When I first bought my horse, Jack, thirteen years ago I had no idea how much I would come to learn from him and one of the most important lessons was the importance of boundaries.
In many respects, Jack struck me as a kind and gentle horse but I also found him to be pushy and demanding when he wanted me to move out of his way. He would consistently push into my space leaving me feeling like he clearly didn’t respect me. This was a hard realisation for me as I didn’t have this problem with most of the other horses I’d owned. When he didn’t become more respectful of me, as our relationship developed, I was left feeling angry and frustrated. I even remember thinking to myself “he’s an experienced show jumper and should know better!”
In 2009 I attended my first Equine Facilitated Learning session and it was here that the penny dropped. Jack wasn’t the problem here, I was!
The reason he was not respecting my boundaries was simple. I hadn’t set any!
I came to realise that underneath my belief of “he should know better” actually lay feelings of vulnerability and shame for not dealing with the issue myself. However, once I was able to process these feelings, I could see the situation with a clear perspective. I was able to start setting boundaries with Jack, making him walk around me when he wanted to move past, rather than me stepping out of his way for example.
Over time, I started to feel more confident around him and in turn he was able to sense my boundary before I had even set it, helping the trust to build and our relationship to grow. The important element of mine and Jack’s mutual respect for each other is that it is still a work in progress and always will be. Some days I must set clearer boundaries with him than others.
Think of Jack as the people in your life. Do you find yourself constantly feeling like you aren’t being respected, understood or that people never seem to take your feelings or needs into consideration? Now ask yourself, have you actually set any boundaries to be respected?
Boundaries enable the people around you to understand how much you are willing to give or take within a relationship, what you are prepared to accept both physically and mentally and how you want to be treated in order to feel safe and respected.
Unfortunately, setting boundaries is often a life skill that we are not taught as young children and most of us will be able to think back to times in our childhood when we were angry, but not able to set a boundary. Maybe, you were forced to take part in activities that you really didn’t enjoy or you were always expected to be the “mature” one amongst your siblings when what you really needed was to just be a kid from time to time?
If we aren’t taught how to set boundaries as children, how can we know how to do this in adulthood?
The problem with not learning how to set boundaries as a child is that we then, as adults, open ourselves up to other people’s ideas of how we “should” behave and push ourselves to make quick decisions without considering our own needs. This can lead to feeling overwhelmed and to going down a rabbit hole of “doom and gloom” and negative thinking.
What we really need (and I say “we” because I am not immune to this myself) is time and space to think about what actually feels good for us, but this in itself can be difficult because even to get this time and space we need to set a boundary! Can you relate to this?
You may find it especially relatable if you work as a therapist or are in a role where you support other people with their emotional needs. From the outside looking in, people may assume that a successful therapist would be used to setting boundaries in regards to what they absorb from sessions with clients so, naturally, should be able to do the same with every other aspect of their lives. Or, as with my own experience, someone running a successful riding centre would have no problem setting boundaries with horses. The fact is, you can run a successful business and manage a busy family life and still have issues setting boundaries, leading to feelings of frustration and even anger.
And, it’s only when we hit that crisis point – the moment where the frustration or anger become too much to deal with – that we start to seek change. As I mentioned in last month’s blog, The True Process of Transformation, transformation starts when it’s more uncomfortable to carry on as usual than to look within ourselves and make real change. It’s at this point that our behaviour starts to evolve which, initially, others may find uncomfortable. After all, they’ve never had to really consider your boundaries before and they may, subconsciously, try to hold you back. But the truth is, real transformation can only happen when we start to set boundaries.
When setting boundaries the best place to start is with yourself. Try blocking out time in your day, week or month to rest, reflect or just do whatever feels good and stick to it. In other words, respect your own boundaries! By making this something you do regularly you will then be able to tell others that you can’t help them during this time – you don’t even have to explain why. This doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible when you need to be and there will by times when unforeseen circumstances or emergencies will crop up, after all, life happens. But it does give you the power and clarity to decide what is truly an emergency and what can actually wait.
Once our boundaries are in place, and we are consistent and committed to following them through, we stop making quick, panicked decisions that leave us feeling drained, frustrated and overwhelmed and start to make plans and agree to things with a clear head, knowing that we truly want to see them through.
If my story with Jack has helped you to recognise areas in your life where you aren’t setting clear boundaries, or you are a therapist, coach or someone in a supporting role and feeling exhausted from the weight of the needs of others, then please consider attending my DISCOVER workshop on Friday 12th November and learn how Equine Facilitated Learning can help you. You’ll even get to meet and work with Jack!
If you would like to read more of my thoughts on boundaries and how to set them please visit my How to set a boundary blog from back in Januay 2020.