Writing about mental health from a feminist counselling perspective
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.
As the weather continues to shift, I’m having more conversations about coping with the change of season. Especially, I’m having conversations about how as it gets colder and darker, our routines of care and connection can be thrown off. For example, you might be one of many people who used to go for a morning run or bikeride but who are now finding it too chilly to do so. Maybe you used to walk your dog at night after the kids were in bed but it’s too dark now. Or, maybe you used to get your social connection by hanging out with friends at the lake but now that’s just not happening anymore. You might be one of many people who’s missing out on time in connection with your body, with nature, and with others.
So, what to do? I think we can take a moment to notice these changes and the effect they have on our mood. These are especially profound for anyone already dealing with a mood disorder like anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder. Then, we can ask ourselves how else we might be able to go about fulfilling these needs, even imperfectly.
Time in connection with your body:
• Massage lotion into your body
• Stretch every morning
• Have a dance party in your living room
• Go for a nature walk
• Listen to your discomfort and name it
• Use your breath to bring your attention inward
• Use mindfulness to notice your body’s needs (and meet them)
Time in connection with nature:
• Look outside and notice one thing that you like
• Open a window and smell the air
• Open the door and take 5 breaths (yes, chilly breaths!)
• Walk around the block
• Play in the backyard with your animal
• Sit on your balcony and drink coffee
• Collect leaves and bring them into your home
• Water indoor plants
Connection with others:
• Write handwritten letters or cards
• Read the same book as a friend or family member and share your thoughts
• Play a game together or share a drink over video
• Go sledding, snowshoeing, cross country skiing, snowboarding, or skating
• Go for a physically distanced walk in nature
• Sit around a firepit together and have some hot chocolate
Photo credit: Mateusz Salaciak on Pexels
Boundaries are all about being in touch with what our head, heart, and body are telling us, so in this way, it’s not at all about giving other people ultimatums. And at the same time, some of you have probably noticed that when you’re in relationships with other people, what you need on a deep level may come into conflict with what someone else needs on a deep level. The hard news is that even when there are good people involved who are trying their best, having conflicting needs can be a deal breaker. If your boundary is not being in relationship with someone who is actively using, and the person you’ve just started dating is in the throws of addiction – or even a casual user with no plans on quitting, this might not work out. If you’re polyamorous and your partner requires exclusivity, it’s hard to imagine a path ahead where you’re both satisfied. If one person knows they want children and the other absolutely doesn’t, this could mean that the relationship is not going to last.
Now, the other option is to see whether collaboration is possible. I met a woman in a 20 year marriage who originally wanted to have children, but decided when she met her husband that she wanted the relationship with him more. I met a man who chose to give up recreational use of a particular illicit substance because it was a deal-breaker for his wife, and it wasn’t that important to him.
If you ask for something you NEED (let’s say: to live in the same city as someone you’re dating), and the other person isn’t willing or able to give you that, then it’s a signal to end the relationship. Not because either of you did anything wrong – but your fundamental needs in relationship are different. If you ask for something you WANT (let’s say, to be with someone who will join rec leagues with you), and the other person isn’t willing or able to give you that, then you get to decide if continuing in the relationship still feels worth it, and if so, how you can both get your needs met around recreation. What you don’t get to do is demand that your partner give you what you want or need. You don’t get to shame them into giving in, you don’t get to use manipulation or coercion, and you don’t get to load them with emotional consequences if they don’t comply. Your partner remains an autonomous, whole person, with boundaries of their own.
A helpful question we can ask ourselves is “is this a request, or a demand?” In relationships, we’re free to make requests of each other, and that means we have the right to say yes or no to these requests. What’s not okay is making demands of our partners. “If you love me, you’d…” Trust that this will never, ever work out in your favor, no matter how much your partner loves you.
I work with all sorts of people in all sorts of relationships. I have seen a wide variety of monogamous and non-monogamous relationships, and there doesn’t seem to be one particular boundary that makes for success or failure.
Where I have seen it fail is when one or more people are saying “I’m okay with this” while, on a bodily, emotional level, it’s clear they’re not. When you push past your own needs and do what you think you “should” be able to, whether for someone else or for some moral ideal, this leads to a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering. So, I’ll state my belief in the idea of relationship orientations. I know as we study this, there will be more and more development in this area, but what I understand of it is based on my experience with clients and some basic reading. It seems to me that some people are simply wired for monogamy, and can’t function within a non-monogamous situation. It seems there are some people who are wired for polyamory, and feel stifled within the confines of a monogamous situation. It seems there are also people who may be more inclined toward one or the other, but can adapt based on the strength of the relationship, the importance of that person in their life, and a number of other factors. Now, I have a very biased sample (people attending therapy) but I seem to keep running across people who are wired one way and practicing another. For example, I’ve seen a number of clients who’ve adopted an open relationship because, on a theoretical level, they agree with the principles, but when it comes down to actually doing it, their body and emotional selves are screaming “no!”. I’ve seen people who’ve found themselves struggling to make it work in a monogamous relationship, even though on some level they have always felt it wasn’t right for them, but this is what their partner wants. I see these people trying to make it work to the best of their abilities, and I so appreciate that willingness to come to the table and do what we can for relationship. But there comes a time when we have to differentiate between willingness to collaborate and stepping over our own needs.
