Wolfs and boundaries
“There is this women who has a wolf sanctuary. She takes in wolves that were born in captivity or that were captured without their parents.
And so she’s raised these wolves and she’s got a bunch of them. And each wolf family has its own area that’s surrounded by a chain link fence. And then there’s another area that has another family of wolves. And they can see each other through the fence and they can smell each other through the fence.
However, they are peaceful as they can be because there’s a fence. If those fences were to disappear, they would rip each other to shreds.
So the problem is not that they know each other are there. What makes it work is that they each have their own territory or domain. And the domain is not the fence/boundaries. The domain is the land and the dirt and the trees that are inside the fence. That’s their domain. And they have a right to that area of land. And they also are very responsible. That’s partly why they would fight over the edges, because they take care of their space. That’s their responsibility, their boundaries.”
I heard this story from Dr. Betty Martin (developer of the Wheel of Consent) in one of her interviews. I think this is a beautifully illustrative story about boundaries (and about a woman that takes care of wolfs). It also puts hand in hand our rights ands our responsibilities.
What is inside of my domain?
Where are my boundaries?
In what regards my own space and my boundaries, what are the things that I have a right to? And a responsibility to? Because, if I have a right to it, I also have a responsibility for it.
These are interesting questions, that will help me to define and defend my domain. So, let’s see…
Ok, my body is my domain for sure – I will not allow others to use my body as they please. That includes the right to say whether you get to do XYZ to my body. But, I need to protect my domain too. It is my responsibility to keep my body healthy so it can do what is meant to do. I’m not going to do something that’s going to put my health at risk, for example. A boundary is needed to protect my body.
My thoughts are also inside of my domain. I will not allow other people to dictate what I should or shouldn’t think. But, once again, I am the only responsable for my thoughts. And I need to check if my thoughts are useful and based on the truth. I also have a responsibility to tend to my thoughts and to ponder whether they’re really rational or whether they really make sense. And I am not going to entertain inside my domain thoughts that are depleting my body or my mind or my soul. Again, a boundary is needed so people know that I think what I think ans that is my business.
My believes and my values are built upon my experiences. They are inside my domain. Even if they were installed by parents, peers, culture, good and bad incidents, they are mine. It is my only responsibility to continue to cherish them or to discard then if they are no longer needed. But is not for other people to tell me what I should believe or not. Is not for other people to discard my values.
My feelings belong to me. I have the right to feel as a feel. My emotions have a crucial function in my survival and in my wellbeing. They tell me if my needs are being met or not. They tell me if I should stay or if I should leave. Nobody has the right to deny my emotions or force me to feel differently. You don’t get to tell me what I should feel and what I shouldn’t feel. F… that. I am not telling that all my emotions are useful in all contexts. But it is for me to decide that.
My choices and my limits are inside my domain. So, I take responsibility for my choices and I accept and honour my limits. Limits are the things I’m not willing to do. Or the things I am not willing to do in this moment or a certain way. My limits can change depending on the circumstances and context. I can be willing to do something next week, but not today. I am willing to talk with John and not with Peter. And it is for me to decide and embrace the choice. Sometimes we are limited due to physical or temporal constraints.
My desires, my goals and dreams – my domain. I absolutely have the right to have my goals and to choose the way I will fulfil them. It is my choice and my responsibility. It is my responsibility to choose goals the are in accordance with my values. and built boundaries so others do not interfere with it.
These are my rights, inside my domain. What I do not have a right to or am responsable for is your thoughts and your feelings and your values and your body. Those belong to you.
I don’t blame you for what I feel because my feelings are mine. There may have been something that you did that I didn’t like, but that’s not why I have feelings about it. I have feelings about it for lots of different reasons. Namely my expectations, upbringing, past-experiences, attachment style, etc, etc, etc.
So I don’t have the right to do whatever I want to do.
So, boundaries are some kind of line that defines what is mine and what is yours. It is a point where I realize that something is not mine, it’s actually yours. And inside your domain, you are the CEO.
How are you showing up in your relationships?
