The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Boundaries in Counseling: Avoiding Counselor Burnout

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Whether you counsel professionally or you’re the kind of person everyone likes to use for their sounding board in life, you’re going to end up drained and bitter if you don’t maintain some personal boundaries.

GOD COMES FIRST

While it’s commonly taught in the Church that we are supposed to run ourselves ragged trying to patch up everyone around us, this is not at all what God wants us to do. Each soul is on its own individual journey with God, and your relationship with Him needs to come before everything else. When you spend all your emotional resources trying to help others, God is the One you’re ripping off. God is the One you don’t have anything left for, God is the One you stop talking to, and God is the One you totally forget about. This is no good. God is first, people are second.

You need internal resources to help others in life. You need emotional energy, psychological energy, wisdom, patience, compassion, and time. Where do you get these things from? There’s only one Source: God. God is jealous. God gets tired of giving us things just so we can run off and ignore Him. So when God wants us to stop obsessing over people and pay Him more mind, He starts to intentionally withhold our resources. We start feeling very irritable and short-tempered. The people who are dumping their problems on us start sounding like a bunch of annoying whiners. We get crispy. We get cold. We start passing out unrealistic advice like, “Just get over it already.” These are all indicators that we need to take a break. If you’re a professional counselor or pastor, you need to cancel some of your upcoming counseling sessions and get some breathing room back into your schedule. If you’re dealing with needy friends who never stop calling, you need to send them to voicemail or tell them it’s not a good time. If you’re stuck living in a house with family members who are constantly coming to you, you need to either announce that your room is off limits for a few hours, or you need to remove yourself from the premises. Go for a walk or a drive. When they try to come with you, say, “I need to be alone right now.” When they try to strike up a counseling conversation, say “Sorry, but I’m too tired to talk right now. We’ll need to have this conversation later.” You need God to refuel you before you are going to have anything to give to others.

GROWING THROUGH COUNSELING

God’s first priority for you is to strengthen your personal relationship with Him. This means He not only wants you focused on Him, He wants you to be open to learning the lessons He wants to teach you. Withholding resources from you is an effective way of getting you to focus on Him, but that’s just step one. What God really wants is for you to then ask Him what He’s trying to teach you.

Other people are fabulous tools for God to help us grow in our own walks with Him. Other people help us identify what our own insecurities are, and they show us where we are losing our grip on truth. For example, God is already taking the best possible care of every human on this planet. Do you really believe this? If you’re stressing and worrying about the trials other people are going through, then clearly the answer is “no.” You don’t believe God is really doing it right in the lives of those who are coming to you for help. If you did, you wouldn’t feel so upset by hearing their problems.

God puts people through some very horrific experiences down here. He brutally shatters people’s insides and He often leaves them in that condition for many, many years before beginning the healing process. This is real life, and we humans feel greatly threatened by this. When a soldier comes back from a war utterly traumatized because of all the horrific torture he endured as a POW, just listening to the detailed accounts of what God put him through is going to shatter your own confidence in God if you don’t have a very firm grip on His goodness and sovereignty. The classic Christian response to being faced with terrible ordeals is to take cover under shields of deception by telling themselves things like:

“It wasn’t God who did these horrible things to this soul—it was Satan.”

“It isn’t God who wanted this to happen—it was because of sin.”

These things are just copouts. If it’s happening, God wants it, and God is the One doing it. Demons and people never override God. “Sin” is not some powerful force that causes things to happen without God’s permission. This is truth: if it’s happening, it’s because God wants it to happen. Could it be about discipline? Maybe. But there is a whole lot of brutal suffering that goes on in this world that has nothing to do with God being mad at people. God breaks us to grow us—this is one of those ugly realities that we need to understand if we’re going to be counseling people.

God is good and He is sovereign. Yet in Church, you’ll be taught to deny God’s sovereignty in an effort to hang onto the fact that He is good. When something terrible happens, it must mean evil got the upper hand, because a good God could never want people to suffer. Oh, but He does. Our good God is the One who came up with the concepts of pain, sin, and evil in the first place. You can’t say that God is the Creator of all things, and then try to pretend certain things exist apart from Him.

