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.
“Wow. You’re the first psychiatrist to introduce himself to me,” I said to the man who stood in front of me with his hand outstretched. “The other two ignored me and never gave their names. I wondered if I had become invisible.” I reached out to shake his hand.
I’d been at my former husband’s bedside for a couple of days, waiting for them to move him from a bed in the emergency room to one in the psychiatric ward. I was worn out and fed up and didn’t have any energy left for niceties.
“That’s because they don’t want you to know who they are,” he said, the frustration in his voice echoing mine. “Everyone in this hospital is afraid of being held accountable for what they say and do, so they’re happiest if you forget them. Nobody wants to get sued or reprimanded for giving you bad advice, so we do only what’s necessary and no more.”
For the next twenty minutes, he unloaded his frustration on me. It was neither professional nor appropriate, given the fact that I was sitting at the bedside of a man who’d attempted suicide just days before, but it was the first time anyone in the hospital was speaking to me with any degree of authenticity or openheartedness, so I didn’t mind. With story after story, he told me of the deep disillusionment he felt, stuck in a system that made him doubt whether he was doing any good in the world. “We start out in this work because we have good hearts and we want to help people,” he said. “The system crushes that in a person. I decide to quit my job at least once a day.”
The next week in the psychiatric ward bore out the truth of what he’d said. It was a bleak environment, where staff followed the rules and did what they were told but had little heart left to provide real care for their patients.They took away my husband’s belt and shoe laces, locked the door behind him, and then mostly ignored him for the rest of the week. (I could come and go, but only when I was buzzed in.) Once a day (except on weekends), a psychiatrist would visit for about fifteen minutes a day for a brief conversation meant only to check whether the meds they’d prescribed were working, nothing more. Once, when I approached the psychiatrist assigned to him (when there was finally some consistency and not a new one every day) at the nurses’ station to ask whether there was more I could do to support my husband, he told me that our time was up and he wouldn’t talk to me. I’d have to wait until the next day.
I threatened to take my husband home or to find an alternate facility if there wasn’t more care or counselling offered to him. “If you take him home,” he said, coldly, “you do so against my advice and I will cut off his prescription.” I felt trapped. If I risked taking him home, he might have a relapse in front of our children, but if he stayed there, he might never lose that dead look in his eyes.
Desperate, I reached out to friends who worked in mental health and found a private psychologist who was willing to see my husband. I convinced the nursing staff my husband needed a “hall pass” for an afternoon (I’m not sure what excuse I made up, but I couldn’t tell the truth or I’d be accused of interfering with his care) and I snuck my husband out of the psych ward so that I could take him to see a psychologist.
That week tested every bit of strength and courage I had. During the day, I was fighting the system, serving as a fierce advocate for my husband. In the afternoons, I would drive away from the hospital weeping from the exhaustion, grief and fear of it all. Then, when I neared home, or my daughters’ school or the soccer field, I’d wipe away the tears, slip on an invisible mask, and become the supportive, strong mom my children needed. When other parents on the soccer field would ask where my husband was, I’d give some vague answer about a business trip or meetings. It wasn’t a safe enough environment for the truth. Changing the subject, I’d smile and make small talk and pretend that there was nothing more important to me in that moment than a soccer game. Then I’d drive home and feed my daughters, and when they were in bed, I’d muffle my screams and tears with my pillow. The next day, I’d do it all again.
I’m not sure why this memory came back to me recently, more than seven years after it happened, but I suppose there was still some residual grief and trauma stuck in my body that needed to be held for awhile. I’m not even sure what conclusions I want to draw from it for the purpose of this post, but I’m going with it anyway, because it reminds me of so many of the reasons why I keep believing this work I do, teaching people how to hold space for each other and for themselves, is so vital. Some days I’m tempted to go sit at the doors of that hospital to try to reach out to the spouses and daughters and parents who look the most terrified and say “if this hospital hurts you, come back and sit with me awhile”. Some days I want to lobby the health department to invest in my course or one like it for everyone in the system, starting with the leaders who decide how care is given.
