In Kelly McGonigal’s latest book,”The Upside of Stress,” she explores how things that create meaning and happiness in our lives also create stress. When we learn to change our relationship with stress, we build in possibilities for meaning and happiness. In the following video, McGonigal recommends practical ways to shift our perspective on stress:
Take some time to journal, visit with a friend, or ponder following prompts:
- Discover what matters to you in life. Write about the roles, relationships, activities, and goals that are most important to you, and how you would feel if they did not exist.
- Discover your values. Spend 10 minutes writing about each of your top three values. Values are the things that are important to you and give meaning to the way you live and work (examples: adventure, compassion, humor, courage, and loyalty). How do your values play into your life? How can your values create some new meaning around a problem you are currently facing?
- Understand the drawbacks of avoiding stress. In order to avoid stress, we may turn down meaningful opportunities or give up on something important to us.
I hear more and more people talking about stress. Increased feelings of stress. I hear it on Facebook, emails from friends and family, even in everyday conversations. I spoke recently on the topic of self-compassion and stress-management at a major corporation in Houston. After I finished, I was amazed at the number of women that came to talk with me about their own struggle with stress and anxiety. The number of personal stories validated the stress in our society and the feeling of being overwhelmed as we attempt to manage too many expectations.
Most people experience an abundance of stress. The election and approaching holidays add an extra layer of stress and worry. The stressors are not going away, but we can use helpful tools to take extra care of our relationships and ourselves.
3 Types of Stress
Before we talk about balancing stress, it is helpful to understand how stress functions in our daily life. In simple terms, we face three types of stress: balanced, acute, and chronic. Whenever I talk about types of stress, I like to use the example of a zebra.
- Balanced Stress: When a zebra is lion-free, he is in a balanced state. A balanced state is the ability to relax and also be ready for threat when stress is present. The zebra can relax, eat juicy nutrient grass, enjoy his zebra companions, and play with his zebra kids and wife. Balanced stress is like getting the temperature just right on a thermostat.
- Acute Stress: When a zebra senses a nearby lion, everything centers on the threat of the lion. Stress chemicals and hormones release to focus all energy toward reacting to the lion. All internal systems shut down to focus energy on escape. The zebra will not sleep, digest, enjoy intimacy, or relax until the threat has been averted. When the lion leaves, the zebra’s body readjusts to a normal, balanced state. Eating, intimacy, relaxation, and play resume.
- Chronic Stress: In the zebra world, chronic stress does not exist. Chronic stress would be similar to the experience of a lion stalking the zebra 24-7. This chronic stress negatively impacts the zebra’s digestive system, sleep, intimacy, and leads to chronic fatigue. Imagine driving a car continuously even when the temperature gauge shows the car overheating. Keep driving, and the car will break down.
What does a zebra have to do with me?
The human body’s threat system is much like a zebra’s threat system, except for some important factors that maintain chronic stress and make it difficult to rebalance:
- The stressors at work, home, and in our society do not go away.
- We have the ability to replay past mistakes or rehearse worry about future threats.
- We can be harsh with ourselves in our own minds. Some of us talk to ourselves in a way that we would never talk to a loved one. Negative self-talk is like having a lion in our heads 24-7.
How does chronic stress impact our bodies?
When we are in a state of constant stress, our bodies continually stay in threat mode. Like the zebra, all of our internal systems are diverted to face the threat. We keep driving our bodies even though the temperature gauge is redlining. Unaddressed chronic stress impacts our digestive system, our ability to sleep, intimacy, our ability to think clearly, as well as our joy in daily life.
Adjust the thermostat
The first step in compassionate stress management is to take a moment to notice. Where is my internal temperature gauge right now?
- Issues with digestion
- Relationship difficulties
- Sleep difficulties
We can feel so rushed that we may not notice what is happening in our own bodies. Can we give ourselves permission to pause at least a couple of times during the day and check in? Allowing ourselves to notice may be challenging. The stressors can seem too big. For instance, what if I feel torn between my work and my responsibilities at home? What if my marriage is struggling? These issues take time to explore. Reaching out to a counselor can offer much needed support to take a close look at some tough areas. The counseling process organically creates options for moving forward and reducing stress.
