Category: <span>Assertion</span>

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

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.

4 signs of friendship burnout

4 signs of friendship burnout
Losing interest in the other is a sign of friendship burnout

Despite its severe connotation, friendship burnout is an actual thing. We are all susceptible to it, but recovering codependents, or people who find it hard to honour their boundaries, may experience it with greater frequency. Here are 4 signs of friendship burnout to increase your awareness of its effects on behaviour:

You feel exhausted: the relationship has become too intense and/or one-sided. You feel drained from spending too much time with your friend, even if they do not feel the same way. This can lead to a sense of overwhelm, especially when boundaries are not respected. You often feel guilty when saying no to your friend, and a sense of obligation to keep prioritising their needs.

You have lost interest: you struggle to connect with your friend in a way that feels pleasurable, meaningful, or rewarding to you. Your values, ideas and interests have changed and no longer match your friend’s. You start making excuses not to see them or worry about coming up with “good enough” reasons for not meeting up with them.

You have outgrown the friendship: you have grown and developed as a person, but your friend has not. As the current version of you no longer suits the friendship, you feel pressured to act inauthentically in order to maintain it.

You feel powerless: as you have changed, but the relationship dynamic has not, you feel a growing sense of pessimism about the future of the friendship. You consider expressing how you feel to your friend, but you feel hopeless about the outcome. As a result, you start fantasizing about reducing or even cutting contact.

If you have identified with the above, it is a good time to revaluate your friendship. While connecting with others can promote life engagement, dysfunctional relationships make us feel disconnected from our true selves. Consider taking a break from the friendship if it feels like too much hard work. Remind yourself that you are allowed to change your preferences and lead a balanced, peaceful life.

Assertiveness as self-validation in dysfunctional relationships

Assertiveness as self-validation in dysfunctional relationships
Adult children and loving partners of highly neglectful and even abusive individuals do not feel felt, heard or seen

As I explain in my blog article “What is a dysfunctional relationship?”, relationships are considered dysfunctional when they do not favour true intimacy, emotional health and personal growth. In practice, this is observed when needs, opinions, feelings and wants are not validated in a democratic manner. Controlling parents or spouses who lack self-awareness and emotional maturity and, therefore, focus almost exclusively on their own needs and feelings create relationship dynamics that are unhealthy for everyone involved. As a result of their (often unconscious) self-centred attitude, they neglect the wellbeing of their children and partners, which has a negative effect on their self-esteem, ability to honour their boundaries and feel confident in relational contexts.

For those who find themselves as the neglected ones, feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, powerlessness and abandonment are commonplace. As adult children and loving partners of highly neglectful and even abusive individuals do not feel felt, heard or seen, they might dedicate great time and effort in communicating their needs in order to make their voices heard in the hope that their assertive behaviour will lead to behavioural change. While some manage to achieve positive outcomes and affect their relationships favourably, others’ attempts tend to fall on deaf ears. For the latter, questioning the point of being assertive in such discouraging scenarios becomes worthy of consideration.

If cutting contact with difficult people or ending dysfunctional relationships that compromise your emotional wellbeing are not options you are willing to contemplate, I suggest sticking with assertiveness, but as your own personal “thing”.  If your father, mother or partner refuses to hear, see or feel you, that does not mean you cannot do all those things yourself and for yourself. As assertiveness is a gift you give to your true self, when you feel unimportant, invisible, incompetent and/or unlovable in their presence, continue to connect with your body and express how they make you feel, regardless of how you think they might respond. You can do that by saying the following, silently or out loud:

“When you _____ (behaviour), I feel _____ (feeling) and think _____ (thought)”.

Example: “When you ignore my opinion, I feel sad/angry and think I do not matter”.

Every time you repeat the above – even when it goes unnoticed by others – you validate your own feelings. By keeping the connection with your own body and reminding yourself of the impact others have on you, you become your own source of validation and empowerment, which also helps you break the cycle of dependency and dysfunction.

