You may have heard the term co-dependency tossed around in discussions about unhealthy relationships. Usually people are talking about an unhealthy attachment to another person to such an extent that there is a crippling reliance on the support and validation they receive in that relationship. Codependent relationships can occur in the context of a romantic relationship, but these dynamics can also be present in family relationships or friendships as well.
Codependency was first recognized and defined in the context of people with addiction problems and the people who support and facilitate addictive behavior in their partners. However, the pattern has been expanded and understood more broadly in the context of any relationship in which one person’s unhealthy behaviors are accepted and propped up by the other person, who becomes an enabler of the unhealthy patterns.
How to Recognize Codependency in Relationships
To understand codependency, you want to recognize the signs of this unhealthy dynamic in relationships. People who tend towards co-dependency may exhibit the signs of unhealthy attachment in multiple different relationships, and they may repeat these patterns in relationships that they seek out. Often the person is seeking out emotional validation or looking for others who will enable their own unhealthy behaviors, including addiction, irresponsibility, or poor choices.
Some of the signs of codependency in a relationship may include:
- Manipulative behaviors that drain others of time, resources, and/or emotional energy
- Lashing out when others try to set boundaries and limits
- Creating justifications for unreasonable behaviors
- Acting helpless in order to make others feel responsible for helping them or solving their problems
- Becoming disappointed or depressed when others do not rescue them or give in to their demands, claiming no one cares about or supports them
- Using past adverse events or situations to justify current helplessness or lack of responsibility for their choices
- Using other people’s concern for their wellbeing to manipulate situations or extract resources from them
These patterns indicate that codependency has become a coping mechanism to avoid dealing with life’s problems or taking responsibility for life’s challenges. People with codependency often need professional help to understand their own behaviors and take control over their own lives.
Sometimes this means seeking treatment for addiction or mental health problems. Often, family therapy is needed as well in order to break unhealthy patterns in the family dynamic and help everyone establish healthier boundaries with each other. In some cases family members or enmeshed partners have to stop their own enabling behaviors in order to force change in the codependent relationship.
Understanding The Enabler in Codependent Relationships
An important part of understanding codependent relationships is also understanding the role of the enabler. You may wonder why a person would put up with such unhealthy and maladaptive behaviors from someone else. Yet for the enabler in the relationship, they are often getting a secondary gain from the dynamics in the relationship. A secondary gain is typically an unmet emotional need that is being facilitated by the codependent dynamics of the relationship.
To use the example of codependency in addiction, the enabler is often put in the position of facilitating the addicted person’s behaviors by providing money, shelter, rescuing them from unsafe situations, and helping to minimize the negative outcomes of the addictive behaviors. They may be asked to pay for legal assistance, treatment costs, or food and shelter. The enabler may find themself supplying drugs or alcohol, or picking them up when they are intoxicated, or taking care of them when they are hungover or recovering from a drug binge. Even when the addicted person’s behavior and needs become excessive and unreasonable, the enabler often continues to support and facilitate these needs.
Why would anyone allow themself to be manipulated or used over and over again?To start off with, the person in the role of the enabler likely loves and cares about the addicted person very much. It’s difficult to watch someone you love do things that hurt them, and most of us have at least some inclination towards helping those we care about. There may also be a very sincere desire to do whatever is needed to help this person recover from their addiction and improve their life.
However, in codependent relationships this desire to help someone you love becomes excessive and unhealthy. Often, the enabler is also using the relationship to fulfill their own conscious or unconscious emotional needs. They may have a desire to feel needed, or a fear of abandonment, or they may feel validated by rescuing other people. These emotional needs get fed when they become enmeshed with a needy and co-dependent person.
Enablers may also believe that they deserve to be mistreated or used, and may feel that they will not find another person who will need or want them. This desire to maintain the relationship despite the unhealthy patterns will allow the enabler to justify manipulative or even abusive dynamics within the relationship.
Relationships between an enabler and a codependent person can become quite destructive. Enablers have difficulty with setting boundaries and co-dependent people are quite good at blurring and crossing boundaries when it serves them. The needy behavior is reinforced because the codependent person receives attention and nurturing when they exhibit the unhealthy behaviors, thereby further incentivizing the co-dependent patterns.
