What’s okay & what’s not okay

Lately I’ve been struggling to be clear with people about what’s okay and what’s not okay. If I’m being totally honest, boundaries always been a struggle for me. In fact, most of my biggest regrets in life and at work have happened when I’ve failed to establish boundaries.

Maintaining boundaries and keeping ourselves and other people accountable is hard work. Especially when we’re concerned about wanting to be liked by others and when we’re worried about hurting people’s feelings (as a long-standing people-pleaser, I know this feeling well!).

But – as hard as it can be to uphold accountability, being clear about what’s okay and what’s not okay is required for us to be the most compassionate with ourselves and also the people we work with and care for.

Nursing is defined by the limits we set about what we will and won’t do, and what we will and won’t accept. The sensitive, intimate and powerful nature of our work demands this.

We know from unfortunate situations in the media that failing to set boundaries is toxic to clients, families, colleagues, health care institutions, organizations and professions.

When we don’t set boundaries and hold our colleagues and ourselves accountable for our actions, and when we don’t follow through with consequences of crossing boundaries, people can feel hurt, mistreated and disrespected.

Setting boundaries boils down to having the courage to potentially upset other people while simultaneously believing that our self-worth does not hang on other people’s reactions to the decisions we make about what’s okay and what’s not okay.

So what can we do?

Separate people from their behaviours. The key to maintaining boundaries and holding people accountable is to separate people from their behaviours by addressing what they’re doing or how they’re acting, instead of attacking who they are as a person.

Reach out. Whenever I’m struggling with a boundary and unsure what to say or do (or when I know what I should do but I’m afraid of doing it), I try to talk to my good friend Kelsey. She’s got firm roots – she’s clear about her values, she’s empathetic and know’s right from wrong. Just a few weeks ago we role-played an awkward conversation I was afraid of having with someone that was all about boundaries. Chatting with her ahead of time lessened my fears, gave me the confidence to speak up and reminded me that I wasn’t an uncaring, flawed person for holding someone accountable for their actions.

Practice makes progress. Feeling comfortable with saying “no”, “that’s not okay”, “I can’t do this” gets easier with practice.

Worst-case scenario. When I’m on the fence about setting a boundary or calling someone out for crossing one, I think to myself: What’s the worst thing that might happen if I say no? When I actually think about my fears, the thing I’m most afraid of isn’t going to be the end of my life, my career or my relationship with the other person.

Recite a motto. I need written (and sometimes daily) reminders to keep me on the right path. I’ve got two sticky notes on my desk. One says “Discomfort beats resentment and regret”. The other one asks, “Will this behaviour get me where I need to go?”. These sayings remind me that holding people and myself accountable is important. And, that temporary discomfort is an easier pill to swallow than resentment and regret.

Setting boundaries is not only healthy, it’s essential for us to do our work.