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How Trauma Affects Your Brain

How Trauma Affects Your Brain

When a person experiences a trauma, the brain reacts in several different ways which can affect the life of that person moving forward.  Just as a physical injury from a traumatic accident can affect your body at the site of the injury for years to come, your mind can be also be impacted for years after a traumatic incident, whether due to a physical or psychological trauma.

Trauma causes an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and fear of potential death, serious injury, serious loss (death of someone else), pain, or entrapment. These overwhelming feelings and fear cause the brain to react in ways to try and protect itself.  Traumatic experiences can overwhelm the brain’s ability to cope using normal methods of stress relief, and thus alternative coping methods have to be developed, which can cause disruption in the lives of people trying to recover from trauma.

In order to understand why people may have certain reactions to traumatic events, it is important to understand what trauma really is and the range of ways that the brain reacts to the trauma.

Defining Traumatic Experiences

Trauma can occur in response to major onetime events such as natural disasters, a car accident, witnessing or being a victim of violence or a crime such as sexual or physical assault. It may also occur in response to chronic or repetitive experiences such as child abuse or neglect, military combat, neighborhood violence and crime, wartime atrocities, physically or emotionally abusive relationships, and long-term deprivation.

The most important thing to understand about trauma is that it is based on a person’s subjective experience. Two people could experience a similar  incident but react in very different ways.  The objective facts of the experience do not always cause the same reaction in everybody, so it’s important to understand that it is the individual that defines whether the experience was traumatic or not.

Whether a person perceives an incident as being traumatic or not often has to do with how much danger they were in during the event, whether loss of life occurred or could have occurred, whether it was a one-time incident or an ongoing experience, whether they have access to reasonable safety measures, how much support they have from friends and family, and whether they are validated or shamed for their experiences.

What are the Symptoms of Trauma

When a person has experienced a trauma, such as a sexual assault, a home invasion, or a significant loss, they may experience a wide range of symptoms in reaction to the trauma.  Remember that these are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL situations. These symptoms may include:

  • Emotional distress
  • Distressful and intrusive memories
  • Constant feeling of being in danger
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Fatigue
  • Emotional numbing or disconnection from others
  • Inability to trust others
  • Anger
  • Hyper-arousal (constant worry or checking behaviors)
  • Physical reactions (headaches, muscle aches)
  • Anxiety
  • Uncontrollable fear
  • Confusion about timing or order of events
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, or self-blame
  • Difficulty concentrating

These are all indications that the brain is attempting to either prevent further trauma from happening again by keeping you in a constant state or arousal or protecting you from potential emotional distress by suppressing upsetting or painful emotions. It is also normal to experience an increase in these symptoms in reaction to another stressors that arises or surrounding a stressful time such as an anniversary or other significant date related to the trauma.

The Effects of Trauma on the Brain

When you have experienced trauma, your brain goes into a state of hyper-arousal, basically because your fight or flight response has been triggered and your brain reacts by trying to prepare you for potential danger.  That potential for danger reverberates through your entire body, including your limbic system and your autonomic nervous system.

Your limbic system includes the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, and the amygdala, as well as other areas of the brain, and has to do with processing emotions and forming memories. The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating many bodily functions, including your arousal to emotional circumstances and the functioning of your autonomic nervous system (blood pressure, breathing rate, sweating, heart-rate). The hippocampus helps you convert what is happening in the present moment into long-term memories. The amygdala helps to control reactions to stimuli, such as aggression and fear.

When trauma triggers a stress reaction in your limbic system, it can feel overwhelming because your brain is not used to dealing with such a high level of stress, and so its functions can be negatively affected.  This reaction in the brain accounts for why some trauma survivors have difficulty recalling the correct order of timing or certain details of the event.

It’s not because they are lying or exaggerating, which some trauma survivors are accused of when their memory is impaired due to a trauma. It is because the part of their limbic system responsible for creating and storing memories was flooded by stress and the entire system was reacting in ways to focus solely on surviving the traumatic situation. Unfortunately, this memory impairment in reaction to trauma is often used against survivors to try and minimize what happened to them or cause doubt in their account of the events.

The truth is that when traumatic events happen, your memory can get mixed up and certain events may not be organized correctly in your brain’s memory filing system, so to speak. This doesn’t mean that a survivor’s perception of events is invalid, it just means that their memory may have been damaged during the traumatic event, which can cause further confusion, shame, or embarrassment about the traumatic event.

