On an episode of the TV show The Good Place, we’re introduced to Doug Forcett, a former stoner who, during a magic mushroom trip, figured out the formula for the afterlife (ie. how to make enough points to get into the Good Place). Doug is living a “perfect” life, ensuring each choice he makes gains him points. He lives on a farm in Canada where he is kind to a fault, treats every plant and animal with respect, and never fails to recycle.
It doesn’t take long to discover, though, that Doug is living a paralyzed and tortured life. He goes into spasms of guilt and fear every time he makes a misstep (ie. he steps on a snail and kills it), he eats nothing but radishes and lentils and drinks his own filtered urine, and he allows himself to be victimized by the neighbourhood bully who takes advantage of his extreme altruism and forgiveness. In the last scene that we see Doug, he is about to walk hundreds of miles to make a donation in atonement for killing the snail.
Yes, there is a shadow side to trying too hard to be good. That shadow deepens when, in the next episode, it is revealed that every “good” choice has dozens of ripple effects that are “bad” (ie. buying an organic tomato that has to be shipped a long distance from another country where there are no ethical labour practices) and even Doug hasn’t made enough points to get into The Good Place.
The torture suffered by the Mennonites under Stalin was brutal. Because they were identified as ethnic Germans, they were treated as the enemy during the first and second World Wars. Their villages were destroyed, their land and/or harvested crops were taken from them and they were left without food, many women were raped, and in some villages, all of the men over sixteen were killed or put in prison. For twenty-five years, until they eventually fled the country, they were treated to unimaginable horrors. About half of the families that left were female-led because so many men had been killed.
As I read through the accounts of these atrocities, this paragraph landed the most heavily on my heart:
“What complicated these traumatic experiences for Mennonites was the fact that they did not defend themselves against such assault, upholding their 400-year pacifist stance. In many cases, husbands and fathers witnessed the brutal rapes of their wives and daughters and did not retaliate.”
I re-read that paragraph several times, overcome with the horror of what it must have been like to be a woman who was not only brutally raped, but whose husband or father did nothing to stop it. What utter betrayal that must have been to know that someone you loved chose their need to be “good” according to their faith over protecting you, their beloved!
That deep-seated value of pacifism – a core tenet of the Mennonite faith that is, in many ways, quite beautiful – has the ironic potential to create the conditions for the greatest form of betrayal for the most marginalized among the community – the women. Much like the fictional Doug Forcett, they were paralyzed by their belief in what it means to be good, and the result of that paralysis was betrayal of those they loved most.
(Side-note: As I’ve written before, after my own rape in my early twenties, my own pacifist father responded by admitting how he suddenly saw in himself a capacity to kill my rapist. That was both surprising and comforting for me at the time. I don’t know, though, what he would have done had he been given the opportunity to defend me.)
There is a shadow side to pacifism, just as there is a shadow side to trying too hard to be good, and far too often, it’s those with little power who are most impacted by that shadow. An insistence on goodness, in fact, can become a tool of oppression, by which those with power can keep those without power in line and silent.
Here are a few other shadows worth reflecting on:
The Shadow Side of Gratitude: While there has been much written about the values of living a grateful life (ie. having a gratitude practice can build resilience and hope and help us live in greater freedom), the shadow side is that it can be a form of spiritual bypassing. When we force ourselves (or others) to be grateful, we ignore the very real pain and grief that we need to process and hold space for in order to heal and transform it. Those darker emotions that we bury when we turn too quickly to gratitude will find more destructive ways of surfacing later on – as trauma, addictions, physical ailments, emotional breakdowns, etc..
The Shadow Side of Forgiveness:Much like gratitude, forgiveness can be a form of spiritual bypassing in which we rush past the complexity of our genuine feelings of rage, pain, betrayal, etc., deny ourselves the right to justice, repair and healing, and let the other person off the hook before they’ve shown genuine remorse. Forgiveness, if there is no remorse and atonement on the part of the person who’s done harm, puts the burden of emotional labour on the shoulders of the victim, and while it may be personally healing for them to forgive, it may also serve to re-victimize them and deny them of their full humanity. In the case of domestic abuse, for example, forgiveness may lead to further abuse. In order to extricate themselves, the victim may, instead, need to hang onto to rage at least long enough to propel themselves out of the situation and establish the boundaries that protect them.
