One Psychologist’s Challenge to Walk the Walk

By Cathy Walls - 04/01/2022


Just like my clients, I encounter challenges in managing my relationships with myself and others in healthy ways. Because of the work I do, I am surrounded by information and ideas to help me live my life and connect with others in a healthier way.  In order to be congruent in my work and personal life, I never recommend doing something that I am unwilling to do.  Therefore, in teaching or recommending specific things to my clients, I feel myself challenged to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. 

It seems that we are biologically wired to avoid uncomfortable situations and feelings.  Maybe it is the old part of our brain telling us we are unsafe and to avoid these experiences at all cost.  However, we know that although avoidance may feel better in the short term, it leads to all sorts of social and personal issues in the long run such as disconnection and internal conflict. Moreover, I think we know that being uncomfortable leads to growth and change, to learning and doing things better.  Knowing things intellectually and being able to do them with an open heart are two very different things. 

I am going to write about a few of my personal challenges and how I cope. It feels vulnerable to write about these challenges, because I tell myself that as the professional, I should know better or do better.  However, I know that this thinking is not healthy and contributes to my not walking the walk.  I believe that being transparent and vulnerable is important in relationships.  I do have specialized training to help people, but I am also walking with people as a part of their life journey.  And as I walk with them, I am human too. 

Holding space for difficult conversations. 

We teach our clients that by being able to have emotionally challenging conversations with others, they can build safety, trust, and intimacy in  these relationships. They will also learn that they can keep themselves safe in relationship without people pleasing or avoiding advocating for their needs being met. They can also experience that they will be ok when others are disappointed or displeased with them.  But to build safety, we are also taking the risk of losing the relationship.  And to learn that we can be ok during an emotionally challenging conversation, we may also feel shaky inside and not be ok.  Because it likely takes time for the difficult conversation to play itself out, we will have to reassure ourselves often that it will be ok and that we can only do our part in building safety and trust in this relationship.  Before the conversation, take the time to make sure that you are coming from a caring place and not being reactive.  You may also want to consult with someone you trust. Having healthy communication and listening skills, a process, or the words to use can be helpful. I know that I cannot do things that I have not been taught.  In addition, working to heal the hurting parts of myself can be helpful in keeping myself calm and curious during the conversation. 

Healthy boundaries. 

For me, this is challenging both at work and home.  There are many times when I am unsure what the healthiest boundary is or I am too afraid to set and/or enforce my boundary.  I find Marilyn Murray’s Circles of Intimacy, Responsibility, and Impact to be a powerful tool that is easy to use as a check. I have to keep myself in the number 1 circle and keep other people and activities in their appropriate circles so that I am the best I can be, not only for myself, but for others. Learning that saying “No” is a complete sentence has been reassuring.  I don’t have to explain my needs to others.  Sometimes I may not know why, but something just does or doesn’t feel right to me.  Continuing to educate myself about boundaries and listening to my feelings in addition to my thoughts also helps. 

Healthy self-esteem. 

Self-care is central to this concept.  I can’t feel good about me if I am tired, frazzled, or overwhelmed.  Regularly being outdoors and doing yoga are helpful for me.  I also practice mindfulness meditation with an app on my phone.  Regular social contact with those I love is crucial.  Terry Real’s Circles of Health is an easy check on where I am in terms of healthy self-esteem and healthy boundaries.  I have learned to not push away parts of me that are feeling uncomfortable feelings.  Instead, I will check in with that part from a place of curiosity, listening to what it needs.  Hopefully, I can reassure those parts of me that are struggling that it will be ok.  In therapy, addressing core negative beliefs has been freeing.  It never surprises me how many people are walking around with a negative core belief that they are not good enough.

Again, as I write this, I am experiencing internal conflict: is it ok to have this risky conversation in such a public format (holding space for difficult conversations)? Am I revealing too much about myself (personal vs professional boundaries)?  Do I feel good enough about myself to be vulnerable about my struggles (healthy self-esteem)?  Not sure if there are easy answers, but I am trying. 

Although it is embarrassing and painful, it is very healing to stop hiding from yourself. It is healing to know all the ways that you’re sneaky, all the ways that you hide out, all the ways that you shut down, deny, close off, criticize people, all your weird little ways. You can know all of that with some sense of humor and kindness. By knowing yourself, you’re coming to know humanness altogether. We are all up against these things. We are all in this together.

– Pema Chodron, author of When Things Fall Apart

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