Your autonomic nervous system includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, and it is responsible for alternately preparing you to handle a dangerous situation, and then calming you back down when the danger is over.

During a stressful event, the nervous system releases the stress hormone cortisol to give you a boost of energy to react to the dangerous situation. Normally, when a stressful even passes, the nervous system will then regulate your hormonal output and bring your back to your normal homeostasis.  However, when a major trauma overwhelms your system in reaction to the perceived danger you are in that flood of stress hormones might remained heightened, leaving you feeling stuck in a constant state of hyper-arousal.

This state of hyper-arousal gets exacerbated when you are being constantly flooded with stressors, such as being stuck in an abusive relationship (where you feel you’re always walking on eggshells), or if you experience multiple triggers back to back (such as losing several loved ones in a short period of time).  This relentless stress to your system causes your brain to react in a way that can feel like you are constantly on the look-out for the next potential danger or loss, and can make it hard to get back to a period of relative emotional stability.

When to Seek Treatment for Trauma

Trauma recovery can take time, and there is no hard and fast time-line for how long it takes for each individual. However, if you have been experiencing the symptoms described above for more than 3 months after the initial trauma, you may need to seek out professional help. Remember that it is normal to have these emotional reactions to trauma, but talking with someone in a safe environment can help you to process your fears and the emotional damage that you have endured.

If you have people who you know are supportive and understanding, it can be helpful to talk to those who care about you and explain what you are going through. It can be hard to reach out for help, but it is so helpful when you feel supported by those who truly care about you. Talking about trauma can be hard, so turning to a professional therapist or a support group for people who have been through similar traumas can be incredibly healing and help you get to the next level in your recovery.

If you are experiencing any of the following after a trauma, please consider seeking out a professional with experience in trauma recovery:

  • Severe fear, anxiety, or depression
  • Trouble with functioning at home or work
  • Disturbing nightmares or flashbacks
  • Avoiding more and more things to prevent distress
  • Unable to talk about the trauma with caring friends or family
  • Feeling overwhelmed or frozen in life and unable to move forward
  • Abusing substances to feel relief from emotional distress

Trauma recovery involves processing memories related to the trauma and the feelings that were triggered during and after the event.  An informed trauma therapist can help you to face feelings and memories that have caused you distress and discharge some of the emotional energy or anger you may feel related to the traumatic event.  You may also learn new ways to cope with overwhelming feelings and learn how to re-build your ability to assess safety and build trusting relationships.

Trauma disrupts your body and your brain’s ability to feel safe and at ease. Your nervous system may feel like it is stuck in overdrive and you can’t calm down or feel balanced. In order to dispel that excess energy and feel safe again, you may have to go through some uncomfortable things, like talking about painful memories. Don’t push yourself to do things you’re not ready for, but recognize that healing takes time and you don’t have to go through it alone.

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For more on trauma recovery, see this post on 5 Things Needed for Trauma Recovery.

EI Series: Are You Using Selective Self Control?

EI Series: Are You Using Selective Self Control?

In this post for my emotional intelligence series I’m going to focus on selective self-control.  Selective self-control refers to our ability to control ourselves in some circumstances, but not in others.  In some ways it can be a cognitive distortion because we often have more control than we realize, but we may be subconsciously choosing not to use our control sometimes, and this can become a problem, especially in our relationships with other people.

Selective self-control is something that I have to challenge my clients on sometimes, because while I understand that it can be hard to practice self-control sometimes, it is my job as a therapist to help my clients find their power and learn to utilize it, and self-control is about power. Selective self-control tells you that you can’t control your reactions to certain circumstances, and then you feel helpless about your ability to exert power over your own behavior.

When you feel powerful, you feel in control. However, feeling powerless often results in people acting or thinking in ways that hurt them more.  One thing that I try to encourage my clients to do is to evaluate their choices based on how much power they have in a situation. By this I mean you have to constantly be assessing where you can use the power that you have and what you have to let go of when you don’t have power.

What Selective Self-Control Looks Like

A good example of our use of selective self-control can be found in the differences between how we act at work versus how we act in our personal life. Most of us know that we have to maintain our self-control in the workplace even when things get frustrating, or your supervisor has done or said something disrespectful, or you have to complete task that you find boring or pointless. It’s not fun, but it’s necessary.

You know that if you refuse to do your work, or you talk back aggressively to your disrespectful boss that you will end up suffering some consequences that you might not be prepared for. You don’t want to lose your job, so you practice self-control in this environment in order to prevent back-talking or going-off on your supervisor, and you suck it up and do what has to be done because you want to keep your job.  If you have ever had to do this at work then congratulations, you have self-control!

