Learn to say no and set boundaries


Want to have time for family and friends-and yourself? Learn to say "no."

In my experience, being a woman and maintaining clear boundaries in life are sometimes mutually exclusive endeavors. As working professionals, many female veterinarians struggle with setting limits.

In 1999, after working 50- to 70-hour weeks for six years as a full-time veterinarian—at minuscule wages—I hit a frazzled bottom. I realized I was trying hard to please everyone—except myself. I put clients, patients, employers, friends, and family first, but paid little attention to my own well-being.

Looking for someone to do the client callbacks after hours at no charge? You could count on me. A little old lady needed me to perform a home euthanasia after I'd worked a 12-hour day? No problem. A team member needed a meal cooked for a sick friend? Call Dr. Shaughnessy. I had no boundaries, and no ability to set limits. I couldn't say "no."


With one exception, all of my employers were older men. They didn't appear to have problems delegating duties and tasks. They left work on time. They referred the emergencies to me and their other associates. They never appeared to feel the need to justify a simple "no."

My one female boss was different. She exhibited compassion. She pitched in on a regular basis whenever needed, and she never seemed to leave the clinic. She wouldn't say "no" without a very good explanation. Perhaps she just didn't know how.

Toward the end of my full-time associate career, I spent my days feeling irritable and discontent. I realized that, despite my long hours and hard work, I was still living paycheck to paycheck and was unable to put away money for a car, let alone a house or my retirement. I finally decided some radical life changes were in order.


After some research, I incorporated myself and started life as a relief veterinarian. In making that decision, I unwittingly laid boundaries for my professional—and personal—life. It took time for it to all fall into place, but the boundary lessons I learned from relief work proved invaluable.

Saying "no" wasn't the only tough part of boundary setting. I recall quoting a potential employer my hourly rate and then adding a trip charge. My voice shook and my knees trembled. I was sure I'd lose all my business, fail miserably, and end up homeless.

But my greatest fears went unrealized. I've met very little resistance, and I've found that most clinic owners are happy to have a qualified veterinarian to help out. Most importantly, I no longer resent going to work because I'm finally getting paid what I'm worth.


The changes resulting from setting boundaries have allowed me to buy a house, adequately fund my retirement, set up a more flexible schedule, and spend more time with my children. These things have elevated my feelings of self worth and my ability to live a more fulfilling life.

To those veterinarians—particularly women—who have trouble setting limits, remember two things. First, don't negotiate with yourself: "No" is a complete sentence. Second, boundaries are beautiful, so set them and keep them. You won't regret it.

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