May 2022

In this VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog, Dr. Justine Lee, DACVECC, DABT talks about how to keep boundaries in the veterinary world. One of the best ways of keeping boundaries is by learning to say “No.”

By Dr. Justine Lee, DACVECC, DABT
Director of Medicine / CEO, VETgirl

How to keep boundaries in the veterinary world

As caregivers in the animal veterinary world, it’s often hard to keep boundaries. As an emergency critical care specialist, working parent, spouse, and general workaholic, this was an important life lesson that I had to learn in order to maintain my own mental health and wellness. If you’re like me, you may have a hard time setting boundaries.

Here, some signs that you need to set boundaries:

  • Taking care of your veterinary colleagues needs but not your own
  • Putting your family and friend’s needs over your own
  • Valuing your veterinary colleagues opinions as more important than your own
  • Being “too good” of a team player and going along with everyone else versus what YOU really need or want
  • Being a people-pleaser
  • Not being able to say no
  • Battling anxiety and being fearful
  • Not being sure of what you really need or want or feel
  • Being really sensitive to criticism or feedback
  • Taking on the emotions of your veterinary colleagues around you and feeling responsible for them
  • Not valuing YOUR opinions, gut instinct or feelings or thoughts
  • Feeling drained because you are always taking care of someone or something else

Our Chief Happiness Officer, Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LCSW has written about why you need boundaries in your veterinary life right now.

While I won’t reiterate all of Jeannine’s important 5 reasons why you need boundaries, I’ll share my #1 tip for how to set boundaries for yourself. FIRST, you need to recognize the signs above that you need to set boundaries. Once you’ve done that, then tip #1: Learning to say NO. This is especially important in veterinary medicine.

Saying NO VETgirl blog

Before I say YES to anything, I ask myself these 3 questions:

  • Will this directly benefit me?
  • Will this increase my stress-to-yes ratio?
  • Will this spark joy?

I know it sounds “selfish” to ask yourself these 3 questions, but it is REALLY IMPORTANT for your mental health and boundary setting. After all, if it doesn’t directly benefit you (vs. the clinic), it’s not worth it. If you want to build your resume, sure, it may be worth it. If it’s going to help contribute towards you feeling ownership for something (and that’s important to you), then it may be worth it. If it’s going to help build you as a better professional and get you a wage raise, it may be worth it. But if you don’t think it’s going to directly benefit you, say NO.

Second, will this increase my stress-to-yes ratio?

I ask myself this ALL THE TIME when it comes to authoring book chapters in veterinary medicine. I’ve authored a lot of peer-reviewed, scientific veterinary articles. I’ve authored a lot of veterinary book chapters. And I’ve edited and published a lot of textbooks. So, is writing a book chapter to get a free copy of the $200 book worth it? For me to put in 100 hours to get a $200 book, it’s NOT worth it. By saying yes to writing that book chapter, it will increase my stress-to-yes ratio. So, I’ve learned to say no.

Lastly, not to steal Marie Kondo’s byline of ‘spark joy,’ but will saying YES spark joy? If “X” project is going to make me happy and bring me joy, absolutely say yes. But if it’s not going to ‘spark joy’ and make you happy, learn to say no.

Just say no VETgirl blog

To me, this is the #1 way of setting boundaries in your life. Remember, you need to put YOUR needs and thoughts and wants first, despite your inner-care taker self screaming otherwise. Learn to say no, and you’re on the road to learning how to set better boundaries for yourself.


P.S. What hints or tips do YOU have for setting boundaries?

  1. Wonderful read, i am still trying to learn to say NO, it is so hard at times but it is time I take my wellbeing serious and try and take care of myself for once.

  2. Someone once told me, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” Give yourself time to re-fill. Excellent read.

  3. The word “NO” is really difficult for me. It’s such a hard thing to learn to say. My stomach just twists up with guilt. How do you get over the guilty feeling when someone says they need something you can give that you don’t WANT to give?

  4. My favorite go-to is email auto replies on my weekends. I work every other weekend so sometimes my “weekend” is actually during regular business week. I set an auto reply on those days as well so my team knows I’m off, and that I’ll get back to them when I’m back. It is an easy way to set my team’s expectations as well as give me some dedicated time away. Rarely is an email truly urgent.. and if something is they know they can call!

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