When the space you hold is too safe

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.)
  6. 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.

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Learn lots more about safe space and brave space (and how to hold both) in my online course, Holding Space Practitioner Program.

Healing money-related trauma

Yesterday I did something BIG. It was so big that it left me trembling and in tears.

Finally, after nearly nine years of being in business, I passed all of the bookkeeping duties for my business over to an accountant. I opened my books and showed EVERYTHING to another person and then I entrusted her with it. And then I went to the bank and opened a business account to finally separate my business accounting more formally from my personal accounting.

I’ve had support in nearly every area of my business (hiring an assistant, hiring assistant teachers, etc.), but up until now, I’ve always managed all of the bookkeeping (except for tax time).

Why is this such a big deal and why did it take me so long? This feels big to say, and I’ve been taking several big breaths in order to say it out loud…

I have money-related trauma.

Money brings up all kinds of anxiety for me, and I regularly find myself in some version of fight/flight/freeze because of it. Usually, to be honest, I’m in flight or freeze mode, avoiding thinking about it, avoiding receiving advice about it, and avoiding doing my bookkeeping until it’s an absolute necessity. As a result, my “books” are rather chaotic and cobbled together (with blurry lines between personal and business) and it just felt like too much of a hurdle to bring someone else into that mess.

Whenever something has caused consistent and unpredictable insecurity in childhood, there’s a good chance that it’s left behind some of the markings of trauma. For me (and my siblings), money was one of those things. We grew up never knowing whether we’d lose the farm to bankruptcy, whether my parents would be able to fix the series of beat-up old cars and trucks that were always breaking down at inopportune times, whether the answer to “can I have the $2 I need for a field trip?” would be yes or no, whether our phone or hydro would be cut off, or whether we could fix the hole in the ceiling where the shingles had leaked. 

These constant worries, especially when they happen to powerless children, have a way of priming the nervous system to always be in hyper-vigilance about when their security will be taken away. It’s evident in all of my siblings, though the way it’s manifest itself is fairly different (some tend toward “fight”, needing to control every penny, while others tend toward “flight” and freeze”).

Also, as I’ve learned in working with family constellations, when a parent does not resolve an issue in their lifetime, the offspring will unconsciously take on that story and feel like they’re betraying the parent if they abandon it. In my case, I’ve been living my father’s “failure in business” story, believing that I wasn’t entitled to this business success that has come my way, and therefore avoiding too much attachment to the success (and even sabotaging it by not being too strategic about it).

The other piece of this is that trauma and shame are intricately intertwined and so it’s hard to heal it because it’s hard to reveal it. The trauma causes reactive behaviour and we fear being judged because of it but we feel powerless to change it. Instead of reaching out for help, we bury it beneath shame. So becomes a spiral of triggering, reactive behaviour, and cover-ups to hide that reactive behaviour. 

Unless we find the courage to break that pattern and speak that shame out loud to someone who will hold space for us to find healing, we stay stuck in the spiral. No money-management course in the world can help us out of that spiral unless we heal the trauma that it’s rooted in.

In the past few months, I’ve been working to break that pattern, culminating in yesterday’s BIG step to trust an accountant with all of it. Fortunately, a friend referred me to someone who was gracious and supportive (and only once slightly raised an eyebrow at some weird manual system I’d built in that over-complicated what could be very simple.)

And today I’m talking about it, because (as Brene Brown says) vulnerability is our defence against shame. AND, as I keep learning again and again, there is always someone out there waiting for someone else to speak it out loud so that we can find the courage too.

On the way home from my accountant’s office, yesterday, I found myself weeping and trembling. It wasn’t shame that was making me weep – it was great relief and release. It was also profound love and compassion for the scared little girl in me who did the best she could with the resources she had – who made it through a scary childhood and who grew up to be an adult who built a successful business despite the trauma buried at the heart of it.

(Note: I am asking for no advice or judgement in response to this, as that will potentially re-trigger my shame. Any comments like that will be deleted without discussion. I already have the support I need.)

