This past week I wrote to you about setting boundaries with our children. In my blog, I wrote about the importance of boundaries for the emotional development of children. I also wrote to you about my own struggles in setting boundaries as a mama. One of the main reasons I struggle with setting boundaries for my own children is the (out)bursts that come with it.
It just so happens that as a clinician one of my primary areas of specialization is problem behaviors (the bursts). It’s what I went to graduate school to study over a decade ago. Over 10 years later and I can tell you the science of reducing problematic behaviors hasn’t changed. My own journey applying clinical skills at home, of course, has not (well, not totally). Today I’d like to write to you about both.
ABA & Bursts
Let’s start at the beginning with ‘burst science.’ Applied Behavior Analysis teaches us that social behaviors, both positive and negative, can be broken into units that can be studied. In studying units of behavior, BCBAs are able to identify the function of behaviors (why behaviors occur) and missing skills in the child they are studying. When it comes to reducing problem behaviors, behavior analysts are looking for why the behavior is occurring. This involves looking at what is happening before the behavior and what happens after the behavior.
While studying the environment before bursts occur, BCBAs look for a deficit in the child’s environment. What are they missing? Studying environments after bursts allow BCBAs to see if the child’s problem behaviors filled the deficit. If they did, the child is successfully using the problem behavior to get their needs met. This means the problem behaviors are being reinforced and will continue to occur. Magic I’m telling you. Magic.
You see, by studying what a child is seeking in a specific environment you can create interventions that fill the child up with what they are seeking to immediately decrease the problem behaviors. This isn’t a long-term solution, but it creates a short-term solution to make the days easier for the child and their families. While the child is being satiated BCBAs work on teaching new skills surrounding the child’s needs. This always looks like teaching functional communication skills, how to ask for exactly what you need.
Sometimes teaching specific skills can look like teaching patience and tolerance to ‘no’ when what the child wants isn’t good for them to have all the time. For example, if a child is throwing tantrums to get access to candy it’s damaging to have non-contingent candy all of the time. But if a child is tantruming for positive attention, we can fill them up without having to teach tolerance to no. Though we might have to teach waiting because sometimes mama (or papa) is busy.
The key to this remedy is to also remove reinforcement when a child is using their problem behavior to get their needs/desires met. If, in the scenarios above, the BCBA is providing candy (one piece) every 30 minutes and within 15 minutes the child hits to get access to the candy the BCBA cannot give the child the candy. If they do they will reinforce the hitting and take the motivation away from using words. It is here, in this little sweet spot of the behavior intervention, that bursts occur. Let’s talk about that.
Why Do Bursts Occur?
Underneath the bursts for children (and adults… more on that later) is fear that their needs/desires won’t be met. The bursts occur because, in the child’s mind, that very thing they want could become unattainable, their need won’t be met, and they will have to experience negative emotions. Dealing with both the fear of a need/desire not being met alongside psychologically negative emotions is tough stuff for a child. This right here? This is the hard part for parents and the sweet spot for teaching emotional resilience and intelligence.
As a mama, I know firsthand how easy it is to give in. To not want to deal with the temper tantrum, the screaming, and the crying. We are human beings and crying children is not comfortable. When we give in as parents at a given moment it provides immediate relief to ourselves and our children. It also perpetuates the very behaviors we don’t want to see more of and does not teach our children how to deal with the big emotions.
About a year ago Henry and I were at Dametrius’s football game and Henry wanted candy from the concession stand. I had packed snacks and knew sugar was on the menu later so I didn’t want him to have extra candy. I leaned down and told my little son, “no, not now we’ll have dessert at dinner”. Of course, in public, a full-on tantrum occurred. At that moment I thought how perfectly aligned this example was. You see at that moment I could have made a concession at the concession stand by just giving in. If I gave in Henry would happily watch the game and I wouldn’t have to be teaching Henry to breathe and tell me how he feels. But giving in also meant teaching my son to numb his emotions with food and that screaming works. So I stood my ground and worked with Henry.
You see under the bursts, as we are teaching boundaries. As children burst, their hearts need to know they can ride through negative emotions and still be safe on the other side. That nothing bad comes from feelings and that needs can be met in new ways. To me, as a clinician, I know that working through the bursts creates long-lasting, positive, change. As a mama, teaching my children to ride what is underneath the bursts is more valuable than any concession I could make at any given moment.
