In this VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog, VETgirl’s Chief Happiness Officer, Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LCSW, clinical veterinary social worker, discusses how we veterinary professionals need more boundaries in our life!
A Primer on Boundaries (and why we need them), by Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LCSW, Chief Happiness Officer, VETgirl.
Boundaries are the dynamic and flexible system of ‘yes’s’ and ‘no’s’ that defines (and helps us to maintain) our identity and our well-being. Boundaries serve as the limits communicating where our ideas, physical space, emotional experiences, and time both begin and end. These limits can shift based on relationship, situation, and culture, but they always play an important role in how we feel about ourselves and the way our lives are managed.
Boundaries, whether they be physical, material, time-based, or emotional, can be too loose (“porous”) to serve any protective function. Those of us with porous boundaries often struggle with saying “no” (even when we want to), which leaves us to feel resentful, tired, and perpetually taken advantage of. It’s super tough to say no when we fear what will happen when we turn down a request; it’s even tougher when we fear missing out on something important that we otherwise don’t have the time or energy to engage.
The other side of the coin is represented by those of us with rigid boundaries. Rigid boundaries arise from a different kind of fear related to over-sharing, exposure, overstimulation, and/or exhaustion. In our efforts to protect ourselves from all of these things, we sometimes say “no” compulsively, which then leads us to feel isolated, left out, and marginalized. The unfortunate latent function of rigidity is that others may well stop asking for our contributions, our involvement, and our feedback.
So, what is the alternative to the “all or nothing,” porous vs. rigid debate? Healthy boundaries are aligned, defined, asserted, consistent, and realistic; they will likely entail some flexibility as we determine “right action” moment-to-moment and relationship by relationship. And here’s how to get there:
1. Reality check your thinking. Black and white thinking often reflects cognitive distortions, and those distortions are marked by words like “always” and “never,” “either” and “or.” They might also be led by the popular word, “should” (emphasis on eye roll). The reality of most situations is that we are surrounded by gray area and more wiggle room than we often realize. Defining, aligning, and defending boundaries for health and well-being means fighting the cognitive distortion gremlins at every turn. Boundaries are more often useful than catastrophic, which is what our distortion gremlins lead us to believe.
2. Define your values, goals, and needs. What is most important to you? What are you unwilling to give up, regardless of the stakes or payoff? What decisions and actions will most clearly reflect your goals and your needs, not just now but in the near future? Clarifying your values, your short- and long-term goals, and your most pressing needs in this moment is the first step to creating healthier boundaries.
3. Align your decisions with those values, goals and needs – all the time. Get clear on the difference between capacity and willingness: just because you technically can do something doesn’t mean you should or have to. Make sure that every ‘yes’ is minimizing the risk of later resentment and anger. When we are working out of alignment, we are giving people consent to breech our boundaries… and that makes us miserable in return.
4. Communicate clearly and consistently. Boundaries cannot be honored if their presence is unknown — remember that invisible fences box us in more effectively than they keep others out! Once you determine what you want, need, and are willing to do (and not do), it is your job to communicate that, preferably early and often. The dictum that we must manage expectations on the front end of any process applies here. If clients know that you will return calls at the end of the business day, this helps them recognize there are boundaries on your time. Likewise, if they are told at the beginning of a call that you are dedicating the next 5 minutes to addressing their questions, they will not be surprised when you wrap up that call at a hard stop. Boundaries that are communicated well make us more efficient and more effective.
5. Maintain and enforce your boundaries. We do this by rehearsing how to say “no” clearly and kindly, which helps develop the muscle that allows us to sustain that “no” even when discomfort, judgment, and vulnerability start to rise. It’s a big ask, but it’s an invaluable tool to have in your arsenal. It’s never a bad thing to front load boundary enforcement with gratitude (“Thank you for that suggestion…”) and emphasize it with alternative choices, when available (“I don’t see appointments after 6pm, but I can offer you my next available opening or a Saturday morning slot with my colleague, if that works better for your schedule.”)
Above all else, remember that sometimes it is necessary, appropriate, and compassionate to wiggle a bit (like when a trusted co-worker asks to swap shifts or trade appointments in order to respond to a family emergency). When people already know and respect our boundaries, the choice to flex is ours – and the feelings that come from flexibility are more positive on all sides. Healthy boundaries make saying both “Yes!” and “Sorry, that’s a no” a lot more comfortable, in both process and product.