3 Tools for Self-Fluency and Emotion Regulation: Make Being Human More Manageable

Photo by  sydney Rae  on  Unsplash

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

There are a lot of things that make emotion regulation difficult.  Likely the most challenging aspect is the unpredictability of the human experience, things we don’t know until we know, and the circular nature of our lived experience and history.  We can be walking along on any given Tuesday, and BAM out of nowhere, a thought, smell, situation, or person, can trigger some historical experience that is like a gut punch to the entire sympathetic nervous system, or fight-or-flight response.  This happens automatically so there is little we can do to prepare and it’s common to short-circuit on skills.  It’s so tricky, because sometimes it can even be something we have “worked through” and presents slightly differently, or exactly the same. I often find myself coaching around reducing vulnerability factors, which helps by making us less vulnerable to impulsivity or reactivity when these moments arise, and it makes sense that when we are walking along and suddenly sideswiped, being skillful can feel almost impossible. 

What can we do then?

  1. Mindfulness and Self-Fluency: When we are aware of our baseline, we are aware when our baseline is destabilized. Self-Fluency is a term I like to use to describe the relationship we can create with ourselves, our past, and our understanding of our worldview that makes us “able to read with speed, accuracy, and proper expression.” The more connected we are to the notion that we are who we are, and come by it honestly, the more we can make peace with the parts of ourselves that are less desirable. We all have them.

Practice: Checking in with oneself daily, what’s going on for me? How do I feel? How do I feel about that really?  What’s underneath this feeling? How can I make sense of why I am experiencing this a certain way?

  1. Cope ahead. Have an “Oh Shit” plan: think in advance about what types of things about a situation or event could be challenging. Plan what you will do, what skills you will use and who you will contact if you encounter these things.  Then visualize yourself going through the motions of your plan and connect to how you will feel after you have exited this challenge skillfully. When we have a plan for how to cope with difficulty our brain has a map for where to go when we don’t have a plan. I call it a dysregulation protocol, it doesn’t always look the same but we can respond to triggers/dysregulation in the same way: Stop, don’t react, breath, and do whatever it takes to regulate.

Practice: Meditate! I know meditation is “trendy” and may feel kind of intangible, but the benefits are insane! For the sake of simplicity here: It gives us more space between thought and action, creates a pause, literally makes it so we can experience things more slowly.  This is especially important when we are triggered as things get unbelievably fast and narrow.

  1. Repair and move on. There are times when we are going to just plain miss the mark on being skillful. Whether we try and miss, or the skills don’t work, or we say F*%k that I’m going in (hard).  It’s going to happen and its part of being imperfect and human.  What really gets messy is when we experience shame and self-loathing, while simultaneously not taking ownership of our unskillful behavior because then everyone will know.  This creates dissonance both in our experience and in our self-concept.  For example, when we are wrong or behave poorly, it isn’t a secret.  Avoidance doesn’t change it, justifying it doesn’t change it, and the ironic thing is when we don’t acknowledge and repair, it becomes exponentially more likely that we will repeat the behavior.

Practice: Practice repairing and taking responsibility with small things and safe people.  Accurately describe your experience and self-validate that you are going to make mistakes and screw up and even try to make sense of why it happened based on yourself fluency.  Then move on.

The "Not Enoughness" Cure: Really Good Enough

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Really Good Enough

 Full disclosure, I started writing this blog hours before getting my jacket caught in the elevator doors while taking my 9.5-month-old son out for a walk.  Motherhood has taught me so much about this topic and I am humbled every day.

So much of the human experience involves comparing ourselves to others, evaluating how we measure up, being judged or valued based on performance or standing.  It’s a tricky societal norm that unfortunately leaves most of us feeling self-critical, overwhelmed, and falling short a lot of the time.  Whether the context be work, relationships, appearances, parenthood, or status, the result is the same: not enoughness.

 Not enoughness (adj.) the experience of feeling alone, judgmental, and critical of oneself, while operating with the belief that everyone else has figured this puzzle out and you are behind, late, or incompetent.

 This description is two-fold, not only do we feel critical of ourselves and not enough, we compound this difficulty with further isolation where we trick ourselves into believing this isn’t a common experience held by most human beings today.  The antidote is connection, vulnerability, and honesty. However, let’s be honest, how many of us feel compelled to double down on connection and vulnerability when already feeling the above not enoughness. That we open ourselves to further criticism and scrutiny would not be “smart".

 What can we do? How do we find ourselves in the midst of this isolating space and see a way forward? Practice.

