Recently I was working with my dog trainer. I probably shouldn’t call him a dog trainer. He’s really a people trainer. I’ve come to believe, as is taught by Cesar Millan, that it is people who have the emotional and behavioral challenges and we transmit those to our animal companions. Our animals are mirrors for us. When my dogs are anxious, guess what? That’s my anxiety they are mirroring. When they are overprotective, that’s me sending a signal that I need protecting. When they take charge on our walks and pull me around, that’s me falling back into a follower role and asking them to be my leaders.
So anyway, back to my work with the trainer. We were walking my neighborhood when we bumped into a new neighbor who approached to have a conversation with me. When we resumed our walk, I told the trainer that I have anxiety when strangers want to approach me with my dogs since I don’t know if the dogs will react well. The trainer (let’s call him Ben since that’s his name) suggested we role play a bit.

Ben played the role of an enthusiastic neighbor coming to chat with me. He instructed me that I was to use my words and body language to let him know when his physical proximity reached my comfort limit. When Ben got close to my ‘no enter zone’, I was to put up my hand in the “stop” gesture and say something like “Hey, that’s good right there. I want my dogs to feel calm and that’s the perfect distance for us to talk”. We role played a few times. I got the hang of it.

That exercise left such an impression on me. It was simple, to be sure. And effective. Most people would respond appropriately to such clear communication. Why don’t I use it more? Why don’t most of us communicate clearly and respectfully about our boundaries BEFORE they are encroached upon? Many of us have been taught to opt for nice over assertive. Some of us don’t want to seem unfriendly or unapproachable. Some of us are overly concerned about what others think of us.

Since that day, I’ve decided I will practice this skill of claiming my physical space and finding the words to communicate my needs. It might feel awkward initially, but I’ll get better at it with repetition. Some people may be offended or confused by it. That cannot be my responsibility. My first responsibility is to myself, not the comfort or preferences of others.
What about you? How do you assert your need for space? When do you feel pressure to accommodate the preferences of others? How will you commit to honoring your own needs in the face of social pressure?
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