The second step is to respond with care. What do I need? Explore different tools and see what brings some needed stress relief.
What are my choices?
Over the next few weeks, I will continue to explore tools that have proven helpful to rebalance stress. If this topic resonates with you, please let me know via Facebook or Twitter. I want to offer tools and resources that really connect with where you are right now. Also, see my website for a number of helpful tools:
Emotional Freedom Tapping, or EFT, is very easy to learn, and will help you:
- Alleviate Negative Emotions
- Reduce Food Cravings
- Reduce or Eliminate Pain
- And Implement Positive Goals
Emotional Freedom Tapping, or EFT, is a form of psychological acupressure, based on the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture.
Simply tapping with the fingertips on the head and chest inputs kinetic energy onto specific points while you think about your specific problem – whether it is a traumatic event, an addiction, pain, or anxiety. Tapping is paired with voicing a positive affirmation: “Even though I am ______________, I accept myself.” This combination of tapping the energy meridians and voicing positive affirmations works to clear emotional blocks and restore your mind and body’s balance.
Becky Hein‘s recent article, Sleep Your Anxiety Away, Part I: You’ve Tried the Rest, Now Get Some Rest, discusses the impact of sleep deprivation on anxiety. If anxiety is a challenge, improving sleep is an excellent place to begin the focus of your efforts. She includes the latest research and helpful tools to improve your sleep habits as well as your mood. According to the article, “Getting adequate, quality sleep is extremely important for emotional regulation and processing. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to make changes in this area.”
To learn more, check out Sleep Your Anxiety Away, Part I: You’ve Tried the Rest, Now Get Some Rest.
I recently had the honor of facilitating a class about healthy relationship practices. During one discussion about the importance of anger as an emotion, we examined how anger in relationships can be detrimental if we are not gentle with those we love. Anger is neither good nor bad. In fact, it is an essential emotion for our health and safety, and part of a healthy human experience. Anger can alert us to unjust treatment, and gives us needed energy to address harmful behavior.
“Negative emotions most likely aid in our survival. Bad feelings can be vital clues that a health issue, relationship or other important matter needs attention. The survival value of negative thoughts and emotions may help explain why suppressing them is so fruitless. Even if you successfully avoid contemplating a topic, your subconscious may still dwell on it.” (Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being, Scientific American, 5/1/13)
But anger is not a thinking emotion. Our ability to think clearly is diminished when we are angry. The front part of our brain goes dim. In the midst of conflict we can say and do things we later regret. We can protect our relationship when we first cool down and then seek to understand each another.
Seek to Understand
The goal of conflict in a relationship is to understand each other. The relationship loses when someone has to win. During times of conflict, relationships can actually grow and become stronger when our conversation focuses on understanding and care. If you argue well, it is even possible to feel closer. Unfortunately, people are often more focused on “winning” than understanding. This often occurs when the intensity of the anger becomes greater than the desire to seek meaningful solutions. With this in mind, we need to develop strategies to decrease the intensity of the anger and increase our ability to listen to one another.
Learn to Cool Off
Learning to control your emotions rather than allowing your emotions to control you is an important skill to develop. Instead of allowing your anger to build up until you “explode,” it is more productive to disengage until you are able to think clearly and feel at the same time.
Once both people in an argument have “cooled off,” it is easier to re-engage and reach resolution. Unfortunately, many people want to “finish” the argument immediately, rather than allowing “time-outs” to occur. Frequently, this results in one person pursuing and the other person running away until they feel cornered. When this occurs, the argument often becomes destructive. Remember, in a relationship, you do not have to resolve everything “right now.” It is appropriate to cool off and re-engage when the anger has subsided.
Boundaries that Protect
Creating safety is essential for a relationship to thrive. The behaviors listed below are destructive and will harm the relationship. When we draw the line at these behaviors, we create a foundation that protects and respects the relationship.
