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.
One of my strongest convictions is that the body sends us signals about what does and doesn’t feel good inside. If you’ve known me for a while, you’ll be familiar with my motto of “listen to your body”. However, many of us have been taught to override these signals in order to feel safe and connected with others. In this post, I want to tell you more about experiential psychology and mindfulness, and how I use them in my practice to help people better listen to their bodies to understand their boundaries.
It’s hard to speak our needs when we know that it would shake up existing patterns in our families, relationships, or workplaces, so we adapt by disconnecting. I always view this adaptation as a strength that helps us survive our situation. And yet, I know it comes at a cost. Becoming disconnected can make it hard to speak for or even know what we really need. In order to help us rediscover a relationship with our bodies, I have found that experiential exercises can help us learn about boundaries from a felt sense.
The concept of “felt sense” was originally developed by philosopher Eugene Gendlin as part of his Focusing approach. It refers to the awareness of a bodily sensation that is difficult to articulate clearly. Through psychotherapy, it’s possible to increase this awareness to improve the connection between mind and body.
One of my favorite exercises to do in a group or 1:1 session is the string exercise. I originally learned it from a colleague and have been adapting it since then.
With twine, yarn, or any other materials that appeal to you, place a boundary around yourself. You may create a boundary that is thick, thin, tight around yourself, or giving you lots of space. If you’re in a group, think about your distance from the other people in the room. Notice how it feels. Make adjustments if needed and pay attention to your bodily reaction. Notice also where you are within the circle (i.e., what’s it like to be close to the edge vs with plenty of space between you and the string?).
When you’ve adjusted the string to a comfortable position, ask yourself: how do you know it’s right? In other words, what’s the sensation inside that tells you so? Some people might notice comfort, ease, or a feeling of protection. Take the time to connect with this felt sense inside.
Optional: imagine yourself in a different situation, such as at work or with family. Letting your body be your guide, recreate your boundary with this situation in mind. Adjust until it feels right. Once again, ask yourself: what are the sensations you experience that tell you it’s right?
Here, you may begin to notice that your sense of what feels “right” can shift in different situations. If you repeat this exercise over time, you may also notice that your boundaries can shift over time. This is because our boundaries aren’t fixed – they’re contextual and responsive, based on our circumstances, capacity, culture, recent experiences, and so much more. It’s why I believe in the practice of listening to ourselves, and continuing to check in with our needs over time.
Additional Experiential Exercises
When we’re first trying to reconnect with our body, having a variety of exercises to help explore our felt sense can be helpful. In addition to this, I have noticed that a curious approach and a willingness to experiment helps.
In my Somatic Experiencing training, I learned a boundary exercise involving walking toward another person and listening to our body responses as people move toward us and away.
In S.A.F.E. EMDR they also teach a boundaries exercise using a scarf held between the therapist and client. The client is invited to notice the right amount of distance, tension, and so on, and importantly, what tells us that it feels right.
All of these exercises can offer us a chance to mindfully notice the boundary-related body clues that have been within us all along. Try them out on your own, or ask your therapist about it if you're interested in exploring this possibility.
In my last post, I talked about scarcity as one of two main barriers that usually get in the way of setting and sticking to our own boundaries, in order to respect our needs. Today I want to talk about a second obstacle: guilt.
Healthy guilt shows up in our lives when we’ve done something out of line with our values and, typically, it helps us get back on track. But most of the time, what we’re actually dealing with is toxic guilt. Toxic guilt stems from a belief that everyone else should come before us. So, I want to invite you to start by asking yourself this: did you do something out of line with your values? If the answer is no, then it’s toxic guilt you’re dealing with, and it’s not serving you. Remind yourself that you’ve done nothing wrong, even if it feels that way.
On that note, we can reframe that “guilty” feeling we get by naming it for what it really is. If you catch yourself saying “I know this is the right thing to do, but I feel so guilty”, try this trick of language: replace the word “guilty” with “sad”, and see if it fits. For example, “I know that I need to end this relationship, and I feel so sad.” Is sadness the emotion that you were really trying to name? If so, I hear you. It’s sad and heartbreaking, and I know we all find ourselves wishing it wasn’t part of life – but it is. It’s an important and necessary part of life to end relationships when they’re no longer working. At the same time, it also makes sense that you’d be grieving that.
