How to hold space (some new tips, four years after the viral blog post)

In the long shadows of early morning, on a recent trip to the Netherlands, I stood at the edge of a pond watching the light and breeze play with the surface of the water. Near where I stood, tall, straight reeds were reflected on the rippling water. It occurred to me, as I stood there, that if I were only able to look at the reflections of those reeds and not see the reeds directly, then I would never know for certain what the reeds looked like. The reflections kept moving and wiggling and reshaping themselves on the ripples, never quite the same from one second to the next.

This, I believe, is what my relationship with the concept of holding space is like. Though I have been staring at it intently for several years, writing many posts and a great deal of course content, and traveling the world to teach it, I am still only looking at a reflection of it and trying to describe it from the place I stand, knowing that you may be on another shore looking at it from a different perspective.

The longer I stare at it, though, the more I learn about this beautiful reed and the more I find myself dancing along with the reflection, open to the flow of what comes with each breeze.

Here are some recent reflections about how to hold space, gathered after a few intense months of teaching, traveling, and holding space.

  1. Stay curious. When judgement creeps in, it’s difficult to hold space for someone (or ourselves) because we’re inclined to want to change them, criticize them, or impose our own expectations on them. Judgement and curiosity don’t coexist well, though, so in order to shift out of judging mind, bring in curiosity. Ask curious questions and listen with openness for the answers. When the other person recognizes that there is curiosity and openness in our questions rather than judgement, they’ll be better able to trust that we have their best interests at heart.
  2. Release attachment to outcome. I’ve said this phrase hundreds of times, at nearly every workshop, retreat, or online course I’ve ever taught, and yet it’s still one that I have to remind myself of on a daily basis. Clinging to a desired outcome – or even a believe that there WILL BE a positive outcome of some sort – is to bring in your own ego, your own desires, and your own expectations. To hold space is to open yourself up to the possibility that what comes (if anything DOES come) is outside of your control and may not be aligned with what you want. When you let go of outcome, you’ll be less inclined to label something as “failure” or “success” and simply accept it as what is. (Sure, there may be times when you’re working toward a specific outcome, but then you’re not really holding space.) As is taught in Open Space, “whatever happens is the only thing that could happen.”
  3. Let go of “perfect” and embrace “good enough”. Holding space is not something we can ever do with precision and perfection, because we’re dealing with humans (ourselves included) who are flawed and fumbling and at some point we’re bound to trigger each other’s old wounds, annoy each other, or let each other down. Accepting that as part of the process rather than beating ourselves up over not knowing exactly what to offer the other person (or ourselves) allows us to lean into it with grace and love and a “heart at peace”. And when the fumble comes, as it inevitably will, forgiveness is the next stop on the journey.
  4. Don’t assume you know what another person needs. When we hold space for others, we have to use discernment and our loving knowledge of the other person to try to do what’s right for them, but sometimes we miss the mark because we can’t fully know what that person needs at that moment. If the context is right, and the question is not too overwhelming for them to answer in the moment, we can ask what they need, but we can also do our best and then not take it personally when they say “that’s not what I need right now”. They might not, in fact, know exactly what they need and only realize it when they’re offered something they DON’T need. (For example, if I reach out to hug someone who’s in pain, they may suddenly know that they don’t want to be touched right now because touch re-triggers the wound they’re trying to heal.) To hold space for someone is to allow them the autonomy of discovering their needs and finding ways of having them met.
  5. When your own reactivity is triggered, calm your nervous system first. Often, a failure to hold space  for someone comes from a triggered reaction that results when the nervous system is flooded. If your fight, flight, freeze, or tend-and-befriend reactivity has been activated by a situation, you can’t hold space well until you calm yourself down. For example, if someone lashes out at you in anger when you believe you’re doing your best to be supportive, your first reaction will likely be to defend yourself with an equal amount of anger, or leave the situation as quickly as possible. (Or – as the “tend-and-befriend” reactivity might suggest – fix the situation so that they’re not angry anymore.) When you take a few deep breaths (or find other ways of calming yourself – tapping, for example), you can re-engage the internal systems that help you respond more calmly and you might realize the anger is coming out of that person’s grief or helplessness and is not a reflection of who you are and is not yours to fix.
  6. When the impact is different from the intent, consider your responsibility for repair and course correction. Recently, at a workshop I was facilitating, I lead the group in an activity that I thought might respond to a need that had arisen, but the impact of the activity (for at least a few in the room) was the exact opposite of what I’d intended and I had to face their frustration. My triggered response was to sink into shame over my misjudgement and/or to lash out with a defence of my intentions, but that wouldn’t have served the group well and would have centred me rather than the people I was holding space for. Since I was the teacher and therefore had the most authority/power in the situation, I had to take responsibility for the impact, make repairs, and course correct. Once I did, we were able to regain damaged trust and move forward together.
  7. Just because one person’s needs aren’t being met doesn’t mean nobody’s needs are being met. This applies, in particular, to when you’re holding space for groups. Sometimes I make the incorrect assumption that the voice that speaks the loudest is the voice that speaks for the whole group, but that is rarely the truth. (That person may influence people by speaking loudly, but other people’s dissatisfaction may be because they’re easily influenced by powerful people.) It’s nearly impossible to know what everyone needs unless you ask each person independently, so when you’re holding space for multiple people, know that you’re likely going to let some people down while other people will be satisfied. This is where point #3 (letting go of perfection) is important. Do the best you can and trust that the people you hold space for are sovereign individuals, capable of having their needs met without you needing to contort yourself to meet them.
  8. Walk a balancing act between “I’m responsible for the impact of my actions” and “other people need to take responsibility for their responses”. I recognize, in writing this list, that #2 and #6 might sound contradictory and that it’s confusing to know when we should take responsibility for the impact and when we should let go and trust that each individual will take responsibility for their own reactions. I think we need to hold BOTH in our hearts and use discernment to determine when we need to make repairs, and when we simply let go and allow people to have their own experiences. This is humbling (and sometimes humiliating) work and we have to have enough integrity to repair damage even if it was unintentional, and enough fortitude to not take things personally when people don’t react well to our actions.
  9. Remember that we are all sovereign beings making our own sovereign choices. No matter how well you hold space for someone, they’re still going to act and be the way that THEY choose. If, for example, you hold space for someone who’s been wrestling with their own demons, and afterwards they choose to do something that you think is self-destructive, you can’t beat yourself up over your failure to help them course-correct. To hold space is to recognize their right to make their own choices, even when those choices make no sense to you.
  10. Don’t try to retain this list – instead, lean into your intuition and the wisdom in your body/heart/mind. If, the next time you hold space, you try to live up to this list (or any of the other teachings I’ve offered), you’re likely trying too hard to make this an academic exercise and it will fall flat. Choose authenticity over perfection. While reading this may be helpful to you, don’t cling to it too tightly – simply let it land on your heart and then, when the moment to hold space for someone comes, trust that you have enough wisdom for that moment. If you fail, forgive yourself (and come back for a re-read of this list, if that’s helpful) and try again the next time.

