It Feels Bad. That Means It’s Working. It Feels Bad. That Means I Should Stop.

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About a month ago, I decided to start working on a fresh set of life goals. I wanted to be intentional and thoughtful about the life I live and to actually aim for something. I wanted to do the hard work of identifying my values and acting them out as best I can. I put a variety of tasks large and small onto my schedule for the month, thinking that they would help me to feel more authentically myself and allow me to be a better person.

Today, I feel icky. I spent the better part of 20 hours sleeping yesterday. I feel stretched thin and uncomfortable and overwhelmed. I feel demanding and conflicted and too loud. I feel like I’m asking too much and not providing what I should in return.

Surprisingly, I think that these feelings are good evidence that I should keep doing exactly what I’m doing. I think that they’re good evidence of growth, of work, of change. This is both metaphorical and literal. When you’re working out and it starts to hurt, that usually means you’re hitting the point where you’re getting stronger. Emotionally, when you start to dig into things that are uncomfortable or try things that scare you, you’re growing and dealing with the challenging things. I sometimes joke with myself that if my therapist suggests something and my first response is “no!!!!” then I should definitely probably do it because the strong negative response indicates that I’m afraid of something about that experience. In general, our emotions protect our coping mechanisms, even if those coping mechanisms are bad (think telling someone with an eating disorder to eat more: it’ll upset them a lot, but the discomfort is part of being healthier).

On the other hand, a week or so ago I scraped my knee quite badly. I thought it was fine, so I mostly ignored it. I ignored it when it ached all day long. I ignored it when it started to goop some gross substances out of it. I ignored it when the skin around it turned red. And guess what? Now it’s much worse than it was to start, and most likely infected. Ignoring it when something hurts and feels bad is an incredibly stupid idea because pain is a signal to STOP what you’re doing and make a change.

So what the actual heck? Pain both means “good job keep going” and also “stop immediately you stupid poop nugget why are you doing this?”

Now most of you probably understand that nuance is a thing and are looking at me like “yup, sometimes the same stimulus means different things ya ding dong” and I get that. But I want to recognize the fact that determining when pain is healthy and when it’s a sign to stop can be incredibly challenging (especially if you’re interoception challenged or alexythemic). And if possible, I’d like to offer some suggestions for how to tell the difference.

You know how we’re going to do it? We’re going to talk about stretching.

I’m currently working on getting my splits. I take stretch classes 2-3 times a week, and I have been for quite a while now. In the first few months of working on splits I strained my leg approximately once a month. As I was pushing into the movements, I was pushing to the point of pain: a sharp kind of pain. Almost pinchy. I couldn’t breathe easily. I couldn’t hold the position for an extended period of time. And those were all signals that I was pushing my body too far too quickly, which is why I would goof up my leg, then have to take time to recover. It set me back even further.

I’m still having a hard time always knowing which discomfort is good discomfort and which discomfort is productive. But here’s a big hint for myself: you don’t need to push to the very edge of your abilities every time. Some of your stretches will feel comfortable for extended stretches of time. The point isn’t to hit one major moment of an impressive pose. It’s to build up a skill that you can keep using.

Ok time to get metaphorical:

Sometimes a new experience or skill will take you to the very edge of your flexibility. It’s the absolute most you can do. For me that would be something like cold calling a business for a sponsorship. Doing it will feel painful, breathless, terrifying. It will activate all of the fears and anxieties I have. That’s how I hurt myself.

I like to think about breath and skills as the measure here. Can I do the thing and still breathe? Can I do the thing and use the skills I have that keep me functional? That’s the equivalent of productive stretching. It’s the edge of your discomfort. It’s the place where all of your resources aren’t simply focused on making it through this pain or this moment, but instead on doing it correctly, with care, and with intention. When discomfort is something that I can do and still engage skills, that’s the growth time.

It’s funny how often I find that physical metaphors allow me to distinguish emotional nuances. Very literal questions like “can I easily take a breath” are much easier to answer than “is this distress helpful or overwhelming”. So often emotions get expressed in physical ways, and it’s much easier to notice what’s happening in your body than it is to pull apart the strands of what you’re feeling and why.

