When my husband and I separated and he moved out of the house, my youngest daughter was 13, and she was, understandably, angry about a situation in which she had no agency to control the outcome. I tried to be present for her in as kind and compassionate a way as I knew how, while still wrestling with the healing work I also needed to do for myself. It was hard – for both of us. I made mistakes.
Finally, after weeks of very little communication between us, I said to her “I know you’re angry. You have every right to be. AND I want you to know that I am prepared to hold your anger. Go ahead – scream at me if you must. Do what you need to do, and know that I WILL NOT LEAVE. And I will not throw the anger back at you. I will just hold it for you.”
In that situation, I had to recognize that, as the person with more agency and power, who had contributed to a situation that impacted her, I had to be prepared to receive what would come my way, even if I didn’t entirely deserve it. Even if it hurt. Even if it scared me.
I had to be prepared to hold it and NOT WALK AWAY.
This, too, is what it means to hold space – to create a container that is strong enough to hold rage, grief, fear, pain, etc. We receive what’s ours, heal it, make reparations, and let the rest go. And we don’t walk away. (We take care of ourselves, but we don’t walk away.)
Let’s extrapolate that situation to other situations where there is an imbalance of power and agency. Take, for example, some of the conversations I’ve seen and been part of, both online and off, where there is understandable anger on the part of disenfranchised/marginalized people whose lives are being irrevocably altered by people with more power and agency. Online, I’ve seen it in response to a spiritual teacher who failed to listen when people challenged her to see her blindspots. Offline, I’ve heard it in response to the Colton Boushie and Tina Fontaine murder trials.
For those of us with more power and agency (whether given to us as a “birthright” because of our skin colour, gender, etc., or because we’ve found ourselves in a hierarchically elevated position) can we hold this outrage and pain without walking away? Can we be strong enough to stay in the conversations even if it hurts, even if it scares us, even if we don’t entirely deserve it? Can we receive what’s ours, heal it, and let the rest go?
This, to me, is what reconciliation looks like. Holding space, owning what’s ours, listening deeply, making reparations, and not walking away.
(The good news is that my daughter and I weathered that storm and have a deeper relationship now because of it.)
On this day, three years ago, I did something entirely ordinary. I wrote a blog post. I’d been writing blog posts a few times a week for more than a dozen years by then, so it was nothing special.
Only this time… it WAS special.
Little did I know that millions of people would soon see that blog post (upwards of 4 million, but I really have no idea, since it appears in multiple places, online and off), that it would be translated into more than 10 languages, that it would be reprinted in a couple of magazines in different parts of the world, that the high number of visitors would crash my website, that it would be quoted in Harvard Business Review and several other lofty publications, and that it would be included in the curriculum for nurses in New Zealand and hospice workers in Canada (and others). Little did I know that it would open doors I’d never even imagined walking through, and would allow me to travel to and teach in countries I’d only dreamed of visiting.
It is not hyperbole to say that that blog post changed my life. It catapulted my business and my reach far beyond what I’d imagined possible. It brought amazing people into my life from all over the world. It allowed me to lead the kind of retreats and workshops I’d been dreaming of. It was the catalyst that eventually saw me launching my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program (and also working on a book).
It wasn’t all easy, of course. The sudden increase in demand on my time and energy meant that I got burnt out a few months later and had to see a therapist. I had to work through impostor syndrome, and lots of issues around whether I could meet people’s expectations of me. I had to learn new ways of working, had to work on establishing stronger boundaries, and eventually had to admit I couldn’t do it all alone and hire an assistant.
I’ve often said about that blog post that “I gave birth to it, but then it went and lived its own life in the world completely separate from me.” Nearly every day, I hear a new story of where it’s popping up, where it’s being quoted, and what language it’s been translated into. Like a proud mother, I smile and nod and send it good wishes in its travels.
What I hear, again and again, is not that I taught readers something new, but that I gave language to what they intuitively sensed was needed.
