You’re Not That Important – The importance of setting boundaries

A recent Facebook post reminded me of a pivotal moment during my time as a graduate assistant, earning my master’s degree in higher education. I worked 20 hours in the dean’s office, specifically helping students with disabilities get their proper accommodations. The work was draining, to say the least. While I may have spent a mere 20 hours physically in the office, I spent additional time working from home – not to mention the countless hours I wasted worrying about what awaited me the next time I stepped foot into the office. Then, on my way home, I often ruminated on the day and my student meetings, going through all of the possible ways I could have done my job better. The emails from students in distress never seemed to cease and I started questioning whether a job in higher education was truly the right fit. Then, during the summer between my first and second year, I sat on the porch of an old house that served as the space for the first year orientation office. A fellow classmate, who was completing her doc program, walked by. What started as a quick “hello”, turned into a deep, half hour conversation about our work that ultimately culminated in her telling me this:

You’re not that important.

This got me thinking: Why did my work feel so draining? And the answer I found was childishly egocentric: I thought of myself as very important, indispensable even. Who would do my job if not me? Who else will sacrifice themselves for the good of the students if not me? It was in that moment, when she uttered those 4 simple words, that I came face to face with the following realities (okay, maybe not all 4 at that very second but writing it that way just sounds good, ya know?!):

Higher education professional does not equal emergency medical technician

As university staff, we carry a certain responsibility. Due to the student facing nature of most of our work, we are often the first point of contact for our young people. This means that whatever personal or academic concern they may encounter, we’re usually the ones they go to for help. From a bad test grade to anxiety and depression, the pendulum on the spectrum of challenges can swing from one extreme to the other in a mere 8 hour timespan. It’s no wonder that we oftentimes feel like the EMT’s of the university, putting out this fire and rescuing that student. Nevertheless, while in the moment our duty is to be present with them and connect them with the appropriate resources, it is not within our capacity, nor within our skillset, to literally save our students or solve all of their problems right then and there. The sooner you take off this unrealistic pressure, the sooner your work will feel much more manageable and balanced.

…you will not see me sacrifice my well-being (mental or otherwise) for the sake of a job that someone else with similar credentials could take over with ease.

You are good at your job but you can be replaced

This is a hard truth I had to learn. I do believe that I’m pretty damn good at my job. I try my hardest to connect with my students, to grow professionally and to learn from my mistakes. However, at my current institution, I am one of around 30 first year academic advisors. In addition, from sitting on multiple search committees, I am fully aware of the multitude of amazing and talented up and coming higher ed professionals currently making their way who could replace me in a heartbeat. So, while I do my very best to serve my students, you will not see me sacrifice my well-being (mental or otherwise) for the sake of a job that someone else with similar credentials could take over with ease.

We’re advisors, not martyrs.

An empty vessel cannot fill another

To expand on my previous point, how do you expect to properly serve your students if you are continuously on the verge of burnout? Taking care of yourself should be your first priority. My dad always said, “Get yours first”. We’re advisors, not martyrs. No one expects us to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of our job. Reread my previous points if you need.

Our brains need a break to simply be, without focusing, intentionally thinking, solving or worrying.

Boredom is the key to creativity

Studies have shown that boredom is where creativity flourishes. So the next time you’re mulling over all of the emails you left in your inbox or that student meeting that didn’t go as planned, let your mind wander elsewhere instead. You may be surprised to find a new perspective, a solution even, to what was previously burdening you. Our brains need a break to simply be, without focusing, intentionally thinking, solving or worrying. Look up the benefits of mindfulness if you don’t believe me.

Setting boundaries is key to success, growth, health and happiness. So the next time you feel like you have to answer an email at 9pm*, remember that the world will keep spinning if you don’t.

*Side note: I know that for those of you in the dean’s office or in residence life who are frequently on call, some of these points frequently do not apply to you. However, once you hand the on-call phone over to the next person, you are no longer exempt from setting boundaries.

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