The world is settling into an eery quiet in this new age of coronavirus. It’s hard to believe that a thing so small – a virus that is invisible to the human eye – could cause the most significant global disruption any of us has ever seen in our lifetimes.
We have no roadmaps for the future because none of us has ever been here before. Our internal GPS’s are on endless loops of “recalculating” – they’ve run out of maps and nobody has any way of programming them to anticipate the road that’s ahead of us.
The waves of emotion have been flowing through me and around me, sometimes threatening to drown me and sometimes settling into something more manageable that I can float on.
Last week I found myself in parenting overwhelm, with one daughter having trachea surgery, another daughter losing a friend to suicide, and a third daughter dealing with the loss of an art show she’s worked all year to prepare for. This would be a lot to deal with at the best of times, but in the midst of this new and unfamiliar anxiety and uncertainty of what the future will look like, it felt like too much. It all came to a head when a police officer pulled me over for making an illegal left turn (which I’d done because I was distracted and overtired) and gave me a traffic ticket (while ignoring social distancing). The tears, rage, fear, and frustration spilled over as I drove away, and I didn’t bother trying to stop them.
Though I regret the traffic ticket that got me to breakdown, I don’t regret that moment of release, when I let myself scream and cry in the car (and text my sister for moral support). Like the release valve on a pressure cooker, it helped me settle into a greater sense of calm and acceptance.
This week, I’ve been having flashbacks to another time in my life when I had to live through a form of social isolation – a difficult time that became one of the most meaningful and transformational events of my life.
Five months into my third pregnancy, I had to shut down my very busy life and confine myself to a hospital room. To try to deal with an incompetent cervix (i.e., it was suddenly 4 centimetres open), doctors attempted a cerclage (i.e., stitching it closed), but they failed and pierced the membrane instead. My unborn child was suddenly exposed and at risk of infection before he was strong enough to fight off that infection. My body – designed to protect a gestating child – was no longer able to do its job.
Medical professionals started pumping my body full of antibiotics and steroids (to speed the baby’s development) and put me on strict bedrest. I was told I wouldn’t be able to leave the hospital until my baby was born. He wasn’t due for another four months, so it felt like an impossibly long time to be confined to an unfamiliar room in an unfamiliar place.
In those early days, panic set in as I watched the whole world suddenly slip out of my control and away from my grasp. In some moments I had full-blown panic attacks – especially the first night when I listened to the screams of another mom down the hall as she realized the baby she’d just given birth to was dead. In other moments, I went into overdrive trying to grab ahold of anything that was still within my grasp to control. I had a full and busy life with a lot of people depending on me – two small children at home and a team of staff at work that needed my leadership during their busiest time of the year – I suddenly felt the urgent need to do EVERYTHING I could to help them survive my absence.
In some of those moments, anger arose alongside the panic, reminding me that I wouldn’t be in this place if it hadn’t been for two different doctors’ errors. The first error had come a week before, when I’d gone to a different hospital because of discomfort and a sense that my hips were shifting and my body was opening before it was meant to. (I’d already had two births, so had some sense of what it should feel like at that stage.) At that time, my GP had made the choice not to do an internal exam (which might have revealed the incompetent cervix at an earlier stage when it would have been easier to address). The second error was when the specialist in charge of my care allowed an intern to do the surgery and the inexperienced intern slipped and pierced my membrane with her sharp needle.
A few days into my hospital stay, the familiar sense of panic threatened to overwhelm me in the middle of the night. In the liminal space between sleep and wake, I found myself wrestling with a mysterious presence that I was sure was in the room with me. (I later said that I felt like it was similar to Jacob wrestling with the angel in the Biblical story.) After much tossing and turning and wrestling with the flood of emotions that passed through me, a question landed on my heart, as though the presence had spoken it out loud.
“Do you choose to stay in this state of fear, anger and resentment, or do you choose peace and forgiveness?”
I took a deep breath and considered the question. I felt justified in all of the big, dark emotions flowing through me, and I felt attached to them because they gave me some sense of power and self-righteousness. But I also knew that those dark emotions would not serve my unborn child. They would cause unhealthiness in my body which would be passed on through the umbilical cord to my child.
“I choose peace,” I whispered. “I choose to forgive the doctors for their errors.”
The moment I made the choice, the anger drained out of my body and the wrestling stopped. I fell asleep soon afterward and in the morning I woke to a new state of serenity and acceptance.
It wasn’t perfect – there were still moments when the fear came back and fed the anger – but that choice changed my whole hospital experience. Nineteen years later, I can now say that it changed my whole life. The seeds for everything I now do – this work of teaching and writing about holding space – were planted in that one moment, that one choice.
For the next few weeks, my hospital room became an unusual kind of spiritual retreat centre. I settled into a time of contemplation and inward reflection. I entertained long and meaningful conversations with friends, family, and the staff at the hospital. I hung artwork from my children on the wall and welcomed plants and flowers from friends. I listened to music on the Fisher Price tape player a friend lent me.
