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Are you aware of all the expectations you hold yourself to?

The day-to-day buzzing of our inner life can feel relentless, can’t it? We’re all too familiar with the bombardment of ‘shoulds’ about how we should act, dress, talk, move, etc. It’s a struggle that resonates with each one of us, making us feel understood in our shared experiences. 

We carry so many shoulds from our family of origin, culture, difficult life experiences, work experiences,  people we respect, and people who we want to respect us. 

But the shoulds that mess with us the most and lead to the heaviest burdens are the stealth shoulds around what we should and should not feel.

Today’s guest, Dr. Alison Cook, returns for the third time to share her transformative new book. This isn’t just a guide that addresses these ‘shoulds ‘, it’s an empowering invitation to unpack our stealth expectations of ourselves and our world. It’s an invitation to approach the ‘shoulds’ that show up in our lives with curiosity and compassion, paving the way for personal growth and self-improvement.

Dr. Alison Cook is a psychologist and teacher who has spent two decades helping individuals name what’s hard and take brave steps to transform their lives. She is also a best-selling author, teacher, and host of The Best of You podcast. She co-authored Boundaries for Your Soul and is the author of The Best of You, and I Shouldn’t Feel This Way. Alison is also a certified Internal Family Systems therapist, a dear friend, and a trusted colleague.

Listen to the full episode to hear:

  • The internal tension and disorientation Alison experienced when she couldn’t accomplish what she “should” have
  • How following her system’s lead led Alison to make a surprising connection to another pivotal transition in her life
  • Unpacking the familial and cultural origins of our shoulds around work and success
  • The high personal and social stakes of not making space to name what we’re feeling 
  • Why it’s vital to be able to discern who can best support you in processing what you’re going through
  • How to cultivate space for yourself to witness the hard things, rather than bypassing from naming to fixing 

Learn more about Alison Cook, PhD:

Learn more about Rebecca:



[Inspirational Intro Music]

Alison Cook: Whole, spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical embodied health. We barely know what that looks like in our culture. Man, you just think about the leadership space? It’s rare, and that’s what I’m fighting for here is that integrated space. And it’s really an orientation. It’s a way of being in the world where you take yourself with you wherever you are.

Rebecca Ching: Are you aware of all the expectations you hold yourself to, and do you know what fuels these expectations? I suspect there may even be some stealth expectations you hold yourself to that you may not even be aware of.

Okay, I’ve got to ask you this: do you ever should on yourself when you do not meet these expectations? I know, I know, I know. I couldn’t resist. I suspect you’ve heard that question before: “Don’t should on yourself,” or “Are you shoulding on yourself?” You’ve maybe even said it to others. For those of you who are new to this reflection, “should” sounds like “shit,” and so, it serves as a bit of a disruptor question, to say it lightly.

Now, okay, I love it when used well because it holds the title for the cheesiest helping professional question and serves as a good YOU-turn reflection question too. And so, when it does feel appropriate, I do delight in saying it maybe too much because I know I’ll receive some kind of reaction from laughter to eye rolls to sometimes some profound “aha’s.” But in all seriousness, we all carry the weight of all the shoulds we do put on ourselves and hold a lot of stealth shoulds that maybe we’re not even consciously aware of. Some of the most powerful shoulds that show up are around our feelings and internal experiences.


I’m Rebecca Ching, and you’re listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with humans who navigate life’s challenges and lead in their own ways. Our goal is to learn how they address the burdens they carry, how they learn from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.

As an undergrad, I stayed at a friend’s house during the summer months between my junior and senior years. It was actually my friend’s parent’s home, and they had this incredible library of books that I would peruse after coming home from late-night waitressing. And I found this book of poems by a guy named Hugh Prather (a total ‘70s dude) that was surprisingly captivating to me.

Now, I only recently found out that Prather’s work inspired the Saturday Night Live skit performance by comedian Al Franken, who was later a United States Senator — later in his career. We can unpack that in another conversation. But shortly after I discovered Hugh Prather’s work, Franken played the character Stewart Smalley, which launched around 1991.

Now, Stewart Smalley, the SNL character, is this hyper-self-focused, super awkward character, noting that he’s in “many 12-step groups but is not a licensed therapist.” And in these skits, the character Stewart Smalley hosts a daily affirmation show where he would look into the mirror and make these really awkward, cheesy faces and say various affirmations. But usually starting and ending with: [Recording of Stewart Smalley] “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonit, people like me.” [Laughs]


And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, it is worth a Google search, and I suspect you’ll notice how this sketch has worked its way into our pop culture lexicon.

Now, if you do know what I’m talking about, you’re probably rolling your eyes or cracking up with me because, I mean, how many of us would do kind of our own versions of “I’m good enough, and I’m smart enough, and doggonit, people like me.” But I was kind of surprised about that connection, and I did not find Prather’s poems self-help-ish or hyperbolic like the Stewart Smalley character. For me, the poems that he wrote, their simplicity stirred something in me that felt raw and true, and I would write them down in my journal, adding my flair to the words with my handwriting and sketches around them because this practice really helped me wind down from my very stimulating shifts at the restaurant/bar I worked at back then.

And the Hugh Prather book that drew me in was titled Notes to Myself, which was his journal and not intended for publication. He sent it to his publisher on a lark, and apparently his publishers loved it and so did his readers. And my favorite poem in the book was a repeat several times of these very simple sentence phrases, which really spoke to twenty-something me at the time, and it stayed with me over the decades. It’s as simple as this: “No shoulds. No have-to’s. I am free. No shoulds. No have-to’s. I am free. No shoulds. No have-to’s. I am free.” Yeah, this continues. “No shoulds. No have-to’s. I am free. No shoulds. No have-to’s. I am free, and no shoulds. No have-to’s. I am free.” There’s so much power in just saying this phrase again and again. I can only imagine what that was like for Prather as he was writing this out.


Like many of you, I suspect at least I felt weighed down by the shoulds and have-to’s at the time. That feeling stayed with me for a long while, and it still shows up today, and this poem whispers in my ear when I feel weighed down by the world.  “No shoulds. No have-to’s. I am free.” Longing for space within and in my life.

