Hey! Hey!! Welcome back, Amazing!

We feel so glad that you’re here. And so excited to bring you Phase 3 of the Better at Boundaries Master Course!

Thanks -- from us, from your loved ones, and from your future self -- for showing up this week. You just keep doing it!! Your determination is really the thing that will make all the difference for you and your relationships. And your willingness to consistently get yourself here is such a powerful indicator of that determination.

So -- while we hope that you are being handsomely rewarded by the concepts and strategies (and templates!) that you’re gathering here and more so when you learn and employ them fully -- we also hope that you will celebrate yourself for your commitment and hard work. At the very least, doing so will help you be in the optimal brain state for absorbing and integrating the course material, and will make it easier for you to get here next time.

Alright! On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), how would you rate your current level of coziness? Need to do or get anything to turn up that coziness dial? Are you remembering to breathe fully and easily?

Ok then… Let’s do this!

This week we’re going deep into the When of boundaries. You may recall, and/or can scroll down to the Mini-Course review at the bottom of this page if you want a reminder, that the central theme of our approach to the optimal timing for claiming a boundary is when we are all in an intellectual brain state. So, now, we’d like to spend a bit more time on brain states, and how to use your empathy to relate with them.

We briefly introduced the concept of 3 primary processing networks in the brain, as follows:

  • The intellectual/executive network

    • Manages all the elements of cognition -- perceiving, thinking, learning (including passive learning and perceiving through mirror neurons), self-awareness, interoception, planning, remembering, problem-solving, choosing, strategizing

    • Manages impulses -- mental and physical (including affect)

    • Manages cognitive empathy (perspective-taking), compassion, altruistic actions

    • If wired appropriately, can modulate emotional overwhelm, and survival reactivity

  • The social/emotional network

    • Manages the neurochemistry of emotion, initiating particular emotional responses

    • Manages affective empathy (feeling with another), triggering both empathetic sensations (“sympathy pain”) and emotions (emotional coherence)

    • Manages cingulate cortex entrainment (emotional coherence)

    • Manages stress response system

    • If wired appropriately, can manage connectivity, mutual identification with others, and intuition

  • The instinctual/survival network

    • Manages autonomic functions of the nervous system and body

    • Manages overactive stress responses, and protects brain from emotional shut-down of brain processing (trauma)

    • Manages instinctual reactivity and survival responses

    • If wired appropriately, can manage “gut reactions” of approach or avoid

While (due to its role in keeping us safe and alive) it is possible for the survival brain in certain instances to “eavesdrop” on or even “co-opt” the executive brain, say, in holding us in a state of hypervigilance, or influencing our thoughts with greater negativity bias (the tendency to see the danger or trouble in things) -- by and large, we can only inhabit a single brain network at a time. In fact, attempting to address one part of the brain (e.g. the executive network) while the person is processing in another part of the brain (e.g. the emotional network) can be extremely irritating to the network currently running things. You’ve seen this as you try to “fix the issue” when your partner or child or friend is feeling upset, and the emotion just gets bigger, and the “fix” is eschewed as though it were the worst possible suggestion of all time.

We refer to situations like this as “talking to the wrong part of the brain”. And the encouragement we generally offer here is, “Talk to the part of the brain that’s driving”. You’ll get much further, much faster, and with much more connection along the way!

In application, talking to the part of the brain that’s driving means being flexible about how we interact with our self and others. It also means (regularly, perhaps frequently) switching gears midstream in order to interact with our self and others where we are neurally at present. We’ll outline more options in the template for this week, but basically -- we want to communicate ideas and thoughts with the intellectual brain, emotion and connection with the social brain, and safety and security with the instinctual brain. The number one tool we have to assess, relate to, and influence the brain state of our self and others is our empathy -- that ability to both feel with (affective empathy) and understand the perspective (cognitive empathy) of self and other.

One reason that empathy is so powerful with regard to brain state is because of the mammalian proclivity for “emotional coherence”, sometimes misnomered as “emotional contagion”. This simply refers to the tendency of an individual to resonate with and begin to assimilate another’s emotional state based solely on witnessing and/or interacting the other. The clearest example of emotional coherence has been noted in FMRI brain scan studies on mothers and their children. When the child feels upset, the primary portion of their emotional network -- the cingulate cortex -- lights up like a fireworks display. Upon witnessing their child’s distress (whether seeing and/or just hearing it) the mother’s cingulate cortex lights up on the scanner -- just like her child’s, mirroring it in surprising detail. Other examples include compulsively laughing when you see or hear someone else laughing; crying during a movie scene in which a character is crying; feeling stressed out when your partner can’t find the car keys and might be late to work; and finding your face moving to (subtly or obviously) mimic the face of someone you’re watching.