It was in that hospital room that I first became a life coach. There was a new quality to my listening, and again and again I heard from people that sitting with me for a few minutes of their day helped them work through things in their lives where they felt stuck. It wasn’t unusual for nurses, nurses aides, other patients, and even doctors to poke their head into my room and say “I feel drawn to the peacefulness of your space” and then they’d stay awhile or come back during their break. Many of them would remark that they felt different when they left – like something had shifted. Even the young intern who’d pierced my membrane came, weeping, to my room, and I offered forgiveness and told her I hoped that she would go on to become a very good and attentive doctor.
Though I didn’t have the language for it yet, I was learning to hold space. In letting go of the illusion of control and accepting what was, instead of trying to cling to what could have been, I’d found a new practice that would change my life and eventually become my primary purpose in life.
Three weeks into my hospital stay, after I’d fallen asleep with lullabies playing in my ear, I woke up to hear that they wanted me to go down earlier than usual for my morning ultrasound. (They checked in on the baby twice a day to make sure that he was peeing regularly. A functioning bladder meant that he hadn’t developed infection.) I walked downstairs feeling hopeful and content because, just the day before, I’d reached the stage where my baby was considered viable outside the womb.
The ultrasound technician had barely begun when she went completely silent. We were friends by then, so it was unusual for the chatter to stop. “I have to get the doctor,” she said and slipped out of the room. I lay there and began to panic again. When the doctor returned and moved the wand over my belly while looking at the screen, I knew, even before he told me, that my baby had died. Sometime during the night, bacteria had passed through my open cervix and ended his short life.
Later that day, I gave birth to my stillborn son. When I found out, after the ultrasound, that I’d still need to go through the labour and delivery process, I was overwhelmed with the unfairness of it. But a kind social worker told me that many moms of stillborn children had reflected later that the labour process was meaningful for them and that it allowed them to feel more like they’d given birth to a real child. She was right – it was excruciating, but it was meaningful. My son, just like my daughters, was nurtured within me and born through me and his life had meaning and purpose. He wasn’t just a fetus.
The grief in the next few weeks was painful and there were nights when I lay in my bed weeping in anguish (especially when my milk came in and I had no child to nurse), but it’s also true that the sense of peace that I found in the hospital stayed with me and helped me get through the times of darkness.
Nothing was the same after that. Something was awakened in me in that hospital room, and, though it took ten more years for me to find myself to this work, I had a new sense of purpose and calling that wouldn’t leave me alone.
Now, nearly twenty years later, I feel deep gratitude for my time in liminal space and social isolation. I was irrevocably changed by it, and it led me to this remarkable work that fills my life with purpose and joy.
It is likely that, with coronavirus disrupting your world, you are finding yourself in some of the upheaval, panic and loss of control that I experienced at the beginning of my hospital stay. If you are, let me offer a few suggestions, based on my experience.
Remember that no emotional state is ever permanent. The feelings may feel enormous and scary right now, but they will pass. They always pass. Let them pass through you and don’t judge yourself for feeling big feelings. Feel them, label them, and let them pass.
Take a deep breath and let go of whatever you can’t control. Our suffering is often rooted in the fact that we desperately want to feel some control over our lives, but that control is an illusion, especially in a time of such disruption. Clench your hand into a fist and release it – notice how it feels to let go and invite that sensation into your whole body. Do this again and again, as often as you need to.
Notice what overstimulates you and limit your exposure to it. When I was in the hospital, I tried to watch TV one night, but found that it overstimulated my anxious brain, so I stopped and didn’t watch for the rest of the time I was in the hospital. I’m now noticing the same happening with social media occasionally, so I walk away and turn my attention to something more calming.
Focus on the people in front of you. When you let the whole world into your consciousness, it can feel scary and overwhelming, especially right now, but when you focus on those you love, in your small circles, it feels much more grounding and comforting. This is a good time to narrow your focus. Hold space for those who matter most and trust that the others will find their people.
Be still enough to allow your undiscovered gifts to come to the forefront. Sometimes, in times of great upheaval, when we quiet ourselves and tune in to the depths within us, we find resources that we didn’t know we had. Just as I discovered skills in coaching and navigating liminal space, you may discover you have a gift for leadership or baking or problem-solving or virtual hosting or serving your neighbourhood or…. whatever!
Tend the space you’re in. Though I’ve never been the type of person who loves to clean or care for plants, both of those things felt meaningful to me in my small space. Tending the plants I’d gotten from friends gave me a surprising amount of pleasure and helped me feel grounded and peaceful. Right now, with many of us confined to our homes, the small spaces we’re in will need special tending so that we feel supported and held.
