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?
Sometimes people find themselves dealing with low mood, inability to get motivated, irritability, and a feeling like they can’t get anything done at work. If this has ever happened to you, you might wonder “Is this depression or is it burnout? Are they the same thing?” They share some of the same symptoms including exhaustion, difficulty sleeping, withdrawal from social activities, concentration problems, irritability, and low mood, so it’s not surprising it can be hard to differentiate the two.
I thought it might be helpful to write about some of the similarities and differences. Before I begin, I’d like to remind you that if you’re experiencing mental health symptoms, you should consult with your family doctor, psychologist, or other licensed mental health professional for individualized assessment and advice. Although I love sharing ideas through my writing, I can only offer so much nuance through a general blog. This is very different from ongoing and personalized care with someone who knows your situation and knows you.
So, how are they different?
As a feminist psychologist, I work hard with clients to look at the context that leads to our mental health struggles. For both depression and burnout, I see these issues as largely impacted by the context we’re living in. One difference would be in the types of experiences and situations that most often put us at risk.
When clients are dealing with depression, we might explore some of the current or past experiences that could be contributing to it. For example, childhood neglect, trauma, loneliness and isolation, and shaming experiences could be seen as contributing factors. Johann Hari has an incredible book called “Lost Connections” on the contextual factors that contribute to depression. In it, he identifies disconnection as the primary source of depression. Specifically, he talks about disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from others, disconnection from meaningful values, disconnection from status, disconnection from nature, disconnection from a secure and hopeful future. He also writes about childhood trauma, changes in the brain, and genetic factors. This falls in line with the widely accepted biopsychosocial model, which suggests that some people have risk factors such as genetic predisposition, and it also ascertains that there are many factors both in our histories, current personal circumstances, and the more global context that can lead a person to experiencing depression.
Unlike depression, which can be related to many factors, burnout is primarily related to our work. In fact, it’s defined this way. As of 2019, burnout was recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) and included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon (WHO, 2019). Burnout differs from other mental health disorders because it is tied directly into a person’s relationship with their work.
What we can do about burnout
Because burnout is defined this way, it means that people who are experiencing burnout and are able to take a break or extended leave from work will likely start to feel better. Of course, it takes time to recover, and we need to be patient with ourselves through the recovery process. But, largely, removing yourself from the situation that has made you feel unwell will start to bring relief. Working through depression, on the other hand, isn’t as straightforward as leaving a job or taking a break.
If you think you might be experiencing burnout, you could ask yourself some of the following questions:
I’d also encourage you to watch my mini course on How to Prevent Burnout, because I share the definition of burnout, the workplace-related causes of it, and some ideas of what you can do to prevent it (other than just quitting your job!)
Footnote: Hari’s book, in my opinion, can come across as a bit anti-medication. I wanted to note that this is not my stance, and I don’t want to further stigmatize or shame the pathways that work for people. I’m supportive of what works best for my clients, which sometimes involves medication, and sometimes does not.
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.
From my perspective, self-compassion boils down to being as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend. Over the years I've had a lot of people ask me about whether they could forgo compassion and just get things done by motivating themselves through shame and grit. My short answer is, I tried that method. As I’ve previously shared, it led to an entire year of intense daily pain. That was over years ago and I still have chronic pain issues, so life will never quite be the same. Fortunately, I've found ways to cope with it that don't involve telling myself what I "should" be doing.⠀
Oh, and the other answer involves that there's good research to back up my very individual story (thanks Kristen Neff!) about how shame isn't motivating – self-compassion is the way forward.
When I talk to clients about self-compassion, I often talk about acceptance. In this post, I wanted to touch on acceptance in three specific areas: acceptance of mistakes, acceptance of our limits, and acceptance of our feelings.
Accepting that we make mistakes
We hold ourselves to such impossible standards sometimes. And hey, I get it. If we can just be perfect, then we’ll never have to feel the horrible feeling of shame, right? So we aim for perfection, try never to make a mistake, and then hold our breath. Unfortunately, perfection is a plane of existence that doesn’t exist.⠀
From my perspective, not only is making mistakes allowed, but we can end up growing and transforming because of them. It’s part of what helps us move through life and learn about ourselves and our world. When we make a mistake, I feel like there’s SO MUCH we can do with it. Getting stuck in shame is not the only way. We can actually learn, repair, forgive ourselves, and do a ton of amazing healing work after we mess up.
