6 tips to set boundaries
Black and White headshot of IndeVets Employee Amelia
Words by:
Amelia Knight, VMD — Integrative Health + Life Coach

In Life Boost with Dr. Amelia, Associate IndeVet and health coach Dr. Amelia Knight shares tips to lead a happier and healthier life as a veterinarian.

Veterinary medicine is in a serious crisis.

As a profession, it’s clear that we’re overwhelmed. We’re overwhelmed with feeling like there are too many patients and not enough time or help. On top of that, clients seem unhappier than ever. As Dr. Dewey recently pointed out, rather than causing our current crisis, COVID has highlighted a lot of issues that have been brewing in our profession for a long time.

For years, vet med has been struggling with burnout, compassion fatigue, substance abuse, and suicide. One major systemic issue: our profession is lacking serious boundaries.

A lack of boundaries is evident throughout our entire day in veterinary medicine:

  • How many times have you been asked for free veterinary advice?
  • Can you imagine calling a physician’s office expecting and demanding to talk to your doctor immediately?
  • Where else can someone show up without warning for an appointment and expect to be seen right away?
  • How often have you felt guilty about putting in for vacation time or dreaded the thought of returning due to the pile of callbacks waiting for you?
  • How many times are a disrespectful client’s requests accommodated out of fear of losing a client or receiving a negative review?
  • How many times have you felt completely overwhelmed by the number of appointments you’re already juggling but said “yes” to accepting another walk-in because of fear, guilt, or feeling like you didn’t have a choice?
  • How many times have you missed or been late to an event, holiday, or dinner because of work?
  • How often do you sacrifice your health and happiness for the profession?

How boundaries can heal veterinary medicine

As veterinarians, we are a group of empathetic, high-achieving, people-pleasing, perfectionists. We are used to juggling a lot. In many ways, we’re proud of that. The veterinary application process selects driven students who get straight A’s while balancing extracurriculars, work, and volunteering.

In veterinary school, we sacrifice finances and a personal life in order to achieve our dream. In the process, becoming a veterinarian becomes a huge part of our identity. It’s easy to forget who we are outside of veterinary medicine.

Unfortunately, the qualities that help us to survive veterinary school are the same ones that set us up for burnout and overwhelm in the real world. There’s a very abrupt shift that occurs when you suddenly transform from a student into a doctor that no one prepares you for. You don’t get an “A” in life by people-pleasing, never pausing for a break, and putting everything else before your own basic needs.

There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way veterinary medicine is viewed by our own profession and the community. Our actions have been enabling the community to overstep and as a result, we’re crumbling under the pressure. We are all part of the problem, and we can all be part of the solution.

Vet med needs to unite as a whole if we truly want to heal. We need to start establishing boundaries today one individual, conversation, hospital, and school at a time. Here’s how we can make that happen.

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How to start setting boundaries in your own life: 6 tips

Regardless of how long it takes our profession to realize the changes that need to take place, you can spark significant change in your own life by starting to set boundaries today. I’ll be honest — it’s going to feel uncomfortable. Establishing boundaries and saying “no” goes against everything we’ve been taught, but it’s key for thriving in veterinary medicine and in life.

Tip #1: Identify areas where you’re lacking boundaries.

In order to set boundaries, you need to understand where they’re lacking. Here are ways to identify where boundaries are needed:

  • Reflect on the times you feel most overwhelmed and stressed. What are the underlying themes that lead to those feelings? For example, taking on too many responsibilities.
  • Pay attention to times you feel resentful. Resentment is a clear indication that a boundary has been crossed or hasn’t been established. Often, resentment occurs when we assume others should respect our boundaries, but we haven’t been clear in stating what those are.
  • Identify the things that drain your energy and the things that fill you back up (people, places, activities, etc.). Are you prioritizing the things that fill you back up? Or, are the things that drain your energy taking over?
  • Use this circle of life exercise to take a step back in order to visualize different parts of your life in a holistic way. What areas are lacking, and how can boundaries help you to feel more fulfilled in that area?

Tip #2: Instead of being “nice,” be kind.

You can be kind without being “nice.” Hear me out.

Being “nice” sounds great, but on a very superficial level. The definition of nice is to be pleasant, agreeable, and satisfactory. Between being a “good” student driven to impress teachers and adults and working in a profession that often has a “the customer is always right” mentality, we are used to being pleasant and agreeable even when that’s not what we’re feeling internally.

In reality, being “nice” can stem from fear. Fear of being seen, fear of confrontation, fear of disappointing, etc. Being “nice” can turn into a default instead of allowing yourself to be authentic or genuine.

  • How many times do you smile and say “yes” when on the inside every part of you wants to say “no”?
  • How often do you take on everything, because you want to make things easier for your coworkers, family, or friends?
  • How often have you avoided giving constructive feedback out of fear of not being liked?

