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How to Build Emotional Resilience

How to Build Emotional Resilience

When you have been through difficult emotional periods in your life, you know how hard it can be to pull yourself out of a depressive state or break habits that you know are bad for you.  Yet you may also know that those difficult experiences have shaped who you are and made you stronger and more capable as a person.  Emotional resilience comes from overcoming difficult times and continuing to move forward with your life, even when you may not feel like it.

What Is Emotional Resiliency?

Emotional resilience has to do with how well you cope with difficult emotions when they arise and how well you handle emotional challenges such as grief, anger, frustration, failure, or other problems.  When you are emotionally resilient, you still have emotional reactions to the situations you may find yourself in, but you don’t let the circumstances overwhelm you or pull you down into a dark place that leads to self- destructive patterns. Difficulties can be managed, and they do not change who you are as person or what your core values and beliefs are.

If you feel like your emotions are often in charge of how you react to situations instead of you controlling your emotional reactions, then you may need to practice building up your emotional resilience. Strong emotional resilience can help you cope with challenging situations without becoming overwhelmed or wanting to give up.

How To Build Emotional Resiliency

Building emotional resilience can take time, partially because you have to actually experience challenges and struggles in order for you to become resilient towards them. Everyone eventually experiences feelings like grief, anger, frustration, and failure, but the circumstances which trigger these emotions depends on what is happening in your life at any given time.

When you do experience these feelings or are going through a challenging situation, keep these tips in mind to help you cope with those challenges and build emotional resiliency.

  1. Acceptance:  This is a tough one for many people. Accepting circumstances as they are when you really want the situation to be different is always a challenge.  However, the sooner you accept that something bad has happened so now you have to figure out how to deal with it, the quicker you can get on with your life and figure out how to move past the problem and towards the solution.  Sometimes there might not be a solution, such as when you have lost a loved one to death or when a tragedy has occurred that cannot be changed. While you may experience other stages of grief such as denial, you ultimately must accept the circumstances, so practicing acceptance is a key component of emotional resiliency.
  2. Figure out what you can control:   Sometimes you will not feel like there is much you can control when something bad has happened, but if you think about it and try to look for your choices, you may find the things that are within your control.  When you figure out what you can control then you can empower yourself to make the best choices under the circumstances, and that will often lead to improvement in your emotional state.
  3. Let go of what you cannot control:   After you have figured out what you can control, then you can practice letting go of the things  you cannot control. That may be clear at times, such as knowing that something in the past has already happened and you can’t change it.  Other times it may be more confusing, such as when you are unsure whether your efforts are going to pay off if you take a risk.  Sometimes the only thing you may be able to control is your outlook and attitude towards the problem. Regardless of what’s happening, you will feel more resilient towards difficult circumstances when you learn to let go of any anger or resentment towards things you cannot control and try focusing only on what is within your own power to control.
  4. Acknowledge your emotions: Emotional resilience is not about not having emotions, but it is about understanding and accepting your emotions.  You cannot move past an emotion if you do not acknowledge and accept it.  For example, if you feel angry about something, but you don’t ever acknowledge or express that anger, then eventually it builds up inside you and turns into resentment and cynicism.  Once you acknowledge that you feel angry and work through accepting the circumstances and choices that caused that emotion, then you can let go of it and move on to a calmer emotional state.
  5. Take responsibility for your actions and reactions: You cannot control what other people do or how they react, but you can control your own behaviors and reactions. When you take responsibility for your own actions, you will feel more in control, which will lead to more emotional resilience. There may be times when you don’t feel proud of your own behavior or reactions.  You can still build emotional resilience when that happens though, by resolving to learn from your mistakes and make better choices in the future.
  6. Recognize when you are being self-destructive: Coping skills can be either healthy or unhealthy, and unhealthy coping skills tend to increase when you’re under stress or dealing with difficult emotions.  Part of taking responsibility for your actions and taking control when you can is recognizing when your own coping skills are becoming self-destructive.  This can happen when we start using food, or alcohol, or substances, or other unhealthy behaviors to cover up the difficult emotions we are experiencing.  When the coping skills you are using are doing more damage to you in long run, it’s time to recognize that your self-destructive behaviors are just prolonging the painful emotions you need to deal with. Emotional resiliency comes from dealing with your emotions, not from covering them up.
  7. Stop ruminating:  Rumination can become unhealthy when you are constantly dwelling on an issue or replaying scenes over and over in your head. You get stuck in a loop of negative thoughts and feelings that don’t help you move forward at all.  Sometimes ruminating on a problem can be helpful when you are looking for a solution, but rumination becomes distressful when you become preoccupied with something and can’t move past it. When you are asking yourself questions with no real solution or answer, such as “What if…” or “Why did this happen..”, you can get caught up in cycles of rumination that leave you with no solutions.  Instead, try asking yourself questions like “How can I change things…” or “What are my choices..” to try and find solutions.  Focusing on those kinds of questions will help you build emotional resiliency as you work on becoming more solution focused rather than staying stuck in negative emotional cycles.
  8. Release feelings of guilt, shame, and self-blame: This trifecta of emotions can send you on a downwards spiral of self-destructive behavior if you don’t learn to cope with these feelings and release them.  This is not about absolving yourself from any blame when something bad has happened, but it is about being realistic about what you are actually responsible for and letting go of these negative emotions when they are not serving you well.  If you examine these feelings, you may realize that you have been blaming yourself for things that were not your fault. You might need to recognize that you don’t have to accept responsibility for things you have been feeling guilty about.  There might be other times when you do feel sincerely regretful about something you did, and in those times it is appropriate to acknowledge the feelings of guilt and blame.  You may need to forgive yourself for things that you regret, or you may need to apologize when it’s appropriate.  However, you aren’t helping anyone by drowning in guilt and shame or ruminating about things that are in the past and can’t be changed.
  9. Understand your own cognitive distortions: Cognitive distortions are like little mind tricks that we all engage in sometimes, but that can distort reality when we don’t look at things in a rational way.  You can build up more emotional resiliency when you learn to recognize the mental patterns you use that distort reality and keep you stuck in negative thought patterns.  Learn more about cognitive distortions by reading the Cognitive Distortion Series I have on the blog.
  10. Practice gratitude: When you really feel overwhelmed and stuck in negativity, it’s always a good practice to come back to gratitude.  Cultivating a gratitude practice regularly will help you build emotional resiliency by helping you stay focused on the positive things you have in your life and give energy towards more of those things.  Even when times are really tough most of us have something that we can be grateful for. Many of us have more than enough to be grateful for, and while none of us is immune from suffering, we can all build emotional strength to help us cope with life and it’s struggles.

