Writing about mental health from a feminist counselling perspective
In my work, two of the biggest themes I talk about a lot are burnout and shame resilience—I even have an online workshop on How to prevent burnout and my most recent one is about Shame Resilience Skills. If you've been following me for a while, you might already know this. What you might not know yet, though, is that there’s an overlap between the two.
Here’s what I've noticed: at the root of overworking (which eventually leads to burnout) often lies a sense of shame. We might feel that our worthiness is directly connected to our productivity—either because we've been told so or been made to feel so in indirect ways.
In trying to get away from the uncomfortable experience of shame, many of us strive to be perfect. We might make demands to ourselves to appease that voice: "I'll just achieve more at work, I’ll be pleasing in my relationship, I’ll give more in my community…" But, at some point, we reach our limits. We’re only human, so we get exhausted, our bodies break down, and resentment settles in.
I often have clients who come to me with the goal of getting better at being perfect. Although this is an impossible standard, they’re beating themselves up for not continually being able to meet it. Instead of giving them strategies to “get more motivated” and just get on with achieving more than they possibly can, what I do is work with them on the root feeling of shame. Why? Because I believe that they are good and worthy just as they are, without having to do anything more, and I want to help them feel that way.
What can we actually control?
This push to be perfect doesn’t always come from inside ourselves, though. Many times we’re actually made to feel guilty or ashamed of our choices by other people, even if they don’t mean to, like when someone tells you “Wow, you’re leaving early!” or “I wish I could do that but I have a lot more work to do!” Unfortunately, as many of my clients have found, if you’re waiting for someone else to change, you might be waiting a long time. This is why, instead of waiting for other people to realize what they’re doing and change their ways, I focus on behaviours that we ourselves can do differently.
Another thing we can get really caught up in is trying to get someone else’s permission or acceptance of our boundary, to convince people that we have the right to our own boundaries. It’s important to learn that we can simply do what we need to do for ourselves and let other people deal with their own discomfort around it.
Setting the boundary and then sticking with it when we get pushback will feel uncomfortable for us, too: here’s where accepting our feelings and practicing self-compassion can be really useful. We might have to remind ourselves that you can be a good person, even if other people are disappointed, or that other people don’t have to understand your boundaries in order to respect them. This is the heart of burnout prevention and shame resilience.
From my perspective, self-compassion boils down to being as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend. Over the years I've had a lot of people ask me about whether they could forgo compassion and just get things done by motivating themselves through shame and grit. My short answer is, I tried that method. As I’ve previously shared, it led to an entire year of intense daily pain. That was over years ago and I still have chronic pain issues, so life will never quite be the same. Fortunately, I've found ways to cope with it that don't involve telling myself what I "should" be doing.⠀
Oh, and the other answer involves that there's good research to back up my very individual story (thanks Kristen Neff!) about how shame isn't motivating – self-compassion is the way forward.
When I talk to clients about self-compassion, I often talk about acceptance. In this post, I wanted to touch on acceptance in three specific areas: acceptance of mistakes, acceptance of our limits, and acceptance of our feelings.
Accepting that we make mistakes
We hold ourselves to such impossible standards sometimes. And hey, I get it. If we can just be perfect, then we’ll never have to feel the horrible feeling of shame, right? So we aim for perfection, try never to make a mistake, and then hold our breath. Unfortunately, perfection is a plane of existence that doesn’t exist.⠀
From my perspective, not only is making mistakes allowed, but we can end up growing and transforming because of them. It’s part of what helps us move through life and learn about ourselves and our world. When we make a mistake, I feel like there’s SO MUCH we can do with it. Getting stuck in shame is not the only way. We can actually learn, repair, forgive ourselves, and do a ton of amazing healing work after we mess up.
I know forgiving ourselves might be a hard one, so here's my thought: we all make mistakes. After all, we're all human. We can learn to be accountable. We can learn to take responsibility for our part. We can learn to take a step back from shame and forgive ourselves, remembering that our mistakes (or the things we didn't know then) don't have to define who we are.
Accepting our feelings
Accepting our feelings has been an especially significant theme in the last year because many of us have been feeling uncomfortable emotions and probably also wishing we weren’t going through so much stress, anxiety, and pain. Isn’t that human? To be wanting to move away from the hard parts, and also to be feeling a lot of it right now.
