I sweat. A LOT. And my face turns beet red when I exert myself, so if you’re ever present when I exercise (which, sadly, isn’t often enough) you won’t be able to miss the evidence of my efforts.
But this post isn’t about physical exertion. Instead, it’s about the kind of sweating (both physical and metaphorical) we do when we’re under stress, when we’re afraid of failing, or when we fear that people might be disappointed in us.
Mostly, it’s about vulnerability and when it’s okay to reveal our flaws, our fear, and our fumbling.
Thanks especially to writers like Brené Brown, lots of people are talking about the value of vulnerability, but what’s sometimes missing from the dialogue is the nuance of WHEN it’s appropriate to be vulnerable, HOW MUCH vulnerability is appropriate, and WITH WHOM it’s okay to be vulnerable.
What if, for example, you’re in charge of keeping people who are more vulnerable than you safe from harm (small children, for example) and you admit that you have no clue how to do so and suddenly they feel even more unsafe than before? Was it wise, in that situation, to show your vulnerability? Probably not. That might be when it’s wiser to put on a brave face and prioritize their needs over your own. As a parent, there have certainly been times when I had to keep my fears and self-doubts to myself (or when I cried behind my bedroom door) because it wasn’t in my children’s best interests to doubt my ability to protect or provide for them. As they’ve gotten older, I’ve increased how much I’ll admit my flaws and fears to them, but in the early days they needed my strength more than my vulnerability.
Or what if, by becoming vulnerable, you’re drawing the attention away from the people who need it more than you do and then your vulnerability becomes a stumbling block rather than a building block? If, for example, you’re working with traumatized or oppressed people and you can’t stop crying about how much the work is impacting you, you’re likely making it about yourself rather than about them. Suddenly those people have to spend their energy caring for you rather than themselves. That’s when it’s best to take your vulnerability somewhere else where people have more capacity to do emotional labour on your behalf.
Or what if you haven’t gained enough trust in the other person or people and you suspect they might further harm you or use your vulnerability against you? Some people are masterful at manipulation and at using other people’s weaknesses to their own advantage (someone who’s trying to sell you an expensive coaching program, for example). Other people may be less intentional about it but still harmful in how they respond to you because of their lack of capacity or self-awareness. With those people, it’s better to withhold your vulnerability rather than put yourself at risk.
Vulnerability, then, is best shared with people who have earned your trust, people who aren’t under too much of their own burden at the time, people who aren’t fully reliant on you for their own safety at the time, and/or people who have enough emotional intelligence and self-awareness to respond in appropriate ways.
Recently, I found myself in a dilemma about whether or not my vulnerability was the best course of action. I was facilitating a three-day workshop on holding space in the Netherlands, and, to be frank, it wasn’t going well. By the end of the first day, I could sense that there was dissatisfaction among participants and I wasn’t sure why. I had started the workshop in much the same way I’ve started many other workshops, and those workshops progressed much more smoothly, so I didn’t understand the source of the problem.
Was it because I was tired, having just spent an intense week in Uganda? Was it the cultural and/or language differences, since this was the first time I was teaching in a place where English isn’t the first language? Was I using language or a teaching style that wasn’t relatable to this audience? Was there some pre-existing conflict among participants that they’d brought with them to this space? Or was it because I’d started with the basics of holding space and many people in the room were already experienced practitioners who wanted higher level training?
One of the things that I sensed was going on (that I picked up from some of the comments coming my way) was that my style of facilitation was falling short of what people had expected of me. There were quite a few experienced facilitators in the room, and most of them had been trained in styles that are different from my own (ie. systemic constellations, for example, which incorporates more movement and less conversation than tends to be my primary style) and I began to feel the scrutiny of their evaluation.
On the morning of the second day, trying to adapt to the style that I sensed they were more comfortable with, I made changes to the process. But that didn’t seem to be sufficient – I got even more feedback during the breaks that indicated the dissatisfaction was growing rather than dissipating. (Sadly, dissatisfaction is contagious and even those who’d seemed happy earlier were now starting to squirm in their seats.) What was especially challenging is that the feedback was often contradictory – one person would come to tell me that they needed more of one thing, while another person would come to me five minutes later to say that they needed more of the exact opposite. It seemed there was no way of meeting all of the expectations in the room, not even if I contorted myself to try to satisfy people.
