Navigating Empathy: Setting Boundaries While Delivering Effective Support Coordination & Recovery Coaching


In the realm of support coordination and recovery coaching, the desire to make a meaningful difference in the lives of participants often stems from a place of genuine empathy. The passion to help, to make the world become a better place one person at a time, is a noble pursuit. However, an overabundance of empathy, when left unchecked, can lead to burnout and compromise the quality of support provided to participants. In this article, we explore the importance of managing boundaries as a support coordinator or recovery coach, especially for those who find themselves grappling with an excess of empathy. 

It's not uncommon for coordinators and coaches to be driven by a great desire to help others. This can be an even bigger desire, when there is a lived experience of disability, or caring for someone else with a disability in your background.  However, your commitment to creating positive change can, unfortunately, have unintended consequences. 

When empathy becomes all-encompassing, the line between professional and personal boundaries can blur, resulting in a range of challenges. Consider the scenario where an individual, driven by an eagerness to help, begins to overextend themselves by taking on more participants than they can reasonably manage. While the intentions are admirable, the reality is that spreading yourself too thin can lead to a decline in the quality of support provided.

Participants may then start to experience substandard assistance, as you struggle to meet the demands of an overloaded caseload. 

How can we overcome this issue and try to avoid empathy-led burnout?. It is crucial to establish clear and upfront boundaries. While empathy is a valuable asset, it should be channelled through a structured framework to ensure sustainable and effective support.

Boundaries act as the foundation upon which you can build a resilient and impactful relationship. I know, I know, you have all had the conversation with someone you are planning to support, and all of a sudden they are telling you that your boundaries don't work for them, and you are agreeing that it is no problem, and you move the goal posts around your boundaries, because you don't want to upset people, or lose them as a potential client. 

This is where you need to check in with yourself, very quickly! Are you really the right person for this participant, if your boundaries clash with what they need?  I don't think their ability to hear and respect your boundaries is going to get better from here, if this is where you are starting from. And you can't blame the participant, if you don't respect your own boundaries, and change them the minute your heart strings start playing a tune, why should anybody else respect them?  

Effectively communicating availability is a vital aspect of setting boundaries.. Participants need to understand when you are accessible and when they are not. While the desire to be constantly available may seem like an expression of empathy, it can lead to burnout if not managed appropriately. Establishing realistic working hours and clearly communicating these hours to participants fosters a healthier relationship dynamic. Emotional boundaries are just as crucial as time boundaries. 

Over-empathetic individuals may find themselves deeply affected by the challenges faced by participants. While empathy is crucial, absorbing the emotional weight of every participant's struggles will quickly overwhelm you. By setting emotional boundaries, you can maintain a level of detachment necessary for effective decision-making and professional resilience. 

An  example is that of an individual who, in an attempt to be empathetic, takes on personal responsibilities that fall outside the scope of their role. This could range from lending money to participants to becoming entangled in their personal issues and problems. It also extends to the positive parts of their lives, such as becoming involved in their celebrations or personal achievements. While these actions may be well-intentioned, they ultimately compromise the professionalism and objectivity required in your role.

Establishing clear boundaries will help prevent you from inadvertently crossing into areas where you may be ill-equipped or unqualified to provide assistance. Importantly, setting boundaries upfront is an act of self-care. It is an acknowledgement that paid supports, like anyone else, have limitations. Understanding these limitations helps prevent burnout, ensuring that you can sustain your commitment to making a positive impact over the long term. 

A well-established set of boundaries also benefits participants. Knowing when to expect support, understanding the limits of assistance, and recognising the professional nature of the relationship all contribute to a more transparent and effective support experience. 

Participants are more likely to receive the quality of support they need when you operate within a framework that safeguards your own well-being, as well as the participants. 

 In conclusion, while the desire to save the world, one person at a time, is commendable, it must be tempered with the awareness of the potential pitfalls of over-empathy. Learning to navigate the delicate balance between empathy and professionalism and recognising the need for clear boundaries is an important way to maintain a safe and appropriate relationship. 

By establishing upfront expectations regarding availability, emotional involvement, and the scope of assistance, you can ensure a sustainable and impactful relationship that benefits both the participants, and your own wellbeing. 

If you find yourself struggling to say, "No I can't" or, "I'm sorry, that is outside my role", it is important to ask yourself why? 

What do you think will happen if you say no? Are you truly thinking of the participant, or are you simply responding to the part of you that does not want to disappoint or upset people? 

In a professional relationship, saying no and having boundaries are important. When you ring up a plumber and ask them to come and fix your toilet, do you also ask them to clean your kitchen while they are there? I would hope not, but if you would, I would hope that you would understand why they won't do this and why they will say no to you, if you did ask. 

You have to have faith in the people you work with to understand and respect your role. If you give them the correct information up front, there is no reason to think that saying no to them, passing the task or action onto the correct person, or reinforcing your boundary, should upset them or reflect badly on you. 

Empathy for others is a beautiful thing, but like all of our emotions, it is important to control it effectively, so it is not impacting on your life negatively, or on the lives of others. When we try to be everything to everybody, we can end up being the problem instead of the solution. 

You can be empathetic and kind, and still enforce boundaries clearly and respectfully, the two are not mutually exclusive!