Those are my reflections for now, after staring for a long time into the rippling water. Though I thought, four years ago when I wrote the blog post that went viral, that I knew what holding space was and little more needed to be said, I’ve since discovered that there is so much more that was left to discover and I’ll keep staring at the reflection for as long as I can.

Soon, these reflections (and many more) will emerge in the form of a book that is near completion and about to undergo editing and publication. It’s humbling to write a book and to commit ideas to print when you’re fairly certain that those ideas will continue to evolve and change, but I’ve committed to a belief that it’s “good enough for now”. Stay tuned for publication date, and, in the meantime, consider signing up for the upcoming offering of the Holding Space Practitioner Program (formerly “Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program) that begins in October, with registration opening in July.

The humanity behind the harm: Extending grace to ourselves and others

 

I am a good person. At least that’s what I tell myself on a regular basis. I make a few mistakes now and then, but on the whole, I’m a good person. I pay my taxes, I never litter, I’m polite to baristas and sales clerks, I don’t yell at my children, and I recycle.  

Much of my identity, security, and sense of belonging is wrapped up in being a “good person”. If I am a good person, then people will love me, the system will protect me, and I won’t go to hell. If I am a good person, then the world feels orderly and safe. 

The value I place in being a good person is so deeply rooted in my psyche that the minute I fear I’m being found out to be NOT a good person, I get panicky. My throat starts to close, the blood rushes to my head, and my flight/fight/freeze impulses send my nervous system into spasms.  

Why? Because I grew up knowing that being good was the way to gain approval and affection from my parents, friends, and school teachers, and that made me feel safe. And I grew up with the deeply held belief that not being good would result in abandonment and condemnation to hell. While, deep down, I might have an underlying fear that I am NOT good, I’ve been able to sufficiently stuff down that fear and convince myself that goodness is my prevailing quality.

Good = belonging, safety, affection, and ease. Bad = abandonment, disapproval, insecurity, and eternal punishment.

Good people don’t harm other people. At least that’s the tape that’s been running on endless loop in my subconscious for over five decades. BAD people harm other people, but that’s not me, so I don’t have to worry about it. 

La la la la la – fingers in my ears as you try to accuse me of doing harm – I’m not listening because I AM A GOOD PERSON! It must have been some OTHER person who did the harm because it was NOT ME! What you’re saying is so far from my definition of self that it feels DANGEROUS to receive the information, so I REFUSE! Please go away before my carefully constructed self image crumbles at my ankles.

Perhaps you’ve had the same reaction when someone accuses you of doing harm? (Please tell me I’m not alone!)

But… sadly, there’s this universal truth that my amygdala has a hard time processing… we ALL do harm sometimes. 

