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?
How I feel about this podcast can best be summed up by a text I sent my partner after listening to a few episodes of SMNTY: "listen to this podcast. You will understand my life".
I love how this podcast speaks to the lives of women and aims to openly discuss this in the context of intersecting identities like race, sexual orientation, abuse history, and so on. I love that it helps me find words to describe what I'm experiencing and what my clients are experiencing, when I didn't know there were words for it (or couldn't find them easily).
The two hosts are fierce, feminist, and so funny. The two episodes that stood out to me recently have to do with boundaries and communication. They really come from a worldview that I can respect – they believe that there’s nothing wrong with the way you communicate. They recognize that women are often made to believe that how they’re communicating is just “too much” in one way or another (too assertive, too bossy, too whiny, etc). They tackle all sorts of topics, but the two that most closely connect with boundaries are:
“Policing Women’s Speech” - People love giving women advice on how to speak at work. But is this advice always grounded in fact? E&B break it down.
"Negotiation No-No’s" - Negotiating a salary or promotion can be nerve-wracking. Here are all the mistakes we’ve made, so you don’t have to.
I absolutely learned some things in the negotiation episode that I wish I had known back in the days of working for someone else. I'm glad to know it now as I help women navigate career moves, especially because what's shared in the episode acknowledges the specific barriers that women contend with, and the advice is evidence-based.
Setting boundaries starts with believing you’re worth it. Believing that you’re worth putting as a priority, and that you deserve to have your needs met. That means letting go of guilt and shame, and practicing turning toward yourself, even though it’s uncomfortable.
And, it will be uncomfortable. I’ve watched so many people work on saying “no” for the first time in their lives, and it’s not usually pleasant. “I feel so bad,” *Sarah told me, about saying no to extra hours at work. “It’s not like I’m physically unable to be there – I just don’t want to. Doesn’t this make me a selfish person?”
My answer is a resounding no. Listening to your limits and acting in line with them isn’t selfish – it’s self-sufficient. Being able to choose where we put our time and energy is a very healthy, adult thing to do.
Now, that doesn’t mean you aren’t going to feel selfish, or bad, or weird and uncomfortable. It actually makes sense that you would. We’ve all spent a lifetime learning to take care of everyone else before ourselves (especially those of us who’ve been socialized as female). We’ve been taught to be nice, and make others around us comfortable, and never to make waves. This all falls into the category of emotional labor, a form of labor that often goes unrecognized and unappreciated in our culture. We’re taught to do all these things at a detriment to ourselves.
So, when we start to turn toward ourselves, it’s no wonder it feels strange. It’s so contrary to much of what we’ve been taught. But feeling strange or weird or bad doesn’t mean you’re doing the wrong thing. The good news is that they more you practice turning toward yourself, the better and more normal it feels. I hear this from the people I work with all the time – the first time can feel really uncomfortable, but you survive it. The next time is a little bit easier, and the next time after that is even easier, and so on. You realize that the world doesn’t fall apart just because you have needs, too.
It turns out there’s of people who struggle with this… so I’m offering an entire group on the topic! Find out more here and don’t hesitate to share with a friend.
*not her real name
What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl's Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety by Jaclyn Friedman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It's been awhile since I sat down and read this book cover to cover, but I recommend it often. There are so many amazing exercises to help deal with toxic shame and get rid of external messages about sexuality. One of the most powerful included writing a letter from your future self to your present sex with what she would want you to know about sex and sexuality.
The book addresses self-love, and includes really moving "go deeper" prompts like choosing a photograph of yourself you like and writing a love letter to the woman in the photograph. I've often given this exercise to group members as homework and it's *always* really moving.
One of my favorite chapters delves into boundaries. It starts with listening to your intuition and then introduces readers to the "Nice Person Test" (so good!).
I love the feminist perspective - she starts off with helping readers understand where all the shaming messages about sex came from through a bit of personal inquiry, she breaks down the myths and facts, and she offers a really direct and nonjudgmental space to explore sexual desire.
The book has a ton in it to explore and I could imagine using it for group therapy, a book club, or revisiting again and again over the years.
View all my reviews
In the last 5 years I've worked with more and more helping professionals and caregivers, supporting them to be a support to others. It's probably one of the things I enjoy the most, because there are so many good people out there trying to do helping work, and I've actually figured out some things that can allow them to keep doing what they're passionate about, despite the heaviness of the work. I get a little excited about this because I now know without a doubt that it is completely possible to do some amazing things without giving up your life in the process. And actually, it's not only possible, but better for everyone involved - keep in mind that we're able to do more and better work when we can still connect to our own aliveness.
I've noticed that social work and nursing in particular are two of the jobs most susceptible to burnout at a young age (27!), though burnout is also a concern in many other types of helping roles. This could include being a caregiver for a loved one with a mental health issue, an aging parent, a child who is battling an addiction, or even the helping work you take on as a social justice advocate or volunteer. Whatever the particular role (or more often roles), many people struggle with the practicalities of how to be in a caring role while still having boundaries. I'm hoping this post will help those who can relate to being in a caregiving relationship of any kind and are wanting to do it in a way that's sustainable.
As a helping professional, part of our job is to connect with people. But there can be this unhealthy thing that happens where instead of joining with the person we're caring for in a way that feels safe and connected for both of us, we accidentally begin to merge with them.
What does it mean to merge? To merge means we take on their nervous system (so their despair becomes ours, and their anxiety becomes ours, for example. As they begin breathing faster or becoming collapsed in their bodies, so do we). As this happens, we begin to lose ourselves and our boundaries. Now, one of the hallmarks of trauma is a lack of curiosity (about the future, new activities, and the here and now… so if we lose that curiosity, and just start to feel in despair WITH them, we need to pay attention to that). Another sign that we're merging could be when we find ourselves all too often in the caretaking role despite the effect it’s having on us. Or when we feel the need to fix someone, and say to ourselves “I have to take on the hardest cases because they NEED me”. When this type of merging happens, then we've lost our curiosity and your hopefulness in their ability to heal. And we will get sick.
