People pleasing and boundaries

Photo by Jill Wellington on

I am a people-pleaser. I have discovered I have terrible boundaries. My default is “yes”. I think this comes in part from a childhood with a mom that did everything for everyone all the time. Same with my grandmother. They were the consummate caretakers of everyone around them. I grew up to become a nurse. I’m a big sister, a social director, shoulder to cry on, coordinator of events, listener, fixer, rescuer, do-it-for-you-when-you-can’t, person.

As nurses we expect a degree of this at work. Sure Mrs Jones, I’ll get your daughter some ice chips for the fifth time even though she is perfectly capable of getting them herself… Why do I do that? Because I want to be helpful. Because I want to be important, and needed. And because heaven forbid we make someone angry and the patient satisfaction scores drop! I have a servant heart, most nurses do, and it gets taken advantage of. In fact, I will go so far as to say that it has been taken advantage of since Press Ganey and HCAHPS became the center of nursing. Those words make me clench now because it is so much easier for the general population to complain, and because whatever we do it does not seem enough. Absolutely, Mr Jackson, I will do whatever you ask me to do with a smile even though my other patient is trying to die and I have not peed in 10 hours. Of course I can do that for you. It has become unreal the amount of pressure put on nursing to provide “service”. When I started nursing there were visiting hours and boundaries with regard to patient and family behavior.

Currently there is a global pandemic. I am not at work because I am high risk. I am grateful for the leave but have guilt at not being able to help. I’m wondering if the absence of visitors has made things at all easier on nurses. Do you get to actually concentrate on your patients instead of concentrating on your patient and the 2-3 family members that never seem to leave? In the non-COVID units, is the lack of extra people everywhere helpful or hurtful? I honestly don’t know. I can’t go back to work for a while.

I love nursing. I am tired of nursing. It’s given me the highest highs and soul-enriching sense of love and purpose I’ve ever had in my life. It has also given me PTSD and anxiety and a desire to teach yoga for a living and leave the tension, stress, extreme expectations, physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, and adrenaline overload to the younger nurses.

Being a nurse has taught me that I will bend over backwards to help you if you need help, often at my own expense. It’s formed me into the person I am. That people-pleasing behavior has taken a toll on my emotional health. It’s caused me resentment and irritation and exhaustion from feeling overwhelmed and like I have to do____ . It has caused two decades of reaching for wine to drown out the anxiety from feeling like “what if…” all the time. What if I don’t do this for them? What if they get mad? What if they leave? What if they don’t like me? What if I say ‘no’ and it doesn’t get done? What if it’s not done correctly or on time? Wine. More wine. And then even more wine.

This pandemic is teaching me boundaries. It forced me to be still, at home, with my spouse and take a look at what happens to me when I have nowhere to go, no one to take care of, no one to please. It forced me to look at my relationships and who I expend the most energy for, and who reaches out to me and who doesn’t. I am learning the power of the word ‘no’. It is a complete sentence. It doesn’t require explanation or justification or rationalization.

I’m sorry Mrs. Jone’s daughter, I cannot get you ice now but it’s right down the hall on the left. I’m sorry spouse, that you made decisions you’re not happy with and now you have to deal with the consequences but I am not doing XYZ for you. The end. Period. Will I feel guilty for not helping? Sure. But will I be able to help someone who needs it more because I’m not stretched too thin? Absolutely. As the saying goes, you cannot pour from an empty cup. And to keep my cup full I’m learning to put a little fence around it with a gate.

And I alone control who gets access.


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