  1. What does not enoughness look like in you. Everyone has their own flavor. Identify where this comes up most; what triggers it, who brings it out most in you. What does it look like, sound like, feel like? What thoughts, feelings, and behaviors accompany it? We need to be able to recognize when it is happening to redirect, refocus, and be skillful. The question is not if this experience happens for you, it is when and how frequently.
  2. Check the Facts. When you identify being in the not enoughness space, look around. Check the facts, what is objectively true about this situation.  For example, it’s not objectively true that making a mistake, or not achieving perfection makes a person not enough. This may feel true or be someone’s belief but it is not a fact.  The belief that we should know how to do something innately without ever learning how to do it, or being trained in it, or practicing, is not a realistic expectation. If you identify the feelings of not enoughness and then when you check the facts realize you don’t have any objective evidence to support this feeling state, there are two choices:   

a.) Charge ahead anyway, beating yourself up will help keep you on your toes!

b.) Acknowledge you are being unfairly critical or harsh and then to whatever degree possible with your current practice level, let it go.

Use a wise mind mantra to ground yourself in the facts: (personal favorite) “I am enough, I have enough, I do enough.”

  1. Reframe/Check the comparisons: Often a common trigger for “not enoughness” is comparing ourselves to other people, or our perception of other people. Before getting down on yourself about not having what another person has, ask yourself if it’s something you would actually want.  Sometimes we see things we don’t have and immediately think “I want that, I don’t have that, why don’t I have that?!” Before judging ourselves for not being enough or having something someone else has, first, let’s examine if we really desire it and secondly if we are willing to make the commitment to the behavior changes that it involves to get and keep the thing.  For example, we watch tv and see an actor who is playing a superhero in a movie, there is a scene where actor saves the day using a sword and takes off armor to reveal a flawless, chiseled body; wait for the immediate “I want that” to sink it.  Okay so couple things to consider, IT’S A MOVIE, THEY ARE A SUPERHERO, THEY HAVE HAD MONTHS OF DAILY/PROFESSIONAL COACHING AND PREPARATION TO GET TO THE SHAPE THEY ARE CURRENTLY IN, SWORDS ARE ILLEGAL. So, could I be a superhero? No, but if I really wanted to commit to the hard-dedicated work that goes into getting into that kind of physical shape I’d likely have to quit my job, my marriage, my kid, and my friends which isn’t something I am willing to do and therefore my choice. I am not a superhero, because I am choosing other things instead.  It isn’t that we Can’t do or have the thing, we are actually choosing how we want to use our energy and live our lives.  When we can think of this as a choice it puts the power and perspective back in our hands. We can do a lot, but we cannot do everything.
  2. Let it Be Good Enough: Perfection is the number one destroyer of peace. Allowing our best to be enough, enough to be enough, and then to get busy doing whatever parts of life come next.  We can get trapped in the perfection game and caught up treating every task as precious. This results in not having the energy, time, or bandwidth to give to our valued priorities.  We must choose what we are prioritizing. We can’t be perfect, but we can be really good enough in areas that matter most. Don’t let your tasks take over your life.  They don’t have a strong enough return.  Figure out what things matter most and remind yourself of them when drift happens.
  3. “Beauty lies in the details” or “The devil is in the details”: Don’t over think it.  You can find “evidence” to support all points of view on the internet these days. The black and white, non-dialectical nature of perfectionism is exactly why it is so destructive. Life is full of nuance and there’s no google search that can give us those answers. It matters, and sometimes it matters a lot, and sometimes it matters too much. Sometimes it doesn’t matter.  Do a good enough job, don’t be flippant or irresponsible about a task, or a conversation, or a commitment- give it a time, effort and respect and then move on. Don’t look back. If you are someone who struggles with perfectionism, I promise your good enough is enough!
  4. Give each other the benefit of the doubt and collectively let go. We must stop taking ourselves so seriously, or seeing our actions as definitions of character. Of course, we should all take ourselves seriously, sometimes, and of course our actions make up who we are and what we value, sometimes, a lot of the time. And some of the time we just trip up, or need a break, or need a kind compassionate voice to remind us that we have all been there and then keep it moving.  

Emotions Controlling Your Life? 3 Steps to Take Your Control Back!

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  • Do you feel like your emotions drive your behaviors and reactions? 
  • Do you find yourself feeling embarrassed or ashamed about the way you reacted after the fact? 
  • Do you wish you felt more in control of yourself and your emotions? 

Great, this blog is for you.

