Sometimes it’s okay to “let them see you sweat.”

I sweat. A LOT. And my face turns beet red when I exert myself, so if you’re ever present when I exercise (which, sadly, isn’t often enough) you won’t be able to miss the evidence of my efforts.

But this post isn’t about physical exertion. Instead, it’s about the kind of sweating (both physical and metaphorical) we do when we’re under stress, when we’re afraid of failing, or when we fear that people might be disappointed in us. 

Mostly, it’s about vulnerability and when it’s okay to reveal our flaws, our fear, and our fumbling.  

Thanks especially to writers like Brené Brown, lots of people are talking about the value of vulnerability, but what’s sometimes missing from the dialogue is the nuance of WHEN it’s appropriate to be vulnerable, HOW MUCH vulnerability is appropriate, and WITH WHOM it’s okay to be vulnerable.

What if, for example, you’re in charge of keeping people who are more vulnerable than you safe from harm (small children, for example) and you admit that you have no clue how to do so and suddenly they feel even more unsafe than before? Was it wise, in that situation, to show your vulnerability? Probably not. That might be when it’s wiser to put on a brave face and prioritize their needs over your own. As a parent, there have certainly been times when I had to keep my fears and self-doubts to myself (or when I cried behind my bedroom door) because it wasn’t in my children’s best interests to doubt my ability to protect or provide for them. As they’ve gotten older, I’ve increased how much I’ll admit my flaws and fears to them, but in the early days they needed my strength more than my vulnerability.

Or what if, by becoming vulnerable, you’re drawing the attention away from the people who need it more than you do and then your vulnerability becomes a stumbling block rather than a building block? If, for example, you’re working with traumatized or oppressed people and you can’t stop crying about how much the work is impacting you, you’re likely making it about yourself rather than about them. Suddenly those people have to spend their energy caring for you rather than themselves. That’s when it’s best to take your vulnerability somewhere else where people have more capacity to do emotional labour on your behalf.

Or what if you haven’t gained enough trust in the other person or people and you suspect they might further harm you or use your vulnerability against you? Some people are masterful at manipulation and at using other people’s weaknesses to their own advantage (someone who’s trying to sell you an expensive coaching program, for example). Other people may be less intentional about it but still harmful in how they respond to you because of their lack of capacity or self-awareness. With those people, it’s better to withhold your vulnerability rather than put yourself at risk. 

Vulnerability, then, is best shared with people who have earned your trust, people who aren’t under too much of their own burden at the time, people who aren’t fully reliant on you for their own safety at the time, and/or people who have enough emotional intelligence and self-awareness to respond in appropriate ways.

Recently, I found myself in a dilemma about whether or not my vulnerability was the best course of action. I was facilitating a three-day workshop on holding space in the Netherlands, and, to be frank, it wasn’t going well. By the end of the first day, I could sense that there was dissatisfaction among participants and I wasn’t sure why. I had started the workshop in much the same way I’ve started many other workshops, and those workshops progressed much more smoothly, so I didn’t understand the source of the problem.

Was it because I was tired, having just spent an intense week in Uganda? Was it the cultural and/or language differences, since this was the first time I was teaching in a place where English isn’t the first language? Was I using language or a teaching style that wasn’t relatable to this audience? Was there some pre-existing conflict among participants that they’d brought with them to this space? Or was it because I’d started with the basics of holding space and many people in the room were already experienced practitioners who wanted higher level training?

One of the things that I sensed was going on (that I picked up from some of the comments coming my way) was that my style of facilitation was falling short of what people had expected of me. There were quite a few experienced facilitators in the room, and most of them had been trained in styles that are different from my own (ie. systemic constellations, for example, which incorporates more movement and less conversation than tends to be my primary style) and I began to feel the scrutiny of their evaluation. 

On the morning of the second day, trying to adapt to the style that I sensed they were more comfortable with, I made changes to the process. But that didn’t seem to be sufficient – I got even more feedback during the breaks that indicated the dissatisfaction was growing rather than dissipating. (Sadly, dissatisfaction is contagious and even those who’d seemed happy earlier were now starting to squirm in their seats.) What was especially challenging is that the feedback was often contradictory – one person would come to tell me that they needed more of one thing, while another person would come to me five minutes later to say that they needed more of the exact opposite. It seemed there was no way of meeting all of the expectations in the room, not even if I contorted myself to try to satisfy people.

By lunchtime on the second day, the picture started to become more and more clear to me. There was an expectation in the room that was, quite honestly, impossible for me to live up to, because it was an expectation crafted out of who they THOUGHT I was and not who I REALLY am. A couple of people, in their conversations with me, referred to me as the “Queen of Holding Space”, and it wasn’t reverence I was hearing in their voices but disappointment. These people – because my work has been broadly circulated in certain circles in the Netherlands – had constructed an image of me as a guru who knows all there is to know about holding space and who would walk into the room and wow them immediately with my exquisite ability to hold space. 

Unfortunately, I walked into the room fully human, fully flawed, a little jet-lagged, and with a lot that I still need to learn about holding space. I didn’t speak their language (not only the language of their country, but the language of a systemic understanding of the world), I didn’t facilitate in the way that they’d become accustomed, I made mistakes, and the opening check-in circle dragged on too long so the opening pace was slow.

Over lunch, I agonized over what was the right thing to do. Should I just keep trying to adapt my style to find the sweet spot that might satisfy the highest number of people in the room? Or should I simply push through with how I’d planned the workshop and hope that by the end, something of value would be transmitted? Should I hide my fear and flaws in the face of these people who looked up to me and pretend I was oblivious to their dissatisfaction?

