From the norms that push people-pleasing behaviors to the influences of patriarchal households, it’s easy to end up feeling small and boundaryless. In our natural quest to feel loved, accepted, and safe, we often never discover how to create and use healthy boundaries. The resulting lack of empowerment can prevent us from knowing and becoming our fullest, best selves. Can elephants, wolves, and gorillas teach us the keys to healthy boundaries and true empowerment? Author and animal behavior expert June Smalls offers an uplifting perspective on how we can embrace healthy boundaries using animals as a guide.
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Fostering Healthy Boundaries and Empowerment with Expert June Smalls
Lessons on Boundaries and Gender Equality from Elephants, Gorillas, and Wolves
From the norms that push people-pleasing behaviors to the influences of patriarchal households, it’s easy to end up feeling small and boundary-less. In the natural quest to be loved, accepted, and safe, we often never discover how to create and use healthy boundaries. The resulting lack of empowerment can prevent us from knowing and becoming our fullest best selves. Can animals such as elephants, wolves, and gorillas teach us the keys to healthy boundaries and true empowerment?
In this episode, we’ll focus on this audience’s real-life question, “I grew up in a patriarchal household where living small and not having a voice was required. I’m 28 and barely learning to have boundaries and become empowered. Do you have any ideas that might help me on my way?” With that question as the focus of this episode, I’m Dr. Carla Marie Manly and this is Imperfect Love.
I’m joined by a very special guest, June Smalls, who will be sharing her expertise in the realm of wise empowerment and leadership. Welcome to the show, June. It’s such a delight to have you.
Thank you so much for having me.
Before we get going, could you please tell us a little bit about what makes you you?
I am a book lover and an animal lover. Since I am a children’s author, my focus tends to be on animals. I love both the very realistic, non-fiction facts and information, and all the amazing things that we can learn from animals and in the Wild Kingdom right now.
I absolutely love that you use the wisdom of animals to help us mere humans learn how to be better leaders and learn how to be more empowered. That’s what we’ll focus on, your skills in that area. One of my favorite books of yours is She Leads. Could you tell us a little bit about She Leads?
We all know that in the elephant’s world, the family unit is led by the females, not the males. Nature has its own way of preventing inbreeding and males leave the family around age thirteen. Sometimes they’ll hang out in bachelor groups. This book focuses on that family unit that has led by the female, the matriarch. It’s a lyrical story that follows the journey of her leadership, her skills, and how she passes down that knowledge from female to female, and how eventually, somebody else comes and fills that role when she is no longer able to. It’s a lyrical story and they have nonfiction sidebars on each spread so that you can dive a little bit deeper. It works on multiple levels.
He Leads is about the silverback gorilla and how that is led by the male. They Lead is about the teamwork of the gray wolf pack. A lot of people hear, “If you’re an alpha, this or that.” Alpha was actually incorrect, so wolves don’t have an alpha. They do not have one that is the powerful one. They have a breeding pair. It’s pretty much mom and dad are in charge. They work together. It’s not the alpha male over the alpha female. They are a pairing. There are lots of different ways to look at leadership and why different styles work better in different habitats or different scenarios. I like that this series brings it full circle.
Thank you. I love imagining the wolves as you say. It’s such a beautiful message for those of us who grew up believing that there is one alpha male who leads the pack. In here, it’s this balance, equality, and fairness that I’m certainly a fan of. Let’s go back to the question of the day, which is for someone who’s learning and we can let elephants guide us in any animals you want to bring in because I’m also a fan of children’s books.
They’re so short but so filled with incredible information like yours are. We can come away feeling as though we’ve read a self-help book because they can be that empowering for us, and then for the people reading them to, the little ones can learn so much. With someone who is struggling with boundaries, so work from boundaries and then we’ll go into leadership, what would you say that animals teach us about boundaries?
Animals teach us everything about boundaries. They are the most important thing in the animal kingdom. From the wolves marking their territory and letting others know, “This is where you stop. This is where my area begins.” From the simple things a house cat or your pet dog putting their ears back and telling you, “No, I do not want to be touched right now.” Animals tell us exactly what is expected of us and exactly how they feel. We have to be able to listen. It’s an integral part of being alive. Not every creature, I’m sure some are not as picky as most of us mammals, but for most creatures, it’s part of what they are. They set those boundaries if we’re willing to pay attention.