A portion of emotional coherence has to do with “cingulate cortex entrainment” (you may have noticed it listed under the social/emotional network) which, while much stronger in parent-child relationships and even more so in mother-child relationships (as described in the brain scan example above), also affects other forms of relationships, and increasingly as they become more intimate. When someone with whom we identify feels emotion, we are triggered to feel it, too.  

Another element of emotional coherence is derived from the “mirror neuron system”. This is a set of neurons in the brain that fire, both, whenever we do certain motor activities, and whenever we witness someone else doing those same activities. So when we see or hear someone eating a sandwich (even just reading about it, now, your mirror neurons are starting to activate), our brains run a tiny simulation of the neural process of lifting the sandwich, moving it to the mouth, opening the mouth, positioning the sandwich, biting it, chewing it, swallowing, etc.. The same is true of smiling. When we see someone smile, our mirror neurons for smiling mimic the action. Our brain then feels what it might be like to make the mouth turn up at the corners, and then evaluates the meaning of the felt sensation of smiling. We thus “understand” by way of mirror neuron simulation and affective empathy that the smiling person is feeling happy.

Emotional coherence means that we are intuitively and neuronally experiencing each other’s feeling states. This is important for our current discussion in two ways: 1) we are regularly influencing and being influenced by how others around us feel, and 2) assessing how we feel in response to someone else can be a window into their emotional state. Emotional state is related to and can inform us about brain state.

Below is a chart we created to illustrate the relationship between emotion and brain state.


At the top of the chart you can see a green section, listing emotions like joy, optimism, contentment. This section correlates roughly with an executive brain state. With few exceptions, people experiencing these emotions can still function intellectually.

The yellow section, listing feelings such as frustration, disappointment, and doubt, indicates emotion that starts to shut down executive capabilities. There is some chance that people experiencing these emotions still have access to the intellectual network, but it grows increasingly unlikely the further down the spectrum they slip. They need emotional support.

The red section, containing such emotional hits as anger, guilt, and powerlessness, illustrates the transition from primarily processing in the emotional brain to primarily processing in the survival brain. Anger, revenge, and rage tend to correlate to a fight survival strategy. Jealousy, guilt, and unworthiness tend to correlate to flight. Fear, grief, and despair correlate to freeze. Powerlessness can correlate to both freeze and appease. People feeling these emotions may be in too primal a place to receive immediate support.

Using an awareness of this chart, and our affective and cognitive empathy, to assess the emotional and neural states of our self or another can tell us what part of the brain is currently driving, and how we might best respond. In the template for Phase 3, Empathizing with Self and Others, we’ll walk you through that assessment as well as various addresses and responses appropriate for each brain state.

Before you we jump into the template, though, we wanted to encourage you with a few edicts and/or reminders.

  • Don’t take feelings personally. We tend to think that they come out because of things that happened, but more often than not humans blame readily available things/interactions/episodes for already present feelings. We can empathize with the emotion even if we disagree with the story about it.

  • Give up the idea of fixing upset feelings. We don’t have to solve the problem, have all the answers, or be any certain way for emotion to move. We just have to make room for the emotion to come out and wait.

  • Don’t confuse empathizing with the feelings and condoning unwanted actions. We can have a clear boundary around and/or be plainly against certain actions and behavior, while still understanding and expressing empathy for the painful emotion fueling the behavior.

Ok! Ready for the template? You got this!!


The Better at Boundaries Minicourse, Phase Three, that precedes this course, is available below for review!


click here


click here

Empathizing with Self and Others

This template is designed to support you in the process of employing your affective and cognitive empathy, both, with yourself and with others in order to support optimal brain function, facilitate communication, and invite connection. If you are easily triggered by others’ emotional states and often feel confused in the moment about how to support them or advocate for yourself, and/or you struggle to process your own feelings (and, even if you don’t…) -- this template will walk you through the necessary steps in assessing your own and others’ current brain processing state, understanding and communicating in the language of that brain state, facilitating emotional processing and release, and inviting mutual neural (co-)regulation.

