Leadership for times like these

“I don’t think of myself as a leader.” I hear that statement often from my clients and I understand it – I used to say the same thing myself. It wasn’t until a special mentor/boss took me aside and told me that she saw leadership ability in me and then offered me my first leadership position that I first started to recognize that I had capacity to lead.

One of the reasons that the people I work with don’t see themselves as leaders is because they equate leadership with authoritarianism. In their experience, a leader is in control, has more knowledge than those they lead, provides solutions to all of the problems, and makes all of the tough decisions. In an authoritarian model, the leader has “power over” their subordinates and is expected to be the authority on all things. While that form of leadership may be desirable for some people (especially those who feel fearful about their safety) and may be necessary in some situations (when children are small and need to be kept safe, or when a country is at war), it can easily become destructive and disempowering.

Anyone who’s attracted to what I teach about holding space is not inclined to seek out or emulate that kind of authoritative power and has likely witnessed its destruction, and so they steer clear of the mantle of leadership.

Instead of steering clear of it though, I’d like us to consider an alternative model that fits us better and that I believe is badly needed in the world today. I’d like to invite us to consider what it means for a leader to have “power with”.

Whenever I talk about leadership, I usually end up back at the place where I started, twenty years ago, when I first started to explore what it meant to be a leader. The first three books that really landed for me and helped me define the kind of leader I wanted to be were Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, by Meg Wheatley; The Authentic Leader: It’s about Presence, not Position, by David Irvine; and Calling the Circle: The First and Future Council, by Christina Baldwin. I read a lot of other leadership books (and some of them are listed on my Books & Resourcespage), but these three helped me ground myself in the leadership model that felt most authentic and intuitive for me rather than the one that I saw reflected in the world around me.

These books made leadership feel possible because they were about leading from a place of humility and authenticity rather than authority and control. I didn’t have to be invincible or unflappable to be a leader – I could bring my flaws, my insecurity, and my humanity into the role. I could step into it with curiosity and openness and I could rely on those I lead to bring their skills to the table where mine were lacking.

These three books taught me that a leader:

  • is a host rather than a hero
  • collaborates rather than controls
  • claims and shares power but doesn’t abuse it
  • has authority and influence but doesn’t need to be authoritarian
  • gathers people for meaningful conversations and practices genuine listening
  • shows up authentically and with appropriate vulnerability
  • admits what she doesn’t know and allows others to fill in the gaps
  • co-creates an environment where ALL can shine
  • invites people to contribute with their unique strengths and abilities
  • isn’t afraid to apologize and/or admit she is wrong
  • balances innovation and progress with stability and contemplation
  • knows how to hold space for complexity, growth, change, etc.

Meg Wheatley says that “a leader is anyone willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change and takes the first steps to influence that situation.”  In other words, we don’t need to wait until we’ve been given leadership positions in order to lead – we simply have to notice the need and step in to offer what we can to help fill it.

If we alter our definition of leadership to this more collaborative model, what are the most essential competencies and qualities that a leader needs to foster? Here are some of my thoughts (in no particular order):

  1. Humility. It takes humility and a willingness to give up the need to be right in order to be a collaborative leader. Effective leaders share the spotlight (or step out of it entirely) and share the credit (or give it to whoever earned it). Their humility is not self-deprecating, nor does it mask insecurity, but rather it is honest, authentic, openhearted, and courageous. Humility welcomes the brilliance of others and doesn’t need to outshine it.
  2. Generosity. Collaborative leaders are generous in their support of other people, generous in offering up their time to others, and generous in how they encourage and inspire people. They don’t see everything they do as transactional (ie. “I’ll do X for you if you do Y for me.”) but instead invite people to function in a “gift economy”, offering up their best toward the common good.
  3. Self-awareness. Self-aware leaders recognize and admit their weakness, take responsibility for their mistakes, and don’t project their baggage and unhealed wounds onto other people. They also know their strengths and capacities and aren’t afraid to step into their own power. While they embrace community and collaboration, they don’t approach people from a place of neediness, seeking out other people’s affirmation and validation.
  4. Self-regulation. When effective leaders are overwhelmed, stressed out, or triggered, they practice self-regulation (and/or have support systems that help them co-regulate) in order to calm and control their emotions rather than dumping them on other people. They’ve done enough personal growth work that they recognize how much instability can be created by their dis-regulated emotional outbursts, and so they work to create a more stable and safe environment for everyone.
  5. Self-forgiveness. While self-awareness, self-regulation, and generosity are important qualities, leaders are still human and they’ll mess up occasionally, and do selfish things or react to triggers in unhealthy ways. When they do, they take responsibility for it, make any necessary restitutions, learn what they need to from the experience, and then practice self-forgiveness and self-care.
  6. Courage. Courage is defined by Google as “the ability to do something that frightens one” and “strength in the face of pain or grief”. I like the combination of these two definitions because it’s not about the absence of fear, but rather the ability and strength to act in spite of it. Effective leaders might be quaking in their boots, but still step forward and do and/or say what’s right. Courage is contagious – when we are in the company of those who practice it, we are more inclined to find the capacity in ourselves.
  7. Power. When I first turned away from authoritarian leadership and chose a different model, I thought power was a dirty word, but I’ve changed my mind since. Power is only dirty if it is abused and if it exists apart from love. As Martin Luther King said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” Effective leaders aren’t afraid of power – they claim it, share it, and use it with love.
  8. Resilience. An effective leader can survive struggle and opposition and can find their way back to strength. It’s not that they are never beaten down – they are – but they get up the next day (or the next week, or month) and do what needs to be done to get back on track. If one path doesn’t work, they adapt and find an alternative. If one attempt fails, they try something else. Repeatedly, they return to their sense of purpose and meaning and they persevere.
  9. Meaning-making. When I first started learning about leadership, I kept hearing about how a leader had to have a sense of vision, and while I agree to a certain point, it always felt like there was something missing from that model. A vision might inspire us for the future, but what about the present? Instead, I now focus on meaning-making. An effective leader strives to make meaning out of the current moment even when the vision is blurred and the future looks dim. Even when there is only struggle and no hope, a leader looks for meaning and purpose.
  10. The ability to hold spaceThis may be the competency that is the most counter-cultural when compared to an authoritarian leadership model. An effective leader is willing and able to be present for others while they make the journey through liminal space. They don’t impose their own desired outcome and they don’t rush the process. They practice mindfulness and presence, while not backing away from complexity and confusion.