Last week I wrote to you about integrity and my own personal experience in being unwilling to bend as a woman. I spoke about my experience not only as a businesswoman but also as a woman who has left domestic abuse and is walking through divorce. That, in my unwillingness to bend, I have had to grow a tougher skin in order to stand my sacred ground. That skin, or cloak if you will, represents my boundaries. My boundaries are how I protect myself, my work, my children, and my soul. My boundaries are also what shame has told me to ignore and each time I did I lost myself.
In writing to you about my unwillingness to bend, I also wrote to you about society’s general expectations that women should be docile and accommodating. That from a young age we are taught to put down what we actually need in order to please another person (males, teachers, adults, authorities, etc). With this social conditioning, there are no lessons on protecting your own worth, needs, and desires, leaving boundaries as never a topic that is never discussed.
Setting Boundaries Isn’t Selfish
For an incredible amount of time, I thought that boundaries were selfish, that when I placed a boundary on someone else who had a need or request I wasn’t serving humanity. Each time I placed a boundary and received backlash I measured my own worth against it. I thought that somehow my boundary was denying another person what they needed. It wasn’t until my experience leaving domestic abuse that I learned how life-saving boundaries are.
Just as many women are coming to find out that self-care isn’t selfish (I’m sure it’s a hashtag somewhere), I discovered that boundaries are also not selfish. In her work surrounding shame Brene Brown teaches us through her research that boundaries are actually compassionate. Compassionate to ourselves and the person with who we are setting boundaries. Boundaries tell us what we are willing to do in alignment with our own values (and person) and what we are not willing to do.
When a person does not respect boundaries it is not a reflection of the worth of the person setting the boundaries, it is a reflection of the person pushing your boundaries. Over the last year, I have learned that people pushing boundaries are expecting their happiness and “power,” to come from another person. Neither of these things can be true.
Boundaries & Happiness
You see, happiness is a choice we make. It is a sacred emotion that lives in our own hearts that only blooms when we remain true to ourselves. Without knowing what makes our hearts glow warmly it is impossible to know what makes us happy. Without knowing what can harm us it is also impossible to be happy. Boundaries are a lifeline to our happiness and hearts. They protect our souls.
Control is a perceived human condition, when we seek to control another person or outcome we have lost trust. We have decided that the world is hostile and that people cannot be trusted. That we must control the enemy, who is taking away our happiness so that our life can be fulfilled. Control over another human being is always about taking and never about true happiness.
As a woman, a business owner, and a survivor I have lived in both of these worlds for too long. Thinking it was somehow my job to make others happy before myself. Thinking that when someone wanted something from me (personally or professionally) it was my job to give it to them. In the biggest lesson in my life, I learned domestic abuse breaks your boundaries in a way where you lose yourself. Gaslighting was a constant theme in all of these scenarios, scenarios that were telling me I was crazy when I did not give in.
Here is what I have learned to be true in a year of healing. Boundaries are a lifeline. Whenever you do not know what to do, how to respond, or who to be in a relationship with, consult your personal values. Then, after you truthfully consult your values, you can insert a boundary. When you insert a boundary that is aligned with your values you will be at peace even if others are not. When others tell you they are uncomfortable because you have drawn a line in the sand you will be strong enough to withstand it. You will be strong enough to know that being at home in your own heart is all the strength you need.
Start Setting Your Boundaries
I have a list of boundaries I lean on now. If you don’t know where to start with boundary-setting, feel free to use a few as you put these lifelines in place for yourself:
- I will not make an excuse for harmful behavior
- I will not excuse my own harmful behavior
- My children and I come first
- I will not go against my personal values or needs to please someone else
- I will not be involved with someone whose words and actions do not align with my own
- I will not be in a relationship where I am not cared for, loved, and respected
After writing to you about my career and company, last week I detoured into my wishes for my nieces’ futures. I wrote of some of my own personal hardships as a woman in business as well as as a woman leaving domestic abuse. This week I’d like to speak to you about my perspective as a woman who is unwilling to bend, and the cost and benefits.
