Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense. (From, The Mending Wall, by Robert
Sarah P. is a graphic artist. She is self employed so, besides her creative work, she also must deal with clients. She makes new business calls, agrees to deadlines and negotiates fees for her work. Sarah’s work is good. Her clients are happy but Sarah is not. In fact, she’s thinking seriously about quitting her business.
Sarah is a good person; amiable with a drive to please. Her clients have learned that she will always do a great job for less money than her work is worth. Sometimes, a lot less. And, when these clients ask her to produce good work in an unbelievably short amount of time, Sarah just nods, smiles and agrees. Then she spends days beating herself up, feeling frustrated and stressed because the deadline she’s agreed to means she must work late nights and weekends to get the project done.
This afternoon, Sara is hanging out with my horses. She is trying to get some insight into her self. Trying to decide whether to leave her business because it has become, she says, “too stressful.”
As Sarah tells her story, our four-year old mustang, Hando, begins chewing on her jacket. Then, he moves on, tugging on the jacket’s brass buttons, chewing on the denim, pulling Sarah back and forth like a rag doll.
All the while, I watch in amazement as Sarah laughs uneasily and continues to pat Hando’s nose. “Good boy,” she says nervously, “you like me don’t you?”
“Likes you?” I ask. “Looks to me like he’s about to eat you. Why are you letting him do that?”
Sarah laughs again. “Oh, he’s just playing. Doesn’t that mean he likes me?”
Hando has become one of Sarah’s clients. He has pushed her, pulled her, chewed on her buttons, eaten her lunch. In his own way, Hando is discovering the ground rules of this new relationship. He’s looking for boundaries and is learning there are none.
I ask Sarah if she’s felt like this in other relationships. If she ever feels like people are pushing her, chewing on her while she smiles and makes excuses.
Sarah stops her laughing, takes three steps back from Hando and stares at me, mouth open. “That,” she says, “is exactly what happens. That is how all my clients treat me.”
“Hando,” I offer, “isn’t a client. He is only treating you the way you allow yourself to be treated. He would be perfectly fine if you didn’t let him chew on you.”
Sarah has discovered she has a boundary problem. We— Sarah, the horses and I— spend some time this afternoon working on her boundary challenges.
Sarah isn’t unique. Lots of people— especially people who care about or for other people— have problems with boundaries. They have trouble saying no, even when the request crosses into their personal lives. Even when saying “yes,” means their family and psyche suffer.
Changing that, being different, is no small task. It takes patience, presence and persistence. But, the first step in being better with boundaries is awareness. Awareness that you are responsible for how you are treated. My horse is not responsible. Neither are your patients, your boss, your spouse or partner. Neither is the guy in the grocery store who keeps running over your heel with his cart.
You are responsible for your life, for your boundaries. And the first step toward taking charge is awareness that you’re allowing boundaries to be trampled. How do you do that? You have the tool. You were born with it. It is perhaps our greatest gift as human beings.
What is it? It is the inward side of a trait we’ve been playing with since the very first time we went to the doctor for a school physical. Do you remember what happened at that physical? The doc looked in your ears and your eyes gagged you with a tongue depressor then thumped your chest and back. You were weighed and measured.
And then it happened.
The doctor reached into his stainless steel drawer and drew out a truly marvelous tool. It was a little steel and rubber hammer. The doc asked you to cross your legs and then whacked your knee. Amazingly your leg kicked.
You discovered your reflexes. Your ability to react, to respond to a stimulus. Whack your knee, your leg kicks. The harder the whack, the higher the kick. It is a wonderful world.
Through the years, we’re taught that the faster our reflexes, the better. We were told that in sports, during our driving lessons and in the way parents taught us to behave (“when I tell you to jump, mister, you don’t think about it, you don’t argue, you just do it”)
We’re taught that the faster we react, the better. But, I’m convinced that our greatest gift as human beings is just the thing that we’ve been trying to eliminate all these years.
It is the space between a stimulus and our response. In this space, the time between when we experience something and the time we respond or not respond, everything is possible.
It is in this space that our lives are shaped. For it is in this space that we make our choices. It is here where we decide whether our boundaries are crossed. It is in this space that we choose freedom or chains, growth or stagnation, fear or courage, flow or congestion, life or death.
And, we make these choices momentarily, in every second of our lives. The problem is that we have not learned to open the space between stimulus and response. We act without being aware and, before we know it, we’re giving ourselves away, again.
The way to begin to have viable boundaries is to learn to be attentive to the space. To watch how we are conditioned to respond to a certain emotional or mental stimulus. And then, to work on slowing down our response, turning our attention inward–upon ourselves instead of the patient, parent, boss or partner– and beginning to choose the response that is most authentic, healthiest, most life expressing.
That means developing self-knowledge. Self-awareness. Some call it Emotional Intelligence. The old desert folk called it attention of the heart. Whatever you call it, it is the first essential step in learning to be responsible for our actions and ourselves. This is a skill we need to learn. A skill that so many— co-workers, bosses, venders, friends, even horses— are happy to continue teaching until we do learn it They will continue to teach and we have the choice of whether to continue ignoring the lesson or take the opportunity to grow.
By James M. Grossman