My youngest daughter is on the cusp of graduating from high school. Her oldest sister is on the cusp of graduating from her first university degree, and the middle one is only a year behind. There are moments when I hold my breath, knowing these days in which we all live under the same roof are fleeting and soon they will all have launched into their own separate lives.
Before they go, I hope I pass on at least some of the following bits of wisdom.
You’re not obligated to accept every gift. Whenever they receive a gift from me, they are allowed to tell me that they don’t like it and I do my best not to make it about me and instead to find them something they’d like better. Though I want them to embrace gratitude and to treat people with respect, I don’t want them to assume that they are obligated to receive gifts they don’t want or that they are responsible for looking after the feelings of the gift-giver. When gifts come with strings attached and an indebtedness to the giver, they are not really gifts but tools of abusers and manipulators. As we’ve seen in some of the #metoo stories emerging out of Hollywood, abusers offer elaborate promises and gifts (ie. roles in movies, good jobs, etc.) so that their victims feel a sense of obligation that includes their silence. I hope that by learning that they have the right to resist unwanted “gifts”, my daughters are better equipped to stand up to the tactics of abusers.
You can leave the party early. Especially when they were in high school and starting to attend parties that could possibly get out of hand, I worked with my daughters to ensure that they had an exit strategy in case they ever felt uncomfortable and wanted to leave before their friends did. Even if that exit strategy included me having to get up in the middle of the night and bundle up against the cold to go pick them up, I tried not to shame them for trusting their instincts if it wasn’t safe to accept a ride home with a friend who’d been drinking, or if people were doing things at the party that didn’t fit with their values or comfort zones. I hope that those party exit strategies can be carried into their adult lives and they can apply the principle to jobs they don’t like, relationships that are toxic, commitments they regret making, etc. They don’t have to feel obligated or give in to peer pressure if it means staying where they’re unsafe, uncomfortable, unhappy or undervalued.
You get to feel your feelings and don’t have to be a caretaker or shock absorber for other people’s feelings. I spent a lot of years caretaking other people’s emotions and being a shock absorber when those emotions were particularly volatile (and stuffing down my own emotions in order to do so), and I don’t want that for my daughters. I want them to know that their own feelings are valid, even if those feelings make other people uncomfortable. I want them to know that big feelings are okay, even if other people try to gaslight them into not feeling the way they do. I don’t want them to spend all of their time trying to regulate themselves on other people’s behalf. I want them to find healthy relationships with people who take responsibility for how they feel and who don’t try to stifle other people’s feelings. I want them to know that within healthy relationship, co-regulation is possible, but only if people honour rather than quash those feelings in each other.
You can come back home after you mess up. We’re not looking for perfection in this household, and so I try to admit my mistakes to my daughters, apologize when necessary, and let them know that this is a place where it’s safe to fail. I don’t want them to hide their mistakes or weaknesses, but to speak of them openly so that they can learn from them and grow. And I want them to know that I will provide a safe haven for them to return to when they need to lick their wounds and/or process their shame. I want them to feel safe when they’re here so that they can return to the world feeling more brave.
Sometimes disruption is necessary. But it will rarely be easy. I want them to know that they should follow the “rules” that make sense and help to keep people safe, but I also want them to know that they can break the “rules” that are outdated or that are meant to keep people small and compliant. This isn’t always easy for me to pass on, especially when I’m the one attached to the outdated rules, but I do my best. I want them to know that they don’t have to stick with the status quo when the status quo is harming people. I want them to know that they can speak truth to power. I want them to know that they’re allowed to be disruptors if the disruption is in the service of positive change. Disruption isn’t an easy path to choose, though, so I also want them to be prepared for the ways in which people will resist them and possibly try to hurt them for having the courage to be disruptive.
Power and weakness are companions, not opposites. I want them to see that vulnerability and authenticity are important parts of what it means to be powerful. I want them to know that generative power often emerges out of places of the greatest weakness. I want them to see that sometimes, in their moments of greatest weakness, admitting it allows other people to show up and be powerful and together we can create collective power that is greater than any of us can hold alone. I hope that they’re not afraid to claim their own power, but that it is always “power with” rather than “power over”.
Your body is your own. For years, I gave away my own body because I believed I was under contract to do so and because I was being coerced even when I was unwilling. I accepted the old rules of what it means to be a woman in a marriage, because that was the only way I’d seen modelled and the only way that I’d been taught to behave. I’ve spent the last several years reclaiming my body and relearning how to treat it, and I want my daughters to see that another way is possible. I want them to know that they can lavish love on their own bodies, that they can protect their own bodies, that they can say no to anyone who doesn’t treat their bodies well and that they can say a big and holy YES to those who make their bodies feel alive, safe and loved.