Feelings aren't facts. This is not to say that our feelings don’t matter or aren’t valid.  Every emotion we experience is caused by something, and therefore valid.  It gets tricky when we start talking about valid vs. justified; that is not for this blog post as I am working hard to stay in my “long enough to get the point across and not be aversive” wordcount. Bottom line is: valid means it make sense that you are feeling the way you are feeling, i.e. because you ARE, and justified means the feelings fits the facts, and the intensity of the emotion is appropriate and justified.  The intensity part is usually where folks get in trouble.  The main take away is that emotions are always triggered by something, it is often difficult to decipher what exactly triggered them, this takes practice, but the fact that every emotion we experience is caused and therefore valid is so damn validating! 

Level 4 validation in DBT’s 6 levels of validation is:

  • Validate Behaviors based on history: We react to the world based on our life experiences and biological wiring, assuming if someone is having an emotional reaction there is a reason or a cause even when the reaction is not one you relate to or identify with. Identifying why it makes sense for this person given their history or biology that they may react in a certain way.

Emotions and feeling out of control is one of the main struggles people come into therapy with.  Knowing you are behaving or reacting in a way you aren’t proud of or happy with but not being able to change it is really challenging.  I have come up with 3 steps to help you practice getting those emotions under control.

Step 1:

STOP IT! Immediately pause, there is a 30 second window between skillful reactions and hot-mess emotional bomber.  The art of pause is one of the most important skills in regulating difficult emotions.  Pro Tip: meditation helps to build your pause muscle (read more about getting started with meditation). Stop, take a step back, don’t do anything. There is a fabulous slogan in addiction recovery, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” It is fucking Brilliant!

Step 2:

Check Yourself: Check in with any stories, judgments, or assumptions you may be making about the current situation.  Check in with all the different parts of yourself that may be reacting to the current situation because it is like a past situation.  A past situation that is difficult, perhaps traumatic, and therefore difficult to react to with accurate intensity.  There is a reason we often experience the same things happening repeatedly in our relationships or lives.  Maybe they are happening and we have crap luck or continue to recreate the dynamic we need to heal, or maybe we are seeing our relationships through the lens of our experiences, where we interpret behaviors based on the things we fear most.  Again, your emotions are valid and caused, however, they are sometimes not caused by what it is happening in the present moment.  Rather, caused by a historical wound that is just below the surface and when it is activated it takes over leaving us feeling like prisoners to our emotions.

Pro Tip: Ask yourself 1. Do my emotions fit the facts of the situation I am currently facing? 2. Is my intensity measured and appropriate? Am I at a 9 when the current situation only warrants a 2 or 3?

Step 3:

Self-Validate: Validation is the best.  As humans, we need a lot of it. When it comes to our emotional experiences one of things that makes our reactions worse and more difficult to regulate is invalidation.  For example, “why am I so sensitive,” “why can’t I just chill,” “I shouldn’t be feeling this way” etc. When you are feeling intense emotions there’s a reason, something is happening, our emotions communicate to us and for us.  Saying to yourself, “of course, this is difficult for you it is another example of feeling taken advantage of by someone you trust. That is shitty, and that is hurtful.” Simply acknowledging our reactions to difficult situations can help regulate them.  Pro Tip: Validate yourself and validate the people around you. (More on levels of validation in Why you “Help” Isn’t helpful.)

Practice, Practice, Practice!  Change is really hard, and emotion regulation is a difficult skill to master specifically because we don’t always know when or what will trigger them.  The more fluent you become in your own experiences and identifying what your emotional triggers are, the more quickly and effectively you will become at modulating and regulating emotional reactivity. 

Getting Okay With Being Wrong, and Why it Matters.

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When I work with couples and families one of the major barriers to vulnerability and connection, is a preoccupation with who is right, and being right.  The standoff of one person’s perspective of an event in conflict with another person’s perspective of that same event.  Dialectically, of course it makes sense that both these perspectives can exist and neither is “right” or “wrong” but when it is your conflict, your family, and you who in your mind is “right,” you betcha it matters. 

Being wrong is such an underutilized skill.  I know for a lot of folks taking ownership of behaviors, making a mistake, being wrong, can feel like the absolute worst thing, as if being wrong but not acknowledging it somehow absolves us of being wrong? Or admitting we are wrong, or made a mistake, somehow makes us less desirable or lovable?  I get it, the preoccupation with perfectionism and over-functioning behaviors are in response to the fear of being wrong, blamed, or criticized. Brené Brown, PhD, author, and researcher who has studied shame and vulnerability for over a decade describes perfectionism as a form of armor we use to protect ourselves against being judged. "It’s a way of thinking that says this: ‘If I look perfect, live perfect, work perfect, I can avoid or minimize criticism, blame and ridicule,’”  Brown says in an interview on OWN for Oprah's Life Class. What does it mean when we are wrong, or make mistakes; big mistakes/little mistakes? For a lot of people, it means we are defective, unworthy, less valuable.  Of course, we would want to protect ourselves from that, right?  

