Healthy Boundaries

A stone wall with a gate in it.

Healthy boundaries are essential for every relationship, both personal and professional. These are limits that you create to protect yourself from emotional and physical harm. They also define how you allow others to treat you and how you treat others. This can include how much you’re willing to do for someone, how much you choose to share about yourself, and the types of behavior with which you’re comfortable.


Sally has always had a difficult relationship with her mother-in-law, Debbie, who was possessive of her son (Sally’s husband Bob), critical, and blaming. Sally still kept trying to appease Debbie because she really wanted this relationship to work for herself and most of all for Bob. At Easter, Sally offered to host Debbie and her husband’s sister Marie. Sally worked hard to make everything perfect. As soon as Debbie walked in the door Sally could tell there was trouble; she was in one of her moods. Debbie looked at the food spread and said, “Look how much trouble you went to, if it were me though I would have made a more substantial dish like a ham and cheddar quiche.” This was one of Debbie’s typical underhanded criticisms and made Sally feel small. Sally tried to remain calm and not show that she was upset. Even though she didn’t agree she told Debbie she was right she should have made a quiche. They went and sat in the living room and Debbie immediately started in complaining about Marie’s new boyfriend, Tim. She talked about how irresponsible he is and how she couldn’t believe he didn’t come to the brunch. Sally commiserated. Sally felt very uncomfortable talking badly about Tim and really wanted Debbie to stop before Marie and Bob overheard them. She was becoming more and more tense fearing another family drama.

Interpersonal Power Up: Healthy Boundaries

In the above scenario, it is clear that Sally hasn’t established healthy boundaries with Debbie. She needs to let Debbie know that her criticism and negative comments about others in front of Sally is not okay. Once Debbie is made aware that Sally’s boundaries have been crossed then it is up to Sally to consistently maintain her boundaries, if she’s not consistent then it may confuse Debbie and change will be less likely.

Barrie Davenport, a life passion coach, explains specific ways to establish personal boundaries. According to Barrie, to begin with one needs to realize that boundaries are acceptable and need to be defined. Next, it is important to ask people in your life who have crossed your boundaries in the past to respect your new boundaries. This conversation will likely be difficult; however, it’s important to resist compromising your boundaries just to keep someone in your life. Then, one needs to repeatedly reinforce the new boundaries while being flexible and patient; be sure to reward others with acknowledgement and gratitude when they respect your new boundaries. In turn one needs to reciprocate and respect others’ boundaries. Lastly, it is essential to believe in oneself and one’s value. [1] This can be a challenging but rewarding process, and it can result in a more confident and stronger you, with happier relationships. Let’s see how Sally applies this power up:

Powered Up Scenario

Sally could feel herself becoming angry and started to just agree with Debbie as usual, but stopped herself. She thought: I deserve better than this. So, she calmly told Debbie, “I worked hard on the food and that sounded like criticism.” Debbie looked surprised, but quickly said, “Oh no Sally! That’s not what I meant at all, it looks great.” Sally felt happy that she’d finally stood up for herself. She sat down with Debbie in the living room. Before Sally could even get settled Debbie started in complaining about Marie’s new boyfriend Tim– how she couldn’t believe he hadn’t come to the brunch and how irresponsible he is, etc. Sally felt annoyed and very tense as she liked Tim and hated drama. Also, she was on edge fearing that Marie would walk in any minute and hear them talking badly about Tim. She cut off Debbie asserting, “I realize that you’re upset, but I really like Tim and I’m not comfortable with talking badly about him.” Debbie protested a bit and tried to keep going, but Sally reasserted that she wasn’t okay with this and excused herself. Sally felt relieved and proud of herself for finally standing up to Debbie.


As we can see in the Powered Up scenario Sally realized that her emotional reaction was a sign that Debbie was crossing her boundaries. Sally decided to protect herself and addressed the issue in a calm rational manner. Unfortunately, Debbie denied her critical behavior and then continued talking negatively about Tim, so Sally removed herself from Debbie’s presence. If Sally consistently addresses the critical behavior, removing herself from the situation if needed, maintaining her healthy boundaries, then Debbie likely will eventually change her behavior. If she doesn’t, Sally may decide to spend less time with her.

Healthy boundaries take time to build. It is a complex process figuring out what verbal and nonverbal behavior is okay with you in each relationship. It is also a question of how close you want each relationship in your life to be. Then it is a matter of maintaining your boundaries, being flexible when it feels okay to do so, and refining the boundaries as needed. Healthy boundaries are the foundation of healthy relationships.

