Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Self Care 101 and Thidwick the Bighearted Moose OR What Dr. Suess has to Say about Healthy Boundaries

"Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose" was published in 1948, by the prolific writer Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss). And I will confess, I have always had a soft spot for Dr. Suess. I collected his books throughout high school and college. But I have been reading my Dr. Suess collection with a fresh lens recently. I'm convinced that these bouncy, rhyming books for kids have some pretty important lessons for adults. Thidwick's lesson is a critical one: we're all allowed to know and protect our own personal boundaries. For this post, I am defining boundaries as those internal limits within which we feel safe, valued, and respected. I know that the issue of healthy boundaries is a big one, so this is an introductory post on the topic. And a way to integrate Dr. Suess into therapeutic writing. Gotta love it!

Thidwick is not one of the better known Seuss classics, so let me summarize the story for you. Thidwick is a moose living happily with the other moose in his herd. Then one day, an ant decides that Thidwick's antlers look like a pretty great place to live. Thidwick isn't entirely comfortable with this, but he doesn't want to be a bad guy, so he doesn't speak up. No big deal, you say? Just an ant, you say? Thidwick can't even tell the ant is there, you say? Here's the problem. No, the ant doesn't significantly impede Thidwick's life. He's not a huge imposition. But he came uninvited, and his presence makes Thidwick uncomfortable.

And then, the ant invites a spider to share his cushy moose-antler digs (Dr. Suess conveniently skirts the issue that the spider may have been looking at the ant as dinner . . .). And the spider and the ant invite a Zinnazu bird, who brings along his woodpecker wife. At this point, Thidwick's herd has had it with the noise, and they tell him lose the riders or leave the herd. Thidwick, who let's remember has no obligation to any of these critters, still doesn't want to be a bad guy. So, he accepts isolation from his herd. His riders are beginning to have a significant effect on his life.

The menagerie on Thidwick's head keeps growing. Four squirrels, a bobcat and a squirrel come next. The community in Thidwick's antlers is vocal, and indifferent to the needs of their host. As winter comes and food grows scarce, the riders throw a collective fit when Thidwick mentions moving to the other side of the lake. They want to remain in their own comfort zone.

At the climax of the story, the antler rider community has grown to include three mice, a fox, a bear and three hundred sixty two bees. When some hunters appear, the tired, hungry Thidwick is in grave danger. And then, in a shining moment, he remembers that it is time to shed his antlers to make room for new growth. He tosses his loaded antlers to the hunters and bounds off to safety. The antlers and their occupants go to the hunter's trophy room.

I work with my clients on identifying and protecting boundaries on a regular basis. Many of my clients express the same sentiments that Thidwick did. A small request feels uncomfortable, but they don't want to seem petty or inconsiderate, so they comply. A larger request is more challenging, but the small request set a precedent, so again, they acquiesce. This can continue until they face serious emotional, financial, or even physical harm.

I think that there are two key lessons that Thidwick shares.

1. You are allowed to have your boundaries, even on small issues. If Thidwick had listened to his internal discomfort about the ant, he may have avoided a very difficult, lonely year.

2. You can always reclaim your boundaries, no matter how serious things have gotten. You are allowed to define and restore your boundaries at any time, even if that means renegotiating or ending existing relationships. Previous boundary violations do not doom you to those conditions forever.

What have been your biggest challenges setting boundaries? Is it the small boundaries that are tough to define? Is it the larger boundaries? How did you renegotiate after a boundary violation? What kind of support do you need around boundaries.