- No hitting
- No cursing
- No name-calling
- No yelling
- No throwing
- Stay focused on one issue at a time
Commit to Resolving Issues
It is important to remember that calling a “time-out” does not mean that you never have to talk about the issue again. A designated time needs to be established to re-engage in the discussion. If you do not create a time to return to the discussion, the anger tends to re-emerge in later arguments. “Time-outs” only work if both people are committed to continuing the discussion until true understanding is reached.
A number of communication tools are available to help couples communicate with understanding and care. One of my favorite tools is L-O-V-E Conversations. If you are unable to work through issues without anger dominating your relationship, couples therapy can provide support, as well as healthy alternatives to address conflict.
In the following video, Bruce Muzik uses the metaphor of a game of tennis to illustrate healthy communication skills. His video is informative, witty, and fun to watch. Many of the couples I work with in my therapy practice have found this useful in their efforts to improve their communication skills.
At some point you have probably made a New Year’s resolution and then broken it. But instead of a resolution, what would it be like this year to create a meaningful habit?
Last year I wrote a series about self-control and how to achieve your goals. While researching the topic I was surprised to find that using willpower and self-determination alone sets us up for failure. I am not sure why this is such a surprise. How many times have I broken my resolutions when life got too busy? Sliding back into old habits can be a familiar pattern for many of us:
- Let’s say you decide to go on a diet and a coworker brings a box of gourmet donuts to the office? You work hard to resist the donuts throughout the entire day. However, your willpower is so taxed trying to avoid the donuts all day that you later give in to a large combo plate at your favorite Mexican restaurant that night. What a frustrating experience.
- Or suppose you decide to control your anger. You make a commitment to be kinder to your spouse at the end of each day when you get home from work. Unfortunately, the next workday is full of stressors: your boss yells at you, you miss lunch, and traffic is unbelievably frustrating. Then you get home, and what happens? The commitment you made to yourself goes out the window and you end up angry with your spouse.
This is a common experience because willpower is limited. We create our goal, shore up our determination, eventually run out of steam, and end up falling short.
“Willpower, for all its merits, is full of holes. Maintaining it requires not only a good deal of effort but also a conducive environment… Seemingly irrelevant factors like being at home versus being at work, or even the need to make simple decisions unrelated to resisting temptation—(‘Should I wear a white shirt or a blue one?’)—can diminish self-control. The result? People whose willpower is taxed fail to resist about one out of every six temptations they face, even when they try using cognitive strategies to manage their ‘hot’ responses. Willpower appears to be quite finite in supply.” (David Desteno, September 15, 2014, Pacific Standard, The Science of Society).
How Can I Achieve My Goals?
If willpower does not work, what can I do?
According to a recent review of lab experiments on self-control, four emotional characteristics were shown to boost our self-control and increase staying power (Desteno, 2014).
- Authentic pride
“These emotions— gratitude, compassion, authentic pride, and even guilt—work from the bottom up to shape decisions that favor the long-term. If we focus on instilling the capacity to experience these emotional states regularly, we’ll build resources that will automatically spring forth in reflexive and productive ways. In essence, we’ll give ourselves inoculations against temptation that, like antibodies in our bloodstream, will be ready and waiting to combat possible threats to our well-being.” (David Desteno, September 15, 2014, Pacific Standard, The Science of Society).
Breaking It Down
For the month of January, I will focus each week on a virtue that boosts staying power. This week will focus on compassion, and how a compassion practice can have a positive impact our ability to reach our goals.
How Can We Build Compassion?
Compassion is an emotion that involves noticing our surroundings, and then feeling moved to care. When we allow ourselves to notice another person, we are naturally moved to respond to a fellow human being with care and concern.
Self-compassion is the same thing. The only difference is allowing ourselves to see our own struggle, and respond to ourselves with care in the same way we would another human being.