We do harm for many reasons: we’ve been harmed by someone else; we suddenly felt unsafe and we reacted out of a desperate need for safety; we don’t know how to process our anger or shame in healthy ways; we’ve been socially conditioned not to recognize certain behaviour as harmful; we’ve got blindspots and biases that keep us from seeing the other person as fully human; our mental illness causes irrational or dangerous behaviour; or we feel trapped in a position in which we have to defend or protect ourselves. 

Even the most well-intentioned, emotionally healthy people do harm sometimes. It’s inevitable. The best we can do is to learn to process the information about the harm we’ve done without falling apart or lashing out and thereby increasing the harm.

Recently, I’ve had to receive that kind of information from several people. First there were two separate people who, a day apart, let me know that I’d harmed them by comments I’d made to them (one recent and one several months earlier). My first reaction, in both cases, was to become defensive, claim innocence, or dismiss them for being so sensitive. But, because I care about both of these people and want to maintain relationships with them, I chose to slow down and shift out of “reaction” into “response”. I listened to what they had to say and realized that, in both cases, it was true that I’d said hurtful things because, at the time, I was in emotional pain and was trying to deflect that pain. (Pain is contagious – when we try to deflect it, we usually project it onto others and then we both feel pain.) I apologized and took responsibility for harm done. 

Then, when I came home from my recent trip, I had to hear from my daughters that I had harmed them with some of the choices I’ve made recently. Again, I noticed the reactivity bubbling up in me and I was tempted to become passive aggressive and let them know how hard it is to be a single mom (while running a business that feeds them), how under-appreciated I often feel, etc. But, again, I knew that the reaction would do more harm and they would be less inclined to be honest with me in the future which would damage our relationship. Once again, I slowed down, took a few deep breaths, apologized and asked how I can support them better in the future.

I know that I’m not alone in being reactive when it comes to acknowledging harm that I’ve done. I see the same thing played out again and again, especially in tough conversations when people are being confronted with information about how their biases and blindspots may have caused harm. That’s why, for example, the term “white fragility” has become so common (and also male fragility, etc.). None of us likes to be told that our behaviour is “racist”, “sexist”, etc., and yet we all have biases that were formed in us at a young age and those biases make us blind to the impact of some of our behaviour.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to help people (myself included) better receive information about harm we’ve done, and how we can create environments where people can process that information (without becoming destructive) and then move forward toward repair, reconciliation and/or redemption. It takes self-reflection, self-forgiveness, and some emotional maturity to be able to receive that kind of information. It also takes community support and at least one person who believes in our capacity for goodness even when we’ve done harm. It’s hard to recover alone – we need people who can see our potential when we can’t.

Shame recovery is rarely a solo act – it happens best in relationship.

Not long ago, I found myself in a series of intense and deeply personal conversations with a man who has come to the awareness that he has done harm to women. There was little in his social conditioning that supported healthy masculinity, so he’d been blind to the harm he’d caused before it was pointed out to him. In the past year, this man has moved through various phases in this awareness – denial, shame, self-loathing, extensive therapy and personal growth, attempts at repair, despair, etc. 

I am profoundly grateful for the openhearted conversations I had with this man. Normally, I would avoid a conversation like that because I’d be triggered by it and the harm that has been caused to me by men would get in the way of my ability to hear him and extend grace to him. This time it was different, though. Surprisingly, hearing him speak with honesty and without guardedness about his shame, pain, confusion, and desire to be a better man offered me some healing for the harm that’s been done to me in the past. One of the last things I said to him was “you’ve allowed me to see the humanity behind the harm”. I also said “I will hold onto the belief that redemption is possible for you even when you don’t believe it yourself.” (If you are that man, now reading this, know that I continue to do so.)

I can’t help but wonder… are we so different, him and I? Yes, the magnitude of the harm may be different, but at the heart of it, aren’t we the same? Given the same set of conditions, the same set of unhealthy gender expectations and cultural shaping, isn’t it possible that I might have done the same harm he has done? (We discovered many threads of similarities, for example, in the way we think and the way we process information about the world, so it seems we might respond similarly to the same set of circumstances.)

What has left me troubled after these conversations is that, despite the work he has done to take responsibility for his actions and learn how to be a better man, this man feels abandoned by those who once cared for him and he can find no place to turn for the kind of community support that might help restore him to goodness. He was surprised by my kindness because he’s learned not to expect kindness from anyone and questions whether he’s worthy of it.

Yes, we need to hold people accountable for harm they have done, and yes, our first responsibility as a society is to stand up for and protect victims of harm, but… we also need to build into our culture better ways to support the restitution and redemption of those who perpetuated the harm (if they are willing to do the hard work of restitution), especially when the culture is partially to blame for how they came to be who they are. To simply see them as “perpetrators” is to discard them and to take no responsibility for the re-shaping of them. Ultimately, this response will only result in more harm being done. 