By lunchtime on the second day, the picture started to become more and more clear to me. There was an expectation in the room that was, quite honestly, impossible for me to live up to, because it was an expectation crafted out of who they THOUGHT I was and not who I REALLY am. A couple of people, in their conversations with me, referred to me as the “Queen of Holding Space”, and it wasn’t reverence I was hearing in their voices but disappointment. These people – because my work has been broadly circulated in certain circles in the Netherlands – had constructed an image of me as a guru who knows all there is to know about holding space and who would walk into the room and wow them immediately with my exquisite ability to hold space.
Unfortunately, I walked into the room fully human, fully flawed, a little jet-lagged, and with a lot that I still need to learn about holding space. I didn’t speak their language (not only the language of their country, but the language of a systemic understanding of the world), I didn’t facilitate in the way that they’d become accustomed, I made mistakes, and the opening check-in circle dragged on too long so the opening pace was slow.
Over lunch, I agonized over what was the right thing to do. Should I just keep trying to adapt my style to find the sweet spot that might satisfy the highest number of people in the room? Or should I simply push through with how I’d planned the workshop and hope that by the end, something of value would be transmitted? Should I hide my fear and flaws in the face of these people who looked up to me and pretend I was oblivious to their dissatisfaction?
OR… should I speak my vulnerability out loud, trust them to have the emotional intelligence to receive it well, and hope that it might help us collectively dive deeper into our learning?
I chose vulnerability. I knew it was a risk and I knew that I might lose some credibility (and people might leave even more dissatisfied than they already were), but it seemed like the only viable option.
I told them that I’d become aware that there was a shadow in the room and that that shadow was a reflection of the way that I was letting people down. (In process work such as this, the shadow refers to “that which is hiding under the surface which is unspoken and therefore potentially destructive”.) I said that I wasn’t interested in the pedestal that people had put me on – that pedestals are lonely, dangerous, and uncomfortable, and that I prefer to be in the circle, alongside them, doing the work in messy and flawed ways and learning shoulder-to-shoulder. I spoke of my imperfections and told them I knew I wouldn’t be able to meet all of the expectations in the room. I promised, though, that I would continue to do my best to offer them what I have learned so far about holding space. I invited them to trust me and to stand by my side as we went deeper into the learning and into brave space together.
My sharing, like everything else I’d done up until that point, was imperfect, and when I was finished, I wasn’t sure what to do next. When I looked around the room, what I thought I saw was a softening and greater acceptance of the imperfection and releasing of the unmet expectations, but I wasn’t sure if I was interpreting it correctly.
Slowly, though, things started to shift, and, in the end, my vulnerability helped us go where we needed to go as a group. It didn’t happen magically (there was still some resistance that afternoon) but gradually the energy in the room shifted. We stepped more deeply into a place of trust, depth, and bravery. Other people began to open up and some spoke to their own wrestling with what had been going on in the room.
The next morning, a couple of moments of inspiration helped to take our learning to an even deeper place. First, I shared a story of how I’d been invited to dance with Ugandan women the week before, how miserably I’d failed at it, but how I recognized that it was in brief moments of my most pure surrender to the music and to those who lead me in the dance when I could most successfully move with the rhythm. “That place of surrender is what brave space is like,” I said. “And today, as we finish up this workshop, I want to invite you into that dance of surrender and trust. I’m asking that you trust the music and that you trust me, as your leader, to know what the rhythm in the room needs to be.” I looked around the room, and what I saw looking back at me were nodding heads and a deeper trust than I’d witnessed up until that point.