The Shadow Side of Civility: As a recovering conflict-avoider, I’ve long believed that civility was one of the highest goods, but then I started to learn (especially through BIPOC people whose wisdom I value) that an insistence on civility can have harmful consequences. For one thing, it’s almost always those who already have more power who get to decide the rules about what is civil and what is not. For another thing, asking for civility when people have a genuine right to have strong emotions related to their oppression and victimization can be to silence, shame, and further oppress them. And for a third thing, an insistence on civility can often lead to more insidious and underhanded forms of communication (ie. passive aggressiveness, manipulation, tone policing, etc.) rather than more direct and truthful forms.
The Shadow Side of Charity:When I used to work in international development, we used to have long debates about the best ways to support people in need. One of the things that often came up was the way that charity, if it isn’t nuanced and offered with care and respect for people’s dignity and sovereignty, can be destructive and further contribute to an unjust world. For example, much of the charity we saw in international development comes from a place of “white saviorism” where more privileged white people think they know what’s best for less privileged people of colour, and it makes them feel good to impose that charity on them. Misplaced charity can also be disruptive to the local economy (ie. dumping used clothing on Kenyan markets means that much of their local clothing industry has disappeared) and can be disempowering to those who’d be better served by justice.
The Shadow Side of Peace: As I mentioned above, I was raised in a long lineage of pacifism, and so “keeping the peace” was one of the highest goods. But the result of that kind of a belief system was that it took me a long time to leave an abusive situation, I often remained silent in the face of injustice, I let people I loved get hurt, and – to this day – I often have a trauma response when voices are raised and conflict bubbles. When peace is valued too highly, it is largely the most marginalized who suffer. In the book Women Talking, Miriam Toews writes a fictional account of the true story of a Mennonite settlement in which women were being drugged and raped and none of the male leaders were listening to their cries for justice. The male leaders were more intent on keeping the peace (ie. forgiving the men who did it and restoring them to community) than they were in caring for the victims of the rapes. “We are not members,” says one of the women, “. . . we are commodities. . . . When our men have used us up so that we look sixty when we’re thirty and our wombs have literally dropped out of our bodies onto our spotless kitchen floors, finished, they turn to our daughters.”
The Shadow Side of Good Intentions:The problem with good intentions is that we often hide behind them and think that they are enough, even when those good intentions have undesirable outcomes. But what about when the impact is different from the intent? What if, for example, we extend charity (as mentioned above) that results in disempowerment or further injustice? Can we simply say “well, that wasn’t my intention” and go on doing what we’ve always done? No, not if we want to live in a just and ethical world. Especially when we have more agency than the person negatively impacted by our good intentions, we have to be willing to take responsibility for the impact, learn to do better, and make necessary repairs and/or change our future behaviour.
The Shadow Side of Positivity: In the self-help world in recent years, there’s been a lot of talk of the value of positive thinking and the power of attraction (ie. if we think positive thoughts we attract positive things), but there’s a lot of shadow that’s usually not discussed by the self-help gurus. For one thing, insisting that people are responsible for what they attract is a convenient way of overlooking the injustice of the world and blaming a person for the bad that comes their way (ie. if you lose your job, it must be your own fault for your bad attitude rather than the racist behaviour of your boss). For another thing, just as gratitude can be a form of spiritual bypassing, positivity can also deny and shut down the full expression of our humanity in a way that short-circuits healing, growth, and justice.
I write this not to say that we should toss aside our civility, pacifism, forgiveness, gratitude, etc. No – quite the opposite. I think we should embrace them more fully and with more clarity, holding them up to the light so that we can see them for ALL of the shades of complexity contained within. I think we should examine each of these good things and use our discernment to help us see when we’re slipping from the light into the shadows.
To embrace these good things blindly rather than examining them is to choose to stay in an immature, binary spirituality and worldview.
Sometimes, when we witness the shadow side of the good, we’ll need to make choices that make us feel like we’re deviating from our values, and, especially when those values are attached to our sense of safety and belonging (ie. part of our religious upbringing, social conditioning, and/or community values) that can feel like self-betrayal and can result in a trauma response. But perhaps what it really means, when we pause to reflect on it, is that we have developed a more nuanced and robust values system that’s indicative of our growth.