Create a space for “cocooning”. As I said in last week’s video about liminal space, this time we’re in can be compared to the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly. Before we get to the new post-coronavirus world, we have to go through a phase of deconstruction and emptiness. In my hospital room, I had a large comfortable chair in the corner that I filled with pillows. That was where I curled up when I needed extra comfort and stillness. Now, during coronavirus, I have a similar spot near my window where I can curl up and feel the sun warm my body.
Allow yourself time and space for processing and meaning-making. In the early days of disruption, your brain will likely be stuck in anxiety overdrive, and you won’t be able to do much higher-functioning processing until you’ve learned how to calm it. But once you’re ready, it can be very helpful to spend time processing your thoughts through journal-writing, art-making, dance, etc. The more you’re able to process it and make meaning out of it, the less it will get stuck in your body as trauma that you’ll have to deal with later.
Connect with the people who matter most to you and let them support you. This is a time when we need each other more than ever. Even if we can’t be in physical contact with each other, we can still support each other and offer love and kindness in all of the ways that we can. It takes a special kind of vulnerability to get through liminal space together, but the deepened relationships that I enjoyed in the hospital tell me that it’s worth it.
Notice what lands on your windowsill. When I was in the hospital, butterflies became special to me after my friend Stephanie gave me an article about a woman who saw butterflies as a representation of her deceased dad. After I read the article, butterflies started showing up in unusual places – including the windowsill of my fifth floor hospital room. In the years since then, they have continued to remind me of my son Matthew, and I receive each one as a special gift from the spirit/natural world. In the time of coronavirus, I wonder what special creatures will show up for each of us.
None of us knows the outcome of this time of disruption in the world. It’s quite possible that many of us will suffer losses and that we’ll have to walk through considerable grief and ongoing disruption. I wish I could promise you otherwise, but I simply can’t – not after grieving the loss of my son.
I don’t even know if it’s hope that I want to leave you with at the end of this article. Perhaps it’s something other than hope that we need right now – perhaps it’s more like courage and strength and resilience and new skills in navigating hard journeys. Perhaps it’s faith that we can survive this and that we have the capacity to weather the storms that this brings to our lives.
Whatever the future looks like, there is one thing that I feel certain of and it is this… we are meant to be connected to each other, and in this moment, I feel deep gratitude that I am connected to you.
So here we are… in this unusual liminal space between “the world before COVID-19” and “the world after COVID-19”. I gathered some of my thoughts around what it means to go through the liminal space, and how we need to seek out the wayfinders and imaginal cells in our communities and our world (and within ourselves). Instead of a blog post, I thought a video might feel a little more like the kind of human connection we need right now…
Once there was a girl in a velcro dress whose dress became so weighted down with all of the things other people stuck to it that she could barely move.
One day, exhausted and frustrated from the gargantuan amount of effort that it took to move about in her life, she slipped out of the dress and found herself in a sad little heap underneath. The dress, stiff from all of the expectations and beliefs and baggage that everyone else had layered onto it and she’d picked up herself, stayed perfectly still, creating a tent above the girl.
The girl loved how peaceful and quiet it was in that tent. Nobody could find her there and she didn’t need to satisfy anyone other than herself. She noticed how different her breath felt – long and slow and filling her whole body. Whenever she was wearing the dress, her breath was short and fast and a little strangled because of the weight of the dress, but under the dress, it was different.
Of course, she didn’t allow herself to stay for long, that first time in her tent hideaway. She was a responsible girl and wearing that dress was one of her responsibilities, so she silenced the longing that encouraged her to stay and she stood up and carried on. Carrying on was one of the things she was good at.
Once she’d had a taste of the tent, though, she couldn’t shake it from her mind no matter how hard she tried to stay busy or distract herself. A few days later, when nobody was paying attention, she slipped down inter her tent again for a few more minutes of rest, cut off from the noisy world around her.
Gradually, this became more and more common. The girl started to plan into her day moments when she could slip out of the dress and disappear. Of course, being a responsible girl, she made sure that the moments she chose wouldn’t inconvenience her children, her husband, her mother, her employer, or any of the other people who depended on her. They were moments at the edges of her day, when nobody needed her to cook supper or show up at a meeting or drive them to soccer practice or fill out a form.
At first, those moments in the tent were quiet and dark because what she craved most was rest from the burden of carrying around the dress. But one day, just before slipping down into the tent, she grabbed her music player and took it with her. Laying on the floor of the tent with her headphones on, she felt the most blissful feeling she’d felt in a long, long time. The music filled her whole body and she knew that something new had awakened in her.
“I wonder what else I could bring with me,” she thought, and soon she was experimenting with what things made her feel happy and alive under her dress. Her journal and pen made the cut – she loved to lie under the tent writing about her frustrations, her fears, and her dreams. A new set of paintbrushes and paints also made the cut, as did some scissors and glue. Sometimes, hidden from view from all who knew her, she felt almost childlike again, making joyful messes with art supplies.