I know forgiving ourselves might be a hard one, so here's my thought: we all make mistakes. After all, we're all human. We can learn to be accountable. We can learn to take responsibility for our part. We can learn to take a step back from shame and forgive ourselves, remembering that our mistakes (or the things we didn't know then) don't have to define who we are.
Accepting our feelings
Accepting our feelings has been an especially significant theme in the last year because many of us have been feeling uncomfortable emotions and probably also wishing we weren’t going through so much stress, anxiety, and pain. Isn’t that human? To be wanting to move away from the hard parts, and also to be feeling a lot of it right now.
However, when we try to get away from the difficulty, we deny our reality. And that reality doesn’t go away. We might temporarily push it down, but to what effect? The most long-lasting impact I see is what Tara Brach would describe as shooting ourselves with the second arrow. Not only are we still feeling the initial anxiety that was there – we’re now also feeling the shame of it too (“what’s wrong with me that I just can’t get through this?”). We’re left with twice as much pain, or more often more than we initially started with.
Now don’t get me wrong. If I could magically get rid of my fear of public speaking, or airplanes, I would! But since I can’t wave that wand, I’ve found there’s a better option: acceptance. Leading up to those events, I can take of those fears and anxieties rather than ignore them or try to muscle my way through the pain. Most of us know by now that pain gets worse when we try to suppress it, so I think it’s time to try something different. When we’re more self-compassionate and can accept what we’re experiencing as human, we do a way better job of taking care of the physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts that go along with everyday life, and the whole thing gets easier to cope with and less intense over time.
Accepting that you have limits
You may have noticed by now that acceptance is a tough one because we're working to accept things we'd rather not. Like the fact that we do, in fact, have limits and can't do it all. Or like how we wish we had more time and energy for the things and people we love and, at the same time, our body is breaking down, making it impossible to give any more without great detriment to our health. ⠀
At the risk of sounding repetitive, you are human. Even if sometimes you don’t want to be constrained by those limitations. Even if you think you should be "better by now" or "able to handle more". Fighting it isn’t working anymore. Pretending it’s not there isn’t working anymore. Work on accepting that, just like every other human on this planet, you have limits too.
If you’re curious to learn more, please feel free to check out my new online Shame Resilience Skills course. I go over more of the elements of acceptance and my favorite ways of bringing about more self-compassion into your daily life.
As Brian Mahan described, shame is predominantly a physiological wound. We have a physiological response to shaming experiences; a holding pattern or stuckness that can emerge. Even for people who might know on a cognitive level that they have nothing to feel ashamed of, deep in our bodies we feel unworthy, bad, or wrong.
This knowledge can guide us to how we can heal shame. It's not just a matter of having new cognitive information: it's the physiology that we need to heal. So, if we can work with our imagination in the present, then the lower brain is going to take all the information as if it was real, as if it was happening now, and we’re going to have a physiological response to it. If we can have a physiological experience of compassion, softness, or being protected... well, it's an entirely new pathway.
Said another way, the lower brain is collecting information from the higher brain and middle brain as well as our five senses. It does not have the capacity to differentiate between reality and perception. This is why imagination is such a powerful way of working with shame. Through imagination, we have a new physiological response. Imagining something compassionate, protective or kind happening for our younger self can have an effect on our brain that’s quite similar as if it had actually happened for us.
In my work I've been helping clients revisit the original shaming incidents through imagination. By doing so, we can help the child part of them have a new experience of feeling understood, safe or welcome. For example, through imagination we might help the wounded child understand that they did nothing wrong.
This is important because, when we're children and something goes wrong (e.g. parents get divorced, we experience neglect, someone is cruel to us, etc.), our child-brain understanding of why that happened is because "something is wrong with me". We feel the pain and we can't see that it might have been our parent that caused the pain (because our parent is perfect, in our minds), so it must be us. We take "something is wrong with me" as absolute truth, and it becomes a powerful coherent narrative because then it explains (or seems to explain) everything else difficult that follows. If later we're bullied at school, or if we experience body-shaming in the culture, or if we struggle in friendships, it all feels like it's because "something is wrong with me". And we never question it. It just feels true, because we adopted it SO EARLY ON, before we had the capacity to think critically or examine things from other perspectives.