The other moment of inspiration was one that I can take no credit for – it came in the form of a piece of camel shit. A participant named Roeland brought a small container that he wanted to add to the collection of items at the centre of the circle (items that represent the people in the circle and that we use as talking pieces). “This is a dried up piece of camel shit,” he said, while people snickered in response. “I picked it up while on a spiritual retreat. At first I thought it was a rock, but when I picked it up, I discovered it had very little weight to it. The lesson in it for me was that my shit is lighter than I expect it to be. I can carry my own shit and it doesn’t feel like the burden I anticipate.”
From that point on, that piece of camel shit became a symbol for the group of what it means to “take responsibility for your own shit”. At one point, it became the talking piece and we all discovered how light it was to “hold our own shit”. But then one person put it down and chose another talking piece because “that’s not my shit and I don’t want to carry it,” she said. We all laughed and realized that some of the deepest learning of the day was coming from the lighthearted way that we could talk about taking responsibility for whatever we brought into the room. It wasn’t lost on us that this was connected to what I’d spoken of earlier – that some of the dissatisfaction and shadow in the room was because we’d each brought our own shit (ie. expectations and fear of letting people down) with us and had projected it onto other people. (This is true for me as well as anyone else. There were moments when I was looking for people to blame rather than recognizing my own part in what was transpiring.)
By the end of that third day, the energy had completely changed, and the workshop ended with some of the warmest hugs and words of appreciation I’d ever received. Several people remarked on how we, as a group, had been through a liminal space journey together – how we’d started with one version of who we were and what we expected, how my vulnerable sharing had helped us let go of that story and those expectations, and how we’d emerged into something new. This is one of the first things I teach in my holding space workshops – that when we hold space, we have to be prepared to hold the complexity of the liminal space.
It’s quite possible that my vulnerability could have backfired and that people might have left the room frustrated and disappointed. (Perhaps some did and I’m not aware of it.) It’s never a guarantee when we take a risk like that. But more often than not, I’ve found that my willingness to be imperfect and authentic, as the leader of that space, is directly correlated with how deep the learning can go.
In retrospect, though, there were a couple of factors that helped the vulnerability land well. For one thing, I let the participants know that they didn’t have to take care of me – that I wasn’t so vulnerable that they had to spend their energy making sure I was okay. Whenever I teach, I have other people that I trust outside of the circle to whom I can send a distress signal (usually via text message) simply to ask them for virtual support. I’m careful not to have the expectation that people who’ve come to learn from me also have to look after my emotional well-being. (Though I do appreciate their concern, I don’t make it their responsibility.)
Secondly, I paired the vulnerability with strength – letting them know that I was still prepared to take responsibility for leadership and for making decisions about what direction the workshop would take. I invited them to trust my sense of the right pace, content, etc.
As in the Buddhist teaching around warriorship, I practiced showing up with a “strong back and soft belly” – prepared to show them my vulnerability while still carrying myself with strength.
In the end, the workshops that take me through the most difficult terrain are usually the ones where I walk away with the most learning. I hope the same is true for those who were there with me. I am forever grateful for their willingness to step into the liminal space with me.
What can I tell you about my experience in Kitgum District of Uganda? I’ve tried about half a dozen times to write this article and to reflect on what the experience meant to me, but so far every attempt falls short. I was going to tell you about how it felt to be the only white person I saw for five days (how all of the children would shout “Munu!” – white person! – when I walked by, and how they’d peer in my bedroom window while I tried to nap, like I was an exotic zoo animal), and then I was going to talk about how this trip felt different from my other visits to Africa, and then I thought I’d start by reflecting on how complicated it feels to be white, relatively wealthy, and a representative of colonization in a place like Uganda and still walk with consciousness and humility… but all of those attempts make this story too much about me and what I really want to tell you about is the school that was the primary reason for my visit.
Laker Memorial School in Kitgum District, Uganda, is the school my friend Nestar started five years ago and which I have been supporting financially for almost that long. What I learned on this visit is that it is named after Nestar’s mom, Laker, a strong and courageous woman who believed in educating children and who worked hard to raise school fees for her children despite the many obstacles life threw in her path (ie. they had to flee their farm when her children were still young because the rebels had attacked their region, and she became a single mom when her husband died a few years later). Though the school is currently housed in a temporary facility that was never meant to be a school (they had to cut windows into the classroom walls so that the children would have fresh air), Nestar’s dream is to some day build a new school on the land that her mother owned.
