How to Set a Protective Boundary

by | May 3, 2020 | Healthy Relationships

I recently discovered Tiktok (*cringing and amused*), which explains why many of you don’t hear from me anymore: I’m too busy sharing random videos with my daughter and friends – and learning to shuffle. (Quite badly, I might add. But with enough practice, we will see.)

Before you judge me too harshly, let me also say I drew this week’s newsletter inspiration from a TikTok video when I came across a brilliant example of the protective use of force.

The video of a ginger cat and large English Mastiff was posted by @dakotalamehumor; if you’re on TikTok, search it, and if not, you can watch it here.

Understanding the difference between the protective use of force and the punitive use of force can be tricky, especially since so many of us are much more familiar with the punitive use of force. But this ginger cat has the protective use of force down, and I wanted to use it as an example to revisit some super important principles:

  1. Cat doesn’t like what is happening and wants space and distance from it. It first tries to swat the dog away, but dog interprets this as an invitation to play more. (Isn’t that just how human relationships work? One person thinks it’s play and engagement, the other person is just not in the mood.)

  2. What the cat DOES: Swat gently to indicate disinterest in this game, then look for another solution when the dog doesn’t pick up on the first cue.

  3. What the cat does NOT do: Needless yeowling at the dog; pathologizing and labeling the dog as an immature, needy hound; shaming or humiliating the dog. (Unlike humans, the cat stays supremely practical instead of personal.)

  4. Cat assesses the situation, walks into the dog-pen and lures the dog into the pen. When the good-natured dog follows playfully, cat quietly closes the gate, locking the dog into it’s pen, and then walks out of the pen, settles down and continues to watch the dog. With the dog contained, the cat turns around settles in and continues their relationship, but in a way that feels safe for the cat. Brilliant. If only humans could respond like this ….

What lessons can we learn from this?

  1. Work with Reality: See others for who they are; accept who you are. This cat wasted no energy trying to the explain its needs to the dog, justifying its own desire for alone time, trying to change the dog, medicate the dog, heal the dog, bring the dog to higher awareness and shared reality. Often, we humans waste tremendous energy trying to change other people, instead of simply respecting our differences and working with each other, nonviolently, as is.

  2. Meet Your Needs: Although cat is tiny compared to this huge dog, cat still figured out a way to get its needs met. It saw a way to get more ease, more choice, more simplicity, more peace and it took matters into its own paws (hehe). Often, we humans stay crouched in a corner, waiting for someone else to intervene. We want to be rescued, we want a higher authority to make those bad, scary things go away. However, the nonviolent path to empowerment is about knowing what you need, accepting others as they are, and then doing something to keep everyone relatively safe and happy, as much as possible.

  3. Containment, not oppression or repression: The protective use of force is about keeping people contained until they are no longer wanting or able to harm themselves or others. It’s about holding people back from doing more harm to themselves and others. It’s not about repressing how we feel or oppressing groups of people.

    Perhaps that lovely dog simply needs to learn a little more about how to relate with feline friends before they can be more safe together.

    Perhaps the dog needs to get out and run wild with other large dogs and get its need for play and romping well met before it can cuddle up with the cat.

    Either way, no one is wrong. No one is bad. No one deserves to suffer.

The protective use of force is learning and growth-centered. We keep ourselves and one another safe from harm while we learn and grow together. The goal is increased social cohesion, care, and trust between humans. And animals.

The punitive use of force, however, is shame-centered. We assume that there are good people and bad people and that the bad people will be made good by making them suffer. The punitive use of force relies on fear, categorizing and ranking people, and increasing suffering as a form of social control. The goal is compliance to authority, no matter what that authority is asking you to do.

When we become inspired to live less violently, with less psychological and physical aggression, we can sometimes overcorrect and become empathic doormats. Some of us temporarily develop an aversion to setting clear boundaries or taking control of a situation, and inadvertently then lose our ability to protect ourselves from harm.

Remember, force and aggression are not the same thing. Not all acts of force are aggressive, hostile or punitive.

Sometimes the most loving thing that you can do for yourself, the other person and the community at large, is to forcibly restrain and contain someone who is wreaking havoc on the collective well-being, while treating them with dignity and care.

Continue the conversation: What makes it difficult to set boundaries sometimes? What helps you set life-affirming boundaries in your life?

I’d love to know. Leave a comment below.

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  1. Brielle

    My daughter is on the spectrum and is high functioning; she can take the city bus and transfer on her own, she can perform in front of hundreds of people and even getup at the talent show at church and recite a poem she wrote. She is 15 years old. She wants a service dog to help with her spectrum disorder symptoms. Kids on the spectrum and kids with ADHD are developmentally delayed several years – a psychologist told us that she has the maturity of a 9 to 11-year-old. We remind her every day to brush her teeth and take her meds, and we have rules in the house that she routinely breaks. We don’t allow eating and her room, and she often has dishes in her room. The way she does school is she doesn’t do any work for months, then a third party gets involved (we hire someone) and helps her catch up, and in the end, she has a B average with a C in math. We told her ‘no’ to the service dog because the cost is around 20 thousand dollars. We already have a dog and that I feel like a lot of responsibility would fall on us. We are having her take 100% responsibility for our current dog for 30 days- however, even here, we have to remind her to feed the dog. My question is how, without shaming her, do I say why she can’t have a service dog. So far, we are making it about the cost. What I want to say is we need to see more responsibility and initiative in all areas of your life before we would pursue this. I need to accept who she is more, but I’m struggling.

  2. Terry Gips

    Thanks so much Yvette! Very funny and poignant video followed by your exquisite and profound teaching that is so empowering.

    Thanks for the gift you are,


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