As another example, we can try it in difficult situations that call on our humanity. Instead of saying “I know I can’t realistically afford to lend my brother this money, and I feel so guilty”, rephrase it to this: “I know I can’t realistically afford to lend my brother this money, and I feel so sad”. Again, you can try out the words and then notice how it feels inside.
It’s absolutely normal for sadness and grief to arise when we love someone and are also watching them struggle. We often wish the people we care about in our lives didn’t have to struggle, or that we’d be able to take away their pain for them. We wish we lived in a world where people didn’t have to struggle for basic needs, and there’s a deep and touching sadness that shows up in all of us when we confront the unfairness of this truth. Yet, there’s something different and powerful that happens when we can let go of the individual trapping of “guilt” and allow ourselves to feel the depth of communal grief underneath. When we allow ourselves to feel grief, we can experience empathy and compassion. When we get stuck in toxic guilt, we instead experience pity and eventual resentment.
How to say no without guilt in one simple step
Since we’re on the topic of guilt, I want to share one more thing with you today. Now, I don’t want to be flippant because I know it’s way harder than it looks from the outside. At the same time, what if I were to tell you that there really is one simple step to saying no without guilt? I actually have a way to do this! You’ll have to forgive me, though, because it’s simple, but not easy. Here it is:
You have to say no with guilt a bunch of times first. Do it with kindness, do it with integrity, but do it. And hold on to the truth that you’re still a good person. Time and time again, I hear from people that the more they practice saying no, the less guilt they feel. They start to see that they can remain compassionate, connected, and generous while still being able to have human limits.
Are you looking for a deeper dive into letting go of guilt? I have an entire section on exactly that in my Big-Hearted Boundaries online course. Big-Hearted Boundaries offers you 8 practical steps to prevent burnout and create sustainable caring. The way we can do this is by making whole-body decisions that are in line with our values, setting boundaries accordingly, and working through the shame and guilt of saying no to the things we don’t want in our life – which makes room to say yes to what’s important to us. If this sounds like something you could use, make sure to check out the full course curriculum and register here.
Sometimes, we might consciously know what steps we should take to care for ourselves, but still feel like we can’t follow through. It’s not that we’re unaware that going to bed will probably serve us better than staying up all night answering emails. Or that taking a 5-minute break will give us the energy we need to keep going on a project. So, what really gets in the way of respecting our own needs and the boundaries we’ve set?
I ask people about this any chance I get, and there are a couple of answers that get repeated again and again. Based on that, I’ve identified two major obstacles to respecting our boundaries. In today’s post I wanted to address one of those barriers: scarcity.
Our beliefs about scarcity are revealed in sayings like “I don’t have enough time, energy, or money to take care of myself”. If this sounds like something you’ve said before, I want to start off by acknowledging that there are absolutely real barriers to contend with. With the realities of income disparity, not everyone is in the position to sign up for a gym membership, buy organic food, go on vacation, or many of the other typical self-care strategies that tend to get suggested or thought of. I know plenty of young parents who are short on time, and plenty of single-income contract workers who are short on cash. From a feminist counseling perspective, it’s so important to acknowledge that those shortages disproportionately affect women, people of color, queer communities, and people with disabilities, to name a few.
We also have to work with a narrative that we’re not allowed to retreat and restore. Especially in hard times, many of us have been made to feel that we’re not allowed to be cared for. Many people I work with have a sense that other people have it worse than they do, and therefore they shouldn’t prioritize themselves.
Self-care is not conditional
When we find ourselves low on resources, we absolutely have to get creative about the ways in which we can respect our own needs while still respecting our limited time, energy, and money. And that’s not easy. Many people are probably tired of hearing the phrase “get creative” because that’s all they’ve ever had to do. It’s a struggle that folks who haven’t ever had to deal with scarcity may have a hard time understanding.
At the same time, I want to also (gently!) suggest that the magical time when we have “enough” time, energy, and money will never come. I keep hearing this idea of “I’ll take care of myself once things slow down” or “I’ll keep working like this until I save up enough to go on vacation”. But then, I watch people push themselves, and push themselves, and they never seem to get to that place of “enough”. Even when they reach their original goals, the bar just keeps getting raised. “I can’t slow down now, I’m finally ahead!”
