The song “Surface Pressure” from the Disney movie Encanto resonates with me. I was raised to be of service to others: My family and I did some form of volunteer work most weekends as a spiritual practice. This was a vital part of my upbringing, and, if I have children, I definitely want them to experience this lifestyle.
Yet as meaningful as altruistic work has been in my life, I recently discovered the downside to serving others without setting healthy boundaries.
When asked, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and . . . your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:36–39). We often reflect about what it means to love God and our neighbor, but we seldom reflect about the “as yourself” bit.
I am an immigration attorney, and I work for a nonprofit. There is a huge need for immigration legal services at low or no cost, and there are not enough hands doing this work. I’m also a lay minister who regularly volunteers in an inclusive Catholic LGBTQ ministry. Because of the opposition of some people in our religious communities to LGBTQ ministry, sometimes this work can be particularly exhausting and isolating. More often than I’d like to admit, both these commitments can lead to heavy burnout when I fail to love myself as much as I show love to others.
Perhaps part of the reason the second half of the verse gets neglected is because people assume that human beings are naturally self-centered and that loving yourself comes naturally. However, selfishness and self-centeredness are not the same as love of self. Selfishness is rooted in insecurity and in a lack of love. Selfishness is a pattern of taking from others to benefit oneself. Love benefits everyone, while selfishness only benefits one person.
When I’m feeling burned out, I have to remind myself that loving myself is not about making myself the center of the universe. Rather, it is about being patient and kind with myself, because love is patient and love is kind. It is about taking the time to nurture myself mentally, emotionally, and physically, so I may be strong for myself and for others. It is about being patient with myself when I fail to be my best, so I may extend that same empathy to others when they fail. Because this is all hard work, it is also about setting healthy boundaries, which, sometimes, can be hard to do.
It can be even harder to set boundaries when we remember that loving the other is not just about altruistic or volunteer work in your community. It is also the work we do within our own families—a shout-out to single parents, parents with two jobs, parents in general (did I say parents?), siblings who keep each other sane, cousins who are the emotional support human in the family, adult children who take care of their elderly parents, and others who support their families in innumerable ways.
At the end of the day, I have to remind myself to maintain balance. To love and serve others with all my heart, but at the same time to love and take care of myself. And as the Encanto song says: shake the crushing weight of expectations, free some room up for joy, and free some room up for relaxation or simple pleasures. When your light is rekindled and your battery recharged, you may go forth and serve.
This article also appears in the October 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 10, page 7). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Unsplash/Maddi Bazzocco