This is only a partial list, and I can think of others (like the ability to build strength in diversity, for example), but this is, at least, a start in exploring what kind of leadership we need for times like these. I wonder how the world might change if we seek to be, to follow, and to elect leaders like these.

I’m going to Uganda! Will you help me raise money for a toilet?

I’m going to Uganda! In a surprising twist, while I was planning my trip to the Netherlands to teach in November, a window of opportunity opened up and I can’t pass it up. 

As you may recall, for several years, I’ve been supporting a school in Uganda that was founded by my friend Nestar. About a dozen years ago, Nestar spent a year in Canada as the youth intern on the team I was leading at Canadian Foodgrains Bank and I loved getting to know her. Since then, Nestar moved to the Netherlands where she got her Masters degree and started a family, but she never let go of her dream of doing something meaningful for the community where she grew up. When her oldest son’s health made it difficult for her to move back to Uganda as she’d intended, she began directing her energy into creating a foundation to build a school in Kitgum region.

A thriving school has grown out of Nestar’s dream and I’ve been delighted to witness and support it from afar. I’ve long held a little dream of visiting that school and it seems that now is the time. Nestar and I will meet there and we’ll spend some time at the school together. The timing is perfect, because we get to be part of the graduation ceremony for the students who are leaving the school.

When Nestar and I started talking about the possibility of this trip (just a week ago), I asked “What’s the greatest need at the school right now? I’d like to invite my community to support it.” Her response was “Well, there are a few things but the most urgent of all is the sanitary facility. Due to the growing numbers of pupils, our current sanitary facility is not adequate. We would like to contract a new toilet block for the school.

So, my friends… would you help us ensure that the school has sufficient bathroom facilities to support their growth?

They need approximately $1800 CAD to complete this project. That’s not a lot of money, so I’d like to set the goal a little higher.

Will you help us raise at least $5000?

The school functions on a very tight budget and they’re growing, so I’d like to leave them with a little breathing room for paying teachers, buying books and furniture, etc.

This school is a special place and one of the reasons I’m so committed to it is because it was founded and is run by people from the region who know the needs of the region and care deeply for their own people. Far too many non-profits trying to “fix” things in Africa or other places in the world are doing so as outsiders trying to impose their own sense of what a region needs. That isn’t the case here. As a donor, I influence no decisions at the school and simply send them funds and trust that they know what is needed. They know their own needs and solutions and simply need some financial support in order to serve their own community.

Another thing that’s important is that the foundation has very low operating and administration costs (it’s run by Nestar and her husband as volunteers), and so 95% of your donation will go directly to supporting the school in Uganda.

If you’d like to help, use the donate button below and the money will go into my Paypal account. I will be transferring every dollar I receive (plus my own donation) to UKEF (and am happy to show an accounting of it, if anyone needs that assurance). If you feel more comfortable making a direct donation, you can do so at UKEF’s website.





If you’d like to hear a little more of the story, here’s an interview I did with Nestar back in 2014.

 

 





Confessions of an “over-functioner”: Reflections on why we feel inclined to fix other people’s problems

“Hello, my name is Heather and I am a recovering ‘over-functioner’. It’s been thirty days since I last indulged in my compulsion to fix a problem that’s not mine to fix.”

I first heard the term “over-functioning” three and a half years ago in my former husband’s psychologist’s office where we were having a conversation about our pending separation. The psychologist referred to me as the “over-functioning partner” and then had to gently stop me when I tried to help my former husband figure out when and how and where to move. “You’re going to let him figure that out,” she said, and I had to fight everything in me to keep myself from offering just one more piece of advice.

Our patterns were so firmly embedded into the way our relationship functioned, that even as it ended, I was still inclined to fix his problems for him. Even now, I have to resist the urge when a text from him triggers me back into those patterns.

