Ask a Counselor: A Personal Emotional Development Library

In January, Andy and I traveled to Chiang Mai, Thailand, where we spoke at a conference for expat homeschooling parents.  We traveled around the world, spending thousands of dollars and untold hours on planes and airport lounges, to speak for three hours.  This made me highly, highly motivated to bring the best, most helpful resources I knew of to the conference.  And before it all slips away into the oblivion of the past, I thought I’d share the same here with you over the next few months, with the goal of helping you to build a personal emotional development library.

We’re going to build our library from the inside out.  This month, we’ll start with what’s inside each of us, and we’ll look at the most common issues that people (especially expat people!) work on in therapy.  I’ll give you my favorite resources in each key area.  Next month, we’ll look at marriage resources.  Then we’ll look at child and family resources.

Let’s start with what we all have in common: our interpersonal neurobiology.

Dr. Dan Siegel is an expert in this area, and his hand model of the brain is one of  the most helpful, basic pieces of information that we all need in order to be emotionally intelligent human beings.  Even if it costs you money, watch this.  It’s 2 minutes and 30 seconds of pure helpfulness.

There are some things that will benefit all of us, practices that will make our brains more healthy and functional, things that will keep our limbic system calm, so we aren’t so likely to flip our lids.  I hound you all the time in this column about self-care:  things like adequate rest, good sleep, a healthy diet, regular exercise, journaling.  Good self-care is good for the brain God gave you.

When it comes to brain health:

Don’t forget the gift of medication.  If your lid has been flipped for years at a time, you’ll chew up all the chemicals that allow for your brain and body to return to its healthy state of rest, and you’ll start to see symptoms like insomnia, irritability, illness, compromised relationships.  Assess your functioning, and don’t forget that there’s treatment for your brain, just like every other part of your body.  See your doctor when you need to!  

For your library:

The Whole Brain Child, Dr. Dan Siegel (Even if you’re a grown up, you were once a child.  Read this book.)

How God Changes Your Brain, Andrew Newberg  (A ton of research, fascinating stuff!  If you’re gonna pray, you ought to read this one.)

Beyond basic brain health, here are some of the most helpful areas to work in for personal emotional development.

Attachment Patterns

Securely attached adults tend to have positive views of themselves, their partners and their relationships. They feel comfortable with intimacy and independence, balancing the two. Anxious-preoccupied adults seek high levels of intimacy, approval and responsiveness from partners, becoming overly dependent. They tend to be less trusting, have less positive views about themselves and their partners, and may exhibit high levels of emotional expressiveness, worry and impulsiveness in their relationships. Dismissive-avoidant adults desire a high level of independence, often appearing to avoid attachment altogether. They view themselves as self-sufficient, invulnerable to attachment feelings and not needing close relationships. They tend to suppress their feelings, dealing with rejection by distancing themselves from partners of whom they often have a poor opinion. Fearful-avoidant adults have mixed feelings about close relationships, both desiring and feeling uncomfortable with emotional closeness. They tend to mistrust their partners and view themselves as unworthy. Like dismissive-avoidant adults, fearful-avoidant adults tend to seek less intimacy, suppressing their feelings.”  Source: Wikipedia

In attachment theory, the basic idea is that if you had parents who responded to you, met your needs, held you, fed you, played with you, talked to you, made eye contact with you–you very likely ended up with secure attachment.  If you were neglected or abused, if your parent was impaired in some way, if there was serious disruption to the attachment bond, you might end up with an insecure attachment style.

What strikes me as I think about interpersonal neurobiology and attachment theory is the words of John Donne:  “No man is an island.”  Our Christian conception of God is God-the-relationship, a trinity.  In our creation story, the first not-good thing?  It’s not good for man to be alone.  In order to have a healthy brain, in order to be resilient, we need healthy attachments.  God told us this in the first few pages of the Bible.  It’s not new news.

If the not-good thing has happened to us, however it happened, we are left with the responsibility to recognize it, understand it, and find ways forward into the goodness of healthy connection.  If we don’t take responsibility for ourselves, we’ll cut a swath of destruction across the land, which is probably not the goal we were going for when we set off in overseas work.

For your library:

How We Love, Milan and Kay Yerkovich

Relationship Attachment-Style Test, Psychology Today


Boundaries simply define what’s me and what’s not me.  Boundaries inform the decisions will I make as a result of what’s me, and what’s not me.

In general, missionaries are the (overly) responsible ones.  After all, out of all the millions of people who heard sermons about The Great Commission, we’re the ones who thought it sounded like a good idea to actually go and do it.  I’m not saying we made a bad choice, but I do think it’s perhaps an indication that we might, just sometimes, end up doing more than our fair share.

When we’re doing more than our share, when we’re over our reasonable boundaries, we might find ourselves feeling angry with others for not doing enough, overwhelmed by all the responsibility, struggling to function because we just can’t keep up, losing out on the joys of life.  We’ll wonder why our needs aren’t being met, while we’re so busy meeting the needs of everyone else.