Davenport, B. (2012, August 8). Want to Boost Your Self-Esteem? 10 Ways to Establish Personal Boundaries [Blog post]. Retrieved from




Mental Time Travel to Increase Insight


When we are examining a problem we often get lost in the details. It can be hard to see the big picture. This often results in us feeling frustrated and stuck. In this state of mind it is unlikely that insights will occur.

Forster, Friedman, and Liberman[1] discovered that imagining yourself working on the problem in the future establishes distant temporal perspective, which triggers a shift in thought processing to an abstract mode. The mental representation of the problem is now abstract and holistic as opposed to concrete and focused on specific detail. This perspective facilitates creative insight problem solving.

So the next time you are trying to solve a problem, improve a process, or create something new, try mental time travel. See yourself working on the problem in the future. In this abstract and holistic mode it can be easier to generate insights.

1. Forster, J., Friedman, R. S., & Liberman, N. (2004). Temporal construal effects on abstract and concrete thinking: Consequences for insight and creative cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), 177-189. Retrieved from



Get Up and Move to Increase Insight

When working on a task sometimes it seems nearly impossible to focus. You may notice that you’re reading the same line over and over. Alternatively, you may even no longer be reading but just staring at the monitor.

One reason for this difficulty focusing may be that the brain is overwhelmed. Specifically, your prefrontal cortex may be in over-arousal mode.

Going for a short walk, bike ride, or engaging in some other physical activity activates the motor cortex bringing oxygen and glucose to that area of the brain. This in turn tends to deactivate the over-aroused prefrontal cortex. [1]

Albert Einstein was often seen riding his bike as a student around Munich University and then later at Princeton. Einstein reportedly said in reference to his Special Theory of Relativity, “I thought of it while riding my bicycle.”

Albert Einstein riding his bicycle in Santa Barbara, 1933 (public domain)

Albert Einstein riding his bicycle in Santa Barbara, 1933

After getting up and moving you can return to your task feeling re-energized. Also, your prefrontal cortex will likely no longer be over-stimulated. In this state insights are far more likely to emerge.

Check back next week for the final post in the Insight series: Mental Time Travel to Increase Insight.

1. Rock, D. (2009). Your Brain at Work. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Be Aware of Your Thoughts To Increase Insight

thinking about thinking

A basic finding of cognitive psychology is that people have no conscious experience of most of what happens in the human mind. Many functions associated with perception, memory, and information processing are conducted prior to and independently of any conscious direction. What appears spontaneously in consciousness is the result of thinking, not the process of thinking.Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Richards J. Heuer, Jr., CIA Veteran

Each of us has multitudes of thoughts every day, many of which whiz by without even registering. Ideas, reactions, impulses, opinions, and assumptions often go unnoticed or unexamined. Consider that for a moment– your mind is doing things that you’re not telling it to.

With practice you can learn to be more aware of your thoughts and change your focus. This ability has been linked to a greater frequency of insights.

Research conducted by Kounios, et al. observed activity in the anterior cingulate cortex right before participants solved a problem using insight. This brain activity may reflect preparation to use cognitive control processes, such as dismissing irrelevant thoughts and shifting attention between different problem-solving strategies. [1]

One technique you can use to become more aware of  your thoughts and shift your attention is to practice mindfulness. Simply pause a few times a day and observe your thoughts, shifting your attention from your current activity in the external world to the internal flow of your thoughts. It can help to set up a reminder system. For example, you could tie the observational pauses to a regular real world event, such as stopping at a red light or answering a text message. Over time, you will become more aware of your thought patterns and be able to consciously refocus your attention. With your new, powered up awareness you will likely see more insights.

1. Kounios, J., Frymiare, J. L., Bowden, E. M., Fleck, J. I., Subramaniam, K., Parrish, T. B., & Beeman-Jung, M. (2006, Oct.). The Prepared Mind: Neural Activity Prior to Problem Presentation Predicts Subsequent Solution by Sudden Insight. Psychological Science, 17(10), 882-890.

Increase Insight by Boosting Happiness

A happy little star

Have you noticed that insights occur more often when you’re happy? You may be talking with friends, watching your favorite movie, or playing a board game and suddenly a fantastic idea comes to you out of the blue. This has happened to me many times, so I decided to look for research that explains why this happens. What I found was interesting.

First, let’s look at the insight study done by Subramaniam, Kounios, Parrish, and Jung-Beeman [1]. Using fMRI technology they found that study participants with a positive mood solved more problems by using insight than participants with a less positive mood.