In order to form, remember, and execute agreements around our boundaries, it helps if all parties are in our intellectual brain. If the connection between the parties is broken, tenuous, or unstable, and/or if any one or more of us has emotion being triggered and in need of processing, and/or if any one or more of us is in survival mode -- true, honest agreement is highly improbable. That is, unless or until all parties have regained access to our executive brain network.  In order to support our self and others to reach and sustain intellectual functionality and get everyone’s needs met, and in order to support the healthy processing of feelings and building of neural habits to support healthy emotional processing, we want to be able to ascertain and respond effectively to our own and others’ brain states.

If this form of being with yourself and others is difficult for you, please know that this is not something “you’re either good at or you’re not” -- Neuro-Emotional Co-Processing, as we call it, can absolutely be taught and learned, and your brain utterly rewired to have very little trouble at all doing everything this template describes. If and when you give yourself time and repeated effort. Do the work to wire it in, and you’ll be able to rely on it for the rest of your life to help you have an easier time navigating your own and others’ neuro-psychological and emotional states.

Stage 1: Observing

Assessing Brain State

  • For self:

    • This can be difficult because we cannot think or observe our self from outside our own brain.

    • Intellectual/Executive Brain:

      • Are you having interesting thoughts?

      • Are you curious?

      • Can you think of the words you want?

      • Can you adequately control your body and mind?

      • Do you know what you need right now?

      • What is your current agenda?

      • Can you name more than two options for yourself in this situation?

    • Social/Emotional Brain:

      • Are you feeling emotion?

      • Is your body feeling noteworthy sensations?

      • What’s happening with your heart rate and breath?

      • Are you losing track of your thoughts, words, or previous perspective?

      • Are you having trouble controlling your motions or speech?

    • Instinctual/Survival Brain:

      • Are you ready to fight? Heart racing?

      • Are you ready to run? Shivering?

      • Are you sleepy, tired, shutting down? Staring off? Yawning?

      • Are you desperately trying to make or keep someone else happy? Throat closing?

  • For other(s):

    • This can be difficult because we are in emotional coherence with others around us, especially those in our “in group”.

    • Intellectual/Executive Brain:

      • Are they functioning at their best physically and mentally?

      • Do they appear to be thinking clearly?

      • Are they strategizing?

      • Do they seem curious?

      • Are they positively projecting possible outcomes?

      • Can they name more than two options for themself in this situation?

      • Are they recalling plans and details with ease?

    • Social/Emotional Brain:

      • Do their physical motions seem more animated or less fluid?

      • Do they seem to be thinking less clearly?

      • Do they appear to be having trouble finding their words?

      • Is their volume, tone, intensity, or rate of speech different than normal?

      • Are they crying, and/or expressing feelings with their body?

      • Are you aware of any emotion in yourself? Does it relate to the other person(s)?

    • Instinctual/Survival Brain:

      • Do they currently appear to be using a survival strategy?

      • Do they seem to be escalating the interaction, and/or “letting off steam” with their body?

      • Are they leaving the immediate area or appearing to disconnect from you?

      • Do they seem to be “going blank”? Are they not saying anything or staring off into space?

      • Do they appear to be giving in, folding, or reactively placating you?

Congratulations!! You now have more of a sense of which part of the brain is currently driving!

Stage 2: Feeling

Tracking Emotional States

  • For self:

    • Check the Emotional Spectrum Chart and/or with your internal awareness. Are you in the “red zone”, “yellow zone”, or “green zone”?

    • What do you notice about your emotional state?

      • Does the emotion(s) have a name?

      • Are you aware of any sensations in your body that might help you identify your feelings?

  • For other(s):

    • Check the Emotional Spectrum Chart and/or with your internal awareness. Are they in the “red, yellow, or green zone”?

    • What can you see of their emotion?

      • What is their body doing?

      • What is their face doing?

      • What are their eyes doing?

      • How does their voice sound?

    • What do you notice about your own emotional state in response to the other person(s)?

      • Does your emotion(s) have a name?

      • What are the felt sensations in your body?

      • Are you in emotional coherence with the other person(s)?

      • What can you tell about their feelings based on how you feel?

