Veterinarians Communicating Boundaries
Boundaries are critical because they shape how we engage with the world, how we treat others and how others treat us.

Boundaries are critical because they shape how we engage with the world, how we treat others and how others treat us. Remember, it is not selfish to protect our values and set boundaries to protect ourselves.

We are living in a time of tremendous upheaval. COVID has resulted in marked changes to our normal behavior and routines, both in our personal and professional lives. We are frequently having to reassess what is best for ourselves, our families and our practices, part of which is determining our boundaries.

Boundaries are rules or guidelines for how we interact with the world, and as such are important because they allow us to live our lives on purpose. They are an important part of preventive wellness strategies for ourselves. We are all familiar with comprehensive preventive health plans for our patients, but we rarely approach our own well-being with the same energy and focus.

While we all have boundaries, the degree to which we are conscious of them and to which we assert them will vary. Often, we only recognize what our boundaries are in hindsight. Think of a time when you felt frustrated angry or disappointed. Was one of your boundaries crossed? Noticing such feelings and understanding their source is valuable to support better knowledge of your boundaries and facilitates an enhanced ability to set them going forward.

We have many different types of boundaries. We have boundaries regarding our interpersonal relationships, some of which have come into sharp consideration due to COVID, such as who we are willing to interact with and how we interact with them. Other boundaries that have come into the spotlight are those related to how we run our businesses, the businesses we patronize, and where we are willing to go. The less tangible, outward-facing boundaries might have changed during the pandemic. That might include how we allocate our time, money or energy. The pandemic has amplified the resource-limited nature of our lives, and that led many of us to the need of shepherding our actions more carefully.

It’s important to appreciate that we hold self-focused boundaries, too. For instance, those boundaries that relate to our responsibilities. It is critical to recognize what we have control over and what we don’t, and for us to remember that we are not responsible for the actions or decisions of other people. This is one area where asserting our boundaries can be very quiet.

Boundaries and Self-Compassion

There are times, both in our personal and professional lives, where others intentionally or unintentionally might try to get us to accept responsibility for their actions, decisions or experiences. A classic example of this is a client who is upset about the cost of care and blames you, the veterinarian. Often, this client is really upset because he or she cannot afford the care an animal needs, and instead of accepting that responsibility, tries to blame the veterinarian.

It can be difficult not to take this on, particularly when the stakes are high and an animal is going to be euthanized due to lack of the owner’s ability to afford care.

We need to practice self-compassion as we assert our boundaries quietly to ourselves, because it is natural to feel upset when we are insulted and have our motives questioned. When we are prepared and have set our boundaries ahead of time, we are better able to recognize the client’s attempt to shift responsibility to us and to move past it with a minimum of distress.

Along the same lines, we need to have boundaries around our sense of self. No one else can truly know what our values are, what our intentions are, or who we really are. Knowing this and ensuring we have firm boundaries around our sense of self makes us more resilient to the opinions and comments of others.

Continuing our earlier example, clients have been known to question the intentions of veterinarians with respect to recommendations for expensive care, some even stating that veterinarians are greedy. When we assert boundaries around our sense of self and keep in mind that no one can know our values and intentions but us, then we are better able to prevent those suspicions and insults from affecting us.

This isn’t easy. It takes practice to be able to recognize when our sense of self is being threatened and to move toward asserting a boundary before it has been crossed.

Boundaries and Values

It is critical to appreciate that our boundaries are strongly influenced by our values, our particular needs for physical and emotional safety, our past experiences and our unique life circumstances. The boundaries that one person deems necessary might seem too aggressive for another; this is normal and appropriate.

We adapt our boundaries as we grow and change, and often we adjust our boundaries to given situations and relationships.

Overall, boundaries are rules of engagement for how we interact with the world, both in terms of how we allow the world to impact us and how we ask that the world interact with us.

There is tremendous value in taking the time to explore your values, then aligning your boundaries with them. Once there is an understanding of what one’s boundaries are, then begins the work of asserting them with others and yourself.

It can feel rude or selfish to have boundaries, never mind assert them to others. Communicating openly with others about our boundaries is a gift to all involved. It facilitates strong relationships and diminishes the risk of conflict and resentment. We need to be aware that boundaries are often difficult for others to predict or guess, and proactively sharing them is the best way to facilitate transparency and positive outcomes.

Try the following when looking to be intentional about boundary-setting:

1. Explore your core values; then determine the boundaries that align with them.

a. You can start brainstorming your own list of values, or use some of the tools readily available by Googling “values clarification exercise.” Take a few of the core values you’d like to work with and write down how that value is manifested in your daily life. Then write down what boundary you need to meet that given need and respect that value. For instance, if you value quality time with your partner, one related need you might have is a weekly date night. therefore, you set a boundary that you don’t schedule calls past 4 p.m. on “date night Fridays,” and you reschedule date night to Thursday when you are on call Fridays.

b. Identify boundary infractions: There’s a lot to be learned by taking the time to consider when our boundaries have been crossed. Think back to a time when you felt angry or resentful of someone. Write down all the details you can remember about what happened. Can you trace back the source of those frustrations to feeling infringed upon in some way? Was there a boundary that was compromised? Once you can identify that, you are able to switch gears to determining how to assert that boundary going forward.

2. Practice asserting your boundaries.

a. Sharing your boundaries with others proactively can help avoid the conflict and negative experiences that come when our boundaries are crossed. It can feel overwhelming to think of asserting a boundary, and it can be difficult to strike a balance between assertive and aggressive. Taking the time to practice how you could communicate them in a firm, respectful and compassionate way to those involved makes conversations easier. For instance, when taking on a new client, you might want to share your boundaries regarding being contacted outside of work hours: “I know that all horse vets are different when it comes to how we like to stay in touch. I want to let you know the clinic has an answering service for after-hours emergencies. That is the best way to reach the on-call veterinarian. I do not answer work texts or calls outside of work hours unless I am contacted by the answering service. This ensures you will receive prompt care and that I am able to be at my best when I’m taking care of Crosby.”

3. Picture hula hoops.

a. Attaching a visual to our conceptualization of boundaries can be helpful because it makes the somewhat intangible boundary between what you are and are not responsible for easier to grasp. When you encounter a situation where boundaries are getting blurred (e.g., a client is blaming you for the high cost of procedures and his or her inability to pay), picture everyone involved holding a hula hoop. Then visualize the contents of the conversation as items in each person’s hula hoop. Remembering that we all own our own decisions, actions, opinions, ideas and mistakes. Good boundaries dictate that the hula hoops don’t overlap.

Take-Home Message

Boundaries are critical because they shape how we engage with the world, how we treat others and how others treat us.

We must appreciate that our boundaries are not the same as someone else’s boundaries, so we must communicate them clearly. That means we first must understand our own values and boundaries. Sometimes it takes practice to communicate a boundary to a client (or associate or spouse).

Remember, it is not selfish to protect our values and set boundaries to protect ourselves. 

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