The kind of boundaries that work best are the ones where we’re deeply in touch with ourselves in the present moment, finding a way to honour what’s true for us. It’s not about forcing the person we’re with to change who they are so we can be with them, or forcing ourselves to change in order to make a relationship last. It’s noticing what’s true, and then acting accordingly. As Steve Almond said once, “You have a right to assert what you really need and want in a relationship, and as difficult as it is, you have to seek it from a person who is willing to give you that.”
I get this question a lot in therapy, in one form or another. "What boundaries am I allowed to set?" might come out as "What is it okay to ask for?" or "Are boundaries selfish?". Really, people are asking, "what should I do?" And here's my answer:
It depends. It depends, most of all, on YOU.
What that means is that there's no one right answer, and no one path fits all. So the process of therapy actually becomes about starting to listen to your own wisdom. Listening to all the parts of you (mind, body, and emotion) that tell you exactly what nourishes you, what doesn't, what feels worth the risk, what isn't, and where your values lie.
Let’s break this down a little further – boundaries in relationships will show up in a number of different categories, including financial, sexual, physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and time.
So for example, some of us need to have it be discussed anytime money comes out of the joint account. Other people aren’t comfortable having joint accounts at all.
Some people need sexual exclusivity in their relationship, while others may have an “as long as you’re safe” open policy. All of us are comfortable with certain forms of touch, sexual or otherwise, and not comfortable with others. For example, I have clients who aren’t okay with physical touch when they’re feeling overwhelmed and anxious, so the physical limit here is defined by an emotional state. I have clients who aren’t comfortable with touch in public spaces, so the limit in this case is defined by the environment. I have clients who’ve experienced sexual violence and certain kinds of touch are too triggering for them, at least at this point in time. There the physical limit has to do with particular parts of the body. Likewise, many of my trans* clients experiencing dysphoria find touch on certain areas of their body to be quite triggering.
Boundaries can also be related to privacy. We all need to feel that we can cover our bodies when we need to, and if nude beaches are a good indicator, for some people that’s less often than others. Bancroft points out that “even when we are dressed, we have the right not to be looked at in ways that feel invasive” (page 94). At the swimming pool, while we’re working, or on the street, I’d wager a guess that most of us have felt the discomfort of an unwanted gaze. Some couples are fine with showering together or using the bathroom while the other person is in the room, while others lock the door, requiring their privacy. Some people are happy sharing their email passwords and letting their partners check their text messages, while others like to keep things separate.
Time boundaries can relate to how much time the people in the relationship can commit to each other, how much time they need alone, and how much time their willing and able to give to any other relationships or outside commitments. Time boundaries can also serve to protect your relationship. You might choose to commit time to each other by carving out intention space - for example “for this hour that we’re at dinner, we’re not going to check our phones”. It can involve making a scheduled time for dates and a time for checking in/working through issues.
In terms of emotional boundaries, we all have the right to experience our own feelings, and to do so without judgment. This may seem obvious but I think it’s worth stating here, because I have had so many clients be told by abusive partners that their feelings are wrong or otherwise inappropriate. I want to highlight that how we process these feelings within a relationship can be quite unique. For example, some people need time to process their emotions, while others are ready to talk right away. Some people need to soothe their emotions through calming activities like baths and meditation, while others need to work through difficult experiences through more physically active means like painting, running, dancing, or singing. Some people find that they get angry when others tell them what they’re feeling, and don’t want anyone but them to define what’s happening in their heart.
Spiritual boundaries relate to any practices or beliefs that connect us with hope and belonging. These can be connected with religious institutions, or not. I’ve met people who need to be in relationship with someone who shares their faith. I’ve met couples who don’t mind having different religions as long as there is always a shared respect between them. Some couples may find it important to be able to have hope-building practices as a family, while others require time alone to explore their faith.
Any boundary is acceptable if it’s not hurting you or hurting the other person. Now, this still leave room for practices like BDSM and other consensual pain practices if that’s a thing that you and the people you’re doing it with are into.