Time for Growth

Here in the northern hemisphere, the wild and unruly growth of Spring and early Summer has passed. The grass in my backyard doesn’t need to be cut very often anymore and the weeds have grown lacklustre in their efforts to take over the property. It’s harvest season, and, though I’m not much of a gardener (I’d rather build something for my backyard than plant something), I’m happy to see the farmers’ market full of abundance from other people’s fields.

In my business, though, it seems to be a different season. I’m heading into Spring, planting seeds, preparing the soil, and gathering up the tools and resources I’ll need for a busy season of growth. 

I’ve known for awhile that the next level of growth and (more significantly) investment in that growth would be coming, but I did my best to resist it. On the more “simple” side of things, my website has been in need of a major overhaul for quite some time. (Krista, my business manager, keeps reminding me of how much more functional my shopping cart could be, for example.) Also, I’ve been working on a book on holding space for a few years now, and it really needs to move from “draft” to “published”. And, to support it all, I need to improve the accounting system that was good enough for a little one-woman shop but is stretched to capacity (and, frankly, was never very good in the first place, due to my lack of financial expertise).

On the more “complex” side of things (at least for me it feels complex), an increasing number of people have been asking for some version of a license, so that they can teach my Holding Space content within their organizations or from their consultancy practices. (I’m currently working with an adult learning organization, for example, that is embedding it into the training they offer educators, facilitators and tutors.) In addition, I feel the need to do more Train the Trainer programming so that my Holding Space Practitioner Program can continue to grow beyond my capacity to teach it (especially as my travel increases).

Why did I resist all of that? There were a lot of reasons and it’s hard to narrow down just one or two. For one thing, it’s a lot of WORK to shepherd a business through that kind of growth and it requires SKILLS that aren’t among my strengths. It also costs a lot of MONEY and involves a significant amount of RISK. All of that brings up a lot of fear and doubt and tired old stories about how I’m “not really a business-woman” and “I shouldn’t reach for too much”.

Back in the Spring, when I was worn out from a few big trips and a fair bit of emotionally exhausting work, I was overwhelmed and a little discouraged and I wondered if it was all worth it. The idea of growth, at that time, seemed far beyond what I had the energy to imagine.

Couldn’t I just stay this size and putter along at the pace I’d already established? Would it be so bad if my business didn’t grow? Plenty of people stay in intentionally small businesses with folksy websites and cobbled together accounting systems – couldn’t I be one of them?

Over the Summer, after I’d rested awhile and my head was a little clearer, I decided to give space to those questions and to spend some time discerning what my relationship with growth would be and what growth would require of me.

Here are some of the things I’ve been asking myself during this time:

  • Is the growth of my business a healthy and necessary thing, or is it simply tied to a capitalist culture that has us all conditioned to believe that the only good business is a growing business?
  • What is enough? Am I satisfied with this comfortable life that affords me a comfortable home and enough extra to take my daughters on a modest vacation once a year?
  • ON THE OTHER HAND… and this is a big one… is this really about MY growth (and – by extension – my business) or is it about the growth of this WORK? If I limit the amount I choose to grow, am I limiting how much this valuable work (that I have the honour of stewarding) can grow?
  • If I believe that this work is a calling and not just an occupation (and I do), shouldn’t I show up in the best and boldest way that I know how to steward it into the world? And shouldn’t I keep growing the community that can steward it with me?
  • What does it look like if I trust the WORK to guide me (and, by extension, the community that gathers for that work) rather than the other way around? AND/OR… what is a healthy way for us to be in interdependent relationship?
  • If the work grows, can I continue to do it in the way that I love – rooted in genuine relationships/community and hosted in reasonably-sized circles? What variation of that style can be adapted to a more expanded audience?
  • If it’s about the WORK and not about me, what do I need to do to work through my personal limitations and blocks so that the work can thrive? And who are the people who can help me work through them and build the structures needed to support them?

It’s been a healthy and worthwhile process to go through. I didn’t do it in a traditional business planning way, though. (You can wipe any pictures of spreadsheets, planning software, or even sticky notes out of your mind.) I did it while wielding power tools in my backyard. Not only did the process of building furniture with wood inspire my metaphor-loving mind, but the hands-on nature of it helped me shift out of over-thinking mode and break some of the old patterns deeply rooted in my brain.

