I cut off someone in traffic recently. It was completely my fault. I wasn’t paying enough attention and drifted into the other lane when mine was suddenly blocked off for construction. The moment I realized what I’d done, though, shame-brain quickly tried to find someone else to blame. “Maybe the other driver was going too fast. Maybe it was the way the construction pylons were placed on the road that made it difficult to know where the lanes were.”
Shame-brain isn’t very good at holding space for mistakes. In fact, shame-brain turns all of those mistakes – even the ones that are very human, relatively harmless, and completely accidental – into monsters that have to be banished from the kingdom. Because those monsters are threats that might topple the foundation that the kingdom was built on.
From shame-brain’s perspective, mistakes are dangerous.
A mistake makes me question my own value, safety, and belonging. If I MAKE a mistake, perhaps it means that I AM a mistake. And if I’m a mistake, people will stop loving me. I will be abandoned. I’ll be lonely and unprotected. I’ll be a failure. I’l lose my place in society and I won’t be able to get a job or find love. Yes, shame-brain can take even the simplest mistakes to extreme consequences in an instant.
Mistakes are human. In fact, they’re important pieces of information that help us learn and grow. Consider a child who’s learning to ride a bike – when she falls a couple of times, she’ll realize that the action that resulted in the fall shouldn’t be replicated and she’ll adjust accordingly and probably do better the next time. The same is true in school. When a student makes a mistake on a spelling quiz, he will (hopefully) spell that word correctly the next time.
I think, though, that it’s actually in the school system that we begin to be taught that mistakes aren’t just valuable pieces of information that help us learn, they are punishable offences that brand us. When we make a mistake on a test, we rarely get a chance to try again. Instead, that test mark goes into our final grade and we live with the mark of those mistakes forever. Tests don’t teach us how to learn and grow – they teach us that the person who makes the least mistakes wins. (It was a great source of frustration for me, when I taught in a university setting, that so much emphasis was placed on how to get good grades rather than how to learn.)
This is accentuated by our legal system. Mistakes are rarely treated as opportunities for growth – they are offences punishable by law that often go onto your permanent record. Instead of offering opportunities for repair, restitution, and restoration, we pass out judgements and lock people behind bars. Three of my friends have recently navigated (or are currently navigating) the legal system with their sons whose offences occurred in their formative teen years. These young men (some of whose actions did, admittedly, harm other people) are not being taught repair and restitution. They are learning shame. They’re learning just how much they can be “banished from the kingdom” for making mistakes. The same is true for one my friends who has been living under the shadow of an unfair legal conviction that makes it difficult for her to sign a lease or get a job. She has told few people of this part of her story because of what she risks losing as a result. Some mistakes (or appearances of mistakes) are costly.
Shame, the way we in western, colonized cultures, experience and express it, is deeply rooted in a culture of dominance (ie. patriarchy, white supremacy, colonization, etc.). In a culture of dominance, the person who’s seen to be the least flawed (NOT the person who IS the least flawed, but who can rig the system to ensure that they are SEEN TO BE the least flawed), dominates. The person with the greatest amount of shame is oppressed. Shame is heaped on the people on the lower levels of the system – BIPOC, women, LGBTQ+, etc., so that they can be dominated. They’re locked up for minor offences, they’re shamed for wearing the wrong clothes or having sex with the wrong person, they’re blamed for their own poverty, they’re ostracized for contracting AIDS, etc.
“Perhaps the act of ‘psychological colonisation’ is simply the process of shaming another culture.” from this article
In a culture of shame, mistake monsters are easily created. In fact, nobody needs to create them for us. After a lifetime of social conditioning, we can be counted on to create those monsters all by ourselves. Nobody was in the car with me when I cut off the other driver – and yet, the mistake monster showed up quickly to haunt me.
