Writing about mental health from a feminist counselling perspective
Let me ask you a question: Have you thought about seeking therapy recently? A sentiment I’ve sometimes heard out there in the general public during the past year is “I can’t change the situation, so what’s the point of talking to someone about it?” If you can relate to that, and you’re wondering how psychologists can help you during a pandemic, please keep reading.
Counselling is not solely reserved as a space for solving problems or changing our circumstances. It can also be a space for seeking comfort, finding new ways of coping, healing emotional wounds, building emotional resilience, getting out of old patterns, feeling seen and understood, and seeing new perspectives. I also want to assure you that therapy isn’t “just talking”. Psychologists and other licensed clinicians are specially trained to do work that goes beyond having a conversation in the way that you would have with a friend. Here are a few of the ways psychologists can help during a pandemic:
Shame reactions to judgment
People have been asking me how to make sense of the increased criticism and judgment they’re seeing within their own communities right now. I think it partly has to do with shame. When we feel judged about our actions, shame reactions can arise. As Nathanson originally described, these shame reactions include self-criticism, withdrawal, denial, and blame.
Let’s imagine a situation where someone feels judged because they decided to send their child to school and a close friend chose not to. Perhaps the friend said something that was ambiguous, and could be seen as judgmental. The person feeling judged might isolate from that friend, numb by drinking more than usual or keeping overly busy, criticize themselves (“I’m obviously failing as a parent, I can’t do anything right”) or blame and criticize the friend (“This is their fault for making me feel this way. What, do they expect me to just stop working?”). The blame can sometimes extend to other people in attempts to separate ourselves from those who are the “real” problem (e.g., “At least I’m not like _______, who is obviously doing the wrong thing”). Psychologists can help you identify your reactions to shame and incorporate compassion-based practices.
Naturally, this is a time of heightened levels of anxiety for all of us. Some people might also be experiencing what’s known as “death anxiety”:
“We are living in a time of extreme insecurity and multiple threats to our existence [...]. Within a few months in 2020 we went from a world in which death was something in the indefinite future for many of us, to a world in which not only our own death but the deaths of millions became an imminent possibility.
A rational response would be to come together and fight for our collective survival. So why are so many people choosing divisiveness instead? Sheldon Solomon, a professor of psychology at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, offers an answer: when reminded of the fact that we die, we double down on our existing beliefs and circle the wagons, regarding anyone outside our cultural group with suspicion.”
Without ignoring the real causes of concern, there are still things we can do to reduce our overall anxiety and panic so that we can be more present and grounded in the moment. I find it’s important to acknowledge how our current stressors have contributed to the way we’re feeling, then take a moment to ask ourselves what might help bring us comfort with the experience of anxiety. Sometimes it might help to have a plan, distract ourselves, and move our bodies, or try out some grounding exercises.
Vaccine hesitancy and the spread of misinformation
The pandemic has brought to the forefront another phenomenon we might not even had heard about before: an infodemic. This saturation of false or misleading information, as we’ve seen, creates confusion and mistrust in authorities, which can be disastrous for public health. However, this also has an impact on a personal level: we might be affected by this confusion ourselves and not know who to trust, or we might struggle with the beliefs held by someone we care about.
Well, psychology has something to say about this! I was really glad to get this article in my inbox from the Psychologists' Association of Alberta last month. I'm looking forward to learning more about how the spread of misinformation happens and the ways we can better help people in our community sort through how to debunk myths so they can make more informed decisions about their health.
Another really interesting article from a psychology perspective is this one published in Forbes. This is a good read if you’re curious about how vaccine hesitancy might relate to the mental blind spots we all have and how we can avoid them. It’s also worth looking at this piece about the influence of US media in our perceptions and beliefs about the pandemic. Maybe it’s a good time to start curating our follows on social media!
When you’re feeling hesitant about any medical information or advice, you might consider asking yourself if there’s a source of trustworthy information you can turn to during this difficult time (e.g., your family doctor, a pharmacist, or an evidence-based source of information online). Here are some non-partisan sites dedicated to combating misinformation that you might be interested in consulting: Science Up First, AFP Canada Fact Check, FactsCan, Snopes, and the app Project Fib for Chrome, which detects fake news on your Facebook feed!
In addition to all the above, psychologists can also help with a ton of other pandemic-related issues like coping with loneliness, relationship issues, dealing with trauma and vicarious trauma, grief, figuring out new boundaries, and so much more.
For those of you who are residents of Alberta and seeking help specifically related to the COVID-19 pandemic, you might try accessing the Disaster Response Network: “Our Disaster Response Network members are offering pro-bono psychological services with priority for health care providers and first responders traumatized by recent events. This is not a crisis line or a referral service but pro-bono support by volunteer psychologists of 1-3 sessions for those in need.”
So far I’ve given you some strategies on how to deal with our shame around productivity and parenting. This time, we’re going to see what to do when you feel shame about food.
It’s very important to know and to remind yourself that there’s no such thing as good foods and bad foods. As most dieticians and psychologists who work with disordered eating will attest to, labeling food as good and bad puts a moralistic value on it that shouldn’t be there. I have a philosophy in my house—one I picked up over years of listening to body trust and intuitive eating experts—that all food is good food. That means ice-cream is good, pancakes are good, avocados are good, chocolate is good. It’s all good.
Maybe you’ve seen this image before, but I find it so useful to help remind you the real differences between good and bad food:
Let’s take one example of food-related shame I sometimes hear. People who are struggling with shame can feel bad about the type of food they ate (let’s say it was extra dessert) or the amount they ate (especially if it was more than they planned). I’ve found that the most common responses when people experience food shame is either to attack themselves or to numb their feelings with more food.
