Boundaries are for Suckers

More on What I’m Learning by Teaching

Boundaries are a bitch. But I’m not.

One of the tasks on my list of admin duties right now is called an “educational audit.” What this means is I need to review a transcript for a prospective student to help them understand how the classes they’ve already taken help them meet the requirements for admission, for graduation, and eventually for licensing. Part of this task is to clearly lay out how the responsibility for this assessment falls - to draw some boundaries. And it’s got me thinking.

I find myself drafting a note to the applicant that says things like “It is your responsibility to make sure you meet the co-requisites you need in order to graduate .” And “Licensing laws vary by state; you must research the requirements in the state where you plan to practice to make sure you’ve taken any specific courses listed in their regulations.”

And then I said to myself “Self, can’t you be a little nicer? Can’t you be a little bit more friendly and helpful?” So many italics. So much underlining. You sound kind of cranky. So, sure, I’ll wrap those sentences in with a few conversational, supportive, encouraging messages. Heck, I’ve been known to use a few more exclamation points than needed and to drop the stray emoji at times. When we’re still practicing boundary-setting (cough me cough) it feels weird and uncomfortable, and can sound aggressive. So. ;-)

The fundamental boundary-setting, though, turns out to be a super-important part of the curriculum around here. There’s nothing on this prospective student’s undergraduate transcript that says “Boundaries 101: When, Why, and How” or “Case Studies in Boundaries with Dual Relationships - Advanced Seminar.” Wouldn’t that be helpful, though? I feel like that is absolutely a piece of the curriculum at POCA Tech. Class starts with that first inquiry from a prospective student, and we’re all sitting around that seminar table together.

Within the sociocracy we use to run the school, clear and appropriate boundary-setting is something we continually learn, collectively, by practicing it with one another. The learning process is messy, because it usually looks like:

“Something fell apart! / is about to fall apart!”

Or worse

“I want to tear (something) apart!”

Or even worse yet

“I’m falling apart!”

This disintegration is usually followed by a lightbulb moment that sounds like “Oh. Right. It’s a boundary thing.” After that, if we’re healthy as an organization, we figure out where the boundary should have been and we establish it (or repair it, if it was just a victim of neglect).

What’s abundantly clear to me a this moment, in this instance of boundary-setting about a transcript evaluation, is how absolutely essential it is - and why. It’s because we run the school:

A. On limited resources. Our tuition cap is part of our mission.
B. In a highly regulated environment. We’re beholden to the standards and requirements of: OR-HECC, ACAHM, NCCAOM, IRS, OR-SOS, OSHA, OR-OMB, and more than 40 state licensing boards.
C. In a highly people-y situation. 16-ish staff, faculty, and supervisors, 40-ish students, scores of volunteers (including a dozen or so on the Board of Directors and the Advisory Board) and hundreds of patients.

Within those three defining traits, we need to get students to:

  1. Graduate
  2. Get licensed
  3. Practice sustainably

And guess what? For our graduates to “3. Practice sustainably,” they will need to know how to handle:
A. Limited Resources. Community clinic budgets run tight.
B. A highly regulated environment. The list of alphabet orgs to satisfy gets only a tiny bit shorter once you’re in practice.
C. A highly people-y situation. If it all works as intended, many, many people will find their way into our clinics. { Candle and fingers crossed emojis, ;-) }

Labor is a limited resource. Salaries are the biggest line item in our school’s budget. Volunteers are crucial to our success. Our school and our clinics require a lot of labor to establish and maintain. One thing that good boundaries does for us in that mission is to clarify division of labor. That’s basically what my note to the prospective student, above, is about. "You do this, I’ll do that." Throughout the school operations, we absolutely cannot afford duplication of efforts. Whatever time and energy people have to put into our orgs needs to go towards doing the things that need doing - not the things someone else is already doing or already did. In our highly regulated environment, we also absolutely cannot afford for things to fall through the cracks. Failing to meet regulatory requirements, often enough or seriously enough, would mean game over for the school. Nobody gets to graduate, nobody gets to get licensed, nobody gets to practice.

Good will, patience, enthusiasm are also a limited resource. If they’re carefully tended, they can also be a renewable resource. Boundaries are a critical tool for tending that garden of human energy. Boundaries are how we prune off the suckers - those tiny offshoots from the main branch that pull a tree’s energy away from the fruit-bearing limbs. When there are patterns of behavior that show up in our people-y situation and cause a persistent pain in the ass, boundaries help us cut those out. It’s critical to do this before the PITA causes stress and resentment to spoil the limited resources of good will, patience, and enthusiasm. If the joy and love drains out of a practice, it’s over.

Our school is a place where humans can be nurtured and our clinics are places where humans can be healed, despite the limitations of resources and regulations. Running these orgs in all their people-y glory means embracing the cycle of things (almost) falling apart. It means continually renewing the boundaries that separate people in order to hold things together.