Okay, now, sure, every time I bring up this poem I hear parts of me jump in and know that there are some important shoulds and that kind of freedom is not realistic, and I suspect Prather was not talking about paying his bills or going to work for following the law. I suspect he also felt weighed down by the burdens of shoulds that stifled his soul and his joy. I see how hard we all are on ourselves regarding how we should do life, but the shoulds turn up the volume even louder when we feel our safety, belonging, employment, security, and identity threatened or at risk. And the day-to-day buzzing of our inner life feels relentless at times with all the shoulds on how we should act, how we should dress, how we should talk, how we should move, how we should act in professional spaces and what we should and should not do to stay healthy, oh, my gosh.

Many of these shoulds contradict themselves, leaving us with internal polarizations and the emotional angst that follows. My goodness, there are just a lot of shoulds. Cue, Hugh Prather: “No shoulds, no have-to’s. I am free.” We carry so many shoulds from our family of origin, our culture, difficult life experiences, work experiences, people we respect and people who we want to respect us. But the shoulds that mess with us the most and lead to the heaviest burdens are these stealth shoulds around what we should and should not feel.


There are many explicit and implicit shoulds around our emotions and what’s okay to feel and what’s not okay to feel and what’s okay to communicate about how you feel to whom and when and how. It’s dizzying, right? Stewart Smalley would have much to say about these shoulds in a hilarious sketch, I am sure. And you don’t have to look far to find a book, a podcast, or a course offering solutions to feeling weighed down and overwhelmed by all of the shoulds about our feelings. But today’s Unburdened Leader guest is coming back for her third visit to the show to talk about her beautiful new book which addresses these shoulds in a way that invites us to unpack our stealth expectations of ourselves and the world we live in and approach the shoulds in a way that is with more curiosity and compassion. She has a lovely approach to unpacking the shoulds around our feelings that I suspect both Hugh Prather and Stewart Smalley would both value.

Now, my friend Dr. Alison Cook is a psychologist and a teacher who has spent two decades helping individuals name what’s hard and take brave steps to transform their lives. She’s also a best-selling author. She’s the host of a podcast called The Best of You podcast, and she co-authored Boundaries For Your Soul and authored her second book The Best of You and her latest book [drumroll] drumroll please, and no surprise, I Shouldn’t Feel This Way.

Alison is also a certified Internal Family Systems therapist, a dear friend and trusted colleague. Make sure to check out our previous episodes here on The Unburdened Leader (episodes 25 and 50) if you want to catch more of our story and our friendship together and more of Alison’s wisdom.


But for this show, listen for how Alison names the challenges we face when past patterns in our lives hijack our sense of clarity and trust in ourselves. Pay attention to when Alison talks about how our culture here in The States does not give space for naming things or for transitions. And notice when Alison talks about the power in humility of facing the hard parts of ourselves as we turn towards the shoulds and the have-to’s in our lives. Now, please welcome back Dr. Alison Cook to The Unburdened Leader podcast.

Alison, welcome back to the podcast!

Alison Cook: Thank you! I love being here with you, Rebecca. Thank you.

Rebecca Ching: I’m really looking forward to this conversation and maybe giving folks just a little glimmer maybe of some of our behind-the-scenes Voxer conversations as we’re working through being human, working through whatever we’re working on. But I’m most excited to highlight and celebrate a new book that you have coming out very soon titled I Shouldn’t Feel This Way, which I think a lot of people are gonna relate to. But I want to start by talking about a story that you wrote about in this book.

So if you can, take me back to when you were deep in the throes of writing this book, and as your deadline approached slowly, days were ticking by, you were in the process of recovering from a significant health scare, a really scary experience while pushing really hard just to get all the ideas and the words on the page. And you found that all of your tools to move through the challenges you were experiencing no longer worked. Can you tell me how you were feeling in that moment when you were like, “I’ve got nothing, and I have a deadline approaching. I’ve gotta get this book. My publishers are waiting, and I’m feeling stuck”?


Alison Cook: It was surreal. In hindsight, hindsight is 20/20, so now I understand it better and part of understanding what was kind of riding my wave through it, but it is a horrible feeling. We’re similar in this. I’m usually pretty capable of pushing through, of producing what I need to produce, of getting the job done, and my body in this instance just wouldn’t budge, just wouldn’t let me crank out what I needed to crank out, and it was really disorienting, is the best word I can use. It was very disorienting. It was very different than what I think I’ve written in various capacities for maybe 15 years. It was one of the first times this has ever really happened to me.

Rebecca Ching: Yes, disorienting. How was that showing up for you in that moment?

Alison Cook: Well, for me, I go into my head, and this is where the genesis of I Shouldn’t Feel This Way comes. It’s a self-criticism or a self-judgment comes out, which is, “This shouldn’t be happening. What’s wrong with me? How do I hack the system?” As opposed to where I go with the book is, “Oh,” getting curious. “Oh, that’s interesting. This is new.” I shouldn’t feel this way isn’t a statement of self-disparaging or self-criticism or what’s wrong with me. It’s an, “I do feel this way,” in terms of feeling disoriented, feeling like I have nothing to say, feeling like I can’t just turn out the ideas. “I do feel this way. Wow, well, let’s get curious about that.”

That was sort of where the genesis of that came from is just observing myself have this battle inside of me, which is just one part of me. The parts work is always right there, you know? Just get it done. Just do it. Here are all the solutions, the problem solver, and another part of me is just, like, “No, I’ve got nothing.”


And we can’t untease that inner tension, that inner conflict, which is really what I Shouldn’t Feel This Way is about. I can’t untease that inner conflict under pressure, under duress, under force fitting myself or forcing myself, right? The solution is to pause and get curious about the inner conflict, but what I experienced was just all of that inner tension. But in the moment, to be honest — I mean, again, hindsight is 20/20. I can look back on that and name that that was what was happening at the time. I was just like, “Have I lost my mind? Is something wrong with me,” you know, all of those, because this is not familiar to me at all.

Rebecca Ching: Exactly, and as a high performer, someone who can produce, you’re pretty prolific, when you put your mind to it, you get something done, I would say disorienting is part of it, and that can get to be really scary, now, more than just uncomfortable. But you did something really interesting. You were having this moment in the kind of wrestling with all of these emotions. You listened to your body, and you felt this urge to drive. And so, how did driving provide both a familiar and also a powerful turning point for you?