For further explanation of the positive mood-insight connection we look to Rowe, Hirsh, and Anderson [2] who showed that positive mood expands the scope of attention to include more remote associations between concepts. Positive mood helps with tasks requiring a global rather than narrowly focused type of information processing, which links to the third method in the insight series, Mental Time Travel to Increase Insight. When a person is happy, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released, which may explain the effects of positive mood on cognitive functioning. [3]

To recap, research indicates that happiness increases insights by allowing our thinking to be more flexible and expansive. In a happy mood we can more easily change our thinking based on the current situation. We are also better at identifying new and unusual relationships between concepts. So, if you want to have more of those “Aha!” moments, then boost your happiness.

Check back next week for the second post in the insight series: Be Aware of Your Thoughts To Increase Insight.

1. Subramaniam, K., Kounios, J., Parrish, T., & Jung-Beeman, M. (2009). A brain mechanism for facilitation of insight by positive affect. Journal Of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21(3), 415-432. doi:10.1162/jocn.2009.21057

2. Rowe, G., Hirsh, J.B., Anderson, A.K (2007, January). Positive Affect Increases the Breadth of Attentional Selection. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 104 (1) .383-388.

3. Ashby, F. G., Isen, A. M., & Turken, A. U. (1999). A neuropsychological theory of positive affect and its influence on cognition. Psychological Review, 106(3), 529-550. Retrieved from

Exploring Insight

This is the introduction to my insight series, in which I will share techniques based on promising neuroscience research that can help you break through mental blocks and experience more insight on a regular basis.

Insight can come to us anywhere and anytime—in the shower, while gardening, while doing the dishes, etc. This flash of insight can be a solution to a long perplexing problem, or an understanding of a puzzling relationship, or a connection between two seemingly unrelated phenomena. Cognitive scientists have called flashes of insight the “Eureka!” moment and the “Aha!” experience.

Insight is a unique process, both in how it feels and in what happens in our brains. Leading insight researcher Mark Jung-Beeman and associates showed that different neural processes occur when we solve problems using insight as opposed to when we solve problems without insight.

Jung-Beeman conducted an experiment in which subjects worked on compound remote associate problems: given three problem words subjects were asked to produce a single solution word. For example: what single word can form a familiar phrase or compound word with the words pine, crab, and sauce? While solving these problems subjects’ brains were scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). When a problem was solved using insight (indicated by self-report), there was a strong increase in neural activity in the right hemisphere anterior superior temporal gyrus (pictured below).

FMRI image of the brain area active during a moment of insight.

FMRI image of the brain area active during a moment of insight.

A second similar experiment was conducted, but this time the neural activity of the subjects was measured using electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings. A sudden burst of gamma-band (high frequency) activity in the right temporal area was observed starting three seconds before the correct insight solution was given by the subjects. [1] It’s possible that in this experiment the researchers witnessed and actual ‘flash of insight’ occurring in the brain.

While the preceding research demonstrated the unique neural processes correlated with insight, researchers Sascha Topolinkski and Rolf Reber describe the experience of insight:

The literature on insight lists four main characteristics of this experience: suddenness (the experience is surprising and immediate), ease (the solution is processed without difficulty), positive affect (insights are gratifying), and the feeling of being right (after an insight, problem solvers judge the solution as being true and have confidence in this judgment).

Topolinkski and Reber concluded that these characteristics of the insight experience are essential components of the underlying causal mechanism–sudden changes in processing fluency, i.e. how difficult it is to work through a problem. [2]

No matter how deeply we understand the mechanics of insight, we all feel blocked at times. In the neuroscience field this mental block is known as an impasse. This can occur in many different situations, such as when we are trying to come up with a name for a new product during a brainstorming session at work or when we are searching for the reason why a computer is not working as expected.  Stellan Ohlsson and associates identified one cause of mental blocks. In their research they found that past experience often affects the problem solving process. In many cases the situations are different; therefore, past experience can get in the way and create an impasse. [3] For example, your previous experience of the words pine, crab, and sauce might have obscured the solution to the problem mentioned above, which is: apple.

If you also experience mental blocks or just want to have more insight in general then check out my series: 4 Methods to Increase Insight. Look for the next post in this series next week: Increase Insight by Boosting Happiness.

1. Jung-Beeman, M., Bowden, E., Haberman, J., Frymiare, J., Arambel-Liu, S., Greenblatt, R., & … Kounios, J. (2004). Neural activity when people solve verbal problems with insight. Plos Biology, 2(4), E97.