I was not an inventor when I wrote that blog post, or even an originator. I was a catalyst – a transmitter, a channel. I was transforming the ideas that I’d gathered over the years and the lessons I’d learned at my mother’s deathbed, wrapping them in language, and offering them as gift to the world.
I am deeply grateful that I was chosen to do this work, and humbled that I was chosen to be the transmitter of this gift. I am deeply grateful that I accepted the invitation when it came.
Just as any child will serve as a parent’s teacher, that blog post has offered me many lessons and gifts over these three years. Here are a few of them.
1.) It’s my duty to open myself to the gift and to allow it to flow through me. Every one of us has gifts and ideas and words to offer the world, but sometimes we withhold them because we’re not good enough or smart enough or we’re afraid people won’t like them or that they’ll stop respecting us. I’ve had every kind of self-doubt anyone else faces, and yet I am grateful that I found the courage and faith to keep offering my gifts to the world anyway. None of this would have been possible for me if I’d stood in the way of the flow of what wanted to show up in the world. (Whoever’s reading this – please do the same – your gifts are needed!)
2.) The outcome is not my responsibility. This has been my mantra since the early days of my business and it’s been even more important to me since my post went viral. I cannot impact how many people will read my blog or show up at my retreats, but I can be faithful to the work that I’ve been called to do and keep showing up and giving my heart whether there are 2 people or 2 million. I cannot determine whether people will love my work or hate my work, but I’m still responsible for DOING the work because it’s what I’ve been called to do.
3.) When I kept following the thread, eventually I discovered I had a whole tapestry. For the first several years of developing my business, I was unclear about my focus and unclear about what I should put my energy into. I had lots of ideas and tried lots of different offerings, but it often felt like I was fumbling in the dark. When this blog post came out, suddenly everyone wanted to talk to me about holding space, and there was part of me that resisted. “But… I have lots of other things to talk about! This isn’t ALL of my work!” And yet… once I surrendered to what was unfolding, I suddenly discovered that there was a thread weaving through all of my work and it WAS holding space. When I finally created the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, I realized that all of my life, I had been preparing for this body of work and that it was ALL connected. Before I knew it, I had 418 pages worth of content, multiple videos, and enough ideas to start dreaming about the second level of the program.
4.) The only way I know how to talk about this work is to weave in social justice. At first, I thought perhaps I was taking a slight departure from my passions around social justice, but then I realized that if the space I hold has any value at all it HAS to be a space guided by a deep commitment to justice. If it’s not a just space than it is a shallow space, and I’m only interested in swimming in the deep end of this pool. For that reason, I will never apologize if my social media feed is full of stories and ideas around intersectional feminism, dismantling the patriarchy, bringing justice to the marginalized, etc. It’s all intertwined with how we hold space.
5.) Brave space has more value than safe space. For years, I focused on creating safe spaces for people – spaces where they could be vulnerable and authentic and where they could heal and not be judged. Gradually, though, I realized that safety for one might not be safety for another, and that for many, safety had become equated with comfort. If, for example, a person feels safe enough in a circle to reveal their deeply held racist views, then suddenly a person of colour in the same circle does not feel safe. When I learned the language of “brave space”, I made that my intention instead and made a personal commitment to work harder at ensuring safety for marginalized people in my circles than those from the dominant culture. When we hold space for each other, it means that we commit to even the difficult conversations. While safe space make keep us stuck, brave space helps us move forward.
6.) Good boundaries help me do a better job of holding space. Burning out a few months after the post went viral taught me an important lesson about boundaries. I had to cut back on how available I was to people, become less responsive to the thousands of emails in my inbox, and prioritize who I was holding space for. I was also going through a divorce at the time, so my priorities were my daughters and myself as we built a new life without their father living in the home. There may have been people I offended when my boundaries became more clear, but my family and mental health were worth more than what others thought of me.