When these memories started to resurface, I knew that it was time to extend special care to myself, letting myself shed some of the tears that got stuck in my throat, letting myself release the anger that I stuffed down in order to be a supportive mother and wife, and going for a good massage to release what’s still in my body. One thing I know for certain is that the work that I do in the world is only as good as the care I extend to myself. Unless I give myself time for healing and rest, I can not hold space for the healing of others. (That’s what the next few weeks will be about, as I replenish myself at the end of a very full year.)
As I reflect on this story, there are a few things that it continues to teach me:
- Good people with good intentions can have their hearts shrivelled up by systems that put rules and policies and fear of reprisal above compassion and humanity. What can we do about that? I don’t know if there’s a perfect answer, but I do know that some systems need to be dismantled, overhauled or abandoned, while others need new leadership that puts humanity before profit or rules. I have had very different hospital experiences (especially when I was in the hospital for three weeks before having my stillborn baby, when I encountered remarkable compassion and care), but in that particular situation, it seemed everyone I encountered, from the security guard who yelled at me for parking in the 15 minute zone when I was desperate to get my husband into emergency to the psychiatrists and nurses in the psych ward had become jaded and unfeeling.
- We can’t hold space for people if we let our fear of accountability get in the way of doing what we feel is best. This one goes pretty deep and is multi-layered. For one thing, this fear of accountability is systemic in a patriarchal, hierarchical, consumer-driven culture that is transactional rather than relational and that focuses on punitive rather than restorative justice. When the nurses in the psych ward took away my husband’s belt and shoelaces and locked the door, they were checking off all of the right boxes on the patient intake process, but they failed to look after his real needs. When the psychiatrists wouldn’t give their names, they’d lost touch with the reason they were in a helping profession.
- Holding space is an act of culture-making – it breaks the rules of the dominant culture and moves us into a deeper way of connecting.When we stay trapped in what is acceptable in the dominant culture, we lose our sense of community and compassion and we stay stuck in what Jung refers to as the “first half of life” where we see the world as binary and bound by rules and where we focus primarily on the needs of our own egos. In the “second half of life” we undo much of what was accomplished in the first half in order to get to a deeper heart of human life. We begin to see the many shades of grey rather than just the black and white. Systems, like the mental health care system that was my source of frustration, often get stuck in “first half of life” thinking and have a notoriously difficult time evolving because of their size and unwieldiness.
- Caregiver trauma needs more attention and acknowledgement.Though friends and family were as supportive as they could be, the bulk of the emotional labour of that week and the ones that followed were on me. And yet… not a single one of the professionals we spoke to that week paid any attention to how my husband’s suicide attempt was impacting me or how it felt to have his complex emotional needs and the needs of my children (who’d almost lost their dad) resting fully on my shoulders. (The same was true fifteen years earlier, the first time my husband attempted suicide.) I was an afterthought – not even given a few minutes at the nurses’ station when I was desperate for answers. Plus I had an internalized story of how I had to be the strong one and wasn’t allowed to fall apart. I didn’t seek therapeutic support until years later – hence the trauma that still shows up in my body now and then.
- You can’t tell what a person is holding when they’re making small talk on the sidelines of a soccer field. Every day, we encounter complex people with oceans of emotions hidden just under the surface. Some of them are so well practiced at hiding it all that they hardly remember that the emotions are there. Some of them are newly raw, with just a thin veil hiding what they don’t feel safe enough to reveal. If we keep this in mind, it helps us extend grace to the person who responds with more anger than seems warranted when the barista gets his coffee order wrong, or the person who runs away at the first hint of conflict. They may not want us to hold space for them in that moment (all I wanted from the other soccer parents was that they allow me to pretend everything was okay, not that they do or say anything that would crack me open at that moment), but they DO want our grace and patience.