Setting our own boundaries is hard because we’re always taught to be polite. We’re always taught to put our own comfort below other people’s comfort, especially as females. In an animal kingdom, especially with different species working together, the elephants will gauge, “Are these friends? Are these foes? Can we share this watering hole or do I need to puff out my ears, wave my trunk around, and put a boundary here and say, ‘Back up?’” This is something at every age that we all struggle with. As humans, we want so badly to be polite to not inconvenience anybody and to not be a burden. Animals don’t have that problem. They just let you know.
I love this because I can see how it ties to the question of the day. You’re saying the elephant says, “Here’s the boundary. I’m going to get big. I’m not going to attack you. I’m just going to get big.” She might attack but, “I’m going to get big and strong and say no.” Why do you think we as humans other than the people-pleasing, other than the way we’re raised to live small, be quiet, be the people-pleaser, or be the good one, what else do you think might contribute to us not knowing as animals know instinctively to set those boundaries and to honor each other’s boundaries?
We are social creatures. Even social creatures like wolves have a pecking order. While there might not be the alpha male and the alpha female as we historically thought them, you’ll see that the pups or the young ones are still learning their place. When they mess up, they’ll put their ears down. They’ll lower themselves. They’ll tuck their tail. They will lick the muzzle of the more aggressive top dog in the pack. They’ll do things to make themselves smaller, especially when they’ve messed up or when they want attention. Sometimes when they’ve played too hard, they’ve been put in their place.
Lots of animals have a pecking order. In most of the animal kingdom, it’s based on experience. Older animals tend to be bigger, more powerful, and more experienced in life. They’re teaching the younger animals. Also, sometimes some of us have personalities. We’re not put at confrontation and we’re not the ones that want to be big and bad. We’ve all seen that big mastiff or that big pit bull, a little chihuahua barks at him and he lays down. Some of them don’t want to be the aggressor and some of it is just inherent to us. We’re all unique and not all of us are ready to be the big one who stomps their feet and throws their trunks. Some want to stay in that circle and say, “What’s that other one going to do? Teach me, lead me. I’m a little less confident.”We're all unique. Not all of us are ready to be the big one who stomps their feet and throws their trunks. Some want to just stay in that circle and say, “Teach me. Lead me.” Click To Tweet
If I’m hearing you right, that piece is personality. Some of us are going to have a naturally more gentle compliant personality. Others have an inherently more assertive personality.
Assertive or wild or that dog that will not stop jumping up into the tree even though he should not be climbing that tree.
The other piece that I was picking up, because the thing I specialize in is trauma, my ears go up and go, “She was talking about these little pups.” Maybe there’s a runt of the litter, or the smaller one, or a big family. Maybe with that light instinct that there is even in the animal kingdom, some of this training is to be small because when we get threatened by an older person in the pack, then we have the choice of fight, flight, freeze, or appease. It’s not just fight or flight as you know, it’s fight, flight, freeze, or appease for our audience who might not know that. For the question of the day, maybe this individual does have a naturally more gentle or introverted personality. Maybe in the patriarchal system, she learned to freeze or appease.
It’s interesting too because you specify the runts of the litter. That’s a common misconception. It’s not always the little one that’s the submissive. We might be inherently small. We might be the runts of the litter. I am absolutely the runt in my family. I’m physically 3 inches shorter than everybody else, but that runt might end up being the leader of the next pack. Just like I said before with the Pitbull and the Chihuahua, sometimes the big ones are the submissive ones. It’s not always our physical attributes or at first glance what you would assume who in this pack is going to be the weak one.
We can look at ourselves like that too. We assume. “We’re the little. We’re the weak.” It’s expected. It’s not true. The things that that wolf pup goes through, the things that that elephant goes through, the things that that the blackback ends up growing to be a silverback and leading, it’s an all-encompassing thing of yes, we have a personality when we’re born, but the experiences and the trauma.
You’ll see an elephant with an arrow sticking out of its hide and that’s experience trauma. That elephant has learned, “I avoid certain things because they cause me pain, fear, and danger.” We all have to encompass that, but then if we want to move forward, we have to buck up, listen to our survival instincts, and sometimes those survival instincts made us small because that’s what we needed at that time, but maybe that is not what we need now.If we want to move forward, we just have to back up and listen to our survival instincts. Click To Tweet
Thank you so much first off for helping me to learn that the runt of the litter doesn’t always stay the runt. I had no idea that the runt could become the leader of the pack. It makes sense, but I just assumed the runt stayed the runt. This makes me feel so excited because we know that in the human world, the smallest person can become the leader of the team and how validating to know and empowering for all of us that this means that those of us who are small, not physically small but that we had to be small. We can use those life experiences, even the traumatic ones, maybe especially the traumatic ones to become more empowered and stronger leaders. If not for others, leaders of our own lives.
