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: Emotion Regulation From the Outside

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Welcome to the end of our section on emotion regulation! We’ve talked through what emotion regulation is, how it’s related to executive function, using DBT skills, relying on logic, and the basics of self-care. You might notice that almost all of these are things that an individual can do pretty much on their own. So now we’re going to talk about external things: what objects you can use to help your emotion regulation and how other people can help you.

I’m going to start with objects because they’re easier than people (ahahahahaha). The first type of objects I’m going to talk about are things that are comforting or helpful for just making you feel better. I can highly recommend weighted blankets if you have anxiety or crave deep pressure, and I also highly recommend finding some fidgets that feel good to you if you’re a fidgeter. Sometimes it takes a bit of work and pickiness to find objects that feel right to you, whether that’s a pillow that’s truly comfortable or a kettle that allows you to make comforting, delicious tea with ease. Don’t be afraid to invest a little bit (as you’re able) in some things that will improve your quality of life in little ways. For me, fuzzy socks and footie pajamas are big, plus absurdly colorful makeup that I can play with if I get bored and antsy at the same time.

You can also use objects to cue other behaviors. If I’m having a particularly hard time, I’ll tape a list of people I can rely on to my bedroom wall. I don’t often have to call those people, but it reminds me that I’ve got a support network. I might also leave my towel on my bed to remind myself to take a bath. It’s easy to brush off self care or forget about it, so I like to make it visible and in my face. Put glitter on my bathroom sink so that I remember to put it on every morning and sparkle.

I also will often put a lot of emotional meaning into objects: there’s a particular blanket that my parents gave me for Christmas when I was very unwell together with a note that said if they weren’t there, imagine that the blanket was them giving me a hug. That blanket always means just a little bit more to me than one that just keeps me warm. There are some objects that might go the opposite direction: I strongly recommend getting rid of objects that remind you of your nasty ex or that you’re only keeping out of obligation to that one aunt you don’t like too much. But if you like solid reminders of the people who love you, it can be lovely to exchange gifts, make each other artwork, or find other physical reminders.

Speaking of people, let’s talk about social elements of emotion regulation because boy howdy there is a lot there. I can’t go into every element of this, because stuff like social anxiety or abuse or healthy boundaries could take up whole books of their own, but what I’d like to focus on here is how you can ask for help and support in your emotion regulation from other people.

My first suggestion is to find some people you don’t have to mask around at all. People you can be completely yourself. That is a tall order, but the payoff is huge. Where you find these people will vary, but I recommend looking into your special interests, or finding one awesome person who is reasonably social and likes you then getting them to introduce you to everyone else they know. Being able to socialize without the anxiety of masking reduces emotional load significantly.

I also like to have friends who will check in on me in a real way. I don’t mean asking ‘hey how are you?” I mean people who know me well enough to notice when my behavior changes, people who know my specific challenges and can ask about them, people who I trust to be honest with them. Sometimes I will specifically ask for things: hey can you text me around noon each day to make sure I’ve eaten something? Other times I just try to see the same people at about the same time each day/week/month so that if things get missed they’ll check in with me.

Friends can also be very helpful for motivation. When you’re struggling to clean your house you can ask someone else to come over and just be your cleaning buddy: they don’t have to help, but you know they’ll show up on this day expecting you to clean and it will help motivate you.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help! Sometimes I can’t cook for myself and I’ll mention either to specific friends or on Facebook that I need help. I try to be specific in what I ask for in support, e.g. ‘it’s helpful to me if you ask me to go out to dinner or bring me frozen meals” or “it’s helpful to me if you remind me of something you like about me as a person.” That means doing enough work up front that you can at least point someone in the direction of how to help you. Sometimes that means saying “please don’t give advice. I’m not sure what would help, but not that.” When I’m in a particularly bad place I headbutt my husband and tell him “I need help but I don’t know what I need. Can you just make a decision for me?” because I tend towards decision fatigue in a big way.

People are also really good for bouncing ideas off of. I tend to overload myself, hold myself to perfectionistic standards, and work too hard. When I’m feeling overwhelmed I’ll tell a trusted person what’s overwhelming me and propose what I’d LIKE to do instead of all the work. I’ll ask them if it sounds reasonable. Sometimes it helps to have someone else give you permission to do what you should be doing.

Especially if you’re the type of person whose brain tends anxious or depressed, it’s good to have some people who can remind you of what’s reasonable. All of us need that person who will say “what the fuck are you talking about” when we tell them “I suck and everything I do sucks”.

Last but not least, venting to other people can do wonders. Just talking through how you’re feeling to figure it out for yourself, get some feedback on the situation, and have someone say “you’re right that is awful” can go a long way. Don’t forget to include these types of interactions in your self-care schedule, or have people available for unexpected shit days. Building up a network of friends and letting go of people who stress you the hell out can do wonders for your emotion regulation. I highly recommend it.

Next week get ready to dive into inhibition! It’s gonna get wild.