Though Laker Memorial School is primitive by western standards (there are few textbooks and no computers, the paint is peeling off the classroom walls, and all of the teaching aids are handwritten by the teachers), it was clear to me as soon as I visited that the level of education is high, that there is a strong commitment to fostering excellence in the children, and that the leadership of the school has passion and a vision for the future. On the first day I visited, I heard some beautiful music drifting out of one of the classrooms and I went to investigate. When I was invited into the classroom, I discovered that the school choir was practicing their school anthem, which had been written by the head teacher (who was delighted to share it with me). They were singing in four part harmony – at a higher quality than any school choir I’ve ever heard in Canada.
During that first visit, I also had a chance to visit the school kitchen, a small lean-to hut behind the main school building where the school cook was stirring a huge pot over the fire. I was in awe of the muscles and agility required to stir such a pot AND the fact that she was doing it barefoot, just inches away from the fire. (Note: providing school lunches is one of the ways a school like this attracts students – because then the children get at least one solid meal every day.)
A couple of days after we arrived, I was welcomed as the “chief guest” at the kindergarten graduation. I was imagining the kind of small-scale graduation ceremonies my children had when they completed kindergarten – where parents perch on the edges of tiny chairs in the kindergarten classroom and the children wear paper mortar-boards they’ve made in class. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This was a full-day celebration that included much music and dancing, a huge feast, a spelling bee, a drawing contest, and many speeches from dignitaries (including myself). It was a joyous day and I laughed harder than I’ve laughed in a long time when the women invited me up to dance and I proved to them that a white woman’s hips just can’t shake the way a Ugandan woman’s can.
I don’t use the word “awe” lightly (my dad taught me well about the overuse of superlatives), but I am truly in awe of what has been created in just five years at Laker Memorial School. The vision of Nestar and the people she has gathered around her in support of the school (including several of her siblings who serve on the board) is spectacular. It is no easy feat to create a school (and the foundation that supports that school) out of nothing in a remote part of Uganda, where people still struggle from the after-effects of 20 years of civil war, and then to grow it from a couple of dozen students in one grade level to 250 in 8 grade levels in just five years. Nestar does much of the fundraising herself (she sells homemade jam in markets in the Netherlands, where she now lives), and together with her husband Ed, runs the non-profit for next-to-nothing so that all donations can go directly to the school. (And, it should be added, she does all of this while raising four children.)
While I was at the kindergarten graduation, seated with the other special guests, I had the opportunity to chat with several local politicians and community and church leaders from the region (including the school inspector). What I heard from all of them is that the school is developing a strong reputation not only in the Kitgum District but across Uganda for quality education and excellent teachers. It was clear from the way that they spoke of it that they too are impressed with what Nestar has managed to create and the quality of people she has attracted to serve in school leadership.
To give you a sense of who Nestar is and what she brings to the school and the children being educated there, I want to share a little story of a tiny moment that represents so much more of what I witnessed in my time with her. During the spelling bee, when kindergarten students were taking turns spelling the words read by the teachers, she took aside one of the boys who had failed to spell his word. “Don’t ever be afraid to try,” Nestar said to the young boy, leaning over to look him in the eye. “You might fail, but at least you tried, and trying is always the first step to succeeding.” She spoke from her own years of experience, having tried a big and bold thing in starting a school, knowing she could have failed.
If Laker Memorial School produces even a handful of young leaders, like Nestar, who lead with compassion, vision, and humility (and I’m certain it will do more than that), then the world will be a better place.
Over the years, I have helped raise money for classroom furniture, textbooks, and, most recently, the construction of a latrine to increase sanitation at the school. Many of you, my readers and friends, have been generous supporters of this school along with me, and I thank you for that. I can assure you that your donations are going to a very good cause and that every dollar is being well spent. I hope that you will consider continued support (you can do so on UKEF’s website) and that perhaps you’ll even consider making a monthly donation.