However, the same people who can control themselves at work and avoid negative consequences in that situation can find it difficult to maintain self-control in their personal lives. They may get frustrated with their partner or their children and start yelling or getting aggressive. They may slack off doing things that need to get done at home because there’s no one to dole out consequences if they don’t finish something.  Or they may tell themselves things that aren’t true, like “I can’t control myself when I feel angry”.

If that happens to you, then you might be using selective self-control.  It’s true that in a workplace environment you may not always have power, because you might have a supervisor or someone “above” you in the hierarchy that you have to defer to and listen to their direction. However, as adults we usually have no such person in control of us in our personal life. It’s our choices that control how we handle problems or resolve conflicts.

If the difference between when you can control yourself and when you can’t is based on whether there is someone there to dole out consequences, then you are selectively choosing to only respond to consequences, and then relinquishing your control at other times.  This is using selective self-control because your self-control is based on whether you will suffer consequences or not.

The strange thing is, you likely have MORE control in your personal life than you do at work, because if you are an adult, then you mostly answer to yourself. Yet people often claim that they can’t control themselves in their relationships, in their daily habits, or in setting and following through with their own goals.

To further this example, I will expand on something that I saw fairly frequently when I was working with military families as a contractor. I would see sailors that would be excelling at work: getting accolades from their Command and moving into leadership positions, or at a minimum, they would be staying out of trouble at work despite working in very intense, frustrating, and sometimes overwhelming conditions.  Yet when they would get home, they would have aggressive confrontations with their family, either losing their temper with their children or taking out their frustrations on their spouse.

When talking about the changes they wanted to make, they often stated that they felt out of control when they lost their temper and yelled at their spouse or their kids. They were able to maintain their self-control at work, pushing through very stressful conditions and duties, dealing with disrespect from their CoC, because they knew the consequences of losing control in that environment would be more than they were willing to pay.

Yet at home, there was no one there to deliver such consequences.  The consequences they suffered due to losing control at home were mostly in the form of a loss of emotional connection with their spouse, which wasn’t an immediate and tangible consequence. This wasn’t enough to motivate them to maintain their self-control in the home environment.

Diminishing Motivation

There is another part to this problem of selective self-control, and that is the issue of diminishing motivation.  We often lose motivation and lose self-control when we have been struggling to maintain control for too long. This happens frequently with dieters. You may start a diet, restrict your food choices, and try to control what you intake.  You maintain control for a while, yet eventually, you break down. Why?

It takes energy, concentration, and motivation to maintain self-control. You have to resist your impulses, change your habits and swallow your pride at times. This always is going to require some effort. The more temptations, triggers, or stressors you experience, the more your self-control is diminished.  This is why it can be hard when you have been maintaining control all day at work and then one more frustrating thing happens at home and you blow up at your spouse or raid the pantry. Researchers have suggested that self-control is a limited resource and that maintaining control at a high level depletes our self-control.

How to Master Self-Control

So what can we do? If we know that self-control is possible because we make choices to control our own behavior and resist our impulses all the time, but we also know that self-control gets depleted and staying too rigid for too long causes us to lose motivation for self-control, what is the solution?

Emotional intelligence is all about using our knowledge to help us make decisions about how to handle our emotions. So we have to confront the fact that our use of self-control may be selective at times. It’s not correct to say that you have no self-control when in reality you are using your self-control every day in different ways. Self-control keeps you from driving someone off the road when they cut you off, gets you out of bed when you want to sleep in, and stops you from burning the building down when someone steals your stapler. However, armed with the knowledge that we will eventually lose motivation to maintain that control we can take some preventative measures to help us build and practice real self-control.

Here are 10 tips to help you master self-control so you can practice and maintain your own power:

  1. Stress relief

When  you’re stressed, you have less strength to resist your impulsive behaviors, so make sure you’re engaging in stress-relieving practices such as exercise, fun activities you enjoy, and looking at unhealthy habits that might be contributing to stress (such as lack of sleep).

  1. Practice Assertive Communication

When you are too passive, your feelings and frustrations will build up inside you, causing more stress and reducing your overall sense of self-control. Work on building your assertiveness skills so you feel more powerful in all areas of your life.

  1. Avoid Avoidance

Avoiding problems doesn’t make them go away, so try to practice addressing issues when they come up instead of avoiding them because you don’t want to face the discomfort of confronting the problem.