“When I get my grad pictures taken,” my daughter Maddy said yesterday, “I want to have one taken where I’m holding a megaphone.” She graduates from high school in June. She’s hoping to buy her own megaphone before then, just because it’s something she feels that she should own.
Last week, while I was away in B.C. leading back-to-back retreats, Maddy was at home using her voice and learning to use a megaphone. As one of the leaders of Manitoba Youth for Climate Action, she’d helped to organize two major events – a die-in for climate action (with hundreds of youth pretending to die on the steps of the Human Rights Museum, to represent those lives being lost to climate change), and a climate strike (with 12,000 people participating in our city). Each day I’d get text messages from her with videos, photos, and multiple links to media interviews she’d done. In one of those news clips, she can be seen leading the marchers in a chant, megaphone in hand (video at the bottom of this link).
It was that short clip – my daughter shouting into a megaphone in front of thousands of marchers – that moved me to tears. The fact that she not only had the courage to USE her voice at seventeen (to speak on behalf of a planet that has suffered because of the greed and carelessness of many generations before her) but to AMPLIFY it was remarkable.
Not long before that, at a retreat on Holding Space for Yourself, I’d spoken about the ways that we, especially as women, keep ourselves small and hold back our voices. This wasn’t a “shame on you for being silent” conversation – it was an acknowledgement of the trauma, shame, and silencing we face and that generations before us have faced – all of those stories we carry in our bones, our hearts, and our bodies that tell us we are not worthy of having our voices heard and that we are in danger if we speak too loudly.
When I was Maddy’s age, I was still tangled in the grip of those influences in my life that told me that my voice had little value and should never be amplified. I remember, for example, simply wanting to read the scripture from the pulpit in the tiny rural church I grew up in (not even sharing my OWN words, but reading GOD’S out loud) and being told (by my father, who was the leader of the church at the time) that women weren’t allowed to do that. I KNEW I had leadership capacity and I KNEW I had something to say, but again and again I heard that that was a space reserved only for men.
That belief, seeded deep into my psyche, stayed with me for a long, long time, and even now, at fifty-three, I still have moments of sell-doubt when I know the old messages need to be rejected all over again. I spent most of my career, in fact, in service to that deep-seeded belief. Though I knew I had things to say, I spent the first half of my career working as a communications professional, teaching OTHER people how to communicate, helping OTHER people perform well in media interviews, putting words in OTHER people’s mouths by writing their speeches for them. I was the expert in communications, but rarely did I get to speak.
My job was to pass the megaphone to everyone else and to make sure they sounded good when they used it. Just as I’d been taught so many years before… “a woman’s role is to serve quietly in the background, letting the men have the shining roles.”
A few weeks after my mom died, I wrote a post about women’s voices. In it, I talked about how it was challenging to find my own voice, given the messaging I’d received (a lot of which, sadly, came from my mother) about the lack of value of that voice.
From that post: In recent years, while I’ve been growing my body of work, I’ve had a hard time sharing what I do with my Mom. Some things – like the teaching I do at the university – was fairly easy for her to grasp, but other things just didn’t make sense to her. For one thing, she remained committed to a Christian tradition that frowned upon women in leadership, so when I started teaching women how to lead with more courage, creativity and wild-heartedness, it didn’t really fit with her paradigms.
There was a time when it made me angry that my mom, who should have been my greatest advocate and ally, contributed to my silencing and the shame and fear I had to wrestle with in order to speak, but I don’t blame her any more. Years of healing work have helped me to understand how much she herself had been silenced and shamed and how much she felt responsible (though it was largely unconscious responsibility) for protecting me from the harm that comes to women who speak.
In the seven years since that post, I’ve learned a lot more about internalized oppression and trauma and how we adopt the language and behaviour of the systems that oppress us to silence, gaslight, and shame ourselves. It’s what keeps us submissive, silent, and in service to those who have more power. And then, because we’ve been well trained in it, we do the same to our offspring – passing down the oppression from generation to generation to generation.
