Let Negativity Roll off Your Back: Learn to Set Boundaries

by Cynthiahowardrnphd Cynthiahowardrnphd

Specializes in Leadership Development. Has 36 years experience.

Learning to set limits is a skill and unfortunately most of us really never learned it. As a nurse, saying "No," can feel like you are abandoning your team and yet, it is a skill that is going to save you from the perils of burnout and chronic tension and discontent in your career. This is Part 1 in a 2 part series on learning to set boundaries.

Let Negativity Roll off Your Back: Learn to Set Boundaries

Do you get caught up in other people's drama? Are you easily affected when someone makes a negative comment? When someone starts gossiping do you stay to hear the latest or do you get up and leave?

The origin of the word gossip actually comes from the days of the Monarch when the King would send out their spies to "go sip" in the pubs to hear what was being said about them. Today it is a passive aggressive way to poison the culture.

Nursing has its own culture as does each department and organization. The desire to belong and fit in is universal. Some people want to fit in at all costs and may engage in gossip so others seek them out. They have a feeling of power and authority as they share "news." The more others listen, the greater the "authority" is perceived. One way to stop gossip, is to stop listening. This is one way to set a boundary.

In order to belong some people do not exercise any boundaries and end up angry or afraid. In fact this is the number one purpose of the emotion, anger, is to set boundaries or limits. Emotions are designed to inform and alert you to take some type of action. Boundaries can feel like a challenge as a nurse when very often as part of the job, you are exposed to situations, emotionally and physically, that are so intimate.

Yet, part of being a nurse is to recognize "vital" signs of distress. This has to first start with your own! By first recognizing what you are feeling, you can then take action. Setting boundaries can be as simple as walking away, putting distance in between you and the person who has irritated you. It is not always necessary to say anything. Removing yourself any time the conversation resorts to negative comments, may be all it takes to send a message to someone that their conversation is not acceptable.

Boundaries include putting your hand up in the universal "stop" sign along with making a statement that something is not acceptable. Before you do these it is important to set some internal boundaries.

Do you know where you start and stop?

Very often in the course of the day when the stress level is high, it is easy to put all your attention "out there" as you get things done. What happens is that you lose touch with what might be happening internally. Begin a practice of mindfulness when you bring your attention to the moment. One easy way to do this is with a deliberate deep breath; breathe in on a count of 4, hold it on a count of 4 and exhale on a count of 4. Taking 10 seconds to breathe, gives you the chance to check in with yourself. What is going on within you? What do you need? This helps you establish an internal boundary so that other people's negativity and or drama does not creep in and become your bad mood or attitude.

Many people leave their house feeling pretty good and without realizing it get caught up in the free-floating anxiety or negativity shortly after they get to work. Emotions are contagious. You can only catch someone else's when you are not aware of your own.

Boundaries can be hard to establish at work because of a precedent, an unspoken rule that you do not make waves or you just go along to get along. Bringing these "rules" out in the open and talking about them is helpful to break the spell of this unhealthy practice. Boundaries, like emotions, are something we learn about (or not) very early on. Most of us have had mixed messages when it comes to what you feel and what you can do about it. What did you learn and how is this impacting your ability today to express yourself? What is your comfort level with identifying and naming emotions and then sharing what you feel with others? Are you able to use assertive communication and set limits even when there may be a precedent to let things slide?

Learning to communicate effectively and assertively is part of the professional practice of nursing, and includes building and developing a foundation of emotional awareness and savvy. It takes practice and is best accomplished with the use of training and or coaching. This is my specialty and having worked with scores of professionals, I have learned that building this foundation for yourself provides a competitive edge giving you greater opportunity and enjoyment on and off the job.

Begin with understanding that what and how someone communicates is actually a billboard for them - whether it is words or tone - it conveys to everyone else what they actually feel and think about themselves. Steer clear of other people's drama, chaos and spread your message of encouragement - the world definitely needs more of that.

Stay tuned for Part 2: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Setting Boundaries


Mentor to Healthcare Leaders; from US Specialty: 36 year(s) of experience in Leadership Development

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19 Comment(s)

tnbutterfly - Mary, BSN, RN

Specializes in Peds, Med-Surg, Disaster Nsg, Parish Nsg. 156 Articles; 5,915 Posts

Thank you for this great article.

Boundaries are sometimes uncomfortable to set, especially at first or with people who have no boundaries themselves. But boundaries help to protect you and allow you to have personal space. They also give you freedom realizing you can't and don't have to be everything to everyone.

No Stars In My Eyes

Specializes in Med nurse in med-surg., float, HH, and PDN. Has 43 years experience. 3,496 Posts

Good article; I'm looking forward to the next part! When I was younger I was a bit of a door-mat in some respects. No more! Always good to brush up on keeping an even keel, though.

I have to tell this anecdote: Starting a new job as a 3-11 med nurse (1975) I heard three co-workers in the locker room and also while waiting for report, who were discussing some people they knew in common. It was a real ear-wiggling experience, as I thought they must be discussing family members. Plus I was quietly as appalled by the things the people talked about had done and at some of the things the girls were saying about them...... Day 2, same thing. Day 3, it slowly dawned on me they were talking about the soap opera that they had watched just prior to coming to work!!! I was so glad I hadn't really walked into a hotbed of dysfunction, like I was thinkin' I had!



556 Posts

I was a total door mat my first years of nursing. I literally saw my confidence crumble because of it. I also learned to keep my mouth shut around coworkers. The ones who used me always repeated things I told them. Hard lesson learned.



13 Posts

Thank you so much for this article. It sends across a great message



940 Posts

Boundaries are great. I start setting them early, but as the need arises. It's something I've had to learn to do as an adult, and especially as a nurse! I want to play nice and get along at work, but will say "NO" when there's a real reason to.

And I know what you mean about moods being contagious! I don't take part in gossip. Have no time for such nonsense. That might irritate some who are inclined to gossip (about :wacky: me too), but I dont care!

No Stars In My Eyes

Specializes in Med nurse in med-surg., float, HH, and PDN. Has 43 years experience. 3,496 Posts

Was it Max Lucado or Wayne Dwyer who said, "What you think of me is none of my business." ?



Specializes in Emergency room, Neurosurgery ICU. Has 10 years experience. 74 Posts

These are the reasons I worked on the "little" end of our "L" shaped neuroICU, with a couple of the "older" and more experienced RNs who were disinclined to gossip (and we could turn the darn heat down!). This is also the reason I always took my breaks "off unit" either in the "anteroom to the locker room or even in my car. Some talked about me behind my back about being "anti-social", my theory was "my break, my time and I'll spend it as I see fit and I need it to re-group for the last half of the night". I hated the drama some of the RNs brought to the unit re: their home life, families, other RNs, management, PCTs. I wasn't about to ruin my shift and my own mental health by listening to that drivel!

My rules are simple, home stays home, work stays at work.


OnlinePersona, LPN

352 Posts

i always self examine myself.

how do i feel around a particular person? am i feeling drained? or do i feel ****** off all the time around this person? or generally uncomfortable? K, its time to shut the operation down and let her/him know i aint the one.




Has 37 years experience. 3,413 Posts

I hope I am not the only one who can (will) apply this article to family more than work.

Family can incite feelings of anger way quicker than a co-worker or patient.

Thanks a lot, great article.

Guttercat, ASN, RN

Has 30 years experience. 1,345 Posts

Really, really well thought out post. Thanks for this!