To understand if you might be enabling codependent behavior, ask yourself these questions:
- Is there someone in your life that makes constant and sometimes unreasonable demands of your time, attention, and/or resources?
- Do you find it difficult to say “no” when they ask things of you?
- Have you covered up for mistakes or unhealthy behaviors such as drug use, accidents, or poor choices for this person?
- Have you protected them from feeling the consequences of their own behavior?
- Do you worry that if you do not rescue them they will abandon you or will suffer from the consequences of their choices?
- Do you avoid confrontation by giving in to their demands?
- Do you ever feel trapped in the relationship, with no good options for how to handle the problems that arise?
- Do you feel like if you don’t help them, no one else will and the person you love will end up alone?
It’s also important to note that both people in a relationship can be codependent. When this happens, both people are enmeshed in unhealthy patterns of facilitating each other’s bad habits while also depending on each other to feel needed and valued. They can develop a desperate kind of love for each other in which they only feel understood and valued by each other, and use their intense connection to justify addictive and maladaptive behaviors with and for each other. They enable each other and use each other as crutches to avoid change.
Breaking the Patterns of Codependency and Enabling
If these relationship dynamics sound familiar to you, then recognizing the codependent pattern is the first step in breaking up these maladaptive habits. These patterns can be hard to break because both people are getting something out of the codependent pattern. The enabler feels needed and validated, while the codependent person feels loved and cared for. Breaking these patterns may require professional help, and most definitely will require behavioral changes that include setting and respecting each other’s boundaries.
While the codependent person is often the one most in need of help and treatment, the enabler is more often the first person who has to change. This is because the codependent person’s behaviors are being reinforced by the enabler. Once the enabler decides that they will no longer facilitate those patterns, the codependent person has to either change or find a different enabler.
This means setting firm boundaries on what will and will not be tolerated in the relationship. Saying “no” to things that you have previously said “yes” to will usually cause conflict, so you have to be prepared to weather the negative reactions from the other person. For the enabler, this step is the part where things get difficult, because they fear they will lose the relationship and no longer feel needed or desired.
Individual, family, or couples therapy is often a necessary step in breaking codependent patterns and establishing healthier relationship dynamics. Whether you have struggled with codependency or you have been the enabler in the relationship, healthier relationships have to start with a willingness to change patterns and examine the emotional needs of everyone involved.
For more on healthy relationships and emotional intelligence, check out these other posts:
How to Identify Toxic Relationships
Emotional Intelligence Series: Setting Boundaries
Relationship Series: Personal Confidence and Your Partnership
9 Tips To Deal With Difficult People
10 Ways to Practice Emotional Intelligence
When you have been through difficult emotional periods in your life, you know how hard it can be to pull yourself out of a depressive state or break habits that you know are bad for you. Yet you may also know that those difficult experiences have shaped who you are and made you stronger and more capable as a person. Emotional resilience comes from overcoming difficult times and continuing to move forward with your life, even when you may not feel like it.
What Is Emotional Resiliency?
Emotional resilience has to do with how well you cope with difficult emotions when they arise and how well you handle emotional challenges such as grief, anger, frustration, failure, or other problems. When you are emotionally resilient, you still have emotional reactions to the situations you may find yourself in, but you don’t let the circumstances overwhelm you or pull you down into a dark place that leads to self- destructive patterns. Difficulties can be managed, and they do not change who you are as person or what your core values and beliefs are.
If you feel like your emotions are often in charge of how you react to situations instead of you controlling your emotional reactions, then you may need to practice building up your emotional resilience. Strong emotional resilience can help you cope with challenging situations without becoming overwhelmed or wanting to give up.
How To Build Emotional Resiliency
Building emotional resilience can take time, partially because you have to actually experience challenges and struggles in order for you to become resilient towards them. Everyone eventually experiences feelings like grief, anger, frustration, and failure, but the circumstances which trigger these emotions depends on what is happening in your life at any given time.
When you do experience these feelings or are going through a challenging situation, keep these tips in mind to help you cope with those challenges and build emotional resiliency.
- Acceptance: This is a tough one for many people. Accepting circumstances as they are when you really want the situation to be different is always a challenge. However, the sooner you accept that something bad has happened so now you have to figure out how to deal with it, the quicker you can get on with your life and figure out how to move past the problem and towards the solution. Sometimes there might not be a solution, such as when you have lost a loved one to death or when a tragedy has occurred that cannot be changed. While you may experience other stages of grief such as denial, you ultimately must accept the circumstances, so practicing acceptance is a key component of emotional resiliency.