I’ve also been learning more and more about trauma and how it’s intricately intertwined with oppression. I recognize it in myself every time I begin to speak of things that threaten to disrupt the status quo – my throat begins to close up, my body trembles, and I know that my flooded nervous system is trying to convince me to RUN! PROTECT YOURSELF! YOU ARE NOT SAFE HERE! It’s trauma from my own youthful attempts to speak and it’s trauma inherited from generations and generations of women – some of whom were branded as witches and burned at the stake for the very things I now speak of.
No, my mom is not to blame. Her silence, insecurity, and shame were all deeply embedded in the training that she, too, had received. That was all she knew how to pass down to her daughters.
My dad is also not to blame. He, too, was playing the role he’d been taught to play and held his own fear of how deviating from that role might bring harm to him and his family. (I remember the way he agonized about saying no to me when I wanted to speak – I’m certain he WANTED to let me.)
My parents were doing the best that they knew how and I love them for it. I love them for the many ways that they DID support me – the curiosity that my dad helped to foster in me, the way my mom modelled how to hold space long before I knew the term, the way they both encouraged me to read and learn and be open to other people’s views.
Despite their best efforts, though, I acknowledge the pain that was passed down to me. I acknowledge the trauma of being a woman with a voice who was taught that voice was worthless. I acknowledge the wounds I had to heal in order to get to this place where I now trust that I have something to say. I acknowledge the fear I still feel sometimes when my voice causes too much disruption and I face rejection and punishment from a system that doesn’t want to be disrupted. I acknowledge all of that AND I acknowledge the painstaking work that is required for ALL of us to heal what other generations have bequeathed us with.
This post started with my daughter Maddy and I want to end there. I was moved to tears by the video clip of my daughter with a megaphone partly because of the pride I feel for her and partly because the healing work I’ve done has disrupted what’s being passed from generation to generation. THAT is something to celebrate.
She can claim her space and use her voice at an early age partly because she has inherited less of the baggage that prevented me from doing the same. Her voice now rings loud and clear with all of the other youth around the planet calling on us to disrupt the systems that are destroying our planet. (It’s not lost on me that the disruption of patriarchal oppression allows youth to rise up to call for further disruption.)
It still takes courage for her to do what she does (and I take credit for none of that – SHE did this, not me), but at least she started out on more sturdy ground.
Last week I had the pleasure of hosting a retreat with a circle of beautiful women in one of the most beautiful locations I’ve ever worked. The retreat centre was so beautiful and luxurious, in fact, that it wouldn’t have surprised me to see Oprah emerge from a room raving about her new favourite things.
The women who’d flown me to Costa Rica for this retreat were warm, friendly, wise and strong. They clearly loved each other deeply and were willing to support each other through thick and thin. They’d been a small community for seven years already, meeting monthly for personal development conversations and yearly for a retreat with a facilitator/teacher like me. They knew each other’s stories, and had supported each other through death, divorce, family illness and everything in between. One night, when we sat together over drinks and a delicious meal, they each took turns describing the beauty and strength they saw in each other and it was one of the most moving things I’ve ever witnessed.
When things are too beautiful though, there’s often a shadow lurking just beneath the surface.
When I say there was a “shadow”, I’m not talking about an ugly meanness or pettiness that was being masked by so much kindness and love. No – I saw nothing that would suggest that their kindness and love for each other was anything other than genuine.
The shadow was quite different from that. What was there beneath the surface (and which was acknowledged by the group toward the end of the first day) was a tendency they had to hold a SAFE space which sometimes kept them from being BRAVE.
Because they cared so much for each other and were accepting and supportive of each other’s choices and paths through life, they were reluctant to ask each other hard questions or challenge unhealthy patterns when they saw them. They all wanted their community space to feel safe, but that safety was getting in their way of their growth and perhaps even their healing.
(The added challenge, from my limited cultural perspective, is that, much like Canadians, Costa Ricans tend to err on the side of politeness. But politeness as a cultural value is often a way of masking the complexity that’s underneath.)
When a space is too safe and we’ve become comfortable in that safety, we don’t want to challenge it, we don’t want to say anything that will rock the boat, and we don’t want to offend anyone else lest they abandon us. One of the results is that we become reluctant to be too vulnerable because our shadows might scare the other people away. We choose comfort over courage and we chase away or silence anyone who threatens that comfort.
