How To Set Healthy Boundaries (Without Guilt)

When you hear the words “healthy boundaries,” what’s your initial reaction? Do you feel like you have them in place? Do you feel like you need or want to have them in place? Maybe, you think that you don’t need them at all.

I used to be the third option. But I would never have worded it like that. I would have said, “I care about other people over myself.” “I just want to help and support people.” “I have a lot of empathy.” And these statements were true. In many ways, they still are. I love people. Truly. I want to help out and support and be there and talk and understand why people do, say, and feel the ways that they do. That’s not a bad thing, though, right? Isn’t that selfless and noble?

You could call it that. But when it’s slowly eroding your soul and sense of self, that’s a problem.

What am I talking about when I say “healthy boundaries”? Simply, it’s having a knowledge of what is your responsibility, what is not your responsibility, and when to say “No.” It’s being aware of where “you” end and another person “begins.” 

So, what’s that look like? It’s a lot to dig through. Let’s start at the beginning. Every one of us has “core values”: the beliefs and principles by which we try to live our lives. You may or may not be clear on which values, exactly, are most important to you, but I’d be willing to bet that you tend to have certain ones that you follow without even thinking about it. You could really value having a clean and tidy living space, being in good physical health, your faith, being compassionate, being a “free spirit”, creating art, living as waste free as possible, being politically active… really, your values could be anything. But they are yours. And when you have awareness of your personal values, you’ll be well on your way to being able to set and hold healthy boundaries. (If you’d like to reflect a bit more on what your values are, here’s a fantastic list of over 200 core values to read and consider. Some will jump out and resonate with you immediately.)

Once you have your values defined, consider how those values impact relationships. We’re not just talking romantic here, but every relationship. Coworkers, friends, family members, and lovers. If those relationships are healthy, and have good boundaries, you will feel able to hold firm to your values regardless of disagreement. You will not need to compromise something very important to you for the sake of keeping another person happy. You and the person with whom you are in that relationship will be two independent people, with individual values, and you will each respect those differences instead of trying to change them in the other person or feeling pressured to change your own.

Being able to live by your core values is at the heart of boundary setting. Living by our convictions and values gives us an immense sense of purpose and self-worth. I we are living our lives in a way that necessitates that we compromise our wants and needs in favor of others’ wants and needs, we will not feel valuable or fulfilled. Because personal values are so important in this process, self awareness is key in the journey to healthy boundaries. We each need ask ourselves which values are non-negotiable and which are open to compromise? How do we handle each situation with flexibility to balance our priorities (i.e. rigidly sticking to our values vs building or maintaining a relationship with someone).

Your most precious values should never be conceded in the interest of a relationship. If they are being compromised, or you feel unable to hold true to them all together, that is a massive red flag that you are in a situation in which your boundaries have been violated.

If you find yourself in a situation like that, it is important to take a step back and consider what you need to do to regain personal agency. If you’ve lost core values, or your personal space (either physically or emotionally) has been violated, you have the right to reestablish your boundaries and require that they are respected. If they are not, you have the right to end the relationship. Setting healthy boundaries and sticking to them is never selfish. It’s never not OK to protect yourself and your space. You have a right to decide who gets a seat at the table in your life.

Of course, this concept would be Chapter One in the book “Easier Said Than Done”. I don’t want to make light of the struggle of setting boundaries, especially if you’ve never really learned what healthy boundaries look like, or if you’ve been in a prolonged situation of feeling unable to have boundaries.

In my own life, I still struggle with the concept of boundaries. Professionally, I had it in the bag. Working at the group home, holding boundaries with my clients was pretty easy. I think because I went into the situation knowing that it was required and expected of me, and that it was the only way to truly support my clients in a manner which would help them grow. But there were plenty of areas of my life with zero boundaries. My marriage, family interactions, and even with work. (I spent four years saying “yes” to every single request for me to cover a shift because I didn’t feel comfortable saying “no”. I thought that declining a shift would make me a bad employee. One time, I worked a 108 hour week, which included a shift of 36 hours straight. This is a great example of a lack of healthy boundaries.)

Like many people (and, probably many of you reading this), boundaries in my childhood home were rather blurred. Growing up with alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and the constant threat of danger in the home will pretty solidly eradicate the idea of boundaries; the choices you make and the roles you assume are largely rooted in the need for survival. You don’t have the ability or luxury of worrying about “healthy boundaries” in situations like that. I fell into a caretaker role very early on in my life and maintained it well into my 20’s in one relationship or another. Breaking deep reaching, very established patterns in boundary setting like that takes an awful lot of time and energy. I still struggle with boundaries, to be honest. But I am actively working on that.