- Figure out what you can control: Sometimes you will not feel like there is much you can control when something bad has happened, but if you think about it and try to look for your choices, you may find the things that are within your control. When you figure out what you can control then you can empower yourself to make the best choices under the circumstances, and that will often lead to improvement in your emotional state.
- Let go of what you cannot control: After you have figured out what you can control, then you can practice letting go of the things you cannot control. That may be clear at times, such as knowing that something in the past has already happened and you can’t change it. Other times it may be more confusing, such as when you are unsure whether your efforts are going to pay off if you take a risk. Sometimes the only thing you may be able to control is your outlook and attitude towards the problem. Regardless of what’s happening, you will feel more resilient towards difficult circumstances when you learn to let go of any anger or resentment towards things you cannot control and try focusing only on what is within your own power to control.
- Acknowledge your emotions: Emotional resilience is not about not having emotions, but it is about understanding and accepting your emotions. You cannot move past an emotion if you do not acknowledge and accept it. For example, if you feel angry about something, but you don’t ever acknowledge or express that anger, then eventually it builds up inside you and turns into resentment and cynicism. Once you acknowledge that you feel angry and work through accepting the circumstances and choices that caused that emotion, then you can let go of it and move on to a calmer emotional state.
- Take responsibility for your actions and reactions: You cannot control what other people do or how they react, but you can control your own behaviors and reactions. When you take responsibility for your own actions, you will feel more in control, which will lead to more emotional resilience. There may be times when you don’t feel proud of your own behavior or reactions. You can still build emotional resilience when that happens though, by resolving to learn from your mistakes and make better choices in the future.
- Recognize when you are being self-destructive: Coping skills can be either healthy or unhealthy, and unhealthy coping skills tend to increase when you’re under stress or dealing with difficult emotions. Part of taking responsibility for your actions and taking control when you can is recognizing when your own coping skills are becoming self-destructive. This can happen when we start using food, or alcohol, or substances, or other unhealthy behaviors to cover up the difficult emotions we are experiencing. When the coping skills you are using are doing more damage to you in long run, it’s time to recognize that your self-destructive behaviors are just prolonging the painful emotions you need to deal with. Emotional resiliency comes from dealing with your emotions, not from covering them up.
- Stop ruminating: Rumination can become unhealthy when you are constantly dwelling on an issue or replaying scenes over and over in your head. You get stuck in a loop of negative thoughts and feelings that don’t help you move forward at all. Sometimes ruminating on a problem can be helpful when you are looking for a solution, but rumination becomes distressful when you become preoccupied with something and can’t move past it. When you are asking yourself questions with no real solution or answer, such as “What if…” or “Why did this happen..”, you can get caught up in cycles of rumination that leave you with no solutions. Instead, try asking yourself questions like “How can I change things…” or “What are my choices..” to try and find solutions. Focusing on those kinds of questions will help you build emotional resiliency as you work on becoming more solution focused rather than staying stuck in negative emotional cycles.
- Release feelings of guilt, shame, and self-blame: This trifecta of emotions can send you on a downwards spiral of self-destructive behavior if you don’t learn to cope with these feelings and release them. This is not about absolving yourself from any blame when something bad has happened, but it is about being realistic about what you are actually responsible for and letting go of these negative emotions when they are not serving you well. If you examine these feelings, you may realize that you have been blaming yourself for things that were not your fault. You might need to recognize that you don’t have to accept responsibility for things you have been feeling guilty about. There might be other times when you do feel sincerely regretful about something you did, and in those times it is appropriate to acknowledge the feelings of guilt and blame. You may need to forgive yourself for things that you regret, or you may need to apologize when it’s appropriate. However, you aren’t helping anyone by drowning in guilt and shame or ruminating about things that are in the past and can’t be changed.
- Understand your own cognitive distortions: Cognitive distortions are like little mind tricks that we all engage in sometimes, but that can distort reality when we don’t look at things in a rational way. You can build up more emotional resiliency when you learn to recognize the mental patterns you use that distort reality and keep you stuck in negative thought patterns. Learn more about cognitive distortions by reading the Cognitive Distortion Series I have on the blog.