7.) Radical self-care is critical for anyone who’s giving their energy away on a daily basis. My therapist helped me see how I was giving away little bits of my energy with every social media interaction, every coaching session, every deep conversation, every course offering, and every blog post. To sustain this suddenly more public platform, I had to invest in better self-care, and so I set out on a journey to find the best ways to support myself. I’m much better at it than I once was, but I’m still learning.
8.) The space we hold offers us endless depth and opportunities for learning. I am in awe of how much I’ve learned since I committed myself to this work and how much I still have to learn. Every week, I hold conversations with people from all over the world (six continents are currently represented in my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program) and in every one of those conversations, I feel like I’m being offered another clue to this endless puzzle about what it means to hold space and to be in deep relationships with people. I am convinced that I’ll never get to the bottom of this deep space, and that’s alright with me.
9.) Many of the clues to this endless puzzle come from cultures that are not my own and teachers that I’ll never meet. I remember, for example, how the Maori people in New Zealand introduced me to concepts from their culture and language that were closely aligned with what I teach but that offer nuances I hadn’t considered. I’m also learning things from the Indigenous people in my own country and from people in places like Zimbabwe and India. When I move away from the ethnocentric (and/or appropriative) tendencies that are common among white North Americans, I discover depth and possibility that delight and invigorate me. I will continue the quest and honour the teachers who offer me gifts.
10.) My work is only as good as the people I surround myself with. I have been blessed with incredible relationships and many of them have deepened over the past three years, since I committed myself to this work. There are my assistant and the team that supports me in my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, for starters, but then there are also the people who invite me to teach and/or speak at their conferences and workshops, the people who host me and help me create beautiful retreats, the people who dare to dive into deep conversations and relationships with me in my courses and retreats, the people who share their beautiful stories with me, the people who challenge me to go deeper, and the people who cheer me on as i grow my work. I have endless gratitude for all of you.
I thank you, my readers, for being among those people. I thank you for sharing your stories with me and for being willing to show up with courage and vulnerability. I thank you for your commitment to holding space for other people in deep, intentional, and just ways.
I welcome you to share your own holding space stories on social media. Share what the article has meant to you, or share your own learnings from your life. Use the hashtag #holdingspacestories and you’ll be entered to win free registration (at a Basic+ level) for my July 2018 offering of my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program.
Share your stories before March 21st. The draw will be held March 22nd.
Also, if you have interest in reading some of the other things I’ve written about holding space in the last three years, here are some places to start:
How to hold space for yourself first
What’s the opposite of holding space?
Sometimes holding space feels like doing nothing
Sometimes you have to write on the walls: Some thoughts on holding space for other people’s personal growth
On holding space when there is an imbalance of power and privilege
Leave space for others to fill your needs
What the circle holds
Holding liminal space (moving beyond the cliché into deeper space)
Holding space for the unspeakable
Meet me in the space of “I don’t know”
Sometimes holding space means that you have to break the rules
Your discomfort won’t kill you
What I’ve learned after many hours of writing about holding space
If you want to be notified as soon as I open registration for the Holding Space Coach Facilitator Program, send contact us and Krista (my assistant) will put you on the list. (It has sold out both times I’ve offered it.)
Two days before the end, I sat on a stool next to the armchair where Mom lay. When she leaned toward me, I leaned in too, afraid I’d miss what she’d say with her disappearing voice.
“I don’t know how to do this,” she said, looking at me with eyes that were searching but unfocused. My own words worked their way past a lump in my throat. “I don’t know how to do this either,” I said. And then we just sat there and breathed together, our foreheads nearly touching as we imagined this great gaping space in front of us that neither of us knew how to navigate.
She was soon to cross over into the afterlife. I was soon to cross over into the land of motherless daughters. Neither of us had any idea how we would make the journey. Neither of us had any advice or platitudes or ways of fixing this. Neither of us could offer to go on that journey with the other. All we had was this empty space… this liminal space… where we could sit together and fix our gaze upon each other and find an anchor in each other’s eyes.
