Healthy Emotional Boundaries: Best Practices for Birth Workers

birthWhen we take care of ourselves physically and emotionally, we are better able to set healthy boundaries with our clients, which in turn allows us to serve them with the attention and compassion that they deserve. In this piece, Morgan Burgess explores the importance of creating healthy emotional boundaries with our clients, and shares a few uniquely effective practices for cultivating our own wellbeing to do so. 

Doulas perform many physical, tangible, as well as invisible acts, resulting in an assortment of benefits for mother, baby, partner, and even other family members. Among the services rendered, perhaps one the most difficult to explain from a scientific standpoint is the emotional energetic exchange that take place between doula and mother, ideally resulting in a healthier birthing experience overall.

The emotional realm tends to get downplayed in today’s modern, western society that places such a high value on informational learning in statistics, numbers and facts. Or, rather, we turn to informational mechanisms in a desperate attempt to understand the emotions, which can exist in such deep territory. It is incredibly difficult to truly understand the felt sense using tangible constructs such as words. Life circumstances deemed more emotional, including things like depression, anxiety, sadness, longing, and even immense joy or euphoria, become explained away by logic, rather than allowed a healthy existence.

Bringing new life into this world is one of the periods of time that stirs up the most emotional feeling that a person will ever experience in his or her life. To be a part of this experience, in any way, shape, or form, is an honor in and of itself. In order to truly honor the emotional realm and create the best possible experience for both mother and baby, healthy emotional boundaries are absolutely essential, yet can be very difficult to create.

As a highly sensitive person, I am all too familiar with the emotional exchanges and transfers of energy that can take place when working with individuals, in both the healing sense and otherwise. I pick up other people’s energy easily, to the point where in the past, particularly when ungrounded, I have absorbed depression, crippling anxiety, paranoia, etc. resulting in difficulty with attention and focus, periods of intense darkness, trust issues, among other afflictions. In the same breath, being highly sensitive and in tune with both my own, as well as the emotions and thoughts of others lends me the ability to care for, help, and ultimately influence great change in the lives of those around me. For this very reason, many highly sensitive people are drawn toward healing professions, often in the holistic realm, and serve the role of doula quite effectively, as they naturally have that deeply inherent empathetic quality that is difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate synthetically.

Whether you are a highly sensitive person or not, the reality is that in order to best care for the women, babies, and families you serve, as a doula, you must first care for yourself. Self-care has become such a buzzword these days in certain circles, but for justified reason, as the age-old mantra around filling your own cup first, in order to then have the ability to fill the cups of others, has proven itself time and again to be true.

Anyone who has ever served any sort of care-taking role should intrinsically understand that the level of care given significantly increases when the caretaker her or himself is in a healthy, balanced state. This includes being well rested and nourished, given time for his or her own emotional processing and healthy releases of energy, as well as having a body and mind that is cleansed of impurities, both physical and non-tangible.

I have discovered that, due to my own heightened sensitivity, I need much more of this type of self-care work than the roughly 80% of people who are not highly sensitive. To stay grounded, I have a morning cleansing routine that I stick with daily, prior to my yoga practice. Specifically, I have found Ashtanga yoga to be the most effective method for me to establish healthy boundaries and contain my own levels of energy. Meditation is also an essential part of my daily practice. I need ample amounts of sleep and rest, and give myself plenty of time for processing through art, journaling, walks and spending time in nature, music, essential oils, and other tools. I also eat a highly intuitive diet based on what works for my body type.  These methods of self-care and grounding rituals have completely altered my ability to maintain safe, effective boundaries for myself, when exposed to other people’s energy.

While self-care will no doubt work numbers in any healer’s ability to work with his or her clients in the healthiest manner possible, there are a number of other boundary-establishing practices specific to doula work that greatly influences the birth worker’s ability to provide a healthy and safe environment for everyone involved in the process. In order to better understand best practices in the field, I spoke with Olimpia Lee, a maternal and child health professional who has worked with schools, non-profit organizations, yoga studios, wellness centers, health clinics and hospitals as a program coordinator, sexual health educator, pregnancy options counselor, perinatal yoga teacher, and birth doula for over eight years. Lee discovered a uniquely effective approach to her work as a doula when she combined yogic philosophy with her birth work. In her experience, establishing strong professional boundaries proved to be a vital aspect, increasing her ability to cultivate strong personal relationships with her clients.