A person is over-functioning, says Roberta Gilbert in Extraordinary Relationships, when “they’re doing things for another that the other person can do for themselves; feeling responsible for others; having goals for others that the other people don’t have for themselves; advice giving; talking more than listening and periodically ‘burning out’ because they routinely take on more responsibility than they can handle.”

When a person is under-functioning, on the other hand, they “act irresponsible; float without goals much of the time, or set goals and then don’t follow through with them; frequently become emotionally or physically ill; ask for advice rather than thinking things out for themselves; get others to help when they don’t really need help; tend to become addicted to substances; and seem unwilling to do almost anything for themselves.” (from this article)

Though it was most evident in my marriage, where the contrast between my over-functioning and my husband’s under-functioning made the patterns appear most prominently, this tendency has been at play in much of my adult life, especially when I’m under stress and/or I don’t trust the person I’m working with or in relationship with. When I was in leadership roles, for example, I had to learn (by making lots of mistakes) not to take on more than my share of the emotional labour for the team and to hold people accountable for their behaviour. When I was doing one-on-one coaching, I had to fight the urge to take responsibility for the emotional baggage and the outcomes of my clients. As a parent, I still sometimes slip into the pattern of coddling my children rather than allowing them to face the consequences of their own mistakes.

Yes, it’s been a long recovery and I still slip up occasionally. It may seem ironic to you that I, of all people, teach people how to hold space and not take control of other people’s outcomes, but it is often true that we teach what we most need to learn. Hopefully I will always be able to teach from a place of humility, understanding how difficult it really is to practice this work.

If you, like me, struggle with over-functioning, it may be worth considering the many reasons why we fall into this pattern. There is not one simple reason, but rather a complex set of interconnected possibilities.

1. There is anxiety involved. A person who over-functions tends to do so because they are anxious about what will happen if things don’t get done properly, anxious about things happening outside of their control that will make them feel unsafe, and anxious about people in their life being harmed. This anxiety results in perfectionism and a need to be in control. I, for example, was anxious about what would happen if the bills didn’t get paid, so, although I’d often nag my husband to get more involved in managing our finances, I couldn’t ever let go of the control enough to trust him to take responsibility.

2. An over-functioning person has developed that behavioural pattern as a way of surviving within their family system. From early childhood, an over-functioning person may have come to recognize that if they didn’t take responsibility for their own well-being, nobody else would. If, for example, they were raised by emotionally immature parents, they might have learned that they couldn’t trust anyone else to provide emotional safety for them, and so they tried to control their environment in the best way they knew how.

My mom (having lost her own mom when she was six years old) suffered from significant insecurity and low self-esteem, so I learned from an early age that, if I were to feel a sense of safety and belonging in the family system, I had to take some responsibility for making her feel better about herself. That pattern came with me into my marriage where I continued to do everything possible to make my partner feel better about himself to try to ensure that I and my daughters had safety and belonging in the family system.

3. The over-functioning person is likely an internalizer while the under-functioning person is an externalizerAn internalizer “tries to solve problems from the inside out by being self-reflective and trying to learn from their mistakes. They’re sensitive and try to understand cause and effect. They believe they can make things better by trying harder, and they instinctively take responsibility for solving problems on their own. Their biggest relationship downfall is being overly self-sacrificing and then becoming resentful of how much they do for others.” Externalizers, on the other hand, are “reactive and do things impulsively to blow off anxiety quickly. They tend not to be self-reflective, assigning blame to other people and circumstances rather than their own actions. They experience life as a process of trial and error but rarely use their mistakes to learn how to do better in the future. Their coping style is frequently so self-defeating and disruptive that other people have to step in to repair the damage from their impulsive actions.” In general, internalizers believe it’s up to them to change things, whereas externalizers expect others to do it for them.

“Which style you’ve adopted is probably more a matter of personality and constitution than choice. And ultimately, both styles are an attempt to get needs met. As people move through life, they may go through periods of being more internalizing or externalizing, but their basic nature is likely to lean more one way than the other.” (From the book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents)

4. The over-functioning person may have developed a “healing fantasy” that motivates them to keep trying to fix other people’s problems to make their life turn out the way they’d hoped. “As children, we make sense of the world by putting together a story that explains our life to us. We imagine what would make us feel better and create what I call a ‘healing fantasy’ – a hopeful story about what will make us truly happy one day. Children often think the cure for their childhood pain and emotional loneliness lies in finding a way to change themselves and other people into something other than what they really are… As we grow into adulthood, we secretly expect our closest relationships to make our healing fantasies come true. We believe that if we keep at it long enough, we will eventually get people to change.” (From the book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents)

I didn’t recognize that I had such a healing fantasy when I was in the marriage, but when I look back at all of my efforts to help my former husband understand and heal his mental illness (I bought SO MANY books!), I can see in it a desperateness to create a safe and secure fantasy marriage that was never really possible.

