community organisations.

Lack of support from our teams, our leaders, our community.

Misconceptions – about the people we are serving in the community, about our jobs, our roles, and who we are as a sector in relation to the rest of the population and other businesses.

These are just a few, but I’m certain as we went through this list some very specific and close to home examples popped into your head.

And herein lies the vicious cycle.

Notice how many of these issues are about systems of contribution. Whether it’s money, time, people, effort… many of these issues are about taking. This is a problem. Because if the people who come to work in this field are prone to give, and the systems which allow our sector to limp along are set up to take, the cycle will only continue. Hard working, well meaning, passionate people like you and I will just keep giving. And the broken systems will, in their own ways, continue to take. And we will continue to give. And they will continue to take.

We need something to change.

And we can start by learning to set better personal boundaries for ourselves. This is difficult work. I know because I’ve struggled with it my entire life. Over the coming weeks I will share tips for setting better personal boundaries. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. Do you struggle with personal boundaries? What kinds of things have you done to try to set better boundaries for yourself? Do you need some help? How can I help you?