There are many challenges specific to ministry and leadership, particularly when one is struggling with mental health. It can be hard to know where to access help and support, as well as finding safe spaces to unburden oneself.
Counsellor, researcher, and writer Dr. Hillary McBride reflects on some of the ways in which we leave our bodies, ourselves, and our brokenness out of the conversation around mental health and faith. She shares her journey and offers insight into ways that we can begin to weave our work and our wounds together with threads of healing and hope.
Note: This episode of The Sanctuary Podcast was recorded before the COVID-19 pandemic or physical distancing restrictions.
Running time: 42:46
Release date: June 7, 2021
About Dr. Hillary McBride:
Hillary is a registered clinical counsellor in private practice in Vancouver and has her PhD in Counselling Psychology from UBC. Her areas of clinical and research specialty focus on trauma, and trauma therapies, eating disorders, body image, sex and sexuality, embodiment, and the intersection of spirituality and mental health. Hillary’s work has been recognized by both the American and Canadian Psychological Associations, and she was awarded the International Young Investigator Award for her research contributions so early in her career. Her first book is “Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image: Learning to Love Ourselves as We Are” (Post Hill Press, 2017), and she is the editor of a textbook, Embodiment and Eating Disorders: Theory, Research, Prevention and Treatment (Routledge, 2018).
For your quick reference, here are nationwide emergency numbers and crisis lines:
- Canada: 911, Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566
- British Columbia: 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)
- United States: 911, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- United Kingdom: 999/112, Samaritans: 116 123
- New Zealand: 111, 1737, Lifeline Aotearoa: 0800-543-354
- Australia: 000, Lifeline: 13 11 14
More from Dr. Hillary McBride
The Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius
The Sanctuary Podcast is intended for informational and educational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or mental health advice. If you feel you may need medical or mental health advice, please consult a qualified healthcare professional. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, please tell someone or, if you are in Canada, call 1-800-SUICIDE for immediate help.
Hillary McBride: But at that time to keep this rich aspect of my life flourishing, it felt like I could only do that, while keeping this other thing that was going on, and all this pain and struggle over there on the shelf.
Sarah Kift: To be visible in one’s brokenness can be excruciating. Vulnerability and authenticity have become buzzwords associated with ideal leadership, but actually applying them is not easy. And too often, in faith communities, we prioritize and praise stories of completed healing over ongoing journeys. The triumphant testimony, “I was lost, but now I’m found” is a common trope in our discussion and liturgy. But what happens when you’re still a little bit lost—not quite there yet, but still making meaningful contributions of leadership and faith? What does life look like when you’re still struggling in some areas and thriving in others? The already, but not yet?
Counsellor, researcher, and writer Dr. Hillary McBride reflects on some of the ways in which we leave our bodies, ourselves, and our brokenness out of the conversation around mental health and faith. She shares her journey, as well as offering insight into ways that we can begin to weave our work and our wounds together with threads of healing and hope.
Welcome to The Sanctuary Podcast, a space where mental health and faith collide and conversation, connection, and change are possible.
Sarah Kift: Hillary, it’s really wonderful to be sitting here in your office with you.
Hillary McBride: Thanks for being here, Sarah.
Sarah Kift: I want to start out by asking you when you first encountered a conversation between mental health and faith. Or, when you kind of came into the awareness that those two things were either together or in conflict for you.
Hillary McBride: Probably in my teenage years, they became together and in conflict in a way that I was becoming aware of the links between lots of things in my life. I struggled lots with mental health issues throughout my life and, looking back, have had conversations with my family about what was probably a childhood depression. So really, really, young, even showing up as early as Grade 2. Some really profound pain, like suffering, that I was experiencing that was so foreign to my peers. But after developing an eating disorder and coming into awareness of that and what was going on and all of the suffering that was happening inside my body and how I was hurting myself, the way that I became aware of the conversation between those two things was often in my faith community, there being a sense of your faith will save you from your mental health issues. Or your mental health issues will compromise the validity of your faith. There was this kind of one-directional movement where something had an impact on the other thing, and somehow they’re on this swirl, and usually there’s shame, and somehow your pain needs to go away. And either that’s because your faith is strong, or not.
Sarah Kift: Yeah, the idea that you can’t be a disciple until you’re healed.
