I want to offer some assurance for anyone struggling with setting boundaries. Ready for it? Deep breath.
It’s not your fault.
Yep, I said it, and I’m going to say it again. It’s not your fault.
In my experience, there are plenty of good reasons we struggle with setting boundaries. Most of us are taught some pretty messed up stuff about them. We’re taught to put others first, even at a detriment to ourselves. We’re taught that we need to keep things smooth at the surface, even when that means underlying issues go unaddressed. We’re taught to be polite and deferential. We’re not taught how to listen to our needs, let alone speak them.
We’re taught these things so completely from such a young age that it’s hard not to believe them. The ideas given to us by someone else can start to feel like our own.
So, once more – take a deep breath. Remember that it’s not your fault. And even more, we can work on believing something different about our boundaries. Like that we’re allowed to have them, as a start. And that doing so doesn’t make us rude, selfish, or wrong.
I've created a PDF with 5 more affirming beliefs you can play with about boundaries. Try them on. See how they fit. Create your own, if you like.
Just make sure you've signed up for my newsletter by the end of the month and you'll receive your free copy on April 3, 2018.
You’ve got this.
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.
View all my reviews
Most people who have seen me in the last few years know how much I rely on self-compassion - in my own life and in my life as a clinician. I've seen so many amazing people struggle with never feeling good enough and self-compassion is the foundation I return to again and again.
This is wildly different than what our culture focuses on. The temptation is to try to simply argue back when the amazingcreativeintelligent person in front of us talks about how messed up they feel they are "No! You're great!" we want to say, and we can get caught in trying to bolster self-esteem by reassuring people of their greatness. But for most people on the receiving end of those well-intentioned reassurances, it doesn't do any good. They question it. And they wonder, "what will they think of me when they find out I'm not so great after all?"
That's where self-compassion comes in. It doesn't require us to be perfect, or great. It doesn't require us to hold up a mask and only show others the good parts. Instead, it focuses on making room for us to be human. Broken, imperfect humans who bungle things up sometimes. Self-compassion says "yes, you mess things up. You're in pain and struggle. And you deserve kindness in that."
For anyone working on self-compassion or interested in learning more about it, I've included some resources below, beginning with my upcoming group on shame resilience and self acceptance!
"Never Good Enough": Moving from Shame to Self-Acceptance
What if you turned toward yourself with kindness instead of judgment? What if instead of berating yourself for all the things you "should" be doing, you were able to appreciate all that you already do? This 8 week group provides the space for that journey.
Dates: March 6 - April 24, 2018. Tuesday nights, 6:25-8:55pm
Location: YWCA of Edmonton (#400, 10080 Jasper Avenue)
Investment: $600 for 20 hours with a Registered Psychologist
Self Compassion Exercises
Kristen Neff's "Self-Compassion Break" is absolutely my favorite go-to exercise to boost self-compassion on a daily basis. It only takes about 30 seconds and can make a huge difference to how we treat ourselves. The three steps are:
2. Common Humanity
and the full exercise in all of its wonderfulness can be found here.
Kristen Neff also has a number of other exercises and information on her website. I like "soften soothe allow" - though I'd love to hear what works for you the most!
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.
View all my reviews
The audiobook is directed toward adults who are having trouble in their intimate partnership that seems bigger than the current relationship. It's for those who've had obvious trauma in childhood such as abuse and neglect, as well as for those with less obvious but still impactful "missing experiences" in childhood, where the adult caregivers were unable to provide the level of warmth and attunement needed for a child to thrive. This could be due to circumstance like poverty and war, mental health issues like anxiety or depression, personality disorders, or even just lack of resources that left the caregiver(s) unable to be as present in the life of the child.
What I like most are the experiential exercises offered. I've already had the chance to try some out with clients and have found them really powerful. The book lays a solid foundation of understanding and compassion, then offers these exercises as a pathway toward healing. I absolutely recommend listening to them, and trying them out - with the help of an experienced therapist, if you like.
The book would be great for both clinicians and the general public. I'm already on my second listen and LOVE the unique exercises and insights she has to offer.
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.
View all my reviews
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.
From a feminist counselling perspective, we need to be careful with ideologies that tell us that if we simply think positive thoughts, positive things will come our way. It seems harmless at first, but when we dig deeper, we see the dangerous result of this line of thinking. First, people who don't see "success" are likely to blame themselves, feeling ashamed for not being "good enough" believers. They often end up feeling like they've failed, and that the problem lies within them. One of the major purposes of feminist therapy is to remind folks that we are not the problem. We've all grown up in this wild world, full of difficult expectations, trauma, and losses. We've grown up in this world where oppression exists, and it does us a real disservice to ignore this reality and imagine that positive thinking alone will protect us from systemic violence and inequality. We're all doing our best to navigate our way through it, and we need to be supported in that journey, not told our thoughts are wrong.