You can ask for what you need, but those needs shouldn’t supersede the needs of those more marginalized than you. I want them to know that they are worthy of having their needs met. I want them to pay attention to themselves enough so that they are actually aware of their own needs and can articulate them clearly. I don’t want them to be afraid to ask for what they need or to be so focused on other people that they consistently overlook themselves. I don’t want them to be haunted by shame for being too selfish or asking for too much. However, I don’t want them to be greedy and I want them to recognize how meeting their own needs will sometimes mean that people with less access to privilege won’t get their needs met. I want them to be aware of injustice and be willing to sacrifice their own needs in order to centre those who rarely get their turn. I want them to balance self-care with other-care, and worthiness with justice.
You can love who you want, as long as that love is generative and not stifling. This is a home in which there is little pressure to be heteronormative. Two of my daughters have, in fact, come out and we have celebrated them and embraced their choices and never asked them to be anyone other than who they are. I want them to know that whoever they choose to be in an intimate relationship with, they don’t have to be afraid to introduce that person to me for fear of my judgement. I do, however, want them to know that I will speak up if I see the person they’re in relationship with treat them in ways that harm their spirits (or the other way around). If they choose to be in relationships (and they are always free to choose singleness instead), I hope that those relationships are ones in which they are supported to flourish and grow and shine.
Friendships matter. Community matters. Family matters. But no relationships are worth abandoning yourself over. I hope that they find deep and lasting friendships (and hang onto the ones they already have). I hope that they surround themselves with people who will support them, challenge them, laugh with them, travel with them, grieve with them, and feed them. I hope that they recognize that friendships are worth fighting for, that forgiveness and grace are necessary parts of being in relationships with flawed human beings, that having people in your corner is essential for meaningful success, and that conflict is worth working through when you’re with the right people. I want them to find out how much richness comes when they make friends with people whose skin colour is different from theirs, whose beliefs are different, and/or who grew up in other countries.I also want them to know, though, that sometimes it’s best to walk away from friendships or communities that hold them back. I want them to dare to choose their own growth and happiness over stifling relationships. I don’t want them to stay stuck in places or with people that don’t value or respect them.
The hardest parts of life are usually the ones that result in the most growth. There’s a part of me that longs to protect my daughters from the hard parts of life, but the wiser part of me knows that I have grown most when life has been hard. I have been changed by grief and trauma, and I know that the work I now do is rich and meaningful because of all of the darkness and pain I have traveled through. I want them to recognize that they have the strength and resilience to survive hard things and that there is something to strive for on the other side. I hope that they always know that they don’t have to survive the hard things alone and that, whenever I am able, I will walk alongside them. I also want them to know that they should never be ashamed to ask their friends or family for help, to hire a therapist, and/or to seek treatment for mental illness, trauma, etc.. I don’t want them to bypass the pain, but rather to move through it with grace and grit and people who love them.
There’s a lot of beauty and magic in the world – don’t miss it. Some of my favourite moments with my daughters are ones in which we’ve stood in reverence in front of a stunning sunset over the mountains, we’ve giggled with glee at an amusement park, we’ve sat around a campfire watching the flames leap up, or we’ve driven for hours and hours just to hear our favourite bands in concert. I hope that they always give themselves permission to have fun, to seek out adventure, to be in awe of the natural world, and to surround themselves with beauty. I hope that they take the time to pause and notice even the simplest bits of magic. I want them to live fully and reverently and to fill their lives with meaningful experiences.
“Weeks passed, and the little Rabbit grew very old and shabby, but the Boy loved him just as much. He loved him so hard that he loved all his whiskers off, and the pink lining to his ears turned grey, and his brown spots faded. He even began to lose his shape, and he scarcely looked like a rabbit any more, except to the Boy. To him he was always beautiful, and that was all that the little Rabbit cared about. He didn’t mind how he looked to other people, because the nursery magic had made him Real, and when you are Real shabbiness doesn’t matter.”
― Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
I wonder if the Boy knew the risk he was taking when he loved the Rabbit so hard he became Real. I wonder if he contemplated the fact that, unlike stuffed bunnies that are easy to control and contain, real bunnies have minds of their own and can hop off into the woods when they choose and leave their loved ones behind.
I’m going to assume that he knew those things, but was confident that his love was big enough to handle the risk (though I admit that it makes me sad that he no longer recognizes the Rabbit once he’s hopped off into the woods).
It takes a special kind of love and a special kind of confidence to give someone the space they need to grow into their Realness – to resist the urge to control them, change them, or take their sovereignty away just so that they won’t ever abandon you. It takes a special kind of belief in yourself and a special kind of ability to love through the shabbiness, through the deconstruction and transformation, and through the stretching away from you.
To witness and hold space for someone who’s learning to liberate themselves from old expectations, old projections, and old social programming can be painful and frightening and it can trigger all kinds of old hurts and unmet needs in us. “Who will they be when they transform and become more authentically themselves?” we wonder… “Will they still want me around? Will I be left behind? Will their stretching require that I stretch too, in order to meet them in that new place in the woods?”
