Hacking Your Executive Function: Supported Self-Monitoring

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Welcome to the end my friends. I’ve been so happy to work through all the skills that I know in executive functioning (and a few I’ve grabbed from other folks) with you all. I hope you found the series as helpful and interesting as I did, because writing it gave me quite a few ideas. But here we are at The Final Post of Hacking Your Executive Function. To finish up we’re going to end on an area that always makes me happy: letting other people support you. In this case we’re going to talk about marrying self-monitoring with a support system that can help you be self-aware.

It might seem a bit counterintuitive that other people can help you be self-aware, since it’s a skill that’s self-initiated and self-directed, but I like to use other people to help me tune my perceptions to reality, as well as to help me practice. I also know that sometimes I don’t have the ability to be as self-aware as I would like, and in those cases I think it’s a-ok to ask someone else to step up and be aware for you.

Let’s break down those functions.

The first way that I like to get support in my self-monitoring is by comparing my own perceptions to other people’s perceptions. I find that it’s not uncommon that I think I’m coming across one way, but other people are perceiving me a different way. It’s important to me to know that. There are a few people that I trust deeply (my husband, a few friends who understand being on the spectrum, etc.) who I check in with when I’m uncertain about something. I might say “Hey, I thought I was being friendly but people didn’t react to me like that. Any ideas what’s up with that?”

I also will sometimes use explicit verbal communication when I’m having difficulty with my self-monitoring. So sometimes at work or with a friend I might say “Hey I think I came across as irritated or sarcastic, but I want you to know that I’m being completely sincere, I’m just anxious about x unrelated thing. Are we on the same page?”

I can also use other people’s perceptions to help me check reality. I might think that I’m being really quiet, but it turns out I’m using a loud voice. I can ask a trusted friend to let me know if I’m getting super loud. In a completely different direction, my anxiety often means that I have really bad self-perception. I think I’m awful at literally everything. This is in some ways a failure of executive function (I literally cannot tell if I’m being accurate in my perception of how I look or if I’m talented). So I check in with my friends. I ask them to remind me on the regs that I’m awesome. I ask them to point out specific things they think I’m good at. It helps me recalibrate.

On the other hand, there are some areas where my self-monitoring isn’t very good right now but I think I could improve it in the future. In those cases I’d rather try and ask someone to help me practice. Perhaps I’ll work on a project and then show it to a friend and ask for feedback (e.g. I think this paper is a little unfocused but that the thesis is very strong. What do you think? How could I make it better?).

For something less concrete I may just ask someone to check in with me regularly while I’m working on a skill. For example, I have a hard time realizing when I’m talking about things that are too personal or embarrassing involving my husband. He pointed it out to me, and I tried to be more aware of it, but it wasn’t sticking very well. Not super consciously, I started debriefing with him after we were out together to check in about what fit within his comfort level and what didn’t so that I could understand what I was doing. If I told a story involving him, I’d ask later if it was ok. Over time, it became second nature not to violate his boundaries without thinking.

Finally, there are some circumstances where I might just ask someone else to be my self-monitoring for me. This is something that I’ll use in particular circumstances where I don’t have the spoons myself, or where a situation is particularly challenging. For example, if I’m going somewhere in which the social expectations are particularly challenging or specific, I would ask the person I was attending with to give me a nudge or a signal if I do something outside of the social norm. Typically I don’t care, but at an important place (let’s say a relative’s wedding) I might want to behave more neurotypically for the sake of ease and politeness. Having another set of eyes on you to let you know if you’re using the wrong dang fork or breaking some other silly expectation can be really helpful.

As always, that’s a tool to use as you see fit! If anyone else says that they want to fix a behavior for you or tell you when you’re behaving a way they don’t like, screw them. You get to choose if you want to be flappy or make eye contact or script or whatever.

And that’s all from me. Thanks for coming on this weird journey with me folks!

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: Identifying Your Strengths and Weaknesses

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One of the elements of self-monitoring that I find challenging is determining what skills you can bring to the table, and how to apply them to the task at hand vs. what elements will be particularly challenging and how you can get support. I like to think of this as a two parter: one is determining the parts of the task that seem like they will be challenging and which will be easy. The other is reflecting on yourself and figuring out what you can do well vs. not so well.