Joined with the person we’re helping is the place we’re aiming to be more of the time. Being joined means we're connected to ourselves, in the here and now, hopeful, and curious.
A third possibility is that we become disengaged (giving up, thinking about something else). This isn't helpful either, as healing depends on human connection and presence.
If you find yourself merging, what can you do?
It’s an important question and one that most caregivers find themselves struggling with at some point. My answer is to remember that the hour you can spend exposing that person to a healthy nervous system can be hugely impactful. You don’t actually have to fix this for them, or take on their pain for them.
So, you may want to ask yourself:
What helps you get grounded within yourself?
What helps you move from being merged to being joined?
Good luck exploring!
*The framework of merging and joining was taught to me at a Somatic Experiencing workshop I attended – it’s not something I created. I want to honor those contributions, and many others, to the ongoing conversation about sustainable caregiving.*
So I don’t know how many of you have seen a counselor, or if you ever wonder what goes on in the world of a psychologist OUTSIDE the therapy room (“do they really do all the meditating they’re telling me is so beneficial?”) but I’ve got a little bit of insight that I’d like to share with you. I have noticed that in psychology, self care gets talked about a lot… but similar to other helping fields, the actual practice of putting ourselves as a priority is not so good. There’s a lot of TALK about work-life balance, but the structural systems within the workplace – be it nonprofit or private practice – make it really hard to actually have balance. Now, in my early 20s, I was excited enough about the work, and energetic enough, that I could “buckle down and push through”. But by the time I turned 27 – not that old – the effect of “pushing through” was starting to wear on me.
Just to give you an idea, I have worked overnights, shift work, several jobs at once, and I often took on the hardest cases with the people facing the most barriers, with little or no structural support.
I was in the process of dealing with a particularly difficult situation when my body finally said “stop”. And I knew the signs of burnout, so I listened.
Unfortunately, the signs of stress I was noticing didn’t go away as soon as I exited stressful environment. The chronic stress I’d been dealing with over the years, along with the acute stress of the situation, was too much for my body to handle. I started getting migraines more and more often, even on days when I was trying to take care of myself. It progressed to a point where I was dealing with high intensity pain on a daily basis. And that went on for a year.
So for those of you who’ve ever had a migraine, I probably need to say no more, but for those of you who haven’t, I can tell you that the constant brace against and managing of chronic pain is so consuming that it doesn’t take long before despair and hopelessness start to flood in.
The only thing I could do at that point was drastically change my life. And I did. I significantly decreased my working hours, I changed the hours I was in the office, and I began a practice of ongoing health care including yoga, meditation, mindfulness, biofeedback, walking, and therapeutic massage. I was very selective about what I did take on, because I knew that I might only have a few hours each day to focus on something other than managing my pain.
Now, fast forward a couple years and my health is much better, but I know that I will never be able or willing to take on as much as I used to. And this is different than just tacking on a yoga class at the end of each hectic week. Life had to change.
One thing I've come to realize over the years is that, contrary to popular belief, everyone has boundaries. Stick with me - I know it's so common to feel that if you're a people pleaser, it means you have "no boundaries". So let's get really clear. Boundaries are your own unique sense of what’s okay for you and what isn’t. It’s your internal understanding of what nourishes you and what doesn’t. We all have that understanding inside of us. We all have limits. What commonly happens is that over the years that we lose touch with our boundaries, or we learn that they're not important. So, with that in mind, when you start working on your own boundaries, what you're really doing is learning to listen to and respect your own limits.
You may find as you work on boundaries that you've been acting out of sync with your internal sense of what's best for you. For example, if you find yourself acting very rigidly and walled off from situation to situation despite wanting closeness, or you find yourself unable to say no and put yourself as a priority in a way that's leading to burnout, this may be an indicator its time to work on your relationship with your own boundaries.
Boundaries seem to land on a continuum. On the one end there are boundaries that are open (meaning you let quite a lot in), and on the other end are boundaries that are closed (meaning not much gets in at all).
The more “open” side of the continuum is characterized by taking on other people’s opinions of you and allowing that to alter how you feel about yourself. It also involves taking on other people’s feelings, so that their anxiety becomes your anxiety, their disappointment becomes your disappointment, and so on. People on this side may have a harder time standing up for themselves even when they’re feeling uncomfortable. It also might mean sharing a lot of personal information without the foundation of a trusting relationship within which to do that.
The more “closed” side of the continuum involves being protected, but not influence-able –nothing comes in. Walls can protect you at times, but when overused, tend to keep you isolated from others and closed to the healing potential of vulnerability. There are several types of walls, including walls of anger, words, preoccupation, silence, worry, depression, humor, pleasantry, and seduction. This allows you to feel safer but the consequence is that you become cut off from yourself and ultimately cut off from life. Walls may be appropriate for everyday interactions at work or in new social situations. However, walls do not allow for self-awareness or intimacy, and so the barriers you initially put up to protect yourself, when overused, can start to feel like a prison.
Where you land on the continuum is likely to be different depending on context - for example, what's appropriate at work isn't going to be the same as what's appropriate within a loving, respectful relationship. Take a moment to think about where you land in the following categories: work, school, intimate relationship, close friends, acquaintances, strangers, volunteer work, and family. Once you've mapped out how open or closed your boundaries are in each situation, you can ask yourself if there's anything you'd like to change. You may want to invite more intimacy in certain situations, and you may want more of a protective barrier in others. It's up to you to choose what's best for you. Just remember - even nice people have limits.
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
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.