Welcome to the Voice of Counseling from the American Counseling Association. I'm Christa Butler, co-hosting with Emily St. Amant. Joining us today is Nedra Glover Tawwab, who is a therapist, New York Times bestselling author and relationship expert. Nedra is here to talk about boundaries and how to create healthy relationships. Nedra has practiced as a licensed clinical social worker for 15 years, and she is the founder and owner of the group Therapy Practice, Kaleidoscope Counseling. Nedra has authored multiple books including the New York Times bestseller, Set Boundaries, Find Peace. Every Day she helps people create healthy relationships by teaching them how to implement boundaries. Nedra has appeared as an expert on Red Table Talk, The Breakfast Club, Good Morning America and CBS Morning Show to name a few. She runs a popular Instagram account where she shares practices, tools, and reflections for mental health. Nedra, we cannot thank you enough for being here with us today. Before we get started with our questions, is there anything else you'd like to share about your background and the work that you do?
Other than I love being a therapist and I think this was something that I walked into and did not know that I needed as much as I did, no. I'm so excited to get started with our chat.
Thank you. We have so many questions for you and we are excited to have you on. The first thing that we're really curious about is your expertise is in setting boundaries in all types of relationships, and we were wondering if you could talk about what you've seen in your work as a therapist with clients, but also maybe your personal life and professional experiences outside of the therapy room that have motivated you to focus on boundaries.
There are so many things that therapists talk about with clients on a day-to-day basis that we don't necessarily identify as boundary issues. I have always leaned towards practiced and process-based therapy. I think when you're processing, it's great to know why things happen, know where the emotion came from, but it's also really important for some of my clients to be able to practice the things that they process. And that's where the boundary work comes in. It's helpful to get to a point of knowing why this thing is happening in your family or why you're taking on so many work projects or why you continuously have certain issues and dating relationships, but how do we get you to the practice of finding healthier partners? How do we get you to the practice of not cutting relationships off when they really start to get good? And so that's where the boundaries work started to come in.
This is a wonderful tool to be able to help people see some of the things that they can implement in their lives that would not just be these things that they think about, but this life that they can practice outside of therapy. Because I love talking to people once a week or every other week, but it's only once a week and I think most of the therapy work happens outside of the time that you see me. And so I want to offer you an opportunity to use this tool.
Absolutely. And I think that that is what sets your work apart so much to me. We have a lot of people that, in our trainings, we focus on leading from behind and letting the client be the expert in so many ways. However, when people start to learn how to do something new, you talked about the skills, how do we actually start doing this? And I think that that's why your work speaks to so many people because it's not like a formula or it's not hear say this if they say that, kind of thing. It's some ideas to get you started on your path to setting better boundaries with other people.
I think another piece to that is you talked about the practice and the process focus. And so, like you said, while we can process our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, reactions and all of that, it really does take time and it takes practice for us to master skills and to master new behaviors and new ways of how we relate to others and in terms of our relationships.
I shy away from master and I go back to practice because I think boundaries is a process that you practice. I don't know if we'll get to a point where it's like, "I've mastered saying the right thing in every situation. I've mastered setting all boundaries." I was having a conversation with a friend once about a family relationship and needing a new boundary and she said, "You have implemented all of the boundaries possible. You've mastered them. It's the relationship." So it's like sometimes that mastering, it's a high goal, but I think most of what we're doing is just practicing, practicing because we have off moments. We have moments where we dip our toe back into a little bit of our messy side and then we come back to collect it. "I've been to therapy, I know how to say this properly." So it's a process, we operate on a continuum.
That's a really good point. Yeah. Yeah, I think that's a really good point because I think what you're also speaking to is just the process of being lifelong learners, lifelong growers, and always evolving. And those moments where like you said, we may step back and then we are able to evaluate some of the progress that we may have made in the past to perhaps bring that back into that present moment as well.
And a lot of people when they're on this journey, right, because it's not so much about the destination, it's about the process, the journey, especially when starting off, but even down the road, it can be very uncomfortable to set a boundary, to stand up for yourself, to articulate your needs, especially if you're not used to doing that. So can you explain, maybe some of your thoughts on why that's such a common experience?
As a mother who is a therapist, all of that childhood psychology stuff comes into practice in some way. All of those developmental psych classes and these books that I've read. I start to look at not just my kids, but kids in general, myself as a child. And I remember having boundaries. I don't always remember those boundaries being respected because there are times when adults may think that something is really important or it's not that big of a deal for a kid that I thought was really important to me. So I think many of us have boundaries sort of built into who we are. And there is some portion of life where we weren't able to express those boundaries or those boundaries weren't encouraged or those boundaries weren't nurtured. And so, we start to pull back on the boundaries because we've learned it's not really safe to have boundaries.