One way we can build compassion is to practice on ourselves. We can be our worst critic and beat up on ourselves when we fall short on hopes and goals. When we talk to ourselves with criticism and self-judgment, we fuel anger and anxiety. We can even increase the odds that we will get frustrated and want to quit.
Kristin Neff has found that “people who can first give themselves emotional support and validation will be in a better position to be giving, accepting and generous to their partners.” She also found that “people who nurture self-compassion have better overall psychological and emotional health, experience less anxiety and depression, and are more motivated to achieve their goals.” (Randall, 2013)
What Gets In The Way?
In a recent TED talk, Daniel Goleman explored the things that keep us from compassion. One of the main obstacles is being in a hurry.
“A group of divinity students at the Princeton Theological Seminary were told that they were going to give a practice sermon and they were each given a sermon topic. Half of those students were given, as a topic, the parable of the Good Samaritan: the man who stopped to help the stranger in need by the side of the road. Half were given random Bible topics. Then one by one, they were told they had to go to another building and give their sermon. As they went from the first building to the second, each of them passed a man who was bent over and moaning, clearly in need. The question is: Did they stop to help? The more interesting question is: Did it matter they were contemplating the parable of the Good Samaritan? Answer: No, not at all. What turned out to determine whether someone would stop and help a stranger in need was how much of a hurry they thought they were in. And this is, I think, the predicament of our lives: that we don’t take every opportunity to help because our focus is in the wrong direction.” (Goleman, 2007)
The conclusion of the experiment was that the student’s compassion was not significantly influenced by studying the passage on compassion, but more by the student’s belief that they were in too much of a hurry. When we get overwhelmed or in a rush, this impacts our ability to be compassionate with ourselves, as well as others we care about. One way to build compassion is to slow the pace of life.
When we begin each year, we are full of hope and excitement about the possibility of making positive changes. But over time, the fast pace of life gets in the way and pulls us off track. How we respond to ourselves when we make mistakes is essential to reaching our goals. If I beat up myself with self-criticism, I lose heart and momentum. “I failed again just like last year; I will never get this right.” This approach increases frustration and makes it difficult to keep going. Kim Fredrickson suggests another approach: Acknowledge my mistake and realize that even when I mess up, I deserve to be treated with dignity as a fellow human being.
“Self-compassion is a balance of truth (Yes, I made a mistake) with grace (I have worth and value, and I will address this mistake directly)… Self-compassion is absolutely essential for healthy, balanced living. It provides huge benefits including emotional resiliency, stress reduction, contentment, and healthier relationships. Without it we are vulnerable to the opinions of others and find it difficult to deal with and let go of our mistakes.” Kim Fredrickson
When we learn to respond to ourselves with kindness and compassion, we calm the body and create space to respond courageously with our best selves. This is not the same as self-pity.
“Self-compassion isn’t poor me. Self-compassion is: ‘It’s hard for all of us… the human experience is hard for me, for you, this is the way life is.’ It’s a much more connected way of relating to yourself. And this is why mindfulness is so important. When we are mindful of our suffering, we see it as it is, we don’t ignore it, but we also don’t over exaggerate.” Kristin Neff
A compassionate approach allows us to respond to ourselves with kindness and get a fresh start every day. Our mistakes do not define us. We are able to decrease the heavy burden of our missteps and move forward compassionately with our hopes and dreams.
Ready to Boost Your Compassion?
Here are some tools to get started:
- A quiz to assess your current level of self-compassion.
- A self-compassion exercise to get a small hint of what this looks like in practice: Self-Compassion Exercise
- Compassion Meditations designed to increase experience of compassion for self and others.
Resources on Building Compassion
Desteno, D. (2014) A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses. Pacific Standard, The Science of Society. (http://www.psmag.com/navigation/health-and-behavior/feeling-control-america-can-finally-learn-deal-impulses-self-regulation-89456/)
Goleman, D. (2007). TED. (http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_goleman_on_compassion?language=en)
Jennifer Christian, M.A., LPC
“Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” Melody Beattie
I have so many reasons to be thankful:
- My husband and I sipped coffee together before we started our day.