  1. Make room for rewards

If you never feel like your efforts at self-control will pay off, you’ll lose motivation, so reward yourself in positive ways when you’ve accomplished something you’re proud of. If you’re working on a long-term goal, set small goals that bring you closer to your big goal and then reward yourself periodically as you accomplish those smaller goals.

  1. Remind yourself of your goals

Keep your eye on the prize when it comes to those long-term goals and remind yourself what all this self-control is for. You’re practicing self-discipline so that you can accomplish a goal, whether that’s pushing for a health outcome or improving your relationship with your partner. Keep that goal in mind when you feel frustrated and want to give in to your impulses.

  1. Remind yourself of intangible consequences

Even if your spouse or partner can’t fire you, you can still lose their respect and affection. They might not leave you today, but if you can’t control yourself and understand the consequences of your actions, then you might lose the people you care about eventually. Remind yourself that just as goals can take a long time to come to fruition, so can consequences.  People don’t usually leave their partner after one big argument, but they might leave after years of feeling intimidated or disrespected by the person who says they love them.

  1. Choose to be in control

Remember who has the power and who is on control. You won’t always be able to have control over everything that happens, particularly in the workplace or in other areas when you’re not the ruling authority. But you always have choices about how to conduct yourself and how to handle conflict that comes up. When  you are in control, you will know it because you’ll feel confident about your choices. Often, it’s when people give in to their lowest impulses that they feel “out of control” or ashamed of themselves. Recognize your power over your own choices and discover what real power feels like.

  1. Build frustration tolerance

Little things are always going to come along that frustrate you. We all have to build frustration tolerance skills, which will help you from succumbing to road rage when someone cuts you off in traffic. Read more about how to build frustration tolerance in this post.

  1. Don’t try to be perfect

Think progress, not perfection. No one can be perfect all the time. Whether it’s with your diet, your career goals, or your personal development, making mistakes is how we learn and get better. Trying to be perfect will just result in that diminishing motivation phenomenon, so give yourself credit for your accomplishments and practice gratitude for the progress you’ve already made.

  1. Find your joy

Everyone deserves to enjoy their own life, so think about what brings you joy and try to work that into your life in any way possible, big or small. When you get to experience what brings you joy you will be more motivated to do what it takes to get you there again. This is the part where all your hard work and self-control pays off, so when you find your joy, revel in it and soak it up.

 

Self-control doesn’t have to be selective.  When you give yourself credit for what you already know you can do you will feel more confident about your ability to maintain self-control. I’m willing to bet that you have practiced self-control in some areas of your life already, so you know what it feels like to suppress that urge to tell off your boss. You just have to apply the same skills you used then to other areas of your life.  Practice these tips and build that mental muscle so you feel capable of controlling your impulses and building your own sense of power.

EI Series: 4 Steps for Anger Management

EI Series: 4 Steps for Anger Management

Anger is an emotion that we all experience, but learning to manage anger is an important skill to have when it comes to developing and practicing emotional intelligence.  Part of having high functioning emotional intelligence is understanding and coping with all of our emotions in a healthy way, including anger.  Anger management can be a problem for some people, but there are definitely some skills that you can work on to help with this problem if you are one of those people.

In order to build and maintain strong anger management skills, it can be helpful to look at where your anger is coming from, how you react to anger, and what you need in order to gain control of your anger.  It is also important, though, to understand what anger is and why it is so hard to manage for some people.

Why Do We Get Angry?

Anger is an emotion, of course, but it is also what therapists sometimes term as a secondary emotion. This means that anger is an emotion that we experience in reaction to another emotion. For example, you can feel disrespected, and then feel angry about that. You could also feel frustrated, betrayed, overwhelmed, irritated, or in grief and feel angry in response to those emotions as well.

Part of anger management is learning to tap into the primary emotion that your anger is in response to. When you feel angry, you need to acknowledge and cope with that anger, but ultimately you will need to understand what the primary emotion is that you are having, because that is the emotion that still needs to be dealt with. Understanding WHY you are angry is just as important as learning how to react to that anger in a healthy way.

How to Build Anger Management Skills

When I work with clients on anger management, we work on managing anger through basically a 4-part process. Here is a breakdown of the process that we go through to learn anger management skills and gain control over anger:

  1. Learn what your triggers are

First you need to work on learning what triggers your anger most often. Whether it is situations that happen at work, small daily frustrations that overwhelm you, feeling disrespected by how someone speaks to you, or feeling ridiculed in some way, learn to identify what your triggers are so that you can be prepared to face them when they happen. You WILL get triggered in life, so we all have to understand what situations are most likely to cause us to react.

