Welcome home. Your shift has been rough and it is your time to relax. Pour yourself a whiskey and a bubble bath or turn on that steamy shower and turn up the tunes. (I know. Realistically, you’re probably getting home and having to feed your kids, care for your dog, fix the fence, herd the goats…but let’s ignore that reality for a second.)
Just as you’re about to zone out on Instagram, there’s a notification on your phone…
“Hey! How RU? It’s been a while. I HATE to do this, but I have a quick question about a friend’s sister’s mother-in-law’s dog. It’s been going on for a week but now we’re freaking out.” In other words, “Help me, Dr. Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my ONLY hope…for free.”
Hmph. The ice cube in the drink you are holding immediately melts as your temperature rises with annoyance.
It’s time to set some boundaries. But first, we need to identify a few things.
Identify why you’re frustrated.
Are you annoyed because someone asked a question? Or annoyed because you feel obligated to answer? Are you upset because the tone of the message is pleading and makes you feel guilty for wanting to read WittyIdiot’s hilarious rants on IG rather than answer a call for help?
You think to yourself: We are veterinarians: we care, we worry, and we educate. But…a quick question never equates to a quick answer. However, your answer could be the shortest of all sentences: No.
Identify intent of reply.
If you prefer to respond, reply in a manner that also sets a tone for future interactions. Do you prefer they never interact with you again? Do you direct them to office hours and the clinic telephone number?
Allow your reply to both answer their question while also placing boundaries on any potential future queries. For me, it is balancing the pros. Pros: being helpful, feeling good about myself. Cons: spending limited time on an unexpected task, possibly incurring liability, encouraging bad behavior.
Is this person even aware that boundaries have been broken? Do they expect an answer? I’ve personally spent hours answering one friend’s distressed, pleading questions and when I finally had enough and decided to set boundaries, her answer was: “Oh, I always reach out to both you and my vet with random questions not expecting you to answer.” How’s that for a waste of my time?
In this day and age, where everyone you connect with on social media is your “friend”, the boundaries of support and free advice are blurred.
Like my friend above, some people are just throwing out a lure to see who will bite first. Developed friendships that allow the bartering of time and support have been redefined, especially during a pandemic where everyone’s relationships are mostly virtual.
[Related content: Boundaries: It’s not a bad word]
Here are my two main approaches for handling such messages:
Method 1: Set boundaries and/or remind the inquiring party of the previously noted boundaries.
This allows you to respond to their question while also setting the tone for the future. You can provide a medical answer without setting expectations for future interactions. Don’t give a man a fish — teach him how to fish.
I have a list of “canned” responses, mostly so I don’t break my own rules and then get mad at myself for it. I pick from a select few depending on the situation, but it usually goes like this:
“Hi, I hope you are doing well. It indeed has been a long time, 10 years now? I’m sorry you are having issues with your pup. It’s definitely worth a veterinary consultation, and I suggest you call your vet/find one close to you/get a second opinion. Bring her to the ER if you feel this is urgent/worrisome. I don’t do telehealth consults outside of my professional platforms.”
You don’t have to be afraid to lay down the law and be truthful: “I’d love to help, but it is a policy of mine to not answer medical questions within social media. A simple symptom could be due to multiple medical conditions, some of which need urgent care, some just time.”
Easier said than done? Absolutely. When I’m struggling with breaking through my own boundaries and/or I feel the guilt rising, I say this to myself: “Those that make you feel guilty about setting boundaries are trying to see how much they can get away with at your expense.” It doesn’t have to be of malicious intent by the other party, and sometimes the guilt comes from within you. The burden of emotional blackmail is real. Don’t do it to yourself and don’t let others do it to you.
Method 2: Do you or do you not make an exception?
Making an exception is like stepping above a ladder rung labeled “Danger: DO NOT STAND ABOVE THIS STEP! Your future comfort is in peril.”
If you choose to step over your boundaries, what are the risks, are you ready to handle them, and are they worth it?
I personally make boundary exceptions for the people I love dearly, for those that have helped me in the past, and for the people who check in with me on a regular basis.
Hooray — your sanity is the winner!
So what exactly is the prize for setting and keeping your boundaries? Your health and wellbeing.
If you have ever taken any first responder training, the first rule to coming to the aid of anyone or anything is: watch out for #1 (yourself). Don’t become the second patient. You can’t help others if you are injured (or exhausted, or burned out) yourself. The same goes with your boundaries. If you undervalue yourself, you place yourself and/or your patients in a sketchy situation.
Now, back to that relaxation fantasy…
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