Alison Cook: Literally one morning, I think it was a Friday morning, I just gave up. I surrendered. I gave up. I stopped fighting within myself. The second I sort of had that energy of, “I give up. I can’t solve this problem. This isn’t working,” there was just this overwhelming sense of I need to drive. That is a familiar thing. I talk about this in the book. That used to always be my escape. I think it is for a lot of people. You know, since I’ve been talking about it, people relate to that. But, you know, I would just get in my car as a teen and just go somewhere, movement. It’s a way — as I realized in hindsight, I put music on. That movement just literally sort of breaks something inside of me, breaks things up, gets me out of my head.


And so, I just kind of followed it, and it’s much more of a gut level, emotion level, like I said, it’s out of my head. It’s like I don’t know where I’m going. The car just kind of starts taking itself, and I don’t know what words to put on it, Rebecca, you know? But some part of me that’s just kind of, “I need to show you something,” and this is what I love about IFS. I mean, when I think about it in parts terminology, I think whatever the exiled part of me that I was trying to bury, that part of me that was just finally got a little bit of a say in the system was like, “We’re going. I’m leading you,” and I just surrendered to that. I surrendered to that in the moment and found myself in front of an apartment where I had lived when I first moved to Boston about 18 years ago, only for about two weeks. It was an apartment I just essentially was temporarily in during a really pivotal, transitional other season of deep disorientation in my life.

So, you know, there I was. And I think some part of me just wanted that connection to a prior version, a prior part of my life, and it was exactly what I needed.

Rebecca Ching: I’m a big road tripper. I haven’t been since I moved to San Diego, but man, when I lived both in the Midwest and the East Coast and in Europe, there was just something about hopping in the car and shaking things up. But I loved how this brought you back to another season where you were feeling stuck, you know, almost a couple decades earlier, maybe a little bit more than that, and that connection with those parts of you unlocked this book for you. I just wanted to talk a little bit about that because when we’re stuck, move.

Alison Cook: Yeah. 

Rebecca Ching: Change your scenery. Listen to what you’re longing and yearning for. There are answers there. Don’t override it is what I took away from that.


Alison Cook: Yeah, exactly, and it really was this powerful — when I got there what I realized is that was another season. It was the end of my doctoral program. I was never more productive. Suddenly I started to have a bunch of anxiety. Again, hindsight is 20/20. I know exactly why at the time, but, I mean, it was debilitating anxiety. This was the 18 years prior. I was in Denver. I couldn’t work. For the first time ever in all of my — I did eight years of graduate school (a master’s degree and a doctoral program), I’d never not turned a paper in on time. And I had to take an incomplete and essentially not finish my course because I couldn’t do it. I ended up at this apartment on Shepard Street in Cambridge to try to unravel what in the world is going on, right?

And so, it made perfect sense that that’s where this part of me took me to show me, “You’ve got this pattern! This is a pattern, and here’s what it is.” Suddenly I was like, “Oh, my gosh,” you know? Oh, we do all this work, and we grow, and we change, and yet sometimes these patterns catch back up with us.

Rebecca Ching: The pushing through parts of us, sometimes they don’t listen [Laughs] until our bodies shut us down so that we do.

Alison Cook: Exactly. Well, and the other piece of the story is I had — again, hindsight is 20/20, but about, I don’t know, four, five, maybe six months prior to starting to write this book, I had done a detox, I had gone off social media, I had really started to dig into a healthier way of showing up in my body, what I would call embodiment, and I had stripped away a lot of my old coping tactics, and I didn’t even realize how much when I write, when I work, I would reach for food or reach for a certain kind of food or reach for social media or reach for something to kind of give me that hit to keep me going.


And I’d stripped all that away. And systematically over the prior months, stripping away a lot of those and trying to replace a lot of those coping tactics with healthier ways of being embodied, being in my body. And so, what happened is then when I started the writing project amidst that, I didn’t have those coping tactics, and so, suddenly I was like, “What do I do then? How do I function? How do I do this thing I love to do without those ways of coping?” And it was really different. It was such a different — that was the disorientation. It was like, “Am I not a writer anymore? Can I not do this thing that I love to do?” Because I‘ve changed so much how I relate to my body was the only reason that I could do the work that I do.

You know, I think about it sometimes in the terminology, I talk in the book about numbing, and there’s a fine line between (and you know a lot about this) numbing and addictions and how we conceptualize addictions. But there’s a way in which being cut off from my body and my embodiment served me because my mind could just go to town, and as I’m on the frontend of this journey of embodiment, it was like, “Oh, my goodness. I have to do this a completely different way. When I notice that I’m tired, I actually have to get up and take a break. I have to listen to that still small voice that’s like, ‘I’m done for the day.’” And the other parts of me were like, “We don’t do that,” you know?

And so, this whole book became this journey of, “Okay, how do I do this in a different way?” And it was hard. It was disorienting. It’s hard to change because it’s scary, but it became the crucible for that change that I had launched by a simple social media detox that became much deeper.

Rebecca Ching: Right. Right. And, you know, facilitating again, you came out of a space where you had a pretty serious health scare, and you were making some big changes to get yourself really feeling well. And you say coping; I often will say comforting. You’re almost on the part of the spectrum of comfort/numb/addiction spectrum, dissociation. There’s a whole spectrum of that, and yet that’s kind of this buzzkill of healing. If parts of us aren’t updated, they’re like, “Oh, wait. How do we push through?” And the answer is we don’t.


We can still get stuff done, we’re just gonna get it done differently. We don’t have to grind like we were taught to grind in our work, and that’s another part of healing too is our relationship with our bodies and our relationship with work.

The main thing that I valued, and I know we talked about this as you were working through it in the book is you write about the power of naming our internal experiences and also what we’re experiencing in our external world. Before I get into kind of all the processes and the things that you share, I want you to share what influences contributed to telling yourself, “I shouldn’t feel this way”? 