Keeping a balanced perspective while counseling others requires that you personally have a strong grip on the fact that God’s goodness and sovereignty exist simultaneously. God is always in control—absolute control, not just partial control. Everything that God does is good from His perspective. His perspective is one that says that His motivations for doing something define whether that thing is good or not.  God says He puts us through tough experiences in this world for the purpose of helping our souls in the longterm. Look around and you’ll see God giving countless defenseless children into the clutches of people who are going to horrifically abuse them. What is He thinking doing this? He’s thinking longterm spiritual benefits. Early traumas cause us to develop receptivity to certain essential lessons later on in life. When you are overwhelmed by your own internal pain, you approach God with a very different attitude than when you think you have it all together. When humans teach you to believe that you’re some worthless piece of trash in God’s eyes and He later re-educates you, you end up with a very different understanding of His love than the fellow who came to God with buckets of self-esteem.

Every soul is on a unique journey and all of the suffering and trauma that we see God doling out in the lives around us is evidence of His very precise plans at work. God wants every soul to thrive with Him. But He also has different eternal plans for each of us, and that requires different prep here on earth. So every journey is unique. Cross comparing is of no use whatsoever. We’re not supposed to be trying to help souls all strive towards some universal standard, we’re supposed to be helping each soul thrive in their own journey with God. That will look different for each soul. You can’t possibly hand out useful advice to someone else unless God is first advising you on what to say. If He isn’t, you shouldn’t be making stuff up. Instead, you should say, “I totally sympathize with your problem, but I honestly don’t know how to advise you right now.”

As a counselor, it’s not your job to have all the answers. You’re only going to have answers when God gives you answers. When He doesn’t, you’ll be sorely tempted to just make something up, and this becomes utterly useless. God doesn’t want souls to get all their answers from life through human lips. He wants souls to learn how to look to Him directly and to rely on Him internally. So when you find yourself not having any words to say, the best thing you can do is encourage people to remember that God is intimately involved in their lives and that He is guiding them, even when they don’t recognize it.

It’s not your job to shield people from confusion and strife. The reality is that God drives souls who are sincerely seeking Him straight up the wall with silence and ambiguity. It’s not your job to compensate for God’s behavior like a wife who apologizes for her husband’s rudeness. When God wants to thoroughly exasperate someone, He knows how. When you try to protect God’s reputation by downplaying how impossible He is being, you aren’t helping anyone. It’s better to just acknowledge what is happening. “Yes, I totally get that God is driving you nuts right now. He can really push us past our limits sometimes.” Don’t try to pressure souls into denying how they really feel—this is utterly useless. God wants honesty, and He provokes souls to explode at Him on purpose.

When you find yourself feeling threatened by someone else’s anger towards God, that’s a good indicator that there’s work you need to do in your own walk. Why does it threaten you that someone else is cussing God out? Do you think God can’t handle it? Or is their anger perhaps riling up hostile feelings that you also have towards God which you’re afraid to express to Him? There is so much we can learn by having other people upset us. Whenever you start getting really agitated by a conversation, it’s time to call a break and get alone with God so you can ask Him to show you what’s really at the bottom of your own distress. Always the answer will be some unresolved issue between Him and you which you can then make progress with. God uses other people to help us grow closer to Him.

ALIGNMENT EXERCISES

It takes a lot of time and maturity to get a firm grip on God’s goodness and sovereignty coexisting without believing that one thing compromises the other. The closer you are to strife and suffering, the more difficult it will be to keep your grip on these things. But exposure to other people’s ongoing misery is how God helps us develop our own confidence in Him. Along the way, we will have to wrestle with a lot of doubts and fears that God is letting things get out of control. Whenever you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, upset, drained, or panicked over the troubles in someone else’s life, it’s time to get alone and do some alignment exercises. Using mental imagery is a powerful way to help you tune into the Holy Spirit and let Him help you release the burdens you are trying to carry.