  1. Develop coping skills to deal with your reactions to anger

Everyone needs to have a good arsenal of coping skills to manage overwhelming emotions, including anger. You might need to practice taking a timeout to go for a walk when you feel out of control, learn deep-breathing techniques, go pound it out in the gym, or take up journaling as a form of self-expression. It is fine to remove yourself from a situation to give yourself a chance to calm down. Find out what works for your by trying some different things, whether that involves releasing that angry energy in an appropriate way or learning self-soothing techniques to calm yourself down in the moment when you feel very reactive.

  1. Understand the primary emotion from which your anger is coming

Once you’ve had a chance to calm down, you need to examine what the primary emotion is that you are reacting to. Did you feel disrespected by something that was said? Did you feel dismissed or ignored in some way? Are you feeling irritable because you are in grief? Learn to frame your anger as a secondary emotion and always try to identify what the underlying emotion is that you are having.

  1. Learn to express and address the primary emotion when addressing your anger or when in conflict with others

When you understand the primary emotion you are having, think about how to resolve the anger you are feeling by expressing that emotion in an assertive way. You can address the anger too, just be sure that you are not ignoring the root of the problem, or you will still feel angry, hurt, and frustrated. You might need to say something like “I feel angry because you called me an ugly name, which was hurtful and I felt very disrespected”. You are not denying the anger or pretending it doesn’t exist or isn’t valid, but you are taking it a step further by understand what triggered your anger and why you were having that emotional reaction. Ultimately, you need to resolve the feeling of being disrespected, not just the anger that was your reaction.

How to Know When You Need Help With Anger Management

Some people who experience significant anger management problems feel very out of control when they get angry. In extreme cases, some people even black out or go into explosive rages. When anger has become this overwhelming, it is important to seek professional help because your anger may be rooted in serious emotional traumas.

Sometimes anger becomes a reactive response over a long period of time because anger is an easily accessible emotion.  We often deal with difficult emotions like rejection, fear, and insecurity by masking them with anger. Accessing and expressing that anger is easier and quicker than dealing with those other emotions, which can be scary.

Oftentimes it takes going through a process of understanding the very beginnings of your anger problem in order to heal and move forward. Anger can have deep roots that may have originated from childhood traumas, the type of messages you received from your family or by what you saw modeled in your home growing up. This means that you may have developed the use of anger as a coping mechanism when other forms of emotional expression were not safe for you.

When you are at the point where anger is affecting your relationships with people in all areas of your life, or has caused you problems in your employment and/or resulted in legal issues, you probably need to look into getting some personal attention from a therapist or from an anger management group to help you gain control over your anger. If you have faced significant consequences in your life due to anger, such as losing relationships, a job, property, or your freedom, then you need to seek help.

Having Real Control with Anger Management

You want to be in control of your anger, not have your anger control you. Being in control of your emotions rather than having your emotions control you is part of emotional intelligence. Sometimes we mistakenly think that aggressive expressions of anger put us in control because we can intimidate others into doing what we want or forcing them to listen. In reality, though, aggression towards others doesn’t result in real control. In fact, many people often feel ashamed about their behavior when then act out in aggression when they are angry.

If you find that you can control your anger at some times, but in other circumstances you feel out of control, then I would challenge you to think about whether you are using selective self-control of your anger management.  For example, if you can control your anger at work, because you know you will get fired if you act out in aggression towards your boss (even though you may want to), but you then act aggressively towards your partner at home and say you can’t control it, then you might be using selective self-control.

If you can control your anger at work, then you CAN control your anger. You can use the same skills you have to use at work to keep yourself employed when you are dealing with problems at home. If you cannot control yourself regardless of the circumstances or potential consequences, then you probably need to seek counseling or other professional help in order to gain real control over your emotions and reactions.

The goal of anger management is not to never feel angry.  The goal is to be able to express anger appropriately and without aggression towards other people. You can absolutely express anger in an assertive and appropriate way. You will actually feel more in control when you learn how to manage your reactions with strong coping skills, tap into the primary emotions you are reacting to, and express yourself assertively to address both the anger as well as the primary emotion you are having (ie: frustration, rejection, fear, or sadness).