Hillary McBride: Yes, yeah, great language on that, absolutely. And I mean, the words that were used for me were a little bit different than that—more like how could you really believe all the things you believe if you’re still hurting yourself in this way? Which is a very fundamental misunderstanding about what mental health issues are and eating disorders, to say like, there’s a choice that you’re enacting and it’s because you don’t have enough willpower or morality or enough practice with your prayer or spiritual disciplines.
Sarah Kift: Was there a point in your teenage years where there was any safety within your faith community?
Hillary McBride: Oh, absolutely, yeah. Although it felt like for, in order to retain that safety and that, and that safety really came in the form of community and connection and belonging and purpose and resources and a place to grow and thrive, that had to be separate from my suffering. So, I don’t know what it would be like for other people who had a little bit more authenticity or vulnerability with what they were going through, but for me it was really private and so it wasn’t actually that I could really, in a public way, integrate mental health and faith until later in my life. But at that time, to keep this rich aspect of my life flourishing, it felt like I could only do that while keeping this other thing that was going on, and all this pain and struggle, over there on the shelf. I think that it was because of that sense of community that I had, that I probably had more resources available to me in order to heal eventually and to know what it could be like, over time, to feel safe and be seen.
Sarah Kift: That makes sense. I mean it is, I think for me, one of the greatest pains when thinking about mental health is that the very thing that we need to heal is often the thing that is inaccessible to us. So, I know, you know, I know what that’s like to try and hold on to a community but then need to compartmentalize your suffering. Yeah.
Hillary McBride: Yes, and who knows what would have happened if I didn’t compartmentalize it? Who knows if people would have shown up, if the stories would have changed, if there would have been more shame? And then that would have actually fed back into this story that I was telling myself about how bad I was. I could never know, but I have a hunch that it might not have gone so well just based on how other people were spoken about and responded to, that there was this real, real care and concern right away, but then we have to make this thing go away.
Sarah Kift: Yeah.
Hillary McBride: And so, I could speculate, but I don’t really know. Maybe I would have gotten exactly what I needed, who knows?
Sarah Kift: Yeah, and reading, reading back through history is always a tricky…
Hillary McBride: Yeah, that’s right, exactly.
Sarah Kift: …proposal. It’s always what, you know, what we had available at the time.
Hillary McBride: You’re right.
Sarah Kift: So, when did you then… Did that impact your faith journey to, to kind of have these two separate tracks going on?
Hillary McBride: I don’t think so. And I think that was probably supported by the evangelical paradigm of a very individual faith or relationship with, with God, with Jesus; that it was something that is public, but is also private. And in a way, I could have something very different in private in terms of honesty and vulnerability than I could have publicly. And that creates maybe some hypocrisy, or maybe some incongruence, but it actually felt like because I could have this very private relationship with God where I was honest, that within myself I didn’t have to separate faith and mental health, that those within me could be in a dance together. It was the external pieces that complicated that.
Sarah Kift: Yeah, and I mean that’s often the case.
Hillary McBride: Right, yeah.
Sarah Kift: That performative piece.
Hillary McBride: Yes, yeah. Yeah, or all the things we do to belong. Like, I don’t think of myself with anything other than grace or compassion now, to say, like, wow I, I was doing the best that I could to protect myself from being more hurt by the possibility of rejection or shame or judgment. And I think it’s okay that we adapt ourselves in different scenarios to belong in communities, and as long as we’re not doing that in such a way where we’re becoming a different person, then it would make sense that there would be things we could say in our journal or in prayer that we wouldn’t say in our community. But what’s problematic for me, is thinking about the external imposition of a silencing around pain in faith communities that I think probably just comes from a lack of understanding what’s really going on when we’re hurting.
Sarah Kift: Do you want to talk a little bit more about the work you’re doing to change that understanding?
