Diagnosis? Resentment. Rx? Healthy boundaries

VettedVetted March 2020
Volume 115
Issue 3

Unless your upbringing or work experience presented an example of how to set healthy boundaries, you may not know how to establish and maintain them. When you combine the lack of boundaries with your work as a veterinary professional in a caretaker role, this can create negative emotions. Lets diagnose and treat.

showcake/stock.adobe.comDisease: Poor boundaries

showcake/stock.adobe.comDisease: Poor boundaries

Symptoms may include but are not limited to:

  • Resentment
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Burnout
  • Exhaustion
  • Sadness.

What are boundaries? Boundaries are the lines you draw that help others know how you want to be treated. If you don't have healthy boundaries, you might be passively relying on others to know how you want to be treated. While we would all love for people to consider others before themselves, that's not reality.

Why are boundaries important? Before I discovered my own boundaries, I was known as a “yes” woman in veterinary practice.

Stay late to help with that blood transfusion? Yes!

Need someone to help with that extra shift once a week until we find a replacement? Yes!

I wanted opportunities to advance my career, and I thought I could handle anything. Until I couldn't. I burnt myself out and ran from practice, trying to find a company that would treat me better. Finally, a good friend called an intervention and told me the truth: You can't put everything and everyone before yourself and still be happy.

“If the cabin should lose pressure, please put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others”: If you've flown, you're heard it before. Same goes for emotional health-you need to take care of yourself before helping others.

Treatment plan: Better boundaries

Think of a time when you've felt resentful, angry or burnt out. These feelings may be a sign that you're ignoring your personal boundaries. When I always stayed late to help, I felt it was expected of me-that I had no choice. I felt angry, exhausted and resentful. Social psychologist Brene Brown advises keeping a resentment journal for a while to help track moments when you might need a boundary. Other helpful actions include:

Reality checks. When staying late became the norm for me, I'd have thoughts like, “What would they do if I actually left on time?” I never thought to really think about what would happen. When I took the time to think about it, the answer was reasonable: They'd call in the on-call person, who would get a bonus for coming in. Recognize the story you tell yourself in these situations, and do a reality check. You might find that your fears in setting a boundary aren't as scary as you thought.

Starting small. If you're new to setting boundaries, start small to test them out and get specific with what you're going to do. If you want to start leaving work on time, set a goal of leaving on time two out of four shifts, for instance. I didn't want to leave my co-workers high and dry at the end of a shift, so I thought it was reasonable to say that I would give myself a 15-minute window to make sure my duties were caught up and that I was able to pass anything else over to the next shift.

Defining consequences. Boundaries need accountability. If you don't uphold a boundary, does it really exist? Consequences don't have to be all-or-nothing; for example, if I had to stay late one day, I wouldn't quit on the spot. I would just make note of it and if it became a pattern or was regularly expected of me, I would need to have a conversation with my manager.

Side effects: Roadblocks to watch for

Being uncomfortable saying “no” so often. I was terrible at putting myself first, because I was afraid of what saying “no” would do. When I realized that no one was going to care about my wellbeing more than me, I had to choose what I needed over making sure that everyone else felt okay. When you start to create boundaries, you'll need to get used to saying no. Making others uncomfortable is something we avoid like the plague, but it's important that we learn to choose ourselves over discomfort.

Holding onto guilt and fear. Boundaries can be scary at first. Typically, we battle with the fear of what others will think about us or guilt that we're letting people down. I predicted that my coworkers would think I was lazy, not a team player, and that I wouldn't be offered other opportunities at work. This is another good moment for a reality check. Letting go of fear doesn't mean that you'll never feel fear again-it means you choose to not let fear make the decision for you. If you believe your work is valuable, that you're a hard worker and that you've earned opportunities, then use that evidence to challenge your fear when it sneaks into your thoughts.

Being unprepared for pushback. When I told my boss ‘‘no” for the first time, at first, my boss was supportive. As time passed, however, that boundary was pushed. When I got frustrated, I told myself a story about how the pushback was proof that my boss didn't respect me. When I took some time to reality check my situation, I realized it had nothing to do with me: My boss was trying to manage a larger workplace problem, and my boundaries and needs just weren't the first thing on her mind.

I realized that it isn't always intentional when people push back or ignore boundaries. I also believed that I could still help solve the problem and maintain healthy boundaries. This led me to restate my boundaries with my boss and explain my goal: I wanted to help and I wanted be healthy. That conversation led to more collaboration, not a battle.

If you experience pushback when you set a boundary, do a reality check. Open a conversation with the person. See how your shared goals are in line. If the person continues to treat you badly or is angry with you, ask yourself:

  • Do I care about this person's opinion of me?
  • Is this relationship healthy for me?
  • How can I maintain my boundaries while still working with this person?
  • Prognosis: Good

Signs of better boundaries over time can include:

  • More self-awareness
  • Improved relationships
  • Less stress
  •  Improved communication skills
  • Increased understanding of others
  • Increased happiness.

Until I discovered the power of boundaries, I was afraid of them. I assumed that the more I pleased others, the more successful I would be. Now I see this is counterintuitive: I can only expect others to respect me as much as I respect myself.

Boundaries are hard in the beginning. They take practice and self-reflection to be successful. The stakes can be high, because the people you most need to build boundaries with are often the ones you care about the most.

With healthier boundaries, I see less conflict in my relationships and my communication skills have improved. In addition, I take on less guilt, which helps me move past emotional thoughts more quickly. They can do the same for you.

Kristina Guldbrand worked as a certified veterinary technician for 12 years before becoming an account manager for Veterinary System Services, a company that provides staffing, consulting and hiring help to practices in the Denver, Colorado, area. She has received training through the International Coaching Federation and provides workshops, leadership and wellbeing coaching as well as teambuilding for practices.

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