Women in Society
Over the past year, as I have stood my sacred ground, I have witnessed both the external and internal costs of taking a stand. Externally I have navigated (and continue to navigate) cultural stereotypes. Internally I have fought and am fighting to keep the voices at bay that tell me I am being too loud; that I must become small. I’m walking through fire and slowly learning that I am in fact fireproof.
As women, we are taught from a young age to make ourselves small and to make other people comfortable. That it is somehow our gender’s job to make men comfy. And not only should we make men comfortable but we should excuse ourselves at any point in which a person around us is hurt or offended by anything we say or do.
By societal standards the perfect woman is polite, accommodating, nurturing, and apologetic. She is beautiful, slight in her waist, and ready to smile through the adversities of life. I realize in writing this you may have a gut reaction of, “I don’t expect this of other women, or myself,” but if you ask yourself, “has society taught me this or shown me this,” I assure you the answer is yes. While we do not wear the corset of the 1800’s I guarantee you each woman reading this article has tried a diet at some point in her life. We are still wearing the expectations of our gender on a large scale even if your experience isn’t as dramatic as mine.
Internal & External Perfectionism
In the book, “Brave, Not Perfect,” the author writes about the concept of perfectionism as it affects women. On a much deeper level, she recants how from infancy through college (and even well into marriage) women are taught to be perfect and polite. Soft and docile. Desirable. In her work, she writes about overcoming the need to meet society’s standards and to be brave enough to be herself. It sounds like a small thing but as a woman, I assure you it is not. As soon as you slip off “soft and docile” the crowd in the stand wakes up. I have yet to meet a woman who is boldly herself that has not pushed away these crowds and at times even gone to battle with them. What does this battle entail?
In my experience, the battle is first and always presented internally. You know you have something to say, you know injustice is happening, and you know your soul is trying to break free. Your internal self scans the external world. Unskilled in any first attempt, when a woman boldly speaks her mind, she is almost always met with judgment. Sometimes she is met with hate. The judgment could be from an external person scolding or bullying the woman for being bold or from her own internal interpretation of how the world perceives her.
In both instances, the woman will question her own mind, her own soul, and her own desires. Was standing up, speaking out, and being herself worth the cost? The cost of losing a perceived community, relationship, place to fit in, or being ‘liked?’ In extreme cases, like domestic violence or any type of restriction of safety/liberty, the woman is hurt for speaking up.
Speaking up, unwilling to bend on who she is, the woman will learn quickly who in the world is not ready for her and who accepts her as the being she always was. The thing here is that the woman, unwilling to bend, has to accept herself as she always was. She must learn to ignore the explosions from the outside, call internal questioning a liar, and stand her sacred ground. As the wounds from the outside accumulate the woman must tend to the wounds with care and not accept the wounds as a reflection of her worth. They are battle scars from the fights.
Looking to the Future
As I wrote about my nieces I wrote with hope for a future in which no corsets (physical or mental) exist in the world. Where they are free to boldly be themselves. This goes for my three sons too. To set a future for our children when little boys and little girls are able to be who they are and one where we as parents don’t bend. We cannot accept the status quo or any type of gender stereotyping that restricts the freedom of another person. This freedom can be tiny, such as domestic division of labor, or large, such as equal representation in the legal system. We have a long way to go. But if more of us are willing to stand our ground and realize that by speaking our desires and advocating for our equality there will eventually be more people in the ring fighting for justice than the stands.
I’ve been down here a solid year, fighting for equal representation in domestic law, I’m not tired yet. I am my children’s mama, my niece’s aunt, and I am a woman unwilling to bend.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve written to you from a more personal place than usual. My intention in writing these pieces of my story is to share my humanity with you. As human beings, we all go through trials and tribulations. We all have hardships. And we all fall down but rise to stand tall another day. The last twenty or so months have been challenging as a society and the world has certainly not been hardship-free, even before COVID entered our worlds.
Mitigating Damage from Outside Noise
This week I’d like to write about the noise of the world, including the noise that has surrounded me, and how to differentiate noise from the truth. When I say the noise of the world I’m referring to Brene Brown and her reference to the warrior’s ring featuring Theodore Roosevelt’s speech.
Remember that Brene teaches us that the noise from the stands (the outside world) says nothing about our worth and that worth is inside each warrior dusting the blood from their knees to fight another day. In my observations over these past 20 months, and speaking honestly since our last administration took office, the noise from the stands seems to have increased in volume. At times the roar of the crowd can be deafening.
