On Setting Limits

I feel like I could give an entire talk on the subject of setting limits. It’s particularly relevant today, because it’s Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and I am working. In fact, I don’t know when the last time was that I took the High Holidays off. When you work for yourself, the reality is that you could simply always be working. What’s more, I really love the work I do. But taking care of yourself is not optional. And for me that means setting limits.

When we talk about secondary or vicarious trauma we often talk about what we do for healthy coping. People point to exercise, like yoga or running. Having hobbies that are unrelated to the work. When polling an audience, someone invariably confesses to jokes about drinking as a coping mechanism. Here’s what I do: I set limits on working. Limits on doing work, thinking about work and if I can, worrying about work.

I was not always a good limit setter, but I married someone who is an excellent limit setter and I have learned a lot from her. Those limits allow me to stay relatively healthy in the face of the significant ugliness I am exposed to regularly. And let’s face it, without limits, we’d be a wreck in our household. (A forensic nurse and a prosecutor who specializes in child abuse and exploitation? Seriously.) So save for trial prep, Reserve duty or the travel that is required of us sometimes for work, weekends are ours, and ours alone. I try not to work on weekends. And when we are both home, I’m really good at shutting work out (but not necessarily violence, as you know just from reading my regular Monday posts). In fact, I am downright stingy about my weekends–when given the option, I simply won’t schedule jobs that have me on the road Saturday or Sunday (trials and international gigs frequently derail this, but I try). I will put in an 18-hour day, get up at 4am if need be to get something done. But weekends, by and large, are mine.

The other limit I have is in regards to airplanes, as I have mentioned before. I spend a lot of time on them and I refuse to work while I fly. I get a lot done in airports; I’ve had more conference calls than I can count in various airline clubs around the world. But once I step foot on the plane, work stops. That is my guaranteed downtime–I read bad fiction, binge on TV, or just plug in and listen to music for a few hours. The really lovely thing about this particular limit is that I can look at my calendar and know I have a specific amount of downtime scheduled, and that is sometimes the motivation I need to get myself back to the airport for yet another trip.

{Can I just take a minute to talk about something from a sustainability perspective? Several times in my life I have worked for people who had serious problems setting limits with work and therefore expected the same of me. It’s one of the things that drove me out the door. Want to retain good people on your team? Don’t expect (or even model) this type of unhealthy behavior. People will burn out fast and one way or another you will lose the best of what they have to offer.}

What has sent me off on this rant? A couple things: I was working with a group yesterday and the issue of vicarious trauma came up, which got me thinking about all the ways I take care of myself. Also this, a credit card campaign. For real.


Look, whether you choose to get away, as the ad would have you do, or not, set some limits, take some days off. Spend time with your people, the folks who feed your soul. Try to get away from the culture of now that we live in (with people able to access you online via your smartphone at all hours of the day, you know what I’m talking about). Give up the “if I don’t do it no one will” mentality that is so easy to get sucked into. It will make you a better partner, parent, friend, and yes, professional, for doing it.

I may be working this morning, but in a few hours, the laptop closes and it’s time to start making a traditional honey cake for the New Year. L’shanah tovah, dear readers–a sweet new year to all who are celebrating. Even if this isn’t your holiday, consider making today the day you start (or recommit to) a little more self-care, a few more limits, maybe even an extra slice of honey cake.

[Looking for more on the issue of vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue? Check out our clinical guide.]

3 replies on “On Setting Limits”

Your posts are always amazing but this one really reached me and I ahve shared it with my daughter. Thanks for all you share with us.
Now if only I could control my work and stress thinking better!!!

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