Objectively speaking, being wrong, making mistakes, and being imperfect just means we are human and that, sometimes, we are wrong, make mistakes, and do things less than perfectly.  I come from a long line of, “Yes, we will get to solving the problem, but most importantly and first things first: whose fault it is?” It is as if I lived much of my early adult life trying to be “right,” know things, be the best/smartest/most competent so I couldn’t get blamed for being wrong. Being wrong was the worst thing to be, something being coded as your fault was the ultimate burn.  I learned two very important lessons from this conquest of knowing things, and being right.

  • It is SO lonely.
  • It doesn’t fucking matter! 

I’ve decided, for me at least, it’s such a relief to be wrong, to not know, to need help figuring something out, and ironically, not be right.  Of course, I am not right all the time, what a ridiculous expectation to have!  Although, I know I am not alone in placing this expectation on myself.

Being Wrong Gracefully

  1. Remain Teachable: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are very few”- Shunryu Suzuki. When we are open to learning, and live under the assumption that everyone has something to teach us, whether it is about ourselves or a situation, we have limitless possibilities of learning and growing together.
  2. Lead with Curiosity: The most important characteristic in leadership and management is the ability to be wrong, to not be the smartest person in the room, empower and share ownership to elevate and reinforce the strength of members on your teams.
  3. Own it, Be Wrong! Say out loud to the team, “Oops I am wrong,” or, “I completely missed this,” or “oh shucks I thought more about this and I was 100% moving us in the wrong direction.” Great, now we can problem solve and find a solution that works, together.
  4. Fall on Your Own Sword. Instead of doubling down on your rightness, fall on your own sword and be happy for fucks stake. Who really cares? It may not be the look we are going for, if when we die, our tombstones say, “Here lay Meghan, she was always right.” Especially where it matters most, in relationships, marriages, partnerships, or families, it is even more important to be wrong. 
  5. When Right, Be Humble. Who really cares about being right either? WE DO! When you are right, wear it like a lose fitting garment. It’s nice to be right, but if we have more humility around our rightness, being wrong may not feel like such a dreadful thing. We are all familiar with the saying “Do you want to be right, or do you want to happy.” If we can keep a balance between how much we value being right, we may not be blind to how much prioritizing being right gets in the way of our happiness. “Here lay Meghan, she was happy.”  I much prefer the sound of that legacy.
  6. Be Vulnerable and Human, it is your most authentic state. Say, “Hey I am really sorry I took this out on you.” Or, “I am really scared and it is not fair for me to put this pressure on you, I was wrong.” Or, “I wish I could do that over again, I really didn’t mean what I just said, I am sorry.” Then see what happens next, it is incredible what happens with the power of vulnerability.
  7. All in This Together: We Are All Wrong. IT IS THE BEST TO BE WRONG. And the greatest part is how much room it gives other people to be human alongside us. What if we didn’t equate being wrong with shame? What if being wrong didn’t have an evaluative judgment attached to it, and it was just a thing that happens sometimes, like being right. Sometimes we make mistakes and sometimes we crush it and then there is everything in between.  

6 Life Hacks for Accessing Your Zen Zone From the Red Zone.

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Do you struggle with decision making? Feeling confident in your next steps and actions, while constantly second guessing or doubting yourself directly after the fact? I know right!

There is so much about living life that feels complicated. Decisions that feel high stakes, and an irritating preoccupation with getting it “right” this time.  Dialectically, we also have moments of peace with a deep awareness of the simplicity of our existence and feeling of being grounded in ourselves and aligned with our values.  These moments are often fleeting and are hijacked by self-judgment or a thought like, “okay hippie, this is real life though, and we have to work for what we want.”  I often feel the latter moments more often on the backend of a vacation, ideally in another country.  Taking time to unplug from the daily grind has this grand impact of putting things in perspective for me. Having moments where I feel completely sure that whatever is coming next is meant for me, and if it my expectations aren’t met or something doesn’t happen then it isn’t meant for me. Exhale.  

