Learning to Say “I Don’t Have it to Give Now”

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I take my responsibility as a guardian to Dali and Oskar seriously. I know that I decide when they go for a walk, how long they walk, when they eat, what they eat, how much they eat, if they go to the vets, when they go to the vets. I decide most things in their life. Although this isn’t completely true particularly for Oskar because he is very fast at finding what I call “bad garbage” and eating it while looking up at me to make sure I am seeing him and daring me to try to take it out of the steel grip of his jaw. But, still, you get my point. Because I am aware that they have limited choices in their lives, I try my very best to make their life fulfilling. I am happy to do this and see this as part of my responsibility as their guardian and I have learned an important lesson about setting my own limits too.

I take Dali and Oskar for long walks – about 1 ½ hours in the morning. When I’m working, I have a dog walker come and take them out so they don’t have to spend long periods of time sleeping alone in the house. I take them to different places because I get bored walking the same route and I figure Dali and Oskar are stimulated by different routes and the different smells on those routes too. I take them, when I can, into different stores when I have to do errands. I play games with them so they exercise their brains.

I like making them happy, but sometimes doing so conflicts with my needs. They could walk and sunbathe, when the weather allows, all day. I do enjoy our time in the outdoors and I also have other things I like and need to do. When I extend myself beyond my limit, I typically get frustrated. This, of course, negatively impacts my relationship with Dali and Oskar.

After many years, I have learned that recognizing and honoring my limit and needs is better for Dali and Oskar and our relationship than pushing myself beyond what I have to give. I tell them that I am very sorry, that I wish I could run with them all day, but this is all I can do right now. This alleviates my own guilt and they seem to understand the sincerity in my voice and give in to me – mostly.

I can better understand times when my mother would get angry with me, which hurt my feelings. I can see that she was torn between wanting to give to me and having limits of her own. I would have liked it better if she would have been able to let me know that she loved me, but just couldn’t talk anymore. Having her model that for me might have helped me, too, to learn to listen to my own needs and set appropriate limits.

Luckily, I continue to learn and Dali and Oskar are forgiving of my mistakes and accepting of my imperfections. And that is a wonderful gift they give me.

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Understanding

Dali and I are a lot alike.  We both have difficulty feeling comfortable with others of our own species.  When Dali sees another dog, if she’s the least bit afraid, she barks hysterically.   When I see another person, I don’t bark hysterically, but I’m not comfortable in groups of people and can get a bit aggressive out of my fear.

Dali is unreachable when she gets in this zone.  There doesn’t seem to be anything I can do to reassure her.  Out of my helplessness, I have gotten very frustrated with her.  Then I feel bad and apologize to her.  I do believe she knows what “I’m sorry” means because I’ve said it so often to her.

One day, I was talking to a dog trainer about Dali and he explained that Dali was probably bullied when she was very young, before she came to live with us.  Her vulnerability grew from the original antagonizers to other dogs.  She was also bullied after she came to live with us.  Early on, I took her to a dog park.  She was so incredibly fast.  Other dogs would chase her.  One dog started to pick on her and got a group of other dogs to join in.  It was scary for me, so I can only imagine how scary it was for her.  That was the last time we went to the dog park.

Now I have more understanding and empathy for Dali.  I remain calm when she gets triggered and launches into her I-must-tell-the-world-there-is-a-threat-until-I-know-everyone-has-heard-me barking campaign.  With my new empathic response, sometimes I notice that she has a quicker recovery time, sometimes not, but I know I’m not adding to her distress and lack of safety by getting angry with her. 

As my empathy grew for Dali, my compassion grew for myself.  Now when I’m with groups of people and feeling uncomfortable, I am better able to calm myself down.  I talk to myself the way I would talk to Dali, soothingly.  I remind myself how much sense it makes that I get afraid and that I’m not alone in this feeling.  I don’t love groups, but since I’ve learned to exercise self-compassion from being compassionate with Dali, I’ve had more experiences that feel alright rather than shaming. 

A wonderful organization that helps at-risk children heal from trauma uses the idea of self-compassion by learning compassion for animals is The Gentle Barn.  Children, who may not be able to relate to care givers, can identify with the vulnerability of animals and heal some of their own emotional pain by interacting with a pig, cow, chicken, or goat.  This nontraditional form of therapy includes telling the children the stories of individual animals who are survivors of abusive situations and how each animal has learned to love and trust again.  The youths leave with a sense of hope that change is within their reach.   

Here is an inspiring and informative video about The Gentle Barn and the healing that is possible when we recognize how we are all interconnected:

http://www.byutv.org/watch/2494c327-dc7e-412f-9f1a-962b42bd6a5a/turning-point-the-gentle-barn

If you’d like to share, I would welcome to chance to read about how the human-animal bond has helped you heal.