I think what this comes down to is that it’s okay for all of us to ask for what we need in relationship (see caveat above). What’s not okay is telling other people how they’re supposed to be. It’s not okay to put our own values onto someone else as if there’s only one right away of being. That means it’s not okay to tell people we’re in relationship (or in any way imply) that their boundaries are wrong. It means we don’t have the right to tell people what to do with their bodies (eg., grooming practices like shaving, what kinds of foods to eat, whether or not they should be exercising, etc), their emotions, or their lives.
If we go back to the original question around “what are acceptable boundaries to have in relationships?”, I think what some people are really wondering is “what am I allowed to ask for?” So how about this. You can ask for anything in relationship (as long as it’s not hurting yourself or the other person). My clients often worry about this, fearing they’re not allowed to ask for words of reassurance, or that it’s not okay to discuss what turns them on, or to request checking in with each other when one of you is away. They fear they’re being too needy, or asking too much. You get to ask for all of these things, and more. I actually encourage it – without these kind of conversations about what we like, what supports us, and what feels good, we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of disappointment and resentment. So let me say that again: you get to ask for all these things. And then – here’s the important part - you have to respect the answer.
Note: This article was originally published on "The Anti Hustle Project".
When I first joined Instagram, I came across some ads about growing my social media following and building my list, directing me to "get 10,000 followers now!" The ads usually featured women with a trendy yet relatable vibe, and I’ll admit it – I clicked. Getting 10,000 followers was appealing on some level, and if other women in the helping field were doing it, maybe I could too. I even signed up for a free webinar on growing my list. As a result of that one click, IG started showing me more of those types of ads, some of which I’d pause upon, until before long those were all the ads I saw. And the result? It absolutely made me feel not enough. I felt more anxious and caught up in getting likes than I ever had.
After that initial click, I probably had 2-3 solid weeks of staying up late, sitting on my phone, liking and following account after account on IG. It’s not that I was spending more than an hour or so in a day. But when you run a business and have a rambunctious 3-year old, there aren’t many hours in a day to work with. When all of my “Nicole time” was taken up with trying to get more followers, it really did have an impact. I was ignoring my body (it wanted to move!) my heart (it wanted to connect) and my mind (it wanted to read). And each night I’d slide into bed a little more tired and a little more hopeless about the mountain in front of me.
The worst part was how anxious and unsatisfied I felt. This really threw me because I’ve done a lot of work on self-worth. I make a point of not exposing myself to advertisement and staying out of the comparison trap. I’ve moved away from spaces and people who make me feel insecure and moved toward those that embrace me in all of my humanness. It’s sometimes strange to say it out loud, but I really like who I am and the work that I’m doing. I absolutely still make mistakes and know I have a lot to learn, but at the core I’m pretty solid.
Of course, it was no real surprise that when I was constantly exposed to this messaging, it got harder to scroll on by. I got caught up. But it was so not like me to feel this way that I had to take a second look and really think about what I was doing.
I know for some industries, having a strong platform and following might be important. I was definitely feeling the pressure of getting thousands of followers, but did I need thousands of followers? Honestly, for me at that point, no. I have a full practice and a strong local community. So why was I feeling like what I was doing wasn’t enough? I blame hustle culture.
Hustle culture goes beyond simply reaching your target audience. It pushes us to always be doing more, striving for higher numbers, and never feel satisfied with where things are. It had me tying my self worth into the number of likes I got and that’s a losing game.
Hustle culture seems to operate out of a scarcity model. In other words, there’s this sense that there’s not enough to go around, and so if you’re going to be successful, you need to “hustle hard” to get it. This, from my perspective, encourages three problematic things:
1. feeling like nothing you do is enough;
2. acting overconfident; and
3. using pressure sales
Feeling Like Nothing You Do is Enough
I’ve already talked about not feeling like I could do enough. It was a totally unsatisfying way of being. I was completely disconnected from gratitude, and I wasn’t doing the things that would actually nourish me on a deeper level. I had to give up the anticipation of one more follower and invest in the things that actually made me feel good, in a real way.
As for acting overconfident, I see this a lot in my field. New therapists can be all too eager to prove their worth and build their practices. They end up volunteering for complex cases and a broad range of issues that may not truthfully be in their scope. The more I work in this field, the more I realize the importance of knowing our own limitations. I may want to help and be keen to learn, but that’s not the same as having the relevant training and years of experience that more complex cases truly require. It’s not the same as having the time and energy to give to each person. I now know that I’m not always the best option for each client, and that’s part of recognizing my scope as a Psychologist. I don’t say this to be humble – I say it because I’ve learned.