As someone living with PTSD, noise in and of itself can be challenging for me. When that noise is coming from others, it may not hurt my ears but can hurt my heart. Do you all remember this little ditty as a child; “Stick and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt me”? Yeah, me too. It’s a bullshit ditty if that’s a thing.
What the ditty should go like is “sticks and stones may break your bones but words can break your heart.” We as humans are not immune from the painful words of others and those words can make us question our own worth. It’s painful to realize that when others say unkind words (and worse) that there is a subset of people who choose to behave this way intentionally. These are the people making noise in the stands.
The Worst Part of the Crowd
The intentionally hurtful people in the stands seem to believe that by pointing out the imperfections of others that they are somehow pointing out their own perfection. That is to say that if they can be loud enough about how their belief system, sexual identity, race, gender, and the like is perfect that maybe, just maybe, it means their own, differing lifestyle is better than yours.
This may have made sense tens of thousands of years ago; classifying each other by how they looked and behaved. This allowed our ancient ancestors to know who was in their tribe and who was an actual threat. Yet as language and thought developed, currency also developed, and all of a sudden these cheap shot demographics became a sorting of worth. You need not look further than slavery and the treatment of women or look into the holocaust as societal examples for the danger of this type of behavior.
At a societal level, in a power-over dynamic, fear is necessary to keep the power in place. Teaching people to fear other people is very simple to do: just sprinkle in judgment, divide a few resources you say are scarce, add a God of your choosing, and tada! you have power. This is also bullshit, yet remains very real for a lot of people today.
Power & Control
Personally, I’ve always hated power-over dynamics used for power and control. Using resources to restrict others fires up my soul up like nothing else. Using both covert and overt differences as the fuel to feed this power is the match before the gasoline that starts the fire. For those of us who refuse to use a power-over approach and believe in our bones that humanity is equal, deserving a life with choice, a life with resources to live day-to-day encounters can be maddening.
Also, personally, even as a woman I have never felt this attempted power-over as closely as I have this past year. I have been told hideous things from my father’s family regarding women and their “God.” I have heard messaging from almost every person in the legal system to not fly my “feminist flag,” in our country courthouse. I have even faced the local football team head-on about racism in regards to my son.
The words I have heard from others in the stands this past year have been ugly, to put it mildly. It took me almost a full year to realize the noise from the stands was not real but my worth is. I have stood in the ring, dusting blood from my knees, and forcing myself to face the hate but not using it to fight. Hate begets hate.
Stop Listening to the Noise
Here in the US, we’ve been struggling for over a year, but it’s been a lifetime for so many others. My son surely did not have his first encounter with racism on his freshman football team. I’ve been questioned as a woman countless times even before this past year began. And people in “power,” have been using others for personal gain at any cost (including human lives) for centuries. Yet outside of this power-over dynamic is a power within with a different dynamic. A power that demands that all humanity is treated equally and deserving of respect. A power that tells us that no matter how loud hate is, love can overcome it.
So which will you choose? Will you choose to continue to section off pieces of humanity based on what they believe, how they look, or if you feel you can gain control over them? I certainly hope not. I also certainly hope that if you are choosing not to use power-over, you are using power with and standing up for your worth, as well as the worth of others.
We are brothers and sisters. We are more alike than we are different. If you ever find yourself in the stands, adding your anger to that of the crowd, know that you can stop, walk to the ring, and help your sister stand.
Over the past several weeks I’ve noticed a recurring topic of conversation within my tribe; “I’m exhausted from the last year and a half.” Each person that I speak with is talking about the COVID-19 pandemic and is in disbelief this is still our life. I keenly remember the start of the pandemic and how high all our emotions were running in fear of a threatening virus entering our world.
To still be dealing with that same stressor, with case numbers approaching levels from a year ago, exhaustion is an apt way of stating how we all feel. We’re not just dealing with a virus, we’re dealing with living our lives through an active, dangerous virus.
Trying to Find Peace During the Pandemic
With no end in sight, it’s hard to feel chipper and happy, let alone grounded. Peace can feel far away. I’ve heard a lot of “rinse, lather, repeat,” and “same shit, different day” comments in reference to what we are all walking through right now.
