Hacking Your Executive Function: Noticing Your Own Emotions

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At the end of the last post, I dipped gently into the waters of emotional self-monitoring and regulation, which we’ve talked about in depth during the emotion regulation section, but which we’re going to talk about here in regards to “behaviors” and self-awareness. I’m going to spend a full post on this because for us neurodivergent folk, acting in ways that don’t make sense to neurotypicals can cause serious issues, if not put us in danger. Being self-aware of how your emotions are affecting your behavior and how to get what you need in a neurotypical society is a pretty important coping strategy in my experience.

In addition, I also find that it becomes much easier to engage overall emotion regulation tactics if you’re aware of your own behavior and emotions, and in turn that helps you become aware of the progress you’re making on tasks or productivity. It’s all linked.

So what am I talking about when I mention the self-awareness of behaviors and emotions?

Some people would see emotions and behaviors as very separate forms of awareness, but they seem quite linked to me. Let’s start with behavior and then talk about how it relates to emotions. Because people with executive dysfunction or neurodivergence tend to have unmet needs (thanks living in a world that’s not built for us), we are more likely to do things to get our needs met. We might fidget or stim. We might meltdown. We might yell or become aggressive. In my personal experience, these actions tend to be less conscious than some other behaviors. I’m not always aware that I’m stimming, it just happens, as opposed to something like cooking where I have to decide to do it and consciously follow the steps.

Every person has some behaviors that they do unconsciously or semi-consciously. Where it becomes a problem is when those behaviors a. hurt you or someone else or b. get in the way of you accessing spaces and getting your needs met or c. are illegal. I will also include a qualified “it’s socially inappropriate” because that really depends on the level of social appropriateness. Flapping or not making eye contact? That really isn’t a problem. Sticking your hand down your pants in public? Yeah, probably a problem. Screaming in church or laughing a funeral? Definitely up for some debate.

Executive functioning comes into play in that it helps us be aware of what we’re doing, when we’re doing it, and how others are responding to it. The reason that emotions are important here is because behaviors don’t happen for no reason. We need to be aware of the motivations and needs that underly each behavior before we can really intentionally decide when and how we choose certain behaviors.

That was a lot of preamble. What can you actually do to become more self-aware of what your body is doing and improve your self-monitoring?

Unsurprisingly, I’m going to recommend making a schedule for yourself, because if a task isn’t regularly integrated into my life I immediately forget about it. Basically, I try to schedule in time during which I explicitly pay attention to what I’m doing and how I’m feeling. Those can be break times so that you can reset or it might just be an alarm that goes off while you’re at work so that you pause for 30 seconds and take stock.

That kind of noticing is the beginning of mindfulness. As I’ve mentioned before, mindfulness is just being aware of what’s happening right now and staying present in the moment. It’s the opposite of imagining the future or replaying the past. The more aware you are of the now, the easier it will be to notice what you’re doing and how to respond.

When I schedule in breaks I like to use a mindfulness practice to check in with myself. I might try progressive muscle relaxation or a five senses activity. If you specifically want to check in on a particular behavior or emotion, you might jot down a couple of questions to ask yourself each time you have these short breaks. Let’s use me for an example! This is a technique that I really should be using because I want to stop picking at my fingers as much. It’s a fairly stimmy behavior, but it hurts and I do it to the extent that my fingers bleed so I’d prefer to stop. If I set three alarms throughout the day to check in and see if I am picking at my fingers or have been picking at my fingers, I’m likely to stop doing it so unconsciously.

The second element of these mindfulness breaks is to note your emotions. I know that I finger pick more when I’m anxious, however if I wasn’t sure what emotions were connected with the behavior I would have a harder time knowing why I do it. Once I understand why I have an easier time of replacing it with something that works for me (I try to use fidgets instead of my fingers) or to use my emotion regulation skills before I hit the level of anxiety that leads to finger picking.

Regularly checking in on emotions also helps to increase your emotional awareness overall so that you can deal with emotions before they become a problem. Your emotions can also help let you know when a need isn’t getting met so you can decide what you want to do to meet it before your body starts meeting it without your consent. That might be too abstract. Let’s say you are someone who has meltdowns. The really big, unpleasant, awful ones.