So, if you, like me, struggle with boundary setting, let’s look at what we can do about it! Once we’ve reflected a bit on what our core values are and where those values and our sense of self are being violated, how do we establish boundaries without feeling selfish or guilty? I’m glad you asked! 

HERE ARE TEN STEPS TO TAKE AS YOU BEGIN SETTING HEALTHY BOUNDARIES:

GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION: You can’t set boundaries if you don’t believe you have the right to do so. You have the right to say no, to protect your values, to be true to yourself, and to protect your space and your well-being. Believe that. Allow yourself to do it.

START SMALL: If you’ve never had boundaries in place, or if it’s been a really long time since you have had them, making huge, sweeping changes to the ways in which you interact with people will be difficult and discouraging. It could be so overwhelming that you give up on setting boundaries all together. This, obviously, is not the idea. Practice setting “safe” boundaries to get used to the idea. If a friend asks you to go out one night and you’re tired, practice saying, “Thanks for the invitation, but I’m really tired, so I’m going to pass.” If your boss asks you to cover a shift, practice saying, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to be able to do that.” Your friend will very likely not hate you forever to passing on one evening out; you will not be fired for refusing one shift. These are great “baby steps” to take as you get used to setting boundaries again.

CONTINUALLY WORK ON SELF AWARENESS: If you are feeling resentful, uncomfortable, or belittled, it’s very likely that a boundary has been violated. Especially at first, it can take some serious self reflection to determine exactly which boundary that is and how to protect that boundary in the future. Self reflection and radical honesty are really important in recovery in general, and the same is true in boundary setting.

THINK ABOUT THE WAYS IN WHICH YOUR PAST INFLUENCES YOUR PRESENT: Going along with that self awareness, it’s important to start to recognize patterns of behavior. Our pasts strongly influence our present. If you grew up with abuse or alcoholism or neglect, you did not learn how to set boundaries. Our past tends to haunt us until we understand the ways in which we fall into those same patterns over and over again. Only then can we start to break free of them. If you find yourself feeling the need to take care of everyone else at your own expense, and you grew up in a home where you were the caretaker, you can see how those two things are not just related, they are one in the same. Once you recognize these patterns, you can start to break them. (Just remember, “start small!”)

PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU’RE FEELING: If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you may remember post about naming your emotions. (If you’re new, or you want a refresher, you can find it right here.) The skill of naming emotions is very important. When we can identify what we’re feeling, we can also identify the red flags that a boundary has been violated.

PRIORITIZE SELF CARE: Let’s be real, even if you want to be supporting other people (remember, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as it’s not at the expense of yourself or your values), you’re going to be a lot better at it if you’re taking care of yourself. You’ve got honor what you mind, body, and spirit needs to be at your best, and you need to honor your feelings if you want to be able to have healthy relationships with others. So, don’t feel guilty for taking care of you first. I’d give the old “airplane oxygen mask” analogy, but I think you get it.

NAME LIMITS: You can’t hold firm boundaries unless you are clear about them. Know your limits, and make sure other people know them as well. This will make it a lot easier to hold the line when necessary, because you can say, “I told you that this is not OK, so I need you to respect that or else this conversation is done.”

BE DIRECT: Be clear about what you expect. If you send mixed messages, you’ve already got blurred boundaries because it’s very like that the person with whom you are interacting is incredibly confused and unsure of what you want and need. Don’t expect others to be able to read your mind. Remind yourself that you have the right to say exactly what you need, and then to hold strong to it.

BE ASSERTIVE: “Assertive” is a pretty heavy word for me. I’m never quite sure how to do it without feeling like a jerk. Can you relate? Sometimes I struggle with what “being assertive” even means, as I tend to think of it as synonymous with “aggressive”. Realistically, though, “assertiveness” is the balance between “submissiveness” and “aggressiveness”. If you are non-assertive, or submissive, your go to method of interacting with someone is to put their wants and needs above your own and being overly invested in being “nice” or “pleasing”. You will also likely feel guilty, or as if you are imposing on someone, when you do try to ask for what you want or need. People with an aggressive manner of interacting with people communicate in a demanding, abrasive, and even hostile manner, completely disregarding other’s rights and feelings in order to get what they want. This style of interaction is often abusive, with people attempting to gain what they want through coercion, intimidation, and sheer force. Assertiveness, on the other hand, is simply asking for what you want, or saying “no” to something that you don’t want, in a direct, clear manner that does not manipulate, negate, or attack the other person. There is no need for guilt when you are assertive. It is not wrong of you to be direct and clear.