A couple of recent parenting experiences have given me a new appreciation of what the Boy might have felt.
I knew that this was important to her and I’ve witnessed how her climate activism has given her a sense of purpose that I hadn’t seen in her before, so I wanted to support her, but I admit that it worried me. First, there were the things that every parent worries about… How will this impact her mental health? How will this impact her education? How will this impact her future? How will this impact her friendships? And… will she get bullied online?
But there was something else going on for me under the surface… something that made me feel a little like I imagined the Boy might have felt when he contemplated the risks involved in loving the Rabbit into Realness. What if allowing her to step into this was allowing her to hop off into the woods without me? What if she was entering dangerous territory where I could no longer protect her or control her environment, where she’d need to use her own skills to survive?
And what if… in doing what she was choosing to do, she was rejecting the “nursery” – effectively tossing off the social conditioning and safety rules that I’d passed down to her?
In the “nursery” – that space that’s made up of the old furniture we inherited from our parents, all of the old rules that our religions and cultures passed on to us, and all of the old boundaries and limitations that give us comfort but keep us trapped – it’s not safe to challenge authority. It’s not safe to raise your voice too loud, to speak out of turn, to break from old patterns, or to reject the old rules of decorum. It’s ESPECIALLY not safe if you’re a young woman.
Those are the things one can only do once you’ve rejected the nursery and headed into the woods. They can only happen when you dare to be Real.
The question I had to ask myself was… Was I willing to love my daughter in a brave enough way to let her leave the nursery, step into the woods, and become Real?
A whole lot of my social programming started to flare up when I considered it. “Women don’t talk too loud or make spectacles of themselves,” I heard the patriarchy say, as it tried to pull us both back into the nursery. “Mennonites don’t take legal action and ESPECIALLY not against their own government,” the voice from the religious lineage tugged. “You’ll be rejected by your conservative relatives,” I heard my old trauma say. “Your daughter will face ridicule and your family will be shamed,” my fear of abandonment whispered.
One by one, I had to quiet those voices and lean into what mattered – my love for my daughter and my belief that that love was big enough to hold the Realness and the risk. If she feels the urgency to lend her voice to the looming climate crisis, why would I get in her way because of my own fears? The planet no longer has time for our timidity. I chose to support her and we traveled to Vancouver together to participate in a whirlwind series of public events, ceremonies, and workshops.
I opened the nursery door and let my daughter wander into the woods and after I watched her, standing up in front of fifteen thousand people (on stage next to Greta Thunberg and David Suzuki), and being calmly interviewed on live national media, something remarkable happened. I recognized that not only was I helping to love HER into Realness, SHE was helping to love ME into Realness too. When I witnessed her courage in rejecting the social conditioning that wanted to keep her in the nursery, I was able to let go of some of the social conditioning that was still trying to pull me back there too.
A week after we returned home, when I found myself having to defend her against an older male relative who bullied her in a private message, I found a new freedom that had come from silencing the voices of the patriarchy, religion, and family lineage ringing in my head.
Not long after that, I had another opportunity to love someone into their Realness, and in some ways, this required even greater and more personal risk.
I could sense that something was bothering one of my older daughters and so I knocked on her door and asked if she’d talk to me about it. “You’re not going to like what I need to say,” she said, and she was right. What she told me was painful and hard to process. While she’d been trying to stay positive and supportive of her younger sister’s significant moment on the climate activism stage, what it triggered in her was resentment for the ways that she hadn’t received the same support when she was in high school.
“I see her getting the therapy she needs, and I see you cheering her on and protecting her when people bully her, and I feel cheated that I didn’t get those things from you when I was her age,” she said. “I was going through mental health challenges too and I felt like you didn’t believe me or offer me the resources she’s gotten. And most of all, I didn’t feel like you protected me from Dad’s emotional abuse.”
She was right. I wasn’t the mom for her then that I’ve been for her sister in recent years. I was far more stuck in the “nursery” back then, still trying to live up to what I thought my role as a good wife and good mom should be, trying to hold the family together, trying to keep the peace because that’s what my social conditioning had convinced me was right. She had the misfortunate of being in high school during the time when my mom died, I was starting my business, her dad attempted suicide, and our marriage was crumbling. We announced our separation to her and her sisters, in fact, the day after her high school graduation. It was a tumultuous time for me, and in the midst of all of that, I was failing to love my daughter into her Realness.
Fortunately though, it wasn’t too late. She was sitting there in front of me, opening her heart to me, offering me another chance to give her the kind of love she needed. In that one tender moment, there was hope for redemption if I made the right choice. I took a few deep breaths, and I apologized. I took ownership of the ways I’ve failed her and I admitted the mistakes I’d made in clinging to the old stories of what was right instead of stepping into the wilderness with her.