4 dysfunctional beliefs that get in the way of self-assertion

4 dysfunctional beliefs that get in the way of self-assertion
Dysfunctional beliefs stop you from acting assertively

Dysfunctional beliefs are at the heart of vulnerabilities. For those who struggle with low self-esteem and find it challenging or even scary to assert themselves, exploring the negative beliefs which give these values their strength is a productive exercise. To help you find some of the cognitive foundation to your feelings of insecurity, here are 4 dysfunctional beliefs that get in the way of self-assertion:

 “I shouldn’t make people unhappy”

This rule implies that it is every individual’s responsibility to care for others’ emotional wellbeing. It also assumes that their supposed need for constant happiness comes first. Finally, it suggests that negative emotions are of a dangerous nature – something to be avoided – as if we were unable to recover from them, once “unfairly” submitted to their experience.

“I cannot make mistakes”

Perfectionism makes us behave like insecure children when we make mistakes and/or receive criticism. Even though most people fail to associate their intolerant attitude with perfectionism, mistake and criticism phobia is one of its most common features. Moreover, this inhuman and idealistic belief implies that the consequences of our mistakes are always terrible, too terrible, in fact, to be able to be handled or corrected. For those who hold such rigid belief learning tends to be an unpleasant or even traumatic experience.

“Prioritising my own needs is selfish”

A popular belief amongst the emotionally dependent and codependent that robs them of their right to individuality and self-expression. It suggests that the self only has value in relation to others, or that its right to exist, as well as its worth, relies on one’s ability to negotiate and accommodate it to the needs of others. Quite inaccurately, it also promotes the idea that a compromise is always better than following one’s own disposition.

“When I do not feel like doing what others want me to, I should give them a good reason why”

This belief presupposes that our own feelings, needs and wants only have merit when reasonable. In other words, we have no right to them solely on the basis of their existence, but their significance is dependent upon the judgement of others. According to this principle, feelings are the same as thoughts, since they “should” be connected to rational thought. The authentic and, therefore, highly subjective self, has no means of flourishing under such a rigid rule.

What do the above beliefs have in common? They all come from a stance of weakness and rigidity which annihilates the true and creative self.  Their perfectionist and all or nothing approach to emotions, behaviour, relationships and life itself is too stiff to reflect the complexity of our experience and allow personal fulfilment. To stop letting them rule you and your life, bring them to your full awareness and challenge them openly. Make a conscious and brave effort to establish congruence between what you believe in and how you act and feel, so that being you and inhabiting your own body becomes something pleasant and rewarding.

Affirmations for dealing with negative thoughts

Affirmations for dealing with negative thoughts
Affirmations are assertive statements that make you feel more confident and empowered

The tone of your inner dialogue says a lot about you. If you worry excessively or is anxiety prone, your thinking may be biased to the negative and reflect your insecurities. If you have low self-esteem, you may be giving too much power to your inner critic and allowing it to have the last word. Whatever mental health problems you are facing, there is a high probability that they are being fuelled by dysfunctional thoughts. A natural and effective way to revert this scenario is through the conscious use of affirmations. Affirmations are assertive statements that make you feel more confident and empowered. When formulated immediately after an uncomfortable thought or image, they can accelerate change by directing your mind’s focus to the here and now, and the person you want to be. Below you will find a list of affirmations for dealing with negative thoughts to help you regain control over your thinking and wellbeing:

I am now in control of my thoughts

I am now ready to let go of fear inducing thoughts

My focus now is on thoughts that favour me

My focus is on the here and now

I choose to focus on the good

I am good to myself and my thoughts are good to me

I am clearing up my brain of all the cognitive rubbish

I am now ready to let go of negative thinking patterns

My brain is now in harmony with what I want for myself

I am now ready to move on with my life

I now favour positive beliefs about life, myself and others

My healthy self always has the last word

I am calm and centred and can trust my own judgement

I now favour an objective outlook

My thinking is now aligned with my calm and centred self

I always decide what I want to focus on

I am the master of my attention

I am in charge of directing the focus of my attention

As you can notice from the above suggestions, affirmation do not contain the word “not”, be it by itself or attached to another, as in “don’t”, “can’t”, etc. This is because affirmations are about mentally confirming and validating what you want for yourself and your life, or in the words of Gawain (2002), “The practice of engaging affirmations allow us to begin replacing some of our stale, worn-out, or negative mind chatter with more positive ideas and concepts”. To get the most out of affirmations, increase self-awareness and start actively monitoring your thinking and using them whenever your notice you mood being influenced by a negative thought.

 

Reference:

Gawain, S (2002). Creative Visualisations, Use the Power of Your Imagination to Create What You Want in Your Life. Novato, CA: New World Library.