Instead of relying on my mind alone to find a path through all of this complexity (which is one of my patterns), I let my body and heart help me find the way. My mind would most certainly have gotten stuck in old stories of scarcity, unworthiness, fear, ego, limitation, etc. while my body reminded me “You love building, so just keep building until it feels like the right time to stop!”

At the end of the summer, I feel relaxed, happy and energized to do the next right thing that this work is asking of me. That next right thing appears to be investing in a structure that will support growth, and to do so with integrity and with my values intact.

After all of that reflection, these things feel true:

  • I am not interested in growth just for the sake of growth, but I AM interested in helping more people learn about the beauty of holding space.
  • I value community and relationships, so I will continue to grow this work in ways that foster opportunities for deep connections and meaningful conversations.
  • I will continue to hold true to my authenticity and integrity and will not grow this work simply to feed my ego or bank account. If the work changes me in ways that don’t feel authentic, I will hit the pause button until I can return to alignment.
  • Success for me will equal success for my extended community. If, for example, my financial resources grow, then I will be better able to support other women in business, to pay people well when they work for me, to give people scholarships for my workshops, and to fund the growth of the school in Uganda.
  • While I love the work and will continue to serve it to the best of my ability, I won’t jeopardize what/who I hold most dear. If/when necessary, I will put my family and closest friends first. I will also prioritize my own wellbeing and self-care.

One of the great benefits of putting community at the centre of my business model is that the moment I decided I was ready to dive into this new phase, I realized that many of the skills required already exist within my community (or one step removed). I’ve spent the last week in lovely, open-hearted conversations with people who believe in the work that I do and who have expertise that I don’t have (ie. developing a licensing model, setting up an accounting system, managing the details, designing a website, publishing a book, etc.). It reminds me that business development can be rooted in joy, love and community and doesn’t have to burdensome or boxy or involve boardroom tables or powerpoint presentations.

Sure, I still have moments of fear and doubt, but I feel remarkably supported, resourced, and ready.

And you, my friends, who read this newsletter/blog… you too are in this community, supporting the growth of this work. I couldn’t do it without you reading what I write, showing up at my workshops and retreats, inviting me to speak and teach, and offering encouragement and love. I am deeply humbled by the many ways that you continue to show up. A deep bow of gratitude to you!

Some time in the next few months, I expect I’ll be launching a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the publishing of the book on holding space (because every step of this process requires a financial investment) and I trust that when the moment is right, the community will show up as you always have.

Peace to you, my friends. May you lean into your own seasons of growth whenever it is right for you.

The Wounded Parent: Raising kids while we do our own healing work

Listen to me read this post:

 

Our vacation didn’t start well. We’d barely arrived at our AirBnB apartment when my daughter and I got into an argument.

Only one of us could have a bedroom to herself for the week we were there. My daughter had done the research on where to stay in Chicago and had booked the apartment. At some point, while making the arrangements, she’d told the rest of us where we’d sleep, and though I don’t remember the conversation, those arrangements involved me sharing a bedroom with one of her sisters. (The third sister was going to sleep in the living room.)

When we arrived, though, after two tiring days of driving, I suddenly thought “WHY am I paying for this vacation, doing most of the driving, etc., but not reaping the benefits of a room to myself?” And in that moment, the many years of having made sacrifices for my family bubbled to the surface and I thought “nope, not this time.” 

I claimed the space, and she reacted. We argued, and then both stormed into separate bedrooms.

In that moment when I claimed the space, it wasn’t just about selfishness – I was trying to change one of my old patterns. For the twenty-two years I was married and the twenty-three I’ve been a mom, I have given up a lot of things and let a lot of my boundaries be crossed – especially on vacations – in order to keep the peace. (I learned it from my mom.) For whatever reason (ie. being away from home, spending too much time in enclosed spaces together, having to make more collective decisions than usual, etc.) our vacations have often been powder-kegs for conflict, especially between my ex-husband and daughters. Conflict makes me anxious and my typical trauma response, in that situation, is to “tend-and-befriend” – to look for whatever compromise I can make and to calm everyone’s emotions in order to smooth things over and return to what feels more safe. 