She forgave me and a beautiful thing happened. We both became more Real. We took the risk and found our love was big enough to hold the risk.
Attachment Theory teaches us that we all need healthy attachments (especially in childhood, but also in adulthood) so that we can grow into our own confidence, authenticity and resilience. A healthy attachment system involves both a safe haven and a secure base.The safe haven protects us and offers comfort when we’re afraid or need time for healing, and the secure base offers a launching pad from which we can move into boldness.
That’s what the Boy was offering the Rabbit when he dared to love him into Realness and that’s what I strive to offer my daughters. If I only give them the safety without the freedom, then I keep them stuck in the nursery. But if the freedom is also available to them when they’re ready for it, then they can find the adventure that calls them and they can step into it knowing the door remains open when they need it.
The risk is part of the process.
Note: My daughters have given permission for me to share this.
On an episode of the TV show The Good Place, we’re introduced to Doug Forcett, a former stoner who, during a magic mushroom trip, figured out the formula for the afterlife (ie. how to make enough points to get into the Good Place). Doug is living a “perfect” life, ensuring each choice he makes gains him points. He lives on a farm in Canada where he is kind to a fault, treats every plant and animal with respect, and never fails to recycle.
It doesn’t take long to discover, though, that Doug is living a paralyzed and tortured life. He goes into spasms of guilt and fear every time he makes a misstep (ie. he steps on a snail and kills it), he eats nothing but radishes and lentils and drinks his own filtered urine, and he allows himself to be victimized by the neighbourhood bully who takes advantage of his extreme altruism and forgiveness. In the last scene that we see Doug, he is about to walk hundreds of miles to make a donation in atonement for killing the snail.
Yes, there is a shadow side to trying too hard to be good. That shadow deepens when, in the next episode, it is revealed that every “good” choice has dozens of ripple effects that are “bad” (ie. buying an organic tomato that has to be shipped a long distance from another country where there are no ethical labour practices) and even Doug hasn’t made enough points to get into The Good Place.
The torture suffered by the Mennonites under Stalin was brutal. Because they were identified as ethnic Germans, they were treated as the enemy during the first and second World Wars. Their villages were destroyed, their land and/or harvested crops were taken from them and they were left without food, many women were raped, and in some villages, all of the men over sixteen were killed or put in prison. For twenty-five years, until they eventually fled the country, they were treated to unimaginable horrors. About half of the families that left were female-led because so many men had been killed.
As I read through the accounts of these atrocities, this paragraph landed the most heavily on my heart:
“What complicated these traumatic experiences for Mennonites was the fact that they did not defend themselves against such assault, upholding their 400-year pacifist stance. In many cases, husbands and fathers witnessed the brutal rapes of their wives and daughters and did not retaliate.”
I re-read that paragraph several times, overcome with the horror of what it must have been like to be a woman who was not only brutally raped, but whose husband or father did nothing to stop it. What utter betrayal that must have been to know that someone you loved chose their need to be “good” according to their faith over protecting you, their beloved!
That deep-seated value of pacifism – a core tenet of the Mennonite faith that is, in many ways, quite beautiful – has the ironic potential to create the conditions for the greatest form of betrayal for the most marginalized among the community – the women. Much like the fictional Doug Forcett, they were paralyzed by their belief in what it means to be good, and the result of that paralysis was betrayal of those they loved most.
(Side-note: As I’ve written before, after my own rape in my early twenties, my own pacifist father responded by admitting how he suddenly saw in himself a capacity to kill my rapist. That was both surprising and comforting for me at the time. I don’t know, though, what he would have done had he been given the opportunity to defend me.)
There is a shadow side to pacifism, just as there is a shadow side to trying too hard to be good, and far too often, it’s those with little power who are most impacted by that shadow. An insistence on goodness, in fact, can become a tool of oppression, by which those with power can keep those without power in line and silent.
Here are a few other shadows worth reflecting on:
The Shadow Side of Gratitude: While there has been much written about the values of living a grateful life (ie. having a gratitude practice can build resilience and hope and help us live in greater freedom), the shadow side is that it can be a form of spiritual bypassing. When we force ourselves (or others) to be grateful, we ignore the very real pain and grief that we need to process and hold space for in order to heal and transform it. Those darker emotions that we bury when we turn too quickly to gratitude will find more destructive ways of surfacing later on – as trauma, addictions, physical ailments, emotional breakdowns, etc..