There were stretches of time, of course, when the girl couldn’t justify any time under the dress – when her kids were sick or she had important deadlines at work or her husband or her mom needed extra attention. There were also times when she convinced herself how frivolous it all was and she swore she would never do it again.
But the call of the tent was too strong, and, eventually, she always found herself back under the dress with her journal, her music, and her art supplies.
One day, she noticed a secret doorway underneath the tent, and when she crawled through that doorway, she found a magical room where other tent-people had gathered. The discovery both delighted and frightened her. She wanted to befriend the other tent-people, but she was afraid of being exposed. The fear took over and she scurried back to her own tent, closed the door behind her and slipped quickly back into the dress.
Her curiosity soon got the better of her, though, and a few weeks later, she crept quietly back through the door into the magical room. She curled up in a ball at the edge, hoping nobody would notice her. All she wanted was to be among other people who’d felt trapped in their velcro dresses, to know that she was not alone. Talking to them took too much courage but watching them was safe enough.
With time though, after lots of people had smiled at her and she felt ready to trust them, she relinquished her anonymous place at the edge of the room and began to mingle tentatively among the people. She discovered that the room held the most interesting mix of people she’d ever come across – weirdos and misfits and artists and dancers and dreamers and revolutionaries. They were doing the most fascinating things in that room, too. Some were painting on the walls, some were clustered in conversation circles, some were gathered around markers and poster boards making protest signs – almost anything imaginable was welcome in that room. Gradually, as the girl’s courage kindled, she joined in, once again experimenting with the things that made her happy. Sometimes, while she was lost in the act of creating, she had flashbacks to how she’d felt back in her childhood before she’d put on the dress.
Emboldened by the support of her new friends, the girl claimed more and more time to slip away into the tent, sometimes even daring to inconvenience the people who depended on her. At first, that caused her a lot of guilt, and that added to the weight of the dress, but she did it anyway because it was the only way she could find enough strength to keep carrying the dress around.
Some days she needed more solitude, and in those times she’d stay alone in her lovely little tent. Other days, she needed companionship, and then she’d slip through the door into the magical room.
During her times of solitude, the girl became more and more bold with her art supplies, and soon the inside of the dress was covered in paint. Fanciful creatures and shapes danced across the walls in colourful, messy glee.
While the inside of the dress was transforming, so was the outside. The time spent inside the tent and in the magical room were giving the girl enough strength and courage to make changes in her life. She started by anxiously and tentatively saying “no” to people who wanted to add new things to her dress.Some people, of course, were quite annoyed with this new turn of events, because they were quite accustomed to hanging their things on her, and sometimes she gave in rather than hurt their feelings, but other people were more respectful. The people who were willing to listen to her “no” were the ones she wanted to spend more time with.
After a bit of practice saying no and standing up for herself when people got upset, she became curious about whether she could peel anything off her dress. She grabbed the first things she could find – an old belief about what good girls are supposed to wear in public – peeled it away and dropped it on the floor. That gave her the courage to peel back another thing and another and each thing that dropped to the floor made her a little bolder to peel back the next.
There were, of course, some things that had been on her dress the longest, and those took a lot of time and effort to peel away. To grow the extra courage and strength she needed to deal with those things, she made repeated visits to the magical room where she could sit in circle with other tent-people who were dealing with similar baggage or had done so in the past.
Once she’d peeled a few things away, she realized that the dress underneath was not as sticky as it once was. People would try to attach new things in the empty spaces, but they simply slipped to the floor. While peeling things away, she hadn’t noticed that she was also peeling away the velcro that was holding it there.
After enough things were peeled away that the dress was nearly bare, the girl saw that the dress was being transformed. With the velcro gone, the paintings on the underside of the dress were now starting to show through. At first, this made her feel too exposed, and so she hid those exposed bits and only uncovered them in the privacy of her own home. But whenever she looked in the mirror, she noticed how happy those painted bits made her feel, and so she took some chances and left the house with nothing covering the paintings.
Some people looked at her in shock and disapproval when they saw her exposed paintings, but she also noticed something else – strangers on the street started to smile and wink at her. When she paused to look at who was smiling, she realized that many of them were her friends from the magical room. They looked different, out here in the real world, but she could see the familiar longing and wildness underneath.
When those people saw her so boldly walking around outside of the house with her paintings showing, some of them found their own courage and let their coverings slip to the floor revealing that they were wearing imperfect dresses with bits of velcro and bits of paintings peeking through. They grinned at each other when this happened, enjoying the messy imperfection of it all.
Instead of hiding her paintings, the girl began to polish them and add little touches of flourish and sparkle. In the spots where she applied extra sparkle, nothing could stick to the dress and that filled her with even more courage and delight.