Without choosing to make yourself a priority in your life, that won’t happen. Everything else will continue to come first. We can put our lives on hold waiting for the time to feel right. We end up waiting for the universe to slow things down and to feel like there’s finally space for ourselves. From my experience, the time just continues to get eaten up by other things. The bills continue to arrive. The people around us continue to struggle.
Most people seem to treat the idea of self-nourishment as an extra they can add on to their week only if everything else goes well. My perspective is that taking care of our needs isn’t something you reward yourself with once you’ve done enough. Taking care of yourself and respecting your boundaries is an integral part of life on this planet. And so, we need to make choices even with limited resources.
How do we do this? We can start with saying “This is a priority for me. My needs are important. I’m worth looking after”. Even just this – acknowledging your own needs and holding them as important – is a huge step. I’ve seen that alone open up all sorts of new avenues for people.
Jamila Reddy is a wellness advocate and coach who echoes this sentiment. I love how she reminds us that it’s okay to rest:
“When I give myself permission to have whatever I need to feel grounded and energized (without guilt or shame), the ripple effect of goodness extends far beyond my imagination.
Remember that you are inherently worthy of having all that you need to be and feel your best. You were BORN being deserving of rest, ease, joy, and wellness — you don’t have to earn it.”
How can we make ourselves a priority despite scarcity?
Putting yourself as a priority doesn’t have to be big, time-consuming, or expensive. Prioritizing your needs and turning toward yourself can mean paying your bills, trying to eat something every day, taking care of personal hygiene, drinking some water, dressing for the weather, going outside, moving your body, connecting with a spiritual practice, expressing your feelings, and so much more.
Another way the myth of scarcity shows up is when we say to ourselves “I’ll do it later”. The answer to that is simple – no, you won’t. So do it now.
Here’s something you should know: making yourself a priority is likely to give you energy. Within that framework, you don’t actually need to have the energy to do it. You don’t need to feel like doing it. You just need to do it.
To wrap this up, I leave you with some questions you may use for a writing exercise:
In my next post, I will tell you about the second barrier to respecting our boundaries, so keep an eye out for it!
One of the biggest sources of emotional resentment is being in a caregiving role and not knowing how to say no when we need to. It’s incredibly important to learn how to set (and stick with!) our boundaries.
I hear so many people talk about how tough it is to set boundaries, especially when it’s with someone you care deeply about. If you love someone who is struggling with mental health issues, you can probably relate to feeling the gamut of emotions: tired, annoyed, overwhelmed, fed up, sad, ashamed, and alone. You might feel responsible for the person’s behaviors, or guilty when there’s tension in the relationship. You might feel like you’ve been a caregiver for a long time, so you’re trying to figure out how to support the person you care about without becoming the therapist yourself.
If you’ve been aware of your more uncomfortable feelings and you recognize that you’re on the path to burnout, you might have already recognized your need to step back. So what happens if, when you finally set boundaries, you get pushback?
How to deal with pushback when you set boundaries
First, let me just say, I can just imagine how tough that is. I think most of us imagine our ideal scenarios when we go to set boundaries for the first time. “The person will totally understand! They will accept my boundary and we’ll move forward! It will be a one-time conversation!” Unfortunately, I’ve come to realize that the ideal scenario is often not how it plays out, even with people who love us and want what’s best for us. It can take time to adjust to new situations, even for people who want to and are willing to work with us.
But let’s put our curious hats on and find out a little bit more about the type of pushback you’re on the receiving end of:
Sticking with the boundary you set after you receive pushback is uncomfortable, especially for people who are used to pleasing others. If you think the person you’re caring for can grow with you, then I might encourage you to focus on trying to tolerate the discomfort of sticking with it. Many people slide back into giving all they have at the first sign of discomfort in a relationship because they’re concerned that the other person won’t be able to handle it, when in reality what they’re seeing is that the other person is taking time to adjust. It’s okay to give reminders of what you’re willing and able to provide – you can even do this in a way that is compassionate to both you and the other person. You may also need to show through your behaviors that you’re committed to following through on the boundaries you’ve set out.