The Shadow Side of Forgiveness:Much like gratitude, forgiveness can be a form of spiritual bypassing in which we rush past the complexity of our genuine feelings of rage, pain, betrayal, etc., deny ourselves the right to justice, repair and healing, and let the other person off the hook before they’ve shown genuine remorse. Forgiveness, if there is no remorse and atonement on the part of the person who’s done harm, puts the burden of emotional labour on the shoulders of the victim, and while it may be personally healing for them to forgive, it may also serve to re-victimize them and deny them of their full humanity. In the case of domestic abuse, for example, forgiveness may lead to further abuse. In order to extricate themselves, the victim may, instead, need to hang onto to rage at least long enough to propel themselves out of the situation and establish the boundaries that protect them.
The Shadow Side of Civility: As a recovering conflict-avoider, I’ve long believed that civility was one of the highest goods, but then I started to learn (especially through BIPOC people whose wisdom I value) that an insistence on civility can have harmful consequences. For one thing, it’s almost always those who already have more power who get to decide the rules about what is civil and what is not. For another thing, asking for civility when people have a genuine right to have strong emotions related to their oppression and victimization can be to silence, shame, and further oppress them. And for a third thing, an insistence on civility can often lead to more insidious and underhanded forms of communication (ie. passive aggressiveness, manipulation, tone policing, etc.) rather than more direct and truthful forms.
The Shadow Side of Charity:When I used to work in international development, we used to have long debates about the best ways to support people in need. One of the things that often came up was the way that charity, if it isn’t nuanced and offered with care and respect for people’s dignity and sovereignty, can be destructive and further contribute to an unjust world. For example, much of the charity we saw in international development comes from a place of “white saviorism” where more privileged white people think they know what’s best for less privileged people of colour, and it makes them feel good to impose that charity on them. Misplaced charity can also be disruptive to the local economy (ie. dumping used clothing on Kenyan markets means that much of their local clothing industry has disappeared) and can be disempowering to those who’d be better served by justice.
The Shadow Side of Peace: As I mentioned above, I was raised in a long lineage of pacifism, and so “keeping the peace” was one of the highest goods. But the result of that kind of a belief system was that it took me a long time to leave an abusive situation, I often remained silent in the face of injustice, I let people I loved get hurt, and – to this day – I often have a trauma response when voices are raised and conflict bubbles. When peace is valued too highly, it is largely the most marginalized who suffer. In the book Women Talking, Miriam Toews writes a fictional account of the true story of a Mennonite settlement in which women were being drugged and raped and none of the male leaders were listening to their cries for justice. The male leaders were more intent on keeping the peace (ie. forgiving the men who did it and restoring them to community) than they were in caring for the victims of the rapes. “We are not members,” says one of the women, “. . . we are commodities. . . . When our men have used us up so that we look sixty when we’re thirty and our wombs have literally dropped out of our bodies onto our spotless kitchen floors, finished, they turn to our daughters.”
The Shadow Side of Good Intentions:The problem with good intentions is that we often hide behind them and think that they are enough, even when those good intentions have undesirable outcomes. But what about when the impact is different from the intent? What if, for example, we extend charity (as mentioned above) that results in disempowerment or further injustice? Can we simply say “well, that wasn’t my intention” and go on doing what we’ve always done? No, not if we want to live in a just and ethical world. Especially when we have more agency than the person negatively impacted by our good intentions, we have to be willing to take responsibility for the impact, learn to do better, and make necessary repairs and/or change our future behaviour.
The Shadow Side of Positivity: In the self-help world in recent years, there’s been a lot of talk of the value of positive thinking and the power of attraction (ie. if we think positive thoughts we attract positive things), but there’s a lot of shadow that’s usually not discussed by the self-help gurus. For one thing, insisting that people are responsible for what they attract is a convenient way of overlooking the injustice of the world and blaming a person for the bad that comes their way (ie. if you lose your job, it must be your own fault for your bad attitude rather than the racist behaviour of your boss). For another thing, just as gratitude can be a form of spiritual bypassing, positivity can also deny and shut down the full expression of our humanity in a way that short-circuits healing, growth, and justice.
I write this not to say that we should toss aside our civility, pacifism, forgiveness, gratitude, etc. No – quite the opposite. I think we should embrace them more fully and with more clarity, holding them up to the light so that we can see them for ALL of the shades of complexity contained within. I think we should examine each of these good things and use our discernment to help us see when we’re slipping from the light into the shadows.
To embrace these good things blindly rather than examining them is to choose to stay in an immature, binary spirituality and worldview.
Sometimes, when we witness the shadow side of the good, we’ll need to make choices that make us feel like we’re deviating from our values, and, especially when those values are attached to our sense of safety and belonging (ie. part of our religious upbringing, social conditioning, and/or community values) that can feel like self-betrayal and can result in a trauma response. But perhaps what it really means, when we pause to reflect on it, is that we have developed a more nuanced and robust values system that’s indicative of our growth.
“When I get my grad pictures taken,” my daughter Maddy said yesterday, “I want to have one taken where I’m holding a megaphone.” She graduates from high school in June. She’s hoping to buy her own megaphone before then, just because it’s something she feels that she should own.