Building a healthy response to anger will help you in all areas of your life, because you will be in control. When other people can push your buttons and you aren’t in control of your response, then it’s almost like they can control you like a puppet. Who is really in control at that point? You don’t want other people’s behaviors to dictate to you what your reaction is. Emotional intelligence is about understanding your own emotions and being in charge of how you react to those emotions, so practice using the 4 steps outlined above to help you gain control over anger and put yourself back in control.

Emotional Intelligence Series: Setting Boundaries

Emotional Intelligence Series: Setting Boundaries

This is the second post in my Emotional Intelligence Series, and in this post I’m going to discuss setting boundaries. Boundaries are important in all relationships, whether personal, professional, or romantic, because they let others know what you are or are not willing to tolerate, what you will or will not do, and what you expect from others based on the roles of your relationship.

When you do not have strong boundaries with others, you can end up feeling taken advantage of, disrespected, or powerless. Yet often when you learn how to take control of situations by setting stronger boundaries, you will find that having boundaries is actually what helps you overcome those feelings.

What Are Unhealthy Boundaries?

First, let’s look at some ways that unhealthy boundaries can impact your life and the relationships you have with others, both romantic and platonic. When you do not have healthy boundaries, you may:

  • Not know who to trust

When you have poor boundaries, you may be confused about whether someone is trustworthy or not. This can happen when you don’t trust yourself, because you may have a feeling that someone is shady or shouldn’t be trusted, but you don’t feel confident enough to speak up for yourself or say “NO” when someone wants your trust.

  • Get pressured into doing things you don’t want to do

When you have difficulty saying ”NO” and setting limits with other people, you may find yourself getting pressured into doing things that you don’t want to do. This could mean doing favors for others, even when it means neglecting your own needs or using up your own resources.

  • Take on responsibilities that are not yours

Having poor boundaries means that others will be able to put responsibilities on you that you may not want to take on. This could be at work, where a lazy coworker is always getting you to do things for them, or it could be with a friend who is constantly asking you to babysit at the last minute so they can handle their other responsibilities while you put your own needs aside.

  • Overly-tolerant of inappropriate behavior

People who struggle with healthy boundaries may have difficulty confronting others who are behaving inappropriately, because they feel uncomfortable with confrontation or are worried about keeping the peace. However, this can lead to others taking advantage of that and continually pushing the boundaries in the wrong direction. This can be especially damaging when you are dealing with someone who is using their position of power to push boundaries, such as in sexual harassment in the workplace, or even sexual pressure from someone in a social setting.

  • Trust the wrong people

Sometimes it can be hard to know who to trust, but when you struggle with setting boundaries, people who are looking for your vulnerabilities can exploit that struggle. When you do not listen to your internal voice that is telling you not to trust someone, you may end up trusting the wrong person, which sets you up for betrayal or disappointment.

  • Easily manipulated

People who are manipulative, narcissistic, or who have power and control issues are looking for those who are vulnerable so that they can manipulate them.  When you show others that you have poor boundaries in one area of your life, people who are looking for someone to manipulate or control will see that you are vulnerable in that way, and can target you for abuse or control. This could mean getting you to give them money, allowing them to control certain aspects of your life, or pressuring you into situations that make you uncomfortable or cause you to take on risk that you shouldn’t have to take on, like asking you to do something illegal.

How Do Unhealthy Boundaries Affect You?

All of these effects can leave you feeling powerless, hurt, and confused about how you can get people to respect you and respect your limits. When you don’t feel like you are in control of the situations you find yourself in, you can end up feelings guilty or ashamed when you realize that someone has taken advantage of or manipulated you in one way or another.

This is why establishing boundaries in all areas of your life is so important, including in your personal life, you romantic relationships, your work, and your family life. You may know that you need to set boundaries with your kids, for example, in order to keep them safe and raise in a way that will help them excel in the world they are growing up in.  It can be harder, though to set boundaries with your boss, for example, or with your family, because of established roles about who has authority and who has expectations.

How Can I Establish Healthy Boundaries?

YOU can have expectations too.  It is perfectly fair for you to have expectations of your workplace environment, or your family interactions. You are not always going to be able to change the behavior of others, but you can speak up for yourself and set limits on certain issues when you need to.

This may include things like being firm about when you need to leave work, or choosing to leave a family gathering that has gotten too tense and uncomfortable for you. There are a few things that you can do to help establish healthy boundaries in your life with the people around you so that you can feel more in control of yourself and the situations you are in.

 

  • Acknowledge to yourself when you are feeling uncomfortable, and ask yourself WHY. Is it because another person is invading your personal space? Has someone asked you to do something you are uncomfortable doing? Does something seem inappropriate or weird? Trust your instincts!