What happens in relationships is that we don’t have the necessary self-awareness of what is ours and what is theirs. We want people to feel a certain way, to think a certain way, to do things our way, when we think is appropriate, how we think is appropriate. We spend too much energy teaching people our way of living and expecting them to jump every time we vociferate a demand.
Well, if you’re trying to mess with someone else’s domain or, of course, doing something to someone’s body without their full hearted happy agreement is problematic. Most people know that!
You totally have the right to think whatever you want to think, whatever it is. Worst possible thoughts you can imagine. They are your right! But is also your responsibility what do you do with those thoughts. And it’s not your right to act out those thoughts. It’s not your right to act out all those emotions because then you’re having an impact on other domains.
Another thing we do is to put things in other peoples domains. For example, if I am angry and I don’t want to see myself as an angry person, I am going to blame you for my anger and make you responsable. (check here if you want to learn about anger). I am sad, but I don’t own my sadness – it is your fault. You did this or that and that is why I am sad.
If I want to avoid what’s in my own domain, because doesn’t go with my self-image, I try to get somebody else to be responsible for it. I can blame somebody else for it. And yeah, I’ve been on both sides of that. It took me nowhere.
On the other hand, people with unsecure attachment, specially anxious attachment, will have very tenue boundaries. In an attempt to please others, they will allow people to mess up with their values, thoughts, feelings, body and limits. Mostly, they forget to remember what is in their domain, and can’t take responsibility for it. They expect others to take care of what is their right and responsibility. They expect others to read their mind and provide what they need without asking. I tried that in “another life” – didn’t work very well…
But we can have the reverse problem. We can build boundaries that are too rigid. It is when we are reluctant to ask for help, when we don’t let anybody in and avoid closed relationships. We don’t share anything and we are over protective of our domain. We separate our “different worlds” because we are afraid of interference from others.
Balance boys and girls, balance, that’ what we need.
Are you paying attention?
So it’s a signal to pay attention to. Is there somebody who’s trying to reach into my domain? And there may or may not be, because it’s possible to get mad about nothing, but it’s a signal to look at.
And if they are, it also can be a good indicator of something’s really messed up here. They have been getting into my domain for years, and I have let them. Why? Well, because it felt safer. I didn’t know that I had a right to my feelings! Or I was afraid they would leave and take the kids with them. That’s a very valid fear.
I was afraid that they wouldn’t like me anymore. I was afraid that they’d get mad at me. I was afraid that I would die alone. Of course we fear these things. But it’s worth asking yourself, if you can, and I would encourage you to do so with some support, either a peer counselor or a therapist of some kind.
This person has been reaching into my domain for years, why do I let them do that? How can I learn to say no? What is the worse that can happen when I say no? Can I cope with that?
Then, as you start to gain the skills to say no, now you have a different problem. Now you have the problem that they are used to you saying yes or used to you just going along with it and now you’ve changed the dynamic. Oh, shit. Now you are in trouble! So there’s very good reasons for putting up with stuff (?!?)
As you gain the skill to be assertive and not put up with stuff, if the person has good intentions and is willing to work on it with you, great. And that’s not always the case. There are times when somebody genuinely wants to control you and it’s time to GET OUT.
You will know if people is trying to control you or just asking you to change something. You will know the difference between a request and a demand. If people is requesting you are not afraid to say no. Asking someone to change their behavior is very different than trying to control their behavior through tactics of fear. Because when someone asks for what they want, you can say no.
We’re responsible for ourselves and our boundaries, that’s not the only thing that we’re responsible for.
If you’re in a relationship with one other person, then together you have your own responsibility for your own internal domain, but then you have a co-responsibility for the relationship field itself.
When you’re in a family, whatever that looks like, or a community or something with more than two people, then there becomes a co-responsibility for that.
And within that, you don’t completely lose your individual responsibility. We have the right to our internal processes and feelings and we are responsible for all our stuff, but that’s not all we’re responsible for. We’re also responsible for the wellbeing of the collective, of the community, of relationships we have with different people.
I can’t just show up in a space and be like, I’m in my bubble. I’m not engaging with anyone. I have that right. It’s that sense of being interested in how am I impacting other people. How am I being impacted? And how can we find a sort of co-creation, a co-responsibility for the dynamic between us.
How do I set healthy boundaries?