If you want to know more about what it means to hold space, or you want to deepen your practice so that you don’t become jaded like the healthcare professionals I encountered, consider joining the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program that starts in January. There are only a few spots left – perhaps one of them is yours.
Yesterday morning I was in an emotional tailspin. The night before, at the end of a long day of coaching clients, I made a couple of mistakes that were pointed out by people and it put me in a shame spiral. And then, partly because I was already fragile, another person’s actions annoyed me and I landed in an anger spiral that resulted in me saying some words I shouldn’t have.
I could just chalk this up to jet lag and excuse myself for it all by saying that I’m still adjusting to being home and that I jumped into client work too quickly after the intensity of facilitating three retreats and I should have known better than to interact with people who challenge me after a full day of coaching… but that would largely be me letting myself off the hook for bad behaviour. All of those things are true… but there’s also something else for me to consider in this. It’s what I tell my clients all of the time…
My discomfort will not kill me.
Making mistakes won’t kill me. Getting angry won’t kill me. Having to clean up from my mistakes won’t kill me. If anything, those things will make me a little more resilient and help me grow. And I am reminded, once again, that when I insist on self-care and periods of quiet and introspection after doing intense work far from home, it’s not only for my own good, but for the good of those impacted by my moods.
Today I’m not talking to any clients and I’m going to be gentle with myself. And I’m going to make retributions for some of the mistakes I made yesterday. And I’m choosing not to hide the shame bits because there is worthwhile learning in them.
I used to run from discomfort – try to numb myself from it in any way I could. Shut down the anger, eat away the shame, distract myself from the pain, lash out when I needed to blame someone other than me. I was too scared to look inside of it, too scared I’d see only ugliness in the shadows.
I still hide sometimes (hello Netflix, my favourite distraction) but I’m learning, gradually, to stay more present in it, breathe/pray/dance/journal my way through it, until it begins to crack open and I find the gems in the shadows. It takes less time to shift than it used to – I still got a reasonable night’s sleep the night before last, despite the places my spiralling brain wanted to take me. I will survive. I can see my own shadow now without letting it consume me.
Though I might not like it, discomfort is one of my greatest teachers. In fact, I’m not sure if I ever learn anything worthwhile without at least a little discomfort.
Discomfort became fairly central to one of my retreats last week. It’s usually at least somewhat present at all of my retreats (because I encourage people to stretch themselves), but at this one we had an opportunity to go deeper with it than usual.
The retreat was about holding space for others, and each of the retreat participants had been given an assignment that, on the fourth day of the retreat, they would practice holding space for the group. On Saturday, each person signed up for a 45 minute slot when they could host a conversation on a topic that mattered to them, teach us a movement/art/meditation practice that would help us hold space for ourselves, or find some other creative and meaningful way of helping us explore what it means to hold space.
Few people go on retreat and expect to do some of the hosting/teaching themselves, so there was, not surprisingly, some resistance and discomfort. Some handled it with humour, some shut down with anxiety, and some pushed back against me. None of it was offensive (they were genuinely good-hearted and emotionally mature people taking ownership of their own responses), but I could sense the work they needed to do in order to step forward into their own leadership.
I assigned this work not because I wanted the easy way out (ie. a day of no teaching), but because I knew that they would leave the retreat with more skills if they practiced what they were learning in a safe and supportive environment. And I knew, from personal experience, that working through their discomfort would be good for them in the end.
At the beginning of all of my retreats, I introduce participants to the concept of “brave space”. “While we will work together to make this space safe for everyone,” I say, “I prefer to talk about ‘brave spaces’ rather than safe ones. Sometimes, when we focus on safety, we’re actually focusing on comfort, and we don’t take risks or face challenges with bravery. While you are here, I want to encourage you to be brave, to have conversations that challenge you, to face the shadow in yourself when it shows up, to look after yourself in radical ways, and to dare to re-engage even when things get difficult.” (Note: click on the link above to learn more about where this concept emerged.)