Congratulations!! You now know more about the feelings involved!


In order to maintain your own access to executive functioning, and facilitate your ability to be of support to others, it’s useful to continually return to an awareness of your own emotional state and empathize with any feelings you have coming up.  Our approach to self-empathy follows the pneumonic -- Notice, Name, Touch:

  • Notice the feelings you’re experiencing.

    • What can you tell about them?

    • What parts of your body are responding?

  • Name the feelings(s).

    • To yourself or outloud.

    • Without any story about how the emotion(s) got there -- just feelings names.

    • Describe the felt sensations in your body.

  • Touch.

    • Put your palm to your forehead, or the nape of your neck, or your heart.

    • Validate the emotion(s) as understandable and appropriate.

    • Continue naming felt sensations for 120 seconds.

    • Take a quick, full inhale and sigh it out. Repeat if preferred.

Congratulations!! You now have more access to your executive network!

Stage 3: Knowing

Analyzing Data

Based on
a) what you noticed about brain state signals
b) your estimation of where on the emotional spectrum you are and/or the other is, and
c) your physio-emotional understanding of the feelings involved
you can know how to respond appropriately and optimally, given the context of the moment. Fill in the blanks in one or both of the following assessments:

“I am in the ____________ brain network. My feelings are in the ___________ zone. I am aware of these sensations and/or feelings in me: ____________, _____________, and ____________….”

“They are likely in the ___________ brain network. Their feelings seem to be in the ___________ zone. I see ___________ and ____________  in their body language. I feel ___________. I believe they feel __________…”

Congratulations!! You now know what brain language to speak for the most successful communication at this time!

Brain State Language

  • If one is in an executive brain state, they are usually open to and capable of being curious, listening, discussing, planning, learning, problem-solving, doing math, managing finances, creative expressing, self-managing, empathizing, connecting, cooperating, following through, etc..

  • If one is in an emotional brain state, they are frequently open to and capable of connecting through emotion, discussing feelings, releasing emotion, etc..

  • If one is in a survival brain state, they are generally only open to and capable of fighting, fleeing (internally and/or externally), freezing up (internally and/or externally), or attempting to appease another.

Stage 4: Claiming

Act on what you know. Choose actions from the following categories:

Executive Brain State

  • Discuss

  • Suggest

  • Share Ideas

  • Offer Feedback

  • Ask Questions

  • Explore

  • Consider Options

  • Troubleshoot

  • Connect

  • Cooperate

  • Support Others

Emotional Brain State

  • Connect around Emotion

  • Empathize

  • Mirror Facial Expressions and/or Hold Compassionate Countenance

  • Speak with Soft Voice

  • Sustain Mutual (Non-Threatening) Eye Contact

  • Offer Supportive Touch

  • Validate Emotion(s)

  • Explore the Feeling(s) -- for yourself refer to Stage 2, for others:

    • Notice

      • What do you see them doing with their body?

      • How do they seem?

      • How do you feel in relation to them?

      • You might ask: “What is coming up for you?” or “How are you feeling?”

    • Name

      • Name the actions you witness them doing without evaluation or judgement.

      • Name the emotion you’re having.

      • You might ask: “How would you name your feelings?” and “Where is it showing up in your body?”

    • Touch

      • Hold hands. Rub their back. Put a finger on their ankle if that’s all that is welcome.

      • Help them explore and name the felt sensations of the emotion in their body.

      • Validate their emotional and felt experiences.

    • Wait

      • Allow (more) emotion to come up and out.

      • Allow brain chemistry and state to shift.

Survival Brain State

  • Communicate Safety and Security with Your Body Language

  • Keep Quiet

  • Move in a Non-Threatening Manner

  • Hold an Empathetic Countenance

  • Offer Warmth

  • Allow Personal Space, and/or Remain In Proximity

  • Wait for Brain Chemistry to Shift

Congratulations!! You’re using and expressing your empathy, and you’re “talking to the right part of the brain”!