HAVE SUPPORT: Don’t be afraid to tell some of the people in your life that you are working on your assertiveness and your ability to set boundaries and express your wants and needs. If you have some unhealthy relationships, part of “starting small” may mean talking to a friend, family member, or therapist who is supportive of your journey to healthier boundaries. Talk about what you would like to be different in those unhealthy relationships, and maybe even ask them if you can “practice” setting some of those boundaries and having those difficult conversations before you actually engage with the specific person (or people) in those problematic relationships.

There you have it! Remember, as with so many other aspects of mental health recovery or increased mental wellness in general, setting boundaries is a process, not an event. It will take time. It will take practice. It will take work. But it will be worth it. I promise.

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Thanks for reading! As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Drop a comment below, hit me up on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and feel free to check out my Instagram! If you liked what you read, please consider subscribing and sharing!

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Have a great day, all!

… Yeah, But What I’m Feeling Really Sucks!

Welcome to the fourth and final part of this series! If you’re new, I’ve been giving a quick overview Emotion Regulation, which is one of the four “pillars” of DBT treatment. If you haven’t yet, or if you need a refresher (it’s been a minute since I last posted on Emotion Regulation, I know, more on that later), I strongly suggest you read part one: Emotion Regulation – What is That?!, part two: What Am I Feeling? (And Why It Matters?), and part three: OK, I Know What I’m Feeling… Now What? before continuing here. If you’re all up to date, then read on, Macduff*!

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Ahhhh… the return of the Rat’s Nest! It just wouldn’t seem right to finish this series up without it. Besides, untangling the Rat’s Nest happens to be the best way to tie up this topic! (See what I did there?) The final portion of Emotion Regulation is “Decreasing Emotional Intensity”. There are some specific tools and tricks to greatly reduce the negative feelings we don’t want and, in some cases, even get rid of them completely. As with everything else in DBT (and any therapy or healing work) there is no instant gratification, there is no “EASY button” (Am I dating myself? Yes, dear reader, if you are younger than twenty-five, you likely would consider me “old.” There. I said it so you don’t have to!) While there is no “quick fix”, there are some things we can each practice which, over time, will allow us to feel much more in control of our emotions. We can take the driver’s seat again and move from Emotion Mind to Wise Mind.

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to run very briefly through the things we’ve already covered. I promise to be quick. We’ll just rip off the redundancy Band-Aid rather than pull out the sutures of “shit you’ve already read” one by one.

Remember how this series started? With the simple idea that emotions are neither good nor bad, they are simply information. The only time any emotion can get us into trouble is when we avoid it or deny it so long that we believe it is “unmanageable” and that we have no power over it. This is the case for most of us, at least at first. If you learned that anger is “bad”, you’re likely walking around with a lot of inhibited anger that is messing with your relationship to others as well as yourself. Eventually, that anger is going to boil over and you are either going to explode at someone else or take it out on yourself. If you’ve struggled with suicidality before, you may start to get nervous when you feel even a little sad or isolated; if you’ve experienced panic attacks from social anxiety, you probably tense up the minute you start to feel the slightest bit uncomfortable in a crowd. You tell yourself “I CAN’T FEEL THIS. THIS IS DANGEROUS.” over and over until you’re trying to avoid anything even remotely associated with that emotion at all costs. And every time that cycle repeats, those pesky, maladaptive shortcuts in your brain that tell you you must avoid those feelings are reinforced. We then find ourselves in a predictable and entirely unhelpful self-fulfilling prophecy. We believe that something is too much to handle, and thus it becomes too much to handle. We start to view our emotions as some massive, unstoppable force outside of us, when, really, no emotion is outside of our control. We just need to learn the tools to manage it.

This is the part of the post where I digress quickly to give the same disclaimer I’ve given in every post in this series: DBT is not about minimizing your struggles and it is not a suggestion that you can just wave your Positive Thoughts Wand through the air and let it shower you with the mystical power of the Sparkles of Optimism and be magically free of all of your struggles. This is work. It’s taking the time to learn the tools and practice using them until it’s easier for your brain to fire neurons that say “This sucks! Here’s a healthy coping skill!” than it is to fire the neurons that say, “Hey you. Yeah, you. This sucks. You know it sucks. There’s nothing you can do. Let’s make it suck more!” (Because, really, that’s what our negative coping skills do in the long run – they make our lives, both internal and external, worse.)

OK, so we’re using tools, not shooting Care-Bear Rainbows of happiness out of our… abdomens. Great! What kind of tools, you ask? Fantastic question! That brings me nicely to telling you what Tool Number One is! (See, I’m responsive!) Step one to Emotion Reg. is identifying emotions. Really taking the time to name, specifically, what we’re feeling. You may say, “I’m angry.” But “angry” is a really broad emotion – are you livid or are you irritated? Are you seething or are you peeved? See the difference there? It’s important to recognize, as much as we can, our specific emotion. Especially when it comes to healthy coping.

Think about it – if you are someone who has come to believe, through experience, that “anger is bad”, you’re going to have a visceral reaction to anything that feels even remotely like anger. But naming it, saying, “I’m irritated right now.” can make it feel much less threatening. Remember, “If you can name it, you can tame it.” You’ve got to separate the individual wires from the tangled Mess of Uselessness before you can figure out what’s what; which ones to keep and which ones to toss. Looking at the box, that original heaping mess of wires, controllers, headphones, yarn, speakers, screws, power chords, and component cables, was incredibly overwhelming at first.

When I started this series, I knew that the Rat’s Nest would be a really useful metaphor, but man did I put off this post! In part, because this post required the sorting and organization of all of the chaos that was in that little cardboard box. I don’t think I need to draw too bold a circle around how perfectly that avoidance also fits with this topic. But finally, despite not wanting to, I sat down and I did it. (For you, Reader – I did it for YOU!)

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As I sat on my living room floor slowly tracing wires through loops and freeing them one by one, I did so while watching what is probably my absolute favorite series of all time – The X Files. I can quote just about every  episode at this point, but I never get tired of watching it. Why do I mention this here? Because it was a healthy little dose of self-care. Which is essential in Emotion Regulation.

It’s hard work, and it can feel completely overwhelming, especially at first. If you are one of the 99.9999999999% of us who grew up being told, somewhere in your life, to stuff one emotion or another, actually digging into your feelings, being curious, sitting with them, and working through them is very difficult. Take care of yourselves! Do something you enjoy! Take breaks! Just don’t avoid the work all together, because, as I said, that’s where we all tend to get into trouble.

Over time, and with practice, identifying and acknowledging emotions gets easier. Then you can move into some of the skills for decreasing vulnerability to negative emotions and increasing positive emotions. That’s where we dump the whole box of wires out and look at it. We see how complex and tangled it is, but we can start making it neat and manageable, one wire at a time. In part three of this series, we checked out some specific skills to decrease that negative vulnerability and ways to increase positive experience. If you’re living with depression, or any mental health diagnosis, or you’re just here to learn how to better manage the emotional suckiness of any kind, it’s so important to remember that this is a process, not an event. You can’t snap your fingers and have the wires miraculously untangled. It’s not going to happen. If you go into the process thinking that it will, you’re going to get frustrated and give up before you even start.

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TA-DA! Separated and manageable! 

That photo is a portion of the Rat’s Nest, no longer tangled, with each item easily identifiable. For those wondering, this amazing feat took two and a half episodes of The X- Files to complete. I didn’t sit down expecting to be done before Scully introduced herself to “the FBI’s most unwanted.” I probably would have thrown the box and my computer had I expected that of myself. And then I would have spent hours telling myself how stupid and worthless I was for not accomplishing the impossible – because depression and anxiety are just neat like that. All that to say – have reasonable expectations of yourself and be gentle. I’ll say it one more time, because it really is that important: this is work. This is hard fucking work. But it’s worth it.

OK, we’re now in that dreamed of world. The wires are separated and organized! I’ve thrown the cardboard box into the recycling bin so that I may never lay eyes on it again! I know exactly what I have, and I know exactly what I don’t need!

Now that’s done, what next? What do I do with all the crap that I know I’ll never use again? What do I do with the broken chords? Say we’ve finally pulled apart and named our emotions, and the broken ones are the one’s that we really don’t want anymore – the ones that really suck? Because, let’s be honest, while anger and sadness and loneliness are, like all emotions, simply giving us information, they are uncomfortable to feel long-term. In life, we’re going to feel them from time to time. That’s a given. But a lot of us have felt them for so long with no tools to properly interact with them that they’ve become this constant thing. Those shortcuts in our brains are well-worn and comfortable. Emotion Reg. is about learning to pull a Robert Frost and cut through the underbrush to make a new, better path. Eventually, that path will be just as used as the old one, but at first, it takes commitment and dedication to our recovery process to blaze that trail. We’ve been stuck in a feedback loop of all that junk for way too long and the mass of negativity and pain needs to go!

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Remember in part two, when I was first talking about the Rat’s Nest and I said that for some godforsaken reason there was an actual spool of yarn tangled and mixed with all the wires? I wasn’t exaggerating. The only way to get it separate was to cut it.

So, what do we do with the emotional yarn? The stuff that’s just tangled up and preventing us from the untangling process? We flex those healthy coping muscles and we forge the tools we need to cut through it. As with anything in DBT, the number one approach is mindfulness. What does that look like? DBT is big on steps, so here is the step by step guide to mindfully managing negative emotions:

OBSERVE YOUR EMOTION

Note it’s presence: name it and acknowledge it.

Step Back. You know what it is, but you also know that it is within you, you are not within it.

Get unstuck from the emotion. Untangle it from the other wires. Hold it out and away.

EXPERIENCE YOUR EMOTION

This is where we have to sit with it for a bit. This is the uncomfortable part, but it’s worth it, I promise.

Think of it as a wave, it’s come, it’s washing over you, it will recede.

Try not to block or suppress the emotion. It’s not going to hurt you, even if it’s uncomfortable. It’s not a danger to you.

Don’t try to get rid of the emotion or push it away. Feel it.

BUT…

Don’t try to keep the emotion around, either.

Don’t hold onto it.

Don’t amplify it.

Do you ever find yourself “spinning”? You start to feel depressed and then you put on depressing music and focus on your depressing thoughts and just let them build? I know I have fallen into this trap more times than I can count. There is a difference between feeling and acknowledging a difficult emotion and torturing yourself with it. Don’t torture yourself.

REMEMBER: YOU ARE NOT YOUR EMOTION

You do not necessarily need to ACT on your emotion.

Remind yourself of times you have felt DIFFERENT.

When we’re in super emotion mind and engulfed in negative feelings, it can seem like we’ve never felt anything different and we never will. This is a lie we subconsciously tell ourselves. Actively remind yourself of a time when you were not angry or upset or lonely. This can help prevent that spinning.

PRACTICE LOVING YOUR EMOTION

Don’t judge your emotion (or yourself for having it).

Practice WILLINGNESS – don’t refuse to engage with your emotion.

Radically accept your emotion – “I’m really hurt that my friend cancelled our dinner plans. I’m disappointed and I feel rejected.” If you feel rejected, you may start to tell yourself some lies like, “My friend hates me.” “No one ever hangs out with me.” “I don’t have any friends because I’m a loser.” Remind yourself that just because you feel a certain way right now does not make it the Truth, and it does not mean that you will always feel that way. Remind yourself of times that your friends have not cancelled on you. Accept that you feel disappointed, and accept that that feeling does not need to consume you and send you spiraling.

Some automatic thoughts associated with emotions simply don’t serve you. They are junk and you don’t need to keep them around. You need to challenge them and then toss them.

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In the Rat’s Nest, I found a bag of screws and washers, specifically for some piece of furniture somewhere that I no longer own. I found phone jacks. I found a strand of USB Christmas Lights (that I used to love) with a cut wire, and I found headphones with only one ear bud.

While not actively screwing up my process of untangling (unlike the yarn), some of the things I found in the Rat’s Nest are simply not necessary for me to keep around. I don’t need to hold on to any of these things. I’m sure that we all have emotional stuff that we just don’t need anymore, even if it used to serve us (like those USB Christmas lights). This is where the really hard work comes in. And this is the section of Emotion Regulation that, if you practice it, will have the biggest impact in your life. You need all the other stuff we’ve talked about first, just like I needed to dig through the mess that was the Rat’s Nest first. But what do you do with the things that you know you don’t need, that you know are not serving, but that you feel attached to?

As backwards as it may seem to someone who hasn’t been living with challenges around managing emotions, our negative emotions can feel like a safety net. They are familiar. It’s easy to sink into them. Sure, now you can name them, you can be mindful of them, you can tolerate them, but how do you actually change negative emotions? 

You use the power tool of DBT. You Act Opposite. This is not easy and will make you incredibly uncomfortable at first. (At least, it did me.) What does “Acting the Opposite” mean? Exactly what it sounds like. Here’s another DBT list for you:

FEAR

Do what you are afraid of doing… OVER AND OVER AND OVER.

APPROACH events, places, tasks, activities, and people you are afraid of.

Do things to give yourself a sense of CONTROL and MASTERY.

When you are overwhelmed, make a list of SMALL STEPS you can do; then DO the first thing on that list.

GUILT OR SHAME (when these feelings are justified)

Repair the transgression: Say you’re sorry; make things better if possible.

Commit to avoiding that mistake in the future.

Accept the consequences.

Let it go.

GUILT OR SHAME (when these feelings are unjustified)

Do what makes you feel guilty or ashamed OVER AND OVER AND OVER.

Approach; don’t avoid.

SADNESS OR DEPRESSION

Get ACTIVE. Approach; don’t avoid.

Do things that make you feel COMPETENT and SELF-CONFIDENT.

ANGER

Gently AVOID the person you are angry with rather than attacking; avoid thinking about them. Don’t ruminate.

Do something NICE rather than mean, passive aggressive, or attacking.

Imagine sympathy and empathy for the person rather than blame.

 

THAT’S THE LIST I WAS GIVEN in Partial Hospitalization as examples of Acting Opposite. These are only examples, and they are only methods to prevent yourself from suffering too greatly with your emotions. Obviously, this is a simplified list. Fear is different than Phobia, for example. Working through a reduction in vulnerability to a Phobia is best done between you and your treatment professionals. For unjustified Guilt or Shame, this is only for activities. For example, you may feel unjustly guilty about taking an hour for yourself to read or watch TV. This is the situation in which you would approach until you no longer feel guilt or shame. This is not meant for trauma survivors (like myself and many of you wonderful readers) who may feel deep shame as a result of their trauma. Again. that is something that needs to be worked out with proper supports in place to prevent any re-traumatization. This is more of a springboard. A place to start.

And nothing needs to be set in stone. My ideas of Acting Opposite when I’m depressed, for example, change depending on circumstance and severity. If I’m moderately depressed and trying to summon the strength and motivation to go to work, I will drag my ass to work. That’s Acting Opposite. One really bad days, it means dragging myself out of bed and into the shower. Maybe forcing myself to wash a couple of dishes. Maybe it’s just making myself get off my bed for five minutes and walking around my apartment before crawling back into bed. You know you. Do what you know you can, then do just a *little* bit more. Overtime, you’ll thank yourself. Because the hold your negative emotions have on you will diminish.

Living with a mental health diagnosis (or diagnoses) means that many of these struggles will be present in our lives, in some form, for a long time. Possibly forever. But wouldn’t it be cool to be able to say “Yeah, I see you, but you’re not running the show!” Even if we could only say that 50% of the time, wouldn’t that be a hell of an improvement? I know it would for me. That’s why I work to apply the skills from this series to my life every single day. Sometimes I fail miserably – sometimes the wire I’m tugging is just too knotted and it’s time to take a break and try a new angle in the morning – but that’s OK, because everything is progress. Everything is a little step toward recovery.

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NOTE: I AM NOT A THERAPIST, PSYCHOLOGIST, PSYCHIATRIST, OR MEDICAL EXPERT, and this series is not intended to be used in place of professional treatment – I’m just sharing some tools and approaches I’ve found useful in my own recovery. If your current providers are not using DBT and you are interested in learning more, I highly suggest bringing it up to them. It’s well worth it. 

AS ALWAYS – I look forward to hearing your thoughts! Leave ’em in the comment section below, find me in the Twittosphere @paradichotomy, or pop in on Facebook! Peace and love, all. Sorry this post was such a long time coming!!

*RE: “Read on, Macduff” I’m aware that the actual quote is “Lay on, Macduff”, I’m playing off of our pop-culture misquotation, not the original Shakespeare. Also, this is not an invitation to kill me in battle. Please don’t do that.

OK, I Know What I’m Feeling… Now What?

It’s the beginning of the week, and that means we’re jumping into another resource/skills-based post! If you’re new, I’m currently doing an introductory series to the Dialectical Behavior Therapy skill of Emotion Regulation. If you haven’t yet, please feel free to read part one and part two before continuing here.

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If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m a fan of metaphor. You remember the Rat’s Nest? Let’s stick with that imagery. That huge mess pictured above is really absolutely no help to me whatsoever. Even if I know what chord I need, and I know for a fact that it’s in there. Yes, knowing the specific chord I’m digging around for is a starting point, but I’m still in for an incredibly frustrating time if I have to dig through that tangled mess every time I need a chord, right? The question is, how do I separate out what I need and prevent it from getting tangled again? (No, this blog is not going to suddenly become full of house organizing tips, I’m the last person you want telling you about that stuff!)

As you may imagine, separating and organizing all those chords is not a one step process. It takes time and a whole lotta work! Would you look at that box and expect me to “just organize it” in the space of a few minutes? Of course not! (Well… I hope not, anyway. You’d be out of luck, there. It’s physically impossible.) So why do we all seem to demand such a miraculous feat of ourselves when it comes to mental health recovery? Honestly, we go to a hospital for a few days, or we go to therapy once a week for a few months and we get frustrated that we’re not “finished” with all the untangling and differentiation yet, we berate ourselves for not being “better”. That is incredibly unfair. All we can do is take it one step at a time. So, what’s the next step? Now that we recognize that our emotional rat’s nest is a complete mess, what do we need to do? You may think “start untangling”, but that’s not it. (We’ll get there next week, I promise.)

First step is simply to make sure that we’re not tossing in more chords and speakers and yarn! To accomplish this, I took everything out of the Rat’s Nest. It was quite overwhelming:

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But, by taking it out and having it out in the open, I ensured two things: first, that I would not toss any more assorted electronic accessories into the snarls of rubber and wire already present; second, that the mess was undeniable now: in my hands, on my floor… there was simply no ignoring it or shoving it out of sight and out of mind anymore. I had to look at it, I had to feel it woven between my fingers. Yup, this is going to be a big job. 

Now, in Emotion Regulation terms, getting the mess out of the box and knowing that, in the future, only properly wrapped, zip-tied, easily identifiable chords will be placed back into that box represents increasing positive emotions. I feel good about that knowledge. Taking everything out of the box and knowing that never again will I toss a spool of yarn into a box or chords just to make my life more difficult represents decreasing vulnerability to negative emotions. If the junk that I don’t need is out on the floor for me to see, in the light of my stylish yet affordable floor lamp, it’s not going to blindside me next time I need to dig something out of there. And those two skills are the next step of Emotion Regulation!

Let’s start with Decreasing Vulnerability to Negative Emotions. After all, that’s probably the one that seems most difficult, right? (It definitely felt that way to me.) If you’ve ever been to any form of group therapy or a twelve-step program, you may be familiar with the term HALT – in other words, stop and think if you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. For me, this has been a very helpful little prompt. I know that if I am any of those things, I am very likely in “Emotion Mind”, which places me at risk for using some maladaptive coping techniques. The idea with Emotion Regulation is to get out of Emotion Mind and into Wise Mind, which simultaneously honors and acknowledges what you’re feeling and uses Reason Mind to react in a balanced way. OK, I’m a little worried I’m venturing into text book territory here. This is not a class room, and I am not a teacher. I just had to give a little exposition to make sure we were all on the same wave length. There are quite a few DBT skills I could go into here for decreasing vulnerability to negative emotions, but the most popular skill is called “PLEASE MASTER.” It’s a decidedly lackluster acronym, in my opinion; and it’s one of those “way easier said than done” things. But it did help me shift my thinking, which is why I am sharing it with you. Initially designed and presented by Marsha Linehan, the creator of DBT, in her book Skills Training Manual for Treating Borederline Personality Disorder, here it is:

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Treat PhysicaIllness – Take care of your body. See a doctor when necessary. Take prescribed medication.

Balance Eating – Don’t eat too much or too little. Stay away from foods that make you feel overly emotional.

Avoid mood – Altering drugs – Stay off non-prescribed drugs, including alcohol.

Balance Sleep – Try to get the amount of sleep that helps you feel good. Keep to a sleep program if you are having difficulty sleeping.

Get Exercise – Do some sort of exercise every day; try to build up to 20 minutes of vigorous exercise.

Build MASTERy – Try to do one thing a day to make you feel competent and in control.

(Like I said, the acronym is not exactly what one would call “inspired”.)

But that’s neither here not there. If you’re anything like me, you look at that list and say, “Well yeah, if I could do that shit, I’d be way better off! But that’s where I struggle! I can’t just make myself do these things when I feel like crap!” I know. I get it. It sounds impossible. But, again, this is all about baby steps. If you’re not a fan of this technique, that’s totally cool. I’m just sharing it because it has truly been helpful to me in my own recovery. So, how did I start tackling this list? The same way I started tackling the Rat’s Nest. I pulled it out and put it in the open.

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Yup, really. Right on my bathroom wall. I see it every time I brush my teeth or wash my hands.

It’s my multiple-times-daily reminder to do healthy things that will benefit me in my recovery, or, if I’m not doing them (believe me, there are more days I “miss” applying some or all of this list than there are days I “hit” it, but I’m working on it!), at least I can check my mood against this list and see what may be contributing if I’m having a hard time. A group facilitator at the hospital told us all to “check our lens” every time we went to the bathroom. She chose the bathroom because, like it or not, it’s something we all have to do multiple times a day. “Checking your lens” is essentially what I’m describing. Checking my feelings against how I’m doing on wellness goals, reminding myself, even if my lens is “narrow” (i.e. tunnel vision, focused on the negative self talk and the lies my depression and anxiety like to throw at me), that it will pass. That there are environmental and physical factors at play that will not always be present. That I can ride it out. I chose to post this list in the bathroom as a sort of homage to that group facilitator. You can do whatever you’d like with it.

ALRIGHT, so that’s one way to REDUCE vulnerability to negative emotions. What about INCREASING positive emotions? That sounds more fun, right? It certainly did to me.