The more colourful and sparkly the girl’s dress became, and the more she was able to peel things away, the lighter it was and the more the girl was able to move freely in the world. She discovered that she loved to dance and she loved the way the colourful dress flowed around her as she twirled. She remembered what it felt like to be wild and free – how she’d felt as a child before she’d been told to put on the velcro dress – and now that she’d experienced it again, nothing could convince her to go back.
Whenever she danced and sparkled, people were drawn to the girl in the painted dress. They would stand and watch her, and when she paused to look at them, she recognized the longing in their eyes. It was the same longing she’d had, before she’d discovered the secret tent under her dress.
Sometimes people would ask “how did you learn to do that?” Whenever they did, the girl would lean in and whisper “slip down under your velcro dress and see what you find there”. The people would look at her in wide-eyed wonder and she’d smile at them and encourage them to try. Sometimes they would scoff at her, but sometimes she could see by the light in their eyes that they would go home and find a private place to try. For those with lights in their eyes, she would lean in a second time and say “once you’ve been there for awhile, and you’ve worked up the courage, find the hidden door at the bottom, go through it, and I’ll meet you on the other side.”
That was how the girl in the painted dress claimed a space in the magical room, began to gather her people there, and built a whole new life for herself. She wasn’t perfect, and sometimes things still stuck to her dress, but it was easier and easier to let them go.
A couple of days ago, I cried in the carwash. It seemed a fitting place for waterworks, and a little screaming, if necessary. I was on my way home with the groceries that were needed to cook supper for my family, but I wasn’t ready to be home yet, so I used the excuse that the car needed washing to buy myself some crying time.
I’d hit overwhelm. My daughter had had surgery earlier in the day, after many months of repeated attempts to address her breathing problems, and the surgery wasn’t entirely successful. Plus we found out new information about her prognosis that’s been discouraging for both of us. In addition to the worry about her, I found myself hitting some nervous system overload due to some things that happened at the hospital that triggered some of my past trauma. This came at the tail end of a month of traveling and teaching, so my resources were already depleted.
Overwhelm happens, and I’ve come to accept it as simple reality in this life I’ve chosen (or any life, for that matter).Sometimes one simply must cry in a carwash to release all of the emotions one is holding, especially when some of that holding is on other people’s behalf. Sometimes a single good cry is enough and sometimes it isn’t.
I have a lot of capacity for holding space, but sometimes I max out on that capacity. It happens to the best of us, and I share this with you to encourage you to give yourself permission to admit when you’re maxed out too.
In this post, though, I want to go a little further and talk about some of the deeper layers of why we get maxed out in this work of holding space and what we can do about it.
What I’ve encountered, again and again, as I travel the world and meet with people who hold space, is that this work especially calls wounded people. My workshops are full of wounded, healing people. (I considered calling them “wounded healers”, but holding space is more about “being with” than it is about “healing”. Perhaps “wounded witnesses” is better.) We become good at holding space for the brokenness and pain in the world partly because we already intimately know the brokenness and pain in ourselves. We learn to bear witness to grief and fear and trauma and all of the other complex emotions in others because we know those things in ourselves.
The challenge is that, even when we do a lot of healing, we continue to carry those wounds with us for life. We never become perfectly healed, saintly people – we just become people who learn to carry those wounds with grace, integrate them into our lives, and use them to help us better understand other people who are wounded.
When scar tissue grows over a flesh wound, that scar tissue may be thicker than the original skin, but it’s also usually more tender and vulnerable and may need special care. Similarly, when we have emotional wounds, we might grow emotional scar tissue over it that protects us, but we remain tender and vulnerable because of it. We’ll likely need to be extra tender with ourselves whenever that emotional wound is bumped.
These wounds that we carry are both blessings and curses. They help us to see the world through more compassionate eyes and they help grow our ability to sit with messiness and discomfort, but they also make us more vulnerable and more in need of healthy boundaries and robust self-care.
Let me share a little about that woundedness in me…
I mentioned above that my nervous system was flooded while I was at the hospital, and that’s because of the multiple traumas that were being triggered while I was there.
A.) I once spent three weeks in another part of that same hospital trying to prolong my third pregnancy, and that pregnancy ended with the stillbirth of my son. During that three week period, I had a significant psychotic break that was probably brought on by the steroids the medical team was pumping into my body to try to speed the development of my son. It was one of the scariest and most confusing 24 hours of my life.
B.) During the course of my marriage, my former husband attempted suicide twice and had to spend a week in the hospital each time. During those times, I served as his advocate and primary caregiver, and (during the second attempt) also had to be a supportive mom to our three young daughters.
That second trauma is the one that’s left the most complex mark on my life. Both times he went into the kind of intense emotional tailspin that resulted in a suicide attempt were times when I’d turned my attention away from him. The first time, I was five months pregnant with our first child. The second time, I was about to launch my own business.
