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Learning From Cats: Setting Boundaries for Healthy Relationships

They are those invisible lines that tell us when we've been triggered, or when a situation has moved from hunky dory to anywhere from cringy to terrifying. Without them we become overextended, taken advantage of, resentful, and sometimes worse. They can be about someone asking to borrow money, or needing a small favor. One minute you're stopping by the drugstore to pick up lotion for a friend because it's on your way so no big deal, and the next you're picking up another twenty items that your friend suddenly remembered they need, and paying for them too, because they always say they'll pay you back but never actually do. And they were going to meet you at your place but then can't because there's no gas in their car so you end up detouring to drop off their lotion and chocolates and whatever else was so necessary and then lending them money for gas because they don't get paid until next week.

I had never been good at setting boundaries in my younger years. I'm not sure I even knew most of my boundaries. I wasn't taught how to tell someone to back off when they infringed on my personal space, or made assumptions about what I might be okay with. I never knew that 'No' was a complete sentence, and that my reasons behind it were nobody's business. Instead I suffered through uncomfortable feelings and situations, told white lies to get out of 'obligations,' and felt stressed out about dealing with certain people, who I knew would push past what felt good to me.

Cats were my first teachers on showing me a way of life that involved boundary setting. I was volunteering at a cat rescue that focused on helping under socialized cats, or cats that appeared shut down or feral in the shelter. These cats set firm boundaries about what felt safe or unsafe to them, and crossing one of those boundaries could mean a stinging strike from a loaded paw, or even a bite. It also damaged chances of building trust, and the cats at this rescue sorely needed to find some trust with people. These cats weren't shy about speaking their truth. They would hiss, or even spit or stomp if I came too close. How could I be offended by this? Many of the cats at this rescue had seen the darker side of life, and had no reason to trust people. They had every right to set those boundaries, which reminded me that I also had that right in my own day to day life. I didn't need to explain why something didn't feel right to me, just as my feline mentors didn't need to justify why my presence terrified them. Just like with people, every cat has a past that shapes who they are and how they interact with the world.

Setting boundaries lets people know what your limits are, and can also help weed out the so-called friends who are really just looking for someone to carry their burdens for them, emotional, financial, or otherwise. According to Web MD, setting boundaries can also foster better mental and emotional health and improve self-esteem. Another plus to setting boundaries is that you get a deeper sense of who you are and what your values are.

Some boundaries are easier to set than others. Telling a solicitor at my door that I'm not interested and gently yet firmly ending the conversation there is one thing. Setting a boundary with a friend or family member involves more emotional complexity, and can be daunting. Terri Cole, a licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert, explains that healthy boundaries are crucial to healthy relationships. In order to set them, she explains, you need to know your own needs, feelings, and desires, and separate them from others. Setting boundaries can feel awkward at first, but in the end will bring you more personal freedom and empowerment.

A cat will turn their back on you and leave the room, not caring if their rejection offends you. Touch a cat who doesn't want to be touched and best case scenario they'll slide their body away from your hand in their graceful, serpentine way that says, 'No thanks.' Worst case scenario you'll come away with a bloody hand. Cats don't care if they set their boundary in a way that feels good to you, and they will reinforce their boundary if you ignore it. Only by respecting those boundaries can we develop a loving, healthy, trusting relationship with our cats. Such wise, wise creatures they are, because of course this lesson extends to the people in our lives. Are we not only setting boundaries but also paying attention when someone else sets one too? Are we confident and empowered enough to allow others to clearly define their limits just as we define ours?

My boundary setting is still a work in progress, but thanks to my feline friends and family members I have a daily reminder that setting boundaries is a healthy, empowering, and responsible way to build relationships with humans and animals alike.

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