In the Maori culture (according to this article by Anahera Gildea), shame is treated differently. “The root word for shame in English means ‘to cover oneself’. Like with blankets, maybe. Or mud. Or hatred. To be camouflaged in a thicket, on a bank, or in the darkness of the night. Māori do not hide their shame. Nor their grief. It is visible to themselves and others because it means they have become dislodged, disconnected, from their ‘whakapapa’ (loosely translated as ‘lineage’).”
Shame, then, in the Maori understanding, is not associated with punishable offences you can’t recover from, but a reminder of how your actions have disconnected you and how you now have an opportunity to be restored.
I am left wondering, when I consider the damage shame-brain and mistake monsters are doing to all of us in non-Indigenous, colonized cultures… how do we create a mistake culture – where mistakes aren’t monsters but friends? How do we shift attitudes away from “mistake as punishable offence” to “mistake as valuable information for growth”? How do we focus not on the danger of the mistake, but on the possibility for reconnecting ourselves?
What if we treated mistakes as “miss-takes”, the way we do when we’re taking photos?
Over the weekend, I went with my sister to visit the town where we grew up. Because they are such fleeting flowers and are so connected to our youth, we took dozens of photos of crocuses. Some of those photos were miss-takes – they came out blurry, the angle was wrong, or they were over-exposed. Those photos could later be deleted from our cameras. But they weren’t just miss-takes – they provided us with valuable information about how to change the angle, the light, or the focus. Those miss-takes helped us eventually take a few photos we were proud of. They helped us find greater connection with the crocuses and with the land on which we’ve wandered since we first learned to walk
In the Stó:lō Nation (Indigenous to Canada), their restorative justice practices are built on an understanding of mistakes as “miss-takes”. As in the Maori culture, they see the mistakes as signposts that indicate disconnection, and that point toward an opportunity for restoration and reconnection. They don’t, in fact, have a word for justice. Instead, Stó:lō Elders created the word Qwi:qwelstóm kwelam t’ ey (qwi:qwelstóm) – roughly translated as, “they are teaching you, moving you toward the good”. “It is a concept of ‘justice’ centered upon the family and reflects a way of life that focuses on relationships and the interconnectedness of all life. It has four key elements: ‘the role of Elders; the role of family, family ties, and community connections; teachings; and spirituality.’” Justice, in a culture like this, is not a system of punishment, it is a way of re-connecting those in conflict with their higher selves and their spiritual guides. (Source: Indigenous Centered Conflict Resolution Processes in Canada, by Nisha Sikka, George Wong, and Catherine Bell)
What if we decolonized our culture and we let the Stó:lō Nation and the Maori Nation teach us about justice systems that restore right relationships and bring people back to themselves? What if we recognized the flaws in the colonial system of “justice”, humbled ourselves, and became learners instead of colonizers? And what if we extended that learning beyond justice to our education systems? How would it change the learning environment if we changed our testing practices and treated mistakes as valuable pieces of information that helped a student come into the fullness of who they are and what they are capable of? What if we removed the sting of shame and accepted, instead, a collective responsibility for restoring the community?
Recently, I have witnessed some mistakes made by white spiritual/self-help teachers who lack an awareness of their social conditioning and unconscious bias. They are causing harm to people of colour (by images and words that they use and actions that they take), and when they do so, their first instinct is often to defend themselves and/or to hide their shame. They don’t yet understand that the impact of their mis-steps is more important than the intent, so they try to convince their followers that they are good people, worthy of continued admiration. They are afraid the mistakes will destroy them – banish them from the kingdom and leave them penniless.
I get it, I’ve been there too. I made a mistake once, while doing race relations work, and my shame reared up (just as it did when I cut off that person in traffic) and made me want to use every means possible to protect myself from the mistake monster. Luckily, I was working with people who were less interested in my mistake than in my continued efforts to seek reconciliation and restitution. The mistake did not kill me or banish me from the kingdom – it taught me and further shaped my work. Now, three years later, I am grateful for that mistake and the opportunities for growth it presented.