FOR A PRINTABLE VERSION OF THE “Empathizing with Self and Others” TEMPLATE:


For a printable Emotional Spectrum Chart:


“Man! I am cruising through my to-list! I have a plan and I am executing.” (Intellectual/Executive)


“I can’t even tell what I want. I keep forgetting what I was doing. I feel so anxious.” (Social/Emotional)


“I want to pack my bags and get out of here!” (Instinctual/Survival)


“Wow! He’s really interested and asking lots of questions. This would be a great time to plan our vacation.” (Intellectual/Executive)


“Yikes. She keeps repeating herself. She seems really overwhelmed.” (Social/Emotional)


“He keeps storming out of the room and then coming back to yell some more.” (Instinctual/Survival)


“I’m in the green zone. I’m feeling optimistic. I keep bouncing around on my toes.”


“I think she’s in the yellow zone. She’s still in her pajamas, crying on the couch. I feel sad when I’m with her. I bet she’s feeling disappointed.”


“I notice some loneliness, some worry, and some frustration… My forehead is tense… my face is hot… my toes are scrunched. That makes sense. This is a really tough situation…. Now I feel… a little sadness. My arms are numb and my tongue is dry. (Deep breath) Now I notice…”


“I am in the survival brain network. My feelings are in the red zone. I am aware of powerlessness, and despair. My diaphragm is aching.”


“They are likely in the emotional brain network. Their feelings seem to be in the lower yellow zone. I see them stomping loudly and running their hands through their hair. I feel discouraged. I believe they feel anger.”


Executive brain state? Dig in! Sky’s the limit!


Emotional Brain State? Slow that roll, look for feelings and connect.


Survival Brain State? Shhhh! Be quiet, and still, think: safety.



We’ve shared with you ideas on what boundaries truly are, why it’s important to have them, when it’s best to employ them, and how to navigate the processes. Throughout the previous phases, we have gently tapped away at the same theme over and over again. Boundaries are conduits to it. They help us get our needs met through it. The ideal time to assert a boundary is when we’re in it. And the most crucial step in claiming a boundary is ensuring it.

From up here, gazing down on all we’ve described thus far, we hope it’s clear to you that what stands out most is the connection.

And we can tell you honestly and certainly -- if you get nothing else out of this course -- the most important thing to mind in any relationship you will ever have is the connection. We cannot stress this enough. The connection is everything. It’s why and how we relate, cope with stress and trauma, cooperate, and (pro)create.

Connection is both why we’re in the game of relationship and how we best make it work.

And in the final analysis, our connection is literally the only thing we have to rely on in terms of our loved ones (or anyone else with whom we are in relationship) honouring our boundaries. No one has to care about our boundaries. No one has to abide by our preferences. No one has to take on helping us get our needs met. They only do that -- they only neurophysically can -- because we share connection.

And our children only will honour our agreements and observe our boundaries when they are in palpable contact with our connection to them. (To be clear, you could maybe still scare them into compliant behavior without connection, but that isn’t the same thing as caring about your agreements or boundaries -- not by a long shot. And that method is guaranteed to fail more often, and finally, long before our children reach adulthood, where it won’t serve them well at all.)

So, perhaps you can see the import of tending that vital link, nurturing that enduring bond, and cultivating the optimal emotional environment for connection. Yes?

What we want to do next is map out the best ways to facilitate the connection so pivotal in underwriting our boundaries.

Here’s what we suggest:

  1. Start at the beginning.

    In new and deepening relationships, and as we described in Phase 1, we can set the tone for the varieties of connection we prefer right from the outset. Facilitating and maintaining connection can even be a boundary that is worked into a foundational agreement for the relationship. We, ourselves, have no rules, per se, but do have some bedrock agreements, including to stay in proximity even if we are in total disagreement, and to allow touch even when we’re feeling upset. We have made these really difficult to honour agreements because we know for sure that they make it far easier for us to work through tough issues. It can be easy to, especially early in getting to know one another to be up front about how important connection is and to build the newly forming relationship around it. We can be open with our touch and generous with our hugs and kisses. We can listen deeply to one another, help each other out, and empathize with one another during times of stress and struggle.

    If the relationship isn’t new, we can start right where we are and begin building more structures for connecting. This is probably excellent and easy terrain for making some new agreements!

