Updated: Aug 24, 2020
This post is based on an Instagram Live interview with Riverbend Clinician and Reproductive Mental Health Specialist Nikki Walther and Jessie Steffes, LPC. Join me for Riverbend Therapy Chats each Monday on Instagram Live (@riverbendtherapy) as I discuss mental health topics and answer your questions with my colleagues.
When I was going through a divorce many years ago, friends, family, and acquaintances would often say, “I heard about your divorce. How are you doing?” Sometimes, when they’d ask I felt a little lighter, thankful that someone who truly cared about me was saying, “Let me walk with you, let me help carry what you’re carrying.”
Other times, after I answered the question and the conversation was over, I’d feel increasingly uneasy. I thought they were genuinely interested and cared, I’d think, but really they just wanted to satisfy their curiosity. These interactions left me feeling exposed and vulnerable in an unhealthy way.
Our culture teaches us that when people ask, we have to share. I’m here to tell you otherwise: You have a right to share only what you want. You have the right to share different things with different people. You have the right to protect your story.
On this week’s River Bend Therapy Chat on Instagram Live, I talked with River Bend clinician Nikki Walther, LPCC, about what it means to protect your story and why it matters. Although we discussed this concept within the context of people experiencing infertility, it can be applied to any situation.
When we say “protect your story,” we’re not saying don’t share your feelings and experiences with others; confiding in people you trust is healthy and can feel good. But you have a right to set boundaries around what you share, when and how you do it, and who gets to know. Boundaries aren’t about pushing people away; when you establish them, you’re making space for everyone in the relationship to feel safe, be vulnerable, and grow together.
Protecting your story matters because your story is part of how you define yourself and your story is sacred. When you share it, you open yourself up for scrutiny or uninvited advice. In the middle of an already difficult experience, when you’re standing in your river of heartache, feeling judged by someone or being told what to do can just compound your pain.
How you protect your story—that is, what boundaries you set—will likely look different with different people. It is also valid if the way in which you protect your story changes from day to day, or moment to moment. Protecting your story could look like:
→ Not telling anyone about what you’re experiencing
→ Telling only your family and closest friends
→ Letting people know that you’ll update them when you’re ready
→ Asking your friends and family not to share information with each other
→ Designating someone else to communicate with your circle on your behalf
→ Asking people to listen without offering advice
→ Choosing not to answer questions in the moment when asked
Protecting your story will feel easier in some relationships than others. If a coworker, an acquaintance, or someone you don’t know well asks a question that feels intrusive, it likely feels pretty safe to say, “I appreciate your concern but I am not ready to talk about that.” With family and friends, however, it can feel much more difficult to do this because you know that their questions are truly coming from a place of love. Still, you have just as much right to protect your story with your loved ones as you do with strangers. After all, it’s your story.
To help you protect your story, especially when it might be harder to do so, here are some strategies that Nikki and I discussed during this week’s Therapy Chat:
1. Check in with Your Heart
When someone starts asking questions, take note of your reaction and ask your heart: “What’s driving my desire to respond? Do I feel obligated or do I genuinely want to share with this person?” If you decide to share your story, continue to check in with yourself as you do; if at any point you feel exposed, uncomfortable, or overwhelmed, pump the brakes. Remember that just because you’ve shared something in the past or started sharing something does not mean you need to continue.
2. Ask for Time
If a friend or family member has asked you a question that feels too vulnerable in the moment but is something you think you might want to talk about later, ask for some time. Try saying something like, “I really appreciate you wanting to know, because I know that’s coming from a place of love and care. I’d like to share with you at some point, but now is not the right time for me to talk about that. Could we talk about something else instead?”
3. Control the Flow
A practitioner I admire, Lateka Salley, LCSW, said something that I often tell my clients: Think of your emotions like a water faucet—remember that you can control the flow. Keep this in mind as you decide how much of your story to share. If you want to share but parts of your story feel too raw, or you haven’t had time to process your emotions, work in increments. Begin with the parts that feel the least vulnerable, and share more when you feel ready.
4. Look for Alternatives
When people ask us to share our stories, they’re often doing so because they want to help us walk through our pain. As you set boundaries that protect your story you can acknowledge that and provide them with a blueprint for other ways in which you’d like to receive love and care. This can work in reverse, too: If in the midst of your fertility journey you’re finding it difficult to show up for your pregnant friends, you can say, “I love you and care about you but it’s too painful for me to talk about your pregnancy right now. Are there other ways I can show up for you?”
If you’re unfamiliar with setting healthy boundaries, it may take some practice. Counseling is a great way to do that! In September, Nikki will be starting an Infertility Support Group for women. It will be a safe place in which you can explore and share your story (of course, only as much as you want to!), feel known and heard, grieve, and connect with other women who are walking through their own fertility journeys. We’ll cover a range of topics, from acknowledging loss to connecting with your partner to self-love, and will learn together how to set boundaries and protect our stories.
If you are walking through infertility right now or have in the past—no matter how long ago—we hope you’ll join us in the group. If you think it might be right for you, please check out the Groups page on our website for all the details and fill out an interest form on our website and Nikki will give you a call. You can also email us, or message us on Facebook or Instagram.
Today, I encourage you to take time to think about how you want to protect your story, then practice or write down some responses that will help you set or maintain boundaries the next time someone asks, “How are you doing?”
Want to know more? Check out my whole conversation with Nikki below.