- I enjoyed a long walk by myself at Memorial Park.
- Our teenagers have found their groove at school and are enjoying soccer pre-season.
- I am currently savoring a bite of dark chocolate as I type.
In 2012, I decided to incorporate an intentional habit that did not depend upon my mood or daily circumstances. I started a gratitude project and began experiencing the powerful benefits of an active practice. My husband and I have both been amazed at the positive impact a gratitude habit has had on our marriage and other relationships over the past three years.
I can tell you from personal experience that gratitude will change your life. The following list, compiled from a growing body of research, describes the powerful impact an active gratitude practice can have on your health and relationships.
Seven Ways Gratitude Will Change Your Life
- Gratitude boosts health and wellness: “ “Grateful people take better care of themselves and engage in more protective health behaviors like regular exercise, a healthy diet, and regular physical examinations. Grateful people also tend to be more optimistic… studies link optimism to better immune function.” (Elizabeth Heubeck, Boost Your Health With a Dose of Gratitude)
- Gratitude protects against depression: “Gratitude supports the neurochemistry of well-being, and protects against depression. It builds resilience, so we get less rattled by events and bounce back faster. And gratitude turns us toward others as we appreciate the people we care about.” (Rick Hanson, What Are the Health Benefits to Thankfulness?)
- Gratitude increases happiness: “In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” (Harvard Health Publications)
- Gratitude can help you through hard times: “Expressing gratefulness during personal adversity like loss or chronic illness – as hard as that might be – can help you adjust, move on, and perhaps begin anew. Although it may be challenging to celebrate your blessings at moments when they seem least apparent to you, it may be the most important thing that you can do.” (Sonjia Lyubomirsky, Eight Ways Gratitude Boosts Happiness)
- Gratitude increases satisfaction and longevity of relationships: “It starts within our own self. When we consciously foster feelings of appreciation for our loved ones—whether by doing a gratitude mediation about them every morning or by deliberately focusing on specific things we love about them—our relationship improves.” (Cristine Carter, A Surprisingly Simple Way to Feel Madly in Love)
- Gratitude increases satisfaction of parenting: “I am happy and proud to say that my relationship with my teenager is better than ever! Now he seeks me out to tell with me stories and jokes. He listens to me intently when I give him guidance. I can’t tell you how much this simple practice has changed our relationship. In retrospect, while teaching my family about this principal it also affected me positively. I noticed how my attitude towards him changed and softened because I started seeing him through a gratitude lens.” (Debbie Lyn Toomey, Gratitude Tip for Positive Parenting)
- Gratitude increases self worth: “Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth. I think that’s because when you’re grateful, you have the sense that someone else is looking out for you—someone else has provided for your well-being, or you notice a network of relationships, past and present, of people who are responsible for helping you get to where you are right now.” (Robert Emmons, Why Gratitude Is Good)
Create Your Own Gratitude Practice
- Start a gratitude journal. Write down three items each day that make you grateful.
- Share gratitude at the dinner table. My family shares “Highs and Lows” every night during our evening meal to stay connected through the week. If not with your family members, pick a friend and share a high point and low point each day.
- Say “Thank You” often: Look for ways to express gratitude to those who cross your path every day. Express thanks at the grocery story, gym, at home, or just about anywhere.
Last week, I had a dream that I was caught in a blizzard. A blanket of swirling white surrounded me. My mind raced to discover some sense of direction. I was disoriented and frightened. Paralyzed. Where was I? Where was the path home?
And, then it was as if everything went into slow motion. Time slowed down. Way down. I began to notice individual snowflakes. Unique details of one snowflake. Its beauty. As my awareness shifted toward the structure of the snowflakes, I noticed my body beginning to relax. My mind settled. Gently. Slowly. I began to see areas of empty space open between each of the flakes. The spaces grew wider. The snowflakes began to lessen. I saw more clearly. The intensity of the blizzard that had seemed so overwhelming now calmed. Though still surrounded by the snow, I no longer felt afraid.