Looking back over our 46 years together, that moment was quite possibly the most honest and sacred moment we ever shared. We had no expectations of each other. We had no reason to pretend we were anyone other than exactly who we were. There was no point in acting like we had wisdom or answers the other didn’t have, and no point in clinging to old hurts or misunderstandings that had never been (and would never be) resolved. All of that was stripped away and all we had was this moment… this meeting at the intersection of who we were and who we were about to become.
All we had was the space of “I don’t know.” And in that moment, it was the most painfully beautiful place to be.
I’ve come to believe that is the most potent space we can meet people in our relationships… the space of “I don’t know”. It’s the place where we shed our expectations and pretences. It’s the place where we reveal ourselves to each other and admit that much of what we think we know is simply smoke and mirrors. It’s the place where we seek no heroes or answers, where we ask only to be anchored by each other’s presence.
It’s the place where the true work of holding space can happen.
It’s not often that we find ourselves in this space with other people. It’s not often that we are both strong enough and vulnerable enough to offer that kind of space to each other. It goes against every instinct to protect ourselves and to prove ourselves. It takes effort and courage and a whole lot of trust. For those of us who’ve been wounded, marginalized, and oppressed, it’s even more difficult than for those who walk in the world with privilege and more assurance of safety. Perhaps, in fact, it’s the kind of space that some of us only enter in our final days on earth, when we have nothing left to lose.
Imagine, though, if more of our relationships found us in such a place. Imagine if you could trust people in your life to hold you and offer you an anchor no matter how much you’ve failed them or betrayed them in the past. Imagine if you could enter more conversations with people without having to posture and protect yourself.
We may never find perfection in our quest for this kind of space, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it more often. I like to imagine, for example, what it would be like to intentionally seek to enter that kind of space when there are people working through conflict or reconciliation. What if, for example, those of us who are settlers in this country, could drop our baggage at the door and seek to show up with our Indigenous brothers and sisters in that kind of way, admitting that we don’t know what to do and showing our willingness to seek answers from the liminal space? And what if those who govern our country – our politicians – were willing to stop their posturing in order to sit in that space with each other, people from all sides of the political spectrum admitting that they don’t know the way forward but are willing to plant seeds for the future together? And what if we could do that with our own children? Or our parents? Or our communities?
Recently, my friend Beth and I have been practicing sitting in that space together. We have some parallel stories (ie. we’ve both recently ended a 20+ year marriage and we’re raising children around the same age). Plus we’ve both had an increasing awareness of our need, as settlers in Canada, to decolonize ourselves and we’ve had a recent experience together that heightened that awareness. In addition, we’ve been navigating some challenges in a community that is close to both of our hearts. So there is a liminal space element to both of our lives lately, as we evolve in the way in which we show up in our work, our families, and our communities.
Beth and I have long conversations over Zoom, where we just talk with little expectation of outcome or even clarity. One of us will text “can we circle up?” and we’ll find time to hold space for each other in a little virtual circle on our computer screens. Often our conversations end on a similar note as we began – still confused as to a way forward. In the middle of it, though, we each find an anchor with which to ground our wobbly selves.
We are meeting in the space of “I don’t know”. As we do so, we have to regularly renew our commitment and intention to keep laying down our pretences and instincts toward self-protection. This is not a natural space to be in with another person – it takes effort and humility. We want to impress each other, to prove our value, and we want to make sure we’re safe before we fully trust each other. We have to fight those inclinations in order to offer our vulnerability in such a space. We have too many stories of betrayed trust in the past to rush into an unguarded relationship like this.
I am lucky enough to have a few other friendships on similar journeys, and each one of them takes similar commitment and practice. The space of “I don’t know” can never be taken lightly – it is a great privilege that must be fostered and nurtured before it can grow into a plant that bears fruit. But once you taste of that fruit, you find yourself craving more and more of it, and relationships without it become less and less tolerable. And when you lose it, there is a deep grief and a hard journey back to that level of trust once again.