You make people mad when you have boundaries, and so we lose them. And here we are as adults, reclaiming our boundaries. "No, I don't want to come to your birthday party," very third-grade stuff. "No, I don't want to be your friend." We're still doing this stuff because we have lost the practice of doing it. So now we are having to go back and say, "Okay, wait. What feels good in this situation?" It's often not a issue of what your boundaries should be. People mostly struggle with how to execute it, how to say it, how to practice it. People know already like, "Ugh, I don't want to go to my parents' house for Thanksgiving." They're able to say that it's the practice of not going to your parents' house for Thanksgiving. That's the problem.
So sometimes we're a little confused. We might be like, "Ah, I don't know." But I found a lot of people are super clear about what they do and don't want, but we then concern ourselves, well with how will these people receive it? Will I get in trouble? Will this relationship be damaged? All of these what-ifs.
Right. So it might be scary for people because we're afraid to let people down and potentially lose the relationship. And we are social creatures. We need other people. So I think for so many of us, it's hard to strike that balance between respecting ourselves and getting what we need, but then also how do we do relationships with other people?
Yeah, it is some balance there of how to be in relationships with others while always being in a relationship with ourselves. Sometimes I've heard people say, "Boundaries are selfish," and it's like, to an extent, healthy selfishness. When I think of self selfishness, the way that most of us use it's like this undercutting and my thing is more important than your thing. And it's like both things can be important and you should both have some boundaries in this situation and try to figure out what you want, a compromise. I think about moving in with a partner. There is two sets of dishes, two sets of silverware, two irons.
For me, what makes sense is you take the best of it. I always say when I got married, I inherited a very good iron. I didn't have one before, but the iron that I received as a result of getting married was wonderful. I could have advocated for, "I have to have all my stuff," but there is some compromise in this. Maybe my dish set was a little bit better, but we have to have these conversations and I think sometimes we get so stuck in who we are, and, "I know this," and it's like I'm always learning. I don't know everything that I know yet. I don't know if I'll ever know everything. I'm continuously learning because the world is changing.
I think you're making some really good points there. We're talking so much about relationships with other people. We also have a relationship with our work. And so, I think just as important as establishing relationships with others in a healthy way, we want to do our best in doing that with our work as well and with our clients and with our colleagues. And so, I'm curious if you could share with us what suggestions you have for counselors on how we can honor our boundaries at work. And if you could also just talk about what are some boundaries that are important with work?
Well, I have a case management background. After case management, I worked in a psych hospital with juveniles. I went into private practice. So whole assortment of stuff in my background. And throughout my years of being a licensed professional, I have noticed that some of us get some compassion fatigue. And what has not worked for me is when other people have a energy that I don't have because maybe I'm still compassionate about that thing and maybe my coworkers aren't and they start to talk about it. And this way that's like, "Ugh, doesn't sound very helpful." So I wonder sometimes how do we engage or disengage in those conversations? How do we maybe suggest a tool like, "Hey, I've been reading this book about compassion fatigue," or, "I took this training," or, "It sounds like you're really at an impasse with your client. Have you thought about talking to your supervisor about it?"
How do we take control of those conversations that might be draining with work? Sometimes it is also being mindful of who you can and can't work with. Early in my practice years it was this, you work with anyone and everyone, and there are just certain people I don't work well with, and that's not necessarily it's something wrong with them, but it's like I don't have the expertise. I have to read so many things before our session to be able to actually treat you. Is this right? Is this really... It's a lot of work for me sometimes, so I don't feel like I'm operating in the best way. So when we have the opportunity to really craft the type of clients that we could see, maybe nurture our expertise, it can be really helpful to do that because then you start to bring on more people who you can see within your skillset.
And it is not necessarily like, "Oh my gosh, I'm discriminating. I should be able to see everybody." It's like, I work really well with this population. I had a period where I only worked with kids. I had all the games. I had all the books. I would take my dog to my therapy sessions because that would loosen them up. So we may have different transitions in our career, but it's really important to kind of figure out, this is the area where I tend to do really well. These are the things that sort of get in the way of me being able to enjoy this work and figuring out, what do I do to operate in a healthy way as a therapist? One of the things I think is really important for a therapist is to have a therapist.
I think what you're also speaking to is knowing when you're in alignment with your purpose and when you're in alignment with those pieces that may have brought you into the field and recognizing that there's different ways to serve others. And it may not always be that you stick with the same population that you started with. And also obviously, thinking from the perspective of practicing within our code of ethics and with competency and all of those things as well. But I think you bring up a really good point in terms of just recognizing where you are in your life and what might be the best fit for you to be able to do your best work. And like you said, that therapist sometimes need therapists as well.