You practice noticing your emotions for a few weeks and you start to get better at it. One day you start to notice that your anxiety and fear are going up over the course of the day. You notice that people are placing a lot of social demands on you and you need a break. You also notice that you’re starting to feel incredibly sensitive to sounds and that it’s making you angry. The awareness of what you’re feeling and why give you the opportunity to decide how to manage it. Maybe you find a way to be alone in a quiet space for half an hour. Maybe you get some deep pressure because that calms you. The idea is that you get to decide how to respond to keep yourself safe and continue your life uninterrupted.

This kind of awareness can also help with some of the more on the fence situations. Let’s say you are at a somber or quiet event (like a funeral) and you know that when you’re uncomfortable you tend to laugh. Knowing that will allow you to pay attention to how uncomfortable you’re growing at this particular event. Now is there anything inherently wrong with laughing because of discomfort? No. Is it possible that it would feel really disrespectful to some of the other people there? Yeah. Do you want to stop yourself from laughing at a funeral? Maybe. But knowing that it’s your tendency allows you to make the choice.

You can use many of the skills we talked about in emotion regulation to identify emotions and decide how to respond to them, but it’s important to note that being aware of your behavior and emotions (as well as the link between them) is an additional skill you can practice. Good luck friends!

A List of All the Things That Normal People Can Just Do But Are Now Behaviors Because I’m Autistic

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When I was younger, I was quirky. I didn’t have a diagnosis then, and nobody noticed the myriad of small ways that I managed my sensory world, or if they did they just thought “yeah, she’s a kid, she’s particular and picky.” But then I became and adult and those quirks didn’t go away. I continued to do kiddish things because they felt nice on a sensory level.

And then I got a diagnosis of autism, and I knew that if that had been around for all of my childhood, those quirks wouldn’t have been quirks. They would have been behaviors. There would have been an explicit program introduced into my life to extinguish them. When I was “normal” they were fine, but now that I’m autistic they are signs of my difference, and when you’re disabled every sign of difference needs to disappear. That’s how you survive in the world right? Never stick out, never appear incapable, never ask for help.

This all came into sharp focus for me last month when I was talking to a parent, and as a way of explaining one of their child’s struggles they said “the moment he comes home he always wants to put on his pajamas. I think it must be a sensory thing. What do I do?” I had to look her straight in the face and say “I do that. Don’t do anything.” She looked shocked. I can fake neurotypical decently enough. When I wasn’t diagnosed, no one ever imagined that this was something I should have to change, because I was an adult and I could do whatever weird stuff I wanted to. But here was this mom, convinced that because it was a symptom of autism it was a problem and she needed advice about how to manage it.

My advice? Let it be unless it’s hurting someone. So without further ado, here are all the things that would have been seen as problem behaviors to be extinguished if I were diagnosed as a child.

-Wearing a onesie on a regular basis, sometimes in public
-Chewing on things, all the things, including jewelry that I have specifically bought to chew on
-Having very specific dietary requirements that limit what I will eat (I will never eat fish, have a gag reflex every time I come near tofu, prefer to eat chicken nuggets as often as possible, and typically don’t cook beyond “press the button on the microwave”)
-Eating food that’s undercooked, specifically grains and sometimes raw pasta
-Stimming! I twist back and forth to crack my ankles when I’m standing, or sometimes roll onto the sides of my feet to stretch my legs out. I chew on my lips semi constantly, and when I was a kid I chewed on my hair.
-I will not talk on the phone unless it’s an emergency. I don’t care if it’s considered rude, I have such major anxiety.
-I grind my teeth, pinch myself, or dig my fingers into my arms when I’m upset.
-I lose verbal ability when I’m deeply upset and sometimes will use text instead.
-I periodically will sleep for 15+ hours at a time.
-I use my phone when socializing to manage anxiety (this was just seen as super rude for a long time, but no one told me they were going to use therapy to make me stop).
-I don’t sit upright in chairs unless I’m at work. No seriously, I slide down into them and turn into a weird little ball.
-I become obsessively interested in things and will engage in them for hours and hours to the point of almost hating them (video games, or a particular movie or TV series). Netflix binges aren’t seen as a symptom for most people.
-I wore two watches as a kid. No reason, I just liked it.

A lot of these are things that I KNOW neurotypical people do. But you add enough of them together and suddenly all of them are problems, because now you’re autistic and you can’t do anything that might be weird, or that might be because of sensory sensitivities/executive dysfunction/social issues. Why are autistics held to a higher standard than NTs? I might hazard a guess of ableism, but what do I know? I’m an autistic who still has all these negative behaviors.