Sometimes I find it especially challenging to enter into this space because I am, in more and more of the spaces in which I find myself, a teacher/mentor/coach/facilitator who is expected to know things. People look to me with expectation and hope that I will help them find clarity and purpose, and I don’t want to let them down. I find myself becoming guarded sometimes, wanting to prove myself and not let people see me vulnerable. And yet… often it serves my students and clients well if I am willing to enter the space of “I don’t know” with them, to be humble enough to be in the learning with them, to show up willing to be shaped by our collective experience in the liminal space. (It’s a fine line to navigate and I don’t always get it right.)
The culture most of us live in has conditioned us to resist the space of “I don’t know.” Especially in North America (and I suspect in Europe as well, though my experience is limited), we have attempted to eradicate all chaos and insecurity from our culture. Out of our fear of uncertainty, we turn toward authoritarian leadership that, we believe, will keep us safe and always know how to make the path clear in front of us. We want assurances and safety and so we surround ourselves with people who look like us and talk like us. We resist the risk of engaging in spaces that make us feel like we don’t know what we’re doing, and so we marginalize those people who potentially bring that kind of risk into our lives.
But we can never live fully secure lives. We can never fully eradicate chaos. Every one of us will face illness, loss, death, and political instability. It’s simply a part of life. And the more we practice becoming comfortable in the space of “I don’t know” the more resilient we’ll become and the more expansive and beautiful our lives will be.
I believe (though I am far from an expert on such matters) that there are Indigenous cultures that understand how to navigate this space much more comfortably than those of us from European decent. Having sat in sweat lodges and other ceremonies and conversations with Indigenous people here and in other parts of the world, I have witnessed this invitation to sit in the liminal space, to release our baggage and false sense of our own importance. I have heard words spoken to me in Maori, Cree, and Choctaw that explain these concepts better than any English words I know.
As I learn to decolonize myself, I am learning how to receive the wisdom they have to offer without appropriating it or pretending I know something I’ve only recently begun to explore. Inherent in many of these traditions is a deep connection with the earth, which teaches us to be patient in the fallow seasons, to trust the unfurling or dying when the seasons shift, and to surrender ourselves to the mystery of it all. In New Zealand, for example, I was recently taught about the Maori concept of “a te wa” – “when the time is right” – that teaches us patience in the discomfort of waiting. I seek to trust the wisdom of “a te wa.”
In the liminal space, we need that kind of patience. We need the ceremonies and rituals that allow us to stay present for the discomfort. We need the teachers who can model how to stay present. And we need the relationships that anchor us there.
I don’t know how to fix much of the political mess in the world. I don’t know how to eradicate poverty or racism or prejudice of any kind. I don’t know how to help a friend whose life has been deeply altered by time spent in prison. I don’t know how to ensure that women can walk in the world without fearing sexual assault. I don’t know how to parent a child with the kind of anxiety I’ve never navigated in my life. I don’t know how to repair the damage when trust has been lost in a community. I don’t know how to navigate the world as a single mom when my children begin to move out of our home. I don’t know how to hold space for a friend or family member whose lives have suddenly been threatened by gang members. I don’t know how to repair the damage that has been done by settlers in my lineage who took what wasn’t theirs to take.
There are so many things I don’t know. And I don’t want you to give me the answers. I simply want you to meet me there… in the space of “I don’t know.”
* * * * *
Note: This is similar to the content I teach in my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. The next offering starts in June 2018.
Yesterday, on the last day of 2017, I was encouraging my teenage daughter to clean her room. (If you asked for her version of the story, she might use the word “nagging”, but I’m the one telling this story, so let’s stick with “encouraging”.) She had been avoiding it for the better part of the day, despite repeated “encouragement”.
“I think I’ll feel more like doing it tomorrow,” she said. “You know… new year, new me?”
“So… you’re thinking that 2018 will transform you into the kind of person who keeps her bedroom clean?” I asked.
“A girl can dream.” And then we both laughed, because we both know there is no magical turning of the calendar that will transform her into a different person.