These children have hope for a better future because this school exists.
“I don’t think of myself as a leader.” I hear that statement often from my clients and I understand it – I used to say the same thing myself. It wasn’t until a special mentor/boss took me aside and told me that she saw leadership ability in me and then offered me my first leadership position that I first started to recognize that I had capacity to lead.
One of the reasons that the people I work with don’t see themselves as leaders is because they equate leadership with authoritarianism. In their experience, a leader is in control, has more knowledge than those they lead, provides solutions to all of the problems, and makes all of the tough decisions. In an authoritarian model, the leader has “power over” their subordinates and is expected to be the authority on all things. While that form of leadership may be desirable for some people (especially those who feel fearful about their safety) and may be necessary in some situations (when children are small and need to be kept safe, or when a country is at war), it can easily become destructive and disempowering.
Anyone who’s attracted to what I teach about holding space is not inclined to seek out or emulate that kind of authoritative power and has likely witnessed its destruction, and so they steer clear of the mantle of leadership.
Instead of steering clear of it though, I’d like us to consider an alternative model that fits us better and that I believe is badly needed in the world today.I’d like to invite us to consider what it means for a leader to have “power with”.
These books made leadership feel possible because they were about leading from a place of humility and authenticity rather than authority and control. I didn’t have to be invincible or unflappable to be a leader – I could bring my flaws, my insecurity, and my humanity into the role.I could step into it with curiosity and openness and I could rely on those I lead to bring their skills to the table where mine were lacking.
These three books taught me that a leader:
is a host rather than a hero
collaborates rather than controls
claims and shares power but doesn’t abuse it
has authority and influence but doesn’t need to be authoritarian
gathers people for meaningful conversations and practices genuine listening
shows up authentically and with appropriate vulnerability
admits what she doesn’t know and allows others to fill in the gaps
co-creates an environment where ALL can shine
invites people to contribute with their unique strengths and abilities
isn’t afraid to apologize and/or admit she is wrong
balances innovation and progress with stability and contemplation
knows how to hold space for complexity, growth, change, etc.
Meg Wheatley says that “a leader is anyone willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change and takes the first steps to influence that situation.” In other words, we don’t need to wait until we’ve been given leadership positions in order to lead – we simply have to notice the need and step in to offer what we can to help fill it.
If we alter our definition of leadership to this more collaborative model, what are the most essential competencies and qualities that a leader needs to foster?Here are some of my thoughts (in no particular order):
Humility. It takes humility and a willingness to give up the need to be right in order to be a collaborative leader. Effective leaders share the spotlight (or step out of it entirely) and share the credit (or give it to whoever earned it). Their humility is not self-deprecating, nor does it mask insecurity, but rather it is honest, authentic, openhearted, and courageous. Humility welcomes the brilliance of others and doesn’t need to outshine it.
Generosity. Collaborative leaders are generous in their support of other people, generous in offering up their time to others, and generous in how they encourage and inspire people. They don’t see everything they do as transactional (ie. “I’ll do X for you if you do Y for me.”) but instead invite people to function in a “gift economy”, offering up their best toward the common good.
Self-awareness.Self-aware leaders recognize and admit their weakness, take responsibility for their mistakes, and don’t project their baggage and unhealed wounds onto other people. They also know their strengths and capacities and aren’t afraid to step into their own power. While they embrace community and collaboration, they don’t approach people from a place of neediness, seeking out other people’s affirmation and validation.
Self-regulation.When effective leaders are overwhelmed, stressed out, or triggered, they practice self-regulation (and/or have support systems that help them co-regulate) in order to calm and control their emotions rather than dumping them on other people. They’ve done enough personal growth work that they recognize how much instability can be created by their dis-regulated emotional outbursts, and so they work to create a more stable and safe environment for everyone.
Self-forgiveness.While self-awareness, self-regulation, and generosity are important qualities, leaders are still human and they’ll mess up occasionally, and do selfish things or react to triggers in unhealthy ways. When they do, they take responsibility for it, make any necessary restitutions, learn what they need to from the experience, and then practice self-forgiveness and self-care.