Emotional resiliency is a trait that you can develop, and like other areas of personal development, it is something that takes practice.  The more you practice dealing with circumstances by choosing acceptance, gratitude and responsibility versus choosing rumination, negativity, and shame, the greater control you will feel over your life and your choices.

You will not always be able to control the circumstances and situations that happen in life, and you will not always be able to control the actions and feelings of others.  However, you can choose to mentally shift your perspective in ways that will help you build up more emotional resiliency.  Practicing emotional intelligence will help you be better able to handle emotions when they arise and help you feel more confident about how you are choosing to handle problems and circumstances.

For more about Emotional Intelligence, check out these posts:

10 Ways to Practice Emotional Intelligence

Setting Boundaries

Are You Using Selective Self Control?

4 Steps for Anger Management

Cognitive Distortions: Disqualifying the Positive

 

5 Things to Ditch When You’re Feeling Depressed

5 Things to Ditch When You’re Feeling Depressed

Everyone has times in their life when they feel depressed, but clinical depression is more prolonged and intense than just having a sad day once in a while.  When you are in a depressive state, it can be a challenge to get out of, even when you’re tired of feeling bad all the time.

Most therapists and other helping people will encourage you to focus on positive experiences, thoughts, and people to help you get out of that depressive state and back to feeling good. However, it’s also helpful to think about some of the things that you can cut out of your life that might be contributing to your depression and making you feel worse.  It can be hard to get motivated to do the all the self-care you’re supposed to be doing when you’re in the midst of an intense depressive state.

Cutting some things out instead of adding more to your to-do list can be one strategy to combat depression and start to feel better, so that you actually have the energy to take care of yourself. Here are some things that you can safely ditch when you’re feeling depressed so that you have more time and energy to focus on yourself and get to feeling better:

1: Social Media

We all know that social media can be a place of comparison and drama when it’s not being used properly.  When you’re feeling depressed, social media can sometimes contribute to you feeling worse, especially if you get trapped into thinking that everyone’s lives seem better than yours or that other people seem to be happy and thriving while you’re not.

In reality, some people are putting their best faces, experiences, and attitudes forward on social media and not necessarily the full picture of their daily struggles.  Others might be constantly posting negativity, berating each other publicly, or starting arguments with little chance for resolution on public forums.  All of this can get overwhelming as you’re scrolling through your social feeds.