2. Topolinski, S. & Reber, R. (2010). Gaining Insight Into the “Aha” Experience. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19, 402-405. doi:10.1177/0963721410388803

3. Knoblich, G., Ohlsson, S., Haider, H., & Rhenius, D. (1999). Constraint relaxation and chunk decomposition in insight problem solving. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 25(6), 1534-1555. doi:

Boosting Happiness

Most all of us want to be happier. Fortunately, there are some simple exercises you can do to boost your happiness. I’ve practiced these research-based exercises myself and can report good results. It’s important to keep in mind that as with any exercise consistency is the key. Also, it’s best when the exercise is a good fit. Matching the exercise to your values, interests, and personality maximizes your results. Exercises that have worked well for me include the ‘Three Good Things’ exercise, writing about your ‘Best Possible Self’, practicing gratitude, and practicing compassion.

Three Good Things

In the ‘Three Good Things’ exercise every night before sleep you write down three things that went well that day and why each one happened. The three positive things could be little things, such as an enjoyable breakfast. The why may be that you made a healthy breakfast and sat down to eat it, instead of eating on the go. [3]

According to Dr. Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, the Three Good Things exercise works because, “it changes your focus from the things that go wrong in life to things you might take for granted that go well.” Writing down why the good thing happened encourages you to deepen the memory of the good event.

Best Possible Self

This exercise involves writing about your best possible self in the future. Imagine that you have worked hard and achieved all of your life goals. Then continue to think about this ideal self on a regular basis. Dr. King, who developed this exercise, explains that actively focusing on your ideal self is associated with more effective progress towards your goals. [2]

In The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky states that in her research writing about your Best Possible Self worked well for her study participants because it, “enabled them to recognize that it was in their power to transform themselves and to work towards valued goals, that their dreams today and tomorrow didn’t hinge on their spouses or on money or on some stroke of luck.”


For this exercise, write in detail about the many things in life that you are grateful for, even the little things. Keep these things that you’re grateful for in mind as you go about your day.

Study participants reported significantly higher life satisfaction, optimism, and connection with others. Regularly focusing on one’s blessings encourages people to interpret daily experiences in a positive way. [1]


The practicing compassion exercise is comprised of helping someone else or showing support and consideration. Perform the exercise daily and vary the type of compassionate action. It is also beneficial to tell others about your experience.

According to the researchers Mongrain, Chin, and Shapira, “the compassionate action exercise might have effected positive changes to one’s
happiness levels by satisfying some of the defining components of happiness as outlined by Seligman—’the pleasant life’ and ‘the meaningful life’.” Compassionate action seems to result in higher levels of happiness due to an increased sense of meaning and purpose. [4, 5]

Experiment to see which exercises work best for you. Ideally, find a set time each day that you will do the exercise, since this will help create a habit. The longer you practice the happiness boosting activities, the stronger the effect.

happy cat in the clouds

Tell us about your results in the comments!

1. Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389.

2. King, L. A. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(7), 798–807.

3. . Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, R. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410–421.

4. Mongrain, M., Chin, J. M., & Shapira, L. B. (2011). Practicing compassion increases happiness and self-esteem. Journal of Happiness Studies, 12(6), 963-981. doi:

5. Sheldon, K. M. , Boehm, J. K. , & Lyubomirsky , S. ( 2012). Variety is the spice of happiness: The hedonic adaptation prevention (HAP) model. In Boniwell , I. & David, S. (Eds.), Oxford handbook of happiness (pp. 901–914). Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Inspiration: It’s All in the Mind

There’s a common perception of inspiration as a bolt of lightning– a sudden flash that arrives from out of nowhere. While this is sometimes the case, a more subtle form of inspiration can be found within simple everyday moments. These glimmers of inspiration may be found within nature, art, music, social interactions, or even within the mundane– but the mind is often lost in distraction, and inspiration goes unnoticed.

While distracted, the mind continually follows ‘thought loops’: thoughts about tasks, problems, or people cycle through repeatedly. If you consider this briefly, you can likely identify one of your own thought loops. As the mind is caught in these loops, it is not taking in much of the detail of the moment– or even missing moments altogether.

Mindfulness primes you to be open and aware, receptive to the everyday glimmers of inspiration.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness as, “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.”


A mindfulness master.

This state of being can be developed through the practice of insight or mindfulness meditation. Zeidan, et. al. demonstrated that after just four days of  mindfulness meditation training, twenty minutes per day, study participants showed significant improvements in mindfulness. [1]

Guidance can be very helpful in beginning meditation training, or even maintaining or deepening your practice. Here’s a free guided meditation by Tara Brach, a leading Western teacher of Buddhist meditation:

Guided Insight Meditation

1. Zeidan, F., Johnson, S. K., Diamond, B. J., David, Z., Goolkasian, P. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition. 19(2), 597-605.