Those left to wallow in their own shame, without the resources to heal and recover from that shame, become increasingly destructive to themselves and to others.

After the harm I caused those two friends and my daughters, I was able to be restored to my goodness. Their forgiveness and willingness to accept the repairs I offered helped me let go of shame and the relationships survived. That’s how restitution works – it restores us, heals us, and allows us to believe in ourselves and connect with each other again. 

Restitution happens in community.

In some cultures, restitution is built into the way that they address conflict and injustice. Among the Stó:lō people (an Indigenous nation in Canada), for example, the word used instead of “justice” is Qwi:qwelstóm kwelam t’ ey – roughly translated as, “they are teaching you, moving you toward the good” (from: Indigenous Centered Conflict Resolution Processes in Canada). When someone does harm, that person is asked to participate in a community circle and to prepare themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually to receive what is offered there. The purpose of this healing and peace building circle is to restore balance in the person, to help them see the harm they’ve done, and to reconnect them to the relationships that sustain them and hold them accountable. 

Perhaps if we were to write a new cultural narrative – one in which restoration and repair are valued over judgement and punishment, and in which community is valued over capitalism – we might be more equipped to find healing when harm is done and to “move people toward the good”. Perhaps if we knew that our communities would gather around us rather than abandon us when we do harm we’d be better equipped to receive information about how we’ve harmed people.

Instead, we tend to discard people, sending them off to prison, rejecting them from our communities, or punishing them on social media. Instead of holding them accountable and then creating community support in which they can make repairs and be restored to goodness, we remind them again and again of the harm they’ve caused, sending them further and further into shame.

We need a cultural revolution that returns us to community. We need more reconciliation circles and fewer courtrooms. We need more focus on repair and less on punishment. 

We need to move people toward the good.

Walk into any mainstream bookstore and you’ll find shelves full of books on self-care, but where are the books on community care? Who’s teaching us how to support each other and not abandon each other? 

We have movements like #metoo and #timesup that call out toxic masculinity (and that’s a good thing – don’t get me wrong), but where are the circles for accountability, repair, and restitution? Who’s helping perpetrators face the truth of the harm they’ve done so that they can make repairs and be restored to their communities?

I don’t think we need to re-invent the wheel when it comes to growing the containers that can hold space for restitution, reconciliation, and harm reduction – we simply need to seek out and amplify the practices that were once part of our communal cultures, before we became so individualistic and driven by capitalism. In many Indigenous communities the world over, for example, practices already exist that can help us find a way forward. (If you know of such practices, I welcome you to share them in the comments.) 

Perhaps if we look hard enough, we’ll uncover what we all need in order to see the harm we do with more clear eyes and to hold space for it in ourselves and in others so that restoration can happen.

____

 

We talk about this (and many other aspects of holding space) in my Holding Space Practitioner Program. The next online program starts in October. The next in-person training is in B.C., Canada in September

The beauty of having space held for you

photo credit: Milada Vigerova, Unsplash

Listen to this post…

 

I have a confession to make. I’m not very good at letting people hold space for me.

It’s true. I’ve built my work around what it means to hold space, and I understand how valuable it is, and yet… I often bump up against resistance around asking and/or allowing people to hold space for me. (Isn’t it true that we often teach what we most need to learn?)

It’s partly because I’ve spent much of my adult life in the roles of teacher, parent, facilitator, leader, manager, coach, advocate, etc., and so I have this internal script around needing to be the strong and supportive one in every relationship. And it’s partly because my life experiences have left me with a somewhat avoidant (and sometimes disorganized) attachment style, and so when it comes to the intimate situations where I need to trust someone to hold space for me, I can get triggered into a “this person might harm me or ask too much of me so I’d better pull back before that becomes a possibility” stance.

I’ve been working on those things in my intimate relationships (especially in the four years since the end of my marriage revealed so many well-ingrained patterns that had become survival skills). It takes a lot of time and effort to adjust those old scripts, and to heal the associated wounds, so I don’t expect it to change overnight.

A few weeks ago, I had a beautiful experience of having space held for me, and it taught me a lot about what’s possible and what I need more of in my life.

I’d been looking for a place to go for a week where I could finish writing my book (tentatively titled Be the Bowl: The Fine Art of Holding Space). I am much more successful at the focused work required for a project as large as a book when I can step away from my commitments, my family, the dirty dishes in the sink, and the many distractions that the internet provides, so I was looking for a private space. 

In the past, I have rented a cabin, stayed a few extra days in a hotel room after a business trip, or stayed at a local retreat centre to get big projects done. All of those are solo efforts (except for the time I shared a cabin with a friend who was also writing a book), and that’s usually the way I like it. This time, though, for reasons I can’t articulate, I had a feeling I needed something a little different. While I needed privacy and quiet, I also needed companionship and nurturing. 

