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.
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.
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.
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
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.