Hillary McBride: I think of education as being an incredibly empowering strategy for changing social discourse around mental health; in this case particularly, in the Church. And what I will say, just as a caveat before I say any more, is I think a lot of us who are in this world think about the stigma around mental health and the Church. And it is there, but it’s not just there. And we forget sometimes in the Church that the Church is situated in a sociocultural context with its own biases and stigmas, and the broader world still has a general misunderstanding of what mental health is and how we struggle, how we suffer, how we get help. So, I think of education as needing to go beyond the Church, needing to be really available to all of us. But one of the things that I feel really passionate about is using education to change people’s misinformation about how they perceive themselves and others, so that we feel more equipped when someone is struggling, when we ourselves are struggling; that we have less of a judgmental reaction immediately about why the pain is there, so we can actually sit with it long enough to explore it. But one of the things that often makes mental health issues even worse is the silencing around them. The not talking about it, the sense that we cannot speak about these things. And so, I think simply by being in faith spaces where I am a researcher and a clinician naming mental health issues there is already a sense of undoing the silencing, which would hopefully make it safe for other people to speak up and talk about what’s going on for them.
Sarah Kift: Yeah, it’s this idea of actually opening a room. You’re showing people the door, right?
Hillary McBride: Yeah.
Sarah Kift: Not, not the door out.
Hillary McBride: Right, yeah. The door in.
Sarah Kift: Yeah. Because, I mean, we see that at Sanctuary when pastors speak about their own mental health journey.
Hillary McBride: Of course.
Sarah Kift: When people in positions of leadership or in places of visibility in the community start to speak in a way that’s vulnerable and recognizing suffering, it changes the culture.
Hillary McBride: Absolutely, yeah, and it has to come from people who are in leadership demonstrating vulnerability. It’s one thing to say it’s okay for you to talk about it, but if people in leadership with visibility are only ever modelling the ideal in some ways, you’re not showing people what it looks like to speak up, you’re saying it’s okay for you to do it, but the how is missing. And with a lot of these—I mean, I would even call them skills—around mental health, like, how do we seek help, how do we talk about our feelings, how do we feel our feelings? What’s super helpful to know is that all of the, the learning that we need to do to get better at those things is experiential. It can’t just be cognitive. So, there’s something about reading a book about these things; that’s great, reading a book about help seeking, reading a book about vulnerability in leadership, reading a book about creating space that’s safe in faith communities, those are great starts. But actually, to create communities that are healthy and know how to do these things, not just think about them, we have to have practice doing them, we have to see people practice doing them. And it’s really that that helps our nervous system know how to do that when we need to. It’s like the difference between reading a book about riding a bike and actually riding a bike; they’re different.
Sarah Kift: Yeah, and I think a lot of people might be afraid to practice because mental health is something that is seen as fragile or frightening or unpredictable, and so the idea of applying practice to something that you’re not sure how it’s going to go down…
Hillary McBride: Yeah, it’s risky in a way. And there are skills around it. I think of those skills as being probably pretty similar for people who are leaders in faith communities as they are for therapists, these professions where we hold things for other people. I mean, we have to be thoughtful about how and where we share. So, one of the rules that I like around this is sharing about scars, not wounds. Naming wow, this has happened for me and this is how I got through, and on occasion when things pop back up this is how I deal with them, is a lot different than saying like, right now in my life an open trauma is such and such, and I need you to hold it for me. There’s a difference between that.
Sarah Kift: Well, you know, in one you’re actually in the moment, you’re still in the middle of the trauma, right?
Hillary McBride: Yeah.
Sarah Kift: Which is, can be very unsafe.
Hillary McBride: Yes, for you and for other people. Especially if you’re in a position of leadership and people aren’t in a role where they are necessarily equipped or prepared in any way to support you with that, that would not be the right place to share about that. But there still needs to be a place where you share about that, and it could be good for you to talk about that place and that that place exists. Like, a very close friend of mine is a pastor in Portland, and we were just on the phone yesterday and he said that he has a group of a few other pastors and then a mentor, who was one of their professors at seminary. But they all get together, and they process openly what’s happening for them; what they’re struggling with, what feels good, what is hard, what is life giving, where they’re stuck. And he won’t talk about those things from the pulpit, but he’ll talk about the fact that he has a place to talk about those things. Which is the distinction, right?
Sarah Kift: Yeah, well, then it’s doing double duty because he’s talking about his vulnerability, but then also modelling a solution on, on how to handle it.
Hillary McBride: Yes, absolutely, yeah, and this is what it could look like for you.