The second major and hidden impact of this ideology is that we can start to blame others for the hardships they face, including losses, sexual violence, natural disasters, medical and mental health issues, and other trauma. We can start to believe that if they would just think more positively, bad things wouldn't happen to them. We can start to "other" ourselves, believing that those around us who are suffering have somehow brought this suffering onto themselves, and we're not like them.
Do you see the problem here? It's not that I'm against practicing a little gratitude or working on our inner critic. At the same time, if our community is going to heal, we need to remain compassionate to ourselves and those around us. The importance of compassion is backed up by research (see Kristen Neff's work on compassion). We also need to remain aware of real structural barriers that make daily life such a struggle for the most vulnerable among us so that we can continue to work toward a just world.
To put it more bluntly, no amount of thinking positive is going to keep an unarmed black man from getting shot by police in the States. No amount of positive thinking is going to keep the bombs from falling on the heads of innocent Syrian families. The world is a scary place. Books like "The Secret" provide a comfortable salve to the anxiety about the fact that we have very little control over the world and our own lives. But that temporary comfort does us and those around us a great harm. It screens us from the world's truth, and by doing so it prevents us from being able to respond to the reality that is.
Other writers have gone into more depth about this book and others like it. I could continue on this topic for a long time, but I'll let others do some of the talking (and please, if you have any other good articles from a feminist perspective, I'd love for you to share them in the comments). In the meantime, please know - if positive thinking alone isn't working for you, there's good reason for it. Experience working with hundreds of clients has taught me that we need to turn toward our own and others' painful experiences with compassion and understanding.
Episode 3: The Secret by Worst Bestsellers
The Staggering Bullshit of the Secret by Mark Manson
“I don’t want to get into some kind of unhealthy codependency,” *Lydia said, referring to her new relationship.
I gave her a quizzical look. I’m familiar with the concept of codependency, but I wasn’t sure what she really meant by it. Just by what I already knew of her, it seemed like a strange thing to be worried about, so I asked her to elaborate. She went on to describe not wanting to be in a position of needing her partner, or spending “too much” time together. I knew what she was getting at.
In our culture we have a really aversion to being seen as “needy” or too reliant on a relationship, instead valuing independence and self-determination. And while there’s nothing wrong with a little independence, it’s too often upheld as the be all end all, with little room for connectedness and community.
“You know, there’s nothing wrong with having needs,” I suggested, “we are human, after all. We’re a pretty social species – it’s part of our survival to depend on each other”.
And this isn’t just my personal belief. Sue Johnson’s research on adult attachment really supports the idea that by forming close, connected relationships of mutual reliance, we’re actually in a better place to grow. One way I’ve heard her describe a these relationships is a safe base from which you can explore.
This is where I have issues with the way people talk about and understand codependency. Now, the original concept was actually fairly good. Melody Beattie introduced us to the term with her bestselling book “Codependent No More”. When she started writing about this concept decades ago (1986), the term “codependence” was used to describe partners of people suffering from addictions and the particular struggles they go through, often related to boundaries and over-focusing on fixing others. I still believe she laid important groundwork in helping us understand the experiences of people who are supporting a partner in their addiction and caught up in caregiver roles.
But as you can see, the original concept and how it’s talked about today are miles apart. First, codependency has been overgeneralized to apply to almost anyone who has difficulty setting boundaries. And as I’ve talked about, another problem is the way it’s been misinterpreted, as if any hint of having a need in relationship is a bad thing. When someone expresses a need in their relationship, they’re immediately accused of being “codependent”. We’ve learned to sling around the word like an insult, and use it to describe any behavior where someone is expressing their needs. Especially if those needs are in conflict with what we want.
The next time you catch yourself worrying that you’re being “codependent” (or being told by someone you’re dating that you are) you can ask yourself… am I caught up in a unhealthy cycle of controlling and fixing my partner at a detriment to myself? Or am I simply looking for a relationship of mutuality where it’s okay to express needs?
Most often, I think you’re going to find – you’re not codependent, just human.
*Please note: I always change names and details about my clients’ stories, often combining several stories into one cohesive narrative.