Empower Others to Solve Problems Using Critical Thinking

cogitateHas an employee, student, or trainee ever come to you for help with a problem? Were you effective in handling the situation, or did that person continue to seek your help? If you just provide a solution to the problem then the trainee isn’t given the opportunity to learn how to analyze the situation and identify a course of action. By facilitating critical thinking instead of providing a quick fix, you empower the trainee to take responsibility for the problem, and provide them with a starting point for thinking critically about solutions.

Let’s look at an example from my experience as an educator.  This example also applies to training and managerial roles. First, I’ll present a scenario in which a student is not empowered to think critically. Then, I’ll present the same scenario “Powered Up”, to show how the instructor can achieve a better outcome with the student.


Dennis, a motivated ‘A’ student, is having difficulty with his learning team. Two of his teammates have withdrawn from the class leaving only one other team member, Dena, who continually reports health complaints. Dena submitted work for the team paper that wasn’t entirely on topic. She asserted that the assignment was difficult and that she had been ill.

Dennis reports to his instructor, “I’m ready to give up on learning teams. My teammates just drag my grade down, and I end up doing most of the work.” His instructor provides a typical response, “I appreciate all of your hard work on your team paper. I understand from my own school experience how challenging teams can be.” The instructor then continues by suggesting to Dennis that he ask Dena to review the assignment’s criteria and then redo her part so that it meets the criteria. Dennis replies, “I always get the same response from instructors. I’d rather just do the paper myself.”

In this scenario, the instructor responded to Dennis by providing a possible solution. But in prescribing a course of action, the instructor isn’t respecting Dennis’ ability or teaching him how to come up with his own solutions. As a consequence, Dennis reacts defensively. He gives up and feels frustrated and disempowered. The next time Dennis encounters a problem, he might return expecting a solution, go to someone else, or simply give up.

Powered Up Scenario

The instructor provides support and encouragement to Dennis and then asks, “Based on other group projects you’ve done, what do you think would help this situation so that you can still submit this assignment as a team paper?” This response empowers Dennis to find his own solution and shows him the instructor is confident in his ability. Dennis reacts without defensiveness and is able to recall a similar situation, along with a feasible solution. Dennis decides to view this as a leadership opportunity and emails Dena back her part with comments on what she needs to change. Dena is grateful for the assistance and corrects her paper. Dennis is left feeling proud of his ability to help Dena and satisfied with her revised contribution to the paper. Even if Dena hadn’t been responsive, Dennis would still have developed additional strategies for dealing with this type of problem in the future.

You can increase self confidence and independence when you help your trainees, students, or employees develop their critical thinking skills. The result is higher productivity and job satisfaction. When you don’t foster these skills in others, they may miss out on opportunities for growth and keep coming to you to solve their problems.

The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit.[1]

1. American Philosophical Association. (1990). Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction, The Delphi Report: Research findings and recommendations prepared for the committee on pre-college philosophy. P. Facione, (Project Director). ERIC Doc. N

5 Minute Energy Experiment


Energy is a fundamental concept in our understanding of the universe, yet it can’t be observed directly and can be difficult to define. In physics, energy is referred to as the capacity of a system to do work. In this post the focus will be not be on the physics-based definition, but on another common use of the term energy: the mental willpower we need to plan out or finish a project, get up from the couch and exercise, or sometimes just get out of bed in the morning. There’s also the ‘physical’ or physiological energy required to accomplish these activities (which corresponds more closely to the physics-based definition). As you may have noticed, there’s a lot of overlap between the two types of ‘energy’.

Whether mental or physical, energy can be an elusive entity at times. Sometimes there’s something that we want to do, but it feels like we just don’t have the energy. In some cases we just need to push through the initial inertia to be productive, but in others rest is genuinely needed. So, how do we know when to respect our perceived energy level and rest and when to push on through? It’s a challenge. Continual pushing can backfire and result in us being out of commission with back pain, a cold, or headache. Alternatively, if we rest every time we are feeling sluggish nothing may get done.


The next time you want to do something but don’t think you have the energy, commit to doing the task for just 5 minutes. If after 5 minutes you still feel like you don’t have the energy to continue, then rest or do something relaxing and come back to the task later. You may find that after just 5 minutes you break through the sluggishness, your momentum starts to build, and you’re able to keep going.

I invite you to conduct this energy experiment and then come back and tell us your results in the comments.