- Practice gratitude: When you really feel overwhelmed and stuck in negativity, it’s always a good practice to come back to gratitude. Cultivating a gratitude practice regularly will help you build emotional resiliency by helping you stay focused on the positive things you have in your life and give energy towards more of those things. Even when times are really tough most of us have something that we can be grateful for. Many of us have more than enough to be grateful for, and while none of us is immune from suffering, we can all build emotional strength to help us cope with life and it’s struggles.
Emotional resiliency is a trait that you can develop, and like other areas of personal development, it is something that takes practice. The more you practice dealing with circumstances by choosing acceptance, gratitude and responsibility versus choosing rumination, negativity, and shame, the greater control you will feel over your life and your choices.
You will not always be able to control the circumstances and situations that happen in life, and you will not always be able to control the actions and feelings of others. However, you can choose to mentally shift your perspective in ways that will help you build up more emotional resiliency. Practicing emotional intelligence will help you be better able to handle emotions when they arise and help you feel more confident about how you are choosing to handle problems and circumstances.
For more about Emotional Intelligence, check out these posts:
10 Ways to Practice Emotional Intelligence
Are You Using Selective Self Control?
4 Steps for Anger Management
Cognitive Distortions: Disqualifying the Positive
When a person experiences a trauma, the brain reacts in several different ways which can affect the life of that person moving forward. Just as a physical injury from a traumatic accident can affect your body at the site of the injury for years to come, your mind can be also be impacted for years after a traumatic incident, whether due to a physical or psychological trauma.
Trauma causes an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and fear of potential death, serious injury, serious loss (death of someone else), pain, or entrapment. These overwhelming feelings and fear cause the brain to react in ways to try and protect itself. Traumatic experiences can overwhelm the brain’s ability to cope using normal methods of stress relief, and thus alternative coping methods have to be developed, which can cause disruption in the lives of people trying to recover from trauma.
In order to understand why people may have certain reactions to traumatic events, it is important to understand what trauma really is and the range of ways that the brain reacts to the trauma.
Defining Traumatic Experiences
Trauma can occur in response to major onetime events such as natural disasters, a car accident, witnessing or being a victim of violence or a crime such as sexual or physical assault. It may also occur in response to chronic or repetitive experiences such as child abuse or neglect, military combat, neighborhood violence and crime, wartime atrocities, physically or emotionally abusive relationships, and long-term deprivation.
The most important thing to understand about trauma is that it is based on a person’s subjective experience. Two people could experience a similar incident but react in very different ways. The objective facts of the experience do not always cause the same reaction in everybody, so it’s important to understand that it is the individual that defines whether the experience was traumatic or not.
Whether a person perceives an incident as being traumatic or not often has to do with how much danger they were in during the event, whether loss of life occurred or could have occurred, whether it was a one-time incident or an ongoing experience, whether they have access to reasonable safety measures, how much support they have from friends and family, and whether they are validated or shamed for their experiences.
What are the Symptoms of Trauma
When a person has experienced a trauma, such as a sexual assault, a home invasion, or a significant loss, they may experience a wide range of symptoms in reaction to the trauma. Remember that these are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL situations. These symptoms may include:
- Emotional distress
- Distressful and intrusive memories
- Constant feeling of being in danger
- Sleep disturbances
- Emotional numbing or disconnection from others
- Inability to trust others
- Hyper-arousal (constant worry or checking behaviors)
- Physical reactions (headaches, muscle aches)
- Uncontrollable fear
- Confusion about timing or order of events
- Feelings of guilt, shame, or self-blame
- Difficulty concentrating
These are all indications that the brain is attempting to either prevent further trauma from happening again by keeping you in a constant state or arousal or protecting you from potential emotional distress by suppressing upsetting or painful emotions. It is also normal to experience an increase in these symptoms in reaction to another stressors that arises or surrounding a stressful time such as an anniversary or other significant date related to the trauma.
The Effects of Trauma on the Brain
When you have experienced trauma, your brain goes into a state of hyper-arousal, basically because your fight or flight response has been triggered and your brain reacts by trying to prepare you for potential danger. That potential for danger reverberates through your entire body, including your limbic system and your autonomic nervous system.