When I go to schools and I talk to first graders through fifth graders about the leadership roles in the animal kingdom and about ourselves, not every leader has to be a king or a president. When we’re trying to empower ourselves, it doesn’t mean we’re trying to be on top of the world. It might mean that we want to be a teacher and we want to confidently lead our class. It might mean that we want to lead a group. We might want to lead a kitchen and be a top chef. Whatever it is that’s empowering us in that moment. For me, I wanted to write picture books, and a lot of people in my family circle and my friends are supportive. They’re like, “That’s cool, but why would you want to write for kids?”
I don’t want to say that they were purposely mean but they’ve made it small. “Why is it important? They’re just picture books. They’re just this. They’re just that.” It’s what made me happy and got me excited. I love researching. For me, it was big. Sometimes what is big to us isn’t big to the rest of the world and that’s okay too.
It’s absolutely fabulous. You’re making such beautiful points because we often think in life that we need to be on the perfect path that others see for us. That’s often what makes us stumble because as you are saying, you follow the path that made you joyful and that had meaning for you. That was the wise thing to do. Look at how happy you are, how much you give to others, and how you lead through example. It’s wonderful.
Thank you. I hate the word perfection. I find that most people are paralyzed by perfection or that goal of perfection. I understand we need to strive towards our best and towards perfection as best as we can, especially if we’re athletes and things like that. There is a perfect-10 goal, but for most of the world in our everyday life, perfection is a mirage that we’re looking at in the distance.Most people are paralyzed by perfection or the goal of perfection. We need to strive towards our best and towards perfection as best we can, but perfection is a mirage at which we're looking. Click To Tweet
I’m a firm believer even for those Ken Starr athletes that it’s about evolution. Your personal best or whatever that is on any given day, and we keep evolving. It’s so funny that we’re talking about animals because I love animals. I think of how they’re not interested in perfection at all. I don’t see my Giant Schnauzer saying, “Trim my hair perfectly. Make me perfectly beautiful. Cook my food, give me my perfect food, or give me a perfect walk.” He just wants love, safety, and security. I believe those elements are what make us all the happiest, not perfection. This pursuit of perfection is crazy-making, but we’re striving for love and connection.
As long as we’re feeling safe, happy, and healthy, that’s the primary goal in life. Everything else is just sprinkles on top.
I agree with you. Let’s go back to our listener’s question. She wants to create boundaries. She wants to be empowered. She’s barely scratching the surface. I hear this type of concern all the time with clients and people who write in because you didn’t grow up with boundaries. The animals you were talking about, they grow up watching strong healthy boundaries. They watched the matriarch or the patriarch or the family set healthy boundaries.
What about those of us who either grow up with no boundaries being set and it’s a haphazard life and everybody is crossing everybody else’s boundaries or a situation where the boundaries are so rigid even if they don’t make any sense, where the patriarchal figure or matriarchal figure is saying, “This is the way it is. Don’t you dare try and do it your own way. Don’t ask me to explain it. It just is.” What would you suggest?
A lot of us need to be very self-aware. The older we get, the easier that is. When we’re young, we go, “That’s what mom said. That’s what dad said. That’s what the teacher said. That is what it is because it is.” As we grow, “Does this fit me?” I’m not a hugger. I’m not a touchy person. Most people in my family are. I had to find that happy balance. Lots of half hugs when I first greet everybody. That is still respecting my personal feelings while also respecting that grandma wants a hug.
We’re not going to find it right away. That’s an evolution too. When I started writing, I hear all the rules of writing. You have to write every day if you’re a writer. I’m not good at that. I am ADD. I have hyper-focused times when I might forget to eat. My husband shows up with food and I’m like, “What are you doing? We just ate.” He’s like, “That’s five hours ago.” We have to know that we are constantly evolving, learning, and growing.
Maybe something that suited us five years ago doesn’t now. Whether it was our self-imposed boundaries, whether it was the boundaries that we were taught, or as we grow as people. I think a lot of it is just, “What do we want? Do I want to demand respect? Do I want to post with this little confrontation as possible? Do I want to do little things for me?” I don’t even care if the rest of the world is aware of it, but I want to grow myself for me, so when I look in the mirror I go, “I did that?” I don’t think there’s a good answer for any one person. It’s finding ourselves first, and then going from there and going, “This is a good boundary.”