Since this dream, I have thought how much everyday life can at times feels like a blizzard. Time speeds up without warning. Daily tasks swirl around me: work tasks, family expectations, holiday chores, friendships, household duties, volunteering, etc. But then other things compound what might already be a blinding blizzard of activity. Thoughts, feelings, regrets from the past and “what ifs” of the future can surface to cloud my vision even more. My mind begins to race.
Where am I? Where is the path home?
Then I notice. Awareness. Gratitude.
- The smell of the crisp autumn morning air
- Listening to the laughter of my children as they watch silly videos
- Seeing my husband’s eyes gently crinkle as he pushes the plate in my direction to let me have the last bite
- Gently holding the hand of a dear friend who is grieving
- Tasting a hot, gooey chocolate chip cookie
- Feeling the sensation of a long hot shower after a satisfying day
Take a deep breath. This is your life. Notice. Search. Find the moments of beauty sprinkled like beautiful snowflakes in the midst of the flurry of tasks and worries.
Time slows. Mind gently settles. I am still surrounded, but I am not afraid.
The power of gratitude.
Today during my routine morning walk I began to ponder the many self-care skills that I use regularly. Over the years, I have learned that I feel better when I make time to:
- Eat right
- Practice gratitude
- Practice prayerful meditation
- Practice yoga
- Have fun
- Plan enjoyable activities
- Spend time with friends
This may seem like a no brainer to some people, but personally it has been an evolution of self-acceptance and self-compassion. Healthy habits that are so natural for me today were nonexistent several years ago.
I remember the first time I received a self-care list. It was about 10 years ago. I was fatigued, stressed out, and pushing myself harder and harder to be perfect. I could not go on this way much longer. I was at a breaking point. I found Nancy, a therapist who began to help me process how I found myself at this point and how to move forward. During one session, she gave me a self-care handout that addressed physical, emotional, and spiritual health. I had never seen anything like it. What a radical concept!
As a child, I received a version of a “Christian” message that I should always sacrifice my own needs on behalf of others. Somewhere along the way I learned that my needs were not only unimportant, but that it was selfish for me to express my needs. I was told that whenever I felt empty and exhausted I should pray harder and God would provide. But years and years of emptying myself for others wore away at my physical and emotional health. Moreover, there was not enough of me to go around, and my children and husband sometimes got the short end of the stick. This approach was not sustainable.
When Nancy handed me the self-care list, I began a journey of learning self-care and boundaries. In the beginning, I carried the list with me wherever I went, especially when I found myself around difficult people who suck the life out of me, treat me like I do not matter, or that they should always come first. I needed a reminder that it is okay to respond to myself with care. At one point I even carried my self-care list to a challenging family gathering in another state. I referred to the list several times as a support to say “no” when needed, or to allow myself rest when I was tired. I began to experience a positive difference.
“When you doubt your own importance, you’re allowing the manipulations of difficult people to gain a foothold. However, when you understand that your time, money, dignity and needs are vital to your well-being, it’s easier to tune out people who want to break your boundaries.” (Margarita Tartakovsky, 5 Ways to Maintain Boundaries with Difficult People)
Now I practice responding to myself in the same way that I want to respond to others: with love, compassion, kindness, gratitude, acceptance, and gentleness. I continue to learn what it is to be a compassionate and loving person every time I practice compassion and love with myself. I am a recovering perfectionist, so I often have to start my compassionate practice over again daily.
“Rest and self-care are so important. When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.” (Eleanor Brownn, Self-Care is Not Selfish)
I write about my own personal journey because I know many who find self-care challenging. You may have received the message that your needs are unimportant, or that you are selfish when you take care and nourish yourself. If self-care is a radical concept, or if you feel like there is not enough of you to go around, you are not alone. You can start with baby steps, adding one or two things and noticing differences in how you feel. If you feel overwhelmed, Jennifer Louden’s article, “Minimum Self-Care Requirements” is a great place to start. Be gentle with yourself. There is no hurry and no right way to do this.