I’ve given up so many things, in fact, that if you ask me (especially while I’m on vacation) which restaurants I like to eat at and where I like to stay, I get a little flummoxed and sometimes a little anxious because I want to make sure everyone else is satisfied first. (If everyone is satisfied and there is little potential for conflict, the little girl in me can relax and feel secure.)

In recent years, though, I’ve been doing a lot of healing and I’ve been trying to change some of those well-engrained patterns. I do this for myself, and I also do this for my daughters – I don’t want them to assume that, when/if they become mothers, they have to sacrifice themselves for everyone else. And I don’t want them to instinctually run from or rush to fix conflict whenever it surfaces.

The challenging thing about changing patterns, though, is that it can be quite disruptive to those who are used to the existing patterns. Also, the person changing the pattern hasn’t yet learned new skills in communicating this new way of being, and there’s tenderness in the exposed wound that they instinctually want to protect, so they can end up treating those they love rather brusquely and sometimes unfairly.

To put it frankly, I was a bit of a bully parent in the way that I claimed the space.

About half an hour later, my daughter came to me in tears. “Can I just tell you how that felt?” she asked, and I, softened by the time that had passed and the tears in her eyes, said “Yes.”

She told me that she’d felt brushed aside by me – that I hadn’t offered her an explanation, hadn’t honoured the agreement she thought we had, hadn’t considered the effort she’d put into researching and booking the place, and hadn’t shown any concern for her feelings or needs. “You don’t usually do that,” she said. “That triggered me and I pushed back.”

“You’re right. I handled that badly,” I said, and then asked if she’d like to hear the words I’d neglected to say earlier. I told her about how I’d been triggered in that moment too – how I’ve so often given up things to keep the family peace and how I’ve been intentional about trying to change that. I also told her about why having a bedroom to myself feels important right now – how it’s helped me heal some of my past trauma and how it helps me be a better mom when I honour my own need for solitude.

We listened, we soothed our own nervous systems when things were difficult to hear, we gave each other space, we forgave each other, and we figured out a compromise that allowed each of us to get at least some of what we needed. (In the language of Brené Brown, we agreed to “rumble” with what had transpired between us.)

The next morning, I told her “I’m proud of us. We managed to find our way through that without continuing to trigger each other and getting stuck in reactivity.”

I’m especially proud of HER, because she initiated the exchange that healed us, after the necessary pause. She was able to soothe her nervous system first and recognize that our relationship was much bigger than this conflict. And she wasn’t afraid to speak truth to her mother even though, ultimately, I’m the one who holds more power in the relationship and could have shut her down (and have done so in the past).

That exchange with my daughter came at a time when I’ve been especially aware of the impact that wounded parents have on their children when they don’t recognize and work on healing their own woundedness (which, admittedly, has been me in the past). In recent months, my backyard has been a bit of a haven for more than one young person who’s wrestling with how to communicate with reactive parents who shut down their children’s emotions and/or needs or shut down their own emotions and/or needs in the face of whatever triggers them. Listening to these stories and trying to offer support has made it especially clear to me how generational trauma gets passed down through the lineage until someone decides to face it.

Let’s be honest – there are few things that reveal our woundedness, our reactivity, our anxiety, or our fears the way that parenting does. There are few people who can trigger us in the way that our children can. There are few responsibilities that leave us feeling more insecure and uncertain than parenting. It’s a minefield for trauma triggers, for conflict, for overwhelm, for self-doubt, and for exhaustion. AND… it’s also the place where we put the most pressure on ourselves to “do it right” because we know we’re impacting someone else’s life. And it’s the area in which the old trope “never let them see you sweat” feels the most appropriate because we feel the pressure to show confidence in order to offer security to our children.

It’s all of that AND it’s the area of our lives in which we were given the least education and preparation and, for many of us, where we had little modelling of heathy parenting from our own wounded parents.

