I’m watching my brother's dog Hank this week. I’ve been observing him interact with my dog Lucy throughout the week and I’ve noticed an interesting dynamic. Lucy is a small West Highland Terrier, Hank is a very large yellow lab. I’ll confess, I don’t know much about dog training, but I do know a fair amount about behaviorism. Watching these two dogs interact and learn to live in the same space together has been a lesson in boundaries.
Lucy was initially excited to see Hank. They played out back happily, running around after each other. Once inside our home, things changed. Lucy quickly established her territory, and essentially “herded” Hank to the kitchen. She did this with small acts of aggression which Hank responded to by limiting his movements. I won’t go into further details about their interactions, and I’m sure dog trainers could tell me a fair amount about what just happened, but I realized these behaviors were mimicking boundary issues between humans.
We are training people every moment on how to treat us. Hank had the physical power to assert himself, but he never did. His previous experience, personality and training all came together to impact his ability to assert a boundary. We are no different. Just like Hank, many of us have been trained to not set reasonable boundaries with others. So, how do we start to challenge this?
Start with mindful awareness. How are you showing up in relationships? What are you reinforcing? How do you communicate with your body language, voice tone, etc?
What would you like your boundaries to look like? In order to get to where you want to go, you need a concept of what it will look like. Use imagery to picture how it might look to set a boundary with someone. Are you being realistic? Observe other people's boundaries.
Opposite action. Even though you're scared, even though you might feel guilty, act “as if”, try to look confident. Look for small ways to challenge your boundaries. Try saying sorry less, say excuse me instead of sorry when passing people, practice with relationships that are less risky - like customer service reps and sales people, say no to a small request, state preferences, take the remote control. Work on getting comfortable with the initial discomfort of asserting yourself.
EXPECT RESISTANCE. You are changing the game, others are not going to like it. How are you going to cope with this response?
Recognize and validate progress (even if it's small). After the initial discomfort of setting the boundary, how do you feel? How can you reinforce yourself? Do you notice any increase in confidence or sense of accomplishment despite the fact that others don’t like it? Do you feel more congruent with your values?
I wanted so badly to change Hank's behavior, I kept telling him to defend himself and let Lucy know he wasn't going to put up with it. Ultimately, I couldn't change his behavior. Realize that long standing patterns are very hard to break and just like other patterns like introversion and extroversion, honor that part of yourself that doesn't love conflict, or is more passive. Accept that part and work with it, encourage small changes, while acknowledging how hard it is to be uncomfortable. Reassure yourself that it's OK to have boundaries, and even better, try to surround yourself with people who support you doing so.
Written by: Amy Quinn, MA, LPCC