 

  • Know what you are not willing to tolerate and what your limits are. Do you need to set a limit on how often your best friend can borrow your car or how many times you can pick him/her up? Think about what you are reasonably able to do for others and what your limits should be.

 

  • Get Assertive:  Learn about the differences between passive, aggressive, and assertive communication and get comfortable with being assertive. This takes practice if you are not used to it, so look for situations where you feel a little more comfortable asserting yourself and practice standing up for yourself and your needs. This could be as simple as letting the waiter (politely) know that your order is wrong instead of just brushing it off and saying “oh well, I’ll eat this anyways”, or it could be more significant, like letting your boss know that NO, you will not be able to work late again because you have other things to attend to (you don’t have to explain what else, it is YOUR life). Practicing assertive communication will help you in setting boundaries in all areas of your life.

 

  • Know who is allowed to be emotionally close to you: Think about who is in your life that deserves your trust, and who does not deserve your trust. You may still have to interact with some people that you do not trust (like that shady co-worker). Yet you can still limit your contact with those who you do not trust to Needs Only Basis. This means that you only interact with them when you need to, such as to complete a work project or to get information needed for your own tasks. Otherwise, avoid the small talk and politely but firmly avoid the person when possible. Practice using assertive statements such as “I’m in the middle of [insert important task here] right now, but I will get back with you when I’m finished”. The goal is just to set that limit so the expectation is that you are only available for work-related tasks within your own role in the work environment. When you have someone who does deserve your trust and with whom you can allow into your emotional space, make sure that they know you trust them and that you are counting on them to safeguard that trust. This is about YOU setting expectations for how you want to be treated.

 

Setting boundaries can be hard if you have struggled with being assertive and confident in your life. Luckily, setting boundaries is a skill that can be learned, and you can become more confident over time when you set appropriate boundaries with others.

These skills contribute to your overall emotional intelligence because when you are confident about the limits and boundaries you have with others, you will be less likely to get into situations where you feel out of control or powerless, and you will be more likely to command respect from others who can see that you have limits.

Think about where in your life you need to set some limits by acknowledging the times that you have felt taken advantage of or other times when your boundaries and limits were not clear, and how you wish you had handled those situations.  Then take a look at what you could have done differently if you had strong boundaries and limits. Begins to practice being more assertive (not aggressive) in situations where you feel safe and then expand that practice to other areas where being assertive may be less comfortable. As you grow and expand where you are setting limits, you will grow more comfortable exerting your own power by establishing boundaries in all areas of your life.

10 Ways to Practice Emotional Intelligence

10 Ways to Practice Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence has been a buzzword term for a while now, but many people still struggle to understand what it looks like in daily practice.  In general, emotional intelligence (EI) refers to your ability to understand and regulate your own emotions.  In practice, this means that you allow yourself to feel your emotions, but you don’t allow them to rule over all your decisions or behaviors.

Emotional intelligence also means that you have the ability to understand the emotions of others and respond to people in a way that reflects your understanding of and respect for how they feel. While some people do have a more innate ability to understand the emotions of themselves and others, people also can practice and strengthen these skills.

People who have emotionally intelligent traits tend to communicate better with other people, resolve conflict in a more healthy way, and have better emotional regulation overall. You can practice developing your emotional intelligence by working to understand and regulate your own emotional life in a way that allows you to have control over your emotions, instead of the other way around. This post will be the first in a new series about emotional intelligence where I will expand more on how to cultivate and practice this important skill in your own life.

How to Practice Emotional Intelligence

Here are 10 ways that you can practice strengthening your emotional intelligence so that you can feel confident in your ability to handle your emotions and the emotions of others.

  1. Understand your own feelings

Learn to identify how you feel by practicing distinguishing your thoughts from your feelings. For example, you may be thinking “he is such a jerk!”, but the feeling associated with this thought is “I feel hurt and disrespected when he speaks to me in that way”. When you focus on understanding how you feel in a given situation, you will be better equipped to approach the situation in a productive way.

  1. Take ownership of your own feelings

When you know how you feel, the next step is to own that feeling and recognize that you have control over that emotion.  Practice doing this by catching yourself the next time you say “You are making me feel…(angry, jealous, insecure)”, and replacing that with “I feel (angry, jealous, insecure) when you do that.”  This way of framing your emotions allows you to take control of that emotion instead of feeling powerless over it.

