The Electric Fence

“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice.”
― Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

Of course, he would work late. His boss forgot that the project was needed for tomorrow instead of next week. If he wanted to keep his job, he would stay late. While the boss’s forgetfulness shouldn’t cause the man’s emergency, it was. It’s much like the way the child who forgets their homework needs mom or dad to allow the child’s irresponsibility to turn into a priority for someone else. Brown’s words apply to so many situations, maybe to mine and maybe to yours. When we fail to set boundaries, we often find ourselves feeling out of control, not to mention feeling used and mistreated.

A little surprised at how little I remember of my childhood, I’m equally miffed at what I do remember — like the electric fence at my cousins’ house. There was a pond behind the house with a wire between the two. Curious, I touched that wire and learned all about electric fences in the course of maybe half a second, a memory that remains. The wire served as a boundary, and until I was ready to respect it, I would continue to get zapped. Out of respect for the boundary that fence created, I never touched an electric fence again.

For years, I thought that having boundaries meant that I must do whatever was necessary for others to not be frustrated with or disappointed in me. It took a long time to understand that boundaries were for my benefit. Hopefully, we all eventually learn that it’s important to develop boundaries for ourselves — boundaries for our own choices and for the people in our lives.

I learned that one of my boundaries was my needing YOU to do what you say you’ll do. For instance, if you say you’ll meet me for lunch, show up or call to say you’ll be late. I function better when I honor my own boundaries and am accountable to myself. At some point, though, we sometimes decide that accountability isn’t something our boundaries should require of others. We decide to own their hurtful behaviors and then find ourselves angry with them for not living up to our expectations — the ones you and I create in our minds but forget to share with the necessary parties.

If our boundaries were as definite as those of the electric fence, life would be much easier, I think. That fence wasn’t concerned with who I was or my social connections. People come along who shame us when we’ve tried to hold them accountable, and we allow it to continue in order to avoid conflict. When I touched the electric fence, violating its boundary, it let me know quickly — no yelling at me, just an automatic action. Are you and I willing to do the same for people in our lives?

Boundaries are a great way to protect ourselves and to give others safe walls in our presence. Imagine how much more pleasant it would be if people know where our electric fences are and we know the placement of theirs. Instead of shaming someone for not measuring up to our expectations, we might simply stand firmly within our boundaries. Instead of reacting with anger, perhaps we would find that we are able to quietly respond with pre-determined actions or words.

Brown is sure right about one thing…addressing behaviors and choices is wiser than attacking people. This is your time, and mine, to let others know out of respect for them and for ourselves, what our boundaries are.  The electric fence won’t shock if it isn’t turned on, and our boundaries won’t help anyone if we don’t put them into action.

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