While it may be tempting to surf through all of your social platforms when you’re feeling down or bored, consider temporarily checking out of your social media profiles when you’re having a depressive episode.  The point is not to avoid people or the world in general, but you’ll be better off connecting with people in person who support you rather than spending too much time on social media when you’re feeling down.

2: Toxic People

Most of us know at least one toxic person, and possibly quite a few.  Toxic people are the ones that either contribute to all of the negativity in the world because they have negative energy overall, or those who directly speak or act in ways that are hurtful or damaging to those around them.  You probably know who the toxic people are in your life if you spend a bit of time thinking about it.  It could be the person at work who is always complaining about the office or their home life, or it could be that one friend who pretends to be supportive but in reality finds ways to cut you down or dismiss your feelings whenever given the chance.

If you have a toxic person in your life, feel free to limit your contact with them or cancel any plans you might have made if you are feeling depressed and know their energy would just make things worse.  This is all part of having healthy boundaries, and boundaries are part of self-care.  When you’re feeling depressed, cutting out time with negative, toxic people is part of getting through that depressive episode.  You don’t owe time or attention to people who negatively affect your mental health, even if they are among your friends and family.

3: Excess Clutter

Sometimes when you are feeling depressed, your physical possessions can tend to pile up and your space becomes a physical representation of how you feel inside.  Think of dishes taking over the kitchen, laundry taking over the living room, and clutter taking over your whole home.  The prospect of cleaning everything up seems overwhelming, and the whole mess contributes to how overwhelmed, sad, and unmotivated you feel.  The best strategy when this starts to happen is to tackle one thing at a time.

When you are depressed, you probably aren’t going to feel motivated to de-clutter all of your space, so think about just picking up one thing at a time.  When you walk to the bathroom, grab something to throw in the trash on the way or the laundry bin.  If you go to the kitchen to get a snack, put up one or two dishes from the dishwashing machine or wash one pot in the sink.  Don’t think you have to tackle it all at once, but recognize that one small bit of progress is not too overwhelming to manage, and doing one thing can create momentum.  You will likely feel somewhat better when your space isn’t overwhelming you too, so just focus on small tasks, and by the end of one day you will have made some progress.

4: Negative Self- Talk & Rumination

This can be a tough one to tackle, because the nature of depression is such that your mind finds ways to remind you of the negative outlook on almost everything that is happening, and it all gets tied in with the hopelessness and loss of motivation that you are already feeling.  However, ditching negative self-talk and negative rumination is one of the most powerful things that you can practice to help combat symptoms of depression.

First, you need to notice the thoughts that you are having that are negative and unhelpful. Recognize when you are engaging in thoughts patterns where you are ruminating on thoughts, people, or experiences that are not helping you to solve a problem or move past an issue.  When you are having repetitive thoughts, such as “I can’t do anything right, nothing I do will make a difference, everyone thinks negative things about me…”, then you need to take control over this thought pattern.

When you recognize these negative thought patterns, write down all of the negative things you are saying to yourself, and then directly challenge those thoughts.  Make an argument to yourself about why these thoughts are limiting you and make a conscious choice to change those thoughts in a more positive direction.  You can enlist the help of a good friend or confident, your therapist if you have one, or you can do it yourself.  But don’t let those thoughts go unchallenged, or they will take over your mental space and push you further into that depressive state.

5: Extra Obligations

We all have obligations that we have to meet in order to keep out lives on track and running smoothly.  Work, school, family obligations, and other responsibilities are a part of all of our lives.  Sometimes, though, you can afford to let go of some of the things you typically feel obligated to do, especially if you are someone who tends to over-commit yourself to others or take on more than you can reasonably handle.  If this is a problem you have, then these extra-obligations can feel like more opportunities for failure or letting people down, and when you’re depressed, that can take on extra significance.  When you are experiencing a depressive episode, however, this is a time to trim down your extra obligations and focus on getting your basic needs met.

If you have a partner that can pick up some of the slack, then enlist their help when possible.  If you need to cancel plans that feel too burdensome, that’s okay, just try to be conscientious and forthright towards people that you have made commitments to.  You don’t have to over-explain everything, but it’s okay to let people know that you’re not feeling well and you’re not able to meet those obligations you’ve committed to.

This is not to say that you can abandon all of your responsibilities.  If you start to just check out of everything, like taking too many days off work, not taking care of your children, or abandoning tasks that need to get done like paying bills then you might find yourself suffering from consequences that will make your depression worse.  This strategy is about ditching the excess stuff that you can do without, like too many social obligations or over-committing to extra projects.  If you find yourself struggling to complete necessary obligations that keep your life together, then it’s time to get some professional help with your depression.