My trauma brain became conditioned to believe that “when I turn my attention away from suffering, people die”. (Or at least they attempt to die – trauma brain doesn’t know the difference.)
That’s just the tip of the iceberg of that particular trauma. It’s hard to go into the details, because the story is not mine alone (and I don’t want to blame or slander anyone), but there were many, many ways, in my marriage, that my trauma brain was conditioned to believe that I (and others) would suffer whenever I was inattentive to another’s suffering, whenever I didn’t sacrifice myself to fill another’s needs, whenever I tried to erect or hold boundaries, and whenever I tried to protect my children from the instability created by the mental illness.
When it comes to stress and trauma, I am well acquainted with all of the typical amygdala reactivity – fight, flight, and freeze – but I am most intimately familiar with one identified more recently as “tend and befriend”. Researchers who named the tend and befriend response found that some people (especially women) react to stressful situations by tending to those most vulnerable to harm and by befriending the perpetrator in order to reduce the harm. Again and again, we put our bodies on the line to try to mitigate harm, until it becomes so much a part of who we are that we no longer notice ourselves doing it. (This has also become a culturally expected role of women – especially mothers – so the complexity of it runs deep. Our trauma often becomes part of the way we are controlled by the dominant culture.)
I spent much of my marriage tending and befriending, in many, many stressful situations, so that pattern is deeply ingrained in me and is easily triggered whenever anything reminds me (usually subconsciously) of the original trauma. Triggers can appear out of nowhere, and I never know what will trigger me, but some of the common sources are: when someone exhibits the behavioural patterns of my former husband’s mental illness, when I am critiqued for not caring enough or being inattentive to suffering, when I feel manipulated by passive-aggressiveness, when conflict makes a situation feel unstable, or when someone ignores or makes fun of one of my boundaries. This can happen in the middle of a workshop I’m facilitating, while I’m interacting with friends or family, or even when someone responds critically to a Facebook post of mine. Each time it happens, my body responds the same way – as though the threat is always just as serious as a person potentially dying.
A flooded nervous system can feel different for each person, but here’s what happens to me, usually instantly and simultaneously: Adrenaline pumps through my body (the physiological preparation for fight or flight) and my heart begins to race, my muscles tense, and I become hyper-alert to any perceived threat. My throat tightens and if I try to speak it might come out sounding choked or emotional. My brain gets buzzy (amygdala hijacking) and I can’t focus, think clearly, or access my capacity for logic and reason. I become hyper-focused on the source of the triggering and my brain keeps looping back to it even when I try to redirect it elsewhere (sometimes long into the night, when I’m trying to sleep). I have an overwhelming compulsion to respond to the perceived threat – usually in a tend and befriend manner, but often also in a fight/flight/freeze fashion – even when I try to convince myself that it doesn’t logically make sense to. Sometimes I dissociate (freeze) and feel numb and checked out, going through the motions of relationships and life but not fully present.
My therapist has helped me to accept that, though I’ve made huge progress in healing the trauma, there will always be a part of it that I will carry with me, like emotional scar tissue. I’ve stopped hoping that I’ll eventually never be triggered and instead I’m learning to integrate this wound into my life and respond with self-compassion when the triggering happens.
The added complexity of this kind of trauma is that it’s not only rooted in my marriage, it’s generational, cultural, and religious. I inherited it from my mom, who had much of the same trauma running through her body and likely inherited it from her mom (and so on). I also inherited it from my patriarchal culture and pacifist religion (i.e., “turn the other cheek” is a deeply held belief in my Mennonite upbringing). With something so deeply rooted in my cells, it’s unrealistic to hope that I can transform it over the course of only a few years. It’s likely something that my children will continue to heal for many years too, because they’ve inherited it from me (though we’re doing our best to heal it together).
Here are some of the things that I do when I am dysregulated (another name for nervous system flooding):
1.) Practice self-soothing in the moment that it happens. Take deep breaths, go for a walk, drink a glass of water, let myself cry, listen to soothing music, lay my hands on my throat and/or heart to soothe the places where I feel my body respond, etc. (For more suggestions, I recommend Gwynn Raimondi’s Nervous System Soothing card deck.) When it happened in the hospital, I walked to the cafeteria for a cup of tea and sat in a hidden corner taking deep breaths while sipping the tea slowly.
2.) Strengthen my boundaries and become fierce about enforcing them. I can, admittedly, come across as rather abrupt and sometimes even a little cruel when I’ve been triggered and need to erect boundaries, but I’ve learned to give myself permission to protect myself in the way that I need to. Sometimes I simply don’t have the spoons to finesse my boundary-enforcement, so occasionally I find myself apologizing after the fact (though I’m careful not to over-apologize or take responsibility for other people’s reactions, because that can be part of my tend and befriend tendency as well). In the hospital, for example, when I became overwhelmed, I gave myself permission to not sit in the same waiting room as my former husband (who I wasn’t expecting to be there) and not explain myself either, because I knew that if I did so, my body would be on high alert and I would have to work extra hard to fight the compulsion to tend and befriend.