Here’s a funny thing about our brains. When something amazing happens, we remember it. When something terrible happens, we remember it. When something mildly annoying happens, we remember it. But when something mildly good happens? We tend to forget it. Here’s a little story to illustrate:

I wake up for work. My alarm goes off as scheduled. My coffee maker kicks on automatically and I have a cup on my way out the door. My car unlocks and starts without issue. As I’m driving to work, I hit a traffic jam. I realize I’m going to be late. My phone properly connects to BlueTooth, I call my coworkers to give them a heads up. They assure me it’s nothing to worry about, and they’ll see me when I get there. I get to work twenty minutes late because the traffic jam was truly terrible. I accomplish all of my work tasks. I drive home without incident. A family member asks me how my day was. I say, “It was terrible! I was 20 minutes late to work this morning!”

I carried the stress of being late to work with me all day, because I am not usually late to work. All of the things that went “right” in my day are so routine, I don’t even consider them positives. Can you relate to that?

Now, again, this isn’t a post on inspirational, magical thinking to use the power of positivity to poof your depression/anxiety out of existence. Just a reminder that our default setting is not to be mindful of positive events. But, we can nudge our minds a little in the direction of focusing on positive events when they happen. And that act, in and of itself, can increase our general happiness over time. If you live with anxiety and depression, though, you know that even when things are going well, it’s really easy to slip into worrying about when the positivity will end and things will go to hell again. (Hey PTSD friends, I’m looking at you, too!) When this happens, the principles of mindfulness also apply. Refocus on the moment. Try not to get caught up in the past or present. The flip side of that is to be UNMINDFUL or your worries. Distract yourself from thinking about when the positive experience will end; distract yourself from thinking about whether or not you deserve the positive experience.

YEAH, sure. OK. Noooooooo problem. All those deeply ingrained negative thoughts, I’m just gonna shove them away with positive mindfulness. Yup. I’ll buy that. Okey-Dokey. Absolutely. That makes perfect sense. 

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Seriously, though. That’s not what I’m saying. Remember everything in DBT, and in recovery in general, is a skill which needs to be used and used, frequently and often, before there will be any major change. It’s basically re-wiring our brains to diminish the maladaptive thoughts and negative coping skills that get us into trouble and then, over time, to increase our ability to form adaptive thoughts and positive coping skills. This takes work. This does not happen over night, or even in a few months. BUT, you can take the first few steps toward getting there any time.

The best way to start anything in life is to begin where you are. In the short term, what can you do to increase pleasure in your life? The goal here is to pick a few things that you truly enjoy and make time for them each day – even if it’s only ten minutes. I enjoy playing my guitar. I do it for a minimum of ten minutes a day. During those ten minutes, I am enjoying myself. I am experiencing positive emotions. What’s something you’re good at? What’s something you enjoy?

Ahh… but you’re depressed and you don’t enjoy anything at the moment. What then? Loss of joy is sort of a hallmark of depression, right? It can be overwhelming to even consider something that you might enjoy doing depending on how deep in the abyss you find yourself. This is a valid point. This is also the part of the post where I share yet another resource I’ve found helpful. Beautiful humansperson, I present to you the The Adult Pleasant Events Schedule. I know, it sounds corny (or maybe even slightly taboo), but it’s really just a list of prompts of things that adults find enjoyable – everything from needlework to sightseeing, watching sports to, yes, sex. I promise you you will find something on this list that is at least moderately fun. I found it very refreshing because it is a pretty comprehensive list. Most of my experience in therapy hasn’t really touched on the fact that adult people enjoy adult things. This list does not shy away from that fact; it embraces it outright. And I’d like to give you the same challenge that my DBT group facilitator gave me – pick seven things* from this list and commit to doing one a day for the next week. Like I said above, even if it’s just ten minutes a day. I did this exercise, and the impact on my over all emotional state was impressive.

*Some activities on this list (like gambling, spending money, drinking, and sexually-based activities) may be a specific “problem area” for you. DO NOT CHOSE AN ACTIVITY THAT WILL DECREASE YOUR OVER-ALL WELLNESS. That would defeat the point of the activity. I’d also like to reiterate that I am not a therapist, doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist. I am sharing techniques from my own, personal recovery process that I’ve found to be helpful, and that I hope you will find helpful as well. Beyond the disclaimers, go forth, dear reader! Have a fun week!

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As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, complaints, or tangential observations on this series or the blog in general! Please lemme know in the comment section below, and feel free to hit me up on Twitter and Facebook as well! If you decide to take on the seven day challenge, I’d be really interested to hear what activities you chose and how the experience was for you! please feel free to share that, too!

ALSO, I’m wicked excited to be able to share with you all that I am OFFICIALLY a contributor to The Mighty Site! Please feel free to check out my first Mighty article 5 Things I Learned Living with PTSD and Bipolar Disorder