Courage. Courage is defined by Google as “the ability to do something that frightens one” and “strength in the face of pain or grief”. I like the combination of these two definitions because it’s not about the absence of fear, but rather the ability and strength to act in spite of it. Effective leaders might be quaking in their boots, but still step forward and do and/or say what’s right. Courage is contagious – when we are in the company of those who practice it, we are more inclined to find the capacity in ourselves.
Power. When I first turned away from authoritarian leadership and chose a different model, I thought power was a dirty word, but I’ve changed my mind since. Power is only dirty if it is abused and if it exists apart from love. As Martin Luther King said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” Effective leaders aren’t afraid of power – they claim it, share it, and use it with love.
Resilience.An effective leader can survive struggle and opposition and can find their way back to strength. It’s not that they are never beaten down – they are – but they get up the next day (or the next week, or month) and do what needs to be done to get back on track. If one path doesn’t work, they adapt and find an alternative. If one attempt fails, they try something else. Repeatedly, they return to their sense of purpose and meaning and they persevere.
Meaning-making. When I first started learning about leadership, I kept hearing about how a leader had to have a sense of vision, and while I agree to a certain point, it always felt like there was something missing from that model. A vision might inspire us for the future, but what about the present? Instead, I now focus on meaning-making. An effective leader strives to make meaning out of the current moment even when the vision is blurred and the future looks dim. Even when there is only struggle and no hope, a leader looks for meaning and purpose.
The ability to hold space. This may be the competency that is the most counter-cultural when compared to an authoritarian leadership model. An effective leader is willing and able to be present for others while they make the journey through liminal space. They don’t impose their own desired outcome and they don’t rush the process. They practice mindfulness and presence, while not backing away from complexity and confusion.
This is only a partial list, and I can think of others (like the ability to build strength in diversity, for example), but this is, at least, a start in exploring what kind of leadership we need for times like these. I wonder how the world might change if we seek to be, to follow, and to elect leaders like these.
I’m going to Uganda! In a surprising twist, while I was planning my trip to the Netherlands to teach in November, a window of opportunity opened up and I can’t pass it up.
As you may recall, for several years, I’ve been supporting a school in Uganda that was founded by my friend Nestar. About a dozen years ago, Nestar spent a year in Canada as the youth intern on the team I was leading at Canadian Foodgrains Bank and I loved getting to know her. Since then, Nestar moved to the Netherlands where she got her Masters degree and started a family, but she never let go of her dream of doing something meaningful for the community where she grew up. When her oldest son’s health made it difficult for her to move back to Uganda as she’d intended, she began directing her energy into creating a foundation to build a school in Kitgum region.
A thriving school has grown out of Nestar’s dream and I’ve been delighted to witness and support it from afar. I’ve long held a little dream of visiting that school and it seems that now is the time. Nestar and I will meet there and we’ll spend some time at the school together. The timing is perfect, because we get to be part of the graduation ceremony for the students who are leaving the school.
When Nestar and I started talking about the possibility of this trip (just a week ago), I asked “What’s the greatest need at the school right now? I’d like to invite my community to support it.” Her response was “Well, there are a few things but the most urgent of all is the sanitary facility. Due to the growing numbers of pupils, our current sanitary facility is not adequate. We would like to contract a new toilet block for the school.”
So, my friends… would you help us ensure that the school has sufficient bathroom facilities to support their growth?
They need approximately $1800 CAD to complete this project. That’s not a lot of money, so I’d like to set the goal a little higher.
Will you help us raise at least $5000?
The school functions on a very tight budget and they’re growing, so I’d like to leave them with a little breathing room for paying teachers, buying books and furniture, etc.
This school is a special place and one of the reasons I’m so committed to it is because it was founded and is run by people from the region who know the needs of the region and care deeply for their own people. Far too many non-profits trying to “fix” things in Africa or other places in the world are doing so as outsiders trying to impose their own sense of what a region needs. That isn’t the case here. As a donor, I influence no decisions at the school and simply send them funds and trust that they know what is needed. They know their own needs and solutions and simply need some financial support in order to serve their own community.