    With our children, and because we literally plant the seed and grow a human inside the mother, we have the opportunity to begin facilitating connection from before birth. Our in-utero babies can hear us (especially mom) by 18 weeks -- and begin to imprint on the recurring sounds both inside and outside the womb. Mom’s heartbeat, her voice, the voices of those nearest her and/or talking to the belly, and any other common sounds in the environment become “connectors” for the baby once born. We can use sound to communicate the safety, continuity, and familiarity our newborns need in order to connect with us after birth. Making sure baby has lots of repeated episodes of snuggling skin-to-skin with both parents -- where smells, and sounds, and sensations all blend into a pleasant amalgam of association -- is key. Talking to our babies (which is a prebirth touchstone, but also stimulates their nervous system because by birth they already have personal physical movements linked to every single phoneme they’ve heard us speak). Respecting their tiny bodies and budding sovereignty. Giving them information about what’s happening. Holding them when they cry. All of these choices and moments add up to the crafting of a deep and secure bond with our infants, which propels them forward in development, and gives us a solid relational foundation on which to build.

  2. Make it a daily practice.

    The best way to make the most of human connection’s amazing benefits and potential is to allow it to accumulate in everyday interactions. It’s not meant to be just an episodic balm, and it isn’t as potent if that’s the only way it’s used. Connecting is more like drinking water. When we’re low -- relationally dehydrated, if you will -- then it’s difficult to get enough to “catch up”. We can become somewhat ornery in our subconscious attempts to secure this critical need. And so can our loved ones, especially our kids.

    If our children (and many of our other love ones too) aren’t getting this essential need met on a regular basis, it will invite uncomfortable feelings which, particularly because of their immature emotional systems, almost always come out as actions we don’t like. Some call this “bad behavior”. We see it more as a physical alarm system, letting us know that painful feelings are under the surface, and likely an unmet need or two as well. Connection is always a bottomline need. And will always perform as a remedy and inoculant against uncomfortable feelings, etc.. It works best, though, through regular, consistent, abundant application. And when the stores of connection are full, problems are much smaller, fewer, and farther between.

    So, we want to touch our loved ones multiple times every single day. Hug them, and hold them, and laugh with them, and wrestle with them, and play with them, and listen to them, and help them, and respect them, and empathize with them. Say hello and goodbye mindfully. Learn about what’s important to them. And make sure that they know we love and accept them as they are.

  3. Co-process feelings.

    This is intimated above, but is worth calling out separately. Every time we make space for our loved ones’ feelings, we bridge connection. Neurobiologically, this is what feelings are designed to do for humans -- link us up. We allude to this tendency when we talk about “emotional contagion” or “coherence”. We can see it when one baby crying incites another to cry. Our brains “feel with” each other. This inspires us to act when others feel uncomfortable, and functions in the opposite direction too, such that connecting with another in their upset helps them to process the feeling(s) and then return to a more regulated state. Because our brains are built to network our emotion (though connection and co-processing) so that no one one brain gets overwhelmed by intense feelings or experiences. Creating emotionally safe space, and empathizing with our loved ones’ emotions, creates connection in the moment, and accrues connection over time. All we have to do, here, is offer our understanding, validate the feelings, and snuggle. Give as many doses (and as frequently as needed) of this powerful medicine -- you can’t over do it!

  4. Respect boundaries.

    It may seem a little too tidy to flip this process back in on itself, but this is how the system self-perpetuates. By respecting our loved ones’ sovereignty (even our little kids’), honouring their preferences, helping them get their needs met, and loving them in the ways that they want to be loved -- we model what we want to see, but we also build on the connection that is so necessary to increasing the likelihood that our familiars will feel moved to respect our boundaries too! When you think of it -- since connection is what we’re all after anyway, and is both the end and the means to healthy boundary observance -- it constitutes a lovely symmetry that respecting boundaries would be part of what helps our boundaries get respected!

  5. Connect in times of boundary maintenance.

    When we need to remind our intimates of an agreement, or perhaps more likely, when we notice with some annoyance that we have a boundary being triggered — if we still have the brain capacity, we can use connection to “pad” the boundary breach while we address it. We intentionally connect, using our words and bodies in order to link our brains and open the pathway for enhanced co-operation. Again, perhaps too obviously, we use connection to stoke connection, and it makes the boundary easier to address and more likely to be met favorably, so that greater connection is then possible. It doesn’t get better than this!



High Fives!


The only reason anyone cares to even know what our boundaries are, is because we share CONNECTION.



















3. FOCUS: on feelings


4.RESPECT boundaries:

knock on their door

ask before hugging

honor their privacy


5. REACH: for connection even when your boundaries are triggered