Sarah Kift: I want you to dig into that just a little bit more, because a lot of your expertise is around trauma and how it comes out in your body. What would you say to a leader in a church who’s struggling, but then also struggling with figuring out how to open that door to the conversation in a way that is both helpful for them but also, maybe, taking a bit of a risk to change the culture?
Hillary McBride: Yeah, so I always like to think about it from a—this is not a word that we think about all the time, but I must admit it was what came to mind—but the ecological systems theory, which is a model developed by Bronfenbrenner. And I think the original publication was in 1979, but it looks at this nested model of the individual within a family, and then a community, and then a broader sociocultural context. And whenever we’re looking at a person who’s in a position of leadership anywhere who’s struggling, we need to look at all the competing roles and the values from each of those different layers of context that both contribute to pain and suffering, but also provide opportunities for relief and connection and healing and therapy.
Sarah Kift: There are many challenges specific to ministry and leadership, particularly when one is struggling with mental health. It can be hard to know where to access help and support, as well as finding safe spaces to unburden oneself. Or even just that wrestling with the unpalatable or uncomfortable recognition that you have become in need of help, rather than the helper. Hillary was kind enough to discuss these complexities with great compassion and clarity.
Hillary McBride: One of the things that comes to mind right away is that leaders come under the scrutiny of others often, which makes it hard to know, where can I talk about my pain? But also adds to the pain itself. It’s really hard to be visible. It’s really hard to hold things for other people and to know how to do that in balance. And I think that for a lot of people who are in helping professions, or leading professions, sometimes it was a really easy fix for a deeper ache or wound around shame, around wanting to be good, around wanting to help. And so, sometimes the old patterns that got us into something or made us really gifted at something—like helping other people and attuning to people and loving people into health— has been both proof of our resilience and of a pain that we have, maybe an existential wound or a childhood wound. So, for people who are suffering in leadership what I usually say is, are there spaces where you could start to get curious about, not only the issues that are around you, the systemic context that might contribute to the pain, but also could we look back a little bit and get curious about how you got here and maybe if there’s some deeper things that need to shift for you? And, unfortunately, I think we need to push back on the story that you can just pray it away.
Sarah Kift: A hundred percent.
Hillary McBride: Right? And so, usually, because our pain develops in a relational context, none of us in our deepest pain were outside of connection. In fact, usually the pain itself is because there should have been connection there and there wasn’t in some way and, or someone hurt us. That’s all, all of it when you think about it, is relational wounds. We need to heal at the same place at which the wound entered. So, we probably need to get back into a relational space where we can name some things, we can become aware, where we can undo the silencing and start to get thoughtful about practicing new ways of being, new ways of thinking.
So, this would be a good point for me to say as a therapist, I think therapy is a great idea for leaders in faith communities. But also, like, usually the thing that I think about with every piece of struggle in human existence is, how is what’s happening for me telling the truth about a broader issue? So, if as a woman I hate my body—which I don’t, but I’m using that example, that’s something I’ve worked really hard to repair and recover from—but let’s just say as a woman in a western culture, I hate my body. To see my hatred of my body as the problem is to miss the bigger thing that’s going on, which is that we have a culture which promotes and highly values women’s devaluing of their own bodies and that we are constantly reinforced as women that we are good, that we are desirable, the more we try to change or belittle or beat our bodies into submission. So, if we’re only going to look at body and self-hatred from an individualistic perspective, we’re missing everything that’s going on. And we could also say for leaders in faith communities, if you’re struggling, yes, maybe your struggle is private and it’s happening within you, but is there something that’s going on systemically? Like, there’s no room for you to be human, or the expectations on you being perfect are crushing you, or…right? There could be so many more things that we could point at that might add to the experience of individual suffering. But it would, I would be remiss to say that our psychopathology or our suffering or even our longings don’t exist in a cultural context which in some way informs them or impairs our ability to access resources or solutions.
Sarah Kift: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I kind of think about it in terms of, you know, when I’m relating with somebody who’s going through a difficult time. Sometimes you just say, of course that’s hard.
Hillary McBride: Yes.
Sarah Kift: Right? You know, the best thing that anyone said to me when I was deep in postpartum depression and anxiety, because I thought I had a flaw, I wasn’t a good mother, I wasn’t hitting the targets, they said of course it’s hard.