Your limbic system includes the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, and the amygdala, as well as other areas of the brain, and has to do with processing emotions and forming memories. The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating many bodily functions, including your arousal to emotional circumstances and the functioning of your autonomic nervous system (blood pressure, breathing rate, sweating, heart-rate). The hippocampus helps you convert what is happening in the present moment into long-term memories. The amygdala helps to control reactions to stimuli, such as aggression and fear.
When trauma triggers a stress reaction in your limbic system, it can feel overwhelming because your brain is not used to dealing with such a high level of stress, and so its functions can be negatively affected. This reaction in the brain accounts for why some trauma survivors have difficulty recalling the correct order of timing or certain details of the event.
It’s not because they are lying or exaggerating, which some trauma survivors are accused of when their memory is impaired due to a trauma. It is because the part of their limbic system responsible for creating and storing memories was flooded by stress and the entire system was reacting in ways to focus solely on surviving the traumatic situation. Unfortunately, this memory impairment in reaction to trauma is often used against survivors to try and minimize what happened to them or cause doubt in their account of the events.
The truth is that when traumatic events happen, your memory can get mixed up and certain events may not be organized correctly in your brain’s memory filing system, so to speak. This doesn’t mean that a survivor’s perception of events is invalid, it just means that their memory may have been damaged during the traumatic event, which can cause further confusion, shame, or embarrassment about the traumatic event.
Your autonomic nervous system includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, and it is responsible for alternately preparing you to handle a dangerous situation, and then calming you back down when the danger is over.
During a stressful event, the nervous system releases the stress hormone cortisol to give you a boost of energy to react to the dangerous situation. Normally, when a stressful even passes, the nervous system will then regulate your hormonal output and bring your back to your normal homeostasis. However, when a major trauma overwhelms your system in reaction to the perceived danger you are in that flood of stress hormones might remained heightened, leaving you feeling stuck in a constant state of hyper-arousal.
This state of hyper-arousal gets exacerbated when you are being constantly flooded with stressors, such as being stuck in an abusive relationship (where you feel you’re always walking on eggshells), or if you experience multiple triggers back to back (such as losing several loved ones in a short period of time). This relentless stress to your system causes your brain to react in a way that can feel like you are constantly on the look-out for the next potential danger or loss, and can make it hard to get back to a period of relative emotional stability.
When to Seek Treatment for Trauma
Trauma recovery can take time, and there is no hard and fast time-line for how long it takes for each individual. However, if you have been experiencing the symptoms described above for more than 3 months after the initial trauma, you may need to seek out professional help. Remember that it is normal to have these emotional reactions to trauma, but talking with someone in a safe environment can help you to process your fears and the emotional damage that you have endured.
If you have people who you know are supportive and understanding, it can be helpful to talk to those who care about you and explain what you are going through. It can be hard to reach out for help, but it is so helpful when you feel supported by those who truly care about you. Talking about trauma can be hard, so turning to a professional therapist or a support group for people who have been through similar traumas can be incredibly healing and help you get to the next level in your recovery.
If you are experiencing any of the following after a trauma, please consider seeking out a professional with experience in trauma recovery:
- Severe fear, anxiety, or depression
- Trouble with functioning at home or work
- Disturbing nightmares or flashbacks
- Avoiding more and more things to prevent distress
- Unable to talk about the trauma with caring friends or family
- Feeling overwhelmed or frozen in life and unable to move forward
- Abusing substances to feel relief from emotional distress
Trauma recovery involves processing memories related to the trauma and the feelings that were triggered during and after the event. An informed trauma therapist can help you to face feelings and memories that have caused you distress and discharge some of the emotional energy or anger you may feel related to the traumatic event. You may also learn new ways to cope with overwhelming feelings and learn how to re-build your ability to assess safety and build trusting relationships.
Trauma disrupts your body and your brain’s ability to feel safe and at ease. Your nervous system may feel like it is stuck in overdrive and you can’t calm down or feel balanced. In order to dispel that excess energy and feel safe again, you may have to go through some uncomfortable things, like talking about painful memories. Don’t push yourself to do things you’re not ready for, but recognize that healing takes time and you don’t have to go through it alone.
For more on trauma recovery, see this post on 5 Things Needed for Trauma Recovery.
