A few weeks ago, when I was teetering on the edge of crawl-under-the-covers-and-don’t-come-out-until-2022 burnout, I was on Zoom with a couple of wise friends. We were checking in about how our lives were going, and I had just unloaded a long list of stressors, fumbles, and mom-worries. I was fighting back tears.
They both looked at me with kindness and one of them said “Nothing is expected of you here.” That’s when the tears spilled out and down my face.
My body wasn’t entirely sure what to do with their offering. Was it REALLY possible that a space was available to me where there were NO expectations? Could I REALLY be fully myself and not have to meet anyone’s needs or worry about letting people down?
While, on the one hand, the tension in me started to ease (because I have a high level of trust in these two friends), on the other hand there was still a little voice whispering “This is too good to be true. Stay on alert because they might change their minds.”
I live in a body that is highly attuned to other people’s expectations and easily triggered if I can’t read those expectations or doubt my capacity to meet them. Raised by a father who was prone to anger and a mother who was prone to insecurity and self-doubt, I learned early how to read the room. If the expectations of one weren’t met, I risked facing anger. If the expectations of the other weren’t met, I risked the parentification of having to soothe the self-deprecation and shame. Add to that the expectations of being the oldest daughter on a farm where poverty was always knocking at the door, who had to take on extra responsibilities when Mom had to find full-time work. Add to that a religion that taught me that if I didn’t make the right choices and meet the expectations laid out in the Bible, I was doomed to hell.
And then I married a man who was prone to both anger AND insecurity (probably because that was what was familiar to me). I spent the next twenty-two years on high alert, trying to read the expectations and anticipate which of those reactions would be triggered if expectations weren’t met. Add to that the expectations of three daughters with their own needs (who were also learning to navigate their dad’s moods and needs). Add to that the expectations of a demanding career and then the financial burden of self-employment. Add to that the residual effect of a religion that told me I had to be a good wife and a culture that idealizes the sacrifice of motherhood.
Anticipating expectations and meeting needs is deeply engrained in the way I live and, quite frankly, it contributed to the success I had in my past career as a Communications Director. It’s part of what has always made me “high-functioning” and “calm under stress” and “a good leader”. (Back when I was sixteen and had to take over for my mom who’d been hospitalized, many people commented on my high capacity to support the family’s needs. That’s been the theme in many, many crises and high-stress situations since. Because we are so reliable under stress, high-functioning people like me tend to overlook our trauma and stress until one day we crumble and it can no longer be ignored.)
That’s why the tend-and-befriend trauma response resonates with me as much as it does. I could never fully see myself in fight, flight, or freeze, so it took a long time for me to recognize that there was trauma in me. When I learned that there was a fourth response, my whole life suddenly made sense. I know what it means to be on high alert and how to discern, in an instant, who has to be protected and who has to be calmed in order to minimize the threat. I know what it means to deprioritize my own needs when there is a threat (real or perceived). I know how to kick into high-functioning-mode when the expectations are high. I know how to scan for possible danger, how to soothe those who are afraid and how to calm those who are angry.
I know how to do all of that at the expense of myself.
When you’ve had a period in your life when you had to spend your days in a psychiatric ward with your husband after his suicide attempt and evenings with your anxious children who don’t understand what happened to their dad, you learn some pretty unique and specific skills in “tending and befriending”. And your body remembers and is easily activated back into that kind of high alert whenever a new threat shows up.
That activation was present a few weeks ago when my friends made that kind offering of space without expectations. And that’s why my body was reluctant to trust it. Because a space without expectations, where people care for me unconditionally, is a space my amygdala tells me is unfamiliar and unpredictable and therefore unsafe.
If you’re a long-time reader, you might be wondering… how does a person with this kind of trauma end up spending her life teaching people how to hold space? Isn’t that counter-intuitive?
No, quite the opposite. It is precisely BECAUSE I am so highly attuned to what’s in the room that I learned early how to listen to people, how to tune in to the complexity, how to set aside my own baggage in the face of other people’s needs, and how to ask good questions that help people articulate their needs, desires, and fears. And because I was so accustomed to being in spaces and relationships where expectations were high (and the consequences of unmet expectations were equally high), I was uniquely able to identify and articulate what it means to release oneself of those expectations and to hold space without attachment to outcome. (It’s worth noting that the section of my book on “holding space for yourself” was the hardest section for me to write – I needed to dig a little deeper for that.)
Because I know, so intimately, what it means to have space hijacked, I also know what it means to have space held. Sometimes the deepest clarity comes when you’ve spent a lot of time examining the flipside of something.
It was partly my own longing that led me to this work. I could see it and name it and dream it, and then, because my trauma also made me high-functioning, I could begin to build it and invite people into it… and fiercely protect it and work doggedly on it until it grew.
My trauma has alchemized into a gift.
But… it isn’t always a gift. It’s a two-sided coin. It holds both shadow and light.
The shadow side of it means that sometimes I still over-function. Sometimes I get burned out from the over-functioning. Sometimes I try to control situations that are outside of my control. Sometimes I slip into performance mode because I’m trying to meet expectations. Sometimes I spiral into over-thinking and over-doing and over-tending and over-befriending. And sometimes I go into a tailspin if I can’t read the expectations or there are too many of them or I lack the capacity to meet them and I fear the consequences. Sometimes the simple act of opening my in-box can be paralyzing because I fear it will be full of people’s expectations and/or disappointments over unmet expectations.
I am working hard to witness and heal these patterns in myself, and to catch myself before I go into a tailspin. I am spending more and more time in conversations and relationships like the one I mentioned above where the expectations are low (or at least clearly articulated and not projected). I am carving out more and more intentional time for myself where there are no expectations (including being off social media, where I sometimes take on too much of the expectations that I be “The Good Author/Influencer/Ally/Friend”). I am letting go of some of my perfectionism and learning (and relearning) that sometimes I need to let people down in order to be true to myself. I am, once again, in therapy, working to loosen the grip of the trauma that’s been re-activated this year. I have a strong business partner who manages a lot of the expectations and reminds me to rest and have healthy boundaries. I am dating someone who has high capacity for naming and claiming her own expectations, for witnessing me fully and authentically, and for taking responsibility for her own baggage (which has been rather revolutionary). And, as my daughters grow into their adulthood, I am taking on less and less responsibility and trusting them to be self-aware and self-lead (and they are stepping up to the challenge).
This summer, I am going on sabbatical and, other than helping my daughters move to faraway cities on opposite sides of the country (yikes!), my time will be blessedly free of responsibilities or expectations. After a year of so much intensity, where my body has been on high alert not only to the danger posed by the virus (especially for my immuno-compromised daughter), but also the additional pressure of launching a book, a new business, and several new programs, I need to claim spaciousness for rest and restoration and nourishment and fun and laughter and love.
I am becoming more and more curious about this next phase of my life, when my daughters move out, when the Centre is in its second year and on more solid ground, and the responsibilities and expectations are reduced. Will I know how to adapt to this new way of being? Will my body truly be able to relax into it? Will it heal me or scare me or a bit of both? Will I set healthy boundaries and claim space for rest? Or will I take on more responsibilities than is necessary just because that’s what I’m familiar with? Time will tell. Check back in a year or two.
P.S. If you’re nearing burnout from trying to meet people’s expectations, you might find meaning and support in my new self-study program, Holding Space in Times of Disruption and Overwhelm. It’s offered on a pay-what-you-can because we want it to be accessible to anyone who needs it.