My Cat is Teaching Me to Set Boundaries

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.

Rest Like the Fallow Fields

Here in America’s Heartland the fields lie fallow now. Barren squares stretch out like a patchwork quilt gently covering the land while it settles in for a well-deserved nap. The scene makes me want to snuggle under a cozy blanket and enjoy the time of year when nature encourages us to rest.

Fallow periods are traditionally used by farmers to maintain the natural productivity of the land. Leaving a field inactive for a time allows the soil to recover, restore and rebalance itself. You see, the land becomes depleted and unproductive if if isn’t given a chance to rest.

Can you relate? What if we took a cue from nature and thought of this season of the year as a natural time to recover, restore and rebalance ourselves? I know, the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve is often the busiest time of the year.

Maybe you’re in a season of life when relaxing seems impossible. A stressful job, child-rearing, caregiving and other challenges can be exhausting. Keeping up with the daily news can be taxing. Even fun-filled celebrations can leave us feeling worn out. All the more reason to rest. Writer Pico Iyer said, “It is precisely those who are busiest who most need to give themselves a break.”

My husband is the most steady and calm, yet efficient and productive person I know. He manages to get everything done and more, but he’s the first one to suggest we stop and chill. It’s no surprise his favorite Christmas carol is Silent Night. Like my laid-back husband, the hymn hushes and reminds, “All is calm. All is bright.”

Rather than waiting until the hustle of the holidays is over, let’s give ourselves the gift of rest now, when we really need it. Here are ten ways we can follow the fallow fields, even if just for a few minutes each day.

  1. Be still. Being busy isn’t necessarily being productive. Sit in complete stillness a few minutes every day to let your body and mind recharge.
  2. Stay home. Sometimes we stay on the go out of habit or fear of being bored. Be it ever so humble, home should be our happy place.
  3. Renew your spirit. Read, pray, sing, create. Do more of whatever renews your soul.
  4. Turn down the noise. Do what you can to quiet your surroundings. Unplug at least once a day and experience total silence.
  5. Say no. We aren’t obliged to say yes to every invitation or request. Graciously decline an avoidable situation that’s likely to be more draining than fulfilling.
  6. Eat well. When a field lies fallow, the soil regains nutrients. Be sure to consume healthy foods to replenish your own nutrition.
  7. Take a walk outdoors. Not only is walking good exercise, the crisp air is a great way to clear the head.
  8. Practice self-care. Schedule a massage, a haircut, a manicure or try some at home spa treatments. Take time to take care of yourself.
  9. Go to bed early. Sleep research shows human beings have a natural circadian rhythm that mimics the sun’s rising and setting. Shorter, darker days are a good excuse to get more sleep.
  10. Observe nature. Take a closer look at nature. Appreciate its beauty. Be inspired by its simplicity. Learn from its wisdom. §

“It is well to lie fallow for a while.”
~ Martin Farquhar Tupper, English writer and poet 1810-1889