For me, it has been almost ten years, and I am still experimenting and learning, even adapting Nancy’s original list. I feel excited just thinking about the adaptations you will make as you begin to explore and create your own list:
Nancy’s Adapted Self-Care List
- Eat (mostly) healthy foods in moderation
- Exercise regularly
- Drink plenty of water
- Get adequate sleep
- Practice good hygiene (bathe, brush teeth, etc.)
- Obtain medical care, as needed
- Nurture yourself regularly
- Use compassionate self-talk
- Learn and use relaxation techniques
- Use healthy boundaries
- Express your feelings appropriately
- Identify your feelings
- Share them directly with someone who will treat you with care
- Talk to a friend
- Use ventilation techniques (punch a pillow, throw ice, etc.)
- Allow yourself (& others) to make mistakes
- Respond to your negative self-talk with self-compassion
- Ask for what you want
- Say “no” when you need to
- Use “I feel …” statements to express your emotions
- Avoid being passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive. Be Assertive.
- Spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself
- Accept compliments without discounting (just say “thank you”)
- Make time to laugh & play!
- Make a daily gratitude list
- Open yourself to the beauty of nature
- Continue to learn something new
- Be open to different points of view
- Engage in activities that connect you with God and others
Life keeps getting faster. I have so much going on with my two teenagers, my husband, work, friends, volunteering… the list just never ends. It is all good stuff. I love my life. But I have learned over the years that I cannot do it all, even though it feels like I have to learn this lesson over and over again. I am not sure how many times I have turned to my dear husband with my Wonder Woman outfit in one hand and some dark chocolate in the other: “I am so tired. I just need a break!”
Friend: “Jennifer, can you help with ___________?”
Me (As I wipe the sweat off my brow and stand in my super pose): “Sure! I would love to pitch in!”
And, then I check my calendar. Oh no! I already have sixteen other things that need to be done.
My Wonder Woman ways get me into trouble. The real problem is that the important stuff, the stuff I value and cherish, gets pushed out of the way to make room for all of the “yesses.”
- Time sprawled out on the carpet with my daughter watching silly Vines.
- Peacefully chopping vegies and other food prep for a relaxing dinner.
- A quick game of Smash Bros with my son.
- Coffee with my husband.
- Dessert with a friend.
- A good book and a cup of tea.
What Can I Do?
One of the most challenging and beneficial practices I continue to learn is setting boundaries. I need to remember I have limits and the only way to protect those limits is to learn to say “no.” When there is not enough of me to go around, it is time for some boundary work.
What Are Boundaries?
In our physical world, we have fences and walls that create clear defining lines. We can easily tell where one room ends and the other begins. We understand what belongs inside and what does not. Boundaries serve as a noticeable protective barrier that creates order.
Think about the Houston Zoo for a moment. We have a number of exotic and dangerous animals right in the middle of a densely populated area. But we are not afraid. Imagine what it would be like if the zoo walls suddenly disappeared. The result would be chaos. The people and animals would be in harms way. The walls around the zoo protect and create order for the animals and the surrounding areas. The walls inside the zoo also protect each species of animal from the other. We are able to enjoy the animals and feel safe because of boundaries.
The zoo also has a front gate. The gate opens to allow people in and out of the zoo. It shuts to prevent anything harmful entering or leaving the zoo at the wrong times.
What Do Zoo Walls Have to Do With Me?
Just like the zoo walls, you have a protective barrier around your physical body. Your skin serves as a defining barrier from the external world. Your internal cells also have membranes that protect and define each individual cell.
Like the zoo gate, you have the ability to let things in and out of your body. When a toxin enters your body, you get sick. You will get very ill if you continue to ingest the toxin. So, you “close the gate” and stop allowing it into your body. You also have the ability to let things into your body that nourish you.
Along with physical boundaries, you are also equipped with psychological boundaries. Have you ever been in a group of people when someone starts getting too close? It feels awkward. The natural reaction is for you to move to create distance. But the person may not notice and move toward you again. What is the deal? Wired within, you have a sense of appropriate distance between you and the other person. When they cross the “line” and move into your space, they have crossed your psychological boundary. Your psychological boundary lets you know where you end and where they begin.