This is the second post in my Emotional Intelligence Series, and in this post I’m going to discuss setting boundaries. Boundaries are important in all relationships, whether personal, professional, or romantic, because they let others know what you are or are not willing to tolerate, what you will or will not do, and what you expect from others based on the roles of your relationship.
When you do not have strong boundaries with others, you can end up feeling taken advantage of, disrespected, or powerless. Yet often when you learn how to take control of situations by setting stronger boundaries, you will find that having boundaries is actually what helps you overcome those feelings.
What Are Unhealthy Boundaries?
First, let’s look at some ways that unhealthy boundaries can impact your life and the relationships you have with others, both romantic and platonic. When you do not have healthy boundaries, you may:
When you have poor boundaries, you may be confused about whether someone is trustworthy or not. This can happen when you don’t trust yourself, because you may have a feeling that someone is shady or shouldn’t be trusted, but you don’t feel confident enough to speak up for yourself or say “NO” when someone wants your trust.
- Get pressured into doing things you don’t want to do
When you have difficulty saying ”NO” and setting limits with other people, you may find yourself getting pressured into doing things that you don’t want to do. This could mean doing favors for others, even when it means neglecting your own needs or using up your own resources.
- Take on responsibilities that are not yours
Having poor boundaries means that others will be able to put responsibilities on you that you may not want to take on. This could be at work, where a lazy coworker is always getting you to do things for them, or it could be with a friend who is constantly asking you to babysit at the last minute so they can handle their other responsibilities while you put your own needs aside.
- Overly-tolerant of inappropriate behavior
People who struggle with healthy boundaries may have difficulty confronting others who are behaving inappropriately, because they feel uncomfortable with confrontation or are worried about keeping the peace. However, this can lead to others taking advantage of that and continually pushing the boundaries in the wrong direction. This can be especially damaging when you are dealing with someone who is using their position of power to push boundaries, such as in sexual harassment in the workplace, or even sexual pressure from someone in a social setting.
Sometimes it can be hard to know who to trust, but when you struggle with setting boundaries, people who are looking for your vulnerabilities can exploit that struggle. When you do not listen to your internal voice that is telling you not to trust someone, you may end up trusting the wrong person, which sets you up for betrayal or disappointment.
People who are manipulative, narcissistic, or who have power and control issues are looking for those who are vulnerable so that they can manipulate them. When you show others that you have poor boundaries in one area of your life, people who are looking for someone to manipulate or control will see that you are vulnerable in that way, and can target you for abuse or control. This could mean getting you to give them money, allowing them to control certain aspects of your life, or pressuring you into situations that make you uncomfortable or cause you to take on risk that you shouldn’t have to take on, like asking you to do something illegal.
How Do Unhealthy Boundaries Affect You?
All of these effects can leave you feeling powerless, hurt, and confused about how you can get people to respect you and respect your limits. When you don’t feel like you are in control of the situations you find yourself in, you can end up feelings guilty or ashamed when you realize that someone has taken advantage of or manipulated you in one way or another.
This is why establishing boundaries in all areas of your life is so important, including in your personal life, you romantic relationships, your work, and your family life. You may know that you need to set boundaries with your kids, for example, in order to keep them safe and raise in a way that will help them excel in the world they are growing up in. It can be harder, though to set boundaries with your boss, for example, or with your family, because of established roles about who has authority and who has expectations.
How Can I Establish Healthy Boundaries?
YOU can have expectations too. It is perfectly fair for you to have expectations of your workplace environment, or your family interactions. You are not always going to be able to change the behavior of others, but you can speak up for yourself and set limits on certain issues when you need to.
This may include things like being firm about when you need to leave work, or choosing to leave a family gathering that has gotten too tense and uncomfortable for you. There are a few things that you can do to help establish healthy boundaries in your life with the people around you so that you can feel more in control of yourself and the situations you are in.
- Acknowledge to yourself when you are feeling uncomfortable, and ask yourself WHY. Is it because another person is invading your personal space? Has someone asked you to do something you are uncomfortable doing? Does something seem inappropriate or weird? Trust your instincts!
- Know what you are not willing to tolerate and what your limits are. Do you need to set a limit on how often your best friend can borrow your car or how many times you can pick him/her up? Think about what you are reasonably able to do for others and what your limits should be.
