Writing about mental health from a feminist counselling perspective
Note: this post was adapted from a newsletter I wrote in November 2019. I usually call this time period “No Work December”, but since this year I won’t be travelling until February, I'll be working until December 18 before taking a break, as a trade off. While I will still be around Edmonton during that time, my plan is not to check email and instead to focus on rejuvenation. Okay, here it is!
As we go into December, I'm winding down with clients for the year. Some of you may be familiar with my inclination to take the month off client work and engage in a mix of travel, other projects, and rest. I started doing this a number of years ago, mostly at the prompting of my parents, who kept telling me "you work too much!". I wanted to share what this means to me. So, why take an entire month off?
I say this often, and it remains true: I want to be doing healing work for another 50 years or so. Each year that passes, I take more seriously what's going to make it possible in the long run. To aim for sustainability, I need to carve out time away where I can remind myself of the other parts of who I am. My work is incredibly important to me, but I can't forget that there are other parts of me that also need attention. This is essential in helping me remain connected to joy and aliveness when I do show up to work, therefore making it sustainable.
I've also found that it's not enough to have a day or two away from the office, because I end up staying in work mode. Having a long break where I'm physically away from the computer and the office for a sustained period allows my brain the mental reset it needs.
2. Living alongside chronic pain
I need to be as healthy as possible in order to show up, be present with clients, and do good work. As someone living alongside chronic pain, this means that my life revolves around my health, not around my work.
This mindset was inspired by business coach Jen Carrington, who, in her weekly letters, speaks about having purposeful space to rest and recharge. I have to remind myself that there are certain compromises that are okay to make — but my health isn't one of them.
3. Aiming for "good enough"
When I first attempted “No Work December” a few years ago, it was because it was getting close to December and I was more tired than I wanted to be. My parents kept telling me that I worked too much, so I had a good conversation with them because I was trying to figure out when “enough” was enough.
I was still new to being self-employed and was having a hard time knowing where the limit was. When have you put in “enough” hours? Made “enough” money? I knew I technically could keep working, but should I? Everyone seemed to do it differently, with some people working a lot over the holidays, and some people not at all. Likewise, some clinicians seemed good with eight clients a day, whereas others drew the line at four. I could continue to do more work, but if I was honest with myself, I was ready to be done for the year. So, I gave myself permission to aim for “good enough” and stop there.
4. Being brave enough to follow my own advice
Most of the encouragement I give clients centers around listening more closely to our bodies and finding some way to give it what it needs. I encourage people all the time to take a pause from doing and let themselves be. Often, this ends up involving gently reminding people that it's okay to take a break from work.
So if I'm reminding everyone in my life to do this, then I absolutely need to be willing to do the same thing. I don't believe boundaries are just for “other” people. And I absolutely know it'd send a pretty weird message if I were to say to my clients “yes, listen to your bodies, take a break from work, but me? No, I'm not going to do that.” If I'm asking everyone else to be brave and deal with the guilt, then I'm going to do it too. I’m going to be brave enough to follow my own advice.
I wanted to share a little bit more about what it means to me to take an entire month off in the hopes that it will encourage you to know that you can also take the time you need. This is especially important for people who are helping professionals, activists, caregivers, educators, and in any other caring role that is particularly vulnerable to vicarious trauma.
If you're in crisis during this time, please contact Drop-in Single Session Counselling or the Edmonton Distress Line (780-482-HELP). If you are a client and your query is related to changing or booking a session, please do so via the Owl Portal.
As a psychologist, one of my practice tenets is that healing trauma is possible. I'm a big believer in our natural resilience, and my goal is to support that resilience—especially because trauma healing is best done with support. November is Family Violence Prevention Month in Alberta, which has the third highest rate of self-reported spousal violence among Canadian provinces, and it’s also National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. This is why in this post I wanted to offer 7 tools to heal the trauma of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV).
1. Somatic Experiencing
Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a gentle, body-based therapy for healing trauma, an approach created by Dr. Peter Levine. The SE worldview is based on the idea that, since trauma is stored in the body, the way to heal it is also through the body, slowly releasing it by working through body sensations.
Professionals with training in SE can use the approach to work with clients whether they are hoping to heal from an acute traumatic incident (such as a sexual assault) or a chronic stressor (such as intimate partner violence). During an SE session, clients are invited to begin with the part of the experience that is least activating for them, known as titration. Then, they slow down and notice what is happening in their body, in order to give it space to process the event, and together with their therapist they name and explore these sensations without judgment. With time and the container of the room, people usually notice that the sensations change and the activation that has been held inside begins to release. All of this happens at the pace of the client and after some grounding practices to help them feel safe have been established.