Hillary McBride: Yes, yes.
Sarah Kift: Nobody could do that well, you know? These are the expectations that society has placed on you, and you’re not meeting them because nobody could meet them.
Hillary McBride: That’s right, yeah, you’re not the problem.
Sarah Kift: Yeah.
Hillary McBride: The expectations are the problem.
Sarah Kift: Yeah. So, that’s a very freeing thing. And even thinking about, I don’t know your background in working with churches, but I had a very busy, very up-front position in a church, and part of it was just workload.
Hillary McBride: There’s also this other thing, which is that the Church, I mean, I think in its total health and thriving, is about people giving out of the overflow and us being so well resourced internally that we can be generous in ways that we wouldn’t be able to be otherwise if we weren’t connected to our, right, our Creator, our God. And that gets heavily exploited.
Sarah Kift: Yes.
Hillary McBride: Right? In so many other workplaces, for people to be expected to perform that much constantly and to give generously out of the overflow of their heart, like, that would be an HR complaint.
Sarah Kift: Yes.
Hillary McBride: But in the Church, we’re like no, no, no, it makes you a good Christian. It makes you righteous, and wow, you’re held up as a community member that is highly valued for your servanthood. I would love to see, in churches, people who are celebrating and giving recognition to the boundary-setting people.
Sarah Kift: Wouldn’t that be incredible?
Hillary McBride: Wouldn’t that be? Like, wow, you’re here and you’re doing the things you said you would do, and you go home at the end of the day, and you said no, I can’t take that meeting so that I could do this other thing that I’ve already said yes to. Like what, what a mark of health that would be.
Sarah Kift: I want to kind of come back a little bit to your talk about the body because, as we know, mental health, spirituality, physical health, they’re all intertwined. And I was looking at something, a quote that you have shared, and that is, “we can be redeemed only to the extent that we see ourselves,” which is by Martin Buber.
Hillary McBride: Martin Buber. A Jewish existentialist whose work I just love, yes.
Sarah Kift: So, I wonder if I could just invite you to talk a little bit—we’ve talked a bit about the systemic, but on an individual level how, how do bodies fit into this conversation around mental health and faith?
Hillary McBride: Yeah, there’s an old story that goes back all the way to Plato, and perhaps even earlier, that the mind and the body are separate. And Plato said it a little bit differently, like, the soul and the body are separate. And then we have Descartes, who came along in the 16th Century, and he said the mind and the body are separate from each other; and in fact, the mind is superior to the body. And one of the ideas was that the body and the mind were in conflict with each other, because the mind was how you could access God, right? Through prayer, through practices, through disciplines, through theology, through reading and thinking about God, that it was a way to get away from the pain and the suffering of the human existence, which we have for a very long time thought of as being in the body. I mean, the body has been the scapegoat of our existential issues as long as Plato, Plato’s ideas have been around, because where does death happen? In the body. Where does sickness, where does suffering, where does trauma happen? It’s in the body.
Sarah Kift: Where do strong emotions happen?
Hillary McBride: Exactly, yeah, you said it so well. So, the body has been seen as the problem and seen as fundamentally different than the mental domain. And why I think that makes it so troubling for us to deal with mental health issues is because a lot of us have left the body without even knowing we’ve done it and gone into the mind thinking it will save us in some ways from our pain; and then, all of a sudden, it’s there too. And where do we go now, right? If the body has been bad, and we’ve left the body, and we’ve gone up into the mind, what’s left? And I think that for some people that has been an opportunity to go deeper into spiritual practice, and something that we actually think of as being pretty problematic at some point, when it becomes a way to dismiss the realities of mental health issues or physical pain. And the language we give to that in the clinical community is spiritual bypassing. So, when a person is not actually being with what’s happening for them in a way that they’re avoiding it but moving into spiritual practice, we praise those people as being very righteous, very religious, very devout. But actually, it might be a total dismissal of what the body is saying really needs attention, about where God could enter in. Like, I love the, the poem by Rumi that says, “the wound is where the light enters.” And if we think of our pain as being a place that we need to get away from to get closer to God, then we’re missing that our pain is this invitation for God to come into us, into that. So, I’m not sure if that answers your question or if you have more follow-up.