Using Pressure Sales
As a helping professional in a position of power, it’s important to me not to use pressure sales or convince people that they need to work with me. I’m one option, but I’m not the only one, and I believe part of truly informed consent needs to involve being clear about what we’re offering and the limitations of it, rather than trying to overhype ourselves or act as if there aren’t similar services out there. I believe in being really cautious about the influence I’m having on people and being very mindful about my use of power. I'm here to provide a safe, confidential place for the people who want to work with me. I’m not here to tell people what the right path for them is.
The more I thought about it, the further away from hustle culture I wanted to get. I have some clients who are entrepreneurs and I’d never tell them to hustle hard. And as clients accessing my services, I’d certainly never want them to feel hustled. So why are we uplifting hustle culture as if it’s something to strive for?
I found an alternative that worked for me. I started with embracing slow growth and being satisfied with “good enough”. I also had to situate myself back in the abundance model – the belief that there are enough clients to go around for everyone. The abundance model helps remind us that we don't need to trample over our own boundaries or convince others that they need our services. Rather than hustling to compete and prove our worth, we can work to collaborate, build community, and do good work that speaks for itself.
I also had to surround myself with more people who feel the way I do to help remind myself of this. I surrounded myself with others who believe in a feminist approach to marketing, which I think is much more relational and community-minded. Natalia Amari reminded me of this and I owe her a debt for that.
Oh and did I gain 10,000 followers in this process of figuring all this out? No, I didn’t. But I’m less caught up in feeling like that has to happen now or I’m a total failure. I’ve re-embraced slow growth and I’ve started to feel more grounded in the work I’m putting out there as a therapist and writer. That feels like something to be proud of.
I know that so many parents are currently overwhelmed. I’ve talked to a lot of people who are suddenly finding themselves in a situation where they’re asking to be both a full-time worker and a full-time parent (sometimes single parent), and honestly, I just don’t know how this is possible. I’ve been so lucky that when the pandemic hit, my partner and I had what amounted to a 2-minute heart to heart on what we’d do about childcare. Me: “So…. You cool with going back to being the stay at home dad?” Him: “Oh yeah. That’s what I figured we’d do because it’s the only thing that makes sense.” And that was the end of that. She’s not at Kindergarten age yet so there’s no homework to be done, nothing special to keep up with. Not that it’s easy for him to do the parenting all day – but for us it’s at least it’s restricted to parenting, and not all these other tasks that other parents are trying to juggle. Most parents we know haven’t had it so easy. Usually they’re still working while also trying to figure out how to take care of the kiddos at the same time. And figuring out school expectations, and homework, and related technology.
I have a lot of compassion for the position this puts parents in because as as great as you might be at grade 3 math, you are not a math teacher. And on the off chance you are (oh hi!), you’re probably not your own kid’s math teacher, right? I learned this lesson very quickly when I took my daughter to gymnastics lessons this year. (So. Much. Fun. For me and for her). After a few weeks of official, totally fun lessons, I asked her if she wanted to do some of the skills at home one day, and she had an enthusiastic yes. This had me pretty excited because I love gymnastics and the idea of cartwheeling around together just seemed great. So we started to practice her forward rolls, and not 2 minutes in…. “THAT’S NOT HOW YOU DO IT MAMA!” She was frustrated enough to be stomping away. Apparently I was helping her “wrong” and that’s why her roll had gone sideways. No amount of explaining that I was doing it exactly the same way her teacher had done it (I watched) or that I’d done gymnastics for years before was helpful. I figured out that day that my job as her mama was to cheer her on from behind the glass wall (“you worked so hard! I’m proud of you!”) and not at all to try to give her feedback on how it could be better or teach her these particular skills. I’ll leave that up to the professionals. Who she does not stomp away from.
An update to this story. These days, we’re doing gymnastics videos from home. She still learns from the teacher, and I still watch with much cheering, very minimal interference. Once in awhile, I’ll ask her “do you want my help with this one?” and that’s been okay, but I offer it sparingly, because I still know that if I take on too much of the teacher role, it’ll be frustrating for both of us. I keep reminding myself that the point is for her to have fun, and as long as she’s not doing anything wildly dangerous, I really don’t need to step in. It’s not my job to make sure she has a perfect handstand. She’s 5. It doesn’t matter.
For those of you doing office-based work or work with clients, I know there can be a real tendency to work the whole day through without a break, continue working until the project is done, and be available to answer email or calls at all hours. With a lot of people working from home right now, the boundaries between work and home might feel even more blurry than usual, and it can be tough to turn “off” at the end of the work day. Some people are having a hard time separating from the work, and some people feel guilty when they do.
The idea of setting boundaries related to work can feel daunting, and sometimes people aren’t sure where to start, so I thought I’d share some ideas to help get you thinking about the types of ways you might begin to listen to your own needs. You’ll notice that I focused mostly on physical boundaries, and mostly on boundaries that I hope will be under your control, at least to some degree. I know every workplace is different (for example, not every job allows for an hour lunchbreak, or breaks at set times), so please adapt as you need to, with the spirit of the suggestion in mind.
