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.
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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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