We keep hoping that will happen, though, don’t we? Even if we turn up our noses at new year’s resolutions, we create these little fantasies that “maybe THIS will be the year that I lose weight, get my finances in order, stop procrastinating, start exercising, stop self-sabotaging, pay my taxes on time, stop worrying, stop smoking, stop getting into unhealthy relationships, etc.” There’s just something about an as-yet untarnished year stretching in front of us that feels like a good opportunity for a fresh start.
But… just as my daughter already knows, at 15, that it will take more than a calendar change to motivate her to keep her room clean, we all know, deep down, that real change takes a great deal more effort and commitment.
This past week, while I was off work and taking a hiatus from social media, I had some time to think about what it takes to make meaningful change. Just like anyone else, there are areas of my life that I’d like to change. I’d like to lose weight, exercise more, keep my home more consistently clean, be more organized about my finances, etc. I ate too much over the holidays and was far too stationary, choosing the couch over the gym, and I could recognize the temptation to slip into that old familiar spiral of “I’m fat and too lazy and can’t seem to change that about myself, so I must be a bad person and therefore not worthy of love.” (I didn’t slip too far down that spiral, but could see it looming on the horizon.)
I’ve also been thinking about meaningful personal change on a broader spectrum – in those areas of our lives where we may be even more destructive (to ourselves and/or to others) such as addiction, abuse, etc. In this wave of accusations of sexual misconduct that’s resulted from the #metoo movement, for example, we’re discovering more and more men who’ve been guilty of deviant, destructive behaviour. Some have apologized and promised to do better in the future, but I can’t help but wonder… will they really change, or will they simply take their destructive behaviour further underground? Isn’t “getting caught” as ineffective a means of impacting meaningful change as the turning of the calendar? The high rate of recidivism in our prisons would suggest that getting caught and being punished rarely results in real change.
So what DOES result in meaningful behaviour change? How does a person become more healthy or less destructive to themselves and/or another person?
I haven’t found a magic cure, like a calendar change (if I had, I’d be 50 pounds lighter), but I do believe that these are some of the contributing factors to meaningful behaviour change:
1. Start with self-compassion and self-acceptance. This I know to be true… self-loathing and shame are never effective motivators for meaningful change. If you hate yourself and you’re wallowing in the shame of your unhealthy or destructive behaviour, you’ll keep behaving in the same way because you’ll believe that you’re incapable of anything better. You may, subconsciously, want to destroy yourself because of your perceived lack of worthiness, and you may even believe that you deserve to get caught and be punished.
It’s a vicious cycle – when I overeat, for example, I feel badly about myself. When I feel badly about myself, I don’t think I’m worthy of anything better and I want to bury the shame, so I eat some more. I have to break that cycle and it starts with extending love to myself so that I can begin to believe in my own capacity to do better. That requires that I first love myself unconditionally, EXACTLY as I am RIGHT NOW, at the weight I currently am, with the flaws I currently have. And it means committing to that kind of unconditional love EVEN IF I never make the change I’m longing for.
How do I do that? By committing to it on a daily basis, by extending kindness to myself whenever I can, by looking at myself in the mirror when I can and not flinching, by changing my self-talk from “I am useless” to “I am worthy”, and by forgiving myself over and over again when I slip up, and by not blocking the intense feelings (ie. grief, fear, shame, etc.) when they threaten to overwhelm me.
In the book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, Christopher Germer says “Change comes naturally when we open ourselves up to emotional pain with uncommon kindness. Instead of blaming, criticizing, and trying to fix ourselves (or someone else, or the whole world) when things go wrong and we feel bad, we can start with self-acceptance. Compassion first! This simple shift can make a tremendous difference in your life.”