If you do catch yourself thinking “I can’t do that at my work”, I do invite you to pause and make sure that you actually can’t. There are real barriers at work, and I completely understand that we all have to work within these limitations. Sometimes, it may the case that we’ve never thought to ask ourselves or the people in charge if it could be different. I often think back to when my dietician recommended that I have a small snack every few hours and I told her I couldn’t because I saw clients back-to-back. She asked me if I could talk to my boss about the client schedule to see if we could make it work, and of course, I had to laugh. I’m self-employed. So I know I’m particularly fortunate to be my own boss, and yet even I had trouble seeing what was possible, simply because there’s a way things had always been done.
Transitioning from Work to Home:
Some of these ideas are harder than to implement than others, and even that could be different for each person. I’m a big fan of picking one thing that seems like a small challenge but still doable, and giving it a go. You can always add more from there, when you’re ready.
I had so much fun doing the recent webinars on boundary foundations that I decided to create a 5 minute video on boundaries too. In it I cover how setting boundaries is about listening to your emotional and physical needs, and I talk about finding a way of honoring those needs.
The importance of naming, without judgment, our emotions. We can bring compassion to our experience and make space for complexity in this difficult time.
I’ve been offering video sessions for years now, and so when I made the move to mostly telehealth services this week, I knew I’d be in my comfort zone. I already know what wonderful connections can be made this way, and the deep work that can be done. As a somatic practitioner, I’ve been pleased to receive reminders about the ways we can work with the body. It feels like so much is possible. I know we wouldn’t have chosen the situation we’re in now, but given what’s going on, I’ve been thinking of a few of the benefits to telehealth services, and wanted to share what I came up with.
1. Accessibility: I’ve always thought that telehealth would be ideal for people who are otherwise unable to come into the office but still want to prioritize their mental health and access services. It could be transportation issues like you’re in a small Albertan town and the commute is just a bit too far, or you’re here in Edmonton winter and the roads are not worth driving on, or you don’t have access to a reliable vehicle but you still want to access services. I also think about accessibility in terms of chronic pain where sometimes it’s better not to leave the house because you’re more able to take care of yourself at home, and part of taking care of yourself is still having a session. Or maybe you’re sick and staying at home to take care of your health and the health of others, but you really still wanted to connect about that anxiety and depression you’re working through. Or, you’re taking care of young children and today you have no other childcare options. For me, this one is all about reducing barriers.
2. Comfort: Some people really like having the comforts of home around them – like an important animal, a blanket they can curl up with, and being in their most relaxed clothes. When our nervous system can begin from a more settled place, there’s already room for more of a shift to occur. When we’re done the session, you can stay in that comfort and continue to relax into it, rather than worry about dealing with traffic on your commute home.
3. Bravery: This one’s kind of interesting. Over video, sometimes people find themselves able to be a bit braver with what they share or are willing to try out. I’m not sitting in the room staring straight at you (okay, I try not to do that anyway), and sometimes that bit of distance allows people to feel like they can actually be more vulnerable. Also when I invite people to do something they feel silly about, they can move offscreen to do it. Tada!
4. Integration: Sometimes people feel like my office is a magical place where they can self-regulate and feel their boundaries and all sorts of good stuff, but have a hard time translating those skills to home. Doing a session from your home space may allow you to embody self-regulation and other skills into areas of your life that you’re most hoping to take them into.
In light of Alberta being in a declared state of public health emergency, I have made an update in my policies on seeing clients in person at this time. I am deeply confident that we all want to take care of each other at this time and in this spirit, I'm now moving to video as my preference for connecting with clients, with in-person appointments reserved only for those unable to find a private and secure space to connect from. I am also reserving a few spots for those actively engaged in EMDR, who desire to continue meeting in person. Please email me directly if you would like one of these spots to be reserved for you. I have been thoughtful in making this move. Given our current situation with COVID-19, I'm anticipating that this will be a long term solution rather than a short term fix. It looks like this will be our new normal for a few months at least.
I am happy to offer online sessions via Doxy, a confidential online telehealth platform. I often do online sessions for clients if a need arises, and believe I can confidently offer my support through these means.
I recognize that this may feel like a daunting time for some of you. I appreciated your understanding of the importance of collective effort.
There are a few things to keep in mind with any technology that I do want to remind everyone of:
• It is important to be in a quiet, private space that is free of distractions (including cell phone or other devices) during the session.
• It is important to use a secure internet connection rather than free/public WiFi.
• You may want to use earbuds/headphones to help with privacy and reduce feedback noise.
• Confidentiality still applies to online services, so no one is to record the session.