OR… should I speak my vulnerability out loud, trust them to have the emotional intelligence to receive it well, and hope that it might help us collectively dive deeper into our learning?

I chose vulnerability. I knew it was a risk and I knew that I might lose some credibility (and people might leave even more dissatisfied than they already were), but it seemed like the only viable option.

I told them that I’d become aware that there was a shadow in the room and that that shadow was a reflection of the way that I was letting people down. (In process work such as this, the shadow refers to “that which is hiding under the surface which is unspoken and therefore potentially destructive”.) I said that I wasn’t interested in the pedestal that people had put me on – that pedestals are lonely, dangerous, and uncomfortable, and that I prefer to be in the circle, alongside them, doing the work in messy and flawed ways and learning shoulder-to-shoulder. I spoke of my imperfections and told them I knew I wouldn’t be able to meet all of the expectations in the room. I promised, though, that I would continue to do my best to offer them what I have learned so far about holding space. I invited them to trust me and to stand by my side as we went deeper into the learning and into brave space together. 

My sharing, like everything else I’d done up until that point, was imperfect, and when I was finished, I wasn’t sure what to do next. When I looked around the room, what I thought I saw was a softening and greater acceptance of the imperfection and releasing of the unmet expectations, but I wasn’t sure if I was interpreting it correctly. 

Slowly, though, things started to shift, and, in the end, my vulnerability helped us go where we needed to go as a group. It didn’t happen magically (there was still some resistance that afternoon) but gradually the energy in the room shifted. We stepped more deeply into a place of trust, depth, and bravery. Other people began to open up and some spoke to their own wrestling with what had been going on in the room. 

The next morning, a couple of moments of inspiration helped to take our learning to an even deeper place. First, I shared a story of how I’d been invited to dance with Ugandan women the week before, how miserably I’d failed at it, but how I recognized that it was in brief moments of my most pure surrender to the music and to those who lead me in the dance when I could most successfully move with the rhythm. “That place of surrender is what brave space is like,” I said. “And today, as we finish up this workshop, I want to invite you into that dance of surrender and trust. I’m asking that you trust the music and that you trust me, as your leader, to know what the rhythm in the room needs to be.” I looked around the room, and what I saw looking back at me were nodding heads and a deeper trust than I’d witnessed up until that point.

The other moment of inspiration was one that I can take no credit for – it came in the form of a piece of camel shit. A participant named Roeland brought a small container that he wanted to add to the collection of items at the centre of the circle (items that represent the people in the circle and that we use as talking pieces). “This is a dried up piece of camel shit,” he said, while people snickered in response. “I picked it up while on a spiritual retreat. At first I thought it was a rock, but when I picked it up, I discovered it had very little weight to it. The lesson in it for me was that my shit is lighter than I expect it to be. I can carry my own shit and it doesn’t feel like the burden I anticipate.”

From that point on, that piece of camel shit became a symbol for the group of what it means to “take responsibility for your own shit”. At one point, it became the talking piece and we all discovered how light it was to “hold our own shit”. But then one person put it down and chose another talking piece because “that’s not my shit and I don’t want to carry it,” she said. We all laughed and realized that some of the deepest learning of the day was coming from the lighthearted way that we could talk about taking responsibility for whatever we brought into the room. It wasn’t lost on us that this was connected to what I’d spoken of earlier – that some of the dissatisfaction and shadow in the room was because we’d each brought our own shit (ie. expectations and fear of letting people down) with us and had projected it onto other people. (This is true for me as well as anyone else. There were moments when I was looking for people to blame rather than recognizing my own part in what was transpiring.)

By the end of that third day, the energy had completely changed, and the workshop ended with some of the warmest hugs and words of appreciation I’d ever received. Several people remarked on how we, as a group, had been through a liminal space journey together – how we’d started with one version of who we were and what we expected, how my vulnerable sharing had helped us let go of that story and those expectations, and how we’d emerged into something new. This is one of the first things I teach in my holding space workshops – that when we hold space, we have to be prepared to hold the complexity of the liminal space.

It’s quite possible that my vulnerability could have backfired and that people might have left the room frustrated and disappointed. (Perhaps some did and I’m not aware of it.) It’s never a guarantee when we take a risk like that. But more often than not, I’ve found that my willingness to be imperfect and authentic, as the leader of that space, is directly correlated with how deep the learning can go.

In retrospect, though, there were a couple of factors that helped the vulnerability land well. For one thing, I let the participants know that they didn’t have to take care of me – that I wasn’t so vulnerable that they had to spend their energy making sure I was okay. Whenever I teach, I have other people that I trust outside of the circle to whom I can send a distress signal (usually via text message) simply to ask them for virtual support. I’m careful not to have the expectation that people who’ve come to learn from me also have to look after my emotional well-being. (Though I do appreciate their concern, I don’t make it their responsibility.)

Secondly, I paired the vulnerability with strength – letting them know that I was still prepared to take responsibility for leadership and for making decisions about what direction the workshop would take. I invited them to trust my sense of the right pace, content, etc.

As in the Buddhist teaching around warriorship, I practiced showing up with a “strong back and soft belly” – prepared to show them my vulnerability while still carrying myself with strength.

In the end, the workshops that take me through the most difficult terrain are usually the ones where I walk away with the most learning. I hope the same is true for those who were there with me. I am forever grateful for their willingness to step into the liminal space with me.

* * * *

Want to learn more about holding space? Check out my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. The next session starts in January 2019.

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