I follow that up by saying “this is also a consent-based environment. While I will encourage your bravery, and may nudge you past comfort, I also promise to accept ‘no’ as an answer. You alone know what you can handle and I invite you to take responsibility for where your boundaries need to be and what you’re not willing to consent to.”
Thirdly, I say (in the words of my teacher, Christina Baldwin) that “in this space, we ask for what we need and offer what we can. That means we are each invited to honour our own needs, look after ourselves, and respond as well as we can to other people’s needs. We will practice reciprocity, step into our personal leadership, honour boundaries, and do our best to make this space both brave and safe for all of us.”
When I assigned the participants at this retreat the task of hosting a 45 minute segment of our Saturday, I encouraged them to step into brave space. “This is your chance to push past your comfort zone, to try something that might feel too risky at home where you’re surrounded by people who know you. In this environment, where people are committed to holding space for each other, dare to push through your discomfort to find your bravery.”
When Saturday arrived, the air was charged with a mixture of anticipation, excitement and fear. I knew it would be good, but of course I also had moments of doubt, wondering whether it might backfire. Would people hate it and hate me and leave the retreat with a bad taste in their mouths? Would we have enough energy to support nine people’s individual steps into courage? Would it be repetitive if too many sessions were similar? Would those with anxiety simply shut down and not be able to participate? How would I support them if they did?
You can probably guess how it all played out. The day was brilliant. People were courageous and supportive and creative and inspiring. We had nine very different sessions, each one of them keeping us engaged and inspired. We made art, we learned movement practice, we had an honest conversation about creating more inclusive space in women’s circles, we learned a beautiful Maori greeting (hongi), we practiced mindfulness, and we played. It was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time.
On Sunday morning, after the last session, I invited everyone to participate in a ritual to mark what had transpired. On a piece of paper, each person wrote down what they wanted to honour themselves for and what commitment they wanted to make to themselves for the future. They then carried the piece of paper into the labyrinth, and placed it on a cairn of stones at the centre. When they emerged from the labyrinth, I offered each one a personal blessing, reflecting on something I’d witnessed in them during the week, and then, if they chose, they could step over a line on the ground that marked the crossing of a threshold into whatever would come next.
Standing at the edge of the labyrinth was a beautiful experience. There was energy and excitement mixed with contemplation and some fear. There was commitment and resolve and courage and fierceness. There were tears and there was laughter. There was humanity and humility and hope. That labyrinth served as the container for the complexity of all human emotions, while I “held the rim”.
Rhonda, one of the retreat participants, later said this of the labyrinth experience… “I realized at that moment, at the center of the labyrinth, everything that I had always sought, chased, pursued, agonized to find and discover in my own life and purpose was already within. I just need to accept it. I felt God look at me with the biggest smile and say ‘It’s about time.’ It was a most defining moment. I feel like I am no longer living ‘from’ my history.”
Later that day, it was time for us all to depart. As I looked around the circle of women, I couldn’t help but notice the difference from just a few days earlier. These were courageous, strong women who were now a little more aware of their own courage and strength. They had worked through their discomfort, trusted each other to hold space for their fear, and emerged triumphant.
The good-byes from that retreat were different from what they often are at retreats. People were ready to go home. They were ready and excited to step into what was next. Unlike what often happens at the end of retreats, they didn’t seem to have the need to cling to the comfort and warmth of the circle that had held them. Though they valued the support of the group, they stepped away with a sense of self-reliance.
They had come as learners and they were leaving as leaders.
They had chosen not to let their discomfort keep them from finding their courage. I can hardly wait to see what they are capable of!
Today, while I consider what to do with the discomfort I faced a couple of days ago, I make a new resolve to step into courage because I have the memory of those women to inspire me.
Sign up for my six month Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program to learn more about what it means to hold space.
Seven years ago, sixteen women gathered at the edge of a lake in Ontario to learn The Circle Way with Christina Baldwin. I was one of those women, having longed for this opportunity for ten years, since I’d first read Calling the Circle: The First and Future Culture.