Sarah Kift: Yeah, I was just thinking about how I know people, people I love, who have left their bodies for the sake of the spiritual as a way to, to numb pain or deal with it. And what happens is, they are praised, they’re very devoted. But what happens often is that their needs, their actual physical needs for rest, for food, for oh, I just don’t actually enjoy this. Like, maybe we could talk a little bit about enjoyment. Because in terms of faith, there’s a complicated conversation around pleasure, right? And I don’t want to get too off track with mental health, but I do think that there’s a connection between thriving in your mental health and being able to know what you like and what you don’t like.
Hillary McBride: Yeah, yeah. It brings us back to the, I guess even gnosticism really, and asceticism as a spiritual practice where people actually not only avoided pleasure and enjoyment in life, but caused themselves pain to feel close to God. And it is a really subversive idea on what is still this, kind of, latent narrative both in our overall cultural context and within faith communities; to say that actually, God could be where the pleasure is. That God could be where the enjoyment is. And that, actually, when we are in balance and in health, that it feels good to be there, and that that could be one of the markers that we’re actually living in “The Way.” And I mean that in the sense of, like, the original name for the Christian movement, like, being in “The Way,” that there could be pleasure and joy in that.
Sarah Kift: And I just want to even add the feminist layer, and that is, a lot of what we’re taught is that our joy comes from serving.
Hillary McBride: Yes.
Sarah Kift: Or taking care of the needs of others, whether it’s your children or your partner or your family, like, there’s less room there to say, I need this because I enjoy it, you know?
Hillary McBride: Or it’s good for me, even if I don’t enjoy it. I think that sometimes it’s a little bit of an easier entry point for people to say I need to rest, because the argument we can use in favour of that is if I rest, then I can serve more during the day, right? So, like, I will take care of myself in so much as it allows me to then take care of other people. But when that care for self feels enjoyable, or actually feels, maybe we could say lavish, or like there’s enough we could savour it and really dig our hands into it, that somehow there’s gluttony in that, that somehow there is shame, or…
Sarah Kift: Undisciplined.
Hillary McBride: Thank you, yes, that we’re undisciplined and that we need to be stricter with ourselves. And yet the, the irony is that when we step outside the Church and we look at what neuroscience and the clinical community of therapists and researchers who are looking at, like, what actually helps us be healthy and well shows us, that when we are in connection with ourselves, when we know what we like—this comes back to what you were saying earlier—when we know what our boundaries are, we are more whole. We have more fullness and integration in terms of our sense of identity, which naturally, if we are well, flows into, oh, I feel so present with you when we are together. And the ability to give of the resource that we have when we have them, because when we’re connected to our feelings, we have greater empathy for other people’s pain. And so, actually being connected to ourselves, when we do that first, if things are in health, moves into connection, moves into generosity; and it doesn’t actually have to come from a place of lashing ourselves to prove how generous we are. It is this thing that’s written into us, right? Even, I was listening to an interview about some research this morning about when we exercise, it releases a very specific cocktail of hormones and proteins and neurotransmitters that improves our ability to cooperate and to care for others.
Sarah Kift: Wow.
Hillary McBride: Right? And so, we could say well it’s—exercising makes me feel good and it’s good for my mental health—but actually it’s really good for all of us. And the idea that was passed around in this research was that from an evolutionary perspective, if we are hunters and gatherers and we’ve done all this exercise to get the food, that the release of that hormone and those proteins then allows us to be like, and I’m not going to keep it all for myself. I’m going to share it with you.
Sarah Kift: Right.
Hillary McBride: That we, when we are in health, are wired to connect with each other, are wired to be generous, and be empathic, and attuned to the needs of our community. So, we don’t have to fake it and we don’t have to prove how righteous we are by muscling into it. It’s almost as if there’s grace. It’s almost as if we are made in the image of God, and we don’t have to earn our way into imago Dei; we don’t have to earn our way into being close to God. That God is here, in my muscle fibres when I move, inviting me to then connect to other people. It’s like a whole different way of thinking about it.
Sarah Kift: I just got shivers.
Hillary McBride: Oh, did you?
Sarah Kift: So then I think probably the way forward in this conversation is to talk a little bit, if you’re willing, about what you do to stay healthy and how you integrate your faith into that.