Using imagination to help give the young child the kindness, support, and unconditional love they needed back then allows us to free ourselves from toxic shame. This way of working is very much in line with what I learned from the hakomi therapy community: that we heal not by having new information, but by having new experiences.
In this video, I provide an intro to shame (including examples of how it can show up in our day to day lives) and shame resilience. Shame resilience starts with being able to identify shame and take a step back from it when it arises. Fortunately, shame resilience can start today with tools such as self-compassion. I include one simple idea anyone can try out, starting right now.
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
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.
I know that so many parents are currently overwhelmed. I’ve talked to a lot of people who are suddenly finding themselves in a situation where they’re asking to be both a full-time worker and a full-time parent (sometimes single parent), and honestly, I just don’t know how this is possible. I’ve been so lucky that when the pandemic hit, my partner and I had what amounted to a 2-minute heart to heart on what we’d do about childcare. Me: “So…. You cool with going back to being the stay at home dad?” Him: “Oh yeah. That’s what I figured we’d do because it’s the only thing that makes sense.” And that was the end of that. She’s not at Kindergarten age yet so there’s no homework to be done, nothing special to keep up with. Not that it’s easy for him to do the parenting all day – but for us it’s at least it’s restricted to parenting, and not all these other tasks that other parents are trying to juggle. Most parents we know haven’t had it so easy. Usually they’re still working while also trying to figure out how to take care of the kiddos at the same time. And figuring out school expectations, and homework, and related technology.
I have a lot of compassion for the position this puts parents in because as as great as you might be at grade 3 math, you are not a math teacher. And on the off chance you are (oh hi!), you’re probably not your own kid’s math teacher, right? I learned this lesson very quickly when I took my daughter to gymnastics lessons this year. (So. Much. Fun. For me and for her). After a few weeks of official, totally fun lessons, I asked her if she wanted to do some of the skills at home one day, and she had an enthusiastic yes. This had me pretty excited because I love gymnastics and the idea of cartwheeling around together just seemed great. So we started to practice her forward rolls, and not 2 minutes in…. “THAT’S NOT HOW YOU DO IT MAMA!” She was frustrated enough to be stomping away. Apparently I was helping her “wrong” and that’s why her roll had gone sideways. No amount of explaining that I was doing it exactly the same way her teacher had done it (I watched) or that I’d done gymnastics for years before was helpful. I figured out that day that my job as her mama was to cheer her on from behind the glass wall (“you worked so hard! I’m proud of you!”) and not at all to try to give her feedback on how it could be better or teach her these particular skills. I’ll leave that up to the professionals. Who she does not stomp away from.
An update to this story. These days, we’re doing gymnastics videos from home. She still learns from the teacher, and I still watch with much cheering, very minimal interference. Once in awhile, I’ll ask her “do you want my help with this one?” and that’s been okay, but I offer it sparingly, because I still know that if I take on too much of the teacher role, it’ll be frustrating for both of us. I keep reminding myself that the point is for her to have fun, and as long as she’s not doing anything wildly dangerous, I really don’t need to step in. It’s not my job to make sure she has a perfect handstand. She’s 5. It doesn’t matter.
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.
The importance of naming, without judgment, our emotions. We can bring compassion to our experience and make space for complexity in this difficult time.
I’ve been offering video sessions for years now, and so when I made the move to mostly telehealth services this week, I knew I’d be in my comfort zone. I already know what wonderful connections can be made this way, and the deep work that can be done. As a somatic practitioner, I’ve been pleased to receive reminders about the ways we can work with the body. It feels like so much is possible. I know we wouldn’t have chosen the situation we’re in now, but given what’s going on, I’ve been thinking of a few of the benefits to telehealth services, and wanted to share what I came up with.
1. Accessibility: I’ve always thought that telehealth would be ideal for people who are otherwise unable to come into the office but still want to prioritize their mental health and access services. It could be transportation issues like you’re in a small Albertan town and the commute is just a bit too far, or you’re here in Edmonton winter and the roads are not worth driving on, or you don’t have access to a reliable vehicle but you still want to access services. I also think about accessibility in terms of chronic pain where sometimes it’s better not to leave the house because you’re more able to take care of yourself at home, and part of taking care of yourself is still having a session. Or maybe you’re sick and staying at home to take care of your health and the health of others, but you really still wanted to connect about that anxiety and depression you’re working through. Or, you’re taking care of young children and today you have no other childcare options. For me, this one is all about reducing barriers.