In my role as a Registered Psychologist trained in SE, I aim to be a guide and a constant reminder that our survival responses are all incredibly adaptive. I recognize that people can be blamed for their experiences and their survival responses, so I help clients work through any leftover shame they may be experiencing for the ways in which their bodies helped them survive. This is also a feminist counselling approach.
2. S.A.F.E. EMDR
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is an evidence-based trauma therapy that allows clients to access and process traumatic experiences. We attend to emotionally disturbing material while doing bilateral stimulation (typically eye movements, though I tend to use tapping or hand buzzers) in order to help move through the event. The goal is for distress to reduce, while new insights around the event can come forward.
In particular, the Somatic And Attachment Focused approach, or S.A.F.E. EMDR, relies on a compassionate relationship and body-based resources to help clients understand and appreciate the adaptations their systems have already made before rather than simply trying to fix them.
3. Reclaiming Pleasure by Holly Richmond
Dr. Holly Richmond is a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as one of North America’s leading sex therapists, with a PhD in Somatic Psychology. Grounded in cutting-edge research, Reclaiming Pleasure. A Sex Positive Guide for Moving Past Sexual Trauma and Living a Passionate Life examines the lasting impacts of sexual trauma, and the somatic and psychological factors at play in recovery. It also offers tools to help you move beyond feelings of shame and cultivate the sense of safety, security and trust needed to rediscover and reclaim pleasure and desire.
4. Sounds Like a Cult - The Cult of Toxic Relationships
Sounds Like a Cult is a comedy podcast about the modern-day “cults” we all follow, with hosts Isa Medina and Amanda Montell. In their episode The Cult of Toxic Relationships, with relationship advice columnist Dan Savage as a guest, they discuss questions like: How are toxic lovers (and friends and bosses) similar to cult leaders? What cult-like tactics do these “charismatic” abusers use to lure people in and make them stay?
5. Changing Contexts Approach
Shift: The Project to End Domestic Violence in partnership with the Engaging Men Learning Collaborative designed the approach Changing Contexts: A Framework for Engaging Male-Oriented Settings in Gender Equality and Violence Prevention – Practitioners’ Guide. Of course, men are victims of domestic violence, too, often silent due to social stigma, and all genders have a role to play in ending gender-based violence and inequality. However, as the authors of this project argue, the gender justice movement cannot be achieved by women or gender-diverse persons alone, and men are critical to shifting environmental cues in male-oriented settings.
This guide outlines ways in which human service professionals can collaborate with people in those specific settings to shift their contextual dynamics towards more prosocial, gender-equitable behaviours. The Changing Contexts approach complements current ‘changing minds’ approaches (e.g., psychoeducational) to engage men in gender equality and violence prevention by highlighting ways that contextual changes can be used to influence behaviour, including changes to social norms, organizational design, sociocultural and physical design.
6. PEACE Resource Protocol
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP) is a therapeutic modality for trauma and attachment issues founded by Dr. Pat Ogden. In this holistic approach (that includes somatic, emotional, and cognitive processing and integration), the body is an integral source of information, which can guide resourcing and the accessing and processing of challenging, traumatic, and developmental experience.
One of the free resources offered by the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute that I found particularly helpful is their PEACE Resource Protocol: 5 Steps to Activate Modulation & Build Resilience, which is offered in their free webinar Building Resilience in Times of War, Violence, and Other Traumatic Events. I’m sharing it below with their permission, and you can also download a PDF for easy printing here.
7. Healing Trauma Toolkit
This is one of my own free resources, so if you’re a regular reader, you might already have it! I've learned a number of tools over the years that I believe are essential in healing trauma, and I share them with my clients often. I draw mostly on the work of Peter Levine and Diane Poole Heller, though they are not the only therapists that have influenced the content of this toolkit.
These tools can help you focus on one of the following:
You can download the PDF here.
I hope these resources will be valuable to you if you need them, or that you can share them with anyone who might. Remember that the Family Violence Info Line in Alberta is 310-1818 for call (toll-free) or text in over 170 languages, and you can also chat online 24/7 for support, information or referrals (in English). Finally, if you or someone you know is in immediate danger, always call 911.
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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