  1. Use your feelings to help you make decisions

Before you make decisions, ask yourself “how will I feel if I do this? How will I feel if I don’t do this? How are my emotions affecting this decision?” Work on using this insight to help you make decisions that you will be proud of and happy with later on.

  1. Respect other peoples’ feelings

You don’t have to agree with everyone on everything, but you can have better relationships with all people if you learn how to respect things from their perspective. If you want others to respect your feelings, then you can model how you want them to treat you. Even though other people will not always return the courtesy, you still want to represent yourself well by treating others as you would like to be treated.

  1. Avoid people who do not respect your feelings

Just because someone disagrees with you does not mean they are disrespecting you, but when someone truly doesn’t respect you or your feelings, you can respect yourself by avoiding them. You won’t always be able to avoid everyone who disrespects you, but you can minimize your contact with them and set boundaries when necessary. For example, if you have a supervisor at work that doesn’t respect you, you can try to make the best of things by minimizing your contact as much as possible and disconnecting emotionally from the situation. Ultimately, though, you are going to need to assess whether you should look for another job if the situation is not going to improve.  This includes setting boundaries with people when necessary.

  1. Manage your reactions to your emotions

You can have an emotion without acting on it in the same way that just because you think something doesn’t mean you have to say it out loud. You are going to feel angry, depressed, frustrated, and distressed at times in your life. These feelings are all okay to have and you don’t have to deny that you feel these things. Yet being angry doesn’t mean you have to be aggressive, being depressed doesn’t mean you have to hurt yourself, being frustrated doesn’t mean you have to lash out, and being distressed doesn’t mean you have to hurt others. Learning to build strong coping skills so that you can face these feelings without reacting in an unhealthy way to them is a key part of emotional intelligence.

  1. Label your feelings instead of labeling people or situations

This is also part of owning your emotions, because you can talk about your feelings instead of talking about other people.  For example, try saying “I feel frustrated and impatient because of how slow things are happening” instead of “This is taking too long! These people are so incompetent!” Even when you are just saying these things in your head and not out loud, it makes a difference.  You can be sitting there stewing with frustration thinking nasty things even if you never open your mouth. Recognizing that this helps nothing and you feel terrible in the meantime will help you change your thoughts, which will change your emotions.

  1. Use your emotions to energize your actions

People who use their emotions to motivate them towards positive action can do amazing things. If you get angry about an issue you care about, it can motivate you to go take action to address that issue. Use the energy you feel from strong emotions to propel you to take action in a positive way. If you think a situation is unfair, speak out about it and let your voice be heard. If you have something bad happen to you, use the power behind your emotions to help prevent the same thing from happening to others if you can.

  1. Practice taking positivity from negative situations

Negative situations are inevitably going to come up. It’s important to allow yourself the time and space to process how you feel when bad things happen and allow yourself to heal when needed. Negative situations can also be a trigger for growth as well, though. This is a practice that you can start small with. For example, if you have been practicing building patience but you end up next to a road raging driver, use the situation as an opportunity to practice your frustration tolerance skills.

  1. Learn how to effectively deal with difficult people

Not everyone is going to be in the same place as you are right now in your life. Some people may have their own issues to sort out and you will end up crossing paths with them, resulting in difficult interactions. Part of being an emotionally intelligent person is deciding that you are going to be the kind of person you want to be, regardless of the kind of person someone else is. If you intend to be a kind, considerate, emotionally mature and secure person, then don’t let what other people do have an effect on your own choices and behaviors. It’s hard not to snap back at someone who has been rude to you, or disrespected you in some way. You never have to be a doormat for others or allow others to abuse you. However, when you have the confidence to address situations gracefully you will feel better able to stand up for yourself when needed and let petty things go when it’s not worth your time and energy.

Why Is Emotional Intelligence Important?

Practicing emotional intelligence can help you feel more confident and in control of your life. We all have emotions, and emotional intelligence is not about suppressing those emotions. It is actually about understanding and using your emotions to help you handle situations and people in a way that produces positive results in all your relationships and interactions instead of escalating situations until they feel out of control.

All of these practices will help you understand yourself and feelings more, and help you to focus on what is important instead of getting caught up in a habit of just reacting to your emotions. While some people may find that these practices come more naturally to the, other people may really struggle, and that is okay too.  Struggling with these things doesn’t mean something is wrong with you, it just means that you might need to practice more before these habits become comfortable. Even people with strong emotional intelligence traits can struggle with this kind of practice. No one is perfect, and emotionally intelligent people understand and respect that!