So yeah, absolutely. We can't pour from an empty cup and we can't take people somewhere we've not been before. And so, I think you've already sort of answered the other question I wanted to ask. So there's risks associated with setting boundaries, but then there's also benefits too. And I think that's really important when we're working with our clients or thinking about this for ourselves, kind of weighing the risk and benefits. Yes, I might have to say no to this opportunity, but that might open the door to this other opportunity when it comes to our work as counselors and therapists. But in general speaking, what are some of the benefits of setting boundaries? Because I think that's something important that kind of keeps the light the end of the tunnel because I think sometimes people who have never done this before maybe feel a little bit hopeless that they're not going to find the relationships that really satisfy them or feel fulfill their needs or that the stress that they're experiencing within their relationships is just like it.
They may not be able to see anything at the end of that tunnel. So can you share, as far as the benefits and the meaning of setting better boundaries, what's that look like?
In relationships, the benefit is hopefully a healthier relationship, or at least one that is more clear. Sometimes, when we operate without healthy boundaries in our relationships, we're operating on assumptions, that this person should know or should do something. And I think we can at least be offended better, better offended when we know that they know what the issue is. Sometimes we are offended and they don't even know what the issue is. They don't understand how you operate. And so, it's really important to say to people, whether it's family members, friends, partners, coworkers, whoever, what the thing is, so that way they at least understand your energy towards them.
Maybe the reason that you've said a certain thing or do things a certain way, they need to know what's going on too. So I think it improves our health, and it certainly helps with the replaying of conversations because when we don't have conversations, we have those conversations in the shower. Now, don't leave me out here like I'm the only one. I mean, my whole finger is all like. "And then you said..." I'm like, "Ooh, you know what, Nedra, go talk to them in real life, because you've had a whole mirror conversation about what they said two weeks ago. You got a problem, girl." So sometimes it's really helpful to not just have those conversations with yourself, but to have a real conversation with the other person.
So it sort of gives them a chance to either maybe step up or maybe you need to make the decision to step away. So it kind of helps you understand, like you said, clarity. I love that word, clarity. Do they really know what I'm thinking and feeling and how this is impacting me? And if they do know and they don't care, those are two different issues, right?
Yeah. The "do know" and the "don't care." I believe the last relationship I ended with someone is because they told me they were clear about my boundaries, but they did not want to respect them. And that just crushed me because all this time I thought I was restating the boundary because I wasn't saying it properly. So I got into my Dr. Seuss and I was like, I will say it here. I will say it there. I will say it anywhere. I'll say it on the air. I'll say it. I was just restating it, stating it on another... Just all this stuff. And I was like, "Maybe they're not hearing me. Did I say it properly?" And when they told me, "I heard what you said and I didn't want to listen to it," I was like, "Oh."
Wow. Yeah, that two completely different things there, right?
Yeah. So I think sometimes repeating the boundary is really helpful. And then for some of us, we have to reach that point of no return. This will be the last time I state this boundary.
Yeah, communication is key, is one of the things I'm taking from what you're saying is that, there's seeking clarity and also providing clarity in terms of what your boundaries are and you receiving clarity in return in terms of the other person's response. So speaking of clarity, I'm wondering here how counselors can find clarity in terms of indicators that we might want to look for when there's a need to strengthen our boundaries with clients or students or with others in the workplace?
Burnout, I know it's a buzzword, but burnout, compassion fatigue. When you start to notice you get the Sunday sickies and you are like, "Oh gosh, I got to go back to work." When you are hurrying to take a vacation. When you feel overwhelmed with work, you start to feel frustrated by the work. Those are all signs that there may be some boundaries needed to help you. Some of us in this field work in very intense environments and there is no relief. It's not like you could go to someone and say, "Hey, I am stressed. Reduce my caseload." That is sometimes not an option. But even when we're in a situation where we have to do certain work, how are we treating our breaks? How are we using our time away from work? How are we managing our time while at work? What conversations are we having that actually trigger us?
Is there some sort of skill that we may need to develop professionally that'll make our work a little bit easier? I remember, and I'm sure they still make these with those treatment plan books where you go to the book and let's say you're working with a kid with conduct disorder. You go to the book and it say... I'm just going to make something up, I don't know. "The kid keeps jumping up and down." And it'll be like, "Treatment goal," whatever. And you could just take that goal and put it in your treatment plan. I found those to be very helpful, to be able to... Now I have a whole list of my computer that I've just reworked all these goals over the year. I have my own treatment goal thing, and it's for people with self-esteem issues, for people with marriage relationship problems.
