Tear down the invisible fences in your life

As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, October 12, 2005

There was a time when I walked weekly with a friend through a local suburban area. As we passed one particular corner white house, there was a little dog that would come running out to us, barking all the way. Fortunately, he always stopped short before he reached us on the sidewalk. I realized that what stopped him was an invisible fence. Although I was grateful for the fence, I can only imagine that he was, at the very least, frustrated with it.

As it happens, many of us experience invisible fences in our lives. In heading directly toward some goal, we find that we stop short of it. Although we do not understand why we stop, we respond so strongly that we feel like we don’t even have a choice in the matter. Repeated attempts have the same result. The goal might be anything. Launching a job hunt. Leaving a bad relationship. Finishing a big project for work or school. Committing to healthy eating or exercising. Try as we might, we simply cannot make ourselves follow Nike’s “just do it” advice. In the end, we become frustrated and think of ourselves as failures.

The good news is that if you can relate to the metaphor of an invisible fence keeping you from a goal, you have already made the first step in moving beyond it. You have acknowledged that there is a problem. Now you need to learn more about that problem.

As you approach your goal, or even just think of approaching it, pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. If you get distracted, gently redirect yourself back. Are you feeling fearful? If so, think about what you are afraid of. Do you struggle with guilt, shame, or some other emotion? Or, are you feeling ambivalent? Perhaps you are less interested in, or more conflicted about, achieving your goal than you thought. There are lots of possibilities.

Pay particular attention to any critical thoughts about yourself. In critiquing ourselves, we often banish unwanted thoughts or feelings. The problem with this is that these thoughts and feelings never really go away; instead, they just become invisible to us. Anytime we get near them, we instinctively back away, and they become an invisible fence in our lives.

For example, consider Mary*. She placed great value in her family relationships. But despite her best intentions to reach out more to her sister, she somehow failed to do so with any real consistency. Ashamed of being such a poor sister, she recommitted herself to reaching out… only to get the same result. She was stuck behind her own invisible fence. Finally, after some self-exploration, she acknowledged that she was angry with her sister for never being there for her, particularly during some very difficult times. Part of her did not want to be close because she had felt rejected by her sister. These realizations helped her to see the fence of hurt and anger that kept her from reaching out.

Though it is a first step, just seeing the fence does not automatically make it go away. In fact, you may have seen the fence all along and just not known what to do about it. If you want to tear down that fence, learn to understand your thoughts and feelings in a compassionate way. For instance, Mary valued herself as a loving person, which to her meant that she gave love without needing to get it back. So, holding a grudge did not fit well with her values or her perceptions of herself. With some honest and compassionate self-exploration, she learned to accept that it was okay for her to need to receive love just as much as she needed to give it.

Accepting such inner experiences with compassion is essential in ripping down your fences.
Allow yourself to sit with your feelings. Again, if you feel yourself being distracted, gently redirect yourself back into focus. We are often more compassionate with friends than we are with ourselves, so you might benefit from imagining how you would respond to a friend with a similar situation. You might also need to accept that you are experiencing a dilemma that simply doesn’t have a perfect solution.

Once you are able to accept all aspects of yourself, you will find a new clarity. It might help you to understand yourself and the situation differently. You can decide what you want to do, while simultaneously accepting those inevitable inner struggles.

For example, after some failed attempts to work through her issue with her sister, Mary learned to accept her sister as someone who would not be there for her in the ways that Mary wanted. Then she decided to put more of herself into other friendships. This helped her to accept the limits of her relationship with her sister, though she still felt sad about losing the dream of being closer. In the end, she was more open to appreciating their relationship for what it was.

For anyone to get past a personal invisible fence, it usually requires some support. It could be as simple as talking positively to yourself; relying on the verbal support of a friend; teaming up with a friend (i.e. exercising with someone to help maintain your motivation); or providing yourself with a concrete reward for taking steps toward your goal (i.e. celebrating the completion of a project with a special lunch).

Put simply, the keys to moving beyond your invisible fence are: admitting the problem exists, understanding the problem, accepting yourself with compassion, and motivating yourself to meet your goal. Each step in itself is relatively simple, though certainly not easy. With persistence, you can take the steps to tear down the fences in your life.

*”Mary” is a composite of many people with whom I have worked, and so she does not represent any particular person.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