It wasn’t that these women wanted to be stuck in comfort. On the contrary – they are all brave and bold women who have accomplished remarkable things in their careers and families and they are in this community precisely because they WANT to grow and evolve. Growth does not scare them. Hard work does not scare them. Facing uncomfortable truth does not scare them. Quite the opposite – few groups have been more direct and courageous in ASKING me to help them see the shadow they had trouble seeing for themselves.
What I witnessed was less of a desire to stay safe and more of an entrenched pattern that had become part of their way of co-existing. It was a pattern that was hard to see because they were too close to it. Like a piece of lettuce stuck between your teeth, some things are hard to see without a mirror. They’d brought me to Costa Rica partly because they recognized in me a potential mirror.
Over the course of the second day, once we’d started to shine a light into the shadowy places, these women began to open up and share increasingly vulnerable and painful things – unresolved things, shameful things, trauma, fear, etc.. They also started to ask each other more challenging questions, inviting bravery, growth and new perspectives. In the evening of the second day, the pattern had shifted significantly and they were excited about what was possible with the new language and brave questions I’d offered. That evening’s conversation was vulnerable, openhearted, brave, and deep.
During the course of our last evening together, they asked me to give direct feedback about what I’d witnessed in their group, what things they seemed to be afraid to talk about, where they were stuck, and how they could continue to grow. I was able to speak honestly because I knew these women had the strength to receive what I’d say without defensiveness, as well as the courage to take whatever I offered to heart. They didn’t need me to give them courage (they already had it in spades), they simply needed someone to help them see what was hidden from their view.
What I witnessed among these women is not uncommon among communities, friendships, families, etc. where there is deep care and love. Sometimes we mistake “care” with “letting people stay comfortable in old patterns”. And sometimes we assume that holding space is only about providing safe space where a person feels free of judgement and free of the need to change or grow. Holding space, though, is much more complex than that. (Otherwise I wouldn’t have enough content for an 8 month course.)
Now… I don’t want to give the impression that this is a binary thing – that a space is either safe or brave and that one is better than the other. That’s simply not true. For one thing, there are times when we need to be held in safety without any pressure to change our behaviour or our choices. Especially when healing from trauma or when deep in new grief, safety is paramount and should not be compromised.
ALSO a feeling of safety is usually a first step in establishing enough trust so that we CAN step into bravery. A loving community like these women have provides the solid ground from which we can leap into courage.
BUT at some point safety is not enough and sometimes it even creates a barrier to our growth. As I’ve said before, safety can become a trap and a crutch. In fact some people who cling to their own safety do harm to others in the process. (For example, in race relations or gender conversations when the dominant people in the room demand a “safe space” what they’re really asking for is allowances for their fragility. That fragility, left unchallenged, can cause great harm to the more marginalized in the room. When I work in those spaces, I make safety for marginalized people a greater priority than safety for those who’ve always assumed the privilege of safety.)
If you find yourself in a community that has become too safe (and perhaps somewhat stagnant), here are some things that might help:
Check-in about people’s readiness for more bravery. A community that’s thrust into bravery without preparation and/or discernment about their readiness can quickly become fractured beyond repair. Start with a hard conversation, revealing what you believe to be true about an over-reliance on safety, and ask people whether they feel emotionally stable enough to try something different. If most people are comfortable with the way things are, you may need to seek out another community to meet your needs. (Sometimes, on the other hand, when you’re establishing a new community where bravery needs to be built in, transparency around that expectation should be built into the way people are invited in. In my courses, for example, I include an indication of this expectation in the group agreements.)
Build trust that can support bravery. If we don’t trust the people we’re with, it’s much more difficult to be brave in their presence. Trust-building involves keeping stories confidential, showing up when you promise to show up, being an engaged listener, withholding scorn, and being dependable. To build trust (and, consequently, bravery), people in the community need to be willing to be vulnerable and authentic with each other and to take off their masks so that others feel more safe to take off their masks.
