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Entitled clients, Guilt-tripping, and Healthy Boundaries: How Do You Respond?

Entitled clients, Guilt-tripping, and Healthy Boundaries: How Do You Respond? I was recently talking with a newly minted veterinarian who described an interaction between herself and a client. As the veterinarian was reviewing the charges for the services she rendered for the patient, the client became indignant. “Don’t you love animals? Why are you charging me for this? This is ridiculous! You should not be charging me for doing something you love!!” As she said these words in pretty much the same tone in which the client conveyed them, I felt my body tense as my autonomic nervous system engaged, noticing that my stomach clenched, my heart rate increased, and the emotion of anger emerged. In that moment, I felt how that veterinarian must have felt as this entitled client laid on a guilt-trip designed to manipulate her into giving away her services for free. Whoa. If my limbic system response was that strong, how did this woman fresh out of veterinary school handle those feelings?

Guilt-tripping is a form of passive aggressive behavior that makes the recipient feel guilty so they can be manipulated into doing whatever the sender wants them to do. It’s different from gaslighting. Gaslighting is a manipulative technique designed to get the recipient to doubt their own perceptions and question their sanity. That’s not good, but neither is guilt-tripping which can invoke feelings of shame and embarrassment in addition to guilt. If you are a person with social anxiety, general anxiety disorder, or depression, the impact of gaslighting or guilt-tripping is going to potentially be stronger. Let’s continue with the newly minted veterinarian’s story.

That incident occurred a year before I met this person and she was still processing it. She was able to identify still feeling guilty and describe how that interaction plays out in her present client interactions. Using a breathing technique and a mindfulness tool, I asked her to try tapping into her body’s nervous system. When she brings up that scenario, what does her body do? What emotions come up now, at this moment? This became an interesting dive into her feeling body as she struggled to name those emotions. She started with guilt. Eventually, we were able to uncover embarrassment, leading to the underlying reason she was still processing that situation a year later. When she allowed herself to feel anger, we processed that emotion. Where was the anger directed? What was “Anger” as a “being” trying to tell her?

As I guided her through this conversation with Anger, she was able to hear that she was angry with herself for allowing this client to violate her professional boundaries. She was not even aware that this was a boundary issue. That led to a conversation about where in her life she felt other people had violated her personal boundaries. As she identified how her personal boundary issues were affecting her, she was able to connect her responses to how the client’s guilt-tripping triggered her. In the present moment, just that realization alone changed her body’s feeling responses. Her breathing eased, the emotion of anger began to dissipate, and she felt calmer. Her ability to experiment with different responses to create healthy boundaries opened up.

Does this person have social anxiety or general anxiety disorder? I have no idea. I have a Master’s in Transpersonal Psychology, but I am a certified life coach. It’s not my job to put a label on this veterinarian’s overall mental health. What I can do is help her be present in the moment to understand how some of her personal experiences with boundary violations are impacting her life right now. Once she saw the correlation, we began creating solutions. Eventually, she was able to stop the negative thought loop that was this memory. With her new level of self awareness, she started getting really good at identifying when guilt-tripping was happening in both her personal and professional life. Together, we created experiments around various ways she could respond in a healthy and compassionate way to the behavior and honor her boundaries.

Here is your call to action: what are your negative thought loops? What are your triggers? What impact are those thoughts and triggers having on relationships in your practice or in your personal life? Would you like some help where you won’t be labeled, diagnosed, prescribed meds, or told you have to be in counseling for the rest of your life?

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