5. In extreme cases, the over-functioning person may have found themselves in a trauma bond that allows them to be easily manipulated because of their impaired cognitive functioning. A trauma bond happens when your primary attachment (ie. a partner, parent, etc.) becomes both your source of security AND your source of greatest threat. Because you find yourself caught in the impossible juggling act of “I need to turn to this person for my safety” and “this person may erupt and/or threaten my safety at any moment”, you’re constantly in a heightened state of anxiety and your brain begins to dissociate, impairing your cognitive functioning ability. This is sometimes referred to as amygdala hijacking, where the rational part of your brain is taken over by the amygdala’s impulse of fight, flight, freeze, or tend and befriend. The person caught in this dissociated state will do everything they can to calm the situation so that they can feel safe again. As a result, their over-functioning pattern kicks in as a survival mechanism and they look after the needs of the person with whom they have a trauma bond (and everyone else impacted) in an effort to calm the situation and placate the person creating the unstable situation. An abuser will take advantage of that over-functioning tendency and the dissociated cognitive functioning and will manipulate the victim into doing more than their share of the work in the relationship.

Understanding this trauma bond has helped me work through some of the most difficult challenges in my marriage – especially the two times my former husband attempted suicide and, in my desperation, I did everything I possibly could (including sneaking him out of the hospital to get him better psychological support than the psych ward was willing to offer) to resolve the situation and return our family to some reasonable form of stability. (I highly recommend the book Terror, Love and Brainwashing for a better understanding of the trauma bond.)

If you’re finding yourself reflected in this article, you are likely wondering what you can do to stop over-functioning. Well, let me start by saying that there is no easy solution and it takes long-term commitment to break away from your old behaviours and change your well-established survival strategies. I’ve been working at this for several years and will keep working at it for several more to come. There will be some times you’ll make significant progress in a relatively short period of time, and other times when you’ll be triggered by something and find yourself slipping back into those old patterns because they fit like a worn out pair of shoes that you just can’t throw away.

Here are a few thoughts on what it takes to stop over-functioning:

1. Find ways to calm the anxiety that triggers the behaviour. Deep breathing techniques, mantras that you repeat in your head to get your brain to refocus, or some of the nervous system soothing techniques that Gwynn Raimondi teaches – all of these help in that crucial moment between impetus and reaction. When you find yourself tempted to solve someone’s problem for them, slow down, step away if you have to, hit the pause button, take a deep breath, and wait until your more rational brain has a chance to catch up. Then make a decision from that part of your brain rather than the reactive part.

2. Do some healing work (therapy, family constellations, somatic trauma work, etc.) that helps you disentangle yourself from the dysfunction of your family system. Begin to see yourself as a separate person, capable of behaving in a way that isn’t reflective of the system you’re enmeshed in. Find ways to detach yourself from the needs you feel compelled to meet, and instead focus on your own needs. Give up on the fantasy that you will ever single-handedly resolve the dysfunction and detach from it instead. Your childhood healing fantasy is never coming true, but that doesn’t mean you can’t lead a healthy and meaningful life.

3. Set better boundaries (and believe that you deserve them). Practice saying “no” to people who rely on you for meeting their needs, especially when you are consistently sacrificing your needs for theirs. Try it in small things first so that you can work your way up to bigger things. Say no and then remind yourself that you are not responsible for their reaction to your no. Don’t let yourself get sucked back in when they try to make you feel guilty. (In this book on Covert Narcissism, those tactics that are used to suck you back in are called “hoovering”.)

4. Practice being observational instead of reactive. This is where some form of mindfulness practice helps because it teaches us to witness an emotion or thought and then let it pass without getting trapped in it. “When interacting with emotionally immature people, you’ll feel more centred if you operate from a calm, thinking perspective, rather than emotional reactivity. Start by settling yourself and getting into an observational, detached frame of mind. There are any number of ways to do this. For example, you can count your breaths slowly, tense and relax your muscle groups in a systematic sequence, or imagine calming imagery. Next, your job is to stay detached emotionally and observe how others behave, just like a scientist would. Pretend you’re conducting an anthropological field study. … If you find yourself becoming reactive, silently repeat to yourself, ‘Detach, detach, detach.’ Make a point of consciously describing the other person in words – silently and to yourself. During a stressful interaction, this kind of mental narration can centre and ground you. Whenever you try to find the exact words to describe something, it helps redirect your brain’s energy away from emotional reactivity.” – Lindsay C. Gibson, PsyD.

5. Find relationships and/or communities where you can develop more healthy attachments that will help you break the trauma bond and/or help you process what you need to in order to release your old patterns. In the book Terror, Love, and Brainwashing, the writer (whose primary focus is understanding why people get trapped in cults) says that, in order to break the trauma bond and return to healthy cognitive functioning, a person needs to develop friendships outside of the abusive environment. The starting place for you might be a therapist or support group, or it might be a sharing circle where people hold space for you without expecting anything from your or trying to fix anything for you.

6. Do lots of self-care that helps you to feel more grounded and in love with yourself. Sign up for a class, take up a new art form, indulge in occasional pampering, learn self-defence, start a journal practice, and/or do anything else that reminds you that YOU are worthy of having your needs met and you don’t have to sacrifice your own for someone else’s. A well-cared-for and well-respected self is more able to resist the urge to slip into over-functioning patterns.

