Some Thoughts on Boundaries

One of the first things I do in the morning, before even getting out of bed, is check my email from my phone.  All sorts of articles and advice columns suggest that technology-time is the exact way in which you shouldn’t begin your morning, but this works for me.  It often starts my day on a positive note, as my parents live in a different time zone and I’m most likely to receive an email from them during my sleeping hours; it gives me the chance to learn of any important updates, on a personal, national and world-wide level; and it gives me extra time cuddled under the covers next to my sweetie.

There’s one important condition under which checking my email in the morning works for me: I typically keep my work email account deactivated on my phone.  I know this isn’t desirable or possible for everyone but, again, it works for me.  Occasionally I’ll change my settings and activate my work account, usually if I’m killing time and want to answer a few emails, or if a time-sensitive issue is on the table at work.  But when I finish that task or event, I sign out.  

Usually.

Things went awry for me this morning when I opened my email app and realized too late that I hadn’t signed off my work email yesterday.  So, along with the The Skimm, a sweet note from my mom, and my alma mater’s e-newsletter, my inbox presented me with an email titled “Questions about Upcoming Programs,” sent from a person whom I know to be high-maintenance and somewhat fussy.  

As I inwardly groaned and immediately removed the work account from my phone, I reminded myself of both the fact that I work at a church, not the emergency room (nothing is so urgent that it must be attended to on my day off), and the importance of setting boundaries.  If I don’t want to be accessible by email 100% of the time, I need to not answer all emails within a 24-hour window all of the time. 

The problem is that once I see an email, I can’t un-see it, and so even with my self-directed pep-talk about boundaries, the email followed me around, nagging at me as I brewed a pot of coffee, settled down at the kitchen table with a magazine, started a load of laundry, and laced up my shoes to go for a run.

Boundaries are important and necessary, but what I realized in this experience is that they are only as successful as my mind allows them to be.  Refusing to respond to an email while it crowds my mental space is akin to stringing ribbon across the staircase and expecting it to keep my toddler niece from toppling down the flight.  The well intentions don’t compensate for the ineffectiveness.  

I spent three hours with the email hovering in the back of my mind and a lecture on the importance of setting boundaries playing on repeat in the front of my mind before I gave in, logged onto my work email, and spent fifteen minutes answering the sender’s inquiries.  As soon as I hit the send button, a mental burden was lifted. I signed out of my email account, confirmed that the account was deactivated from my phone, and finally felt like my mind was free to enjoy the day off.

Checking email in bed works for some people and it doesn’t work for others.  Keeping work email on your phone and home computer is a necessity with some careers, and superfluous in other lines of business.  Letting go of unfinished work is a skill some individuals possess, while others struggle with it.

The bottom line is that there aren’t hard rules with boundary setting.  With the absence of rules, figuring out where you fall on the various boundary spectrums and then acting accordingly is essential if you want to create boundaries that are right for you.  It’s an introspective task that could take some trial and error, but it’s worth it for the sake of preventing burnout and promoting overall well-being.

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Teresa lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she works as a Director of Faith Formation at a Catholic Church and dabbles in hospital chaplaincy. She has a BA in English, a Master’s in Divinity, and a passion for thinking about the intersection of spirituality, self-improvement, and well-being. Her perfect day includes slowly savoring a morning cup of coffee, reading for work and for fun, and receiving snail mail.