Writing about mental health from a feminist counselling perspective
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.
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
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.
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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