7. Recognize that the people on whose behalf you tend to over-function will be better off in the long run if they learn to take responsibility for their own lives. Nobody who’s consistently had their problems fixed by other people will learn to function as an emotionally mature adult. They will likely try to keep you trapped in old patterns because it feels safe for them, but breaking away from those patterns will be better for BOTH of you.

One of the greatest challenges of being an “over-functioner” is that you get sucked into your own distorted image of yourself. You think of yourself as the “person who can handle things” and that makes you reluctant to admit that you might have a problem or that you might need help. You’ve become so used to managing things for people in your life who are “under-functioners” or who are less emotionally mature that you forget that you, too, might have developed unhealthy coping skills. But over-functioning has the word “over” in it for a reason – this is not the level that you’re meant to function at. You’re meant to find better balance and to allow other people to help you find that balance.

Take it from this recovering “over-functioner” – change is possible. You might feel trapped in your current situation, and you might be inclined to believe that your life will always be this way, but by naming the pattern in yourself and by claiming responsibility for changing it, you can begin to heal the wounds that caused it and you can live a beautiful, liberated life with healthy, mutually supportive relationships.

How to process criticism, attacks, and negative information about yourself without getting knocked flat

There’s a familiar pattern that shows up when someone criticizes or attacks me. First, I feel it in my body – my throat closes, my muscles tense and the pit of my stomach starts to churn. Usually it’s accompanied with the heat of shame creeping up my neck and into my cheeks. Then my mind starts to race to try to make sense of the messages it’s receiving, usually leaping to the conclusion that I must be a bad person and I need to do something to defend myself or change myself to appease the person who’s doing the criticizing. Often, this is followed with a seemingly endless repetitive churning as my mind becomes fixated on the situation and my body stays in high anxiety mode. I work through the conversation, attack, or criticism again and again, trying to devise the right response that will make the anxious feeling go away.

In recent years, I’ve often had people remark at how I must be brave to speak out publicly about some of the issues I’m passionate about (racism, sexism, injustice, etc.), but in those reactive moments, when the backlash has come, I don’t feel very brave. I feel just as anxious as those people who say they’d never be able to handle it. But I am deeply resolved not to let that anxiety stop me. And I’ve learned how to process the negative information so that it doesn’t keep me hooked in fight, flight, freeze, or tend and befriend mode. (Actually… it’s an ongoing process of learning, not a “once and done” thing. I’m still learning every day.)

Courage is not the absence of fear, but the resolve to act in spite of it.

What’s important to know about that very human reaction to criticism or attack (or any negative information about yourself) is that it’s rooted in the most ancient part of your brain that is looking out for your best interests. The amygdala is responsible for those instinctual reactions that keep you safe – fight, flight, freeze, and tend and befriend. Without it, you probably wouldn’t live past your second birthday because you’d walk into traffic, play with bears, or do any number of other things that you’re meant to be afraid of.

The problem is that, in a trauma situation, the amygdala gets hijacked and doesn’t allow your thinking brain (the orbitofrontal cortex) to take over and speak reason into the situation. You’re stuck in high alert because the amygdala keeps sending danger signals to the body that can’t easily be overwritten with reasonable thoughts.

At this point, you may be thinking “but how can criticism trigger the amygdala when there is no real danger?” Well, the amygdala is not the smartest part of your brain and it doesn’t know real danger from fake danger and so it sends the same signals regardless of the truth.

It all goes back to your childhood. In early life, your primary needs are for safety and belonging. Whenever those things are jeopardized, you become anxious because your immature brain believes that you will cease to exist without those needs being met. Anything that jeopardizes your safety and belonging is a threat that the amygdala is designed to respond to.

Somewhere along the line, likely through an emotional trauma, you (and I) internalized the message that a criticism was a threat to your safety and belonging, and your amygdala learned to respond accordingly. Normally, as you grow up, you should be able to adjust accordingly and learn to use your orbitofrontal cortex to reason with the amygdala about the validity of risk, but a trauma tends to get stuck in your body in such a way that the thinking brain takes longer to engage. And if you never work to heal and shift that trauma and calm the nervous system when you get triggered, you’ll stay in that stuck place and forever be reactive in an unhealthy way.

Let’s throw some attachment theory into the mix as well. Attachment theory teaches us that the ability for an individual to form an emotional and physical “attachment” to another person gives a sense of stability and security necessary to take risks, branch out, and grow and develop as an independent and confident person. That’s the belonging piece that I mentioned as one of our basic needs. With a secure attachment it’s much easier to develop the kind of self esteem and confidence that supports a person in withstanding criticism and attack. Without a secure attachment, a child grows up with a deep sense of insecurity that makes it difficult for healthy emotional development to happen.

A secure attachment is one that allows for both safety AND autonomy. In a secure attachment, a child knows that the parent (or other primary attachment figure) is a safe haven to return to when they are threatened, which makes that child more able to explore and wander away from the parent, building their confidence in themselves as they do so. A secure attachment is flexible to the needs of a child, offering more safety in the early stages and allowing more autonomy as the confidence grows.