Alison Cook: It’s a great question, Rebecca. I think I’m at a season of my life where there are easy, go-to, low-hanging fruit answers to the question. You know, childhood of some self-parenting. I think a lot about — and I write about this in The Best of You, but I had a lot of big dreams when I was in fifth or sixth grade, you know? Those are always the poignant memories, just big dreams. And I was by myself in my bedroom dreaming and writing them out. I had all these goals, and I was writing them out. I loved to do it, but I wasn’t parented through that, and then the absence of a witness I think a part of me just sort of came in and kind of became my task master. And that part of me is pretty young, doesn’t really understand the idea of balance and is just like, “We’ve gotta go! We’ve gotta go!” You know, it’s a young part, an adolescent part of me with a lot of energy and a lot of drive, but it’s never really been parented.


Because if you think about adolescence, there’s a lot of energy, and there’s a stubbornness to it, and people who know me and see the exterior of me (I know you will sense this), they don’t see that stubbornness in me. You know, there’s a stubbornness in there, and that’s this part of me that’s just really kind of a workhorse, you know? And shame isn’t gonna help, you know? So it’s like, “Okay, little part, what are we gonna do? I know you have this really strong agenda, and we’ve got to get these goals out,” and other parts of me are tired and done, and I’ve got to parent all of these parts.

So I think it just kind of goes back to that re-parenting piece that we talk about of these parts kind of show up in new ways, but yeah, it’s an old way of kind of learning to survive in the absence of that parenting piece. I just adapted it, and that was how I got through things, and it worked pretty well for a while until it didn’t work anymore.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah, it works. It works in getting the grades and getting the accolades and being the good kid, the nice kid, performing, you know, all of those things. I think culture, I know when I reflected on that question for myself, sure there are family of origin pieces, but culture too is what it means to be good enough to get hired, to be desirable. There are a lot of mixed messages around all of that and how we show up authentically or not.

And working through this book, what are you clear about that gets in the way of you being able to name what you feel and experience, and how do you navigate these blocks so that you can get to naming your feelings and experiences?

Alison Cook: Yeah, I say in the book, “Name what’s hard. Start with yourself,” meaning I always have to look inward at what is going on inside of me, and almost always I have to name — that first thing I have to name is that I don’t want to feel this way.


I don’t want to feel tired. I don’t want to feel — I mean, what blocks me from that is a good question. I think some of it is neural pathways, well-blazed trails in the brain. I do think culture fits into it. You talk a lot about hustle culture, and I do think I’m becoming aware more and more (this is my third book) that there is a tremendous pressure on authors, and if you don’t kind of go with that pressure it can be hard to get your stuff out there, and authors are talking more and more about this, which I appreciate. You’re fighting the internal battle of just trying to create more spaciousness just inside your own system, and the reality is there are real consequences for that. You know, you’re aware of that. And so, of course that influences.

Rebecca Ching: I mean, wouldn’t you say though, too, that there is this explicit and implicit messaging that your feelings don’t matter, there are only a few ways to feel, it’s not about you, it’s about the work or it’s about whatever else is getting centered in that moment. And we’ve learned just to kind of disconnect from our needs and our wants because I know for me when I work with people, both clinically and with my leadership clients, we start to identify values or start to identify what they’re feeling, they just kind of fritz for a moment, some of them, like, “Wait, I know what I’m supposed to feel. I know what I’m supposed to say. But is it okay? Is it really okay for me to say what I want and what I’m noticing and what I feel and what I believe?” And they’re like, “Yeah, of course it is.” They’re like, “This is kind of ridiculous!” And so, it’s amazing how much we can become invisible even to ourselves.

So when we talk about naming and slowing down like, “What am I feeling and what am I experiencing,” it’s hard to really just filter through all of the what’s okay, what’s not okay, the shoulds, the expectations, the fitting in, all of those things that help us keep the job, keep our community.


The stakes are high, and I love that you’re like, “We’ve got to do this. We’ve got to name it because if we don’t it runs us.” So what would you say are the stakes for all of us to develop a practice and language to name our emotions and experiences ourselves, and what happens if we don’t name what we feel and experience?

Alison Cook: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think the stakes are incredibly high, incredibly high, incredibly high. It’s not only the health of our own bodies and our own souls and our own minds and our own emotions, it’s the health of our systems because the health of my system around me, whether it’s my family system, my community system, my neighborhood, my town, my world is absolutely united with the health of my internal system.

Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.

Alison Cook: And we don’t create these spaces, especially in this culture, you know? I think especially in our American culture we don’t create this spaciousness for transitions. Think about these very clear rituals that historically, traditionally in other cultures, that are ritualized around those There are periods set aside to metabolize and process emotions. Yes, we hear, “Oh, mindfulness, meditation. We need to be doing these things,” but it feels like something you should schedule into your day as opposed to a way of being holistically in the world.

Rebecca Ching: Right. Right.

Alison Cook: Right? Because I probably was meditating during that time or praying.


I have a pretty good prayer practice where I kind of quiet my heart for 12 minutes a morning, but then just bam, you know? That’s not holistic. That’s not whole, spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical embodied health. It’s not integrated, and we barely know what that looks like in our culture. I’ll say that. I’ll be like, “That person feels like an integrated person to me where they’re bringing their whole self.” Man, you think about the leadership space? It’s rare that we see it. I mean, right? We talk about this, and yet when you do see it, you feel it, that groundedness of it.

Rebecca Ching: You do feel it.

Alison Cook: It’s like, wow, we need that, and that’s what I’m fighting for here is that integrated space. And it’s really an orientation. It’s a way of being in the world where you take yourself with you wherever you are.

Rebecca Ching: Let me tell ya, there was a moment going through your book. I had a whole trailhead moment. I had to journal, and I was on the soapbox with my poor husband. I’m like, “Oh, my gosh! Let me tell you what this is reminding me of,” and I realized that in the — not realized but I just was getting some clarity on how in the personal and professional development spaces there’s a trend in some practices. There’s a rush for people to name what others are feeling and telling them what is happening inside them and often if they correct it, then they call it — or if they have any objections to what they’re told they’re feeling then they’re told that they’re being resistant.

This is a huge thing that at least I see with the people I work with that are like, “I guess this is just what — I was told that I’m this,” and they get so confused. And I think when we attempt to control and name what others are feeling we end up creating not only empathic failure but also some pretty big violations.