I wrote this critique while completing my Masters in Counselling back in 2008. Now that I’ve been practicing for awhile, I have different critiques, a more nuanced understanding of the humanistic style of therapy as it’s practiced today, and a more body-based approached to working with people who’ve experienced sexual violence. This critique is aimed at the more traditional style of humanistic therapy, and I've posted just the second half of it. Still, I thought some of you might appreciate the fierce, no-bullshit language of young Nicole and the references to the Garneau Sisterhood. (Who wouldn’t?). Enjoy :)
A Feminist Critique
One of the main problems with the humanistic approach to therapy with the sexual assault survivor is the extreme focus on the individual’s internal reality. The client’s internal world is focused on to such a high degree that the external reality is overlooked or ignored altogether (Lerman, 1992). It assumes that a person can be separated from the real world in which he or she lives, and practically ignores the existence of an environment outside of the self. In essence, the counsellor disregards and discounts the real barriers and external problems that the client faces, instead focusing solely on imagined or internal difficulties.
Humanistic approaches do not address the truth that people are very much related to and influenced by the environment in which they live. The barriers that exist for women and other marginalized groups are forgotten through this approach (Lerman, 1992). In a sexual assault scenario, the inner reality of the individual and her feelings about the assault become the focus of counselling, rather than a discussion surrounding the reality of rape culture and the existence of violence against women that is upheld in a patriarchal society.
The inevitable consequence of this sort of approach is that it relies on the myth “it’s all in your head” (Greenspan, 1983, p. 126). Person-centred counsellors do not seem to recognize this fact, and they tend to suggest that the client is responsible for her own reality (Greenspan, 1983). A feminist counselling perspective, on the other hand, makes it clear that reality is not wholly determined internally. As Lerman (1992) illustrates, “contact with a boulder will hurt no matter how it is perceived” (p. 12).
Subscribing to the myth that the problem is all in the individual’s head adversely affects clients who blame themselves for lacking total control over their lives (Lerman, 1992). It expects the individual to alter painful aspects of her life by herself, rather than utilize the community to support her. Furthermore, the notion that the problem is all in one’s head continues to undermine women with a new set of false promises of power. It propels the false notion that there are no social constraints on the freedom to fulfill oneself, and that the universe is “pleased to oblige [one’s] wishes and aspirations, so long as [one is] open to change” (Greenspan, 1983, p. 128). This promise of total personal power becomes a burden, as well as a false hope (Lerman).
Feminist counselling recognizes that an individual woman cannot completely prevent sexual assault from occurring, despite common beliefs that she can do so by “risk reduction” tactics. These commonly upheld tactics include wearing “less provocative” clothing, not walking alone at night, limiting alcohol consumption, and reducing sexual promiscuity (Corcoran, 1992). Feminist counselling recognizes that sexual can happen to anyone, and essentially, counsellors underline the fact that rape happens because of rapists, not because of characteristics or behaviours of the survivors. The humanistic approach to counselling, in comparison, instructs the sexual assault survivor that she is in charge of her own recovery, and that the problem, rather than being within society or even the individual rapist, is within her. Methods like these are extremely unhelpful to women, because the burden of rape prevention is still placed on the woman, and thereby the potential for victim blaming remains high (Corcoran).
The feminist approach moves beyond imagined barriers and directly addresses the real social, political, and cultural environment that the individual faces. It does not view rape as an individual woman’s problem. Instead, it is correctly seen as a community and societal problem that must be addressed on a societal level. Corcoran (1992) discusses the idea that sexual assault is not an individual problem, but rather the “product of a patriarchal culture that promotes and allows rape through gender socialization, the acceptance of interpersonal violence, and institutionalized misogyny” (p. 136). The unfortunate truth is that patriarchal institutions contribute to the oppression of women, resulting in increased barriers and decreased opportunities (Lerman, 1992).
The importance of recognizing the real barriers that women face is enormous. We cannot pretend that feeling unconditional positive regard, empathy, and genuineness from a counsellor will stop a woman from being sexually assaulted or allow her to come to terms with a society in which sexual assault is widespread. Humanistic therapists might suggest that it helps women to take responsibility for the sexual assault so that they can regain a sense of power (Corcoran, 1992). But the reality is that the responsibility of rape prevention cannot and should not reside within the individual woman. Statistics show that approximately 25% of Canadian women and 12% of Canadian men will be sexually assaulted within their lifetime (L. Gotell, personal communication, September 2008). A problem so prevalent can no longer be viewed as an individual problem, nor can it adequately be addressed this way in counselling.
Sexual assault is more than an individual problem because it affects every man and woman, directly or indirectly. If a person in the community is raped, other community members react. Muscio (2002) takes this notion further, stating that in a community where women love themselves and each other, “no one feels ‘lucky’ it was ‘some other woman’ who got raped” (p. 168). In a society where people are interconnected and where there is community, there is no such thing as “some other woman”.
