Writing about mental health from a feminist counselling perspective
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.
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
After having this book on my shelf for several months, I read it over the December break, knowing that I needed the time and space to fully immerse myself in it. And I did. I sat on my office couch, and in my bed at home, and I had a good long cry or two (or more). I let myself take in the sorrow of the letter writers' grief and be moved by it. I let my guard down and allowed myself to be different. I even took off my psychologist hat (a thing I almost never do) and let myself read it as a person first.
This book will transform you, if you let it in. I definitely recommend reading it over several sittings (all at once could be overwhelming) but within a short enough time frame that you can stay down in the depths with it. I thought it might be too much but the order of the letters has been designed wonderfully, so it intersperses shorter more humorous letters with the more difficult ones. I was particularly moved by the letters that had to do with family and mothering, but really this is a book about life.
Trigger warning: Cheryl Strayed talks pretty openly about her childhood sexual abuse, and a number of the letters have to do with sexual violence. I absolutely found it readable - and I don't always - but it wouldn't be the best book for someone in the early stages of healing from trauma or dealing with active flashbacks/nightmares.
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Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is absolutely my favorite book for women related to sex and sexual desire. I first heard Emily Nagoski speak as a guest on Sex Nerd Sandra's podcast, and loved what she had to say in that episode. I feel like I learned a ton and it also left me wanting to know more. She spoke so clearly and knowledgeably that I was pretty excited to learn she'd also written a book, complete with worksheets to fill out.
Emily brings a really fresh perspective on desire styles and offers insights about female sexual desire specifically (unlike old models that were based on the average male desire style). I've found myself teaching others what I've learned from her about spontaneous vs responsive desire. She also teaches readers (in a really accessible and fun way) about the dual control model of sex, suggesting that if we want to feel like having sex more often, we need to focus on "turning on the ons and turning off the offs". At the same time, it never comes across as prescriptive or judgmental. She reminds readers every chapter or so that there's nothing wrong with your desire, and helps us understand what a huge role context plays in desire for women.
"Come as You Are" is great for folks who might like to have a more active sex life, but don't necessarily feel like having sex. It's great for women in relationships where their desire style is much different than their partners (higher or lower). It's great for women who've worried that there's something wrong with their desire. It's great for partners of these women. It's great for women in heterosexual relationships and queer relationships. And the list goes on.
I love love love this book! As a bonus, Emily Nagoski is a generally awesome person and speaker who really does come across as wanting to share what she's learned and help remind readers just how fantastic and normal they are. The audiobook is read by her and it's lovely to listen to.
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Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps by Kelly Williams Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
As anyone who knows me might guess, I was initially drawn to this book because of the cover (woman alone in her apartment with her cat! So obviously me!). I also was at a point in my life where learning to do more adulting just felt right. I was 28 at the time and ready to feel more like a professional woman. I'd already started to feel more settled in my career and less like a student just struggling to get by. So if you're a woman in your 20s thinking "adulting! I need more of that!" then you'll very likely enjoy this book.
One big thing I appreciated about the book was the very user-friendly breakdown. The chapters are by topic (eg., Domesticity, Fake it Till You Make it, Get a Job, and Love) and within each chapter, there are a number of bitesize "steps". It was nice to pick and choose the things that felt most relevant and go from there.
Looking back now, it's interesting how much I loved a book that's basically about taking responsibility for your life. The tone absolutely helps (it's fun, light, and authentic) and so does the author's voice. She's a young, modern woman who is compassionate and a bit awkward and completely relatable. I never felt judged or like I wasn't doing a good enough job as I read through the steps. Instead I felt pride (there was a lot I was already doing right) and a lot of validation for where I was in my life and the specific day to day struggles I was having.
Now that I'm flipping through it to write this review, I kind of want to read it again. While it's probably not a good book to buy for someone else , it's definitely relevant and fun to read. Worth the purchase.
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I know some people aren't going to like this post. At the same time, as a Psychologist I think it's important to tackle difficult issues and share what I know from the research and from making a career out of helping people heal and move forward in their lives. Especially for those of us who are mental health professionals or are trusted experts in our communities, we need to make sure that what we tell others about healing and growth is safe, compassionate, and ultimately does no harm. I've been seeing more and more professionals suggesting books like The Secret, and it's extremely worrisome to me.
It’s amazing it took me this long to get to the 1989 feminist therapy classic considering how hungry I've been for more voices like hers. I kept seeing it on the bookshelves of my mentors and thinking some day I should get around to it. I’m glad I finally did.
David Richo's "How to be an Adult in Relationships" is a transformative piece of writing on love and relationships. I first listened to this book by audio and find Richo's voice to be fairly melodic and soothing, so reading it now with his voice in my memory feels much like a meditation.
I can't help it. Even though I have a list of books to share with you, the resource I'm SO excited about this month is... a podcast. Yup - it's month two and I'm already changing all the rules. I promise you this will be worth it.
"Dear Sugar Radio" is billed as an advice column "for the lost, lonely and heartsick", and though many of the letters they answer do centre around relationships, I have to say it's much deeper and much broader than I expected. The first episode I listened to was on mothering and guilt, and as I sat in the car crying (with my partner beside me looking helpless and concerned), I thought - yes. This is the podcast I need to need to hear right now. I've been listening to it non-stop since.
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.
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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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