One of the most important things I learned (or re-learned) from that experience, is that mistakes are most valuable when they are brought into the light, discussed, apologized for, and learned from. A mistake that’s hidden turns into shame. A mistake that’s owned and repaired and/or apologized for turns into learning.
We are going to make mistakes. Accept that as a given. Especially if you’re doing work that challenges you, holding space for people in places where there may be power imbalances, deep wounds, trauma, racial injustice, grief, fear, etc., occasionally you’ll offend people, you’ll let your own triggered wounds take over your rational mind, and you’ll be blind to your social conditioning. Even when your best intentions are to be kind, your impact may be very different.
Go into this work expecting mistakes to happen. And sometimes those mistakes will mean that you have to bear someone’s anger or face rejection. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news – that’s simply part of this work. That’s why we all need lots of self-care and community-care – so that we won’t be destroyed when the winds threaten to blow us over.
Those mistakes don’t need to destroy us. They can become our teachable moments.
Instead of battling the mistake monster, we need to befriend him – take him under our wing and hold space for him until he’s brave enough to take off his monster mask and reveal that, underneath, he is “miss-take”, not monster. Once we do that, we can learn from the mistake, make reparations where we need to, and keep trying until we get it right. Eventually, the picture will emerge in focus and with the right amount of light.
The next time a mistake monster shows up, take a lesson from art therapy and draw a picture of him. Make him as ugly as you need him to be, but then give him soft eyes. Talk to that monster and let him know you’re willing to learn the lessons he has brought you. You will likely find that he will soften in the space that you hold for him.
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If you want to learn more about how to hold space for your own mistakes and for others, consider signing up for Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, or join me in B.C. or the Netherlands.
Sometimes you don’t know that you know something until you hear the words come out of your mouth. That’s how it was when I said these words a few weeks ago, while teaching my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program…
“Trauma is the soil in which the patriarchy has grown.”
I’ve thought a lot about trauma and I’ve thought a lot about patriarchy, and I’ve even thought about the links between them, but I hadn’t articulated this thought before. Even as I said it, I realized I was speaking something new into my awareness.
Now that I’ve thought about it more, I realize it’s a bit of a “chicken and egg” situation. Which came first – the trauma or the patriarchy? The patriarchy may also be the soil in which trauma has grown. One nourishes the other, which in turn nourishes the other, and so on, and so on. Did trauma happen to a group of people and so they rose up and began to dominate and create systems of domination to protect themselves? Or did people begin to dominate out of their own selfish ambition and need for power and soon learned that it was easier to dominate traumatized people? I don’t have a sufficient lens on history to analyze this.
Also, you can interchange the word “patriarchy” with any system of dominance (white supremacy, colonization, oppression, heteronormativity, kyriarchy, etc.) and the statement remains applicable. Trauma informs and supports them all.
Consider all of the ways that trauma is used as a tool to help dominant systems uphold their dominance. Indigenous children were ripped out of their families and forced into residential schools where they were stripped of their language and rituals. African people were rounded up, forced onto ships, and brutally enslaved in North and South America. Women are routinely raped in conflict situations. Jewish families were thrust into concentration camps and many were killed in gas chambers.
(Side note: I highly recommend the movie Indian Horse for a gripping story about how the trauma of colonization controls and destroys people.)
The stories go on and on throughout history, and these are just the most notable and horrific. There are so many more subtle ways that trauma is used as well. The #metoo movement, for example, is revealing the many ways in which sexual assault has been used to dominate women in the workforce, in the media, and at home.
None of these stories are “once and done” situations either. Every one of them not only traumatizes the generation most directly impacted, it plants the seeds of trauma into the family systems. The generations to come inherit the trauma of their parents and their grandparents, and so on, and so on. The result is often the kind of dysfunction, disempowerment and addiction that makes it difficult for them to rise up and challenge their oppressors. Trauma is so deeply (and invisibly) rooted in our bodies, that it can take generations to heal it, especially where it has not been named and faced.