You are a full-on badass when it comes to boundaries. You co-wrote your first book about boundaries. We talk a lot about boundaries. Walk me through what boundaries you need to have in place and hold as you do your own YOU-turns and begin to reflect on your own naming process?


Alison Cook: Well, it takes this word spaciousness that we’ve talked about, I need spaciousness to be able to reflect on my inner experience so that I can communicate it in a constructive way with you, full stop. And that sounds simple, but it’s not. There’s so much enmeshment and codependency in all of our relationships, culturally, but man, the more you do it, it is so life-giving. I mean, there is nothing more empowering.

You know, just today I had a couple conversations and they stirred up feelings within me, and I just though I need to notice and name those feelings because if I lash out or I run to a friend or my sister, I’m missing these cues that are precious, and when I can name them and go, “Okay, I don’t feel good about what that person said,” I’m not saying anything I don’t know yet. It’s not about that other person in this moment. It’s a slow process naming and then framing it. There could be 20 different ways or reasons why that landed on me the way it did. It could be that the other person was a jerk, and I’m gonna need to confront them. It could be that they said something that was true that I didn’t like. I need to really sit with myself. Those are completely opposite ways to frame the fact that I’m activated.

That’s a process I have to run because if I jump over that second step, I risk calling out other people, when in fact this is the work. We see the rotten fruit of not doing this internal work all the time, but when you do the internal work, you’re in command of your own emotions, you’re in command of reality. I mean, I hate to say that I tried really hard in the book to talk about that because something is true and we don’t have a corner on what’s true, but we can. We are designed and equipped to kind of sift through and go, “What really happened? Do I need to confront something in myself, or is this person crossing a line,” right? That’s a discernment process that takes some skill and it takes some nuance.


Rebecca Ching: You’re talking about taking a beat and taking some spaciousness to check in first versus delegating what’s going on for someone else to make sense for you.

Alison Cook: That’s right.

Rebecca Ching: Sometimes we can do that, or people just will intervene. “Oh, you’re feeling this. This is what you’re experiencing.” If we don’t have a sense of what’s going on we go, “Oh, okay, that’s what it is,” or if it’s wrong, then people correct us about our experiences and that can lead to us doubting ourselves too.

So you have a really good discerning process about inviting people into your process of when you need some feedback. But what are your discerning tells on who to invite into your process of sorting through when you’re needing some perspective? Because I know that you’re one of the people that is that for me. I’m like, “I’m stuck on this. I need to ramble this and need some perspective because I’m having a hard time connecting,” and you never go, “Oh, it’s this,” you know? You don’t tell me, “Oh, you’re just being selfish,” or “This is what’s going on.” You ask me questions or sometimes you’ll say, “I don’t know,” and that’s actually been really helpful. How do you discern who to invite when you’re in those places of stuckness but want a little bit of support?


Alison Cook: Yeah, that’s a great question because I so value that process of what I call framing, which is where you’re not jumping in or rushing to a solution. I so honor that step, and I mean, it’s part of why I’m a therapist. And so, I so want that from other people. I really prioritize that quality. There’s a quote in the book from Rilke who says, “Once we name something –,” and naming doesn’t mean we’ve pinned it down. Naming is, “I’m not doing okay. I’m activated.” It might be, “I’m noticing. Okay, so what’s my next step? I need to discern this. Do I go for a walk?” You know, and so that’s kind of what I run through in my mind. I go, “Is this something I can kind of figure out on my own if I can take a drive or take a walk or sit on it for a day?” Usually that’s my first go-to is to give myself a day to see if it settles in and then I go to who would I call. It’s not always the case for everybody.

My goal is at that moment I’m gonna think of a conversation partner that’s gonna help me frame it, that’s gonna help me be a conversation partner, and I’ll think about the context. Is it a family context? Is it a work context? And so, in those different contexts I have trusted advisors who I will call upon. I talk about the rolodex approach, kind of knowing mentally if it’s about my kids, if it’s about my marriage, if it’s about my work, if it’s about social media. Something happened today that really activated me in ways I was surprised about that has to do with the world of social media, people I don’t know, but I got some news, and you were one of the people I was like, “Rebecca is someone I can process that with.”

But I am noticing that I am sad about this, and I don’t understand why. The quality that I look for across the board are folks who honor that process, and as Rilke says, love the questions themselves. No matter how you do it, we’re going to appreciate that discernment, that space in between, I call it a place in between noticing something and taking action.


What’s really going on here? That’s the baseline quality you can find in extroverts, you can find in introverts. Some people are more, “I think it might be this!” And again, that’s a discernment process that comes from years of discerning people because there are folks that will come in more strongly, but I know I’ll be like, “No, that’s not it.”

But I’m tight with those trusted advisors. I call them trusted advisors because you’re right, you want to be discerning about what voices you let into that place in between. It’s a very vulnerable place.

Rebecca Ching: It is, and I believe strongly it has to be an invitation, whether I can say, “Hey, Alison, you haven’t asked for my feedback but are you open to some?” or you invite me in, and when I see that getting powered over and bulldozed, it’s akin to violence to me, and I see that done in the name of helping people heal and grow.

[Inspirational Music]

Rebecca Ching: Leading is hard. Leading is also often controversial as you navigate staying aligned to your values, your mission, and your boundaries. Navigating the inevitable controversy can challenge your confidence, clarity, and calm.

Now, I know you don’t mind making the hard decisions but sometimes the stakes seem higher and can bring up echoes of old doubts, insecurities, and lots of shoulds and have-to’s during times when you need to feel rock solid on your plan and action. Finding a coach who gets the nuances of your business and leading in our complex and polarized world can help you identify the blocks that keep you playing it safe and small.

Leading today is not a fancy title or fluffy bragging rights. It is brave and bold work to stay the course when the future is so unknown and the doubts and pains from the past keep showing up to shake things up. Internal emotional practices and systemic strategies are needed to keep the protector of cynicism at bay and foster a hope that is both actionable and aligned.


When the stakes are high and you don’t want to lose focus, when you want to navigate inevitable conflict between your ears and with those you lead, when time is of the essence and you want to make hard decisions with confidence and clarity, then Unburdened Leader Coaching is for you and where you deepen the capacity to tolerate the vulnerability of change, innovation, and doing things differently than the status quo.

