Setting Healthy Personal Boundaries

I recently had a conversation with another female healthcare provider in private practice who pointedly asked if I ever felt overwhelmed and pushed to my limits by the expectations of others.

I hesitated for a second and then told her that any business owner probably feels that way at times – and more now than ever with the increase in regulations, endless paperwork, and the pressures of social media.

Looking back, it was a safe answer to avoid delving deeper into her question.

She nodded politely at my assessment, but went on to explain that what she was talking about went beyond the normal challenges of running a business:

“Sometimes I feel that the more I’m willing to be accommodating and giving of myself and my time, the more people insist on taking – and sometimes taking advantage. There are days that I feel whittled down to a skeleton – and there are still those people who would be happy to take my femur bone and use it as a backscratcher.”

We both laughed at her comment, but deep down I wished I had no idea what she was talking about.

But, I do.

"Safe" answers don't challenge us to look deeper
“Safe” answers don’t challenge us to look deeper

I offered my theory that those drawn to healthcare as a profession are often highly empathetic people, making us well suited to caring for others. We understand the value of listening intently and without judgment and then responding with compassion. We are natural “givers” who are regularly called upon to offer comfort during difficult and highly emotional situations.

We can walk in others’ shoes with an innate understanding of their challenges because we allow ourselves to feel their vulnerability.

Walking in others’ shoes requires accepting our own vulnerability

Empathetic people willingly walk beside others on the profound life journeys that can make others uncomfortable, such as serious illness or loss. We often “hold space” for others by being physically present and by sharing deep emotions with someone without reservation or barriers. We offer unconditional support during hardships of unknown length or gravity.

A giver also naturally takes on the role of “fixer.” It can be difficult for us to learn to accept things as they are – and not the way we think they could be – if only we are able to offer the perfect amount of advice and support.

In trying to meet the needs of others, we often overlook the importance of setting healthy personal boundaries for ourselves.

Practicing good self-care helps us be there for others
Practicing good self-care helps us have the emotional bandwidth to be there for others

I don’t know many women who haven’t experienced this at some point in their lives, or in their careers.

I want to lend a sympathetic ear when people share their newly-diagnosed medical conditions, life challenges, or fears. I have relied on others for exactly the same type of solace and it feels right to pay it forward. The burden of suffering is eased when it can be shared.

Still, purposeful and caring work can – and should – include establishing and reinforcing our own emotional boundaries.

Important considerations about personal boundaries include:

  • Developing awareness of our own deep-seated need to feel helpful and supportive – even when it may be detrimental to our sense of wellbeing
  • Acknowledging that “helpers” have their own stressors, which can limit our ability to be sympathetic to the struggles of others
  • Understanding that a good listener isn’t always required to silence her own voice
  • Practicing appropriate self-care when we feel overwhelmed or pushed to our limits
  • Recognizing that some people may take advantage of our empathetic nature to a degree that necessitates ending the relationship
Wisdom about personal boundaries from Rumi
Wisdom about personal boundaries from Rumi

I was raised with the Golden Rule as a guiding, and infallible, principle – to always strive to treat others the way I would want to be treated.

All these years later, I’m still convinced it’s the right path. I’ve yet to find an exception to this rule or an instance where it has failed me.

But sometimes you give all you have and it isn’t enough (or could never be enough) for others. And I have spent too much time in my life trying to figure out why. I blame it on my scientific brain, which keeps insisting on searching for logical reasons or explanations – even when there are none to be had.

Not every friend, relative, acquaintance, or business partner is meant to stay part of our lives forever. Some people are meant to come into our lives, impart a lesson or two, and then travel down a separate path. Not every problem has an ideal solution. Our best intentions may not be met with acceptance. Our most sincere effort might not result in a better outcome.

Sometimes we all have to say “This is what I have to give” and truly know and accept that it’s enough. No human being can be a bottomless well of giving without detrimental repercussions to their own emotional health.

The bar doesn’t have to be set at perfect for us to show empathy in ways that nurture our own humanity.



6 thoughts on “Setting Healthy Personal Boundaries

  1. Thank you for your insights- so in point in the giving and taking dance of friendships and acquaintances.
    My work as a gerontologist has opened me to a world of wisdom, what ifs and issues non stop…
    Hope all is well with you and your family

    1. Hi Siobhan, Thank you for reading and I have no doubt that your work with individuals and families dealing with significant life changes, and perhaps even some unwelcome limitations, has challenged you in many of the same ways. It is a gift to be intimately involved in people’s lives but also requires a great deal of sacrifice – as you well know. You were always full of wisdom even from a young age! Julie

  2. Dear Julia, I cannot stop laughing about the femur-bone backscratcher. But on a more serious note, thank you so much for posting this. The challenge of establishing personal boundaries is a huge one because it involves so many potentially conflicting emotions, especially for people like you who are extremely perceptive and compassionate. Those emotions might involve guilt, doubt, exhaustion, and so many other things. Your bullet points offer extremely reasonable and well-considered advice for people who need to take stock of their caregiving limits. It is really perfectly acceptable not to push ourselves beyond what we can take on. And sometimes we might even come to the realization that we’re not getting anything back in return — ever. In that case, sometimes it’s best just to jettison the friendship. It sounds cavalier, but at times it’s the best solution for our own sanity!

    1. Hi Paula, The femur-bone comment is classic and while we did enjoy a good laugh, the underlying question was a bit unsettling and certainly thought-provoking. It’s so important not to push ourselves beyond our limits – but also an ongoing challenge. Self-awareness and self-care are vital. Thanks for reading and for your insightful comments! Julia

  3. Wonderful and resonant piece, my dear friend. As you are aware, what I have learned in only the last decade of my life has widened the lens for me about this issue to include its energetics. As you said, women are hugely affected by the consequences of “overgiving.” Pandemic autoimmune disorders among women are a symptom of this. As you so perceptively alluded to, I myself have come to realize that if we want to live healthy and joyful lives, changing and sometimes ending relationships requires conscious and constant maintenance, sometimes to an uncomfortable (and perhaps unpopular) degree. Everyone is here to learn their own lessons and do their own work. No one can do the work of others.

    1. Dear Sue, As soon as I saw nyou left a comment I knew there would be incredible insight. “Everyone is here to learn their own lessons and do their own work. No one can do the work of others” is such a simple, yet profound statement. I’m going to tape that up on the wall to remind myself! Julie

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