Setting Boundaries in Veterinary Medicine will Save our Souls

Some of my biggest regrets in veterinary medicine, and in life, have stemmed from my inability to set boundaries and stick to them.

In order to successfully set boundaries, you first need to know what your boundaries are, and unfortunately you don’t always discover your boundaries until they have been crossed. Setting a boundary at work means drawing a line between what you are able or willing to do and what you are not able or willing to do. In my previous article about dealing with mistakes in veterinary medicine, I mentioned that my inability to stick to a set boundary eventually led me down a path of making a surgical error. If you are unable to set boundaries and stick to them, you will make more mistakes, and you will hate yourself even more for it. Trust me.

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People pleasing and being a “yes” woman

People pleasing is one of the biggest reasons most of us are unable to set boundaries at work. In veterinary school, I specifically remember being told that the way to be most successful is to say yes to every opportunity and take on as much as possible with enthusiasm. As a student, I was so eager to please that having no boundaries came naturally to me.

To set a boundary, you must switch from your “yes-woman” persona to your “I-am-not-OK-with-that” persona. You have to learn how to say no. It’s difficult to make that switch as a new graduate, since no one has told you that you are allowed to say no to anything. And, the problem isn’t limited to students and new graduates; there are many seasoned veterinary professionals out there who simply cannot say no.

The inability to set boundaries and say no to situations we are incapable of dealing with, or situations that are unprofessional or unethical, leads us to essentially sell our souls to the devil.

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Disappointing people doesn’t feel good at first, but it will get better… eventually

I honestly hate saying no. I hate seeing the disapproval and disappointment on people’s faces when I try to set a boundary. But, do you know what I hate even more than that? I hate saying yes to something that is not OK with me and then resenting the people I am trying to keep happy. See how that can make someone crazy?

If you find yourself feeling resentful after agreeing to do something—even something as benign as picking up a shift for a coworker—it means you’ve let someone cross a boundary. There is a learning curve with setting boundaries. Not only for the people who work with you, but also for yourself. Shame researcher Brené Brown talks about setting boundaries in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Brown believes that having boundary mantras helps us set and stick to boundaries.

“I have a little boundary mantra now… choose discomfort over resentment,” Brown says. “In those moments that sometimes it’s uncomfortable to say ‘No, I can’t’, or ‘I’m sorry, I’m not available,’ it feels uncomfortable. But it’s so much better for me to choose being uncomfortable in a moment than feeling complete resentment and judgment forever.”

A common boundary for me at work is being able to give every patient and client the time and attention they need. This does not always fit into the allocated appointment time or expected flow. Sometimes, all they may need from me is 15 or 20 minutes, while other times it can be an hour or more. This is especially true when I am working emergency. There are certain illnesses or situations that are not in my control, and it’s important to not compromise on time needed to run an additional test, look up extra information, make an extra phone call to the GP, or re-run bloodwork that may seem wrong.

Recently, a colleague was frustrated with me for saying, “No, I can’t right now, but I will as soon as I can” when she asked if I could see a new case in the ER. I was already working on two intensive cases at the same time, and the cases she was asking me to take on over those few hours were not as urgent. Not only would she have a sour face of disappointment, she would also huff and complain about how she has too much to do and storm off. In the end, she told me that she thought I was incompetent and not cut out for work in the ER.

I was heartbroken. I couldn’t understand how someone could show such a lack of compassion. Just because it’s not convenient for her, or because she is incapable of setting her own boundaries, doesn’t mean I will compromise my own.

I’m not trying to make excuses for prolonging appointments or procedures, but sometimes you need to go the extra mile, even if coworkers are upset about it because it doesn’t fit their schedule or needs. By sticking to my boundaries and not rushing, despite feeling pressured and bullied by my colleague, my decisions enabled me to save a life and avoid a catastrophic error that was made by the automated blood machine. I still felt like a hero, at least for that family who got to have their dog home by Christmas. I do wish, however, that my coworker had been more compassionate.

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The most compassionate people happen to have the best boundaries

In her research, Brené Brown states that the most compassionate people are those who have clear boundaries about what they are willing and not willing to do. Compassion is not the relinquishing of boundaries, but the understanding that everyone is doing the best they can. If you can recognize that when someone says no, it isn’t because they don’t care or are incompetent, it’s because they can’t say yes in that moment, then, in turn, you can learn to be better at saying no and being more compassionate with yourself.

I will never know for sure if everyone is trying the best they can, but I know that I can be more compassionate when I approach all situations in my work and personal life as if they are. In the end, setting boundaries means being honest about what you can and cannot handle right now. If we all learned how to set better boundaries, we could foster more mutual respect and compassion, rather than resentment and anger, and we wouldn’t sell our souls to the devil. Now, wouldn’t that be grand?  

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Dr. Hilal Dogan completed veterinary school in 2015 at Massey University in New Zealand. She has spent most of her life traveling and has a diverse cultural background. She is the founder of the Veterinary Confessionals Project and is also a certified clinical trauma professional (for humans). She currently lives and works as a relief veterinarian in Denver, Colorado. She enjoys both general practice as well as emergency medicine. Her other passions involve taking naps, yoga, writing, cooking, comedy, sports and traveling.