So here – from one wounded parent to another – are some thoughts on how to parent while you’re still working on your own healing. These come from my most recent parenting experience (with teens and young adults), so are geared to that age of parenting, but most of them can be adapted for younger age children as well.

1. Let them in on the story of your wounds. If you have childhood trauma, or you were in an abusive relationship, or you were sexually assaulted, etc., let them know as much about it as you think they can handle (keeping in mind what’s age-appropriate). This is especially important if the trauma left you with triggers that may show up in a way that your children will notice and be impacted. If they know, for example, that you might be triggered by car accidents because a loved one died in an accident, it might surprise them less when they see you having an anxiety attack or running from the scene. And if they have the understanding that your reactivity comes as a result of the trauma, they’ll be less likely to assume that your anger, etc., is targeted at them and less likely to absorb the shame of responsibility for triggering you.

2. Let them know what you’ll try to do to soothe your own nervous system in the moments when you’re triggered so that they can count on you to take responsibility for yourself and not to fall apart entirely. If you only give them the story of your trauma but don’t tell them about the healing work you’re doing, it will likely create insecurity for them and they’ll have their own vicarious trauma, worried about when and how you might fall apart, snap at them, etc.. If, on the other hand, they know that you might fall apart or be reactive momentarily, but then you’ll do what needs to be done to soothe and heal yourself, their security will increase.

3. Apologize when you mess up. You’re going to mess up – that’s a given. And you will likely wound your children when you mess up. We’re all human and flawed and nobody prepares us for this gargantuan task of raising children. You’ll snap at them, you’ll dismiss their feelings, you’ll make them feel invisible – it happens to all of us at some point, when we’re tired, triggered, overwhelmed, grieving, etc.. Start by forgiving yourself, do what you need to do to deal with the shame of the mistake you made (talk to a friend if that helps), and then apologize to your children. Your apology is a message of love to them and it helps them recognize that whatever happened is not their fault. It also lets them know that it’s okay to screw up once in awhile and it won’t mean that they’re a bad person when they do. (A word of caution, though – don’t over-apologize or insist that they forgive you right away. That can place a burden on them to process it too quickly or to look after your feelings instead of their own and that’s not fair.)

4. Help them to become emotionally literate by modelling it for them. Talk to them about your emotional responses to things (ie. what situations make you feel anxious, what might trigger your grief, etc.) so that they recognize (and aren’t afraid of) their own emotions when they show up. There’s good research that reveals that the more clearly we are able to articulate our emotions the more healthy our relationship with those emotions will be and the less they’ll control us. Help them to recognize that there are no “bad” emotions so that they don’t feel shame or try to hide what they’re going through. A child raised in an environment where all emotions are accepted and can be talked about will be more inclined to live authentically and to seek out help for the emotions that are hard to deal with alone. (If you’re not yet emotionally literate yourself, one way to become more so is to develop a mindfulness practice in which you name each emotion when it comes up. You might also want to write about your feelings in a journal.)

5. Don’t put the burden of holding space for your trauma, grief, healing, etc. on their shoulders. While it’s valuable for them to understand something about your wounds and your healing journey, it shouldn’t be their burden to look after you, soothe you, protect you, etc. That’s reversing the natural order of things and creates insecurity and instability, even for an adult child. Let them know that you have your own support system (therapist, friends, siblings, etc.) to whom you can and will turn when you’re struggling. You’ll take the burden off them, offer them more security, and model that it’s okay for them seek out help when they need it just as you do.

6. Teach them about boundaries by having your own and honouring theirs. Teach them about consent in the same way. Let them know what behaviour isn’t acceptable in your home, what kind of self-care you need in order to be a less grumpy parent, how they should treat your personal space, and what consequences might be in place when they cross a boundary. Let them establish their own, age-appropriate boundaries and honour their right to say no, even to you. For example, once my daughters were old enough to do their own laundry and clean their own rooms, I stopped going into their bedrooms without their permission. This was especially important when their dad moved out of the house and they had to grapple with the grief and fear that came from having their parents separated. I’ve always wanted them to know they have a safe place to go, where nobody is allowed to intrude, especially if/when they need solitude for their own self-care, self-soothing, etc.