2. Go deeper. A negative behaviour is never just a behaviour – it’s a mask for hidden shame, it’s a way to get a need met, it’s a response to past trauma, and/or it’s a way to avoid pain. If you can’t figure out why you can’t let go of an unhealthy pattern, it’s likely because that pattern is deeply rooted in your past pain, shame, trauma, grief, etc. It’s quite possible, that you developed that particular behaviour as a coping mechanism and there’s a subconscious part of your brain and/or body that believes that if you let go of the behaviour, you’ll be inviting back the pain or you will no longer be protecting yourself from danger. I have considered, for example, that the extra weight I carry may be my body’s way of protecting me from the kind of sexual trauma I’ve suffered in the past.
Unless you work to heal the wound that the behaviour is masking or protecting (and it may be multiple wounds rather than a single source), it will be next to impossible to make sustainable change to that behaviour. You might change the behaviour for awhile, but there’s a very good chance it will return or another destructive behaviour will move in to take its place. Our wounds have a way of getting our attention, one way or another, until we peel away the bandages and expose them to the air. I suspect, for example that many of the perpetrators of sexual abuse that we’re hearing about in the news have been victims of some kind of trauma in the past and their unhealthy use of power and their sexual deviance is really an unhealthy cry for help.
Healing of these wounds may require the support of professionals – therapists, counsellors, body workers, grief coaches, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
3. Recognize the forces at play beyond yourself. In much of modern day self-help literature, there is an underlying belief that you, and you alone, are in control of your own life. “You make your own choices, your thoughts control your outcome, you attract what shows up in your life, etc.” While there is some truth to these beliefs, they are all only partly true.
You are a product of your environment. You have been socially conditioned by the culture and system that you grew up in. You have a fore-ordained place in the social hierarchy that exists, and no matter how much you resist it, you will always be impacted by it. Your value in society is, at least in part, determined by your social status. If you are disabled, for example, you lack some of the privileges that non-disabled people enjoy. If you are a person of colour or transgender, you will likely suffer the effects of oppression and bias that others never face.
These factors limit our ability to make meaningful change in a number of ways. For one thing, a person with limited financial resources, or someone who lives in a rural location, may not have access to therapists or healthy food options or social support networks. A person who’s been ostracized for their gender or skin colour may have a harder time accessing the kind of help they need.
For another thing, there is often internalized oppression at play, even when no external force is limiting us.
A person of colour who’s grown up in a white supremacist culture will have received so many messages that they are less worthy than a white person that those messages will persist in their internal narrative. A woman who’s grown up in a patriarchal system might be a die-hard feminist, but still carry the residual shame of being a woman that she’s always been taught. Recently, while choosing a Netflix movie to watch, I realized that, though I have been overweight most of my life and believe that I am unbiased toward overweight people, I had a hard time believing that a movie with an overweight lead actor would be as good as one with a thin person. I still have internalized oppression toward fat people that’s been conditioned in me over fifty years of viewing the thin ideal on TV screens and fashion magazines.
This kind of internalized oppression makes self-compassion exponentially more difficult and therefore leaves meaningful behaviour change even more out of reach. Fifty years of internalized belief (that’s backed up by society’s standards) that fat people have less value is a pretty big boulder to push out of the way, especially when it’s complicated by the wounds that have been inflicted on this overweight body.
What can we do about this? We can educate ourselves about what forces are at play beyond us, we can choose, little by little, to release and challenge the shame and oppression inflicted on us, we can be kinder to ourselves and others who’ve suffered, and we can choose to contribute to a more just world. This knowledge does not excuse us of personal responsibility, but it does help us to be more self-compassionate when we recognize the additional burden we carry.
4. Make connections. Social isolation is one of the most significant contributors to unhealthy, destructive behaviour, whether it’s addiction, abuse, or simply poor choices. According to this article in Psychology Today, the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection. Addiction, the writer says, is not a substance disorder, it’s a personal disorder.
Canadian psychologist Brian Alexander discovered that rats that were placed in large cages with other rats, where there were hamster wheels and multi-colored balls to play with, plenty of tasty food to eat, and spaces for mating and raising litters, were much less likely to develop an addiction to heroin than those rats living in isolated cages. Given a choice between pure water and heroin-infused water, those in isolation quickly became addicted to the heroin, while those living in community ignored it. Even rats who’d previously been isolated and sucking on the heroin water left it alone once they were introduced to communal living.