I’ve found a couple ways to interrupt this. If you’re criticizing your food choices, keep in mind that feeling shame is only going to make you feel more stuck. Here’s something very interesting I’ve learned: every time you tell yourself that you shouldn’t eat something, this creates restriction. And the more we restrict? The more we binge. So it’s never really “eating too much” that’s the problem. The issue is in creating restrictive diets and shaming your body when it gets hungry. Caroline Dooner explains all about this and more in her book The F*ck It Diet, if you want to read more on this topic.
If you’re the type to numb out with food instead, you might try practicing mindfulness. Creating a pause between the impulse and the action may give you a moment to notice the emotions that are driving the behavior. If you notice you’re feeling ashamed, you can take care of the shame (through self-compassion, connection, or a number of other shame resilience skills you may already be practicing). If you’re feeling angry, or sad, you can take the time to take care of that too. You might also still choose to eat--the point is slowing down the whole process so that more and more options become available for taking care of painful feelings.
In my last post, I discussed the feeling of shame around productivity and how it generally comes up from this idea that we need to earn our sense of worthiness, of feeling we’re good enough. To continue this series, today I want to talk to you about what to do when you feel shame about your parenting.
You’re going to hear me say it every time, folks. The first step to getting out of a shame spiral is recognizing that you’re in one. So how might you know that you’re experiencing shame about parenting? Let’s say in this case that you accidentally snapped at your kid, and you’re wishing you hadn’t. Maybe the self-critic is showing through, and it’s beating you up for letting your irritation show. Or you could find that the irritation grows, and the blame turns toward your child (e.g., “They’re being such little monsters! Why can’t they ever listen to me?”) or your co-parent (“They only act this way because you’re so lenient with them!”). Some people might instead withdraw, concerned that if they let someone else know what’s going on, they’ll be judged even further. And other people might deny or brush off their behavior because it’s embarrassing to admit to (e.g., “It wasn’t so bad”). These are common reactions to shame and they’re often our best cue that we’re caught up in it.
When you recognize a shame spiral in the midst of it happening, it’s a good time to pause, take a step out of whatever room you’re in, and go find a quiet space to attend to your feelings. Yes, that’s right. I’m giving you permission to close your bedroom door, or lock yourself in the bathroom for a few minutes, or go on a walk, or whatever you need to do in order to have a few moments of compassionate space to yourself. Even if you have a crying baby or child in the other room and all you can manage is to take a few breaths. It’s going to help you, your child, and your relationship with them if you can take just 10 seconds to start making your way out of the shame spiral.
I’m always a fan of using self-soothing and self-compassion strategies first, and looking at things from a cognitive perspective later. So please, I encourage you to do what you need in the moment to bring kindness to yourself in the difficult situation you’re experiencing.
After that, it might help to remind yourself that we don’t need to be perfect parents in order to have good, healthy relationships with our children. I love how Diane Poole Heller puts it:
“The perfect parent does not exist, nor does it need to. According to developmental psychologist Edward Tronick, even exceptional parents are only 20-30 percent attuned to their children, but even this amount of attunement can lead to Secure Attachment if parents are willing to repair the ruptures that occur between them and their children.”
I love sharing this information with clients. 30%? I think most of the parents I know are aiming for 90% and then feeling terrible when something inevitably gets messed up. I love understanding that we can repair when things go wrong. This is also where shame resilience comes in. The more we see ourselves as bad parents and stay caught in shame, the harder it becomes to do anything about our mistakes. If you can see yourself as someone who’s doing the best they can, and who might make mistakes sometimes along the way, then you’ll also be better able to take actions to fix those mistakes. In this way, we can start to separate our actions (which may not always be perfect, even when we’re trying our best) from our identity as a person.
I talk a lot about shame and how to deal with it--in fact, in case you’re new here, I have an online course called Shame Resilience Skills. This will be the first of a series of posts where I will discuss shame specifically in relation to different things that can come up in our lives. So, to start, let’s talk about what to do when you feel shame about your productivity.
The first step to reducing shame in any situation is always to recognize it. Say to yourself “I am in a shame spiral about productivity”, or “I am getting caught up in all the messages about my productivity being tied into my worth”. Remind yourself that this is shame talking.
If you’re ready to explore shame about productivity in greater depth, you might want to ask yourself where you first learned that you needed to do more in order to feel good enough. A lot of the time, the way that this works begins with an experience where something bad happens in our lives. For example, we are bullied, or a parent is neglectful, or we experience another type of hardship. But the child brain doesn’t know how to make sense of these difficult events and, at a young age, is very, very egocentric. What this means is that a child believes everything happens to them because of their own doing. So if something bad happens, a child believes it must have been because of something they did or didn’t do. A child’s understanding of why abuse or neglect happened might be “It’s because I’m not good enough”. They’re not able to see the bigger picture of why a parent would be neglectful or someone would be abusive toward them and realize that it has nothing to do with them. Instead, they accept the idea that it’s because they are not good enough as a fact.
Because feeling not good enough is so uncomfortable, we as children will do what it takes to get away from this feeling. If we truly believe at our core that we’re not good enough, then what makes sense in order to cope with that? Children try to “be better” in ways like increasing their productivity and achievements at school, or by being more likeable and pleasing in their families and in their relationships. They do everything they can in order to earn a sense of worthiness. What the child doesn’t realize is that they never had to earn it to begin with.
This is your reminder now – you don’t have to earn your worthiness. It’s okay to put down your projects, close your laptop, and rest for the day.
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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