Lack of boundaries is a form of self-harm. 

If you were cutting yourself, if you were trying to overdose with pills or alcohol, we’d probably try to get you some help.  But all too often in the expat world, if you have no boundaries, we’ll just praise you and pile the work higher and deeper.  Very rarely will someone tell you to get better boundaries, because you might end up saying “no” to something they want.  (If disrespect for personal boundaries a real issue in your context, read on for some thoughts on spiritual abuse.)

  • We might be a hero, needing approval and affirmation.
  • We might be a martyr, believing that God demands the ultimate sacrifice from us.
  • We might simply not realize that we’re valuable and precious and made for better things than self-destruction in the name of the great commission.
  • We might just be nice people who slide into bad boundaries without realizing it’s happening, and then get stuck, not knowing how to get out.  (Hint: “NO” is a whole answer.)

Here’s the thing.  We need to nurture better boundaries, not just because we need to lock out the toxic self-harming craziness—although that’s good!  Beyond the need to stop the crazy train, we need to create a space for peace.  Remember our brain model?  When your amygdala is anxious, it doesn’t make good decisions.  You need to chill that amygdala out so you can THINK, so you can REFLECT, so you can choose well and bless others.

  • Good boundaries acknowledge that God is God, we are not.
  • Good boundaries mean that we live within our particular capacity, within our particular circumstances.

Our capacity and our circumstances will change over time, and our boundaries need to adjust to reflect that.  Stress is cumulative over time, and boundaries need to adjust, according to present needs.

For your library:

Boundaries, Henry Cloud and John Townsend

The Dance of Anger, Harriet Goldhor Lerner

Tired of Trying to Measure Up, Jeff Van Vonderen


Into every expat life, some trauma will inevitably fall.  Political realities, medical emergencies, life-threatening accidents, conflict with colleagues, pornography addiction (many wives will meet the clinical criteria for  PTSD)—these are just a few of the “normal” traumas I see in my clients.

Spritual abuse, I’m sorry to say, is a regular feature of overseas life:  spiritual manipulation, control, and false authority patterns are terribly traumatic when you’re the victim.  If this is happening to you, recognize that it is abuse, and build healthy boundaries for yourself.

Whatever the trauma, the basics of a treatment protocol are these:

  • establish safety,
  • establish control,
  • establish recovery, and
  • establish new appropriate boundaries

We want to make sure you’re safe, because we can’t treat the trauma if it’s still happening.  Once you’re safe, we want to reestablish an appropriate sense of control to your life.  Then we want to look at what we can do for recovery, and finally think about what the future will look like, given the new circumstances.

Almost every person who’s experienced trauma ends up feeling like “other people have it worse.”  The cognitive brain manages trauma via denial.  But doesn’t matter if you were hit by a truck or a falling tree, if you have a sprained ankle or need a full body cast, when you show up at the ER, you’ll get treatment.  Taking what you need doesn’t mean somebody else won’t get their fair share.  God’s got more than enough for all of us.  When you need help, GET HELP.

For your library:

The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Jeff Van Vonderen


“I was afraid, and so I hid myself.”

Shame is perhaps the oldest and most destructive negative emotion we experience.

If we do not deal with our shame, we will hide ourselves.  We will hide ourselves from ourselves, with all sorts of defense mechanisms following: denial, projection, reaction formation.  We will hide ourselves from God.  We will hide ourselves from our spouses.  We will hide ourselves from our children.

And, as Mike Yaconelli says, “People who pretend have pretend relationships.”

We’ve got to consider, what kind of relationships do we want to have?  Pretend?  Or real?  If we want to have real relationships, then we’ve got to confront the shame that keeps us in hiding.

The cure for shame is not perfection, because perfection is just not possible.  The cure for shame is vulnerability.  Stepping out of the bushes, naked and asking for help.  That’s an option Adam didn’t try, and it seems fairly typical of all of us:  we run, we hide, we cover up any way we can and hope nobody notices.  In the end, we’re miserable and isolated and trapped.

I think Jesus had to come here to show us what we need really need: real, vulnerable relationship.  God with us.  God walking with us:  talking with and eating with and weeping with.  God healing and holding and comforting.  God who makes it safe for us to be vulnerable with, the kindness of God leading to deep, lasting change.

God with us is also God vulnerable to us.  As a helpless infant, as a child, as a man nailed to a cross. Self-protection was not the way Jesus functioned.  He just stepped out there, arms open wide.  No shame, even carrying all the sins of the world.  If we’re Jesus-followers, we can follow him there, too.

It might sound crazy, but I’m telling you, it works.

For your library:

The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown

Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli

That’s 10 good books for your personal development library.  I’ll be back next month with some more!

Don’t forget about our resource tab, when you’re looking for more help.

And while you’re reading, don’t forget your yoga breathing.  Just THREE MINUTES A DAY will produce measurable, positive brain changes!

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photo credit: flikr

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Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to:

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