I just got home from a magical vacation with my husband, I was aware right as I was finally landing back in NYC how desperately I try to “hold on” to the vacation feeling, demanding of myself that I “stay present, stay calm, fucking hold on to it!” Inherent in holding on is letting go, always. I came up with some ways to connect with this Zen self-state even when I am back in the daily hustle of NYC life, and as a reminder to myself when I forget to let go.  I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.

1.     Be Here NOW. Right Right Right now, I like to think about the present moment as being inside the clap, the second your right-hand hits the left to create the clapping sound, right there, that is this moment. Ask yourself, “right here right now, is everything ok?” The answer is almost always yes, right in this moment everything is okay, nothing crazy is happening right now. Then our persistent and imaginative mind remind us, “but in 45 minutes I have this important meeting and I am scared I’m going to blow it.” Or “I really shouldn’t have made that comment to Ashley about the work event, what was I thinking, it was so awkward, gosh I’m so awkward!”

Ok, but right here, right right right now…is everything is okay? Pause, inhale, exhale.

2.     Notice it and STOP IT! When we find ourselves in the irritating preoccupation with getting it “right” this time, notice we are struggling with an important decision, feeling stuck or urgent about an upcoming event or an experience that has already happened: STOP IT. Urgency is possibly one of the most dysregulating environmental variables we encounter.  Imagine what would happen if the next time you were feeling urgent, anxious, or high-stakes about a decision or an event that instead of staring at it, you look away. Get in on this moment right now, take a break and allow yourself to remember this: nothing in this world happens by mistake and we are not going to miss something or blow something that is meant for us. When you are feeling urgent and pressure about taking an action, quick- STOP IT. Wait, take a break and come back to it when the urgency has decreased.

Remember the Wise Mind test question, “Can it wait?” Everything important can wait until you can make a grounded, wise minded choice.

3.     Decide.  Indecision is another dysregulating environmental factor, I find indecision to be such a tricky space to navigate especially when paired with a sense of urgency around the decision.  The most useful approach to indecision is one of the following two decision life hacks:

  • Decide for now. Make a decision based on the information you have in this moment, solve for X and then put it away.  When more information presents itself or circumstances change, level up and make a new decision with the new data set. Let go, for now.
  • Decide not to decide. Make a decision not to make a decision for an allotted amount of time, a few hours, a day, a month, 6 months.  Decide not to decide, and trust that you will know what to do, when you know what to do.  Sometimes it isn’t time for making the decision we are demanding ourselves to make, we don’t know enough, we need to circle back to the decision in different self-state.  I have had this happen more times than I can count where I will be killing myself about a decision that I am not ready to make, hence the indecision, and then I decide not to decide and give myself a decision deadline.  When I come back to the decision in a week, a month, or even 2 hours, I am shocked by my clarity. I am decidedly clear on this dilemma that had me baffled just the other day. Sometimes we quite literally cannot see it, because we are staring too hard. Look away, let go for now.

4.     Remember. When we are feeling emotions we often forget that there was a time when we have felt differently than we do right now, ever.  Fortunately, everything changes. Impermanence allows us to trust in the fact that everything is temporary, everything will pass. If what you are experiencing is magical- experience it fully and completely- it will pass.  If what you are experiencing is painful and you feel miserable- allow the experience without pushing it away or making it bigger than it is- this too shall pass.  Everything passes, remember sometimes all we need is a prescription for tomorrow. This is important to consider when looking at the first three tips for finding your Zen.  Sometimes emotions can really jam us up about a decision, a reaction, or an outcome.  The best, most skillful thing we can do for ourselves is detach until the emotional charge has passed. It all passes, if we let it.

5.     Acceptance. Change the things you can change, problem solve, and make decisions.  We are essentially only in control of two things: 1. Ourselves and our actions, 2. Our reaction to others and their actions. That is a lot, and it is not a lot. The practice of accepting life as it is, rather than as we believe it should be, is the most effective skill I teach and use in my own life.  When you notice you are disturbed or angry, check in with yourself, is there something you are struggling to accept? Is there something that you don’t like or agree with that is happening in your life causing you pain? Is there something you are not fully accepting that is getting in the way of your ability to be at peace. Can you accept it, even just in this moment, right here, right now? (go to #1.)

6.     Love yourself hard and be gentle.  The most incredible things happen out of a place of self-love and acceptance.  We are complex people, living in a complex time, sometimes walking with confidence and a rock-solid sense of who we are and the life we are leading, and sometimes flailing around in the dark.  You are doing the best you can, remember that and be easy when you get it “wrong” after decidedly operating out of the irritating preoccupation with getting it “right” this time. You are exactly right, as you are, keep it up!