Another thing that’s important is that the foundation has very low operating and administration costs (it’s run by Nestar and her husband as volunteers), and so 95% of your donation will go directly to supporting the school in Uganda.
If you’d like to help, use the donate button below and the money will go into my Paypal account. I will be transferring every dollar I receive (plus my own donation) to UKEF (and am happy to show an accounting of it, if anyone needs that assurance). If you feel more comfortable making a direct donation, you can do so at UKEF’s website.
If you’d like to hear a little more of the story, here’s an interview I did with Nestar back in 2014.
There’s a familiar pattern that shows up when someone criticizes or attacks me. First, I feel it in my body – my throat closes, my muscles tense and the pit of my stomach starts to churn. Usually it’s accompanied with the heat of shame creeping up my neck and into my cheeks. Then my mind starts to race to try to make sense of the messages it’s receiving, usually leaping to the conclusion that I must be a bad person and I need to do something to defend myself or change myself to appease the person who’s doing the criticizing. Often, this is followed with a seemingly endless repetitive churning as my mind becomes fixated on the situation and my body stays in high anxiety mode. I work through the conversation, attack, or criticism again and again, trying to devise the right response that will make the anxious feeling go away.
In recent years, I’ve often had people remark at how I must be brave to speak out publicly about some of the issues I’m passionate about (racism, sexism, injustice, etc.), but in those reactive moments, when the backlash has come, I don’t feel very brave. I feel just as anxious as those people who say they’d never be able to handle it. But I am deeply resolved not to let that anxiety stop me. And I’ve learned how to process the negative information so that it doesn’t keep me hooked in fight, flight, freeze, or tend and befriend mode. (Actually… it’s an ongoing process of learning, not a “once and done” thing. I’m still learning every day.)
Courage is not the absence of fear, but the resolve to act in spite of it.
What’s important to know about that very human reaction to criticism or attack (or any negative information about yourself) is that it’s rooted in the most ancient part of your brain that is looking out for your best interests. The amygdala is responsible for those instinctual reactions that keep you safe – fight, flight, freeze, and tend and befriend. Without it, you probably wouldn’t live past your second birthday because you’d walk into traffic, play with bears, or do any number of other things that you’re meant to be afraid of.
The problem is that, in a trauma situation, the amygdala gets hijacked and doesn’t allow your thinking brain (the orbitofrontal cortex) to take over and speak reason into the situation. You’re stuck in high alert because the amygdala keeps sending danger signals to the body that can’t easily be overwritten with reasonable thoughts.
At this point, you may be thinking “but how can criticism trigger the amygdala when there is no real danger?” Well, the amygdala is not the smartest part of your brain and it doesn’t know real danger from fake danger and so it sends the same signals regardless of the truth.
It all goes back to your childhood. In early life, your primary needs are for safety and belonging. Whenever those things are jeopardized, you become anxious because your immature brain believes that you will cease to exist without those needs being met. Anything that jeopardizes your safety and belonging is a threat that the amygdala is designed to respond to.
Somewhere along the line, likely through an emotional trauma, you (and I) internalized the message that a criticism was a threat to your safety and belonging, and your amygdala learned to respond accordingly. Normally, as you grow up, you should be able to adjust accordingly and learn to use your orbitofrontal cortex to reason with the amygdala about the validity of risk, but a trauma tends to get stuck in your body in such a way that the thinking brain takes longer to engage. And if you never work to heal and shift that trauma and calm the nervous system when you get triggered, you’ll stay in that stuck place and forever be reactive in an unhealthy way.
Let’s throw some attachment theory into the mix as well. Attachment theory teaches us that the ability for an individual to form an emotional and physical “attachment” to another person gives a sense of stability and security necessary to take risks, branch out, and grow and develop as an independent and confident person. That’s the belonging piece that I mentioned as one of our basic needs. With a secure attachment it’s much easier to develop the kind of self esteem and confidence that supports a person in withstanding criticism and attack. Without a secure attachment, a child grows up with a deep sense of insecurity that makes it difficult for healthy emotional development to happen.