And it's just a bunch of goals. And I'll reword them based on the client, but it just makes doing a treatment plan easier for me, to look at stuff that... I've been doing this enough time now that I could just, "Oh, okay. So you say that you have anxiety. Let's see, I have a whole anxiety section." So what can I do sometimes when I can't get out of this space of I have to see this amount of people, or I have to work this length of time? What things can I do to relieve some of that pressure, is sometimes the work that we have to do in this field.
Yeah, absolutely. I think that speaks to the pandemic. People had to switch gears very quickly and learn things that they didn't know before, and that's tiring. And then the demand for mental health providers is going up. So I think that that's important for us to all remember, is that our boundaries when it comes to our work matters too. Because if we are get burnt out, then we're not nearly as effective when we are with our clients. And then, in one of the many amazing books or amazing lines in your book, Set Boundaries, Find Peace is that, the root of self-care is boundaries. And so for counselors of all types, school counselors, mental health, people that are in grad school still, supervisors, we talk a lot about self-care for ourselves because it's so essential because we can't serve our clients. So can you speak to maybe how you take care of yourself? What we can to do to make sure that counselors and therapists are able to have that space to take care of themselves?
One of the things that I think I do most often to practice taking care of myself is speak to myself kindly. I will get so mad at other people, but the way I speak to myself, I am astonished at the amount of grace I've been able to conjure up for myself. Someone was asking me, "What are your vices?" I'm like, "I don't have any. I don't feel guilty about..." Or not vices. Let me go back. They said, "What are your guilty pleasures?" And I said, "I don't have any guilty pleasures. I enjoy candy. I watch TV." I don't feel guilty for watching TV or eating candy or staying up too late. I don't feel guilty for these things because I have been able to say, "Maybe you slept in because you needed more rest."
Some would call that oversleeping. I call it a few extra moments that I needed. So I think about the way I speak to myself, because the world speaks to us in a different tone. The world doesn't know our whole story and why we do or don't do things. I make a lot of mistakes. The other day I lost my bag of chips in my house and I was looking, where did I put these chips? I found them in the most ridiculous place ever. Can you guess where my chips were?
In the bathroom. And I said to myself, "So, you had a good reason for putting them there."
What do you do? Some of us would jump into why did you put them there? I'm so... It's like, "Hey girl, you was in a hurry and you put them down the first place you could think of, in the bathroom." So I don't don't know why I did that, but I think kindness is one of the ways that I practice. And there are many other things, but I'm constantly trying to speak to myself as if I am a little brown infant wrapped in a nice little blanket with my little dimples and just looking so cute. How would you speak to that little baby? You'd just be so kind. So that's how I try to talk to myself, little kind baby Nedra.
I love it because one of our foundational ideas for counselors is we show other people unconditional positive regard. So how do you do that if you're not doing that for yourself as well? And it probably has been a... I was just assuming it's been a process to sort of undo a lot of the things you learned or maybe deprogram yourself from a lot of the messages that are all inundated, from the time that we're kids of, "You know, need to do this or do that or look this way," and to just give yourself grace and let yourself just exist, right?
As a human who makes mistakes, who does things. And if we knew the outcome of stuff, we wouldn't do it. That's why it's a mistake. That's why accident is a accident. Things happen that you can't foresee. And I think we feel bad when we make mistakes already. So we don't need others in a world or even to tell ourselves, "You're a horrible person." Now this does not mea n you should not be accountable for your actions. But it does mean that you can still be accountable and kind to yourself.
Wow, this has been just such an amazing conversation. We admire you and your work so much and we cannot thank you enough for being here today. Is there any other things that you would like to share with us before we wrap up?
This has been such a pleasure. I am a lover of this field. There needs to be more of us, and I'm happy that you invited me on your podcast.
Yeah, we are so thankful to have you. And can you share, if people want to learn more about you, where can they find you?
Yes, please go to my website, nedratawwab.com. There you will find my social media links, articles, worksheets that you can use with yourself or for your clients. At the time of this airing, I have three books, Set Boundaries, Find Peace, The Set Boundaries Workbook and Drama Free. So please visit my website to support my work.
Wonderful. We absolutely will be doing that. And thank you again for joining us today, and thank you to our listeners for joining in as well.
Be sure to subscribe to the Voice of Counseling on Apple and Google Podcasts, and you can follow the ACA social media to get updates about new podcast episodes and what the ACA is up to. And to join the ACA and get exclusive access to all the member benefits, check out counseling.org. Have a great day everybody.
ACA provides these podcasts solely for informational and educational purposes. Opinions expressed in these podcasts do not necessarily reflect the view of ACA. ACA is not responsible for the consequences of any decisions or actions taken in reliance upon, or as a result of the information and resources provided in this program. This program is copyright 2023 by the American Counseling Association. All rights reserved.