Manage Depression by Focusing on One Thing At A Time

Managing depression usually requires multiple different strategies, and sometimes it feels like a beast that is too hard to tackle all at once.  You don’t have to give in to the sadness and fatigue, though.  Every day and every hour is a new opportunity to try something different, and it will be worth the effort you make to feel better.

When it seems like self-care is elusive or like no matter what you do you’re still feeling bad, then try to trim down what you’re focusing on.  Thinking about everything all at once can be too overwhelming, so just try to think about one strategy at a time and give yourself credit for that.  Abandoning your social media scrolling in favor of a walk outside or canceling dinner plans with that toxic person in favor of some time spent journaling or calling your more positive friend who lives across the country can make a difference in how you feel at the end of the day.

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.

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!

Relationship Series: Sexual Compatibility and Your Partnership

Relationship Series: Sexual Compatibility and Your Partnership

Sex is an important part of any relationship, so it’s worth talking about it because there are so many ways that sex can become a source of frustration, conflict, and discouragement.  It doesn’t have to be that way, but there does need to be a clear understanding about what the  sexual boundaries are and whether or not sex is a boost to your relationship, or a burden.

Ideally, you want to find a partner who shares the same sexual interests, drive, and desires as you do, but that’s easier said than done. There’s a few common problems related to sex that I see come up with many of my clients, so let’s talk about what some of the common issues are and how we resolve them in counseling.

  1. Sex Drive

I’ve seen this happen time and time again with couples in counseling.  One person has a strong sex drive and the other person is just not that into it anymore.  It’s not that one partner doesn’t want sex, but life just saps their energy and drive. This causes friction because sex starts to feel like an obligation to one partner, while the person with a stronger drive feels frustrated and rejected.  This becomes a source of conflict and the person with a lower drive feels guilty for not “fulfilling their partner’s needs”.

When we examine this problem more closely, it’s a lot more complicated than just a sex drive problem.  For both men and women, there are hormonal changes that happen throughout the life cycle that can impact sex drive.  Women’s libido tends to drop as they start to age out of their childbearing years, while men may still feel a strong sex drive.  Add to that work, kids, life, and chores, and it’s not surprising that turning into a sex bomb when the clock strikes midnight is not high on the priority list when your hormones are against you and you have to get up and do it all over again the next day.

Stress relief is an important factor to incorporate when this happens. The latest studies on sex, chores, and partnership show that heterosexual couples who share household chores have more sex than in relationships where the woman does the bulk of the housework. These findings have changed over the years, but so have relationships. These days, egalitarian partnerships where both partners feel that duties overall are shared pretty fairly had the highest frequency of sex each month.

  1. Sexual Experimentation

Let’s be really clear about sexual experimentations: the # 1 priority is CONSENT. No one is entitled to sex acts from their partner that the other person doesn’t want to participate in. This includes swinging, the use of any toys, voyeurism, or any other kinky fantasy you can come up with.  Adults in consensual relationships have wide latitude to do whatever they want in the bedroom, but it must always come with clear and enthusiastic consent from both partners.

I have seen couples where one person was trying to please their partner and so they agreed to engage in sexual activities they were not truly comfortable with. This leads to distrust, shame, resentment, and loss of respect between partners.

It can be confusing to know what to do in a culture that makes sure sex is ever-present in the media.  The explosion of availability of porn on the internet means that children are getting access to sexual content at ever-younger ages, and so both young adults and older couples have seen a shift in the expectations of what goes on in the bedroom.

This can affect relationships when there are differences in what each person is comfortable with or interested in.  There’s no need to shame people for being interested in sexual experimentation, but there’s also no place for shaming your partner for NOT wanting to participate in certain acts. With time and trust, a couple may become more comfortable with certain sexual experimentation, but there shouldn’t be hard and fast expectations about what your partner “should do for you” just because you want it.

  1. Intimacy

There’s physical intimacy, and then there’s emotional intimacy.  Some people need emotional intimacy to get to physical intimacy.  Some people need physical intimacy (sex) to feel emotionally close with their partners.  I’ve seen this present in all different ways, too. I’ve seen men that have struggled with sex because they needed to feel emotionally secure with their partners. I’ve seem women who felt rejected and hurt when there wasn’t enough sex going on the in relationship. I’ve seen all genders display all ranges of needs in these areas of physical and emotional intimacy.

The important thing to know is how your emotional and physical intimacy are connected to each other and how important this is to you as a couple. Talking about your emotional and physical intimacy is key to building a better sex life if you’re struggling. You might be a little more open to sex if you know that it will help your partner feel emotionally connected and close to you.  You might feel more compelled to put some effort into connecting emotionally with your partner and spending some time together if you know they will be more open to having sex when you make that effort.

