“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” – Brené Brown
Moët & Chandon is my favourite champagne. Therefore, when I have a bottle, I don’t let anyone other than myself pop it for fear they might let some spill out. This is a hard rule that I have had zero problem applying at any time whatsoever, which leaves me wondering: why has it been historically so excruciatingly difficult for me to enforce the basic tenets surrounding my well-being?
Brahmacharya is a practice in yoga that involves expending your energy wisely and not using it unnecessarily on activities that do not serve your purpose. Establishing well-defined personal and professional boundaries is an act of Brahmacharya and therefore one of self-care.
In 2008 I knew I needed to make a career change. While I loved the work I was doing at the time, it wasn’t very lucrative (to say the least), and at some point one must eventually resolve to start adulting and pay the bills. So, I made the decision to go back to school one final time. That decision was easy. Choosing which path to take was not. I was fortunate enough to know that with my previous academic record and experience, I could pretty much do whatever I wanted, and I knew with all my heart and soul that what I really wanted was to be a clinical psychologist. So naturally, I went to physio school.
There is no doubt in my mind that I would have been an awesome psychologist – for my patients. But I knew even back then that it would have been the death of me. Despite the fact there is still a part of me that regrets not having gone that route, I am very well aware that I have the wrong personality traits for that particular career. Even with all the skills I have gained in my years of training as a healthcare professional, I continue to have great difficulty leaving my work at work. Oddly, the more professional experience I get, the worse I become at that specific competency.
I have learned the hard way that no one will respect your boundaries if you don’t enforce them yourself. People naturally want what they want when they want it, and they will try to get it. For some people this includes taking advantage of others if they can get away with it. But not everyone has an ulterior motive for pushing your boundaries. Most of the time they are just trying to improve their own situation. However, WE are not responsible for fixing EVERYONE else – even those of us in helping professions.
I love my hometown. I have never encountered a place quite like it in any of my travels. I have moved a lot and something about it continues to draw me back. But it is a small town. And with that comes the challenges of living and working in a small town. I began my career as a member of the sports medicine team at the university in my hometown. I worked with varsity athletes and travelled with them extensively. Weirdly enough, it was exponentially easier to create and maintain boundaries in that setting than in my current one as a physiotherapist in a private clinic.
When I worked at the university, especially during the times the football and hockey seasons overlapped, it wasn’t unusual for me to work 12-hour days 7 days a week. But then I went home. Very few athletes knew where I lived and virtually none of them had access to my phone number. Those who did never used it. They knew they would see me the next day, which in peak season was usually only a matter of a few hours. The biggest difference, however, was the lack of cellphones and social media at the start of my career.
Fast forward to 12 years later. I am now physically located in the same town but am not even remotely in the same world. My average work week consists of 20-30 hours by my own design, depending on the season and my other obligations. Yet, I am constantly fighting clinical burnout. The difference? Access.
The world is so digitally connected now that we have multiple options for contacting one another. It is incredibly easy to find people online and that is what happens now on a daily basis. I have a limited social media footprint, opting to use only Facebook at this time. I have considered closing that account as well on many occasions, but it is a useful tool for my other businesses and it remains my primary means of contact with a few friends who I would dearly miss if I could no longer chat with them. But I also resent it. I receive, on average, 2 physiotherapy questions a day through Facebook messenger alone (You do not need to be friends with someone on Facebook to send them a message through Messenger). 9 times out of 10, these questions are through my personal (not business page) and are elaborate, advice-seeking, research-requiring questions. They come in at all hours, even on weekends AND even when patients know I am away on vacation. I went to the Dominican Republic last year for 7 days and got a whopping 16 messages from patients, most of which began with “I’m sorry to bother you while you’re away BUT…”
Approximately a year ago, I finally put out a message imploring people to stop using my personal accounts for physiotherapy-related questions and politely but emphatically redirected them to our clinic phone number. I received a bunch of supportive feedback which was followed immediately with an unchanged number of physio-related messages that now all began with some version of “I know you don’t like it when we do this, BUT…”
Those personality traits that stopped me from becoming a psychologist because I knew I would not be able to leave work at work are the same that cause me to compulsively answer my patients whenever I get their messages. This is one of the joys of living with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It is virtually impossible for me to ignore a message once I’ve seen it, no matter how much I want to.
Enter COVID-19. Now as healthcare professionals, we have to use our personal cellphones to communicate with patients. Initially it was due to the urgent closure of the clinic and more recently, to coordinate appointments as the clinic gradually re-opens. We can’t block our numbers because patients need to have a means of getting in touch with us as well. And get in touch with us they do. At 7:45 in the morning. At 9:30 Saturday evening. I even had one patient text me at 4:15 a.m.