Secure attachment continues to be a critical part of emotional development even in adulthood. When you are triggered by a criticism or attack, especially if you have an attachment wound from childhood or you lack a secure attachment in adulthood, your anxiety is immediately heightened and your confidence and resilience are shaken. You find yourself floundering, needing to re-attach and find an anchor that will help you weather the storm. In your moment of floundering, you can’t think clearly, and so you may see the person offering the criticism or attack as the person with whom you need to repair the attachment so that you’ll feel safe again. As a result, your mind races to all of the things you need to do to appease the person and/or get them to change their opinion of you.

Unfortunately, there are many people who, intentionally or inadvertently, will work to destabilize your attachment systems through abuse, gaslighting, dismissal, silencing, shaming, etc. It’s present in abusive relationships of all kinds, whether it’s a marriage, a work situation, a friendship, a classroom or even our government leaders. Especially if you’re in relationships where you regularly face this kind of treatment, you feel constantly unstable and easily triggered. (One of the most valuable resources I’ve read recently on this is Terror, Love and Brainwashing. Though it’s about why people end up and stay in cults, it has a lot of useful information about disorganized/destabilized attachment that relates to any kind of abusive relationship.)

Even if you are a smart and confident person (which I’m assuming you are), you can find yourself reacting to criticism and attacks in less-than-gracious-or-wise ways because of your trauma and/or attachment wounds (which are likely one and the same thing). Also, as the trauma research has been revealing recently, some of your trauma was likely passed down through your cells from the generations above you, so you may be reacting to things in the way that your parents or grandparents were conditioned to react. (Attachment bonds are also somewhat inherited because an insecure or disorganized attachment system in a parent will likely result in the same in the child.)

Sometimes I wonder, in fact, whether every person I meet carries some trauma and/or attachment wound in their body. It seems, at times, to be the very soil we grow in (at least in the part of the world that I’m most familiar with). We have been traumatized by oppressive systems (ie. colonialism, racism, patriarchy) and, on top of that, we have been raised by parents who likely didn’t have any idea how to talk about or heal the trauma they’d inherited and so didn’t know how to create secure attachment bases from which we could grow.

As a result, we have a culture of people who are overly reactive to criticism and attacks, and in their own triggered reactions, lash out at other people to protect themselves. It’s a self-perpetuating problem and it appears to me to be systemic.

Unless we can learn to receive and process negative information, however, our personal development is stunted as is our society’s capacity to evolve. We’ll continue to react defensively whenever difficult conversations need to happen and we’ll reject the important information that helps us evolve.

Take, for example, race conversations. Those of us who enjoy a position of privilege within a racist system have to be able to receive the information that the system is problematic without taking it personal and launching into reactive mode. But we hear terms like “racist” and our bodies and brains react out of our deep need to not have people think badly of us, and we disengage from the conversation. Instead of seeing it as a systemic issue, we see it as a personal attack. (Watch a video by Robin DiAngelo about this.) The same is true for people who benefit from any imbalance system where some have more power than others. (Hence the conversations about white fragility and male fragility.)

What then should we do to get better at processing the negative information?

  1. Learn to soothe your nervous system. Your nervous system is activated by an overly-engaged amygdala and doesn’t allow your orbitofrontal cortex to engage. When you soothe your nervous system, you can re-engage your thinking brain and analyze the situation from a more reasonable perspective. Once you do that, you might recognize some truth in what’s been said about you, or you might decide that the person’s criticism is unwarranted and you are right to ignore it. Soothing your nervous system might be as simple as learning some deep breathing techniques or some tapping techniques. (Gwynn Raimondi has provided a good resource of nervous system soothing techniques. This is the first of three volumes – visit her site and sign up for her newsletter for more.)
  2. Recognize that trauma is in your body and can’t simply be released by the brain. While talk therapy might be helpful for processing some of your trauma and attachment wounds, it’s also important to seek out some body work (ie. Reiki, cranio-sacral, EMDR, massages, Body Talk, yoga, TRE, etc.). Find what works for you and repeat when necessary. Aside from hiring professionals, I’ve also found that things like Epson salt baths and long walks can help with the release.
  3. Develop secure attachments and turn to those attachments for support when you’re feeling anxious or threatened. Much of the literature about adult attachment roots these secure attachments in romantic relationships, but they can also be found in friendships, sibling relationships, or in therapeutic relationships. I have a couple of very good friends and a sister, for example, who help to ground me when I’ve been attacked and need a secure base. Wired for Love is a good resource (though I wish there were a version not about romantic relationships).
  4. Explore healing for the trauma and attachment wounds that come from childhood and/or that you have inherited. Seek out the teachers and professionals that are doing work that resonates with you. I have found some healing, for example, in family constellations and I know there are many other methodologies and practitioners that are doing good work.
  5. Know that you have a right to healthy boundaries. Not all criticisms and attacks need your attention – in some cases you simply need to recognize your right to guard yourself against them. On social media, recently, for example, I’ve been letting people know that I’m open to reasonable conversation even if they disagree with me, but if they show up for no other purpose than to attack or argue, I will block them. Even if the person attacking is a family member or close friend, you have a right to guard yourself from attack.
  6. Regularly engage in activities that make you feel strong and grounded. Recently, I built some storage shelves and a folding work table in my garage, and when I finished I felt empowered and self-confident because it was hard work AND I accomplished what I didn’t think I was capable of. The next time I was criticized (the very next day) I more easily let it roll off my back and established a new boundary because I was feeling resilient. Woodworking does that for me. You might find it in gardening, rock-climbing, hiking, swimming, kick-boxing, yoga, dance, etc. In my experience, it’s those activities that engage my body and stretch my capacities that are most effective.
  7. Recognize when the criticism or attack is pointing to something that is systemic and needs to be viewed that way instead of being received as a personal attack. If, for example, the person is talking about white or male privilege, colonialism, etc., and you feel personally attacked, pause for a moment and reflect on whether the injustice they’re pointing to is embedded in the system you inherited and that you benefit from and isn’t just about you personally. If it is, then do what you need to do to soothe your nervous system, then engage from a more conscious perspective, taking responsibility for how you can contribute to a more just system.
  8. Tell your stories. As Brené Brown has taught us, the best defence against the kind of shame that often cripples us is to be vulnerable with people who know how to hold space for us. Find a sharing circle, or a few close friends who offer you a non-judgemental space to admit those times when you were triggered and reacted in a way that you regret. Saying it out loud can help it have less power in your life and can increase your resilience for future situations.