• It can help to make sure you're prepared ahead of time as much as possible by making sure you have a power cord, testing out your camera and microphone etc. At the same time, technology isn't perfect. Therefore, a telephone backup may need to be used, which can result in a temporary disruption to the session and some reduced effectiveness in communication.
To connect at our scheduled meeting time, simply login to my “waiting room” (I'll send you the link), type in your name, and wait for me to begin the session. It’s helpful if you’re able to arrive there 5-10 minutes in advance of the session in order to make sure that your audio/visual is working. If you’re connecting via a laptop, you won’t need to download anything, though if you’re using a tablet or mobile, you may need to download an app.
If Doxy is down, I will send you a Zoom link in order to connect. Zoom is also free to use, but it does require a download, so you may want to do this in advance.
If the case of all technology failure, I will call you. Please ensure that I have your current phone number on file.
What Our Office is Doing - A Note from Transcend and Blossom
In an effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19 we are taking extra precautions at the office by:
• Disinfecting door knobs, chairs, desks, other touchable surfaces throughout the day in individual offices and common areas.
• The building is also taking extra disinfecting measures throughout the day including placing hand sanitizer dispensers at points of entry to the main building.
• Removing magazines / puzzle books from the waiting room. Until further notice please bring your own entertainment.
• Reducing the availability of beverages and snacks in the waiting area, so as to discourage common contact points.
To protect yourself and others, we encourage the following guidelines from Alberta Health Services:
• Use good hygiene practices such as frequent and thorough hand washing
• Cover coughs and sneezes
• Avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
• Stay at home and away from others if you are feeling ill
If you have symptoms such as fever, cough, or shortness of breath, please do not go to a health care facility. Instead, call Health Link 811 for assessment and testing.
Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or require further information. Thank you.
Currently, the risk level in Alberta is low for COVID-19. At this time, I can continue to provide therapeutic counselling in person if you are feeling healthy. I can also arrange for your sessions to be completed online using a secure video counselling platform called doxy.me. Phone appointments are also possible for those who would prefer this option.
I ask you to request sessions via online counselling if you have symptoms such as:
• Any signs of a cold or flu
Please also inform me and I can arrange online sessions if you have:
• Travelled outside of Canada in the last 14 days
• Had contact with someone who was suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19
If you’re unsure as to whether you should come in or not, it’s best to be cautious, stay home, and do online counselling. Voluntary social distancing may end up protecting other clients in the office with compromised immune systems.
I will inform you if there is a need to move all clients to an online counselling option.
My goal is to help everyone stay healthy and safe and for my clients to continue to receive uninterrupted psychological support, as much as is possible.
Please email Nicole@feministcounselloredmonton.com to arrange for online counselling or if you have any questions or concerns. Thank you.
Photo by Brene Brown.
Note: This was originally published in A Liberated Heart in 2018.
Ask almost anyone to name the biggest area we’re taught to put others before ourselves, and the answer will be mothering. It begins with the pressure to become a mother, to do so in a particular timeframe, and then to parent in particular ways that can feel practically impossible to live up to. Women in our culture are expected to give 100% of our time and energy to mothering, and, here’s the crucial part – we’re expected to do all with complete satisfaction and enjoyment, as if it’s our only life purpose.
We’re also set up with a lot of expectations about the ways we should mother – from how our own birth experience should happen, what the names of our child should be, whether or not we should breastfeed (and how long we should try if it’s not working), to a thousand other decisions around mothering that can leave us feeling lost in a sea of other people’s opinions. We can also get lost in other people’s expectations about their own involvement – whether that’s how much access they get to the baby and what that will look like, or how much decision-making they’ll be part of when it comes to parenting.
Set Up To Struggle
One of the things that makes it especially hard for us during this time is that we’ve also been taught it’s not polite (or acceptable, or nice) to set boundaries with other people about their involvement in our child’s life or decisions related to mothering. So when our mother in law tells us she’s going to be present in the birthing room with us, are we allowed to tell her no? When visitors come over to see the new baby, is it okay to ask them to leave after an hour? What if we really want our sister to stay with us after the baby is born, but she hasn’t offered yet? Are we allowed to ask her? What if we really don’t want her to, but she hasn’t asked our permission before making plans to stay in our spare bedroom? Is it reasonable to talk to her about wanting something different?
Maybe we feel guilty, like we’re being too needy or demanding. We don’t want to seem rude or ungrateful. We don’t want to cause waves, or unnecessary tension. We want the important people in our lives to feel like they can have a relationship with our child.
The difficulty is, when we bend over backwards trying to make sure everyone else is okay, we end up exhausted and burnt out, and we may be at higher risk for postpartum depression and anxiety.