Talk to each other about the role of emotional and physical intimacy and how that affects your sex life in terms of quality AND frequency.

  1. Infidelity

This is a tough one for many couples because infidelity is a betrayal. Many people blame their infidelity on the fact that things were not going well in their relationship or marriage and so they sought out attention elsewhere. Sometimes the victim gets blamed for not providing enough sex or attention to the partner who cheated.  The truth is always more complicated than that.

People’s sex life is often affected when infidelity happens because of the violation of trust. The person who has been betrayed may want to punish their partner by withholding sex, or they may feel disgusted by their partner’s behavior and not want to be physically intimate for a while. There are all kinds of emotional reactions to infidelity, and it is normal to need a period of healing if you decide to stay together.

This is a situation in which the person who cheated needs to be especially attentive to their partner’s emotional needs.  But there are things can become unhelpful to the healing process, and sometimes it’s important to have ongoing conversations about what is or is not going to help heal the relationship.  It’s important to understand what fair expectations are, and what is going to actually be helpful to the future of the relationship versus what will just continue to damage the relationship. For more on healing after infidelity, read this post: Rebuilding Trust After Infidelity

  1. Attraction

Most people will say that they were attracted to their partner when they first met them or at least by the time they first started dating. However, sometimes attraction fades and your partner doesn’t seem so shiny and new.  Sometimes the sex in the relationship is affected because one person may not be attracted to their partner anymore, or sometimes because one person doesn’t feel that sexy anymore and so they don’t want to have sex.

This is why it is important for couples to be attracted to each other AND to themselves beyond just their physical attributes.  There are lots of qualities that people have that can be very sexy: confidence, charisma, loyalty, dedication, personality, humor, kindness, and generosity.  Attractive qualities can be found in abundance. If physical attractiveness is the main thing keeping two people together, there’s bound to be some problems later on.

If you plan on staying together, you can expect that your bodies and your looks will change over time. Sexual attraction doesn’t have to change, though, just because your appearance does. When you understand that being sexy has just has much to do with enthusiasm and personality as it does with lingerie and a hot body then you’ll maintain attraction to each other into your golden years.

  1. Pressure and Guilt

Putting pressure on your partner can backfire when it comes to sex.  If you try to make your partner feel guilty or ashamed when they don’t want sex when you do or if they don’t want to participate in certain sexual acts, you’re going to damage the intimacy and trust in your relationship. No one is owed sex by anyone else, even if you’re in a committed partnership.

If you want more sex from your partner try instead to work on creating the conditions that will get your partner in the mood. Doing things that help your partner feel relaxed and sexy are more likely going to get your partner interested and engaged in sex than if you pressure them by saying hurtful things like they’re “not holding up their end of the deal” or that you “will go find it elsewhere” if you don’t get your way. Saying hurtful and shaming statements will make your partner less likely to want to get in the mood because they’re not going to feel sexy or confident.

The Bottom Line

Sex can and should be a fun and integral part of your relationship or marriage. It’s also one of the main reasons people break up and it’s a big source of conflict for some couples. Sexual compatibility is about so much more than just if you enjoy having sex with each other. Sex is a two-way street, so both people deserve to feel good about it and feel happy in their sex lives with their partner.

Yet sex is just like every other issue in a relationship in that it means having to compromise sometimes. When you are in a relationship with someone, both of you have to compromise on lots of different issues, but you do so because you care about each other and want to figure out a way to make each other happy. Just as with other areas of conflict, communication is the key.

If you’re not comfortable talking a with your partner about sex in an open and respectful way, then you might benefit from seeing a therapist, either individually or as a couple. It doesn’t have to be a specialized sex therapist. Most counselors are fine with talking about sex with couples, especially if they do a lot of marriage or relationship counseling.

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For more information about relationships and building a strong partnership, check out my author page for a link to my book for couples “Work It Out: A Survival Guide to the Modern Relationship”  and if you want more resources for building a healthy relationship, subscribe here and I’ll send you the free Couples Communication Toolkit that I designed to get you on the right track with your relationship communication.

 

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For more posts in this series, please see:

Relationship Series: Shared Values

Relationship Series: Emotional Intimacy

Relationship Series: Personal Confidence and Your Partnership

Relationship Series: Couples’ Communication

Relationship Series: How to Stop Past Pain from Damaging Your Relationship

Relationship Series: When Opposites Attract- How to Manage Personality Differences