FFI guest blog author Lynne Marie Wanamaker recently facilitated a webinar about boundaries convened by members of FFI’s Domestic and Sexual Violence (DSV) Cohort. The idea for a dedicated conversation on the topic grew out of prior DSV Cohort meetings, where discussions about boundaries were rich with ideas and emotion. The webinar seized on this energy and offered new tools for talking about this essential element of practice.
“Catherine” is an expectant mother and a participant in the program where you are a direct service worker. Catherine asks you for something out-of-the-ordinary: To be present at the birth of her child. How do you feel about assisting Catherine as she gives birth? How do you imagine Catherine feels about asking you? What do you think will be most helpful to Catherine? Where do the boundaries belong? How do you know?
As an empowerment self-defense instructor for the last 25 years, I’ve been privileged to help countless students identify and assert personal boundaries. An essential component of this work is the self-awareness to know when something feels comfortable, safe and acceptable–and when it doesn’t. A student of mine once called this “The Internal OK-Meter.”
Listening to one’s own Internal OK-Meter–and respecting others’ OK-Meters–is essential for building authentic relationships. This is why, when I entered social work school I was surprised how little attention was given to developing self-awareness with regard to our own boundary preferences. Instead, boundary training for emerging human service workers often boiled down to concrete lists of “dos” and “don’ts.” The intent of these guidelines is admirable and essential: to protect people in programs. But the effect can be rigid practice that doesn’t consider the unique context and intent of each interaction or relationship.
As I learned more about the Full Frame Approach, the “bright-line” model of professional boundaries concerned me even more. Agencies in Full Frame practice know that porous, moveable, context-dependent boundaries are most effective when working with highly marginalized folks. This case-by-case approach is part of what Professor Lehn Benjamin of Indiana University, a Full Frame Initiative (FFI) partner, calls the craft of front-line work. In this method, boundaries are flexible and can be adjusted in response to what will be most helpful to the individual being helped.
Participants in the Engaging Boundaries webinar braved the virtual learning environment to experiment with their own Internal OK-Meters and also to consider sophisticated models of professional boundaries borrowed from nursing and psychotherapy. The story of Catherine inspired careful reflection. Some participants, based on professional or personal background, felt their Internal OK-Meters in the comfortable zone. Others felt decidedly not-OK with this request, like the FFI staff member who remarked, “I’m not even sure I would want to attend my own birthing event!”
When we don’t give our own “Internal OK-meters” sufficient credence, noticed Anna Melbin, FFI’s Director of Network Growth and Strategy, it can be tempting to turn to rules or policies to protect ourselves from discomfort. But when we acknowledge our authentic responses, we have more room to creatively explore what will work for us and be most helpful for the people we are supporting.
Webinar participants wondered what would be more helpful to Catherine: Serving as her birth partner, or helping her find support elsewhere? The answer to this question–“it depends”–required admitting how the request sat with them personally. It required reflecting on how Catherine felt about making the request. And it required consideration of how the decision might contribute to Catherine’s stability, mastery and social connectedness. There were no right or wrong answers, but thoughtful engagement with this gray area of practice.
It was my hope that the Exploring Boundaries webinar provide a tool-kit for considering complex boundaries in Full Frame practice. The answer to nearly every boundary scenario will be “it depends.” With a common language and commitment to the wellbeing of all involved, Full Frame agencies and staff can continue their rich discussion of what it depends on.
Lynne Marie is a student at the Boston College Graduate School for Social Work with a specialization in Macro Practice: Social Innovation and Leadership. Her 2014-2015 academic year placement has been at FFI. Her professional experience in the non-profit and higher education sectors includes coalition advocacy, communications, donor relations, event production and volunteer management. Lynne Marie is an accomplished anti-violence educator with over twenty years of experience helping individuals and organizations develop skills to avoid, interrupt, defend against and heal from interpersonal violence. She holds a B.A. in Women’s Studies and American Literature from the City University of New York (CUNY), CUNY Baccalaureate in Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies.