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Articles to help you improve quality of life

Struggling with setting boundaries? Start meditating.

While most of us agree that having good boundaries is key for psychological and emotional wellbeing, not many of us know how to set them in a healthy manner.  That is because setting boundaries, for the unexperienced, tends to trigger feelings of fear – be it of abandonment and/or rejection – as well as guilt and shame. If that is the case, how can a behaviour that favours us makes us feel bad? The answer is simple: nature is imperfect. It made us wired for connection – which allowed us to thrive as a species – but at an emotional and psychological cost.

Struggling with setting boundaries? Start meditating.
It is not easy to set boundaries

Wired for connection, but also for feelings of fear, shame and guilt

Nature has taught us that in order to have a better chance of survival, we must nurture social connections. We are stronger in numbers, and when we can count on others for help. Conversely, when alone, we are vulnerable, and more susceptible to extinction. Therefore, nature’s priority is to keep us alive and in groups, no matter the emotional impact they have on us as individuals.

Nature is wise, but not perfect. While it prioritises survival, it bypasses other factors that give us a sense of wellbeing. When we are learning how to set boundaries, nature makes us feel guilty for saying no to others and ashamed for prioritising our needs. Then, it makes us afraid of not being included in the group anymore, precisely because we set a boundary! It does so because it is biased to the social for survival. It is up to us, however, as evolved human beings, to see beyond this tendency and set good boundaries, even with nature itself.

Using the prefrontal cortex (PFC) to moderate social behaviour

The prefrontal cortex is the outer, more evolved area of the brain. As stated by Kolk and Rakic (2022), “the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is considered to be the substrate of highest cognitive functions”. These include decision-making, stress controllability, behavioural flexibility and extinction of fear responses. For that reason, anyone aiming at having good boundaries should pay attention to this area of the brain and work to strengthen it. While setting good boundaries might trigger fear, shame and guilt in some, those who have good impulse control and are able to manage their fear responses autonomously set boundaries more effectively and enjoy more personal freedom and growth.

Meditation to strengthen the prefrontal cortex (and good boundaries)

Various studies have proven that meditation promotes changes in brain activity (see references below). In a study conducted by Lazar et al (2005), their findings showed that “brain regions associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing were thicker in meditation participants than matched controls”. If meditation practice thickens cortical areas, it helps strengthen the PFC. A stronger PFC, in turn, means stronger executive functioning – or ability to plan ahead, meet goals and display self-control. As self-control is key element to resist the fear, shame and guilt feelings triggered by boundary setting, we need a strong PFC to create and honour healthy boundaries.

If you are interested in learning how to practice meditation to get your brain ready for good boundary setting, I highly recommend the timeless Mindfulness, A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Williams and Penman (2011).  

References:

Kolk SM, Rakic P. Development of prefrontal cortex. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2022 Jan;47(1):41-57. doi: 10.1038/s41386-021-01137-9. Epub 2021 Oct 13. PMID: 34645980; PMCID: PMC8511863.

Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, Gray JR, Greve DN, Treadway MT, McGarvey M, Quinn BT, Dusek JA, Benson H, Rauch SL, Moore CI, Fischl B. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 2005 Nov 28;16(17):1893-7. doi: 10.1097/01.wnr.0000186598.66243.19. PMID: 16272874; PMCID: PMC1361002.

Williams M., Penman D. (2011). Mindfulness, A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World. Rodale Pr

4 signs you suffered neglect in childhood

4 signs you suffered neglect in childhood
Neglect is the most common type of abuse

Neglect is the most common type of abuse. According to the National Children’s Alliance (2021) and Brown et al (2023), 76 – 78% of victims are neglected. Neglect can be physical or emotional. Childhood neglect comprises the absence of appropriate care, be it for children’s emotional or physical wellbeing. Despite its common occurrence, it is not as easily identifiable by its victims as physical or emotional abuse. If you suspect to have been a victim and would like clarification on the matter, here are 4 signs you suffered neglect in childhood:

  • You neglect your own health and wellbeing: you forget about your body’s needs. You ignore signs of ill health and do not take action to address physical and mental vulnerabilities in a timely manner. You delay seeking professional health and only do it when pressured by others or when it has already started affecting your ability to function.
  • You believe not to be worthy of care: you feel selfish, guilty, ashamed and/or afraid when in need of help, love and attention. While it feels natural for you to give and be available for others in their time of need, you feel uncomfortable and inadequate when it is your turn to receive help and be looked after.
  • You believe not to be worthy of good things: you feel selfish, guilty, ashamed and/or afraid of the thought of having good quality and expensive things. You feel uncomfortable when you treat yourself and dare to break your rigid spending rules, and when others give you nice things.
  • You have low expectations in life: you settle easily for mediocrity. You have a sense of familiarity, safety and, in some cases, even relief when things do not work out and you are let down by others. You cry or feel inadequate when something big or positive happens to you, as when you are praised or recognised for your efforts by others.

To overcome the effects of childhood trauma caused by neglect, be mindful of how you might be perpetuating abuse via self-neglect. Learn how to connect, listen, and validate your body’s needs. You can do that by practising mindfulness meditation, for instance, and implementing a self-care routine. If you feel overwhelmed by the thought of doing these things alone, hire a trauma therapist to help you put them into practice and start healing.

References:

Brown CL, Yilanli M, Rabbitt AL. Child Physical Abuse and Neglect. [Updated 2023 May 29]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470337/

National Children’s Alliance (2021). National Statistics on Child Abuse. https://www.nationalchildrensalliance.org/media-room/national-statistics-on-child-abuse/#:~:text=Nationally%2C%20neglect%20is%20the%20most,and%200.2%25%20are%20sex%20trafficked.

Are you feeling anxious or just plain angry?

Are you feeling anxious or just plain angry
Can you tell if you are feeling anxious or angry?

It is not always anxiety the reason you do not feel well. Despite being on everyone’s tongues, anxiety is not the only feeling that impacts you negatively. If you have a difficult relationship with anger, you might have a habit of not acknowledging its existence in your body. Because anxiety is a fear-based feeling and fear is a high arousal emotion – like anger – it is prone to being mistakenly identified. In other words, if you do not tolerate your anger, you might call it “anxiety”. Those who do that, do not do it consciously, however. To help you understand what you are feeling and establish a healthy connection with your anger, keep reading to explore if are you feeling anxious or just plain angry.

Similarities between anger and anxiety

Anxiety, a fear-based feeling, and anger are both triggered by a perceived threat. You feel anxious/afraid or angry when you find yourself to be in some kind of danger. When that happens, your body gets ready to fight that dangerous thing, person or animal, freeze on the spot to deceive them or escape them. For that reason, anger and anxiety/fear have very similar physiologies. When your body is getting ready to fight, freeze or run away, your muscles tense up, your breathing becomes shallower, your heart beats faster and digestion is supressed. All your resources are mobilised for survival. Therefore, from a physical perspective, anxiety/fear and anger are similarly felt in the body.

Differences between anxiety and anger

While anxiety/fear and anger may be felt in similar ways, their triggers may not be the same. Anxiety/fear and anger are also experienced in different circumstances. Anxiety is a negative feeling over something that is yet to happen. Most people feel anxious before giving a presentation, for instance. They worry about their performance. That is anxiety. You have no means of knowing what will actually happen, but your anxiety puts you in a vulnerable position when it makes you focus on limitations and negative outcomes.

Anger, on the other hand, can be very empowering. You feel angry when you have a sense that you or your boundaries have not been respected. It is triggered to help you regain self-esteem and protect yourself and others. For that reason, anger is an emotional reaction to a threat. It is not there to anticipate it, although it does help prevent it – in the long run – because of its connection to self-assertive behaviours. Anger sends out a positive message of self-confidence and healthy power, when expressed in a functional, non-abusive manner.

To connect with your anger in an adaptive, functional way, resist the urge to repress it, soothe it or rationalise it. Feel it in your body – mindfully – and without judgement. Listen to its message and validate its importance in safeguarding your wellbeing, as well as of those who depend on you.

5 signs you do not respect other people’s boundaries

Boundary work is essential for those invested in personal growth and development. When one thinks of boundaries, they associate it with saying no to others. The focus seems to be on how our boundaries are not respected by others and what to do when that happens. But if there are a lot of us thinking the same way, who is not respecting others’ boundaries? Could that be us as well? If you believe to have weak boundaries, you most likely struggle to respect other people’s. To help you understand how you might be doing that, here are 5 signs you do not respect other people’s boundaries:

5 signs you do not respect other people’s boundaries
Do you struggle to respect other people’s boundaries?

1- You are sure of other people’s problems: you do not recognise others as experts in their own lives and believe to be the one who knows the true root of their suffering. Therefore, you spend great energy psychoanalysing them while overlooking your own vulnerabilities and limitations.

2- You do not accept when others need distance: you feel personally attacked when others do not want to spend time with you. When they express their need to take distance, you are not interested in their reasons or even take them into consideration.

3- You resent others when they do not agree with you: you feel a sense of rejection and alienation when you fail to influence others. You hold rigid values about relationships and struggle to accept individuality and be emotionally/psychologically separate from other people.

4- You do not accept others’ limitations: you have high expectations of others. When they are not met, you feel restless, disappointed and/or resentful. You struggle to accept people and things just as they are and not how you want them to be.

5- You do not see others as whole: your views of others are based on projection, or on how they make you feel. You see others only in their suffering and limitations to feel empowered and have a sense of self-esteem. You struggle to separate your own feelings of insecurity and inadequacy from your perception of others.

Relationships are challenging and few of us know how to properly navigate them. Healthy boundaries are at the core of what makes relationships functional. Boundary work is a two-way street, however.  You can become mindful of your limits, learn how to express them and gain a greater sense of wellbeing in relational contexts, but that does not exclude the role you play in honouring and respecting other people’s boundaries as well.

What is a codependent relationship?

What is a codependent relationship
Codependent relationships lack strong boundaries

A codependent relationship is dysfunctional because it does not favour personal growth and development. When in one, you are bound to feel a sense of discontent, as your needs are not being met. Codependent relationships are not made of heroes and villains. Those who put others’ needs before their own have obscure motivations that go beyond limitless kindness. The considered bad guys, or those who receive devoted attention and often unsolicited help, have vulnerabilities that go beyond selfishness and self-centredness. The codependent relationship dynamic is complex, far from static and cannot be fully understood through such simplistic terms.

The main vulnerability of those involved in codependent relationships is weak boundaries. Even though that is easily identifiable in the case of the giver, since their dedication to the other seems to have no bounds, it is also present in the receiver. Those who depend on givers’ dedication and effort to feel a sense of worth and connection do so because of their inability to nurture that autonomously. When you are greatly reliant on external sources for your wellbeing, the boundaries between yourself, others, and the world around you are porous, which often leads to all kinds of dependences, including emotional and relational.

Weak boundaries are deeply intertwined to high expectations, bad communication and a lot of mind reading. Since there is no clear separation of individual needs, both giver and receiver often feel dissatisfied in the relationship. The giver often feels that their dedication and effort are not matched by the receiver, while the latter may feel overwhelmed with the responsibility to match them or feel stuck with their reliance on them. Because of their fear of rejection and abandonment and poor self-regulation, both giver and receiver lack the tools to express themselves emotionally, resolve conflict and feel heard, seen and felt.

If you find yourself in a codependent relationship and would like to change that dynamic, start by working on becoming more emotionally mature. The focus of emotionally mature individuals is on learning how to tolerate discomfort felt in their own bodies, rather than psychoanalysing and fixing the other. You can achieve that through emotional autonomy, by allowing yourself to feel and process your negative feelings, such as anger and insecurity, while resisting the urge to soothe yourself through validation from external sources, be it through reassuring your worth through your dedication to others or depending on givers to feel loved and safe in relationships.

The myth of good communication in emotionally neglectful relationships

The myth of good communication in emotionally neglectful relationships
Good communication is not the only factor in healthy relationships

Loving relationships have great influence on our wellbeing. They affect us even when we are not mindful of their impact. Adult children of emotionally neglectful parents are especially likely not to notice when their emotions, needs and wants are not being met by significant others. As a result of that lack of awareness, they might approach their relationship problems without truly knowing what they are. Because “good communication” has been widely promoted as the factor in well-functioning relationships, it is what most people think of when assessing their own.

While good communication is often present as a variable in healthy relationships, it is not, solely, what makes them work. There are other factors that contribute to their success, such as love, sexual attraction, intimacy (which is not only physical but also emotional), respect for each other’s autonomy, amongst others. In functional relationships, there is a conscious effort and willingness to see, feel and listen to the other. Emotional awareness is not only present at an individual level, but it also guides an individual’s understanding of their partner’s needs.

I hear you, but I still won’t validate your needs

Conscious efforts to improve a relationship via better communication tend not to be productive in emotionally neglectful relationships when the neglect piece is not identified and addressed. One can learn how to express themselves perfectly, how to use feeling words and link them to behaviours and thoughts to help raise the other’s awareness (“When you _____(behaviour), I feel _____ (feeling) and think _____ (thought)”) and still not feel seen, heard or felt. If there is no real intention or effort to connect emotionally and validate the other’s needs – in practice – good communication, by itself, fails to deliver its promised benefits.

If you are going through a tough time in your relationship, consider emotional neglect as a probable factor. Reflect over the type of connection you have with yourself, and how much importance you give to your own feelings, wants and needs. Do the same to your partner’s feelings, wants and needs. Learn how to express yourself, if you feel you do not know how to do so and take time to understand your partner. Above all, notice what happens when communication goes well – if positive changes happen as a result. If the same problems keep arising, over and over, and your needs (or your partner’s) remain unmet, it is time to address emotional neglect with greater care and attention.