- Get Assertive: Learn about the differences between passive, aggressive, and assertive communication and get comfortable with being assertive. This takes practice if you are not used to it, so look for situations where you feel a little more comfortable asserting yourself and practice standing up for yourself and your needs. This could be as simple as letting the waiter (politely) know that your order is wrong instead of just brushing it off and saying “oh well, I’ll eat this anyways”, or it could be more significant, like letting your boss know that NO, you will not be able to work late again because you have other things to attend to (you don’t have to explain what else, it is YOUR life). Practicing assertive communication will help you in setting boundaries in all areas of your life.
- Know who is allowed to be emotionally close to you: Think about who is in your life that deserves your trust, and who does not deserve your trust. You may still have to interact with some people that you do not trust (like that shady co-worker). Yet you can still limit your contact with those who you do not trust to Needs Only Basis. This means that you only interact with them when you need to, such as to complete a work project or to get information needed for your own tasks. Otherwise, avoid the small talk and politely but firmly avoid the person when possible. Practice using assertive statements such as “I’m in the middle of [insert important task here] right now, but I will get back with you when I’m finished”. The goal is just to set that limit so the expectation is that you are only available for work-related tasks within your own role in the work environment. When you have someone who does deserve your trust and with whom you can allow into your emotional space, make sure that they know you trust them and that you are counting on them to safeguard that trust. This is about YOU setting expectations for how you want to be treated.
Setting boundaries can be hard if you have struggled with being assertive and confident in your life. Luckily, setting boundaries is a skill that can be learned, and you can become more confident over time when you set appropriate boundaries with others.
These skills contribute to your overall emotional intelligence because when you are confident about the limits and boundaries you have with others, you will be less likely to get into situations where you feel out of control or powerless, and you will be more likely to command respect from others who can see that you have limits.
Think about where in your life you need to set some limits by acknowledging the times that you have felt taken advantage of or other times when your boundaries and limits were not clear, and how you wish you had handled those situations. Then take a look at what you could have done differently if you had strong boundaries and limits. Begins to practice being more assertive (not aggressive) in situations where you feel safe and then expand that practice to other areas where being assertive may be less comfortable. As you grow and expand where you are setting limits, you will grow more comfortable exerting your own power by establishing boundaries in all areas of your life.
Emotional Intelligence has been a buzzword term for a while now, but many people still struggle to understand what it looks like in daily practice. In general, emotional intelligence (EI) refers to your ability to understand and regulate your own emotions. In practice, this means that you allow yourself to feel your emotions, but you don’t allow them to rule over all your decisions or behaviors.
Emotional intelligence also means that you have the ability to understand the emotions of others and respond to people in a way that reflects your understanding of and respect for how they feel. While some people do have a more innate ability to understand the emotions of themselves and others, people also can practice and strengthen these skills.
People who have emotionally intelligent traits tend to communicate better with other people, resolve conflict in a more healthy way, and have better emotional regulation overall. You can practice developing your emotional intelligence by working to understand and regulate your own emotional life in a way that allows you to have control over your emotions, instead of the other way around. This post will be the first in a new series about emotional intelligence where I will expand more on how to cultivate and practice this important skill in your own life.
How to Practice Emotional Intelligence
Here are 10 ways that you can practice strengthening your emotional intelligence so that you can feel confident in your ability to handle your emotions and the emotions of others.
- Understand your own feelings
Learn to identify how you feel by practicing distinguishing your thoughts from your feelings. For example, you may be thinking “he is such a jerk!”, but the feeling associated with this thought is “I feel hurt and disrespected when he speaks to me in that way”. When you focus on understanding how you feel in a given situation, you will be better equipped to approach the situation in a productive way.
- Take ownership of your own feelings
When you know how you feel, the next step is to own that feeling and recognize that you have control over that emotion. Practice doing this by catching yourself the next time you say “You are making me feel…(angry, jealous, insecure)”, and replacing that with “I feel (angry, jealous, insecure) when you do that.” This way of framing your emotions allows you to take control of that emotion instead of feeling powerless over it.
- Use your feelings to help you make decisions
Before you make decisions, ask yourself “how will I feel if I do this? How will I feel if I don’t do this? How are my emotions affecting this decision?” Work on using this insight to help you make decisions that you will be proud of and happy with later on.