In terms of facilitating a healthy professional approach to her work, in the beginning, Lee admits, boundaries were more difficult to learn. The nature of her practice was highly personal, with the majority of her clients coming through referrals, seeking her services because they wanted to build a relationship with someone whom they knew would be with them throughout the pregnancy, birthing, and post-birth journey. At first, Lee soaked in the benefits of her intricately close client relationships. She felt comfortable with her clients, and the strong relationships gave her a sense of personal fulfillment. However, she discovered that because relationships that cover both personal and professional ground can result in blurred lines at times, she ended up spending far too much of her effort and energy in an attempt to establish some of the more professional facilities on her own. For example, invoicing her clients took a tremendous amount of personal resources that detracted from the experience for everyone involved. She decided to automate her processes by incorporating an online platform, consulting with a lawyer, and ultimately outsourcing the more administrative tasks. After establishing these strong professional boundaries, she noticed an immediate positive response, as it helped her clients understand with clarity the nature of their relationship, dually professional and personal, increased the level of trust for both her clients and herself, and ultimately allowed them to feel more comfortable with the process overall. In her interactions with clients, she could focus on helping them by delving immediately into the personal relationship of caretaker, as the more transactional events such as invoices, payments, and scheduling had already been taken care of through the website she used.

Lee’s truly unique approach evolved naturally when she combined her expertise as a birth worker and prenatal yoga teacher and practitioner of yoga. Particularly, she incorporated the yogic idea of vairagya, or non-attachment, which is one of two core principles upon which the entire system of Yoga rests. According to Yoga Sutra 1.15, which explains vairagya in detail.

When the mind loses desire even for objects seen or described in a tradition or in scriptures, it acquires a state of utter (vashikara) desirelessness that is called non-attachment (vairagya)… The simplest way of describing non-attachment is as the process of letting go. We gradually learn to let go of our attachments and aversions, systematically moving subtler and subtler through the layers of attachments in the mind. However, non-attachment goes beyond this; it is not just a practice of letting go, but is a practice of not taking on in the first place.

In order to embrace vairagya, it required an entire mind shift and change in Lee’s approach to her work. In the beginning, she found that due to the natural unpredictability of birth, she experienced several painful situations in which expectations were unable to be met. She learned that she herself needed to let go of the desire to cultivate a certain type of experience, based upon the expectations and aspirations of both her clients and herself. She realized that, as with life in general, she could never expect herself to be able to predict or control how the events of the birth were going to unfold. In order to create space for the process to unfold naturally, she started incorporating yogic philosophy of letting go of the outcome into the doula practices, as well as deeper manifestation and desire-mapping practices. She worked with her clients early on to uncover what each of them truly wanted, asking questions to uncover what the deeper intention was behind each of the specific outcomes that they desired. Then, they would discuss the potential options that might occur, including those that deviated from the desired path. Throughout all discussions, she communicated how they would continue to do everything in their power to maintain those core values of what was truly most important. She shifted the language behind their decisions to ensure that the deeper values of the client were addressed, including ideas such as wanting the baby to feel nourished and loved. In Lee’s experience, focusing on the deeper values released some of the intensity and bottled-up need to have things turn out a certain way, thus enabling her ability to let go and let the process happen. Doing so also allowed her to set realistic expectations for herself and release control in the process, deepening her level of trust that things happen a certain way for a reason, as well as faith in her ability to cultivate a healthy birthing experience, no matter how that ended up appearing on the surface. Lee’s example reflects how by going several layers deeper, she carved a deeper healing path, enhancing her effect as a holistic birth worker while also protecting her own energy.

The topic of boundaries is one that delves much deeper than the surface. And it is up to each and every practitioner to understand what works for him or her personally, in order to stay grounded and healthy in his or her approach. Practices like self-care, building a strong professional foundation that clearly outlines the nature of the client/doula relationship, and incorporating a deeper level of philosophic theory to segment beliefs about the work from the outcome, all can lead to a greater sense of trust and enhanced mental and emotional wellbeing for the doula. This then translates to a healthier state for mother, baby, partner, and the ripple effect continues to extend outward. Like many ideas around holistic emotional health, these boundary-establishing rituals and grounding practices must be done, not necessarily understood, and the results will be largely felt, not seen. It all requires much trust in the beauty and power of the unknown. Which birth, if nothing else, brings to light most clearly about the experience of human life. There lies great power in that which cannot quite be put into words, such as the process of bringing new life into the world. It is my hope that sharing these words of experiences and stories helps to create the safest space possible for those workers who choose such an incredible path.

Morgan Burgess is a San Francisco based writer, passionate and curious about all things related to health of the mind, body, and spirit. For more of her heart-centered writings, check out her blog. For her creative work, or to hire her to help unleash your own story, see her website.