Writing about mental health from a feminist counselling perspective
One of the biggest sources of emotional resentment is being in a caregiving role and not knowing how to say no when we need to. It’s incredibly important to learn how to set (and stick with!) our boundaries.
I hear so many people talk about how tough it is to set boundaries, especially when it’s with someone you care deeply about. If you love someone who is struggling with mental health issues, you can probably relate to feeling the gamut of emotions: tired, annoyed, overwhelmed, fed up, sad, ashamed, and alone. You might feel responsible for the person’s behaviors, or guilty when there’s tension in the relationship. You might feel like you’ve been a caregiver for a long time, so you’re trying to figure out how to support the person you care about without becoming the therapist yourself.
If you’ve been aware of your more uncomfortable feelings and you recognize that you’re on the path to burnout, you might have already recognized your need to step back. So what happens if, when you finally set boundaries, you get pushback?
How to deal with pushback when you set boundaries
First, let me just say, I can just imagine how tough that is. I think most of us imagine our ideal scenarios when we go to set boundaries for the first time. “The person will totally understand! They will accept my boundary and we’ll move forward! It will be a one-time conversation!” Unfortunately, I’ve come to realize that the ideal scenario is often not how it plays out, even with people who love us and want what’s best for us. It can take time to adjust to new situations, even for people who want to and are willing to work with us.
But let’s put our curious hats on and find out a little bit more about the type of pushback you’re on the receiving end of:
Sticking with the boundary you set after you receive pushback is uncomfortable, especially for people who are used to pleasing others. If you think the person you’re caring for can grow with you, then I might encourage you to focus on trying to tolerate the discomfort of sticking with it. Many people slide back into giving all they have at the first sign of discomfort in a relationship because they’re concerned that the other person won’t be able to handle it, when in reality what they’re seeing is that the other person is taking time to adjust. It’s okay to give reminders of what you’re willing and able to provide – you can even do this in a way that is compassionate to both you and the other person. You may also need to show through your behaviors that you’re committed to following through on the boundaries you’ve set out.
If, on the other hand, you’re dealing with someone who simply isn’t willing to accept that you have needs of your own, then you might need to take a different tack. Beyond setting and sticking with your boundaries, you might be dealing with the grief of realizing the relationship can never be as reciprocal as you’d hoped. You might be working on how to cope with guilt-tripping, or learning how to take a further step back from a relationship that’s no longer serving you. Remember that it’s okay to leave relationships you’ve outgrown. You’re allowed to do what’s best for you.
*Originally posted on PsychCentral as an expanded version of an earlier post.
A few months ago I was facing some tension with an acquaintance (caused entirely by his unwillingness to hear my very reasonable “no” to his request), when I caught myself in a dangerous thought.
The stress of having tension between us was really getting to me, and I found myself thinking, “maybe I should just compromise after all, to make it easier”.
In other words, maybe I should just say yes to his request, in order to escape the tension and stress that had resultantly arisen. And then, here comes the epiphany. I was about to say yes simply for the fact that someone I barely knew had guilt-tripped me about saying no. That wasn’t compromising. That was conceding.
My mind was blown. And I started to wonder - have I been using the wrong definition of compromise for my entire life? My thoughts started racing, and I actually had to look up the definition of compromise on the spot (or, Siri looked it up for me). As it turns out, a compromise is when both sides give a little in order to find a mutually acceptable arrangement. There is nothing – absolutely nothing – I would have gained from giving into this situation.
Conceding, which is what I was doing, involves losing so that the other person can win. It means to surrender or yield something to another. The first truth about conceding in the situation I just described is that it would have had zero benefit to me.
But was that a good enough reason to say no?
Many of us who’ve been socialized as female are taught to believe that other people’s needs and desires are more important than ours. We’re taught that our role is to keep things running smoothly, and make sure to do everything in our power to reduce tension.
For many women I work with, this means being the one to silently give up our own wants and desires, or never name them in the first place. Directly or indirectly, we might have been taught that talking about what we want is selfish, rude, or (*gasp!*) unladylike. And while some of us might not consciously think about it this way, those deep-seated beliefs often play out in our most important relationships. For example, in any intimate relationships, have you ever….
Of course, we all have experiences at times in our lives where we give up some of what we desire for the greater good of the relationship, or because it fits a larger, long-term goal. (In other words – compromise!) The difficulty is when we consistently concede within a relationship context that isn’t give and take. As women, we often do so because we’ve been socialized to think everyone else should come first. We’ve been taught to feel guilty when we say no, and made to feel as though just because we can do someone a favor, we should.
