At our next session, I asked *Alese to consider the variety of interactions she had with her neighbor, Cheryl, over the course of the week and weekend. Many of Alese’s responses to Cheryl were reactive, leaving Alese feeling out-of-control. This was not her norm, quite the contrary, Alese was very logical and confident in her relationships. She wanted to be supportive to her neighbor but Alese began to feel anxiety and struggled to be prepared for her neighbor’s daily expectations. As her anxiety grew, so did her guilt over having to find different ways to set new boundaries with her friend.
“Alese, I want you to envision yourself getting home and seeing Cheryl in her driveway,” I started. “How do you feel about that scene?”
“I feel like I do every day, stressed. Here’s the thing, I don’t want to stop having dinners or hanging out with her. I just don’t know why I can’t seem to tell her that it just needs to be less. Or maybe, I can’t say it in a way that will stick and I don’t have to repeat and defend myself. Does that make sense?” Alese confessed.
“Okay, yes, it does,” I said, validating a very common reaction to others that do not sense or honor another person’s boundaries. “When we can understand the circumstances we are confronted with, we lower our tension. Nothing is more stressful than a bundle of misunderstandings with people we care about and wondering, ‘how can they not know where I’m coming from?’”
“Yes. That’s exactly how I feel. I want her to see that I care but that we have to find balance. I’m so worried about how our conversation is going to go wrong that I don’t say anything or don’t say anything right,” she confirmed.
I wanted her to look for those cues of tension, so I encouraged her further. “Alese, you need to give yourself grace. In those anxious moments and leading up to those moments, you know your heart and your intentions. They are good. That anxiety you begin to feel, your body tenses, your breathing quickens, and your brain diverts blood to your extremities, away from your brain. You genuinely aren’t thinking clearly and that is in direct relation to your breathing,” I explained.
“I just want to feel myself again,” Alese revealed.
“That’s good. As you are driving home at the end of your day, if you feel tension, take a deep breath and be aware of your tension level. Ultimately, your goal is to lower that tension. Envision yourself pulling into your driveway, seeing Cheryl and instead of the short breath of anxiety, you’ve already taken a deep breath of calm. As you open your car door, you greet her with a simple, ‘Hey, I need an hour to get myself unwound from my day. See you at seven?’” I posed.
“You mean, not ask her, not demand, just make a statement?” she seemed puzzled.
“Yes. Just give yourself some time to gather your thoughts. If you don’t feel like eating dinner that night, you could grab something for yourself before she comes over. Give yourself permission to take time.” I continued, “At the end of your day, time seems to be at a premium. Once you give yourself what you need most, you may find that you are better able to appropriately react to your friend’s needs.”
As we closed the session, I asked Alese to make a point of noticing the tension level she felt as she drove home each day in the coming weeks until our next session. I also asked her to give herself permission to take an hour of reflection before she replied to any non-emergency text messages.
“It’s the craziest thing!” Alese exclaimed as she walked into my office. “Breathing. That is a game changer.”
“It is! It really is. Tell me, how did it go?” I asked.
“Thank you for the hint of taking time before I replied to text messages. That was huge. It’s almost like I was able to consider my real thoughts, not my knee-jerk thoughts. That was for everyone I communicated with since we talked. Not that I was replying off-the-cuff without thought, but I found my initial impression or assumption had been at least a bit off, if not a lot. It saved me a lot of headache sifting through unnecessary details and information that I ‘read between the lines’ that weren’t even there.” Alese tattled on herself with a laugh.
“Well that was an unexpected perk!” I chuckled with her.
Alese acknowledged, “Yes. It really was. Cheryl seemed to take the delays in my replies pretty well. I was expecting that she would blow up my phone with texts. I guess since my text messages to her answered her questions or addressed whatever she was talking about, she saw I cared.”
“With those positive interactions, your brain discovered a way to rewire itself,” I said as I reminded her of the diagram I had shown her of the amygdala area of the brain. “You gave your brain new and positive memories to reference.” Moving on to the other stressor, mealtime and evenings, I asked, “How did things go in the driveway?”
“That wasn’t as easy,” she grimaced. “I tried the very first night to see myself saying, ‘let’s meet here on the patio around seven-thirty for dessert,’ because it was a really pretty evening and that honestly sounded fun. Yeah, it didn’t work. She was instantly miffed because she was already ‘famished’ as she put it.”
“Wow, I would love to have dessert out on the patio. I may have to do that tonight,” I thought aloud. “So you had dinner together?”
“Yes, I threw together some pasta from the freezer. Most nights went that way, actually. I have found, though, that I’m trying harder to check in on my breathing as I drive home each night. That seems to give me a better frame of mind, even when I can’t have some quiet time when I get home,” Alese acknowledged.
“It’s great that you are taking time to do a bit of inventory on your drive,” I affirmed. “Since the texting has been going better, what do you think of suggesting different plans for the evening when you do text throughout the day?”
“How funny. That’s never come up before, but I think I could easily try to give myself a buffer of time that way,” she encouraged herself along.
We continued for a few more sessions, giving Alese time to see that her decisions, while not necessarily producing immediate relief to her stress, built over time to reduce her anxiety. She regularly commented on how she felt she was now reacting in a more true fashion to who she was rather than responding strictly on the immediacy of her neighbor’s wants and needs.
Ultimately, Alese found she was able to affirm her own right to her schedule and needs. “I’m aware of my anxiety as it begins, why it begins and how to slow the process, breathe and think through to a possible positive outcome.”
I have shared this story as a glimpse of a coaching relationship. This story is based on multiple clients’ personal stories. *Names and details have been changed for privacy.