To start your Unburdened Leader Coaching process with me go to www.rebeccaching.com and book a free connection call. I can’t wait to hear from you!

[Inspirational Music]

Rebecca Ching: What role does humility play in deepening your confidence and self-trust in naming your experiences?

Alison Cook: I believe that when we can name not only our feelings and our inner frustrations but also name when we’re wrong or name when we’re, “Ooh, maybe I’m activated because it’s something about me,” and we can face parts of ourselves that are hard, that to me is humility, and that is the most freeing part of this work. The most freeing part of this work is to be able to go, “Oh, I missed that one. I reacted big.” I’ve been saying this so much, Rebecca, lately, and it goes back to conversations we had this fall. I said to my husband, “I’ve learned something about myself. Sometimes I have to have a ten reaction to get to a five response.”

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]

Alison Cook: But before I realized that, if you act out of the ten, “I overreacted,” I guess is the word we use. But when I can just honor that with humility and go, “Man, yeah, I did, and you know what? I’m not gonna beat myself up about it. I’m gonna name it. I’m gonna own it. I’m gonna honor it because I don’t want to be someone that does that,” and also to me that breathes the most beautiful gift of humility, which is not being meek, it’s not being mild.


It’s a really healthy confidence. The most beautiful possession I have is the ability to go — if someone comes after me is to say, “Man, I have so done the work of looking at my stuff so hard that honestly let’s go for it because, I mean, you’re not gonna come at me with much that I don’t already know.” Again, this is also nuanced, right? It’s also nuanced. It’s not the acceptance of, “That’s just the way I am.” It’s the, “Yeah, I know. I see that part of me, and I work with it. Sometimes it still pops up, and it’s there, and I feel it, and you’re right.” It’s that lack of defensiveness that I tried to talk about in the book. Again, very nuanced.

Again, in our culture we see this, “Well, that’s just my boundary,” you know? And it’s like sometimes that’s true, but sometimes we’re not doing our own work of facing our own hard stuff.

Rebecca Ching: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. What I loved about this connection of humility with really accessing our confidence is courage is the bridge of that. I don’t have to have all the answers. I don’t have to be seen a certain way. I know that I am deeply, deeply human. [Laughs] And my humility doesn’t mean I just take it. If someone is violating a boundary or misrepresenting me or there’s something that’s off, I’m gonna speak to that. But there’s something about not having to keep up appearances that can help my confidence come through. So I just wanted to name that.

Alison Cook: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: So, okay, you know this. We’re a culture of fixers. We like to fix it. I mean, dude, we’re psychotherapists amongst a leadership coach. You do coaching too.


We’re brought in to help people, but there’s something different from being a fixer to being a help, an invitation to be a framer or a partner in someone’s healing process, but man, “The three steps to change your life,” is a thing. And there are a lot of reasons that we’re a culture of fixers. But from my lens at least it’s mostly out of self-protection and self-preservation, you know?

Alison Cook: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: Alison, before we even started recording you were sharing some things that you were feeling, and I noticed parts of me that wanted you to feel better, and I’m like, “Okay, what’s going on up here? I want her to feel better.”

Alison Cook: Oh.

Rebecca Ching: We haven’t talked live. We’ve been Voxering for so long because our schedules have been nuts, right?

Alison Cook: Yeah.

Rebecca Ching: And I’m like, “Oh, oh, my gosh. I can see she’s feeling it.” And I notice those parts of me wanted to fix, and I was like, “Oh, gosh, no, Rebecca.” but when you care about someone because I’m hurting that you’re hurting, so I want you to stop hurting so I feel better. It sounds kind of rude, but it is kind of how we work. When my kids are hurting, it hurts me. So I want to fix them. But naming, this is what you did a beautiful job on. Naming does not mean jumping into fixing. You really made that clear. It often ushers in a time of waiting and reflection. Again, you emphasize this in your book. When you name something, you need the spaciousness you’ve referenced. You need time and space to metabolize it. How do you keep yourself from bypassing the messy and very important space of the in between of naming and befriending what you’re experiencing before rushing into action and fixing? 

Alison Cook: That’s a great question. How do I do it? [Laughs] And the first thought I had (so let’s just name it) was, “Oh, I should have a really quick and easy three-step plan for it,” right?

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]

Alison Cook: That’s what’s gonna be really hard about talking about this.

Rebecca Ching: Sure.

Alison Cook: You know, because there are three steps in it, but the three steps are not steps. It’s more like a process —


Rebecca Ching: They’re practices.

Alison Cook: — that you have to have in your mind. Yeah, they’re practices.

Rebecca Ching: That’s how I took it.

Alison Cook: They’re practices. I like that, thank you. Because that’s really helpful. Naming that middle practice of framing, giving it a name which came out of writing the book, recognizing that I had gone through this tremendously challenging year, my last year of doctoral work, that ended in just eruptions of anxiety, the hyper-productivity was not solving it, and those two weeks on Shepard Street were a place in between. They were a liminal place. Historically in religious studies that is a thing. It’s a place in between to prepare yourself. It’s a transitional season.

We think about an engagement period, you know, sort of old fashion but it’s a transitional season that honors that you’re two people who are individuals that are preparing to get married, and there’s a season to honor what does that mean. That’s a big deal. You’re leaving a way behind and choosing to unite with another person, so that’s one example, right, of a liminal season.

You think of pregnancy. That’s one maybe in our culture we do a little better job of because there’s a liminal place. Not that great, you know? There’s a season there and big changes coming. You’re going from being without kids to having a little baby that you’re gonna be caring for. Let’s give ourselves a minute to process all that that’s gonna be, right?

So those are some sort of practical examples, but there are many more in religious studies. Most religions have this idea of a liminal place, or a liminal threshold built in. Even naming that that’s a thing, to answer your question, has helped me remind myself that, “Ah, I don’t have to fix it,” because part of the reason — to go back to a prior question you asked, one of my own obstacles to naming is that if I name something I’m gonna have to deal with the uncertainty and the disorientation because naming is not the same as fixing.

Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.