Hillary McBride: Yes, absolutely. I have first and foremost, it just comes to the top of my mind now, become so much better at setting boundaries. The more specialized I become in my skills, the more my work gets into the world, the more I’ve realized I need to protect myself to save some energy to keep doing that work. Because if it’s always going out, then I don’t actually have any capacity to be creative and think of new things and be present for my family and my clients and all of that. So, boundaries has been a big thing that I’ve worked on recently. Cutting my workday short, saying no to certain things if I feel exhausted, deciding in those moments like, can I still do this or do I have to find another time to do it?
Sarah Kift: And how’s it going? Is it comfortable?
Hillary McBride: Yeah, well, I think I feel, I feel very secure in myself in that, and I have lots of people who champion me in that, and so the people who aren’t thrilled about that generally are not the people who are closest to me. And so I can be sad for them, but I also know that they’re entitled to have their own feelings about my behaviours, and I don’t have to take those things away from them. So, the more I understand everybody’s personal responsibility to take care of themselves, the less I feel like I need to rescue other people from their discomfort that I’ve set a boundary. So, there’s the boundaries.
I’m really active, so I’m a runner. Although it’s been, you know, sometimes with shorter days or with snow I end up doing more things like strength training or, kind of, yoga, doing a lot of stretching. And so, for me, being in my body is a really great way to, to feel free. And one of the things that I do in my running is, I don’t time. I usually route plan-ish just in case something happens, someone would know where to come look for me if I fell down and had an injury, but really go wherever I want to go at whatever pace I want to go at. And I’m not thinking about distance, just feeling my body in motion, and it feels—I mean, I’ve never flown as a human. I don’t have wings, but it feels to me like the feet-on-the-ground equivalent of flying. Like I’m motion, and being in motion to me feels intoxicating. Like, it really feels like this beautiful expression of my power and my agency in the world in a non-linguistic, non-cerebral way.
I’ve been trying to make more time to be with my friends, and friends who I’m not doing work with on the side. It’s really easy to be like let’s do this project together, but just to hang out. I have a daily meditation practice, and I think about that as being a kind of contemplative meditation. Sometimes I do the Ignatian spiritual exercises. But for me, those things around boundaries, regular spiritual practice, exercise are really important.
Sarah Kift: And, I mean, you mentioned quite a few things, but I just keep thinking about the running. There’s nothing productive about what you’re doing.
Hillary McBride: Yes, correct.
Sarah Kift: So, oftentimes, we think of self-care practice and we put it in the “should” column.
Hillary McBride: Yes.
Sarah Kift: So, especially for women, I find the pressure is go spend money.
Hillary McBride: Right, right.
Sarah Kift: Take time out of your already busy schedule to make another appointment. You know, self-care costs you something. It costs you your time, you know, there’s those kind of pressures, right?
Hillary McBride: Yes, yeah.
Sarah Kift: And I know for me, I love cycling.
Hillary McBride: Yeah.
Sarah Kift: And I love going out for a day with my cousin, where we have no plans.
Hillary McBride: I love that, yeah.
Sarah Kift: You know, I have nobody needing me.
Hillary McBride: Yeah.
Sarah Kift: I have nowhere to be. We just ride. And wherever we end up is enjoyable, right? Yeah.
Hillary McBride: As you were saying that I forgot one thing that is important to mention based on our conversation today. I go to therapy. And I think that’s so important to say, because there’s a story that a lot of us have about therapists that they don’t need the resources that they’re giving, and I always feel wary of a person who is saying take a medicine that I won’t take. Right, if there’s someone like, this is great for you, I would never do that or I don’t need that, I always think of that as being kind of questionable in some ways. So, if we are advocating for other people to seek help, it would be really incongruent for me to not also seek help. And one of the misconceptions about therapy is that it’s about information and advice. And so, if it’s about information and advice, well that would be a really good reason for me, as someone with a PhD and a full-time practice and lots of experience in this area, to not go to therapy. Because wouldn’t I have all the information and advice? But, if therapy is about something different than that, if it’s about making space to be seen and to be accompanied in a very skillful way, there is no part of life, including even the joys, where we don’t benefit from that, from having someone mirror back to us. I see this is happening. I’m so proud of you. You did this so well. Have you thought about it this way? What is it like for you to be with yourself in this moment? Those are not advice or information things. Those are experiential, relational things. So, I always like to say whenever I can that I go to therapy to dispel the myth that if you know enough, that you don’t have to go.