One of the big lines we’ve been taught as women is that everyone else should come before us. But at this crucial time in our lives, what’s best for us and as an extension, for our baby, may not be what our extended family prefers. And so, we find ourselves in a bind. How can we prioritize our own needs while still making everyone else happy?
The short answer is we can’t. For possibly the first time in our lives, we need to turn our attention toward ourselves, and ask ourselves what’s truly best for us. This is not the same as figuring out what other people want that we can also live with. We need to ask ourselves what’s best for us. Once we understand this truth, and acknowledge it, we need to find a way to honor it.
Boundaries for the First Time
Often, women I work with on setting boundaries around birth and motherhood are setting boundaries for the first time in their lives.
As may already be clear, we can learn pretty early on in our lives (through a variety of experiences) to put the emotional needs of others before ourselves. Many women have found themselves in caregiving roles, whether in their first families or in other relationships since, and it can be difficult to recon with the notion that we might need to put ourselves first. For a lot of women, pregnancy is the first time they’re forced to act in ways others might see as selfish and make decisions that others may not agree with.
Below, I wanted to share some of the big ideas I talk about with my clients when it comes to setting boundaries for the first time.
You're Allowed to Want Something Other than What Other People Want
Yep, I said it. You’re allowed to want something different. You’re even allowed to make decisions in accordance with those desires. Boundaries are connected to our values, and since we each have different values, what makes sense for us may not seem logical to other people. I know it’s hard. But wanting something different than someone else doesn’t have to put you at odds with each other. Most healthy adults are able to hold different opinions about important matters while still holding each other in high regard. We can understand that disagreeing with someone about an issue and still caring deeply for them aren’t mutually exclusive.
We might hear from some family members ideas about what’s best (from how often we hold our baby to what our sleeping arrangements should be), but we can remind ourselves that these statements are just that person’s ideas about what’s best. And we’re allowed to have own ideas, developed from our very unique experiences and values. Ideas that we don’t need to justify or make other people understand. As I’ve talked about elsewhere, “People don’t need to understand our boundaries in order to respect them. We can state our needs and desires without explanation or apology.” If someone in your life pushes you to explain yourself, that says way more about them than it does about you, and it might also be an indicator that some healthy distance is in order.
It's Okay to Protect Yourself from Unwanted Influence
In those first weeks and months (and years) of motherhood, we’re very much still finding our feet as parents, and that means it’s easy to doubt what we’re doing. The parenting strategy that seemed great on paper can feel shaky when it’s time to implement. The bedtime routine that worked last month has suddenly stopped working. In times like these, I often encourage my clients to protect themselves from people who’ll just add to the doubt they’re already feeling.
I’m all for learning from the women who’ve come before us, but I also think we need to be careful about who we turn to, when, and what we share. Sometimes when we’re unsure of a parenting decision we’re making, it’s not the best idea to turn to the person in our life with the strongest opinion on the subject. Instead, we want to turn to the person who can bring out our own wisdom. The person who can help us connect to our truth, our body knowledge, and find our confidence again. The person who will ask us good questions with the intent on helping us find what’s right for us (not enforcing their own view on ours).
When turning to others for guidance around parenting, ask yourself, are they:
• Someone whose parenting style you seek to emulate?
• Able to listen and support you, even if your experiences and decisions are different than theirs?
• Able to come from a position of “this is what worked for me” rather than “this is what everyone should do”?
• Someone who is nonjudgmental and compassionate?
• Someone who you can admit mistakes and uncertainties to without fear of judgment?
If we’re speaking with someone who tends to be more pushy, judgmental, or opinionated, it’s okay to hold back, and wait until we’re feeling more certain about what we’re doing before we share with them. Even then, we may choose the types of things we want to share with them, reminding ourselves that we don’t need their blessing or their permission to parent in the way we see fit.
Be Prepared for Pushback
As Harriet Lerner helps us understand in “The Dance of Intimacy”, the work of boundaries is really about managing other people’s reactions to our boundaries without getting pulled back into old patterns (blaming, cutting off, or appeasing, for example). Change is hard, and if we’re speaking up or standing our ground in a new way, others may have difficulty adjusting to this. It’s pretty common for even the most loving relatives to push back a little when we do something different. We need to anticipate this pushback and plan how we’re going to manage our own reactions in the face of them. One way we can do this is to learn to hold our ground without becoming defensive, explaining, or justifying.
Just how do we do this? It might involve getting rooted in our own values, and surrounding ourselves with the people, items, and practices that help us stay connected to those values.
For me, it sometimes means connecting with other attachment therapists so that I can talk with someone who understands my worldview and speaks the same language. It means getting on the same page as my partner as much as possible so that we can handle difficult situations as a team. It means taking care of my health so that I can make decisions from a grounded place (and make less decisions out of scarcity, desperation, and exhaustion).