Alison Cook: And so, if I name something hard, I am giving myself permission to go, “Oh, this is hard, and I’m gonna need a minute to figure it out.” And so, by naming these three practices, it’s freed me to say, “Oh, I can name this?” Because suddenly that’s the first part! I don’t have to immediately know what to do.

And so, even just that naming in and of itself, that there is that second place in between, there is that second step of framing that has freed me exponentially this last year to go, “Oh, on my walk this afternoon –,” so now we’re getting into structures, so I try to take a walk every day. That’s part of this embodiment. So now I’ve added to it, “Oh, on that walk, I’m gonna think about this some more,” or can I call a friend to process it? But I’ve now been able to name what’s happening. It’s not just random. I’m not just getting lucky. It’s like I’m gonna put some time and attention on this weird experience, this emotional response I had this morning of sadness that I don’t understand. I understand the process. I’ve got a place for it, and I’ll find out is it gonna take, “Oh, I’ve got it,” or is it gonna take me a little bit longer?”

You have to build in the spaciousness in your day. You’ve got to build in some time, whether it’s a walk or a morning prayer time or a drive in your car. I talk about these places in between. Maybe it’s your commute, and you turn the radio off and you turn the podcast off and you become aware. “This is what I’ve been feeling today. I wonder what that’s about. I don’t have to fix it, but I am gonna give myself permission during this 20-minute drive or this 20-minute window of time to just let my mind do what it’s designed to do,” which is filter through the noise and arrive at real wisdom.


Rebecca Ching: You know, I feel like bypassing (and I’d love your thoughts on this) usually comes from we bypass ourselves because so many people have bypassed instead of witnessed our pain. So we haven’t felt like it’s okay to witness what we’re feeling, right? The witnessing I feel like is even more powerful — I guess witnessing is part of the naming. It’s the beginning. It’s needed to start to name, and we want to just fix any inkling. And I’ve also heard people and I’ve felt this myself where if I slow down and I witness, I’m going to be taken out. I’ve got a job to do. I’ve got kids to care for. I’ve got places to be, things to do. If I slow down and witness and start to process this, I will be done in.

Now, usually folks when they do that they actually find it’s, not always, but often there’s still some gnashing of teeth, but there’s actually more relief than they expected. But we fix and we bypass. We do not witness well, and therefore I think a lot of us just didn’t have that model. I know the Gen X kids out there, most of us did not get a witness. [Laughs] We did not get a witness of our emotional and lived experiences.

Alison Cook: Fair.

Rebecca Ching: It just was what it was. I have a lot of empathy and compassion for folks that are like, “Oh this sounds all great, but I have to keep functioning,” and if we don’t take that moment, even if it seems scary, our bodies are going to take over and will shut things down. What do you say in response to that?

Alison Cook: There’s a backlog of unwitnessed pain in so many of our lives, which is that trauma piece. So if you’ve got a big backlog of pain, don’t do it alone. Find these places in between where you’re like, “I’m gonna come into therapy. That’s a place in between where I’ve got an hour,” and a good therapist knows how to pace it so that you don’t get overwhelmed, so that you can start tapping into the backlog of pain, and then over time you set up these rhythms to where, man, my favorite times of the day are taking my walk where I get to be with myself and I get to notice what I’m feeling because I know how to be with myself.


That’s the goal. That takes some cultivating. It’s a garden. It takes some time to cultivate that kind of relationship with yourself, but you can. You can do it.

I work with people all the time. I have friends who have lots of little kids. All the more reason why identifying this place in between, “Where is my place where I just go out?” Even if it’s walking around my block or even if it’s in my yard, I am just taking some space to check in with myself, to attune to my own thoughts, to my own feelings, and even if what I’m noticing in that moment is, “This feels too big,” name that. “This feels too big. I can’t do this alone. It’s too overwhelming.” And then that’s when you go, “Okay, I’ve got to dedicate –,” and I know that getting a therapist isn’t easy. It can be challenging, but you are saying, “I’ve got to find a place where I can attend to my inner life and to my emotions.”

Rebecca Ching: And finding those spaces, sometimes they’re not the ideal or the best, but it’s sometimes good enough is more than good enough and starting to train our bodies and our brains to trust a little bit of the in-between space I think is essential. And if we don’t witness, then we’re delegating our lives and our stories to others too, and I’m not here for that. I’m not here for that at all.

How has your understanding of success connected with your process of naming what you feel and experience? How’s that changed since you were younger, and what does success mean to you today?


Alison Cook: It’s changed a lot through a lot of this work —

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]

Alison Cook: — of naming what’s hard. So that part of me, that fifth grade, sixth grade part of me that had big goals and ambitions is still there and has an idea of what success looks like based on what the culture says success looks like, and that part of me is very real. She’s very real. She reads and attracts what the culture says is success. I have learned to just honor her, not to gaslight her, right?

Rebecca Ching: For sure.

Alison Cook: “No, that’s not really what success is,” because in her mind success is, you know, I don’t know, Taylor Swift, you know — I mean, who is wonderfully successful, but you know what I mean? And that’s very logical in her mind, and I’m gonna honor that, Rebecca because I’m not gonna gaslight her, you know? I live with her, [Laughs] and it can be challenging, but I’ve learned that the more I validate and honor that what she really loves is excellence, and I start to gently show her excellence in all sorts of ways, she’s open to that, you know?

And so, I wouldn’t be able to have a healthy relationship to my own success apart from parts work. [Laughs] But I would say it’s coming. It’s coming, and that’s the kind of person I really want to be. That’s that integration. To me, the integration isn’t bypassing that part of me or, again, trying to gaslight that part of me in a sort of fault-suit of humility or a fault, “Aw, shucks. I don’t really care.” Integration is showing up, really honoring —

Rebecca Ching: Welcoming it all.


Alison Cook: Yeah! Yes, yes, and I’ve started, you know, maybe in the last year or two to really taste that, what that feels like. Success feels more and more like genuinely connecting with someone who reads my work or listens to my podcast and realizing that was worth it if it was for that one person, and genuinely feeling that.

Rebecca Ching: For sure.