Letting Go Imagery

The closer someone is to us, the harder it is to trust God to take care of them. Sure, we think we’re trusting Him when He’s raining down the blessings. But when God starts tearing into the lives of our loved ones, our natural instinct is to panic and fret that He’s letting things get out of control. Well, He’s not, and we won’t see the day that we can do a better job than He can. Relinquishing control is the key here: we need to detach ourselves from the lives of those we care about and stop trying to carry their burdens with them. Get alone with God, close your eyes, and picture God standing right in front of you. Choose a mental image to represent the person you care about: a delicate baby, a flower, a baby animal, a crystal figurine—whatever symbol feels like a fit to you. It needs to be something you can imagine yourself holding in your arms.

When you feel burdened by other people’s issues, it’s because you’re trying to carry those issues and the weight is wiping you out. Now picture yourself holding whatever symbol you’ve chosen for the person you’re concerned about. Then mentally hand that symbol over to God and place it in His waiting arms. Take your hands entirely away and step back. See God having total control over that person. This is a mental exercise that helps you practice trust and submission to God. Souls are His property—not yours. As God, He gets to do whatever He wants with whoever He wants. You need to practice submitting to His Authority and entirely letting go of the people you care about. Everything must be surrendered into God’s hands. This kind of exercise can really help you let go of the emotional burden of feeling like it’s on you to fix someone else. It’s not on you, it’s on God, and He is more than able.

Trusting/Relaxation Imagery

Another useful mental exercise for fried counselors is to imagine yourself sitting with God in some scenic place, or walking with Him through some calm setting. Perhaps you like the setting of a quiet forest, or a still lake, or maybe sitting on a bench overlooking a scenic valley. Choose anything that says “calm and restful” to you. Then take time to just be with God. Don’t try to make conversation. Just see yourself being with Him and reflect on how He controls the entire universe. Reflect on how He has everything under control. He knows what everyone needs, He has endless resources, and He has infinite wisdom. He has no limitations. He never gets tired. He never gets burned out. He never gets overwhelmed. The point of this exercise is to practice having alone time with God and taking comfort from the fact that He is handling things. You don’t have to figure anything out because He already has it figured out. You don’t have to worry about tomorrow or next month or next year, because He has already planned all of those things out. God controls the past, the present, and the future. You just need to relax and focus on the fact that God is handling all of it.

SETTING BOUNDARIES

Boundaries in Time

When people know you’re the counseling type, they will try to take advantage of you. If you’re a pastor or professional counselor, you are going to attract people who want you to dispense some life advice on the fly. Here is where you need to set boundaries. You can’t counsel around the clock or you’ll be burned out. If someone starts launching into a multi-layered issue, you need to say, “This is an important issue, and I’d like to discuss it with you in more detail, so let’s set up an appointment when we can meet in my office.” If they really want help, they need to do some of the work. Don’t make yourself available to be endlessly sucked dry all the time. You do not have endless resources. You need to have times in your day when you don’t think about anyone else’s problems. You need to have time when you just think about you and God. The good thing about office hours is that you can set start and end times. When the appointment time is up, make them leave, even if you know the rest of your afternoon is free. Remember that you and God come first. You can’t spend every waking minute counseling other people or you won’t have any time left to practice resting in God’s Presence.

If you don’t have a professional setting to work out of, time boundaries are tougher to set, but they’re still needed. When the friend who never stops talking calls up, tell her “I only have twenty minutes. Give me the bottom line.” When the time is up, you need to interrupt and bring the conversation to a close. If you start setting limits like this, you’ll be amazed at how succinct people will learn to be when they really want your input.

