Writing about mental health from a feminist counselling perspective
I think it's so neat that in addition to the amazing local, in-person resources I often share with clients, there's a ton of really cool online offerings these days. From my perspective, these can be a great adjunct to therapy or a standalone resource, depending on what you're looking for. I think these resources look amazing and hope you will too.
There’s a theme that’s been coming up in my office for years now. It might have started soon after I started naming myself as a feminist therapist. Maybe people felt safe enough to talk about some of the issues that were haunting them on a deeper level. Then there was that summer when the smell of smoke was everywhere. I think most of us remember waking up to a yellow sky, and it’s hard to ignore what’s happening outside when you’re sitting in my office looking out the window. The things we had been talking about every once in awhile were now very much front of mind. And what’s happening to our earth is just one of those things.
We're living in a time where there's a lot that's not right in the world, and it's hard to make sense of how unjust it can be. A lot of us are working so hard and feeling overwhelmed because we're feeling the heaviness of all the work that has yet to be done. I've had many conversations in my office about what it's like to live with uncertainty about the future.
With my clients, we always start with making space to compassionately feel whatever emotions arise with the state of what is happening in our communities - like grief, fear, or anger. I ask my clients to notice what they’re feeling emotionally, and where they’re noticing it in their bodies. This is often the first time they really acknowledge the weight of what they’re carrying. From my experience, noticing and naming what we’re experiencing has immense power. It allows our emotions to begin moving. It allows them to inform us, and transform us. (On this note, my colleague Dr. Lauren Johnson wrote a lovely article about making space for grief last year, which I hope you'll find time to read). As we listen to our emotions, we also hear their wisdom, and what they need from us.
Sometimes when we listen inward, what we feel is despair, and it’s hard to know what to do with that. It can feel like there’s just too much to do, and we’re exhausted trying to tend to it all. I wanted to share another small idea that's been growing in my office. I've been talking to people about listening inward to find their one, unique gift that they can offer during this difficult time. The one thing that they can give generously without immediately burning out. The one thing where the benefit to others actually outweighs the toll it takes on them to provide it.
The easiest example I always come back to is my own gift - I offer therapy. I'm not out there leading marches or running for political office, even though I absolutely see the value in those things. I'm an introvert, an empath, and I thrive on routine. I'd burn out within a week of trying to do work that asked me to be someone other than who I am. So I found the way I could show up for my community that most aligned with who I am, and did that. I truly believe there's a place for all of us in social change work, and this is my way.
And, even though I always look for hopeful stories of positive change, I also know that the world isn't going to be fixed in the next year and so. I think many of us will do "whatever it takes" because we're trying to run a sprint. I've started to talk to more people about seeing the work we do as a marathon. With that in mind, can you imagine a pace that would be sustainable for you over a lifetime?
I hope you may be able to take some time to reflect on your own unique gift. And to stop feeling bad that you're not doing it all. Let's all just to what we can, with sustainability in mind.
On My "To-Read" List
I know I’m not the only one who has been thinking about and writing about this, and currently I have a few books on my “to-read” list that I’m happy to share. Currently I’m still on a fiction bender, and I know that when the time is right, I’ll be able to turn to other writers as a source of guidance.
Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change: A Clinician’s Guide (Leslie Davenport)
"Although the environmental and physical effects of climate change have long been recognised, little attention has been given to the profound negative impact on mental health. Leslie Davenport presents comprehensive theory, strategies and resources for addressing key clinical themes specific to the psychological impact of climate change.
She explores the psychological underpinnings that have contributed to the current global crisis, and offers robust therapeutic interventions for dealing with anxiety, stress, depression, trauma and other clinical mental health conditions resulting from environmental damage and disaster. She emphasizes the importance of developing resilience and shows how to utilise the many benefits of guided imagery and mindful presence techniques, and carry out interventions that draw on expert research into ecopsychology, wisdom traditions, earth-based indigenous practices and positive psychology. The strategies in this book will cultivate transformative, person-centred ways of being, resulting in regenerative lifestyles that benefit both the individual and the planet."
Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (adrienne maree brown)
"Inspired by Octavia Butler's explorations of our human relationship to change, Emergent Strategy is radical self-help, society-help, and planet-help designed to shape the futures we want to live. Change is constant. The world is in a continual state of flux. It is a stream of ever-mutating, emergent patterns. Rather than steel ourselves against such change, this book invites us to feel, map, assess, and learn from the swirling patterns around us in order to better understand and influence them as they happen. This is a resolutely materialist 'spirituality' based equally on science andscience fiction, a visionary incantation to transform that which ultimately transforms us."
Our Entangled Future: Stories to Empower Quantum Social Change (Edited by Karen O'Brien Ann El Khoury and Nicole Schafenacker).
We live our lives through stories. They shape how we see the world, how we relate to it, and not the least, how we engage with it. Now more than ever, we need compelling stories that inspire both individual and collective action. The nine short stories presented in Our Entangled Future are rooted in the complex reality of the climate crisis. Rather than painting a dystopic future, they present agency-driven characters whose insights will inspire readers to contemplate and realize the potential for quantum social change.