Invite an outsider to serve as the mirror. One of the things that really impressed me about this group was their openness to hearing what I was witnessing and their genuine desire to be nudged out of their comfort zones. An outsider (especially one who is skilled in community-building, facilitation and truth-telling) can offer a perspective that is nearly impossible to see from the inside. It can feel risky to let someone peer into your group’s shadows, and it can take some investment of time and money, but it can also be transformative. Be discerning, though, in who you invite in and how much you’ll allow yourselves to be disrupted.
Invite the pink elephant into the room. One of my favourite ways of inviting the shadow to be revealed in a circle (and encouraging more bravery) is to use a pink elephant as a talking piece. (This is something that emerged out of a moment of inspiration and challenge in one of my team retreats and I credit Susan Dupuis for the idea.) When I pull out the pink elephant, I tell people that I have a sense that there’s something beneath the surface that people might be afraid to reveal, and then I pass it around the room and invite anyone who wants to share something to offer it to the group. A talking piece helps to slow down the conversation and keeps people from interjecting while tender things are being spoken.
Practice asking braver questions. If people have indicated a readiness for brave space, then start by asking braver questions that invite new perspectives and growth. At the end of our time together in Costa Rica, the women had agreed that, when one shares a story that indicates they might be stuck in the safety zone, they’ll ask “are you ready for a brave question?” If the person says yes, they’ll offer something that will invite the person to see their story through a new lens. A brave question might be something like “What might change if you let go of this resentment?” or “How are you trying to protect yourself from pain?” or “Do you believe you’re worthy of more happiness?” (For more brave questions, check out 50 Questions that Could Change Your Life.)
Take care of each other. Stepping into bravery and vulnerability can leave us feeling tender and raw, and that’s a time when community support is even more necessary. If you are in a transition period with your community/family/partnership/etc., where you’re learning to be more brave, make sure you’re also setting aside extra time for play, self-care, group-care, and laughter. Eat meals together, go for walks in nature together, go dancing – anything that helps you to deepen your bond so that your container is strong enough to hold the bravery.
Not everyone is ready for bravery, and you may have some resistance in your group or family, but when the readiness is there, a brave space can bring transformation and growth that’s far beyond what’s possible in the comfort zone.
Note: Thank you to the women who hired me for this retreat for giving me permission to share it.
Yesterday I did something BIG. It was so big that it left me trembling and in tears.
Finally, after nearly nine years of being in business, I passed all of the bookkeeping duties for my business over to an accountant. I opened my books and showed EVERYTHING to another person and then I entrusted her with it. And then I went to the bank and opened a business account to finally separate my business accounting more formally from my personal accounting.
I’ve had support in nearly every area of my business (hiring an assistant, hiring assistant teachers, etc.), but up until now, I’ve always managed all of the bookkeeping (except for tax time).
Why is this such a big deal and why did it take me so long? This feels big to say, and I’ve been taking several big breaths in order to say it out loud…
I have money-related trauma.
Money brings up all kinds of anxiety for me, and I regularly find myself in some version of fight/flight/freeze because of it. Usually, to be honest, I’m in flight or freeze mode, avoiding thinking about it, avoiding receiving advice about it, and avoiding doing my bookkeeping until it’s an absolute necessity. As a result, my “books” are rather chaotic and cobbled together (with blurry lines between personal and business) and it just felt like too much of a hurdle to bring someone else into that mess.
Whenever something has caused consistent and unpredictable insecurity in childhood, there’s a good chance that it’s left behind some of the markings of trauma. For me (and my siblings), money was one of those things. We grew up never knowing whether we’d lose the farm to bankruptcy, whether my parents would be able to fix the series of beat-up old cars and trucks that were always breaking down at inopportune times, whether the answer to “can I have the $2 I need for a field trip?” would be yes or no, whether our phone or hydro would be cut off, or whether we could fix the hole in the ceiling where the shingles had leaked.
These constant worries, especially when they happen to powerless children, have a way of priming the nervous system to always be in hyper-vigilance about when their security will be taken away. It’s evident in all of my siblings, though the way it’s manifest itself is fairly different (some tend toward “fight”, needing to control every penny, while others tend toward “flight” and freeze”).
Also, as I’ve learned in working with family constellations, when a parent does not resolve an issue in their lifetime, the offspring will unconsciously take on that story and feel like they’re betraying the parent if they abandon it. In my case, I’ve been living my father’s “failure in business” story, believing that I wasn’t entitled to this business success that has come my way, and therefore avoiding too much attachment to the success (and even sabotaging it by not being too strategic about it).