Once you have implanted the seeds of trauma into a family system, it becomes easier and easier to dominate the people in that system. Traumatized people no longer need the original, horrific event to make them shrink in fear. All you have to do is offer a subtle reminder of the trauma, and they are triggered into their fight, flight or freeze reactivity (also known as “amygdala hijacking”), and in that state, they are easier to control and/or manipulate. An abused child, for example, will continue to flinch at a raised hand or raised voice long after the abuse is over and will continue to go to great measure to find protection against what they see as a dangerous world.
Sometimes it seems that we now have so much trauma running through our systems that there are fewer people WITHOUT trauma than WITH trauma (either direct or generationally inherited). It seems we’re all the walking wounded, trying to function in a world that triggers us on every front.
If you want to understand how trauma is used as a tool of domination, consider the treatment that Black people (particularly in the U.S., but also in Canada) have received from the police. Unlike white people, they can never assume that they are safe in the presence of the police, because they have seen too many people like them killed and/or unfairly arrested or brutalized by the police. In a traumatized system like that, you only have to bring a police officer into the environment to cause a state of panic in many people. That’s a system of dominance which not only traumatizes people, but gives those in power an excuse to continue to dominate. They assume that their experience of traumatized Black people (who might respond with belligerence, anger, resistance, etc., as a result of their fight/flight/freeze activation) is universal and even when Black people are calm and cooperative (as was the case in Starbucks recently), they assume the worst and arrest them needlessly. Dominance continues.
But trauma doesn’t only impact those being dominated. When there’s trauma in a system, in impacts people at all levels of it. I think it’s interesting to note, in fact, that it’s often the people with seemingly the most power in a system who are the most reactionary when they’re triggered. Why, for example, if women have less power than men, is it usually men who commit acts of violence? I suspect it’s partly because they’ve had less reason to develop coping strategies and less encouragement to heal and name the trauma. (I was at a workshop recently, where men were doing some healing work and, in one particularly poignant moment, three men were at the centre of the circle weeping and holding each other. It was one of the most powerful and rare moments of healing I’ve ever witnessed and I wish that more men could find themselves there.)
A new concept came into my awareness lately – that of allostatic load. (Thanks Sam.) According to Wikipedia, “it’s ‘the wear and tear on the body’ that accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress. It represents the physiological consequences of chronic exposure to fluctuating or heightened neural or neuroendocrine response that results from repeated or chronic stress.” Here’s a simple Youtube video that explains it. And Roxanne Gay wrote about it recently in her New York Times column.
While anyone can suffer from allostatic load, I think it’s fair to assume that those who’d be most susceptible to it are those who’ve been most oppressed by systems of dominance. According to Wikipedia, “in environments of chronic or frequent activation of the stress response, such as exposure to violence or trauma, poverty, war, hypoxia, or low rank in a social hierarchy, the stress response constantly disrupts homeostasis resulting in overexertion of physiological systems.” When allostatic load is a factor, people’s bodies can shut down and their brains have less capacity for complex thought and solution-finding. That puts them at a serious disadvantage and makes them easier to dominate.
So… what should we do about this? Should we work at healing the trauma or work at dismantling the systems that created and utilize it? Again, it’s a chicken and egg situation. One informs the other and neither can be entirely isolated from the other. You can’t dismantle a system when all of the people involved in its dismantling have unaddressed trauma. And if you heal trauma without addressing the source of the trauma, you’ve only found a short-term solution – the trauma will rear its head somewhere else.
We need lots of healers and lots of dismantlers. We need people to deepen their understanding of trauma so that they can hold space for it without further contributing to it. We also need warriors who will challenge the systems so that the dominance stops.
As I said in my last article, we should all be in a quest for our own sovereignty, so that we can meet each other as whole and healthy people rather than damaged people who harm each other. But it’s nearly impossible to seek sovereignty when you haven’t worked first to heal trauma that took your sovereignty away. That is, after all, what’s happening when the dominant systems utilize trauma to keep people disempowered – they’re colonizing people and taking their sovereignty away. Because sovereign people are dangerous to those who want to dominate them.