My psychological space is my space. It is the space where I belong and it defines what is and is not my responsibility.
Some of us have very rigid psychological boundaries. If you experienced physical or emotional abuse as a child, you learned quickly to build fortress-like walls around yourself. You learned that it is not safe to let anyone into your space. Unfortunately, fortress walls do not have doors or gates to let in good things. Everything is walled off. When someone you care about tries to come close, they too may be blocked. Fortress walls are protective, but they can also be isolating.
Diffuse boundaries are permeable and barely exist. If, as a child, you were not allowed to have your own feelings, personal space, opinions, or even your own sense of self, boundaries are underdeveloped. When you have poorly defined boundaries, you may not have a clear sense of who you are, what your personal rights are, or what others rights are.
Back to the zoo example: What if the walls around the zoo suddenly disappeared? Chaos would erupt and someone would get hurt. Diffuse boundaries open us up to harm. There is no protection from being controlled and manipulated by others.
Healthy Personal Boundaries
Healthy boundaries protect your self-concept and allow you to be your own unique self. Your thoughts and feelings are separated from the thoughts and feelings of others. Healthy boundaries also include “gates” that allow you to let in good things like:
- The people you care about
- Your values and feelings
Healthy boundaries help close the gate on things that do not belong:
- A harmful relationship
- Needing to do everything that is asked of you
- Aversive words or actions
I recently discovered an exercise that helped me have a better understanding of my own personal boundaries. A great way to start this exercise is to slow things down enough to pause and think. Have you ever seen the movie, The Matrix? The main character, Neo, has the ability to perceive bullets moving at a much slower speed than reality. What if you could use your imagination and slow down the words that seem to come at you with bullet-like speed? You could give yourself time to think and choose what you want to let in and what needs to stay out:
- Imagine you can see your psychological boundaries like a protective barrier around you. I like to think of a clear plexiglas wall around me.
- Imagine a little gate or door situated in front of your heart area. I have found it useful to pretend I am holding up a stop sign in front of my heart.
- Now, as you read the following phrases, give yourself space to slow down the words, put up your imaginary stop sign, and ask yourself; “Does this fit with me? If I let it in, will it harm me? Does this fit better for someone else?
- You love to go art museums every weekend. (Does this fit for you, or not?)
- You are a kind person. (How does this fit?)
- “If you cared enough, you would volunteer for every event this year.” (This one’s tricky; you may need to pause and pull this one apart: “I care! Even if I am unable to volunteer sometimes.”)
- “If you love me, you will go to the movies with me every Friday night.” (This one is also tricky and a boundary violation. “I love you AND I am not free every Friday night.”) I will talk more about boundary violations in future posts.
- You can cry when you feel sad. (How does this fit?)
- For the phrases that fit, you can put down your stop sign and open the gate to let them in. If the phrases are harmful, you can close the door.
- Real life practice: Notice the words coming at you from the people around you this week. Slow them down and use your imaginary stop sign.
I realize this can be a challenging exercise. It is very difficult to say “no” when you fear that someone you care about might walk away or you might lose your job. But, it is also exhausting to say “yes” to everything and ignore your own limitations and needs.
My Wonder Woman outfit squeezes the energy and joy right out of me. I try to remember to pause, put up my stop sign, and access if something fits or not.
Friend: “Jennifer, can you help with ___________?”
Me: (Pause. Take a deep breath. Slow down the words) “Let me check my calendar and I will get back with you tomorrow.”
I fold up my Wonder Woman outfit and put it away… until the next time I find myself exhausted and over-taxed. Then it is time for some more boundary practice!
In future posts, I will continue to explore healthy practices and obstacles to creating boundaries:
- Boundaries in difficult relationships
- Boundaries and trust
- Boundaries around marriage
- Boundaries and work
- Boundaries and social media
- Spiritual boundaries