As is almost always the case when like-hearted women gather, our conversations quickly took us into deep and reverent places. It was the kind of nourishment I needed in that middle place I was in at the time – at the threshold of leaving full-time employment and launching my new business.
Punctuated throughout our circle time that weekend were the sounds of gunshots from across the lake – geese hunters, we presumed. The harshness of the sound (and what we assumed was the result) was in sharp contrast to the gentleness of our circle.
It dawned on us how symbolic this was… on one side of the lake was the softness of feminine energy, while on the other side was the aggression of masculine energy. The two were at odds and neither knew how to integrate with the other.
I went for a long walk one afternoon, and though the woods were quiet and peaceful where I walked, the ongoing gunshots reverberating across the water troubled me. Somewhere in the woods, I had the thought… “I really want to row out to an island at the centre of the lake, to meet the masculine there. I want to be a bridge-builder, a healer of this divide.” At the end of that walk, before returning to the retreat centre, I was surprised to find a weathered old sign pointing back in the direction I’d come. There was one word on the sign – Lifeline. I couldn’t help but think it was meant for me.
What I didn’t fully understand at the time was that the healing work I wanted to do at the centre of the lake was not only about healing relationships between other people, it was about healing the relationship between the feminine and masculine within myself (and how I related to the masculine in others).
Perhaps it was because of that personal divide that, for the next several years, my work focused primarily on women. I gathered women together in retreats, created resources for them, and wrote articles for them. It felt good and right, and yet… I kept feeling like something was missing. I couldn’t forget the vision of the island at the centre of the lake.
Gradually, I began to incorporate more men into my circles, but it wasn’t always easy. Sometimes those men brought too much of the unhealed masculine into the space, dominating the conversation and interrupting without self-awareness. And sometimes the women silenced themselves or became awkward when the men entered the space. And sometimes my own social conditioning came into play, and I deferred to male voices instead of holding them accountable.
And yet, despite the challenge, I knew that this was important work and that I couldn’t back away from it. So I worked on healing myself so that I could offer healing to others.
Last week, I flew to Germany to participate in a global gathering of practitioners of The Circle Way. I wasn’t sure why I felt so strongly that I needed to be there, but I kept hearing the nudges, and so I decided to follow them.
I didn’t know then that the gathering would represent some of the healing I’d wanted to find on that island in the centre of the lake.
Near the beginning of the gathering, on a beautiful piece of land in the Eifel forest region of Germany, we were invited to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony, a tradition that had been passed down to the owner of the land from his teacher, a Lakota elder. For personal reasons, I did not participate in the ceremony, choosing instead to sit at the fire and watch the fire-keeper feed hot stones into the lodges.
There was a binary nature to the ceremony that was troublesome for some in our midst (including myself). Men sat in one lodge and women in another and there was no space for those who fit within the non-binary space in between. In addition, the women in their moon time were not allowed into the lodge (in keeping with Lakota tradition) and though they were told they shouldn’t enter because they are particularly powerful at that time of the month, they didn’t feel very powerful, sitting at a separate fire at the edge of the ceremonial area. A man lead the ceremony (even entering the women’s lodge at the beginning to offer teachings and songs) and a man served as fire-keeper.
In the sharing circle the next morning, a few people mentioned their discomfort with the ceremony and the way it divided us and excluded some. Nothing was resolved in that conversation, but some of us continued to have conversations on the sidelines.
Though the ceremony challenged us, I think it was a valuable place for us to start because it offered us a base from which to grow. When we turned away from the ceremony and toward other things, something began to shift, helping us evolve out of the patriarchy-imposed binary and into the space in between.