But this is not the end of the story. All of us have the right to reclaim our sovereignty. All of us have the right to live free of trauma and domination.
If you are a traumatized individual, start with your own healing so that you don’t pass the trauma on to others. But don’t stop there. Look for ways of healing at a collective, systemic level. This is something I’m learning more and more about as I dive into healing methodology like family systems constellations (which I had the pleasure of studying with Francesca Mason Boring recently). If we don’t address the trauma rooted in our ancestral lineage and family systems, we fall short of what we need to do to change the future.
If we heal our traumatized systems (and ourselves) and claim our sovereignty, I believe we can become healthy and whole together.
p.s. This is a subject we cover in the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. Registration is now open for the session that starts in July.
Up until a dozen years ago, I’d only encountered the word “sovereign” in reference to God and I assumed it had something to do with being all-powerful, all-knowing, in control, and holy. I later encountered it in relation to nations, but, because I’d been raised with a highly tuned blasphemy-detector, I wondered whether that meant those nations were trying to be as powerful as God and whether governments had become “false idols”.
A dozen years ago, I came across the word again when I worked in international development and my colleagues were talking about “food sovereignty”. That’s when I became curious about what I’d missed in my earlier understanding of the word.
There are three categories often used for food-related support: food aid, food security, and food sovereignty. If you give a man a fish (food aid), he’ll eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish (food security), he’ll have food for a lifetime. But what if you put a fence around the pond and only allow him to fish on certain days and he has to go hungry in between? Ensuring he has agency over his food choices and accessibility to the sources of that food is food sovereignty. (In the non-profit world, we supported food sovereignty by funding projects where people were advocating for their right to adequate food and agricultural resources.)
According to Wikipedia, sovereignty is “the full right and power of a governing body over itself, without any interference from outside sources or bodies”. With full sovereignty, the man can fish at the pond when/if he wants, make decisions about that pond, and choose whether or not to share the pond with his neighbours.
Largely, the term is associated with nations and their governments, but what if we bring that definition down to land in our own lives? How does it change your relationship with yourself and with others if you consider yourself to be sovereign and you consider those you’re in relationship with to also be sovereign?
To claim sovereignty means that I get to decide what happens to my body, heart, and mind. It means that I have agency and autonomy and am not controlled or manipulated by anyone. I get to make my own decisions and live with the consequences. I get to choose who I am in relationship with and how much space to give them in my life. I can choose to end relationships that cause me harm and walk away from situations and communities that don’t honour my sovereignty.
If I treat you as someone who has your own sovereignty, it means that I assume you have the same right to self-govern your life as I do. You get to tell me how you want to be treated and I can choose to accept those boundaries or walk away. It’s what I teach in my work around holding space – that we offer love to each other without attachment, manipulation, control, or boundary-crossing.
For me, and I suspect for many others, it feels quite foreign to think of myself as sovereign. I’ve got all kinds of old scripts running in my head telling me that it’s selfish to claim the “full right and power” of my own “governing body” without “any interference from outside sources or bodies”. Shouldn’t I be more agreeable than that? Should I be nicer? Shouldn’t I accommodate other people’s needs before my own? Shouldn’t I extend grace to those who interfere? Shouldn’t I overlook the boundary-crossers if they are offering me safety, protection, resources, or employment? Aren’t they entitled to certain rights if I need what they have to offer?
Recently, I had an opportunity to claim my sovereignty in a relationship with someone who hasn’t always respected it in the past. This person was going to be in my house and I was nervous about it because of past experiences when they would fix things without being asked to do so, judge my choices about how my house is arranged and maintained, etc. As the time approached for the visit, I realized that I could make a choice – say nothing and risk further violations, or claim my sovereignty and communicate what kind of behaviour I found unacceptable in my space. I chose the latter. With a simple text, I let the person know what the ground rules would be for the visit. If they wished to comply, they were welcome, but if they didn’t, they could choose not to come. (They chose to comply.)