If, on the other hand, you’re dealing with someone who simply isn’t willing to accept that you have needs of your own, then you might need to take a different tack. Beyond setting and sticking with your boundaries, you might be dealing with the grief of realizing the relationship can never be as reciprocal as you’d hoped. You might be working on how to cope with guilt-tripping, or learning how to take a further step back from a relationship that’s no longer serving you. Remember that it’s okay to leave relationships you’ve outgrown. You’re allowed to do what’s best for you.
*Originally posted on PsychCentral as an expanded version of an earlier post.
A few months ago I was facing some tension with an acquaintance (caused entirely by his unwillingness to hear my very reasonable “no” to his request), when I caught myself in a dangerous thought.
The stress of having tension between us was really getting to me, and I found myself thinking, “maybe I should just compromise after all, to make it easier”.
In other words, maybe I should just say yes to his request, in order to escape the tension and stress that had resultantly arisen. And then, here comes the epiphany. I was about to say yes simply for the fact that someone I barely knew had guilt-tripped me about saying no. That wasn’t compromising. That was conceding.
My mind was blown. And I started to wonder - have I been using the wrong definition of compromise for my entire life? My thoughts started racing, and I actually had to look up the definition of compromise on the spot (or, Siri looked it up for me). As it turns out, a compromise is when both sides give a little in order to find a mutually acceptable arrangement. There is nothing – absolutely nothing – I would have gained from giving into this situation.
Conceding, which is what I was doing, involves losing so that the other person can win. It means to surrender or yield something to another. The first truth about conceding in the situation I just described is that it would have had zero benefit to me.
But was that a good enough reason to say no?
Many of us who’ve been socialized as female are taught to believe that other people’s needs and desires are more important than ours. We’re taught that our role is to keep things running smoothly, and make sure to do everything in our power to reduce tension.
For many women I work with, this means being the one to silently give up our own wants and desires, or never name them in the first place. Directly or indirectly, we might have been taught that talking about what we want is selfish, rude, or (*gasp!*) unladylike. And while some of us might not consciously think about it this way, those deep-seated beliefs often play out in our most important relationships. For example, in any intimate relationships, have you ever….
Of course, we all have experiences at times in our lives where we give up some of what we desire for the greater good of the relationship, or because it fits a larger, long-term goal. (In other words – compromise!) The difficulty is when we consistently concede within a relationship context that isn’t give and take. As women, we often do so because we’ve been socialized to think everyone else should come first. We’ve been taught to feel guilty when we say no, and made to feel as though just because we can do someone a favor, we should.
I’ve gotten to a place in my life where I’ve recognized it’s okay to ask for what I need, and it’s okay to say no. I’m not going around creating unnecessary tension, but I’m not going to go out of my way and do myself a disservice just to make someone else happy.
Now, some people might be thinking, in the example I started with, I might not gain anything materially, but perhaps I would gain some goodwill with this person, and in the future they’ll be more likely to go out of their way to help me. It’s a nice thought, but it turns out to be rooted entirely in wishful thinking.
In my own life, this wishful thinking has mostly shown up in my relationships with men, both close to me and not so close. I remember as a teen and young woman giving a lot to relationships with men, with the very naïve belief that everything I gave would eventually be returned in kind, and that we were all working toward a reciprocal connection. It turned out what they really wanted was for me to keep giving in the way I was giving without question.
I think a lot of us can get caught up in the wishful thinking that eventually all our giving will be returned in kind. So let me reiterate something from above about the scenario I first described – he was guilt-tripping me for saying no. I was now dealing with tension and stress because I said no. Does that sound like the kind of person who is going to be appreciative if I make a sacrifice? Who is going to want to be generous in the future? I can tell you from experience both in my own life and in the lives of my clients, it isn’t. I’ve made sacrifices before, in the hopes of building a relationship of goodwill and reciprocity. It doesn’t work unless both people are willing to be generous, and make compromises that are mutually beneficial.
So the next time you catch yourself thinking of making a “compromise”, ask yourself, is there mutual give and take here? Is this a relationship of reciprocity? Or am I just giving in because I’ve been taught that other people’s needs are more important than mine?
