Sorry to be so blunt, but sometimes it just feels like that. One minute I’m having a nice conversation about plans for the holidays, unseasonably warm weather and the recent Seahawks blowout and the next minute I’m struggling to iron out the problems of a person to whom I’d just asked a simple question, “How are you?”

Here’s the thing. Most of the time-not all the time, but most of the time when we’re getting a waste can full of other people’s personal stuff dropped on us, it’s usually because we haven’t learned to say no or how to step away from the debris pile honestly and respectfully before it gets too deep and buries us underneath-we lack healthy boundaries.

This has been my challenge for years. As you can imagine, thirty years as a health care professional and now ten as a personal coach has given me ample opportunity to recognize when someone is about to open up and share. The nurturer, caregiver in me can’t help herself and says, “bring it on.” Ever since I was 11 years old, lying in bed talking to my older sister stretched out in the covers next to me, I’ve reveled in listening to other people’s concerns, more than happy to tap into my growing wealth of knowledge and provide an elixir to soothe their distress.

Nurturer or Servant

Paul Smith, author, and business coach, says 43% of the population and 70% of females are nurturers. He says, “these people are the champions of relationships, harmony, and values. They are self-giving, and delight in the success of others.”

They are also some of the first ones to burn out when placed in personal or professional situations in which they are given the responsibility to care for the physical AND emotional needs of others. Studies with critical care nurses, for example, have shown that the more willing they were to be emotionally available, social, and agreeable, especially if they had difficulty coping with stress, and regulating impulses, the more often they would compromise their individual desires for the benefit of others. Lack of self-care led to a significant increase in minor and major health problems. Not surprisingly critical care nurses have one of the highest rates of burnout (greater than 50%) than any other specialty of the profession.

It is possible to go too far from enthusiastic, caring nurturer to overwhelmed, exhausted servant. It’s all about healthy boundaries-setting them and keeping them.


Healthy Boundaries

Burnout of critical care nurses may seem like an extreme example of allowing yourself to be dumped on, and it is.

But no matter the situation, setting healthy boundaries means we are clear about what’s okay and what’s not okay. Boundaries are physical and emotional imaginary lines that separate me from you; where I can hold my own physical space, needs, feelings and responsibilities separate from others.

Setting healthy boundaries means you choose love, service, listening or keeping the peace with healthy assertiveness over loss of self, people-pleasing, servitude and forfeiting your own needs.

Why Do I Need Boundaries?

I need healthy boundaries for several reasons:

  • They allow me to be my true self
  • They are a form of self-care. I need to value my time/energy (a limited resource) so I don’t deplete myself
  • Boundaries create realistic expectations-without it, resentment and anger grow
  • Boundaries create SAFETY by keeping out what is uncomfortable or hurtful

When you set boundaries and create responsible, healthy relationships you say “yes” or “no” without fear or guilt and accept no from others. Boundaries allow you to share personal information GRADUALLY in a mutually trustworthy relationship able to identify when the problem you are trying to solve is really yours and when it is not.

This means you don’t rescue others from taking responsibility or tolerate abuse or disrespect. Healthy boundaries encourage collaborative, supportive interactions with healthy sharing, and create encouraging and empowering relationships.

Find a Healthy Balance

A boundary doesn’t have to be a wall, nor should it be an open doorway for anyone to walk through. Healthy relating occurs when you can move back and forth from assertiveness to approachability, between talking and listening, helping, and reaching out for help.

Explore and discover what is important to you, what you want and need and learn how to ask for it. Be aware of the times when you’re afraid of being rejected, feeling unloved and disrespected and then allow others to push against or through your boundaries. Reflect on your own personal story of how you learned about boundaries in the past. This will give you insight into your current beliefs and behaviors around boundaries.


  • “I want and need __________________for myself because it is important, and I deserve it.”
  • “I am responsible for my own wants/needs, and you are responsible for yours.”
  • “I love you, but I love me, too”
  • “I hear you but I don’t want to discuss this” (said in an assertive, calm, and respectful tone)
  • “Sounds like you’re having a problem. What do you need from me?” (Clarify and be honest and specific about what YOU can realistically do to help)
  • “I’m sorry you’re having that problem.” (THEN LET IT GO! You don’t have to fix it)

Well-Being Starts with Healthy Boundaries

Now that I know I’m a nurturer, I’m more aware of the moments when I feel compelled to say or do something to totally relieve someone of their distress. I can recognize that when a conversation about Christmas, the weather and football goes from chatty and informal to more serious issues that are none of my concern, I can offer words of empathy and understanding, “that is really hard, and I hope it works out for you” and respectfully end the conversation.

I alone am responsible for my mental, emotional, and physical well-being, and it starts with setting healthy boundaries in every interaction.

How do you set healthy boundaries in your relationships ?

Join Cathy and the horses for more help with boundary setting at

Life Lessons with Horses