To illustrate this concept, it is important to address real issues of rape and how they affect women in the community. In the city I live, the impact of sexual assault has arguably never been more underlined than it is right now. In the spring of 2008, a series of rapes occurred in the Garneau and Aspen Gardens areas of Edmonton. The police response to these attacks was to tell women to lock their doors and windows, even though it was clear that the perpetrator broke in. An anonymous group of women in the community organized in reaction to this situation, and began a postering campaign to address the perpetuation of sexual assault myths and “blame the victim” tactics (L. Gotell, personal communication, September 2008). One of the posters reads, “There is no such thing as an isolated attack on an individual woman. When a sister is raped, it is a rape of the sisterhood. The sisterhood is watching.” It is signed, “The Garneau Sisterhood”.
According to a feminist perspective, counselling should likewise address the problem of sexual assault on a society level (Greenspan, 1983). To create real possibilities for women we must fight the systemic barriers that face them. We can do this by creating space within the counselling session to discuss the existence of sexual assault as a community problem, rather than individual problem. We can then address the importance of addressing the individual concern at a societal level, and inevitably, we can create real opportunities for women through a social, institutional, political, and cultural revolution (Greenspan).
Real healing and loving oneself as a woman has to do not with accepting what happened to a person on the individual level, as person-centred theorists would suggest, but by becoming angry about a society that accepts the preposterous rate of sexual assault and continues to perpetuate “blame the victim” mythology. It is essential to recognize that “the symptoms that women bring to therapy are the individual manifestations of what is essentially a collective problem for all women [and] the cure for this problem must be collective as well” (Greenspan, 1983, p. 203). Counselling cannot end women’s oppression, but it can help women understand it and find ways to fight against it on a broader scale, and well as discover the collective power women do possess (Greenspan). In fighting the continued existence and acceptance of sexual assault, Muscio (2002) reminds us that “women can be kicked when we are down, but no one is stupid or strong enough to kick us when we are standing up, all, together” (p. 166).
In essence, a modality that focuses on the internal reality of the client to the exclusion of the environment they live in falls short. An individual cannot be separated from their environment, and to suggest so does not assist the client. To separate a sexual assault survivor from her community and insist that her problem is an individual one does a disservice to her, as well as to her community. The feminist approach to counselling acknowledges the existence of external barriers and assists the client in finding ways to fight against them through political activism.
Corcoran, C. B. (1992). From victim control to social change: A feminist perspective on campus rape prevention programs. In J. C Chrisler & D. Howard (Eds.), New directions in feminist psychology: Practice, theory, and research (pp. 130-140). New York: Springer Publishing Company, Inc.
Greenspan, M. (1983). A new approach to women and therapy. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Lerman, H. (1992). The limits of phenomenology: A feminist critique of the humanistic personality theories. In L. S. Brown & M. Ballou (Eds.), Personality and psychopathology: Feminist reappraisals (pp. 8-19). New York: The Guilford Press.
Muscio, I. (2002). Cunt: A declaration of independence (2nd edition). Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.
Raskin, N. J., & Rogers, C. R. (2005). Person-centered therapy. In R. J. Corsini & D. Wedding (Eds.), Current psychotherapies (7th edition) (pp. 130-165). Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.
Rogers, C. R. (1992). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 60(6), 827-832. Retrieved December 14, 2008, from PsycARTICLES database.
A few months ago I was facing some tension with an acquaintance (caused entirely by their unwillingness to hear my very reasonable “no” to their 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 their 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 to someone simply for the fact that someone I barely knew had guilt-tripped me about saying no. That wasn’t compromising. That was conceding.
Holy shit, have I been using the wrong definition of compromise for my entire life? My mind started racing, and I actually looked up the definition of compromise on the spot (or, Siri looked it up for me). 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.
And is that a good enough reason to say no? I think it is. But so 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. I’ve gotten to a place in my life where I’ve recognized it’s okay to step out of that role. I’m not going around creating unnecessary tension, but I’m not going to go out of my way and do my self a disservice just to make someone else happy.
Now, some people might be thinking, in this example 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.
I think a lot of us can get caught up in this wishful thinking. So let me reiterate something from above – they were 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, 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?
I'm a psychologist, activist, and writer. I believe in sharing our stories and wisdom as a tool for our own healing as well as the healing of those around us. For this reason I've chosen to share what I'm learning, as well as guest posts from other people who've been there.
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.