2. Comfort: Some people really like having the comforts of home around them – like an important animal, a blanket they can curl up with, and being in their most relaxed clothes. When our nervous system can begin from a more settled place, there’s already room for more of a shift to occur. When we’re done the session, you can stay in that comfort and continue to relax into it, rather than worry about dealing with traffic on your commute home.
3. Bravery: This one’s kind of interesting. Over video, sometimes people find themselves able to be a bit braver with what they share or are willing to try out. I’m not sitting in the room staring straight at you (okay, I try not to do that anyway), and sometimes that bit of distance allows people to feel like they can actually be more vulnerable. Also when I invite people to do something they feel silly about, they can move offscreen to do it. Tada!
4. Integration: Sometimes people feel like my office is a magical place where they can self-regulate and feel their boundaries and all sorts of good stuff, but have a hard time translating those skills to home. Doing a session from your home space may allow you to embody self-regulation and other skills into areas of your life that you’re most hoping to take them into.
In light of Alberta being in a declared state of public health emergency, I have made an update in my policies on seeing clients in person at this time. I am deeply confident that we all want to take care of each other at this time and in this spirit, I'm now moving to video as my preference for connecting with clients, with in-person appointments reserved only for those unable to find a private and secure space to connect from. I am also reserving a few spots for those actively engaged in EMDR, who desire to continue meeting in person. Please email me directly if you would like one of these spots to be reserved for you. I have been thoughtful in making this move. Given our current situation with COVID-19, I'm anticipating that this will be a long term solution rather than a short term fix. It looks like this will be our new normal for a few months at least.
I am happy to offer online sessions via Doxy, a confidential online telehealth platform. I often do online sessions for clients if a need arises, and believe I can confidently offer my support through these means.
I recognize that this may feel like a daunting time for some of you. I appreciated your understanding of the importance of collective effort.
There are a few things to keep in mind with any technology that I do want to remind everyone of:
• It is important to be in a quiet, private space that is free of distractions (including cell phone or other devices) during the session.
• It is important to use a secure internet connection rather than free/public WiFi.
• You may want to use earbuds/headphones to help with privacy and reduce feedback noise.
• Confidentiality still applies to online services, so no one is to record the session.
• It can help to make sure you're prepared ahead of time as much as possible by making sure you have a power cord, testing out your camera and microphone etc. At the same time, technology isn't perfect. Therefore, a telephone backup may need to be used, which can result in a temporary disruption to the session and some reduced effectiveness in communication.
To connect at our scheduled meeting time, simply login to my “waiting room” (I'll send you the link), type in your name, and wait for me to begin the session. It’s helpful if you’re able to arrive there 5-10 minutes in advance of the session in order to make sure that your audio/visual is working. If you’re connecting via a laptop, you won’t need to download anything, though if you’re using a tablet or mobile, you may need to download an app.
If Doxy is down, I will send you a Zoom link in order to connect. Zoom is also free to use, but it does require a download, so you may want to do this in advance.
If the case of all technology failure, I will call you. Please ensure that I have your current phone number on file.
What Our Office is Doing - A Note from Transcend and Blossom
In an effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19 we are taking extra precautions at the office by:
• Disinfecting door knobs, chairs, desks, other touchable surfaces throughout the day in individual offices and common areas.
• The building is also taking extra disinfecting measures throughout the day including placing hand sanitizer dispensers at points of entry to the main building.
• Removing magazines / puzzle books from the waiting room. Until further notice please bring your own entertainment.
• Reducing the availability of beverages and snacks in the waiting area, so as to discourage common contact points.
To protect yourself and others, we encourage the following guidelines from Alberta Health Services:
• Use good hygiene practices such as frequent and thorough hand washing
• Cover coughs and sneezes
• Avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
• Stay at home and away from others if you are feeling ill
If you have symptoms such as fever, cough, or shortness of breath, please do not go to a health care facility. Instead, call Health Link 811 for assessment and testing.
Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or require further information. Thank you.
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.