My friends Lorraine and TuBears had offered me the use of the small cottage in their backyard (which TuBears normally uses as an office) and since I’d spent time in their home before and I love them dearly (you can watch a video we once made about our friendship), I was pretty sure it would be the right space where I could write without interruption and still have the value of friendship and support. 

I couldn’t have been more right. It was a magical week. The writing flowed beautifully, I finished the book in record time, and I even had time for a first edit. 

I’m pretty sure that what I wrote in that special space in their backyard is some of my best writing on the subject of holding space, partly because the space is sacred (it’s full of the sacred objects that TuBears has collected from her rich life as a Sundance dancer, shamanic practitioner, spiritual guide, and Choctaw elder), and partly because I had two of the best possible people holding space for me.

If you asked them, they would probably say they “didn’t do anything special”, but that’s not how it felt for me. They were attentive to my needs (Lorraine would sometimes pop in, mid-afternoon when my energy was flagging, with a smoothie or chai latte, and they always had delicious and healthy meals available), they kept the distractions away (they wouldn’t even let me help with dishes after meals, but rather sent me back to my writing cave), they listened to me when I needed to wrestle with a concept I was writing about, and they shared their own stories of what holding space meant for them. Even before I arrived, they’d put intention and love into preparing for me. They’d prayed over the space and smudged it so that it would be ready to support me while I wrote. They’d prepared all of the things they thought I’d need while I wrote – a kettle, a mug, teabags, and a basket full of tasty treats. 

We had long conversations in the evenings, and those conversations both enhanced my writing and gave me a break from it. When TuBears dropped a few wisdom bombs into our conversation, from her years of dancing at Sundance and holding space for people’s vision quests, I knew that I needed to interview her for the book, and so she’s become an integral part of my final chapter. 

We also laughed. A LOT. Together, Lorraine and TuBears have the capacity to created a space that is, in equal measure, both light-hearted and able to hold deep pain. Every time we’re together, I find myself telling them things I don’t normally tell anyone else, because I know that they will hold it with just the right amount of weightiness and humour. They help me to trust myself but not take myself too seriously.

Perhaps most profoundly, Lorraine and TuBears demonstrated a deep belief in me. They are unequivocal cheerleaders of my work and they want this book to be born, and so they were delighted to help midwife it into existence. When you have people with that kind of commitment to and belief in your work, it makes it much easier to shine.

Lorraine and TuBears are able to show up in that way and hold space for what I needed because they have done a lot of work in holding space for themselves. They are both strong and grounded people, and so their offering felt clean and generous, without hidden expectations. I never felt an obligation to pay attention to them, to offer them the right amount of gratitude, to reciprocate their generosity, or to feed their egos. Of course I WANTED to express gratitude and offer back some gifts, but it wasn’t out of a sense of obligation or expectation.

As I’ve written before, this is what it means to be in relationship with people when all parties are able to maintain their sovereignty and act out of love and commitment to each other rather than expectation, oppression, guilt, fear, power imbalance, or obligation. When we can hold space with sovereignty as our grounding principle, then we don’t layer our old wounds and expectations onto each other and we give each other the space to grow and to shine. We don’t feel threatened by another person’s greatness, nor do we diminish our own greatness to make the other person feel better. 

At the end of my week with them, I knew that I’d not only been able to do good work, but that I’d had some profound healing in the container they provided for me. In trusting them and letting them hold space for me, I’d had a beautiful opportunity to continue to re-write the old scripts about my need to be self-sufficient and not get too close to people. 

Since then, I’ve been reflecting on what was at play in order for me to allow space to be held for me (and what will allow me to find greater intimacy in future relationships), and here are some of the things I’ve come up with:
– I needed to have a high level of trust that Lorraine and TuBears would provide the space and support without expectation or unspoken conditions. My prior experience with them demonstrated that they could.
– I needed to work on releasing the leftover garbage from old attachment wounds so that I wouldn’t be as easily triggered by having to rely on and trust someone else for the kind of support they gave me.
– I needed them to be sufficiently mature and self-aware, and not needy or co-dependent so that I wouldn’t have to spend the week worrying about whether I was hurting their feelings or not reciprocating enough.
– I needed to pay attention to my own needs and be honest in articulating them.

– I needed to let love in and be gracious in receiving their generosity and kindness.

One of the teaching tools I often use is a collapsible bowl that can be either shallow or deep or somewhere in between. It demonstrates how we can hold space at different levels. Although I often have space held for me at the shallower or medium levels, I don’t often find myself held at the deepest level. (That’s usually what I do for other people instead of the other way around.) With Lorraine and TuBears, though, I was able to trust at the deepest level.

I can’t imagine a better way to finish a book on holding space than with my own profound learning about what it’s like to have space held for ME! 