In essence, what I did was establish a “treaty” with this person – claiming my sovereignty in the relationship and laying out the expectations for what was acceptable. “A treaty is an agreement under international law entered into by actors in international law, namely sovereign states and international organizations.” (Wikipedia) If we can bring the definition of sovereignty down to our own lives, perhaps we can also consider how that sovereignty is negotiated via treaty between sovereign individuals in a relationship?
The problem, as I see it, is that few of us have an embodied understanding of sovereignty because we have been socially conditioned by colonial systems. “Colonization is a process by which a central system of power dominates the surrounding land and its components.” (Wikipedia)
Colonizers are not respecters of treaties. They may create them, but they either use their power to manipulate what the treaties contain, or they bull-doze over them to take the resources they want.
In a colonial system, everyone is impacted. Both the colonizers and the colonized become shaped by the imbalance of power and the lack of respect for boundaries and sovereignty. Some learn to take what’s not theirs and others learn that their rights are easily violated and their resources easily taken. Most of us find ourselves somewhere at the intersections – having power in some relationships and no power in others.
In a colonial system, nobody walks away unscathed. Nobody ends up with a well-balanced understanding of what it means to hold sovereignty as a core value in a relationship.
As a result, we have a lot of people the world over who’ve grown up with a warped sense of how to be in relationships with each other, both on a small scale and a large scale, both in one-on-one relationships and in country-to-country or community-to-community relationships. We cross boundaries, we downplay our own rights to boundaries, we fail to communicate our expectations of how we want to be treated, we emotionally colonize, we manipulate, we are victimized, and we run away from conflict because we haven’t been adequately prepared for it. We wound each other and we suffer from the wounds inflicted on us.
Consequently, we face the kind of actions being challenged by the #metoo movement, Idle No More, and Black Lives Matter. And we face the resulting backlash. When colonized people rise up to claim their sovereignty, it makes those in power nervous.
How do we change this? How do we decolonize ourselves and reclaim and honour sovereignty in our relationships and communities?
Well, it is both a small-scale and a large scale problem (and every scale in between), so there is no one-size-fits all solution. We have to do the hard work of claiming our own sovereignty (and that needs to be accompanied with a lot of self-care and community care) and we have to do the hard work of dismantling our imbalanced systems of power. We have to practice negotiating and communicating better treaties/agreements in our personal relationships and we have to address the ways in which the colonizers in our countries have ignored and/or failed to negotiate or ratify treaties with other sovereign nations or people groups. We have to learn how to enter into conflict in more generative ways that help all parties emerge with their sovereignty intact. We have to practice having harder conversations and not running away whenever we feel attacked for violating another person’s sovereignty. We have to learn how to communicate expectations and boundaries and not be offended when other people communicate theirs. And we have to evolve the way we raise our children so that they will grow up with a better sense of their own sovereignty.
I’ve begun the slow (and sometimes painful) work of decolonizing my relationships and I know that I still have a long way to go. Sometimes I feel the way I did when I first started dancing (after being raised in a no-dancing-allowed Mennonite home) – like I’m stumbling across the room stomping on people’s toes while I try to find a rhythm that fits with the person I’m dancing with. Just like dancing isn’t a natural act for someone raised with Mennonite roots, claiming sovereignty doesn’t feel like a natural act for someone raised with colonial roots.
But when we learn to dance together well – like a highly-skilled pair of tango dancers – we learn to respect each other’s space, honour each other’s bodies, and not get in the way of each other’s brilliance. We find intimacy not by violating each other’s space, but by spending many hours in practice, learning to negotiate the space between us. We might step on each other’s toes now and then, but we commit to staying on the dance floor and trying again. When one person violates the agreements we’ve made, they take responsibility and we figure out how to move on.
The better we become at dancing together, the closer we are to being truly free.