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Boundaries and my story - Gemma Perkins Personal Transformation Coach

I find that when it comes to mental health awareness events, much of the conversation is dedicated to two groups of people:

1. Those who are suffering with a mental illness / challenge and wish to increase understanding of it and encourage others to seek support

2. Those who have overcome their mental illness / challenge and want to inspire others to seek help and stick with the process to recovery

It is with this in mind that I often feel a little ‘imposter-ish’ when I am asked to speak about my own mental health experiences because I know that I come from a position of privilege. I fit neither of these groups – I would label myself as a mentally healthy, flourishing individual. However, I still believe that I have something valuable to add to the conversation.

What gives me the authority to speak about this is that, on paper, I was (and possibly still am) prime material for a mental health crisis of some kind because of my demographics and immediate environment:

· I grew up in a family of 6 – four children and two parents. We were on benefits and would be classed as ‘deprived’ socio-economically

· All of my siblings are on the autistic spectrum, in varying levels

· Within my immediate family are diagnoses of anxiety, multiple personality disorder and three diagnoses of depression

· I was often bullied and threatened at school for being intellectually capable (I was attacked three times)

· Three family members have attempted to take their own lives (unsuccessfully – I will add!), two of which I was involved in handling the emergency care

· My parents’ relationship became emotionally abusive. I mediated their arguments through my late teens and eventually helped my mother to flee the family home

· I’ve been involved in the palliative care of an elderly grandparent and a sibling’s partner who was only aged 20

· My first teaching job was under a bullying head teacher where I worked a 70 hour week

On paper you can see how a combination of any of the above things may well trigger a mental health crisis in someone. In fact, a few of my friends have joked (supportively) “How on earth aren’t you a wreck?”

I live a happy and healthy life running my own business, playing board games, being in a meaningful relationship, getting to enjoy international experiences (pre-covid!) and generally feel like I am flourishing. I honestly believe that I've managed to stay mentally healthy and cope with these challenges because I was well equipped from a young age.

When I was 16 years old I signed up for a leadership programme – mostly because I thought it would help me in my career. It turned out to be a transformational experience as I found myself learning social, psychological and cognitive skills that helped to build my resilience, and my positive mental health as well as my leadership abilities. In fact, this is entirely what inspired me to do the work I do now: training others in soft skills that help them to become the best version of themselves.

As a teen, I read a beautiful book by Viktor Frankl: Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl was a prisoner in a concentration camp during the holocaust. As a psychologist by trade he noticed that there seemed to be a difference between people who were able to be resilient and cope with horrendous crimes against human nature and those who gave up, and physically and mentally withered away. This difference was a sense of meaning and a sense of personal choice. It's a very powerful read which I highly recommend. The key quote that I'd like to pick out for you is:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

No matter what happens to you, positive or negative, you get to choose how to behave, how to think about it and how to frame it in your world. This is both empowering and an enormous amount of responsibility. It is easier to go through life thinking or saying “I am like X because Y happened.” Than it is to say “Y happened to me and I am going to respond by Z.” But the latter is essential for building your sense of personal control and empowering you to define your own path. I certainly found that recognising I always had a proactive choice for how I show up in the world, was a very empowering experience and meant that when I found myself in

times of turmoil, I was able to say “This is my situation, what am I going to do about it (and how am I going to look after my wellbeing)”

Setting Boundaries

An area that I want to talk about for protecting mental health is the ability to set boundaries. Again, I think this is a skill set which is underrated. Leaders and managers might talk about boundaries in terms of ground rules in teams, contracts for employees or confidentiality agreements. But everyday individuals are rarely taught how to set healthy boundaries and then be assertive about keeping them.

Difficulty with boundaries shows up in a whole host of ways. I work with clients on time management who've taken on far too much because they feel like they have to be continually serving others. People in relationships who forgo their own emotional or physical boundaries for the sake of getting approval from a partner. Ambitious people who say yes to every project without weighing up how it fits into their values.

Being able to set boundaries first requires you to do some inner work to understand your identity, values and needs. This allows you to recognise what you are happy with, what makes you uncomfortable, what your priorities are and how to spend your time. Once you know these things about yourself it’s so much easier to communicate to others about where your boundaries are.

Many people worry that setting a boundary or saying no will get them into trouble because the other will feel ignored or disrespected, but actually protecting your own mental health by saying what you are and aren't comfortable with sets a good example for others. It means that whatever you do commit to is your best that you can do it authentically. Also it means that people gradually get a strong sense of who you are and what you stand for.

It took me some time to apply what I learned about boundaries to my love life. Years of Disney films and pop culture had me convinced that a significant life goal was to be married and have children by the time I hit my 30s. This can sometimes lead to a tendency to overlook relationship issues for the sake of settling down and ticking off a milestone. I am 31 now, unmarried without children but have had the pleasure (and trials) of 6 very long term relationships which have taught me about who I am and what boundaries I need in my relationship.

Being in a loving relationship is a massive source of mental wellbeing for many people, so choosing to end one is often a distressing and turbulent process. You may begin to ask yourself the question “Can I just settle for this – is this good enough?” because that feels easier. The few times I did stay in relationships to ‘make it work’ I noticed that they were pulling down my wellbeing. I wouldn’t say that any of my relationships were toxic – but there were a fair few instances of low level control issues, power dynamics or differences in life plans that became significant.

Because of what I've learned about boundaries and values I have felt able to recognise when things started to turn unhealthy, and with each relationship I’ve learned more about who I am and what I want. I have chosen a relationship that fits as many of my values as possible in regards to career, family, lifestyle and spirituality. Having all of

those things in common means that this relationship is the best relationship I have ever had and I'm very, very confident that this is the one that will last into my old and grey years.

Again, I'll reiterate - it's difficult going through five long term breakups: moving home, rebalancing finances, dating again and starting over. For many, a breakup can be a negative turning point for mental health, but because I had the sense of choice and doing it for the right reasons in my mind, I was able to bounce back quite quickly.

Gemma is a personal transformation facilitator helping people to become their best selves through soft skills development. Get in touch:


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