I have a mantra that I am trying to ingrain in myself: Physiotherapy is what I do, not who I am. That has been the biggest challenge for me to overcome since moving back to a town that is such a huge part of what makes me who I am. I know a lot of my patients personally. I want to help people feel better. And it’s exceedingly difficult for me to stop myself from answering them immediately. Even from the beaches of Punta Cana.
But professional boundaries are not my only weakness. I have a history of notoriously disregarding my personal ones as well, both physical and psychological.
I am a relatively tiny woman, but I have a comparatively enormous bubble. I do not like to be touched – not at all – even unintentionally. Someone accidentally bumping into me in a store makes my skin crawl. I am not a huggy person, and the traditional Québec greeting of kissing both cheeks makes me squirrelly. I am extremely claustrophobic in crowds because I cannot maintain my bubble.
The concept of social distancing brought about by the current global pandemic has actually been very therapeutic for me. It has clearly shown me how critical it is to my well-being to keep my physical bubble intact. But it has also highlighted that I have an online bubble that needs to be enforced as well.
Let’s return to the social media conundrum for a moment. In a time when we are encouraged to keep our physical distance from one another but maintain our sense of connectedness, I have noticed another disturbing trend relating to access – conversations on social media are now frequently taking a sudden and unwelcomed romantic or sexual turn without warning. This has been happening with an alarmingly increasing regularity, and I don’t understand the reason behind it. How does simply responding to someone’s “Hey, how’s it going?” come to imply “Please proceed to ask me sexual questions” if that was not the nature of our pre-existing relationship?
Despite my abysmal history of enforcing my boundaries, something happened earlier this year that fortified my resolve to do better. I have been ridiculously bad at unfriending and blocking people on social media because I was worried about hurting their feelings. I almost always answer someone who talks to me on the street for fear of seeming rude (a lot of that has to do with being face blind and apprehensive about offending someone I know). But this combination got me into a scary situation a couple of months ago. A stranger (I wasn’t sure if he was, in fact, a stranger at the time) complimented me in the street. I responded politely and went about my business. An hour later, he showed up at my door and tried to invite himself in, somehow grossly misinterpreting my politeness for attraction. He wasn’t aggressive but he wouldn’t leave and kept asking for my phone number. Meanwhile I was wondering how he figured out where exactly I lived since I knew he hadn’t seen me go home. I panicked and told him to find me on Facebook to get him to go away. He did. He proceeded to send me a message outlining the hour-long process he had employed to suss out where I lived and then sent me multiple inappropriate follow-ups. I told him I wasn’t interested and the messages stopped. Until the next day. I thought I had blocked him, but because I had never blocked anyone before, I missed a crucial step. So the messages kept coming and eventually I had to get other people involved to get him to cease and desist.
Although this particular person wasn’t exceptionally threatening, the situation certainly was, and it made me realize how vulnerable my previous actions and inactions had left me. But that experience was my TSN Turning Point.
I no longer worry about hurting people’s feelings at the expense of my safety and comfort. I do not put up with things I would not personally do or say to someone else.
I consider someone’s social media an extension of their person and treat it as such. In other words, I employ the same respect I afford the actual person. I do not flood their page with my own opinions unless I am lifting them up. If I disagree with something they post, I simply ignore it. If I find it offensive, they clearly aren’t my people anyway and I unfriend them. I don’t use their personal page to ask for professional advice. And I certainly don’t say anything online that I wouldn’t say in person. This is how I expect to be treated as well, and I no longer put up with unacceptable behaviour from others – in either my personal or professional life, including online.
It is up to us to enforce our boundaries if we expect people to respect them. Unfortunately, some people will still try to push them anyway. But we are not actually helping someone by condoning that type of misconduct. It does not elevate another human when we allow them to undermine us.
It took me a long time and a series of unbelievable events to understand that enforcing my personal and professional boundaries is not only critical to my well-being, but it also makes me a better physiotherapist, yoga teacher, and health and wellness consultant. It means I have more energy and a better attitude to bestow upon my clients during their allotted time with me. I no longer resent people overstepping because I no longer allow it.
We all have our limits that define what we consider safe and appropriate and our boundaries, both physical and ethereal, are what make us who we are. If we let others infringe on those boundaries, we are, in effect, letting them change us. And it is never ok to give someone else the pen while you are in the process of writing your own story.
“When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you are not saying ‘no’ to yourself.” – Paulo Coelho
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