Last week, while I was away in B.C. leading back-to-back retreats, Maddy was at home using her voice and learning to use a megaphone. As one of the leaders of Manitoba Youth for Climate Action, she’d helped to organize two major events – a die-in for climate action (with hundreds of youth pretending to die on the steps of the Human Rights Museum, to represent those lives being lost to climate change), and a climate strike (with 12,000 people participating in our city). Each day I’d get text messages from her with videos, photos, and multiple links to media interviews she’d done. In one of those news clips, she can be seen leading the marchers in a chant, megaphone in hand (video at the bottom of this link).
It was that short clip – my daughter shouting into a megaphone in front of thousands of marchers – that moved me to tears. The fact that she not only had the courage to USE her voice at seventeen (to speak on behalf of a planet that has suffered because of the greed and carelessness of many generations before her) but to AMPLIFY it was remarkable.
Not long before that, at a retreat on Holding Space for Yourself, I’d spoken about the ways that we, especially as women, keep ourselves small and hold back our voices. This wasn’t a “shame on you for being silent” conversation – it was an acknowledgement of the trauma, shame, and silencing we face and that generations before us have faced – all of those stories we carry in our bones, our hearts, and our bodies that tell us we are not worthy of having our voices heard and that we are in danger if we speak too loudly.
When I was Maddy’s age, I was still tangled in the grip of those influences in my life that told me that my voice had little value and should never be amplified. I remember, for example, simply wanting to read the scripture from the pulpit in the tiny rural church I grew up in (not even sharing my OWN words, but reading GOD’S out loud) and being told (by my father, who was the leader of the church at the time) that women weren’t allowed to do that. I KNEW I had leadership capacity and I KNEW I had something to say, but again and again I heard that that was a space reserved only for men.
That belief, seeded deep into my psyche, stayed with me for a long, long time, and even now, at fifty-three, I still have moments of sell-doubt when I know the old messages need to be rejected all over again. I spent most of my career, in fact, in service to that deep-seeded belief. Though I knew I had things to say, I spent the first half of my career working as a communications professional, teaching OTHER people how to communicate, helping OTHER people perform well in media interviews, putting words in OTHER people’s mouths by writing their speeches for them. I was the expert in communications, but rarely did I get to speak.
My job was to pass the megaphone to everyone else and to make sure they sounded good when they used it. Just as I’d been taught so many years before… “a woman’s role is to serve quietly in the background, letting the men have the shining roles.”
A few weeks after my mom died, I wrote a post about women’s voices. In it, I talked about how it was challenging to find my own voice, given the messaging I’d received (a lot of which, sadly, came from my mother) about the lack of value of that voice.
From that post: In recent years, while I’ve been growing my body of work, I’ve had a hard time sharing what I do with my Mom. Some things – like the teaching I do at the university – was fairly easy for her to grasp, but other things just didn’t make sense to her. For one thing, she remained committed to a Christian tradition that frowned upon women in leadership, so when I started teaching women how to lead with more courage, creativity and wild-heartedness, it didn’t really fit with her paradigms.
There was a time when it made me angry that my mom, who should have been my greatest advocate and ally, contributed to my silencing and the shame and fear I had to wrestle with in order to speak, but I don’t blame her any more. Years of healing work have helped me to understand how much she herself had been silenced and shamed and how much she felt responsible (though it was largely unconscious responsibility) for protecting me from the harm that comes to women who speak.
In the seven years since that post, I’ve learned a lot more about internalized oppression and trauma and how we adopt the language and behaviour of the systems that oppress us to silence, gaslight, and shame ourselves. It’s what keeps us submissive, silent, and in service to those who have more power. And then, because we’ve been well trained in it, we do the same to our offspring – passing down the oppression from generation to generation to generation.
I’ve also been learning more and more about trauma and how it’s intricately intertwined with oppression. I recognize it in myself every time I begin to speak of things that threaten to disrupt the status quo – my throat begins to close up, my body trembles, and I know that my flooded nervous system is trying to convince me to RUN! PROTECT YOURSELF! YOU ARE NOT SAFE HERE! It’s trauma from my own youthful attempts to speak and it’s trauma inherited from generations and generations of women – some of whom were branded as witches and burned at the stake for the very things I now speak of.
No, my mom is not to blame. Her silence, insecurity, and shame were all deeply embedded in the training that she, too, had received. That was all she knew how to pass down to her daughters.
My dad is also not to blame. He, too, was playing the role he’d been taught to play and held his own fear of how deviating from that role might bring harm to him and his family. (I remember the way he agonized about saying no to me when I wanted to speak – I’m certain he WANTED to let me.)