The other piece of this is that trauma and shame are intricately intertwined and so it’s hard to heal it because it’s hard to reveal it. The trauma causes reactive behaviour and we fear being judged because of it but we feel powerless to change it. Instead of reaching out for help, we bury it beneath shame. So becomes a spiral of triggering, reactive behaviour, and cover-ups to hide that reactive behaviour.
Unless we find the courage to break that pattern and speak that shame out loud to someone who will hold space for us to find healing, we stay stuck in the spiral. No money-management course in the world can help us out of that spiral unless we heal the trauma that it’s rooted in.
In the past few months, I’ve been working to break that pattern, culminating in yesterday’s BIG step to trust an accountant with all of it. Fortunately, a friend referred me to someone who was gracious and supportive (and only once slightly raised an eyebrow at some weird manual system I’d built in that over-complicated what could be very simple.)
And today I’m talking about it, because (as Brene Brown says) vulnerability is our defence against shame. AND, as I keep learning again and again, there is always someone out there waiting for someone else to speak it out loud so that we can find the courage too.
On the way home from my accountant’s office, yesterday, I found myself weeping and trembling. It wasn’t shame that was making me weep – it was great relief and release. It was also profound love and compassion for the scared little girl in me who did the best she could with the resources she had – who made it through a scary childhood and who grew up to be an adult who built a successful business despite the trauma buried at the heart of it.
(Note: I am asking for no advice or judgement in response to this, as that will potentially re-trigger my shame. Any comments like that will be deleted without discussion. I already have the support I need.)
Here in the northern hemisphere, the wild and unruly growth of Spring and early Summer has passed. The grass in my backyard doesn’t need to be cut very often anymore and the weeds have grown lacklustre in their efforts to take over the property. It’s harvest season, and, though I’m not much of a gardener (I’d rather build something for my backyard than plant something), I’m happy to see the farmers’ market full of abundance from other people’s fields.
In my business, though, it seems to be a different season. I’m heading into Spring, planting seeds, preparing the soil, and gathering up the tools and resources I’ll need for a busy season of growth.
I’ve known for awhile that the next level of growth and (more significantly) investment in that growth would be coming, but I did my best to resist it. On the more “simple” side of things, my website has been in need of a major overhaul for quite some time. (Krista, my business manager, keeps reminding me of how much more functional my shopping cart could be, for example.) Also, I’ve been working on a book on holding space for a few years now, and it really needs to move from “draft” to “published”. And, to support it all, I need to improve the accounting system that was good enough for a little one-woman shop but is stretched to capacity (and, frankly, was never very good in the first place, due to my lack of financial expertise).
On the more “complex” side of things (at least for me it feels complex), an increasing number of people have been asking for some version of a license, so that they can teach my Holding Space content within their organizations or from their consultancy practices. (I’m currently working with an adult learning organization, for example, that is embedding it into the training they offer educators, facilitators and tutors.) In addition, I feel the need to do more Train the Trainer programming so that my Holding Space Practitioner Program can continue to grow beyond my capacity to teach it (especially as my travel increases).
Why did I resist all of that? There were a lot of reasons and it’s hard to narrow down just one or two. For one thing, it’s a lot of WORK to shepherd a business through that kind of growth and it requires SKILLS that aren’t among my strengths. It also costs a lot of MONEY and involves a significant amount of RISK. All of that brings up a lot of fear and doubt and tired old stories about how I’m “not really a business-woman” and “I shouldn’t reach for too much”.
Back in the Spring, when I was worn out from a few big trips and a fair bit of emotionally exhausting work, I was overwhelmed and a little discouraged and I wondered if it was all worth it. The idea of growth, at that time, seemed far beyond what I had the energy to imagine.
Couldn’t I just stay this size and putter along at the pace I’d already established? Would it be so bad if my business didn’t grow? Plenty of people stay in intentionally small businesses with folksy websites and cobbled together accounting systems – couldn’t I be one of them?
Over the Summer, after I’d rested awhile and my head was a little clearer, I decided to give space to those questions and to spend some time discerning what my relationship with growth would be and what growth would require of me.