However, when we try to get away from the difficulty, we deny our reality. And that reality doesn’t go away. We might temporarily push it down, but to what effect? The most long-lasting impact I see is what Tara Brach would describe as shooting ourselves with the second arrow. Not only are we still feeling the initial anxiety that was there – we’re now also feeling the shame of it too (“what’s wrong with me that I just can’t get through this?”). We’re left with twice as much pain, or more often more than we initially started with.
Now don’t get me wrong. If I could magically get rid of my fear of public speaking, or airplanes, I would! But since I can’t wave that wand, I’ve found there’s a better option: acceptance. Leading up to those events, I can take of those fears and anxieties rather than ignore them or try to muscle my way through the pain. Most of us know by now that pain gets worse when we try to suppress it, so I think it’s time to try something different. When we’re more self-compassionate and can accept what we’re experiencing as human, we do a way better job of taking care of the physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts that go along with everyday life, and the whole thing gets easier to cope with and less intense over time.
Accepting that you have limits
You may have noticed by now that acceptance is a tough one because we're working to accept things we'd rather not. Like the fact that we do, in fact, have limits and can't do it all. Or like how we wish we had more time and energy for the things and people we love and, at the same time, our body is breaking down, making it impossible to give any more without great detriment to our health. ⠀
At the risk of sounding repetitive, you are human. Even if sometimes you don’t want to be constrained by those limitations. Even if you think you should be "better by now" or "able to handle more". Fighting it isn’t working anymore. Pretending it’s not there isn’t working anymore. Work on accepting that, just like every other human on this planet, you have limits too.
If you’re curious to learn more, please feel free to check out my new online Shame Resilience Skills course. I go over more of the elements of acceptance and my favorite ways of bringing about more self-compassion into your daily life.
As Brian Mahan described, shame is predominantly a physiological wound. We have a physiological response to shaming experiences; a holding pattern or stuckness that can emerge. Even for people who might know on a cognitive level that they have nothing to feel ashamed of, deep in our bodies we feel unworthy, bad, or wrong.
This knowledge can guide us to how we can heal shame. It's not just a matter of having new cognitive information: it's the physiology that we need to heal. So, if we can work with our imagination in the present, then the lower brain is going to take all the information as if it was real, as if it was happening now, and we’re going to have a physiological response to it. If we can have a physiological experience of compassion, softness, or being protected... well, it's an entirely new pathway.
Said another way, the lower brain is collecting information from the higher brain and middle brain as well as our five senses. It does not have the capacity to differentiate between reality and perception. This is why imagination is such a powerful way of working with shame. Through imagination, we have a new physiological response. Imagining something compassionate, protective or kind happening for our younger self can have an effect on our brain that’s quite similar as if it had actually happened for us.
In my work I've been helping clients revisit the original shaming incidents through imagination. By doing so, we can help the child part of them have a new experience of feeling understood, safe or welcome. For example, through imagination we might help the wounded child understand that they did nothing wrong.
This is important because, when we're children and something goes wrong (e.g. parents get divorced, we experience neglect, someone is cruel to us, etc.), our child-brain understanding of why that happened is because "something is wrong with me". We feel the pain and we can't see that it might have been our parent that caused the pain (because our parent is perfect, in our minds), so it must be us. We take "something is wrong with me" as absolute truth, and it becomes a powerful coherent narrative because then it explains (or seems to explain) everything else difficult that follows. If later we're bullied at school, or if we experience body-shaming in the culture, or if we struggle in friendships, it all feels like it's because "something is wrong with me". And we never question it. It just feels true, because we adopted it SO EARLY ON, before we had the capacity to think critically or examine things from other perspectives.
Using imagination to help give the young child the kindness, support, and unconditional love they needed back then allows us to free ourselves from toxic shame. This way of working is very much in line with what I learned from the hakomi therapy community: that we heal not by having new information, but by having new experiences.
In this video, I provide an intro to shame (including examples of how it can show up in our day to day lives) and shame resilience. Shame resilience starts with being able to identify shame and take a step back from it when it arises. Fortunately, shame resilience can start today with tools such as self-compassion. I include one simple idea anyone can try out, starting right now.
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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