Self-care: Why boundaries matter, plus how to assert them at your veterinary clinic

February 25, 2021
Erica Tricarico, Managing Editor

Find out how (and why) setting and asserting boundaries can help you live a more purpose-driven and fulfilling life.

For veterinary professionals, setting boundaries is a crucial part of self-care. After all, if you don’t set boundaries, your clients, patients, and colleagues will set them for you. According to Colleen Best, DVM, PhD, CCFP, setting and asserting boundaries can improve your well-being, build resiliency, and shape how you engage with the world around you.

During a lecture today at the Fetch dvm360® virtual conference, Best explained that self-care involves filling your proverbial bucket, and creating boundaries prevents you from having a leaky bucket. So what are boundaries exactly? Generally speaking, they are rules or guidelines for how we interact with the world, allowing us to live more intentionally.

“We need more than a cup worth of resources. The fuller our bucket, the more personal resources we have to share, the better we can do our job, the better we can interact with our family, friends, and community,” she said.

Before you can create healthy boundaries at your veterinary workplace, you must understand the types of boundaries and how to assert them in a confident but respectful way.

Types of boundaries

Outward-facing boundaries

Outward-facing boundaries help dictate how you use your resources (eg, time, money, energy). They are influenced by your values, physical and emotional needs, past experiences, and unique life circumstances. Setting boundaries based on your needs and values helps to diminish stress and improve well-being, said Best.

To set outward-facing boundaries, you must know your purpose, your values, and what’s important to you. Think regularly about where your resources go on a given day. Find out where your humor, patience, compassion, energy, and decision-making go. Do these resources get allocated in a way that’s aligned with your values? Only you can answer that question.

Inward-facing boundaries

We need inward-facing boundaries to protect our sense of self, Best said. To set these boundaries, you must know what is and isn’t your responsibility.

When a client blows up at you because they can’t afford a procedure and begin calling you names, remember that it’s your responsibility to provide your patients with compassionate care and your clients with diagnostic and treatment options. What isn’t your responsibility is that your client just got a new car or that they waited until their pet was very sick to come to the veterinary hospital.

At the end of the day, when you have boundaries in place, it is easier to recognize that the client’s outburst is an attempt to shift responsibility and to move past it with less distress. “By appreciating what is mine and isn’t mine, I can guard my sense of self. The things that live on your hand, thoughts, opinions, beliefs, those are yours,” Best said. “When people try to label you, know your sense of self.”

How to assert your boundaries

Once you determine your personal boundaries based on your values, asserting them can help avoid conflict and negative experiences. You can’t expect people to know what your boundaries are. You have to be proactive about sharing them with others. “It’s up to us to say, ‘This is what I need,’” Best said.

Use these tips for asserting boundaries at your clinic:

  • Communicate boundaries in advance. Share boundaries proactively to avoid conflict. If you need to leave early, for example, let your team know a week ahead of time (if possible), and remind them again that morning.
  • Be pleasant. Use a calm and level tone in your interactions with coworkers and clients.
  • Anticipate a positive outcome. Don’t be so quick to think the worst of your clients or colleagues.
  • Start normalizing boundaries. Initiate open discussions about boundaries. Taking the time to practice how to communicate your boundaries respectfully and compassionately will make these conversations easier.
  • Identify boundary infractions. Consider a time when someone infringed upon your boundaries, then determine how to switch gears so that you can better assert that boundary going forward.

The bottom line and next steps

Boundaries are life-changing. When properly asserted, they can help you live out your life’s purpose. To get started, Best advises writing in a boundaries-based journal for a week. Spend time identifying what your boundaries are and when you feel they are being crossed. Finally, ask yourself what you need to assert your boundaries openly with others.