There were playful moments when it seemed the trickster was in our midst, messing with what had divided, excluded, and wounded most of us throughout our lives. Once, in the middle of a long afternoon of conversation, when we’d settled back into the circle after a break, a platter of cake was brought into the room by two people who’d gone to the kitchen to get us a treat. Instead of what we might have expected, it was men who brought the food and served us one-by-one. At another moment, when women gathered in a small circle to talk about their wombs and what they carried, an open-hearted man joined in. And then there were the two people who slept in tents at the edge of the property (while everyone else slept in comfortable beds) like warriors guarding the village. Those two people (myself included) were women. And then, in the only session when we weren’t in circle and there was a more visible hierarchy (with people at tables and the hosts standing), all four leaders were women.
There were personal things happening as well. One of my favourite conversations, that stretched from supper until midnight, was with two men (one of whom kept getting up to serve me every time my glass was empty). We shared vulnerable and authentic parts of ourselves, and at no point did it feel that our gender differences created any awkwardness or disconnection. Each of us was able to hold space for the others in ways that crossed both gender and language barriers (for both of them, English is a second language).
By the end of our time together, it was my impression (which was confirmed by others in the group) that we had arrived at a place of much more gender fluidity, playfulness, and possibility. If a new ceremony had emerged at the end of our gathering, I’m convinced it would have looked quite different from what we began with. Our time together changed us. Together we were learning to integrate our own masculine with our own feminine and dancing with others who were doing the same.
On my flight home, I realized that my dream of an island at the centre of the lake was beginning to come true, and there were others willing to meet me there, willing to heal the wounds of the patriarchy, and willing to dance in the space in between.
Somewhere over the ocean, I started to dream of something more specific than just a mystical island. I started to imagine a gathering of people who want to dance in the space in between. It wouldn’t just be about gender – it would be an intersectional gathering, where all of our parts (gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, ability, etc.) are brought forward in the dance. It would be a place where we could have both hard conversations and playful ones – where we can challenge each other with words, but then engage each other more playfully with art and dance and music. It would be a place where we would share food and be held by the land in a way that would help us imagine the community we once dreamed was possible – where the patriarchy no longer destroys our connections with each other or with ourselves.
It would be a place where the circle would remind us that there is a “leader in every chair” and that differences are not threats when we can look each other in the eyes and listen with deep attention.
I am imagining a learning village that uses Open Space Technology so that the agenda is not fixed in advance but rather there is an invitation to enter the flow of what we could co-create as a village. Anyone could bring an idea and invite others to play and/or wrestle with it. Anyone could call a circle, start a piece of collaborative art, or invite us to dance. All gifts and questions would be welcome.
Perhaps this dream will grow into a living thing in the year ahead. I am open to the possibility. And I am open to whoever wishes to step forward and help me dream it into reality.
P.S. If you want to meet me “in the space in between”, consider joining me at one of my upcoming retreats…
1. Holding Space for Yourself, Oct. 12-15 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia. (Special pricing until Oct. 1)
2. Holding Space for Others, Oct. 18-22 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia. (Special pricing until Oct. 1)
3. Space for an Open Heart, Oct. 27-29 at Kawai Purapura, Auckland, New Zealand.
NOTE: If you are interested in the next offering of Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, which starts January 2018, you may wish to put your name on the waiting list as it may sell out quickly. If you want to be notified when registration opens (next week) send an email to heather at heatherplett dot com with the following in the subject line: “Put me on the list for advance notification for the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program.”
I miss writing you love letters, dear friends. I used to write a post every week, then it stretched out to every second week, and now, for the last six months, my posts have become rather sporadic. I apologize for that. I’ve been a little busy.
In that time, almost all of my writing energy has been spent on creating the content for my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. So far (with four out of five modules complete), I’ve created 346 pages of content (plus several videos) for the participants of that program. Truthfully, I had no idea I had that much content to offer on the subject, but it just keeps flowing out of me. I could have written even more, but sometimes I hold back because it feels like I’m emptying a dump truck onto the participants.
Though I didn’t realize I was doing it at the time, it seems I’ve spent much of my adult life gathering ideas, thoughts, and stories on this subject, waiting for the time when it all could start to flow onto the page. Whether I was facilitating a government press conference, gathering with non-profit partners in a village in India, sitting under a tree with farmers in Ethiopia, curled up in bed beside my mom on her last days on earth, or hanging out with my daughters in a campground, I was learning what it means to hold space.