- Respect other peoples’ feelings
You don’t have to agree with everyone on everything, but you can have better relationships with all people if you learn how to respect things from their perspective. If you want others to respect your feelings, then you can model how you want them to treat you. Even though other people will not always return the courtesy, you still want to represent yourself well by treating others as you would like to be treated.
- Avoid people who do not respect your feelings
Just because someone disagrees with you does not mean they are disrespecting you, but when someone truly doesn’t respect you or your feelings, you can respect yourself by avoiding them. You won’t always be able to avoid everyone who disrespects you, but you can minimize your contact with them and set boundaries when necessary. For example, if you have a supervisor at work that doesn’t respect you, you can try to make the best of things by minimizing your contact as much as possible and disconnecting emotionally from the situation. Ultimately, though, you are going to need to assess whether you should look for another job if the situation is not going to improve. This includes setting boundaries with people when necessary.
- Manage your reactions to your emotions
You can have an emotion without acting on it in the same way that just because you think something doesn’t mean you have to say it out loud. You are going to feel angry, depressed, frustrated, and distressed at times in your life. These feelings are all okay to have and you don’t have to deny that you feel these things. Yet being angry doesn’t mean you have to be aggressive, being depressed doesn’t mean you have to hurt yourself, being frustrated doesn’t mean you have to lash out, and being distressed doesn’t mean you have to hurt others. Learning to build strong coping skills so that you can face these feelings without reacting in an unhealthy way to them is a key part of emotional intelligence.
- Label your feelings instead of labeling people or situations
This is also part of owning your emotions, because you can talk about your feelings instead of talking about other people. For example, try saying “I feel frustrated and impatient because of how slow things are happening” instead of “This is taking too long! These people are so incompetent!” Even when you are just saying these things in your head and not out loud, it makes a difference. You can be sitting there stewing with frustration thinking nasty things even if you never open your mouth. Recognizing that this helps nothing and you feel terrible in the meantime will help you change your thoughts, which will change your emotions.
- Use your emotions to energize your actions
People who use their emotions to motivate them towards positive action can do amazing things. If you get angry about an issue you care about, it can motivate you to go take action to address that issue. Use the energy you feel from strong emotions to propel you to take action in a positive way. If you think a situation is unfair, speak out about it and let your voice be heard. If you have something bad happen to you, use the power behind your emotions to help prevent the same thing from happening to others if you can.
- Practice taking positivity from negative situations
Negative situations are inevitably going to come up. It’s important to allow yourself the time and space to process how you feel when bad things happen and allow yourself to heal when needed. Negative situations can also be a trigger for growth as well, though. This is a practice that you can start small with. For example, if you have been practicing building patience but you end up next to a road raging driver, use the situation as an opportunity to practice your frustration tolerance skills.
- Learn how to effectively deal with difficult people
Not everyone is going to be in the same place as you are right now in your life. Some people may have their own issues to sort out and you will end up crossing paths with them, resulting in difficult interactions. Part of being an emotionally intelligent person is deciding that you are going to be the kind of person you want to be, regardless of the kind of person someone else is. If you intend to be a kind, considerate, emotionally mature and secure person, then don’t let what other people do have an effect on your own choices and behaviors. It’s hard not to snap back at someone who has been rude to you, or disrespected you in some way. You never have to be a doormat for others or allow others to abuse you. However, when you have the confidence to address situations gracefully you will feel better able to stand up for yourself when needed and let petty things go when it’s not worth your time and energy.
Why Is Emotional Intelligence Important?
Practicing emotional intelligence can help you feel more confident and in control of your life. We all have emotions, and emotional intelligence is not about suppressing those emotions. It is actually about understanding and using your emotions to help you handle situations and people in a way that produces positive results in all your relationships and interactions instead of escalating situations until they feel out of control.
All of these practices will help you understand yourself and feelings more, and help you to focus on what is important instead of getting caught up in a habit of just reacting to your emotions. While some people may find that these practices come more naturally to the, other people may really struggle, and that is okay too. Struggling with these things doesn’t mean something is wrong with you, it just means that you might need to practice more before these habits become comfortable. Even people with strong emotional intelligence traits can struggle with this kind of practice. No one is perfect, and emotionally intelligent people understand and respect that!