Last July, my husband and I took in a scrawny, flea-infested two-pound kitten that showed up on our back porch. Mr. Darcy is now a healthy 12-pound cat who thinks he’s lord of the manor. While he is quite dashing, my Mr. Darcy lacks the refinement of his namesake from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. One thing this endearingly aloof cat has taught me is how to set boundaries.
Setting boundaries wasn’t a phrase I heard until the past couple of years. According to the Wellness Center at the University of Illinois Chicago, boundaries are an invisible line that defines what behaviors are acceptable and not acceptable to us. Setting boundaries is a way to create clear guidelines about how we expect to be treated. Setting boundaries is a form of self-care, and though it may not always be simple to do, it will simplify our relationships and our lives.
We all know people who test our boundaries by crossing the line time and again. These people may be may our children, spouse, friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers, boss or even strangers. As a lifelong people-pleaser, I’m not great at setting boundaries, but my cat has offered me some good practice.
A few of Mr. Darcy’s boundary-crossing behaviors include grabbing my pen while I’m writing, pouncing on the sheets while I’m making the bed, attacking my leg as I pass by, and pulling the hair tie out of my pony tail. At first, I endured his antics because they were kind of cute. Stopping them brought up some familiar fears. What if he thinks I’m mean? What if I hurt his feelings? What if he stops liking me? What if he leaves me for a more tolerant human? I know you think this ridiculous, unless you, too, struggle with setting boundaries.
I realized my inability to set boundaries with my cat indicated a need to improve this skill in general. In her book Set Boundaries, Find Peace, Nedra Glover Tawwab says setting healthy boundaries requires self-awareness, good communication skills and assertiveness.
Tawwab outlines these three steps to setting healthy boundaries:
1. Be as clear and as straightforward as possible. Do not raise your voice.
2. State your need or request directly in terms of what you’d like, rather than what you don’t want or like.
3. Accept any discomfort that arises as a result, whether it’s guilt, shame or remorse.
My cat is highly intelligent, but when he doesn’t seem to understand steps one and two, I gently pick him up, put him in his room and shut the door. Even if he meows pitifully and looks at me with those big green eyes, I leave him there until I am able to give him my attention. Setting boundaries with my favorite four-legged friend is teaching me to do the same with the two-legged variety.
Setting boundaries is a serious and important interpersonal skill that can improve our relationships and our well-being. Author Brené Brown said, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.”
As for my cat, Mr. Darcy, I do believe he is beginning to behave in a more gentlemanly manner that would even please Miss Bennett.