Here are some of the things I’ve been asking myself during this time:
Is the growth of my business a healthy and necessary thing, or is it simply tied to a capitalist culture that has us all conditioned to believe that the only good business is a growing business?
What is enough? Am I satisfied with this comfortable life that affords me a comfortable home and enough extra to take my daughters on a modest vacation once a year?
ON THE OTHER HAND… and this is a big one… is this really about MY growth (and – by extension – my business) or is it about the growth of this WORK? If I limit the amount I choose to grow, am I limiting how much this valuable work (that I have the honour of stewarding) can grow?
If I believe that this work is a calling and not just an occupation (and I do), shouldn’t I show up in the best and boldest way that I know how to steward it into the world? And shouldn’t I keep growing the community that can steward it with me?
What does it look like if I trust the WORK to guide me (and, by extension, the community that gathers for that work) rather than the other way around? AND/OR… what is a healthy way for us to be in interdependent relationship?
If the work grows, can I continue to do it in the way that I love – rooted in genuine relationships/community and hosted in reasonably-sized circles? What variation of that style can be adapted to a more expanded audience?
If it’s about the WORK and not about me, what do I need to do to work through my personal limitations and blocks so that the work can thrive? And who are the people who can help me work through them and build the structures needed to support them?
It’s been a healthy and worthwhile process to go through. I didn’t do it in a traditional business planning way, though. (You can wipe any pictures of spreadsheets, planning software, or even sticky notes out of your mind.) I did it while wielding power tools in my backyard. Not only did the process of building furniture with wood inspire my metaphor-loving mind, but the hands-on nature of it helped me shift out of over-thinking mode and break some of the old patterns deeply rooted in my brain.
Instead of relying on my mind alone to find a path through all of this complexity (which is one of my patterns), I let my body and heart help me find the way. My mind would most certainly have gotten stuck in old stories of scarcity, unworthiness, fear, ego, limitation, etc. while my body reminded me “You love building, so just keep building until it feels like the right time to stop!”
At the end of the summer, I feel relaxed, happy and energized to do the next right thing that this work is asking of me. That next right thing appears to be investing in a structure that will support growth, and to do so with integrity and with my values intact.
After all of that reflection, these things feel true:
I am not interested in growth just for the sake of growth, but I AM interested in helping more people learn about the beauty of holding space.
I value community and relationships, so I will continue to grow this work in ways that foster opportunities for deep connections and meaningful conversations.
I will continue to hold true to my authenticity and integrity and will not grow this work simply to feed my ego or bank account. If the work changes me in ways that don’t feel authentic, I will hit the pause button until I can return to alignment.
Success for me will equal success for my extended community. If, for example, my financial resources grow, then I will be better able to support other women in business, to pay people well when they work for me, to give people scholarships for my workshops, and to fund the growth of the school in Uganda.
While I love the work and will continue to serve it to the best of my ability, I won’t jeopardize what/who I hold most dear. If/when necessary, I will put my family and closest friends first. I will also prioritize my own wellbeing and self-care.
One of the great benefits of putting community at the centre of my business model is that the moment I decided I was ready to dive into this new phase, I realized that many of the skills required already exist within my community (or one step removed). I’ve spent the last week in lovely, open-hearted conversations with people who believe in the work that I do and who have expertise that I don’t have (ie. developing a licensing model, setting up an accounting system, managing the details, designing a website, publishing a book, etc.). It reminds me that business development can be rooted in joy, love and community and doesn’t have to burdensome or boxy or involve boardroom tables or powerpoint presentations.
Sure, I still have moments of fear and doubt, but I feel remarkably supported, resourced, and ready.
And you, my friends, who read this newsletter/blog… you too are in this community, supporting the growth of this work. I couldn’t do it without you reading what I write, showing up at my workshops and retreats, inviting me to speak and teach, and offering encouragement and love. I am deeply humbled by the many ways that you continue to show up. A deep bow of gratitude to you!
Some time in the next few months, I expect I’ll be launching a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the publishing of the book on holding space (because every step of this process requires a financial investment) and I trust that when the moment is right, the community will show up as you always have.
Peace to you, my friends. May you lean into your own seasons of growth whenever it is right for you.