My parents were doing the best that they knew how and I love them for it. I love them for the many ways that they DID support me – the curiosity that my dad helped to foster in me, the way my mom modelled how to hold space long before I knew the term, the way they both encouraged me to read and learn and be open to other people’s views.
Despite their best efforts, though, I acknowledge the pain that was passed down to me. I acknowledge the trauma of being a woman with a voice who was taught that voice was worthless. I acknowledge the wounds I had to heal in order to get to this place where I now trust that I have something to say. I acknowledge the fear I still feel sometimes when my voice causes too much disruption and I face rejection and punishment from a system that doesn’t want to be disrupted. I acknowledge all of that AND I acknowledge the painstaking work that is required for ALL of us to heal what other generations have bequeathed us with.
This post started with my daughter Maddy and I want to end there. I was moved to tears by the video clip of my daughter with a megaphone partly because of the pride I feel for her and partly because the healing work I’ve done has disrupted what’s being passed from generation to generation. THAT is something to celebrate.
She can claim her space and use her voice at an early age partly because she has inherited less of the baggage that prevented me from doing the same. Her voice now rings loud and clear with all of the other youth around the planet calling on us to disrupt the systems that are destroying our planet. (It’s not lost on me that the disruption of patriarchal oppression allows youth to rise up to call for further disruption.)
It still takes courage for her to do what she does (and I take credit for none of that – SHE did this, not me), but at least she started out on more sturdy ground.
Last week I had the pleasure of hosting a retreat with a circle of beautiful women in one of the most beautiful locations I’ve ever worked. The retreat centre was so beautiful and luxurious, in fact, that it wouldn’t have surprised me to see Oprah emerge from a room raving about her new favourite things.
The women who’d flown me to Costa Rica for this retreat were warm, friendly, wise and strong. They clearly loved each other deeply and were willing to support each other through thick and thin. They’d been a small community for seven years already, meeting monthly for personal development conversations and yearly for a retreat with a facilitator/teacher like me. They knew each other’s stories, and had supported each other through death, divorce, family illness and everything in between. One night, when we sat together over drinks and a delicious meal, they each took turns describing the beauty and strength they saw in each other and it was one of the most moving things I’ve ever witnessed.
When things are too beautiful though, there’s often a shadow lurking just beneath the surface.
When I say there was a “shadow”, I’m not talking about an ugly meanness or pettiness that was being masked by so much kindness and love. No – I saw nothing that would suggest that their kindness and love for each other was anything other than genuine.
The shadow was quite different from that. What was there beneath the surface (and which was acknowledged by the group toward the end of the first day) was a tendency they had to hold a SAFE space which sometimes kept them from being BRAVE.
Because they cared so much for each other and were accepting and supportive of each other’s choices and paths through life, they were reluctant to ask each other hard questions or challenge unhealthy patterns when they saw them. They all wanted their community space to feel safe, but that safety was getting in their way of their growth and perhaps even their healing.
(The added challenge, from my limited cultural perspective, is that, much like Canadians, Costa Ricans tend to err on the side of politeness. But politeness as a cultural value is often a way of masking the complexity that’s underneath.)
When a space is too safe and we’ve become comfortable in that safety, we don’t want to challenge it, we don’t want to say anything that will rock the boat, and we don’t want to offend anyone else lest they abandon us. One of the results is that we become reluctant to be too vulnerable because our shadows might scare the other people away. We choose comfort over courage and we chase away or silence anyone who threatens that comfort.
It wasn’t that these women wanted to be stuck in comfort. On the contrary – they are all brave and bold women who have accomplished remarkable things in their careers and families and they are in this community precisely because they WANT to grow and evolve. Growth does not scare them. Hard work does not scare them. Facing uncomfortable truth does not scare them. Quite the opposite – few groups have been more direct and courageous in ASKING me to help them see the shadow they had trouble seeing for themselves.
What I witnessed was less of a desire to stay safe and more of an entrenched pattern that had become part of their way of co-existing. It was a pattern that was hard to see because they were too close to it. Like a piece of lettuce stuck between your teeth, some things are hard to see without a mirror. They’d brought me to Costa Rica partly because they recognized in me a potential mirror.
Over the course of the second day, once we’d started to shine a light into the shadowy places, these women began to open up and share increasingly vulnerable and painful things – unresolved things, shameful things, trauma, fear, etc.. They also started to ask each other more challenging questions, inviting bravery, growth and new perspectives. In the evening of the second day, the pattern had shifted significantly and they were excited about what was possible with the new language and brave questions I’d offered. That evening’s conversation was vulnerable, openhearted, brave, and deep.
During the course of our last evening together, they asked me to give direct feedback about what I’d witnessed in their group, what things they seemed to be afraid to talk about, where they were stuck, and how they could continue to grow. I was able to speak honestly because I knew these women had the strength to receive what I’d say without defensiveness, as well as the courage to take whatever I offered to heart. They didn’t need me to give them courage (they already had it in spades), they simply needed someone to help them see what was hidden from their view.