Note: Special thanks to my friends Sheila and Saleha – recent conversations with them helped inspire this post. 

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P.S. Want to learn more about how to hold space for yourself so that you’re more resilient and confident in how you hold space for others? It’s part of my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator offering and the next session starts in January. If you want to be notified when registration opens, send us a note and Krista will put you on the list.

What gets in the way of joy? Some thoughts on fear, guilt, and “fleshly desires”

Friday, after a full day of work and a couple of juicy conversations with faraway friends, I headed to my hammock, tucked under two giant maple trees in my newly landscaped backyard. The late afternoon sun peeked through pinholes between the canopy of leaves, bouncing across my body now and then when the breeze rustled through. I hadn’t planned to stay long (there was supper to cook and other mom-duties-as-required), but after a few deep breaths helped me release the day, it was too comfortable to leave.

I texted my daughter (inside the house) and asked if she’d be so kind as to bring me a glass of wine. A short while later, she came with a full glass, letting me know that she’d been painting in the basement (she’s an art student) and had come all the way upstairs to fetch the wine and bring it to me. I thanked her profusely and grinned. Then I sipped slowly, read my book, and decided we’d be having supper late.

Eventually, I dragged myself out of the hammock and cooked supper on the barbecue, eating with my daughters on our new patio. Once they’d gone back inside, though, I turned on the twinkle lights and returned to the hammock. When it was too dark to read, I propped my phone on the small table beside me and watched Netflix until bedtime. Only then did I go inside.

If you’ve been following me on social media, you know how much I’m loving this new backyard. It was nothing but weeds bordered by a fallen-down hedge until a few weeks ago. Now it’s a sanctuary and I plan to spend as much time here as I can before the snow flies. (I’m currently writing this in the backyard – it’s my summer-office.)

As I’ve been enjoying this space – both alone and with friends and family – I’ve been contemplating my relationship with joy. This backyard brings me pure, unadulterated joy. It was something I’d been dreaming of for years, but only this year did I feel like I could justify the expense.

Though it seems strange to admit it, joy doesn’t always come easily for me, and just as I’ve had to justify my backyard, I have to justify my joy. And when it does come, I don’t always trust it. Sometimes I hold it at arms’ length because it makes me nervous. And sometimes I’m so convinced that I’m not worthy of it, that I don’t dare let myself sink into it. And sometimes I spend more time bringing other people joy than myself because that feels like a more worthy pursuit. (It’s like trying to convince myself my backyard is more for my kids, when the truth is that I’ve been back there far more than any of them.)

Even as I’ve been enjoying my backyard, I’ve had those moments when the joy of it feels like too much goodness. “Should you really have spent so much money on this?” my gremlins ask. “Weren’t there other things that would have been more worthy uses of your money? And is it fair that your former husband still pays child support and lives in someone’s basement when you’re enjoying this beautiful space? And should you be lying here in a hammock when there’s work to do?”

There are many reasons why joy and I haven’t always been trusted companions.

For one thing, as Brené Brown says, we often short-circuit our joy as a defence against vulnerability. Joy feels risky, because it can be taken away in a moment, and when we feel it deeply it means that we open ourselves to feeling grief equally deeply. If we only open ourselves to moderate joy, then perhaps we can fool grief into thinking it can only show up in a moderate way as well.

To avoid the risk of feeling any emotion too deeply and getting knocked over by it, we numb ourselves and shut down our vulnerability. But… “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” (Brene Brown)

Related to that is the unworthiness piece. Surely I haven’t done enough and am not valuable enough to deserve a beautiful backyard like this, the gremlins in my head like to whisper. This is the kind of space that IMPORTANT people get to enjoy – not mediocre people like ME. The moment I discovered a crack in my basement that will require part of the patio be temporarily dismantled, for example, a little voice in my head told me that it was inevitable – I didn’t deserve such a nice patio, so it would have to be destroyed to keep me humble.