3.) Reach out to people who help me co-regulate. I have a few close friends who respond to my texts, in my moments of dysregulation, with just the right compassion, understanding, and protectiveness that help to calm and centre me (i.e., holding space). They were my lifeline in the hospital. Some even offered to drive across town to sit with me, but I decided it wasn’t necessary. They continued to check in on me after the worst of the perceived crisis was over, and I am grateful for the way they supported me through it. The added benefit in admitting to close friends when I’m dysregulated is that the vulnerability helps to normalize it, to mitigate shame, and to build resilience (as Brené Brown teaches).
4.) Continue to look after my body after the flooding has subsided. In a particularly overwhelming incident, it can take quite awhile to return to a sense of calm. Sometimes I still feel shaky and edgy a day or two later. That’s when I immerse myself in epson salt baths, get a massage if necessary, and do some movement practice (sometimes it’s as simple as dancing around my house to the song Brave).
5.) Give myself some intentional time for processing/healing after it’s over. To continue to integrate this trauma wound into my life, I give it a chance to speak to me. After my nervous system has returned to calm, I usually take out my journal and write about the experience and what it revealed. As part of that practice, I always try to find ways to congratulate myself for the ways I’ve made progress, or simply for the way that I survived. This week I had to reschedule a couple of meetings so that I could spend a morning in a coffee shop with my journal, but it was worth it. Sometimes the processing also includes a visit to my therapist or other support-worker.
6.) Treat myself for adrenal fatigue, if necessary. After my marriage ended, I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue, a condition caused by being in a prolonged state of nervous system and adrenaline overload. I took adrenal health supplements for some time and, though I don’t need them regularly anymore, I still take them occasionally when I go through a period of overload and fatigue.
7.) Practice self-compassion, forgiveness, and grace. This week, I dropped multiple balls, and in some cases, let people down. That’s the kind of thing I tend to beat myself up over, but I’m getting better at acknowledging my imperfections and forgiving myself for the ways I fumble when my brain’s not focusing clearly and/or I’m distracted or overwhelmed and/or I don’t have as much time or energy for things as I expect.
This trauma wound often feels like a burden that I’m stuck carrying for the rest of my life, but I’ve also come to see it as a gift. I likely wouldn’t be doing the work that I do in the way that I do it without such an intimate understanding of trauma. It allows me to be more compassionate with other trauma-impacted people, it helps me to be more attentive to what’s going on beneath the surface with people I’m teaching or coaching, and it’s taught me a lot about boundaries and the value and importance of holding space for yourself.
When I teach, I do it not only from my strengths, but from my weaknesses. I believe that people can benefit from the authentic sharing of the ways that I still get triggered and overwhelmed and the ways that I fail people that I’m trying to help, especially when I’m dysregulated. Sometimes I’ve even admitted to having a flooded nervous system in the middle of a workshop. The response to that kind of sharing is almost always relief and understanding – they’re glad to know that we don’t have to be perfect to do this work of holding space and that their wounds are as welcome as mine.
To be wounded is not to be broken or useless – it is simply to be human and real. It is also to be tender and openhearted. When we learn to treat our own woundedness with compassion and understanding, we can treat other people’s woundedness the same way.
If you find yourself overwhelmed, be as tender as you can with yourself and recognize that you are doing the best that you can with the skills that you have. Your body is uniquely designed to have the kinds of responses that you have, so don’t beat yourself up for the ways that those responses have become maladaptive. Instead, learn to hold space for them, integrate them, find the gifts beneath the pain, and do your best to heal and transform them as much as you can.
We are not meant to be superheroes. We are meant to be imperfect humans fumbling through this life together. We are meant to be wounded witnesses.
At an early age, before any other options became apparent to her, she’d stitched that dress together out of all of the bits that had been passed down to her by her mother and grandmothers before her. Into the stitches were woven the messages and beliefs from her culture, her religion, her family system, the media, and the grown-ups who knew no better because they wore velcro clothing too. There were also layers of trauma and generational baggage that she didn’t understand but that made its way into the dress anyway. The dress was prickly and uncomfortable, but she wore it because she needed to be clothed.
The velcro made it easy for other people to attach things to her. Some people attached expectations of how she should behave or what she should sacrifice on others’ behalf. Others attached their own needs that they wanted her to meet and the pain that they didn’t know how to carry. Still others attached their disapproval and judgement. There was also the weight of expectation of how she should look, the way that she should dress, the rules for good girl behaviour, the pressure to please people and not step out of line, and so many more things that she lost track of all of the bits that clung to her dress.