What I witnessed among these women is not uncommon among communities, friendships, families, etc. where there is deep care and love. Sometimes we mistake “care” with “letting people stay comfortable in old patterns”. And sometimes we assume that holding space is only about providing safe space where a person feels free of judgement and free of the need to change or grow. Holding space, though, is much more complex than that. (Otherwise I wouldn’t have enough content for an 8 month course.)
Now… I don’t want to give the impression that this is a binary thing – that a space is either safe or brave and that one is better than the other. That’s simply not true. For one thing, there are times when we need to be held in safety without any pressure to change our behaviour or our choices. Especially when healing from trauma or when deep in new grief, safety is paramount and should not be compromised.
ALSO a feeling of safety is usually a first step in establishing enough trust so that we CAN step into bravery. A loving community like these women have provides the solid ground from which we can leap into courage.
BUT at some point safety is not enough and sometimes it even creates a barrier to our growth. As I’ve said before, safety can become a trap and a crutch. In fact some people who cling to their own safety do harm to others in the process. (For example, in race relations or gender conversations when the dominant people in the room demand a “safe space” what they’re really asking for is allowances for their fragility. That fragility, left unchallenged, can cause great harm to the more marginalized in the room. When I work in those spaces, I make safety for marginalized people a greater priority than safety for those who’ve always assumed the privilege of safety.)
If you find yourself in a community that has become too safe (and perhaps somewhat stagnant), here are some things that might help:
Check-in about people’s readiness for more bravery. A community that’s thrust into bravery without preparation and/or discernment about their readiness can quickly become fractured beyond repair. Start with a hard conversation, revealing what you believe to be true about an over-reliance on safety, and ask people whether they feel emotionally stable enough to try something different. If most people are comfortable with the way things are, you may need to seek out another community to meet your needs. (Sometimes, on the other hand, when you’re establishing a new community where bravery needs to be built in, transparency around that expectation should be built into the way people are invited in. In my courses, for example, I include an indication of this expectation in the group agreements.)
Build trust that can support bravery. If we don’t trust the people we’re with, it’s much more difficult to be brave in their presence. Trust-building involves keeping stories confidential, showing up when you promise to show up, being an engaged listener, withholding scorn, and being dependable. To build trust (and, consequently, bravery), people in the community need to be willing to be vulnerable and authentic with each other and to take off their masks so that others feel more safe to take off their masks.
Invite an outsider to serve as the mirror. One of the things that really impressed me about this group was their openness to hearing what I was witnessing and their genuine desire to be nudged out of their comfort zones. An outsider (especially one who is skilled in community-building, facilitation and truth-telling) can offer a perspective that is nearly impossible to see from the inside. It can feel risky to let someone peer into your group’s shadows, and it can take some investment of time and money, but it can also be transformative. Be discerning, though, in who you invite in and how much you’ll allow yourselves to be disrupted.
Invite the pink elephant into the room. One of my favourite ways of inviting the shadow to be revealed in a circle (and encouraging more bravery) is to use a pink elephant as a talking piece. (This is something that emerged out of a moment of inspiration and challenge in one of my team retreats and I credit Susan Dupuis for the idea.) When I pull out the pink elephant, I tell people that I have a sense that there’s something beneath the surface that people might be afraid to reveal, and then I pass it around the room and invite anyone who wants to share something to offer it to the group. A talking piece helps to slow down the conversation and keeps people from interjecting while tender things are being spoken.
Practice asking braver questions. If people have indicated a readiness for brave space, then start by asking braver questions that invite new perspectives and growth. At the end of our time together in Costa Rica, the women had agreed that, when one shares a story that indicates they might be stuck in the safety zone, they’ll ask “are you ready for a brave question?” If the person says yes, they’ll offer something that will invite the person to see their story through a new lens. A brave question might be something like “What might change if you let go of this resentment?” or “How are you trying to protect yourself from pain?” or “Do you believe you’re worthy of more happiness?” (For more brave questions, check out 50 Questions that Could Change Your Life.)
Take care of each other. Stepping into bravery and vulnerability can leave us feeling tender and raw, and that’s a time when community support is even more necessary. If you are in a transition period with your community/family/partnership/etc., where you’re learning to be more brave, make sure you’re also setting aside extra time for play, self-care, group-care, and laughter. Eat meals together, go for walks in nature together, go dancing – anything that helps you to deepen your bond so that your container is strong enough to hold the bravery.
Not everyone is ready for bravery, and you may have some resistance in your group or family, but when the readiness is there, a brave space can bring transformation and growth that’s far beyond what’s possible in the comfort zone.
Note: Thank you to the women who hired me for this retreat for giving me permission to share it.