As veterinarians, every day we have a lot of emotions that we internalize. There are days when you may oscillate between a puppy visit, euthanasia, and an emergency all in the same hour — those are a lot of highs and lows that you don’t have the opportunity to process during the day. If you also don’t allow yourself to openly communicate what you’re really feeling or needing (in the workplace and at home), that’s too much to keep bottled up inside.

The people-pleasers in us are “nice” as a protective mechanism, but it can be harmful in the long run. Catch the times when you’re being “nice” and think of how you can express yourself in a kind but authentic way instead.

More Life Boost: 8 ways to boost your energy, naturally

Tip #3: Be brave.

Setting boundaries can feel scary and really uncomfortable. It goes against everything that has been ingrained in us as people-pleasers and caregivers. Brené Brown recommends having a mantra like, “choose discomfort over resentment.”

One uncomfortable “no” or conversation can put an end to persistent stress and resentment. You may feel guilty, but that’s the very loud people-pleaser in you who needs to chill.

If you find that the people-pleaser or perfectionist in you is obnoxiously loud and makes it really hard for you to stick up for what you really need, give that voice a name. It may sound silly, but by naming that voice you can separate yourself from those thoughts, call them out, and start to see them from an outside perspective. Depending on the name, this can help to lighten the moment with a little humor.

Tip #4: Find a support network.

Establishing boundaries is hard work. Try to find at least one person who you can candidly talk to about the challenges and successes of setting boundaries. Establishing boundaries isn’t a one and done kind of thing. It’s a lifelong practice that continues to change and evolve depending on circumstances and where you are in life.

Setting boundaries may sound isolating, but in reality conversations around this topic are an incredible way to connect with others! The more you talk about it, the more you’ll realize just how many people who outwardly seem to have it all together are struggling with similar emotions and challenges.

I share a group text with an amazing group of veterinary friends who can all relate to these challenges, and their support is priceless in finding the bravery that’s often needed.

Tip #5: Practice.

Setting boundaries takes a lot of practice. In veterinary medicine and life, there are opportunities to do this every day. There will be times that you don’t stick up for your boundaries, and that’s okay. This is not about perfection; it’s about honoring what you need and being kind to yourself.

Note when that happens, and think about how you would like to approach that situation differently in the future. Practice what you want to say so that your responses become more automatic with time. This is a great opportunity to establish your own boundaries around perfectionism and to practice self-compassion and kindness.

Read more by Dr. Knight: Changing your mindset to become a happy, healthy vet

Tip #6: Lead by example.

The good news is, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

Establishing boundaries is critical on an individual level, and will have a tremendous impact in and outside of your professional life. Every time you stand up for your boundaries as a veterinarian, you are helping to establish a new standard and norm.

As an IndeVet, I have seen what’s possible for our profession. I am a veterinarian who reached burnout in my career. I became a health coach partly because I was prepared to leave the profession. But in that journey, I realized the power of boundaries.

I rediscovered who I was outside of veterinary medicine. I learned how to listen to my body and mind, and I discovered the life changing transformation that takes place when you stand up for what you need. Now, I’m living a life that gives me energy instead of drains it. No matter what point you’re at right now, that’s possible for you, too.

Establishing boundaries isn’t easy, but IndeVets makes it simple for veterinarians. When I first learned about IndeVets, it sounded too good to be true.

Have all of the freedom of a relief vet without any of the paperwork, networking, or logistical hassle? Create my own schedule, never have to work weekends, and never feel guilty about taking vacation time? Leave work and be done?! Have autonomy while also having a huge network of incredible veterinarians to connect with throughout the country for support? How could that be real life?

It’s real. IndeVets doesn’t just claim to care about the health and happiness of their vets, they truly mean it. It shows with every action. IndeVets is breaking the norm and showing what is possible in veterinary medicine. While this change can start with you, veterinary medicine can embrace this on a much larger scale.

In closing

In Biology 101, we learn that homeostasis is key to survival. The definition of homeostasis is, “any self-regulating process by which an organism tends to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions that are best for its survival. If homeostasis is successful, life continues; if it’s unsuccessful, it results in a disaster or death of the organism.”

Conditions are changing in veterinary medicine. In order to achieve long-term sustainable success and resilience, the veterinary profession needs balance.

Boundaries are the foundation for establishing and maintaining homeostasis. Let’s unite in this common goal so that we can use our current crisis as the catalyst that transformed the wellbeing of our profession.

Stay tuned for part 2 for ways that hospitals and veterinary schools can take an active role in supporting this transformation.

Amelia Knight, VMD, cVMA, INHC is an Associate IndeVet and a veterinary life coach. Learn more at lifeboost.today and follow her on Instagram at @lifeboostwithamelia.

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