Humans are much the same – those who have families and/or support support networks are much less likely to become addicts than those who are isolated. We are social creatures – our relationships help us cope, help us heal, and help us make good choices.
Healthy relationships are those in which we can fail and still be loved, we can speak of our shame and not have more heaped upon us, we can change without being held back by their fear, and we can learn to trust even if our trust has been broken in the past. In healthy relationships, our stories matter and we are not judged for the colour of our skin, the sizes of our waists, or the limitations of our disabilities. Healthy relationships allow us to be our best selves and forgive us for being our worst selves.
In an interview on CBC radio, Alan Jacobs, the author of How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, talked about the value of amplifying constructive voices. “If we can just stop amplifying the worst voices in society, and instead, try to promote the more constructive voices, it really would make a difference,” Jacobs suggested. He goes on to suggest “looking for people who are like-hearted, not necessarily like-minded – people who you don’t always agree with but hold the same virtues like generosity, charity, and honesty.”
These healthy, constructive relationships may be difficult to find, especially if you are already mired in shame and self-loathing, but they are not impossible. You can start by taking a course in something that interests you to find people with similar interests, or join a group on meetup.com. If you happen to be in my city, you’re welcome to join our women’s circle – we meet twice-monthly for a sharing circle where nobody is judged, no advice is offered, and friendship is freely offered.
5. Find spiritual/creative practices that support your intentions. Any time I’ve made a meaningful change in my life, and/or done deep healing work that contributes to the behaviour change, it has been supported by some form of spiritual/creative practice, whether it is a mandala journal practice, a journal practice (that might be supported by something like my 50 Questions), a labyrinth practice (ie. The Spiral Path), a body practice, a mindfulness practice, or an art practice. I recently participated in an online photographic self-expression (ie. creative selfies – offered by Amy Walsh of the Bureau of Tactical Imagination) course that surprised me with some of the ways it healed past wounds.
It seems each time I uncover something new that needs healing or changing, I find a different practice to support it. Different personal growth work seems to respond to different practices. I’ve signed up for two art-related courses for early 2018 because I know that the more time I spend in creativity, the more healthy I am in body and mind. There is something about engaging the creative part of my brain that unlocks a deeper part of me and heals what’s been hidden in the past. I also have an intention to find a body practice that works for me (once my injured shoulder heals).
One of my favourite journal practices is to have conversations with myself and to write those out as dialogue on the page. It might be a conversation between my current self and my younger self that helps uncover an unhealed wound or an unmet need. Or it might be a conversation with my fear to discover what message the fear is trying send me. Or it might be a conversation with my future self that helps my desires and longings to come to the surface. Feel free to experiment with this in your own journal – you might be surprised by what comes to the surface.
6. Take small steps and start fresh each day. “How do you eat an elephant?” asks the familiar proverb. “One bite at a time.” Don’t overwhelm yourself with unrealistic goals that may doom you for failure before you’ve even begun. Instead, set small, manageable intentions. And when you fail to meet those expectations, forgive yourself and start again.
Decide, for example, that “just for today, I will make healthy choices.” And then when you wake up the next morning, set the same goal again. And again. And again. A day of healthy choices is much more attainable than a life-long change. It’s also less to forgive if you’re simply forgiving yourself for failing today rather than for being a life-long failure.
Yes, meaningful change is possible, but remember that it may also not be necessary. Ask yourself if the change you’re seeking is genuinely what you want, or is, instead, the result of cultural norms imposed on you. Perhaps, instead of setting an unrealistic goal to become a new you, your only goal should be to practice self-compassion and acceptance of yourself just the way you are. Maybe it’s the norms of society that need to be changed rather than you?
Perhaps the most radical change you can make is to believe that you are doing the best that you can with the hand you’ve been dealt and that that’s good enough.