7. Work to create an environment where it’s safe for them to challenge you, to talk about the ways your reactivity may have wounded them, and/or to admit their own fears, triggers, etc. A child who can trust that they won’t be shut down for expressing their needs or for being honest about how they feel will have a much greater sense of safety and security in their home and in life. A secure environment, with a healthy attachment to at least one parental figure (that isn’t threatened when they challenge you), is the best place for a child to grow up and to explore who they are. When they find themselves in their own trauma experience, they’ll be more likely to develop resilience if they have that secure base.

8. Don’t take everything personally. Especially in their teens, children go through a period in which they need to push the boundaries, break some rules, reject you, etc. to establish their own sense of independence. This is the normal individuation process – it’s NOT ABOUT YOU. You could be the perfect parent and they’d still feel the need to push against you. If you’re insecure and/or easily triggered, you might be inclined to take it all personally and that will activate your reactivity and trigger old abandonment wounds. Over and over again, you need to repeat a mantra… “It’s not personal – it’s just the way they grow up.” Work on communicating clear boundaries and expectations of acceptable behaviour without doing it in an emotional, triggered way. Give them the space and time they need to grow into themselves, and give them love and patience (even when it seems like they don’t return the love), and you’ll likely find that the relationship that’s on the other side is even better than it was before.

After my conflict with my daughter, I felt remarkably good about the way in which it helped us both to grow and to deepen our relationship. I once heard Dr. Dan Siegel say that “triggers can be your friends” and I agree with him. They can point you in the direction of what needs healing. They can reveal unresolved trauma and provide opportunities for growth and integration. And they can help you deepen your relationships with the people you love most.

If you’re reading through this list and it’s feeling overwhelming because you recognize the ways in which you’ve fallen short – take heart – it’s never too late to do repair work with your children and to change the relationship patterns. I’ve been doing a fair bit of that lately and I can see the ways it’s healing my relationships with my daughters and helping to support them in their growth as young adults. A friend of mine recently went to therapy with her adult daughter (who’s lived away from home for many years) and she said it’s been transformational in their relationship – especially the part where she took responsibility for earlier mistakes.

One more thing… if your children are not ready to trust you yet because of the ways in which they’ve been wounded, don’t give up on them – give them time and space to do their own healing work. As hard as it is to accept, you may have been the cause of trauma for them, and they’ll have their own healing journey to go through before they’re ready to trust.

P.S. In case you’re wondering, my daughter has given me permission to share this story. That’s another way in which I teach them about consent – I don’t write about them without giving them the right to say no.

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If you want to learn more about holding space for trauma, grief, etc., and you want to expand your capacity to hold space for yourself so that you don’t wound other people, consider signing up for my Holding Space Practitioner Program. The next session starts in October and registration is open.

Power saws and wild women

 

Listen to me read this post…

 

 

“Can you believe my mom built an ACTUAL couch?!” Those words made me chuckle when my daughter said them to her friend. Every mom secretly covets a Daughter Brag, especially from a teenager.

Yes, I built a couch. And a coffee table to go with it. (As well as a bonus barbecue table out of the scraps.) It’s for outdoor use, built with 2X4s and covered with foam cushions that I shaped to fit and sewed covers for. It’s rough, imperfect, and simple… but it’s magnificent. And it’s big enough to host a party.

A month ago, on Father’s Day (because… what better day to buy something for yourself when you’re a single mom, and what better day to find a sale at the hardware store?), I bought a compound mitre saw. It’s a scary-beautiful thing and I’ve wanted one for a long time. It’s scary, because a part of me was scared I’d slice off a finger the first time I tried to use it. And it’s beautiful because it makes me feel powerful and self-reliant. Even in the weeks before I found time to use it, when I’d gaze at it sitting on my garage floor, I’d feel a rush of excitement just because it’s mine. It’s a badass woman who keeps a power saw in her garage!

Why did I build a couch? Because I’m not in the habit of starting with small projects once I decide to try something. I thrive on the rush of adrenaline that comes from diving into something big that almost tips me into overwhelm. It’s what keeps me going and keeps me excited and keeps me challenged.