In my work, two of the biggest themes I talk about a lot are burnout and shame resilience—I even have an online workshop on How to prevent burnout and my most recent one is about Shame Resilience Skills. If you've been following me for a while, you might already know this. What you might not know yet, though, is that there’s an overlap between the two.
Here’s what I've noticed: at the root of overworking (which eventually leads to burnout) often lies a sense of shame. We might feel that our worthiness is directly connected to our productivity—either because we've been told so or been made to feel so in indirect ways.
In trying to get away from the uncomfortable experience of shame, many of us strive to be perfect. We might make demands to ourselves to appease that voice: "I'll just achieve more at work, I’ll be pleasing in my relationship, I’ll give more in my community…" But, at some point, we reach our limits. We’re only human, so we get exhausted, our bodies break down, and resentment settles in.
I often have clients who come to me with the goal of getting better at being perfect. Although this is an impossible standard, they’re beating themselves up for not continually being able to meet it. Instead of giving them strategies to “get more motivated” and just get on with achieving more than they possibly can, what I do is work with them on the root feeling of shame. Why? Because I believe that they are good and worthy just as they are, without having to do anything more, and I want to help them feel that way.
What can we actually control?
This push to be perfect doesn’t always come from inside ourselves, though. Many times we’re actually made to feel guilty or ashamed of our choices by other people, even if they don’t mean to, like when someone tells you “Wow, you’re leaving early!” or “I wish I could do that but I have a lot more work to do!” Unfortunately, as many of my clients have found, if you’re waiting for someone else to change, you might be waiting a long time. This is why, instead of waiting for other people to realize what they’re doing and change their ways, I focus on behaviours that we ourselves can do differently.
Another thing we can get really caught up in is trying to get someone else’s permission or acceptance of our boundary, to convince people that we have the right to our own boundaries. It’s important to learn that we can simply do what we need to do for ourselves and let other people deal with their own discomfort around it.
Setting the boundary and then sticking with it when we get pushback will feel uncomfortable for us, too: here’s where accepting our feelings and practicing self-compassion can be really useful. We might have to remind ourselves that you can be a good person, even if other people are disappointed, or that other people don’t have to understand your boundaries in order to respect them. This is the heart of burnout prevention and shame resilience.
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.
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.
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.
Over the years I’ve worked with a number of people trying to make hard decisions, and these hard decisions usually boil down to this: “should I stay or should I go?” What people struggle with most is knowing whether the situation they’re in (a workplace, a relationship, etc) is one that will get better by working on or not. I watch people struggle for months and sometimes years, caught up in the distress of trying to make a decision that’s best for them.
It’s not uncommon in my therapy office to talk about social media. Specifically, I’ve been having a lot of conversations about wanting to not be on social media but having a hard time stopping.
When people bring up the topic of their social media use, it’s usually said with a bit of a guilty look, and can come across as a shrug off comment. “I really shouldn’t be using my phone so much,” they might say in an off-hand way. But, since people are paying me money to notice things, I don’t just shrug it off. Instead, I invite them to talk about it. So many of my clients are finding that they’re on social media more than they actually want to be, and that it’s causing upset in their lives. These are some of the things we’ve been talking about in those conversations.
It’s hard saying no. For a lot of new therapists, we really struggle with the idea of disappointing someone in our care.
It can be easy to feel that because our clients need something, we need to be the one to give it to them. I hear new therapists say things like “but they need evening hours – they can’t make it during the normal workday“ or “they need a sliding scale – they can’t afford the full fee”.
"It's Actually a Good Thing": A Little Reassurance When Your Loved One is Working on Their Boundaries
As a partner/friend/lover/ally of someone who is working on boundaries, you may be noticing some changes. Like most changes, this can feel pretty scary and you might be unsure or hesitant about what’s happening. That’s why I wanted to write you this letter. I think it’s normal to feel afraid in times of change, especially when the change involves something unfamiliar.
As health professionals in positions of power, we have certain standards of practice we need to adhere to it in order to protect the public. The Standards of Practice of the College of Alberta Psychologists are “the minimum standards of professional behaviour and ethical conduct expected of all regulated members”. These include informed consent, avoiding dual relationships, and acting within our scope, to name a few. These are incredibly important to know and adhere to, and yet it’s not enough to ensure that we’re working in a way that’s ethical and sustainable.
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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