We all have those messy family lives. Even the beautiful elephant matriarch, I’m sure they have things that go wrong in their family units. Sometimes the hardships are things we can’t control, disease or weather. For the elephants, it’s a dry season. For the human, it’s like, “I’ve got all these medical bills.” There are different things we’re dealing with. We have to evolve and suit each new habitat as we enter it like wild animals.
I absolutely love this, June, because you’re talking about evolution which is one of my favorite parts about being a human. We get to make mistakes and we’re evolving. If we pause and learn from the mistake and say, “I tried to set the boundary here? I got steamrolled because mom or grandma are used to me giving in, but that doesn’t mean I need to get steamrolled next time. Let’s just go and let’s practice it in the mirror or with a friend so that next time, I do better at setting that boundary.” I love how you talk about it being a work in progress and we’re working at it.
The other thing that you highlighted is the importance of mindfulness. It doesn’t mean that we necessarily have healthy boundaries or no boundaries. It may be that some of our dear good friends who have good boundaries teach us healthy boundaries and we’re learning through them. It may be perhaps at work or when we return to the family unit. In those situations, we do tend to be people-pleasers or give in. Find out where we’re doing it successfully, if at all. I’m sure we are doing it successfully somewhere, and then keep repeating that. For the areas where we’re a little fragile and a little wobbly or our little legs are just learning boundaries, to not be hard on ourselves. Figure out what we didn’t do well and do it a little better next time.
Like anything that we’re learning, even if we’re teaching ourselves how to do this is failing. Cool, fail, mess up. Start small, and then get bigger. The elephant has between 80,000 and 100,000 muscles in that trunk, but no bones. Like a human, we can’t use our hands very well when we’re firstborn, elephants can’t use their trunk. They start by trying to pick up a stick. Later, we see the elephants that can move a whole log as an adult, but they weren’t born being able to move an entire log. We need to start off with a little stick or a little leaf. We need to start small and remember that we’re going to fall, we’re going to drop the stick, we’re going to mess up, and that’s part of life. We talked about that previously.
That is so beautiful and so empowering to hear you say it in such a beautiful and eloquent way. 80,000 to 100,000 muscles in that trunk, yet when they’re born just barely being able to pick up anything and go throughout life. Not judging themselves, not blaming themselves, not criticizing themselves. Just realizing that someday, they will be able to hold that log. What a beautiful metaphor for us to pause and to think of using that as light as we learn any new skill in life. Whether it’s boundaries or learning to lead or learning to feel empowered in situations, it’s okay to start with a little stick or tiny twig. That’s good.
When I was younger, I was never a drinker. Most of my friends were totally cool if I went out and didn’t have a drink. I didn’t have to put my foot down and say no. Every now and then, you get one pushy friend or relative that was like, “Do this.” That tiny little firm “No, thank you.” Sometimes that’s our very first empowering and putting our foot down. It’s not a big thing, but sometimes a firm “No, thank you” is our very first step to building that boundary.
I love that “No, thank you.” Even if you have to repeat it twice, that’s a good twig to start with. That is a very good twig. I love that.
Sometimes it feels big. It’s easy to want to go, “Okay, no.” It can be intimidating even if it is a little twig.
I love the idea of a simple no. That’s how I coach clients. It’s okay to say no or “No, thank you,” and you don’t have to give an explanation. You don’t have to say, “This is why I’m not. No, I’m sorry.” Just a simple no or “No, thank you.” If someone pushes you, it can be something as simple as a gentle foot stomp. Not that you’re really stomping your foot, but you might even say, “I set a boundary, please respect my boundary. I said no.” I can’t even thank you enough, June, for your time. I want to talk about the gorillas and I want to talk more about the wolves, but our time is at an end. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and you’re genuineness with us. Where can our audience find you?
My books are sold anywhere books are sold. You can find me on my website, which is JuneSmalls.com. I’m somewhat active on social media but not as much as most people. Pretty much my website or any bookstore.
I want to leave the audience with this beautiful quote from you. It’s simple but so poignant, “We think imperfection is a failure or flaw rather than an integral part of what makes us amazing.” Thanks again, June. It’s not lost on me that your last name, Smalls, you’re a very big force in the world. Thank you again.
Thank you so much for having me. I hope that I’ve helped your audience and specifically the one who asked that question. You can do it.
I know you’ve been a big help to many souls and you’ve helped me. I feel that I’ll put my foot down a little bit more firmly next time somebody says something that is not appropriate or does something that’s not appropriate. I’ll see it as just a little twig. Let’s pick up that little twig and say, “No, thank you.”
Take good care, June. Thanks again.
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