As I entered the barn, I could hear a frustrated human's voice coming from one of the stalls. It was a one-sided conversation that plays out in my Horse Facility on a regular basis. “Get back – I have told you that you need to get out of the stall so that I can get it clean. What the heck; you just come in here and walk right through the pile of **** I am trying to clean up. You are going to make me late for my appointment.” I rounded the corner just in time to see the tall chestnut and white Paint horse look at the person talking to him with a familiar playful glint in his soft brown eyes. The horse was providing the perfect setup for a discussion on anger, frustration and the effective setup of boundaries.
One of my human mentors, Linda Kohanov, taught me that our emotions are here to act as signposts along the way. For each emotion, there is a message as well as a question to ask of the emotion. Subsequently there is an action that the emotion asks of us in order for us to release it. Anger is all about boundaries. Can you think of a time when you were angry that wasn't about a boundary violation? Frustration is all about doing the same thing and getting the same (mostly ineffective) result. When this cheerful but gentle horse entered into the stall, he obviously didn't get the memo about horses needing to stay out of the way during the stall cleaning process. Does he not understand that the quicker the stall gets cleaned the sooner the “horse chow” gets delivered? He crossed the boundary of the “two-legged”. (My terminology for “the human”.) The “two-legged” didn't have a lot of experience with the horse, and as a result, was getting frustrated with the process of trying to restore the boundary.
Many times, I see people who allow their boundaries to be crossed because the cost of setting them might be too high. “If I set a boundary, they won’t like me anymore. Or, they might leave me.” If you could think about anger on a scale of 1-10, often times we don’t even notice a “1”. I call it a “niggly”. We often ignore these emotional nigglies because we don’t want to make a big deal out of something, or we don’t have the skill to take care of it when it is still small. As it grows, so does the energy behind it that contributes to the anger. An outburst of anger often comes at the higher end of the scale when we haven’t paid attention to the more subtle message. Anger often takes over to establish or recover boundaries when our self-respect is in jeopardy. Anger-based communication often does result in damaged relationships.
Setting Effective Boundaries
Kathleen Barry Ingram wrote, “Setting a boundary says that I respect myself and I will protect myself from inappropriate behavior. I will not allow emotional, physical, spiritual or intellectual abuse or manipulation to define or control my personal space, values and reality. By understanding my personal space and respecting yours, we can develop a relationship based on mutual respect and understanding. Keep in mind that the purpose of setting a boundary is to take care of yourself and that we are the only ones who allow others to come in contact with us in anyway.” (Eponaquest Handout, 2008)
Process of Effective Boundaries:
- Start with an awareness of what you need in the relationship. You can start by tuning into anger, if you are not sure what boundaries you need to develop.
- Determine if the boundary is reasonable. Setting an imaginary line that others don’t see might not be reasonable. Not wanting people to call you after a certain time at night might be reasonable. You may think about setting limits of what you are willing to offer within a relationship.
- Determine if you can enforce the boundary. I can’t stop people from dialing my number. I can turn my ringer off at night to keep from receiving calls.
- Determine if you need to communicate your boundaries. In some situations, people may be triggered by boundaries that you set and communicate, especially if there is a “power differential” in the relationship. You might set a boundary for yourself that is unspoken, or you may choose to communicate the boundary to others.
- Avoid using boundaries as a means of manipulation. The dynamic this produces would be the subject of a whole separate blog!
- Be aware that boundaries are there to protect us. However, they can also imprison us if they become too inflexible. Healthy boundaries include awareness of your emotions, the situation you are facing, and your ability to set or relax boundaries in response to your needs.
How do horses set effective boundaries?
They almost always start subtle - pinned ears, tightness in their nose and lower lip, "hard" look in their eyes, and maybe a snake movement in their neck. This is usually enough to move most of their herd out of their space. If this is not enough, one can expect a bite, a kick, or a strike from the front foot. One thing is for sure - their communication is fair, pure and effective. One other thing to note about horses: once they get the message behind the emotion, they release it and they go back to grazing. We can learn to do the same thing.