What if I’m not a “nice girl” anymore?

photo credit: Gabriel Matula, Unsplash

I have been well trained to be a nice girl. So well trained, in fact, that, decades after that training took place, my body still goes into spasms whenever I even slightly deviate from the “nice girl” rule book.

Let me tell you… when you’re raised as a pacifist Canadian Mennonite farm girl, that programming runs DEEP. If we didn’t “turn the other cheek”, then we weren’t living the way Jesus taught us. If we weren’t painfully polite, then we were shaming not only our families, but our whole COUNTRY. If we weren’t sacrificing ourselves for other people, then we weren’t living out our faith. 

The list goes on and on. Don’t brag about yourself lest you be guilty of the sin of arrogance. Don’t stand up for yourself lest you incite an unnecessary conflict. Don’t let people know how smart you are lest you make other people feel badly about themselves (especially men). Don’t dress too provocatively lest you lead a man to sin. Don’t be angry lest you make other people uncomfortable. Don’t be too bold, too confident, too strong, too pretty, too smart, too obstinate, or too aggressive. Don’t swear, don’t be promiscuous, don’t argue, don’t dance… oh… and… while you’re at it, don’t say no or be rude when an older adult in the family wants to kiss you without your permission.

JUST BE NICE. Be agreeable. Be sacrificial. Be supportive. Be demure. Be modest. And… because we’re Mennonites… be prepared to be a martyr for your faith.

All of that conditioning resulted in this deeply rooted belief… if you are not a “nice girl” you will not be valued, you MOST CERTAINLY won’t get into heaven, and you will be rejected and shamed by your community.

Add to that potent mix the messaging that every woman receives – that if we are NOT nice and we don’t offer ourselves up as shock absorbers for men’s pain, we may run the risk of having their anger and violence directed at us. It doesn’t take very many situations where you experience the truth of that to become convinced that it’s the way the world works.

A patriarchal society values nice girls, because nice girls don’t take up too much space, they don’t claim too much power, they don’t challenge authority, and they certainly don’t threaten to overthrow the system that oppresses them. AND because nice girls are so cooperative, they police each other so that nobody else has to do the nasty work of keeping them in line. 

When that kind of social conditioning is woven together with trauma, it’s especially hard to root it out of one’s psyche. For me, there was the trauma related to the threat of hell, the fear of being shamed and/or rejected by the community, the fear of punishment, and the fear of having my life threatened by men who were stronger than I am. (For more about Religious Trauma Syndrome, read this article and the ones that follow it.)

When I look at all of this objectively, it all becomes so clear, and there’s a little part of my brain that asks “why don’t you just let it go and move on?” LOGICALLY, I get it, and that should make it easy to walk away from that programming and choose another way to live, right? Wrong.

When trauma and social conditioning are so deeply intertwined, they don’t respond to logic. They get stuck in our bodies and it’s our BODIES that activate our reactivity into fight/flight/freeze/tend-and-befriend mode. (That last one… “tend and befriend”… personally I think it’s the most helpful one for women with my social conditioning and trauma to understand when considering how we react. Our instinct is to make the situation safe for everyone and we do that at all costs.)

Because my tend and befriend reaction gets easily activated when I’m triggered, and because “nice” was so drilled into me as the highest standard and safest way to live, there are many, many times in my personal history when I’ve put up with the infringement of my boundaries (or didn’t bother to have them in the first place), when I’ve sacrificed myself for someone else’s comfort, when I didn’t stand up for myself even though I was being harmed, when I chose to overlook other people’s bad behaviour, when I masked my anger, etc. 

I’ve sacrificed a lot in order to be nice and it has taken its toll on my body and my emotional health. 

I’ve done plenty of personal work (therapy, journal practice, art practice, self care, sharing circles, etc.) to overcome that social conditioning and heal the related trauma, and I am far from where I once was, but the work isn’t over. I still get triggered and I still often slip into the pattern of sacrificing too much or overlooking bad behaviour. 

Recently, as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to peer into my own shadow, and one of the things that became clear to me was that I needed to do more work to tend to my “psychic membrane” (the language I have adopted to replace “boundaries” – like a cellular membrane, a psychic membrane determines what comes through and what stays out). Some of that work was about allowing more in (joy, nurturing, love, intimacy, etc.) and some was about protecting myself from that which harms me. 

The problem with strengthening one’s membrane, though, is that it doesn’t always fit with the “nice girl” box that people want to keep you in. It might mean that you indulge in things that might have been branded as “sinful”, for example. And it might mean that, in protecting yourself from what harms you, you show your anger, you offend people, or you look too proud or “full of yourself”.