Oh, I just thought of one book I read a few years ago and really enjoyed, that I'm going to add to this list.
“The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture” (Mary Pipher)
Pipher emphasizes the importance of taking small, positive steps to preserve what’s important, drawing from her own experiences as part of a group fighting energy company TransCanada’s installation of the Keystone XL oil pipeline across the Midwest, which will sit atop the Ogallala Aquifer, the source of 40% of the United States’ fresh water. The challenges she confronts reveal surprising answers to the critical questions we face: How do we mobilize ourselves and our communities to work together to solve global problems? How do we stay happy amid very difficult situations? And what is the true meaning of hope? Both profound and practical, The Green Boat explains how we can attend to the world around us with calmness, balance, and great love.
Dealing with a sinus infection over the last few weeks has me once again thinking about sustainability as a therapist. I was thinking how glad I was that I had room in my calendar to reschedule clients. I was thinking about how gracious everyone was being when I did have to move things around. And this got me thinking about some of the things I’ve done to make all of this possible. For all you emerging therapists out there (and curious cats), please read on…
Schedule for a Realistic Week
There have definitely been times in the past where my schedule has been much more full. I’ve been booked solid for a month in advance, with no room to add in an extra client here or there. I know a lot of emerging therapists who will do this too – we fit in the most clients possible, leaving practically no room for flexibility. I think we plan for the “ideal scenario”, meaning, “if all goes as planned for me, then this number of sessions I’ve booked will be fine”. What we may not always consider is the “realistic scenario”. In a realistic week, I often end up getting an emergency request from a client to book a session because they’re really in crisis. I sometimes get a letter from a lawyer, insurance company, or Victims Services requesting forms to be filled out or paperwork to be put together. I have clients who I need to do research for, make referrals on behalf of, consult regarding, or make ethical decisions about. I also sometimes have sessions that knock me off my feet for one reason or another. I also get sick sometimes, or get stuck on Edmonton winter roads. If there’s no room in my week to recover, fit in, or move around, what do we do?
For awhile, I think the mistake that we make is just to keep adding on to an already full schedule. Many new therapists will work through their lunch hours, stay late to complete their notes and letters, or do the extra work on what should be days off.
I believe all the work I described above is an important part of being a therapist, and so we need to start making room for it within our schedules, not leave it as an extra that can be appended on to a full week. I’ll give you an example. I have about 25 client spots open per week. It used to be that I would open all of those to be filled, banking on the fact that I would get one or two cancellations. But, it just so happened that the cancellations wouldn’t always come when I needed it, and 25 client hours a week every week left me very little room for all those other parts of being a therapist I already described above. Now, I’m leaving 22 spots open on my online calendar. I know it doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but those extra three hours are now mine to be flexible with. I can go home early, add in an extra client if I need to, catch up on client notes, or anything else I need.
Stop Seeing New Clients
In order to have this kind of room in the calendar, I stopped seeing new clients a year ago. I added people to a waiting list if they wanted to wait. In order to feel less guilty about not being able to accept new appointments, I provided them with a list of other therapists in the area who were accepting new clients, as I just couldn’t predict how long it might take for things to slow down. It turns out it took about a year, and things are finally becoming more balanced.
Remember that Being Emotionally Well is Part of the Work
Within my work week, I also had to consider what helps me stay emotionally well. I now see this as a foundational part of being a good therapist, rather than an extra to hope to fit in outside of my work hours. From my perspective, being emotionally well involves seeing a therapist to work through issues that come up in my life and in the therapy room, it involves somatic practices to help nourish my body throughout the day, and it involves connecting with colleagues and peers in consultation and support. In order to provide the emotional care for my clients that my job entails, I need to be present, attuned, and grounded. I take this seriously and I know it’s not just going to happen on its own.
Take Sustainability Seriously
What this brings me back to is what eventually happens when we don’t keep sustainability in mind. I’ve watched some emerging therapists power through very full schedules, and I know that on top of the client hours, they’re also studying for licensing exams and dealing with a steep learning curve.
When we have so much on our plates, we will eventually make mistakes. I have, and I try to remind all the new therapists I supervise that we all will. It’s part of the work. What I have found that clients are generally forgiving if mistakes are made in good faith (accidentally double booking a client because brains are just like that). I think it gets harder when mistakes are made because we’re not caring well enough for ourselves (not consulting when we should have because we ran out of time, overbooking ourselves and then being shorter with a client than intended because we’re emotionally exhausted, or showing up late because we haven’t been getting enough sleep).
By no means is this a call for perfection or a public shaming for those inevitable mistakes we all make. Instead, I’m offering a moment to pause. As we continue in this field, we can ask ourselves if the foundation we’re laying has a strong foundation for sustainability, or if we’re leaning in the direction of burnout. We can notice if what we’re doing has room for our own humanity. We all know that doing this work requires being deeply connected with ourselves so that we can connect with the person in front of us. I continue to believe that the biggest gift we bring as therapists is our own aliveness. So, I’m rooting for that.
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries.
About the Blog
This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.
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