Let’s start with assessing tasks. You may need to rely on someone else to begin with if you really struggle to know what you can and can’t do. If you’re looking at a project or task and aren’t sure about it, you can pull in a trusted friend and ask them whether they think it will be difficult or not. Offer your own reasons you think it might be hard or easy and ask them for feedback. Work together to develop a strategy that addresses the difficult element (this math problem will be challenging because it has many steps. We can work on that by clearly writing out each step and checking our work for each before we move on to the next). Afterwards you can reflect together on whether your predictions were right.

That might seem kiddish, but I do find it helpful to talk through things instead of getting stuck inside my own head. If you don’t like working with another person you can follow those steps on your own. If you’re struggling with the first step, you can think of tasks that are similar to the one you’re doing and whether those were hard or difficult. I do this a lot with my aerial practice. When I watch a new skill being demonstrated I try to connect it to something I already know. If it’s made up of pieces that I can already do, then I know I’ll be able to do the new thing. If it includes an element that I know I struggle with, I know I’ll have to focus specifically on that area.

It’s easy to use these types of exercises to focus on what will be hard or what you’re worried about. I want to encourage you to remember that part of assessing your own skills is knowing what you can do well. You’ll also want to try to identify the elements of a task that you know how to do. Have you done it before? Were you successful? Have you completed something similar? What skills did you use?

Sure, we can learn from failure, but we can also learn from success. It teaches us what works. It teaches us what we’re capable of. It can also help you to understand how to approach a task. Let’s say in the past you had written academic reports. Now in adulthood you’re being asked to write a short description of a project you’re working on. They may not be exactly the same, but you’ll understand that you start with brainstorming, then you create an outline, then you draft the story. I always try to start a project by comparing it to something I’ve done successfully in the past, then drawing out the elements I understand so that I can approach something new with skills that are comfortable and familiar.

In addition to paying attention to the task itself you also want to notice what you bring to the table for any given problem. I find it pretty challenging to know what I’m actually good at (thanks depression for lying and saying it’s nothing), so I often ask others to reflect back to me what they see me doing well, and I try to carefully note when I see myself do something successfully. I might literally take notes on it, like a self-review. For me personally, I’ll note that I’m good at writing, I’m good at organizing, I’m good at completing tasks quickly, but I’m not great at details and I’m pretty bad at reviewing my own work. Other people think they’re great at everything and might need reminders of the places they struggle.

You can put your own strengths and weaknesses together with what will be challenging or easy about the task and notice the places that you might need some help. I also think that it’s important to recognize that accurately assessing your own strengths and weaknesses as well as the challenges of a particular task doesn’t just apply to things like work or school.

It’s really common for providers or caregivers to talk about self-monitoring in regards to “socially inappropriate” behavior. So a provider might say that a person with low self-monitoring just doesn’t notice when they’re doing something inappropriate, and that’s why we need to increase their self-monitoring abilities (so that they stop stimming or start making eye contact or whatever).

I’m not super into that. I think a lot of the behaviors that providers want to extinguish are a-ok. However, I do think that it can be helpful to be self-aware because there are circumstances in which you might want to choose not to do them or choose to do them less (I change my behavior pretty drastically during a job interview for example).

Strengths and weaknesses or goal-setting aren’t really frameworks that make sense for things like stimming. Instead, I prefer to think of them in terms of needs. Many, many people have a hard time identifying what they need in a given moment, and for those of us whose needs are out of the ordinary, it can be even more challenging. In addition to noting strengths and weaknesses, I try to take time to be aware of my body and what it’s communicating to me (I’ve mentioned mindfulness in other areas of this series, but you may prefer something else), as well as noting basic needs like sleep, hunger, or social comfort.

If you can identify the need that a particular behavior is satisfying, then you can make decisions about how you would like to satisfy that need, whether it’s bringing a very small fidget to a job interview so that you can stim quietly under the table, or being loud and proud about your hand-flapping in public. This can also be helpful for dealing with behaviors like self-injury.

You can also use the strengths/weaknesses lens to think about how you want to approach “socially inappropriate” behaviors. For example, I know that I’m pretty great at sitting still and focusing, but I am balls at small talk. I also know that it takes a lot less out of me to sit quietly in the corner than it does to try to be polite and friendly. So when I need to mask or when I want to be unobtrusive, I use my quiet, camouflaging skills rather than trying to interact with other people. Masking is a personal choice, but if you decide you’d like to do it, there are easier and harder ways to do it. Pick the ones that work for you.

I always prefer to use as many strengths as possible and circumvent my weaknesses. Instead of trying to force myself to do something I struggle with, why not find an alternative way that uses my skills? The more you pay attention to what you’re good at, the more you’ll find your own methods of success that actually work for you.