There have been several times, lately, for example, when I’ve become more firm about the behaviour I will no longer put up with, and other people have reacted with some version of the old “you’re not being nice” shaming that is so triggering for me (and was once painfully effective). Not long ago, for example, a person to whom I once went for a body-work session, spoke of that session publicly (claiming some responsibility for my growth) and I said it was unprofessional to speak of client sessions in public. She didn’t apologize and instead said that I should “stay open.” (ie. “Be nice and don’t call people out.”) Her friend (who’d recommended her to me) jumped into the conversation, said he didn’t understand why I was so angry (ie. “Nice girls don’t get angry.”) and then claimed to know more about my anger than I do. (ie. “Nice girls don’t get defensive when other people define them.”)

And then there were the people a few weeks ago who continued to comment on a post where I clearly stated that “this conversation is closed – all further comments will be deleted”, because my clear boundary apparently didn’t matter to them or they thought I’d be “nice” and still let them express their opinions. (ie. “A nice girl doesn’t make a fuss if her boundaries are ignored.”)

And, while I was writing this post, someone criticized me for asking people to properly attribute a quote that had been taken from my viral blog post. (ie. “Nice girls don’t insist on being given credit for what they create.”)

Every one of these times, my old “be nice or lose everything” trauma has been triggered and I can feel my body respond with a need to do something to make it all better and to be nice to people even if they’ve behaved badly.

Fortunately, though, I’ve learned to hit the pause button when that triggering shows up and to do the necessary self care so that the triggering has less power over me. And then, when the throat-closing-heart-palpitating-brain-spinning reaction has dissipated, I am usually able to respond with more clear-headedness in a way that aligns with my values and in the way I choose to care for myself without putting up with harmful behaviour. (ie. Some of the above-mentioned people have been blocked from my social media.)

The trauma trigger is NOT the truth and it is not the guide I choose to follow. It is simply my amygdala trying to do its job to protect me from the old outcomes that my body is convinced will result. But I am much more than just an amygdala – I am a person with a strong frontal lobe and with lots of tools that help me shift my brain patterns and calm my body responses.

I won’t get it right all of the time, and sometimes, especially when I’m exhausted or emotionally raw, my reactivity will still get the better of me. But I’m learning. And you can too. 

No, I don’t want to be a “nice girl” anymore. That doesn’t mean I won’t be kind (I have a LOT of patience for people who want to grow and learn and who take responsibility for their mistakes), but I don’t intend to be complacent when people do harm to me and/or people I care about. And I will challenge authority when it is destructive. And I will take up space. And I will work shoulder-to-shoulder with those who want to disrupt systems of oppression.

And you can too.

Daring to peer into the shadows: What to do when your own darkness is revealed

Listen to a recording of this post:

 

There’s a labyrinth on Whidbey Island that is encircled by tall trees that cast shadows across the path. As you walk the labyrinth, you step from light into shadow and back again. It’s a great metaphor for life.

A few weeks ago, I stepped into the shadow. 

Just before it happened, I said to a friend “before my business grows to the next level, I have a feeling that I need to look deeper into the fears and shadows that are coming up.” Apparently, the universe heard that as a challenge, because since then, it has offered me non-stop opportunities to wrestle with the very fabric of who I am. I have more shadows than I ever knew!

It’s been one thing after another:

  • Some of my work has been floating all over the internet unattributed (and/or plagiarized) and one of the major websites responsible for it ignores requests (from me and my readers) that they rectify it. It’s triggered my frustration over the casual theft of writers’/makers’/artists’ work and the related difficulty of making a living with what you create. And it made me look deeper into the discomfort I have in challenging those who do wrong.
  • The behaviour of someone who’s been a mother-figure for me in the past brought up some of my leftover attachment wounds from my relationship with my mom. I had to wrestle with where my sense of worthiness comes from and why I sometimes feel an impulsive need to protect and soothe those who serve as mother figures.
  • Despite efforts to communicate them clearly and firmly, my boundaries were ignored by a few people in a few different situations, leaving me feeling unprotected and resentful. I had to lean into those feelings, be intentional about how I responded to the boundary-crossers, and remind myself that I am worthy of having those boundaries and can survive the reactivity of those who feel offended by them.
  • Conflict bubbled up in multiple circles that I am responsible for and I had to step in to deal with some challenging issues. It brought up some of my “keep the peace at all costs” baggage. I had to summon up the courage to be a conflict transformer and truth-teller rather than a conflict avoider. And I had to invite others to step into the discomfort with me.
  • An angry man in a parking lot (who’d hit me with his car) triggered some old trauma (and my “tend and befriend” trauma response and made me realize the ways in which I’ve been socially conditioned to be a shock absorber for other people’s pain. And then some of the response to the post I wrote about it triggered an old reaction to critique – second-guessing my interpretation of my own lived experience.
  • A couple of people who were once important in my life but have dropped out of contact have become friends with each other, triggering some wounding over being abandoned and left out of the loop. I had to energetically release those people, bless them for the roles they’ve played in the past, and remind myself that rejection has never destroyed me in the past.
  • I’ve had growing awareness of religious trauma syndrome and have had to acknowledge some wounds left behind from leaving the church and choosing a faith with a less authoritarian belief system.
  • In the middle of all of this, I was interviewed by a writer for a major publication for an article that has the potential to bring even more readers (and potentially more criticism) to my work, triggering some of the fear of being seen in such a big way. Though the possibility is exciting, it also reminds me of how draining and disruptive it was to have a blog post go viral, and how hard I had to work at maintaining my solid sense of self in the midst of it. (P.S. I’ll share it when it’s published.)