Alison Cook: You know, that might be what we’re supposed to say, but genuinely being like, “That really mattered. That was excellent in that moment with that one person.” And so, it’s a process. It’s an ongoing process, and again, that’s the one for me in our culture that I often feel like is a little bit of an uphill battle. But I’m finding it, and it’s really beautiful.

Rebecca Ching: I agree. As we wrap up our questions, I think you know that we have a little tradition of some quickfire questions. So what are you reading right now?

Alison Cook: A book by Jan Richardson. I think it’s called A Circle of Quiet.

Rebecca Ching: That sounds apropos. Let’s see. What song are you playing on repeat right now?

Alison Cook: Right now I just saw the Bob Marley movie. So that “Redemption Song.” It’s such a good song.

Rebecca Ching: It is a really good one. That is a really good one.

Alison Cook: He sings it right at the end of the movie. Ah, it’s so good.

Rebecca Ching: I’ve got to check out that movie. I haven’t seen it yet. What is the best TV show or movie that you’ve seen recently? [Laughs] Maybe it’s Bob Marley.

Alison Cook: I’ll be honest, I did a rewatch of some of the Friends seasons. The reason it was really fun is it put me back in that era of the ‘90s when we were in DC.

Rebecca Ching: Yeah.

Alison Cook: And it was really interesting to watch it from where I am now.


Rebecca Ching: Oh, my gosh. I remember going into my hairdresser, who became one of my best friends at the time, to get the Rachel haircut. Yeah, that really shaped us. I mean, you might have even come over. We used to have Friends watching parties at my house.

Alison Cook: We all did!

Rebecca Ching: We all did. [Laughs]

Alison Cook: And I’m not trying to do this, but I will say this. I realized, I was like, “What is the magic of this show?” I mean, there are things wrong with it, obviously, too, but I think it was one of the first shows that named that liminal season between being launched from your family’s home and getting married and settling down that so many of us —

Rebecca Ching: Were in.

Alison Cook: You know, in the eighties, all the shows were families, right? Then suddenly you’re an adult and Friends really named that season of being betwixt and between. I was like, “Oh, that was really — yeah, there’s something to that.”

Rebecca Ching: So it’s a little bit earlier from when we met, but what was your favorite piece of eighties pop culture?

Alison Cook: Oh, gosh. I mean, I could talk about this for two hours. One of my favorite all-time movies is Pretty in Pink.

Rebecca Ching: It’s legend. Legend, the soundtrack itself. Duckie, legend. We could keep going. Yes. Docs shoes came from that, I love it.

Okay, what is your mantra right now?

Alison Cook: I am not just saying this. My husband and I have a joke. We say, “I shouldn’t feel this way,” all the time. “I shouldn’t feel this way,” because it’s my mantra to pay attention and to name.

Rebecca Ching: Ooh.

Alison Cook: And so, that sounds really dumb, but it’s actually true. It’s a paradoxical way to the part of me that feels like, “I shouldn’t feel this way,” to go, “Yep, you do.”

Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Yeah, because there are parts that still want to protect you by saying, “No, don’t feel this way.” So you’re naming those parts and then giving them a witness. I love it.

What is an unpopular opinion that you hold?

Alison Cook: I think an unpopular opinion I hold based on my profession is I don’t necessarily think therapy is a cure-all for everything. I feel like, in our culture, the solution for everything is, “See a therapist,” and I think that is not always accurate. Not that therapy’s bad. I think therapy’s amazing, and we all need it. I also think we need more systems than just a therapist.


Rebecca Ching: I cosign that one with you. Who or what inspires you to be a better leader and human?

Alison Cook: My husband. He’s a good leader.

Rebecca Ching: Alison, this was a treat. Thank you for coming back on the show, and congratulations on writing your third book! I’m so happy for you and proud of you, and I’m so grateful that I get a witness of the integrity, of the nuance, of the care, of the research and the thoughtfulness that you put behind every sentence you write.

Alison Cook: Aw.

Rebecca Ching: And just really I’m excited for more people to be exposed to your thought leadership, so thanks for showing up. I know it comes at a lot of efforting, and I just appreciate you and all that you put into the world.

Alison Cook: Thank you, Rebecca. I feel the exact same about you. So much integrity comes out of you and this podcast, and I’m really grateful for you.

Rebecca Ching: Before you go, I want to ensure you take away some key nuggets of wisdom that Alison Cook shared during our Unburdened Leader conversation.

Alison reminded us of the power and necessity of naming our feelings instead of fearing them or bypassing them with shoulds and judgements. Alison shared from her own story the power of taking time to process transitions, even though it’s not supported in our culture, and noting if we don’t take that time our bodies will often shut us down, so we’re forced to take that time to reflect. And we also discussed the importance of discerning who and what we listen to when we struggle with our feelings and how to respond. The wrong supports can often make things so much worse.

There are so many rules, so many shoulds on what’s okay to feel and what’s not, and I appreciate this conversation and the frameworks that Alison offered to help us move out of the shoulds into more clarity and confidence.


So I’m curious, what are the shoulds and have-to’s that drive your internal and external judgements? How can you give yourself more space to interrogate with humility and compassion, the challenges and changes that stir up confusion and overwhelm about your feelings? What does support look like for you during times of transition and change? And what are your stealth expectations that fuel the shoulds and have-to’s in your life? I really recommend taking a shoulds audit so you can better detect these expectations, which often fuel judgment and shame when big emotions appear.

Now more than ever, we need to practice more permission, patience, and compassion for our emotions. It starts with really interrogating the shoulds and the have-to’s that we’ve breathed in our whole lives and often live from, whether we’re aware of it or not, and this is the ongoing work of an Unburdened Leader.

[Inspirational Music]

Thank you so much for joining this episode of The Unburdened Leader. You can find this episode, show notes, and free Unburdened Leader resources along with ways to sign up for my weekly Unburdened Leader email and ways to work with me at www.rebeccaching.com. And this episode was produced by the amazing team at Yellow House Media!

[Inspirational Music]

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meet the founder

I’m Rebecca Ching, LMFT.

I help change-making leaders get to the root of recurring struggles and get confidently back on track with your values, your vision, and your bottom line. 

I combine psychotherapeutic principles, future-forward coaching, and healthy business practices to meet the unique needs and challenges of highly-committed leaders in a high-stakes world.

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