In the early days of the pandemic, Brene Brown spoke on her podcast, “Unlocking Us,” that she was just waiting for a checklist of what to do and once she had the checklist her recovering perfectionist could rest. Well, Brene, we have our checklist and the treatment fidelity is low. In scientific terms, this means we are not near containing the virus, which is incredibly frustrating.
As the virus carries on in all of our personal lives it can start to feel hopeless. The heart of the matter is this; we can provide good, accurate information and it’s up to each and every one of us to choose to follow it or not. We simply cannot control other people’s behavior.
Thinking About Others
I am going to pause here to let you know that not being able to convince a person to make a logical, kind decision (even in non-pandemic times) has been the bane of my existence. Truly. I have an aunt and sister who operate the same way. We see the systems for what they are. We see human life as incredibly worthy of equality and get frustrated (OK, sometimes livid) when decisions are made that move us away from equality and logic.
I am still on a journey of realizing that no matter how much I believe in making kind decisions that I cannot control other people and make them drink my preferred brand of logical, kind Kool-Aid. People are, in fact, allowed to make their own decisions and it’s incredibly frustrating when those decisions can potentially cause harm to others (please see the ongoing pandemic).
In light of being given a magical wand of authority, what spell could we possibly conjure in the midst of this climate of adversity? What can we do when a real stressor or danger is presented day after day with high and divisive emotions being publically shared?
It is easy to lash out at others, question their beliefs, invoke shame, or simply shut down into our own little world. I have been guilty of both at times. Neither has provided any long-lasting relief. But something else has and I’d like to share it with you.
An Attitude of Gratitude
I’ve recently written that I have been in the process of divorce, which is stressful enough by itself. The stress from the divorce on top of the pandemic took me to my limit. Early on I started following the work of Lee Harris. At the time I did not have more good days than bad, quite the opposite. Lee recommended a gratitude journal as part of a healing journey.
At first, this suggestion annoyed me. I’ve followed many different spiritual teachers for well over a decade and thought to myself, “I know, I know–an attitude of gratitude.” It felt like one more thing was being added to my checklist while my mindset was basically “what is there to be grateful for as my world is burning down?”
Lee gave a scientific reason, which at the time was just enough, that convinced me to begrudgingly start a gratitude journal. Lee explained that when you have experienced trauma your neurochemistry is depleted and leans more towards negative emotions. He went on to explain that writing five gratitude statements a day can change your brain chemistry. I was in need of rewiring and had already started acupuncture to rewire trauma inside my body. It felt right to rewire my mind so I started the journal.
At first, I wrote very small things like “I’m grateful for a Henry kiss goodnight,” “I’m grateful for Declan belly laughs,” and “I’m grateful for a dinner with my three boys.” I wrote moments each day that started to become a tiny light. As I leaned into this tiny light, I truly did begin to see more things to be grateful for regardless of the world around me.
I was able to move outside of the tiny gratitudes and see bigger things to be grateful for; a huge one being the incredible people that surround me. I call them my tribe but my family and friends are unmatched in their ever-present love of me (and my love for them). I am a lucky woman. In writing gratitude statements I was able to see that even when the world looks like it’s burning down around you, there is still more good than bad. Truly.
Staying Positive & Looking at the Good
My own external circumstances have not changed. I am still living in a pandemic and still dealing with a divorce while recovering from domestic abuse. I am still running a company during a pandemic. I cannot speed up any external circumstances beyond my control. They will stay, just as yours will stay.
I do not know when the pandemic will end. What I do know is that we can take care of our own hearts and minds even in stressful times. Especially in stressful times. I know what it feels like to want to wrap yourself in a blanket and cry the day away. I know what it feels like to scream in frustration at the top of your lungs. It’s OK to ride these feelings out. As they subside noticing what was beside you all along will shift your internal world. I promise.
The world outside is messy but I bet you have a few things to be grateful for. So, maybe even today, instead of arguing with someone for the millionth time about your stance on (masks, vaccines, the economy, etc) you could take a deep breath and call your mom. Tell her you love her. Can’t talk to your mom? That’s OK, call dad, a sister, a brother–make a phone call to someone you love. Say thank you. Then pick up the pen and find what you’re truly grateful for.