Over the course of her 30-year career, Katherine Heigl has received her fair share of press for being “difficult.” But, now that the industry has caught up with the culture of setting boundaries and saying no, the 44-year-old actor says it doesn’t have to be a “defensive” or “aggressive” act. And that’s something she’s trying to teach her daughters.
In an interview with New Beauty, the Firefly Lane star said she sees her kids — particularly her daughters Naleigh, 14, and Adalaide, 10 — conform to the idea of people-pleasing instead of placing their wants and needs over others.
“I don’t want to make it a gender issue, but I do think there is this under-the-radar, unsaid, collectively understood vibe that women are meant to be ‘pleasing.’ I see it in my young daughters, and it’s just this odd, inherent social thing. I’m certainly not teaching them to be like that, but they’re picking it up somewhere — there’s a definite message of ‘please everyone, except yourself,’” Heigl, who also has a son Joshua, 6, with her husband Josh Kelley, told New Beauty.
She continued, “I worry about it a lot when I look at my oldest daughter. I keep saying, ‘I need you to understand that that is not your job.’ And I don’t know if she’ll fully understand it until she’s in her 40s and has garnered some experience of wisdom, but I want to keep hammering it home. ‘It’s not your job to make everybody else feel comfortable, happy, safe, liked, or adored. It is your job to make sure you know who you are, you know what your boundaries are.’ You have to know what you will — or will not — put up with, and then, hopefully, handle that graciously. You don’t have to attack people, but you do have to stand up for yourself.”
Heigl said she herself is still learning how to set boundaries in a peaceful way. Although she’s proud of the fact that she was one of the first women in Hollywood to truly vocalize what she wanted and needed on set, she knows she could’ve handled things differently.
“It took me, as a human in this human experience, a couple of cycles to figure out how to stand up for myself without it coming from a place of defensiveness or aggressiveness,” she said. “I’m still working on that. I’m trying to work on coming from a place of peace and calm and confidence — as opposed to a place of being pissed-off or angry. It’s important to say, ‘This is my boundary.’ But setting boundaries is always hard. It doesn’t matter how intense or loving the relationship is, it doesn’t matter if it’s a work relationship, it doesn’t matter if it’s the relationship with your barista at the local Starbucks. It’s always hard to create a boundary with another human being. They don’t like it! [laughs] I don’t like it either. But it’s necessary, and it’s what I keep trying to teach my daughters.”
Famously, Heigl removed her name from award consideration in 2008 for her role as Isobel “Izzie” Stevens in Grey’s Anatomy, explaining in a statement widely circulated by the press that she didn’t believe her performance deserved praise.
“I did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination and in an effort to maintain the integrity of the academy organization, I withdrew my name from contention,” she confessed. “In addition, I did not want to potentially take away an opportunity from an actress who was given such materials.”
Heigl eventually left the ABC show in 2010, and creator Shonda Rhimes admitted over the years that her Emmy debacle and departure stung the cast and crew. (“When people show you who they are, believe them. I carry that [mantra] with me a lot. It has served me well,” Rhimes told Oprah Winfrey in 2012.)
Nowadays, Heigl knows she could’ve handled some things better, but opened up about her years-long struggle with her mental health and depressive tendencies.
“It’s important to make that clear, because this whole thing — what was happening inside my mind— was so terrifying and so out of my control,” she said. “It wasn’t about my ego, it wasn’t about wanting people to like me, and it wasn’t about my fame or my career. It had nothing to do with any of those things. It had to do with the very basics.”
Heigl said that after going to therapy and finding medication that worked for her, she came to understand that she has “a breakdown in my brain chemistry” and that she focuses on the science and medical nature of her emotions rather than thinking something is wrong with her.
“We all have that fight or flight instinct, and I am a fighter,” she said.
Heigl also cleared up that the Grey’s situation didn’t kick off her struggles with mental health.
“I feel like everyone always correlates all of this with Grey’s Anatomy — like somehow that broke me. I just want to be fair to the show and make it clear that that’s not accurate. The show didn’t break me,” she told New Beauty. “These issues started for me when I was a teenager; I always had this irrational fear about ‘being’ that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Then, it would pass … but it would always come back again. It came back in my late teens, in my early 20s, my late 20s. It would always come back. The more stress I had in my life, the more that all fed into my mental health.”
Heigl’s growth and work in therapy has allowed her to see a clearing, and given her the ability to pass down vital knowledge to her children.
“The grace of getting to the right place to understand what you’re going through helps lead to action,” she insisted, “and that helps lead to solutions.”