Sarah Kift: Well, I always say that I have a quick mind but a slow heart. Because we can, you know, there’s a lot going on up here (I’m gesturing to my head).
Hillary McBride: Yes.
Sarah Kift: But sometimes it takes my heart a long time to catch up.
Hillary McBride: Yes, yes.
Sarah Kift: And it comes back to what we were talking about with embodiment. I want to come back, as we kind of end here, to talking about practice and not just keeping it all in our heads.
Hillary McBride: Yes.
Sarah Kift: And so, with that in mind, just picture that you’re sitting across from someone who is part of a faith community and is faced with someone they love who’s in mental health crisis. What kinds of things would you say to them, very practically, in terms of how they could use their body to help that person?
Hillary McBride: I would say one of the best things that you could do to help that person is actually to take care of yourself. Because it’s often a long road, when someone has mental health issues that we, especially when we love them or are close to them. So, find a place where you can talk about what’s going on for you. Find a practice to discharge your own stress around that. Movement, putting on songs in the kitchen while you’re cooking and dancing, getting out and playing, getting fresh air, being in nature, those are all things that you can do that actually do help the people that you love. So, we can’t forget of ourselves as the caregivers. But with our bodies what’s really interesting, as long as it’s safe and consensual, touch is really helpful. So, for people who are struggling, often being present and close and our arm around someone or a hug can be, yeah, make a world of difference on a neurochemical level, just on an existential level.
And then, one of the last things that comes to mind is slowing our bodies down so that we can be present with another person. Because often what happens when another person that we love is suffering in some way is, it’s very anxiety provoking for us because we want to fix it, and we can go into try-to-fix-it mode. And being able to be present and still and keep our breathing regulated and feel our body grounded when we’re with another person takes the pressure off them but could also—as kind of a sneaky backdoor thing—regulate their system, because we’re wired to connect with each other. And when one person feels calm and present and settled, it usually makes the other person, usually makes it easier for the other person to access that state as well.
Are those the kinds of things that you’re thinking about?
Sarah Kift: Yeah.
Hillary McBride: Okay. What a special question. I don’t think anyone’s ever asked that—what do you do with your body to help somebody else who’s struggling?
Sarah Kift: Any last thoughts or words or encouragements that you want to give?
Hillary McBride: Maybe something practical. Wherever you are while you’re listening to this, don’t forget to take a deep breath. Or I just invite you to be present and to feel what’s happening in you as you’re listening to this. I always feel like when I’m listening to a podcast, if there’s any information, like, I have to remember it all or I have to write it down. And usually, the experiences that we have are more important and lasting and impactful than the information, although that is important too. If something feels good in us, it’s good to pay attention to that too. So, if there’s something that we talked about today that feels meaningful for you, or if you’re noticing feeling something in your body right now, pay attention to that too.
Sarah Kift: Thank you so much, Hillary.
Hillary McBride: You’re so welcome. Thanks, Sarah.
Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries exists to equip the Church to support mental health and wellbeing. May this podcast encourage you to create safe space for your own story and for the stories of others, as well as create change in communities that stigmatize those living with mental health challenges.
The Sanctuary Course is a small group resource designed to help initiate and guide conversations about mental health and faith. It is a starting point, creating a base of shared knowledge from which churches can explore the next steps. Perhaps most importantly, through the simple act of talking openly about mental health, the course helps churches begin to create safe spaces for all of us to share our mental health stories and receive support in community.
Each theme in the course is explored from a psychological, social, and theological perspective, and each session is accompanied by a compelling film focused on an individual’s story—a person of faith who has journeyed through mental health challenges. You can learn more about The Sanctuary Course and Sanctuary’s other resources at sanctuarymentalhealth.org.
I’m your host Sarah Kift, and I’m thankful for the people who help make this episode happen. Music by the artist Crash by Car by archive.org and all funding and support by the team at Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries. This podcast is released under a creative commons attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives 4.0 licence. Don’t change it or sell it, but please share it all you like.