And also because a couch feels like self-reliance, resourcefulness, and self-empowerment. If I can build my own furniture, I have the power to craft my own environment.

The couch-building was SO MUCH FUN. Cutting wood with a compound mitre saw was SO MUCH FUN. I worked for long hours in shady spots on my patio (and then in the garage when it rained), often forgetting to eat, because, like a child who has to be told it’s suppertime, I was so engrossed in play.

The compound mitre saw makes me feel like I’ve found my way back to the little girl I once was – the little girl who was most happy when she was living wild, building teepee-like structures with a friend in the woods on our farm and then begging her mom to lend them a pot and let them pick vegetables from the garden so they could cook their own stew on the fire at the centre of the teepee. Or the little girl who would spend hours on her horse, racing down country lanes, wondering what might be around that next corner. Or the little girl who begged her dad to teach her how to drive a tractor, because she wanted to be just as empowered and self-reliant as her big brothers.

I want a big, beautiful, powerful, adventurous, self-reliant, openhearted life. I want a life where scary-beautiful compound mitre saws are possible and adventure is always just around the next corner. I want a life that takes me to the edges of my comfort, and then nudges me past, into the unknown. 

I’m not saying it’s what everyone should want, but it’s what I want. It’s what I’ve ALWAYS wanted – even when I didn’t speak it out loud.

It took me a long time to believe I was worthy of a big, beautiful, powerful, adventurous, self-reliant, openhearted life, or even that I had the right to ask for it. I believed it as a little girl in the makeshift teepee in the woods, but then, little by little, it was trained out of me. Like a wild animal who’s been domesticated and then forgets how to survive in the wilderness, I lost sight of my wildness for a long, long time. I’m fifty-three and I feel like I’ve just now, in the four years since my divorce, come back to it once again.

It was trained out of me in all of the little ways that girls are trained not to ask for too much. In the playground when the boys got to be wild and adventurous and the girls were expected to be quiet and polite. In Sunday school when I was taught that my desires were sinful and should never be entertained (unless they were in alignment with God’s desires). In grade school when I was taught that nice little girls shouldn’t be too loud or too bossy or too demanding or too smart (and they should certainly never use power tools). In youth group when I was taught that I should seek a good man and become a good wife. At home when I was taught that women weren’t allowed to be in leadership positions or drive tractors or have too many opinions or speak from a podium. In junior high when girls could only take sewing and cooking classes while the boys got to play with power saws and wood.

It was trained out of me in all of the little ways that wives and mothers are shamed into giving up who they are to accommodate their husbands and children. In the ways my needs came second (or third) and keeping the peace meant giving myself up, inch by inch. In the guilt-inducing comments I’d get from friends and strangers after a business trip about how hard it must be for my children when I’m away. In the way my ex-husband’s insecurity and fear of the world were projected onto me and shamed me into staying small. In the way women’s magazines focus on decorating and dieting while men’s magazines focus on strength and adventure.

It was trained out of me, but it was still there, lurking under the surface. Every time it would emerge and I’d speak too loudly or do something dangerous or step out of line or want too much it would be stuffed back in, either by the shaming comments from someone who wanted me to behave, or by my own internalized oppression. As I said in a Facebook post earlier this week… Those with internalized oppression are the best at policing and silencing themselves. That’s how abuse works – at some point you don’t need the abuse to keep you silent, you simply need the body memory of it.

Several years ago, a friend met someone who knew me in high school and asked that person what I was like back then. “Nice. And quiet.” was the response. Those three words have haunted me for a long time. What a boring way to be described! I don’t WANT to be “Nice. And quiet.” That’s the version of me that I’ve been trained to be and I’m done with it. I want to be something different – more wild, more dangerous, and more powerful.

I want to be “the woman who uses power tools and builds couches”, “the woman with an unquenchable thirst for adventure”, “the woman who lives close to the edge”, and “the woman who speaks boldly and without apology”. I want to be “the woman in touch with her wildness and passion.” And, for my daughters’ sake, I want to be “the woman who raises wild and unruly women.”

