Out for a walk one day, I was struck by how natural it is for animals to protect themselves from harm. Their survival instinct doesn’t seem cluttered with emotional logjams such as second-guessing, guilt, or denial. At the first sign of danger, without the slightest hesitation, a bird will take flight. Likewise, rabbits hop away to safety. I think birds and rabbits have something to teach us about boundaries.
Cassandra, a distressed client, comes to mind. She once asked me, “Is it okay to skip being nice to people who mistreat you?”
“It’s more than okay, Cassandra!”
I pointed out that, just like birds and rabbits, we’re supposed to be invested in self-preservation.
Unfortunately, Cassandra’s boundaries crumble when the programming of her childhood overrides the instinct to protect herself.
Cassandra’s parents downplayed her brother’s bullying behavior and sarcastic remarks. Instead of protecting her, they excused him. The message conveyed was this: “Boys will be boys. And you—being a girl—should be nice.”
Because we’re drawn to what seems familiar and normal to us, we tend to surround ourselves with people who psychologically resemble those from our past. So, not surprisingly, Cassandra’s in a relationship with a man who treats her like her brother did. And instead of objecting to his hurtful behavior, she takes it. The result is a dampened spirit and constant knots in her stomach.
Her learned behavior is the same in all settings, including her workplace. Wearing a smile despite being treated unkindly, Cassandra allows them to cross her boundaries.
Cassandra yearns to free herself from such programming. That’s a good thing, because trying to make something palatable that isn’t—enduring the unendurable—is not only exhausting, it’s also an act of self-betrayal.
In the weeks ahead, Cassandra and I worked on boundary-building. It began with her learning to listen to the truth of her feelings instead of listening to the programming that told her how she “should” feel. I recommended a book I would love to hand out on street corners, The Nice Girl Syndrome by Beverly Engel.
Birds and rabbits don’t question—even for a second—their right to self-preservation. And the predators of the world have learned just how difficult it is to lay a paw on them. Why should we—thinking creatures—be any easier prey?
Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.
(c) 2016 Salee Reese