And then there are the lessons we learned about joy from the social conditioning that shaped us. I had a relatively joyful childhood, but we weren’t supposed to be TOO joyful, because that might lead to ecstasy and ecstasy was the gateway to sin. Physical joy was the most dangerous, because our bodies too easily fall into temptations and can’t be trusted. Dancing was taboo, laziness was ungodly (ie. hammocks meant for nothing but lying around), alcohol was sinful, and only wholesome sex within a committed male-female marriage was permissible. To this day, there are still echoes of this messaging reverberating in my mind whenever joy and I get too acquainted.

Recently, I answered the door to two people who’d come to share their version of the truth with me and I was reminded of these old scripts that still pop up in my subconscious now and then. When I opened the door, one asked where I turn to for my marital advice (clearly a segue meant to direct me to the Bible). “I don’t,” I said. “I’m no longer married.” “I’m so sorry,” was his response. “A lot of that goes on because of our fleshly desires.” (I brought the conversation to a fairly abrupt halt, not wanting to listen to further implications that I should feel shame for my divorce.)

I was caught off guard by his comment about “fleshly desires”, but I understand what’s at the heart of it for him. He can only see divorce as sin-related. We’re meant to be husband and wife under God, in his view of the world, and when we deviate from that, it must be because of our “sins of the flesh”.

It may be somewhat true that my “fleshly desires” contributed to my marriage ending, but not in the way that he was implying. I ended my marriage because I’d learned to be more true to myself, to seek out my own happiness and not give it up for someone else, to trust myself when I didn’t feel safe, and to erect and hold boundaries when I was being emotionally and physically violated. My “flesh” desired a safe and joyful life without the anxiety, struggle and self-sacrifice that was so present for me in my marriage. That pursuit may fit his definition of sin, but it doesn’t fit mine.

That brief conversation has been on my mind a fair bit since then, not because it triggered me (it didn’t) but because I recognize how a belief system like that (which isn’t too far from what I was raised with) is a thief of our joy. In that line of thinking, it is better for me to suffer through my marriage than to be single and dare to feel joy. Marriage is considered a higher good than personal happiness.

While I hope that belief system brings peace to the people who rang my doorbell, I reject that way of thinking for myself. I choose this joyful single life and I feel no guilt about it. Personally, I think this is closer to the message of hope, joy, and grace that Jesus brought than a life of struggle and personal sacrifice would have been (but that may be my attempt to subvert scripture to my own gain).

There’s a third piece that’s coming up for me when I think about my relationship with joy and it’s related to what I wrote in my last post about my Mennonite lineage. Pure unadulterated joy, when you’ve been raised in a lineage of pain and martyrdom, can feel like a betrayal of the memory of those who died in the fire or moved from country to country in their search for peace. How could I relax in a hammock in a beautiful backyard without worries or struggles when my foremothers gave their lives for their faith? How could I choose a Friday evening under the twinkle lights when there is still so much injustice and pain in the world? How could I be so selfish when there are widows and orphans who need to be cared for? Surely there is a cross I must bear or a cause I must fight for. Surely I should feel guilty for enjoying so much abundance that I get to spend money on patio furniture and hammocks. These thoughts, though perhaps not explicit, are definitely part of the subconscious guilt that pokes through.

As activists and writers like bell hooks and Maya Angelou have reminded us, though, joy is a radical, revolutionary act and should not be associated with guilt. It tells our oppressors that they have not won. It lets our ancestors know that their struggle was worth it. It is triumph in the face of persecution. It is our way to survive and thrive in spite of the injustice. Joy goes hand and hand with our commitment to justice and peace – one fuels the other and both can live in harmony.

My ancestors may have died in the flames and/or been displaced from their land multiple times, but I don’t believe they’d want me to deny myself joy because of some misplaced duty to their memory.

There’s a fourth reason why joy is a bit of a challenge for me and that has to do with the “tortured artist” archetype that runs fairly deeply in my psyche. As a writer who has no trouble writing about grief and trauma and other deeply personal struggles, I have an underlying fear that I might become boring when I’m too happy. I run out of things to write about and I fear that people will see me as one of those social media influencers with a charmed, curated life. Grief is easier to tap into when I’m writing – joy leans toward the more frivolous and self-absorbed.

It’s been a pattern for me that some of you may have recognized if you’ve follow me for awhile – I write more prolifically when life is not running smoothly. I have more to say about that than I do about beauty, easy, comfort and joy. And I feel more connected to my clients when I can relate to their struggle.

As a result, I tend to look for the struggle because, in a somewhat unhealthy way, that’s what gives me meaning, what builds my relationships, and what makes my creative juices flow. I am, you could say, overly attached to the struggle because of the way it grows my work.

I’m trying to change all of that though – to re-examine who I am when joy is in my life and to question the old patterns and beliefs that keep me from embracing it. Because just as I have been unafraid to know grief, I want to be unafraid to know joy.

Grief has been my teacher for many years, and now I am embracing joy as my teacher too. I wonder what lessons I can learn if I dive into it with as much commitment and intention as I have into grief. And I wonder how my relationships might shift if I seek out people who can have great capacity for both grief AND joy.

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