Mending Fences. 22/9/2016

Published by JOPYFULHEARTFOUNDATION

I’ve always been intrigued by the different choices people make, while working to restore good boundaries in their life
after an experience of abuse. Whether it’s re-establishing the broken
boundary with the abusive person, or finding a safe way to relate to
others, the memory of betrayed trust can complicate decisions about how
to maintain safety. 

When I think about my own relationship to
personal boundaries, I’m often reminded of the iconic phrase, “good
fences make good neighbors.” I learned the line from Robert Frost’s poem
Mending Wall,”
first published 100 years ago, in 1914. The poem describes an annual,
Spring ritual of two neighbors, together restoring the winter damage to
an ancient stone wall between their abutting properties.

The
narrator complains of the tedious, hard work involved every year, and
notes that neither of them even has livestock that would require a solid
fence line.  His neighbor just patiently repeats the phrase,  ‘’good
fences make good neighbors.” 

My own healing process and my work
with abused kids and violent adults inclines me to see a lot of wisdom
in the neighbor’s approach.  Without engaging in an argument or accusing
the narrator of bad intention or being a potential “trespasser, he
respectfully insists on the firm limit he wants to live by. He does it
even while, in the same sentence, setting a goal of being good
neighbors!

But what’s a good fence?

Some folks are so traumatized
by an abusive experience they may tend toward one of two extremes.
Either they want a fortress wall to defend completely against the
outside world; or, believing they are powerless to defend themselves
anyways, they abandon any sense of asserting even a right to set limits
with others. Sadly, some get stuck in a life marked either by isolation
or re-victimization. 

Most of us who’ve experienced abuse, strive
to live somewhere in between those extremes, occasionally sliding a bit
closer to one end of the scale or the other. Bottom line, we all have an
absolute right to be and to feel safe.

My idea of a good fence has gates. I’ve always thought that healing from abuse
is, in large part, about learning to trust our instincts about when to
open those gates and when to keep them firmly shut.  Either can be a
healthy choice. The trick is being in touch enough with what’s driving
those instincts to figure out which is which. 

Especially for
someone with a history of abuse, any aspect of an interaction that’s
reminiscent of a previous traumatic experience —a trigger—can
unleash a wave of feelings that are only slightly connected to what’s
happening in the present.  The trigger can be a word, a place, a sound, a
smell an attitude or some other reminder of the past. It can be
conscious or unconscious.

Therapy
can be a useful way to start to unwrap the meaning of those feelings.
For men, a group is often a particularly effective type of therapy
because it can help restore a sense of community. A group can help cut
through self-defeating masculine norms by revealing other men who have had similar experiences and can express feelings in a safe and productive way. It’s kind of like Frost and his neighbor getting together to rebuilt a ‘good fence” between them.   

Ultimately,
developing a strong sense of self-awareness can go a long way toward
reclaiming power. By recognizing the warning-sign feelings that have in
the past led to a poor outcomes, it becomes possible to respond to those feelings thoughtfully, rather than just react.
Sometimes that reaction may have meant slamming the gate in a way that
caused harm to another. Or, because many who experienced abuse are
determined never to misuse power in a way that hurts another, the
reaction may have been be a misguided reluctance to enforce a limit, for
fear of hurting someone’s feelings.

In the end, we can all learn
important lessons from Frost’s fence-positive neighbor. Even after
voicing the protests of the reluctant narrator, Frost clearly came to
appreciate his neighbor’s insistence on maintaining those clear
boundaries. After all, good fences do make good neighbors.