I’ve gotten to a place in my life where I’ve recognized it’s okay to ask for what I need, and it’s okay to say no. I’m not going around creating unnecessary tension, but I’m not going to go out of my way and do myself a disservice just to make someone else happy.
Now, some people might be thinking, in the example I started with, I might not gain anything materially, but perhaps I would gain some goodwill with this person, and in the future they’ll be more likely to go out of their way to help me. It’s a nice thought, but it turns out to be rooted entirely in wishful thinking.
In my own life, this wishful thinking has mostly shown up in my relationships with men, both close to me and not so close. I remember as a teen and young woman giving a lot to relationships with men, with the very naïve belief that everything I gave would eventually be returned in kind, and that we were all working toward a reciprocal connection. It turned out what they really wanted was for me to keep giving in the way I was giving without question.
I think a lot of us can get caught up in the wishful thinking that eventually all our giving will be returned in kind. So let me reiterate something from above about the scenario I first described – he was guilt-tripping me for saying no. I was now dealing with tension and stress because I said no. Does that sound like the kind of person who is going to be appreciative if I make a sacrifice? Who is going to want to be generous in the future? I can tell you from experience both in my own life and in the lives of my clients, it isn’t. I’ve made sacrifices before, in the hopes of building a relationship of goodwill and reciprocity. It doesn’t work unless both people are willing to be generous, and make compromises that are mutually beneficial.
So the next time you catch yourself thinking of making a “compromise”, ask yourself, is there mutual give and take here? Is this a relationship of reciprocity? Or am I just giving in because I’ve been taught that other people’s needs are more important than mine?
Sometimes people find themselves dealing with low mood, inability to get motivated, irritability, and a feeling like they can’t get anything done at work. If this has ever happened to you, you might wonder “Is this depression or is it burnout? Are they the same thing?” They share some of the same symptoms including exhaustion, difficulty sleeping, withdrawal from social activities, concentration problems, irritability, and low mood, so it’s not surprising it can be hard to differentiate the two.
I thought it might be helpful to write about some of the similarities and differences. Before I begin, I’d like to remind you that if you’re experiencing mental health symptoms, you should consult with your family doctor, psychologist, or other licensed mental health professional for individualized assessment and advice. Although I love sharing ideas through my writing, I can only offer so much nuance through a general blog. This is very different from ongoing and personalized care with someone who knows your situation and knows you.
So, how are they different?
As a feminist psychologist, I work hard with clients to look at the context that leads to our mental health struggles. For both depression and burnout, I see these issues as largely impacted by the context we’re living in. One difference would be in the types of experiences and situations that most often put us at risk.
When clients are dealing with depression, we might explore some of the current or past experiences that could be contributing to it. For example, childhood neglect, trauma, loneliness and isolation, and shaming experiences could be seen as contributing factors. Johann Hari has an incredible book called “Lost Connections” on the contextual factors that contribute to depression. In it, he identifies disconnection as the primary source of depression. Specifically, he talks about disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from others, disconnection from meaningful values, disconnection from status, disconnection from nature, disconnection from a secure and hopeful future. He also writes about childhood trauma, changes in the brain, and genetic factors. This falls in line with the widely accepted biopsychosocial model, which suggests that some people have risk factors such as genetic predisposition, and it also ascertains that there are many factors both in our histories, current personal circumstances, and the more global context that can lead a person to experiencing depression.
Unlike depression, which can be related to many factors, burnout is primarily related to our work. In fact, it’s defined this way. As of 2019, burnout was recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) and included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon (WHO, 2019). Burnout differs from other mental health disorders because it is tied directly into a person’s relationship with their work.
What we can do about burnout
Because burnout is defined this way, it means that people who are experiencing burnout and are able to take a break or extended leave from work will likely start to feel better. Of course, it takes time to recover, and we need to be patient with ourselves through the recovery process. But, largely, removing yourself from the situation that has made you feel unwell will start to bring relief. Working through depression, on the other hand, isn’t as straightforward as leaving a job or taking a break.
If you think you might be experiencing burnout, you could ask yourself some of the following questions:
I’d also encourage you to watch my mini course on How to Prevent Burnout, because I share the definition of burnout, the workplace-related causes of it, and some ideas of what you can do to prevent it (other than just quitting your job!)
Footnote: Hari’s book, in my opinion, can come across as a bit anti-medication. I wanted to note that this is not my stance, and I don’t want to further stigmatize or shame the pathways that work for people. I’m supportive of what works best for my clients, which sometimes involves medication, and sometimes does not.
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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