My ex-husband used to say, when he was feeling insecure and needy, “Some day you’ll be successful and you’ll leave me. You’ll publish a book and buy a fancy car and you won’t need me anymore.” It used to make me angry, because it was passive-aggressive and meant to make me feel guilty for the kinds of desires that would take me away from him. He wasn’t entirely wrong, though – it was in re-discovering my own power and self-reliance that I found the courage to walk away from a relationship that wanted to keep me safe and small.

In that brave act (that took me five tumultuous years to follow through on), I re-awakened the woman who refuses to be “Nice. And quiet.” I re-awakened the little girl who wanted to build her own home in the woods and cook stew over a campfire and ride her horse into the wilderness. I re-awakened the woman who longed to own power tools and build her own furniture. I re-awakened the wild heart that wasn’t willing to settle for relationships that kept her small and safe.

I re-awakened her, and though I had to abandon the version of God who wanted to punish me for wanting to much, I have found instead a God/dess who thrives in my wildness, who created me to be this way and who dances with me through this big, beautiful, wild world.

In this stunning, truth-telling article (which my daughter forwarded to me because we’ve been having many conversations about what women give up in the months since she broke up with her boyfriend of three years), there’s a story from Japanese folklore of a crane who plucks out her own feathers so that a man will marry her. In doing so, she loses her identity and her ability to fly. “To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work. She never sleeps. She plucks out all her feathers, one by one.”

I became that crane wife, plucking out my wildness and losing my capacity for flight. I started becoming it when I was a little girl being taught not to want too much and I perfected it when I was a wife and mother teaching my own girls (by my example) not to want too much.

I’m not going to be that crane anymore. I’m done with plucking out my feathers. I’m going to fly even if it intimidates those stuck on the ground. I’m going to fly even if it’s risky and dangerous and others want to project their fear onto me and protect me from the danger. I’m going to fly and I’m going to use power tools and I’m going to build furniture and I’m going to follow adventure where it leads me.

In my work, I often talk about the difference between safe space and brave space. Safe space is necessary for the healing phase of our journeys, but if we stay there too long, we get comfortable and then safe becomes oppressive and growth doesn’t happen. In safe space, we start silencing others who present dangerous ideas that make us uncomfortable. Growth is limited in safe spaces.

In brave space, on the other hand, we agree to the risks inherent in speaking dangerous things into the circle and living close to the edge. We agree to occasionally make each other uncomfortable (and accept it from others) because we know that it will help us grow. We agree to look at our own blindspots and the ways in which we’re addicted to comfort.

I want to live in brave space. That’s why I’m buying power saws that might cut off a finger but that allow me to build beautiful things. And that’s why I’m growing my team and pushing the edges of my workand traveling around the world to be in places and sit in circles that nudge me into discomfort. I spent many years in safe space, healing the wounds of the past, and that was a valuable investment for a time, but now I want brave space.

Some day, I might find myself in another intimate relationship. I am not so fiercely self-reliant that I don’t crave intimacy and community and someone to walk alongside me in my adventures. Sometimes self-reliance becomes lonely and hard and closed off – I don’t want that.

I know, though, that I will bring my wildness with me into any relationship I enter, and if that person doesn’t bring their wildness too, then it won’t be worthy of my time. And if that person doesn’t delight in my wildness, then it also won’t be worthy of either of our time.

I will bring my wildness and I will embrace those who want to walk alongside me on this brave adventure – whether in an intimate partner relationship or in the many beautiful friendships I am fostering all over the world. I will bring my power tools and my willingness to walk on the edges and do brave things and I will support others in doing the same.

We will gather around fires in wild spaces and we will talk of our adventures and our fears and we will help each other find our way back to our wild selves.

This week, I plan to sleep on my new couch, outdoors, under the gazebo (which I also built), because that’s what a wild woman would do.

 


 

p.s. If you want to be in circle with others exploring brave space, come join us in the Holding Space Practitioner Programwhich starts again in October 2019. Or come join me in an openhearted writing circle in B.C. in August

 

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