Right now I’m sitting in my mom’s old rocking chair (where she rocked me, my siblings and all of our children), and the floor and bedside table all around me are covered in books related to this work. It looks like my bookshelf vomited all over the room. I didn’t realize, until I started gathering them and pouring over them, how many of the books I’ve been collecting have been pointing me toward this work. I’ve been like a crow, gathering shining bits to build my nest – the container that is the work of “holding space”.
It seems I’m creating my Magnum Opus (Latin for “great work”). I eat, sleep, and breathe this work – and I couldn’t be happier. It’s nourishing me and challenging me and growing me and sustaining me. I took it along on vacation when I was in the mountains with my daughters. I packed books in my dry-bag when I paddled through the Boundary Waters and was occasionally seen reading in a hammock strung from the trees. I rented a cabin by the lake and wrote for hours on end, curled up in front of a fire. I spent three days in an AirBNB apartment in Florida (after my speaking engagement was over) writing and writing and writing some more. I’ve written perched in the tree in my backyard, in coffee shops, in the library, in my bed, in my car, in parks, on planes, at the beach, and in campgrounds. A few days ago, when an idea finally crystallized while I was walking in the woods, I stopped on the path and frantically typed it into the notes app on my phone.
This is what I’m learning as I immerse myself further and further into the waters of this work… it’s a much deeper pool than I at first thought it was.
When I first talked to an agent about a possible book on this subject (not long after the viral blog post), both she and I were skeptical that there was enough content for a book. Since then I’ve been working with another agent, and she and I have come to a very different conclusion. Not only is there enough for a book, but there is enough for multiple books.
Late yesterday, I finished writing Module 4, on Holding Space for Complexity. In it, I talked about power, privilege, trauma, conflict, and liberation. This is the realization that came to me as I neared completion…
The theme at the heart of the concept of holding space is freedom.
We hold space so that we all may be free.
We hold space so that we may be free of judgement, free of fear, free of injustice, and free of discrimination, prejudice, and shame.
We hold space to give each other the freedom to do our hard and liberating soul work, to give each other the freedom to heal our trauma, to give each other the freedom to feel deep emotions and express unspoken needs, and to give each other the freedom to transform conflict and re-write stories of abuse. We hold space for both the darkness and the light, the agony and the delight.
This is it, friends… this is the most important thing…
When we hold space, we create the container for liberation.
What I realized, as I wrote the last lesson of the module, was that the work I’m doing is, at its heart, about liberation. I want to give people the tools to do the hard work of liberating themselves and liberating others. I want to support people who are seeking liberation from shame, violence, tyranny, oppression, fear, judgement, and marginalization.
I want to create spaces where we are brave enough to see and name our own chains. I strive to hold space in a way that supports people in throwing off those chains. And I want to go even further and hold fierce and courageous space where we can name the systems that trap us and name the ways in which we may be contributing to other people’s chains.
I want us all to see that liberation is a collective act – that I can’t get free without also freeing you.
This is the work I commit my life to. This is what I’m willing to lose sleep over. It’s what I’ll make sacrifices for. It’s what I’ll push through barriers for. It’s what I’ll take to soap boxes and stadiums, living rooms and classrooms, board rooms and prisons.
I am here to hold space for freedom.
And you, my friends, are welcome to join me in the work.
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Note: I’ll be opening registration for the next offering of the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program (which starts in January 2018) next month. If you want to be on the list for advance notification, contact me and say: “Put me on the list for advance notification for the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program.”
Also: If you want to learn this work in person, I’m facilitating two retreats in Australia in October – one on Holding Space for Yourself and one on Holding Space for Others. If you sign up for both retreats, you’ll get much of the content I’ve created for the six month online program.
One more thing… For some other thoughts I’ve had on liberation lately, read my blog post on what you can do about white supremacy.