So if you’re wondering whether your discomfort means you should stop or keep going, think of stretching: can you be productive where you are? Do you need to back off a bit? What will help? You’ve got this!

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!

Hacking Your Executive Function: Practice Self Monitoring

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Friends we’re finally here: the final section of the Hacking Your Executive Function series. It’s been a long (and wild) ride, but I only have five more posts to make and then I’ll go into hibernation to turn this into a book. I’ve saved one of the most challenging skills for last because honestly I was intimidated by it, but I think we’ve all picked up some skills along the way. So here we are: self-monitoring.

Self-monitoring is one of the least intuitive elements of executive function in my opinion, but it’s also one that can cause many difficulties and be hardest to support. So we should probably be talking about it more. Self-monitoring is the ability to assess yourself: it means understanding external standards and seeing if you’ve met them. It’s knowing your own strengths and weaknesses. It’s the ability to make your own corrections by noticing when things are going wrong and figuring out solutions. If you have weak self-monitoring skills you might find yourself surprised when people respond negatively to you or when problems show up. It’s thinking you aced that paper and getting it back to find you got a D.

Self-monitoring combines a lot of different skills, which is why it can be incredibly challenging. It involves a lot of working memory (what were the expectations), comparison skills (how am I matching up to them), time management (how often and when should I be reviewing my work), planning and organization (how do I build editing and review time into my schedule), and emotion regulation skills (how can I troubleshoot if I get frustrated, where am I emotionally, etc.). We’ve worked on a lot of those skills separately so a big part of self-monitoring is putting systems in place that help to organize all of those skills as a comprehensive unit.

One of the things that’s particularly challenging about self-monitoring is that there aren’t very many suggestions for making it easier except to practice. However there ARE some ways that you can intentionally practice using self-monitoring that will hopefully guide you and remind you.

The first tool I use to practice self-monitoring is checklists. If I have a particular type of project or activity that needs to meet certain milestones, I like to write them down and have them handy to double check after I’ve finished the project. For example each month at work I have to create a calendar for the next month. I have a small sheet of paper taped on the wall next to my desk that lists out all of the places on our website that I should look for events. If I have writing tasks I try to create an editing list ahead of time so that when I’m actually doing the editing I can simply go down the list and check off each idea (do I have consistent spacing, are my transitions good, spelling and grammar double check, do I have the appropriate amount of citations or quotes, etc.).

That visual reminder can also be helpful if you have a hard time noticing when your behavior doesn’t match the situation you’re in. For example if I worked somewhere that it was inappropriate to swear (and I am particularly prone to swearing) I might leave a little post it on my desk reminding myself not to swear. These don’t have to be obtrusive, and I mostly recommend using them for when YOU feel you’re not reading or remembering the social cues in the way that you’d like. If you’re having particular trouble with noticing what you should be doing or remembering what you should be doing, you can also ask a trusted friend or mentor to help you brainstorm a list of general guidelines.

If you’re having trouble telling whether you’ve reached expectations or not, that trusted friend can be a great resource. You might schedule a check in weekly with your boss to make sure that you’re on the same page. It can be helpful for you to guide your mentor in these meetings by bringing specific tasks or goals and asking how they think you’re doing. Over time, you can also imagine your work from their perspective and see if that helps you self-monitor.

The final element I like to use for self-monitoring practicing is a schedule/tracker. All of my projects at work get a review one day after I have completed them, and before I send them to my boss. If you’re really struggling with self-monitoring in a variety of ways (you have trouble noticing your emotions, behaviors, abilities etc.) you may want to have a very regular self check in on your calendar. Perhaps twice a day you spend five minutes trying to notice your emotions, writing down the things you’ve accomplished, and how well you think you did. You might also try to notice the things that got in the way of success. After practicing this regularly it will become more natural and you may not have to set it in your schedule.

A side note on scheduling: I ALWAYS make sure that I can wait at least a few hours before I look back over a task or piece and edit/review. I prefer to wait a full day. Immediately trying to edit and monitor your own work is really difficult. Give yourself more time.

And with that we’re into our final topic and heading towards the finish line! How do you manage self-monitoring?