When I put it all down into a list like this, I think “Wow! I really went through all of that in just two weeks! It’s a wonder I’m not lying in my bed quivering!” But I’m really not a mess. At this point (though it doesn’t feel like I’m completely back into the light portion of the path yet) I feel strong and clear and even more solidly committed to this work and how I show up in the world.

It never feels like the fun part of the path when the shadow comes, but I’ve been through enough of the loops of the labyrinth to recognize the value of it. As Mary Oliver said, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”

  • Shadows help us refine our vision and see things we missed in the light. Our pupils dilate and we pick up on nuance and depth we weren’t able to see in the glare of the sunshine.
  • Shadows invite us to slow down, be alert, and be more intentional about how we walk on the path. We have to look more carefully for the things that might trip us up.
  • Shadows encourage us to withdraw for awhile and go inward. We have an opportunity to spend time listening to our own voices and seeing our own truths rather than getting lost in the noise of those around us.
  • Shadows offer us the opportunity to strengthen ourselves and gather our resources for the times when we are invited to step back into the light.
  • Shadows reveal who is truly with us on the path. When we are in the shadows, we gain clarity over which friends will truly hold space for us in the darkness and which prefer to be only “friends-in-the-light”.
  • Shadows reveal truth and help us be truth-tellers. When we can speak the truth that the shadow reveals, we cut through nonsense and spiritual bypassing like a knife through butter.

When we receive the gifts of the shadows, though, we have to be intentional about how we unwrap them. Though the initial reaction may be to reject those “gifts”, protect ourselves from them, and/or project them onto someone else like weapons, we are much better served when we slow down, let our eyes adjust, and then lean into the darkness.

Here are the imperfect things I’ve been doing that help me receive these gifts:

  1. Get quiet. I’ve been intentionally withdrawing into silence, spending long hours with my journal and endless cups of tea. And I’ve been listening to Let Yourself by Martyn Joseph on repeat. (“I need you brave, I want you brave, I need you strong to sing along, You are so beautiful.”)
  2. Block out unnecessary voices. I’ve withdrawn from social media this week, recognizing my tendency to use it as a way to numb out and noticing how I am (especially during a time like this) impacted by the noise of other people’s voices.
  3. Protect yourself. One of the other things I’ve noticed about social media is how much it exposes me and how I sometimes end up being a shock absorber for other people’s pain. Sometimes I’m strong enough to let it bounce off me, but when I’m in a place of deep shadow work, I need to protect myself from unnecessary shock absorption.
  4. Reach out. Though I’ve been off social media, my text messages and Zoom line (and a couple of coffee shops) have been burning up with the deep conversations I’ve been having with those who I trust to hold space for my darkness.
  5. Care for your body. Last weekend, I had my favourite body treatment (hammam spa) and I cried my way all the way through it. I hadn’t known just how much I needed to release from my body.
  6. Walk it off. Unfortunately, we’ve been stuck in a deep freeze this week, and I’m a winter wimp who doesn’t like to have my face bitten off by the cold, but my treadmill has seen a few miles as has my yoga mat.
  7. Konmari” your work and life. I’ve been doing some cleansing, recognizing where the energy leaks are and what no longer “sparks joy”. I’ve cleared a few things off my website and removed myself from the networks and associations that no longer feel like the right fit. And then I processed the grief that some of that brought up.
  8. Write your truth. My journal has been my best friend these past few weeks, and, as always, some deep truth has shown up on the pages. It’s helped me clear out old stories and claim new truth.
  9. Tend to your psychic membrane. In my teachings on holding space, there’s a fairly new concept I’ve developed about how we each have a psychic membrane that, like a cell membrane, helps us determine what to allow in and what to protect ourselves from. I’ve been working on strengthening mine and paying attention to the signals it sends.
  10. Honour your own hard work. Whenever I do work that I’m especially proud of, I reward myself in some way – buying myself a new piece of jewelry or other treat. I do that for both my external work and my internal work. I haven’t done that yet (because it doesn’t feel quite finished yet), but I plan to.
  11. Laugh. Comedy shows on Netflix have helped me not to take myself too seriously.
  12. Make messy art. I bought a large canvass and have been doing some intuitive art-making, combining elements that represent some of the shadows I’ve been peering into. For example, I added paper dolls that were my mother’s and mine.

I look forward to stepping out of the shadows and back into the light. When I do so, it will be with a strengthened sense of self and a stronger psychic membrane to protect and nurture me.

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