It was such a familiar pattern to have other people’s things hanging from her dress that she did it to herself as well – picking up pieces that other people should have been responsible for, saying yes when she wanted to say no, and layering on shame and fear and other people’s opinions. She was so buried under the weight of the dress that she had no idea what she looked like underneath.
Her dress was so sticky, in fact, that she could pick up new burdens simply by noticing a disapproving glance from across the room, or by hearing the passive-aggressive sigh of a person who’d come to rely on her.
By the time she was a young woman, a great deal of things were attached to that dress. She didn’t question the weight of it, though, because she knew that it was simply her lot in life to carry around what other people had tossed her way. It gave her a sense of purpose, in fact, and people started to praise her for just how much she was able to carry without buckling under the weight.
The young woman married and had a few children, and the dress became heavier and heavier. The man she married had a lot of pain and fear and insecurity that was hard for him to carry, and so he tossed it her way, trusting that it would stick and that her vows meant that she’d carry it on his behalf. She lived up to that expectation, believing (because that belief was one of the earliest things that became attached to her dress) that it was her responsibility as a wife to do so. Sadly, like her mother had done before her, she modelled that velcro dress to her daughters, and passed down little bits of it for them to begin crafting their own dresses.
At the places where she worked and volunteered, it was the same. Co-workers and bosses congratulated her for how much she could carry, and then they casually dropped more things on her and walked away.
Finally a day came when the dress became so heavy that the woman could barely breathe under the weight of it.She propped the heavy dress up like a concrete tent, slipped down into the cavity it created underneath, curled up in a ball on the floor and wept and wept. She had no idea what to do with this massive dress that had become her prison.
In her tiny cave under the dress she began to fantasize about what it would be like to live without that dress – about how freely she could move in the world without the weight of other people’s expectations, judgement, and needs.
“Enough!” she shouted to herself to wake herself up from the dream, “Fantasies have nothing to do with the REAL WORLD!” With new resolve, she picked herself up off the floor, slipped back into the dress, and carried on. Because carrying on was what she did best.
But the fantasy wouldn’t let go – it kept popping into her consciousness when she least expected it, and soon she was regularly sneaking away into her little cave beneath the dress, entertaining that fantasy and letting herself slowly begin to believe that another life might be possible.
One day, after the fantasy had grown so big that it consumed her even when she wasn’t hiding in her cave, she allowed a tiny thought to poke its way into her imagination… “What if I start to peel away some of the things stuck to this dress?” That thought made her heart leap, so she reached down and plucked off the thing that was easiest to reach. It was a cultural expectation of how she should dress at work. She dropped it on the floor and suddenly felt a tiny rush of freedom and hope.
Next she plucked off some bits of shame and fear that other people had projected on her, and those too fell on the floor at her feet.
Suddenly the world was full of possibilities. With each thing she peeled away, she felt a little lighter, a little more herself. She began to remember what she looked like under the dress, and that memory filled her with delight and expectation.
Many of the things she peeled away could simply be dropped on the floor, but other things had to be tenderly and/or cautiously returned to the person who put them there in the first place. Those were often the hardest to release, because one of the things that clung to her dress the most tightly and stubbornly was the expectation that she should never hurt anyone’s feelings.
For some of hardest things to release, she needed the right kind of support – people who were doing the same kind of work, people who had expertise in peeling, and people who were eager to dismantle the systems that had taught her to wear the dress in the first place. Sometimes she sat in circles with others wearing velcro clothing and they all did a little peeling together. The community support made the work feel a little easier.
A few things took much longer to peel away than others. Her husband’s pain, for example, took many years to detach from, and in the process of peeling it away she discovered that the marriage no longer made any sense without that attachment. She felt a little lonely without that long-held weight attached to her dress, but when it was gone she realized just how much closer she was to revealing her true self beneath it.
One day, after she’d peeled quite a few things away, she noticed that the dress underneath no longer had as much stickiness as it once did. Other people would try to toss things into the empty spaces, but those things either slid to the floor or bounced back to the person they belonged to. She was greatly relieved to discover that she no longer needed to catch what wasn’t hers.
She also noticed, as her dress became lighter and less sticky, that she was now more able to support people in holding their own problems and pain without letting any of it get stuck to her. She could sit with them for awhile, offer them a space in her big heart, and then she could walk away without bearing their weight on her dress. She knew that she’d helped them lighten their load for awhile, just by sitting with them, so she didn’t feel guilty for not letting it get stuck to her.
She wasn’t perfect, and sometimes – especially when she was overtired and under-resourced – she would still let things stick that weren’t hers, and sometimes she would berate herself for those moments of weakness, but over time she got better and better at noticing and peeling away whatever didn’t belong.
And one day she noticed how much lighter she felt and how much she loved the shape of herself that was emerging from under the weight of the dress. She looked down at herself, smiled, and said “Hello friend – it’s so lovely to see you again!” In that moment, she danced.