Where does this lead? Ideally, we can practice turning toward ourselves and continue building a trust in our own voice. We can let go of old beliefs that we have to be pleasing, or agreeable, or understood to other people.
Putting it All Together
Those first years of parenting (pregnancy included!) are tough – we’re forced to confront the reality that our desires are sometimes in conflict with other people’s. For the first time we may have to use our voice, stick with our limits, and find a way to do what’s best for ourselves even in the face of other people’s disappointment. I’m often reminding my clients that we don’t need to make other people understand our parenting decisions or agree with us.
What we do need to do is continue turning toward ourselves. We need to continue listening to our heads, hearts, and bodies, so that we can make conscious decisions about our mothering based on what’s the best fit for us. We will make mistakes along the way, and we’ll lose touch with ourselves from time to time, but we can trust that asking ourselves what we really need and trying to find a way to honor that will never be the wrong thing to do.
1. Perry, N. (2017). 5 Beliefs to Support You in Setting Boundaries [Ebook]. Edmonton.
2. Lerner, H. G. (1985). The dance of anger: A woman's guide to changing the patterns of intimate relationships. New York: Harper & Row.
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.
It Starts with Connecting to Our Bodies
There’s a theme in my work of connecting back to the body (which I think is already a feminist idea), and I wanted to describe one of the modalities I use to do that. I think a lot of people are used to the idea of therapy as talk therapy, and may not realize that there are other, more body-based forms of healing that can be used by trained trauma specialists to allow clients to move through their traumatic symptoms. I think this can be especially helpful when clients are dealing with more body-based symptoms like hypervigilance, a more sensitive startle response, freeze responses, dissociation, chronic tightness, tension, or pain they feel is related to the trauma, and so on. It may help clients who feel they have already told their story and and looking for the next layer of healing, along with clients who don’t want to have to share the details of what happened to them with anyone.
A Quick Synopsis of Somatic Experiencing
Somatic Experiencing is based on the work of Peter Levine. He wrote Healing Trauma, Trauma and Memory, and a few other books of a similar vein. His work is based on this idea that when we go through a traumatic experience – which could be anything from a sexual assault, childhood abuse, to a car accident or fall, for example– our nervous system responds. It goes into fight flight or freeze – a natural, survival response that allows us to live through a situation. And here, especially coming from a feminist lens (where I recognize that clients can be blamed for their experiences and their survival responses) I want to reiterate that all of these survival responses are equally valid. In less than a second, our body reads a situation as life-threatening and does whatever it needs to do to survive. The body also doesn’t judge one way of surviving as better than another – it just does what it needs to in order to get through. I spend a lot of time working on this with my clients and helping them recognize the ways in which their bodies actually protected them (even when it doesn’t feel like it).
Levine recognizes that sometimes, even after the traumatic event is over, all that nervous system energy gets stuck, or thwarted, and we’re not able to come back down into feeling re-regulated again. Maybe there wasn’t someone safe to run to, or it all happened so quickly. We may end up left feeling still frozen, still stuck. Or constantly vigilant, like there’s something terrible about to happen. Or consistently angry, in fight mode all the time.
When that happens, which is more common for humans than it is for animals in the wild, the therapy is that we slowly, safely, and through containment make space to go back and process those past events. We release any activation so that our traumatic symptoms no longer have such a hold over our current lives.
What Somatic Work Looks Like in the Therapy Room
The way I typically use Somatic Experiencing, if clients want to give it a try, is to start with some grounding and resourcing activities. We could end up spending one session on this, or three, or ten, all depending on each person and what their body needs in order to feel safe. Really important here as a feminist therapist is offering somatic work with consent (“would you like to give this a try?”) and working at the client’s pace.
Once we’re both feeling confident that they’re ready to begin processing the traumatic event, we take the time to ground ourselves, then begin with the part of the experience that is least activating for them. This is known as titration. It basically means doing a little bit at a time (the smallest amount that the client can stay present to) and not just overwhelming the nervous system by diving into the most difficult part of the trauma. Once we’ve processed the least activating part, we move a little further in, and so on, and so on. The entire process can take five sessions, or ten, or …. You get the idea.
That’s my attempt at describing Somatic Experiencing for tonight. Please note I have taken the Beginner and Intermediate trainings but not the advance, which means that though I of course integrate everything I've learned into my work, and do so often, I am not an official Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (SEP). If you’d like to learn more about Somatic Experiencing, Peter Levine has been interviewed a number of times about his work and he's shared some fantastic stories, metaphors, and wisdom, a lot of which is available for free on YouTube.
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.
Online Portal for Clients
Once we are working together, please use the Owl Practice Client Portal to