First of all I need to know my limits. It is a good idea to know what is acceptable to me and what it isn’t. I need to be as specific as possible or I will be pulled into the trap of giving just a little bit more over and over.
If they give too much assignments to work on and I accept once, most likely I will be doing overwork if I don’t establish a limit to it.
My values are important. I need to determine what my values are. For example, as I value family time and my hobbies I would put a limit on how late I will stay at work, away from family. It is my responsibility to know and protect my values and determine my boundaries.
Listen to my emotions will help me to know what I need. If I have feelings of anger, sadness, fear, discomfort or resentment, I will not bury them. I will try to understand what my feelings are telling me, discover what needs are not being fulfilled and request, from myself or others, what I need. This will help me stablish my boundaries.
People will treat me as I treat myself. If I always give to others without taking care of my own needs, I am not showing respect for myself. So, I cannot expect other people to do anything different. Boundaries that are too open might be due to misguided attempts to be liked by elevating other people’s needs above mine. Does not work because then I will have lots of unfulfilled expectations and needs, leading to resentment. Stablishing boundaries is, in fact, showing that I respect myself.
Have respect for others. Of course, as we said before, we need to respect other people’s boundaries. My actions cannot be self-serving at expenses of others. This is not about winning or taking as much as possible. I might win the battle but I will loose the war. Understand and respect other’s boundaries will allow real connection.
I choose to be assertive. That means that I will not be shy about expressing my boundaries. I need to say “no” respectfully but without ambiguity.
How to be assertive?
Well, I need plan ahead. I will think about what I am going to say and how I will say it before hand. I will remember my rights and others rights. I will also ask myself how I would like others to talk to me.
This leads to the other point. I don’t like people to yell at me, put me down, criticise me or giving silent treatment. So, I am not going to do it. I will say what I have to say, focusing in my feelings and in my needs. I will make specific requests about what I need from others.
I will not show weakness by my body language. I will face the other person, make eye contact and use a steady tone of voice.
I will also consider the other person point of view and their needs. It is not about compromise – it is about give and take.
Situation: You asked for scrambled eggs and they come poached or fried at the pub.
Response: I am sorry but there was some kind of misunderstanding. I asked for scrambled eggs. Can you please replace this for me?
Situation: A friend calls me to discuss issues she has at work or in her relationship. You need to finish a report.
Response: I can see you are upset. I want to talk to you, but I need to work. Maybe we can talk later on, after I finish my report.
Situation: My partner wants to go to a party on Saturday evening. I know I will be tired as Saturday I will be very busy.
Response: I know it is important to you to go to that party, but this specific Saturday I am not going with you. I hope you will enjoy yourself.
Situation: I am doing almost all the work at home because my husband is too busy at work. I need his help.
Response: I’ve been feeling frustrated about doing most of the chores around the house. I understand that you are busy, but I need help. Are you willing to take responsibility for vacuuming the house on Saturdays?
Situation: My brother askes me to take him to the airport next Friday at 11 pm.
Response: I won’t be able to take you to the airport on Friday. I’ve had a long week and I want to rest.
Situation: The neighbours have their music on and I can hear in my bedroom
Response: I’m having a hard time sleeping when your music is on. What if you lower the volume or use headphones?
Situation: My friend is asking again for some money to buy a new pair of shoes p she apparently forgot her wallet again
Response: I know you like the shoes but today I am not going to pay for them. If you wish I can come with you tomorrow to town, and you can buy them.
Do it yourself
Situation: Your partner wants to have sex tonight but you are tired.
Situation: You notice your room mate has been eating your food in the fridge. You never made plans to share food and you don’t want them to eat your food.
Situation: You invited your friend over for the evening, but now is getting late and you want to go to slee. He/she is unaware of how late it is.
Situation: A good friend askes you out on a date. You are not interested in being more than friends.
Situation: Your mum tell you she doesn’t like the way you dress. She would rather see you with your hair short…
Practice, practice, practice.
Especially practice to say it gently but firmly. AND PRACTICE NOT FEELING GUILTY AFTERWORDS. You are responsable for your well-being.
Don’t worry, people will still love you when you show your boundaries. They will also respect you.