If you’re dealing with family members in the home, time boundaries are tough to draw, but they are still needed. You need to start a habit of having alone time in the day. An hour, two hours, or whatever you need. During that time, you need to teach people you are unavailable. You do this by refusing to engage with them when they come in to start unloading on you. “This is my solo time. I’m not talking with you right now.” You need to hold this line very firmly at first, no matter how much attitude people develop. If you don’t, you won’t ever get time to recharge, and that will only lead to major burnout and bitterness. You and God come first—period. If people don’t like it, too bad. You can’t help them unless you help yourself first, and God isn’t going to give you extra resources for others until you’re taking care of business with Him.

Boundaries in Conversation

Many people want to talk about their problems. They only want to talk, they don’t want to work. And they want to say the same things over and over and over again. This is draining. This is not something you should be accommodating. It’s reasonable for people to repeat themselves when they are very upset. But when the broken record begins, you need to start drawing lines. “We’ve already discussed that. Let’s not keep going over the same ground. I gave you my advice. If there’s nothing else to say, then we need to move on to something else.”

If you’re a pastor or a professional counselor, don’t agree to keep seeing souls who don’t want to do the work. It’s obvious when people are taking your advice to heart and really pondering things with God. Those folks deserve more time. But the guys who refuse to even attempt the homework you give them need to be cut off from further talking sessions until they show some willingness to put effort into helping themselves. You can’t do other people’s spiritual work for them. There are plenty of souls who are willing to work and who honestly want to improve. Those souls are the ones you should be spending your limited resources on, not the guys who just want to play games.

Boundaries in Expectations

Once people associate you with quick solutions, they’ll start coming to you over every little thing. If at all possible, people want other people to play the role of the Holy Spirit in their lives, because dealing with visible, tangible beings is a whole lot simpler than dealing with God Himself. Yet if we really want to help people, we need to push them towards God’s priorities for them, and that means encouraging them to rely on God directly. We do this by refusing to be their stand-in for God.

When you are dealing with someone who keeps coming to you over every cotton pickin’ issue in their lives, you need to start redirecting them with blocking comments like: “What is God telling you to do?” And when they whine and say “Nothing! God never talks to me like He talks to you,” then you need to say, “Well, I can’t put words in His mouth for Him, so you need to pray and wait for Him to give you direction.” A toddler won’t ever learn to walk if he’s constantly being picked up and carried. In the same way, souls will never develop confidence in God’s leading if they have you right there constantly filling in the blanks of His silence.

Now there’s nothing fun about watching someone struggle with God’s silence. But realize that such struggles are an important part of spiritual development. Each soul must work out their own dynamic with God. You can’t do this for them, and you can’t choose what kind of dynamic God wants to have with them. Maybe He really does seem to talk to you more than them—at least for now. Well, that’s not your fault and that’s not evidence that God is mean. God dearly loves every soul, but He does not treat us all the same. When we rush around trying to compensate for His different treatment of others, we’re not pleasing Him. When you start trying to protect someone from feeling abandoned or ignored by God by putting words in His mouth that He didn’t authorize you to say, you’re not pleasing God. Instead, you’re trying to say that your wisdom is superior to His and you are criticizing the way that He’s handling His own creatures. He’s God. No one gets to tell God what to do. When you start going down the road of being upset with how God is or isn’t treating someone you care about, it’s time to get out that mental imagery of releasing your loved one into God’s care. You’re trying to control God, and that needs to stop. Your relationship with Him comes first, and continual submission to His Authority is a critical part of maintaining a positive dynamic between you and Him.

CONCLUSION

It takes a lot of training from the Holy Spirit to learn how to counsel other souls without getting burned out ourselves. We shouldn’t be seeking out this kind of role. When God wants to use us in this capacity, He’ll give us the desire and resources we need to get into the work. When He does call us into this role on a temporary or long term basis, we want to be looking to Him to lead us in it, and we want to be looking for the lessons that He wants us to learn along the way. You should never try to put your own growth on hold for the sake of someone else. Developing your own relationship with God needs to be your first priority and He is always teaching you. To excel in life, we need to ask God to make us all that He wants us to be, and then we need to practice trusting that He will.

FURTHER READING:
The Right Focus in Life According to Christ
Shepherd Burnout: Help for Pastors

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