A secure attachment is one that allows for both safety AND autonomy. In a secure attachment, a child knows that the parent (or other primary attachment figure) is a safe haven to return to when they are threatened, which makes that child more able to explore and wander away from the parent, building their confidence in themselves as they do so. A secure attachment is flexible to the needs of a child, offering more safety in the early stages and allowing more autonomy as the confidence grows.
Secure attachment continues to be a critical part of emotional development even in adulthood. When you are triggered by a criticism or attack, especially if you have an attachment wound from childhood or you lack a secure attachment in adulthood, your anxiety is immediately heightened and your confidence and resilience are shaken. You find yourself floundering, needing to re-attach and find an anchor that will help you weather the storm. In your moment of floundering, you can’t think clearly, and so you may see the person offering the criticism or attack as the person with whom you need to repair the attachment so that you’ll feel safe again. As a result, your mind races to all of the things you need to do to appease the person and/or get them to change their opinion of you.
Unfortunately, there are many people who, intentionally or inadvertently, will work to destabilize your attachment systems through abuse, gaslighting, dismissal, silencing, shaming, etc. It’s present in abusive relationships of all kinds, whether it’s a marriage, a work situation, a friendship, a classroom or even our government leaders. Especially if you’re in relationships where you regularly face this kind of treatment, you feel constantly unstable and easily triggered. (One of the most valuable resources I’ve read recently on this is Terror, Love and Brainwashing. Though it’s about why people end up and stay in cults, it has a lot of useful information about disorganized/destabilized attachment that relates to any kind of abusive relationship.)
Even if you are a smart and confident person (which I’m assuming you are), you can find yourself reacting to criticism and attacks in less-than-gracious-or-wise ways because of your trauma and/or attachment wounds (which are likely one and the same thing). Also, as the trauma research has been revealing recently, some of your trauma was likely passed down through your cells from the generations above you, so you may be reacting to things in the way that your parents or grandparents were conditioned to react. (Attachment bonds are also somewhat inherited because an insecure or disorganized attachment system in a parent will likely result in the same in the child.)
Sometimes I wonder, in fact, whether every person I meet carries some trauma and/or attachment wound in their body. It seems, at times, to be the very soil we grow in (at least in the part of the world that I’m most familiar with). We have been traumatized by oppressive systems (ie. colonialism, racism, patriarchy) and, on top of that, we have been raised by parents who likely didn’t have any idea how to talk about or heal the trauma they’d inherited and so didn’t know how to create secure attachment bases from which we could grow.
As a result, we have a culture of people who are overly reactive to criticism and attacks, and in their own triggered reactions, lash out at other people to protect themselves. It’s a self-perpetuating problem and it appears to me to be systemic.
Unless we can learn to receive and process negative information, however, our personal development is stunted as is our society’s capacity to evolve. We’ll continue to react defensively whenever difficult conversations need to happen and we’ll reject the important information that helps us evolve.
Take, for example, race conversations. Those of us who enjoy a position of privilege within a racist system have to be able to receive the information that the system is problematic without taking it personal and launching into reactive mode. But we hear terms like “racist” and our bodies and brains react out of our deep need to not have people think badly of us, and we disengage from the conversation. Instead of seeing it as a systemic issue, we see it as a personal attack. (Watch a video by Robin DiAngelo about this.) The same is true for people who benefit from any imbalance system where some have more power than others. (Hence the conversations about white fragility and male fragility.)
What then should we do to get better at processing the negative information?
Learn to soothe your nervous system. Your nervous system is activated by an overly-engaged amygdala and doesn’t allow your orbitofrontal cortex to engage. When you soothe your nervous system, you can re-engage your thinking brain and analyze the situation from a more reasonable perspective. Once you do that, you might recognize some truth in what’s been said about you, or you might decide that the person’s criticism is unwarranted and you are right to ignore it. Soothing your nervous system might be as simple as learning some deep breathing techniques or some tapping techniques. (Gwynn Raimondi has provided a good resource of nervous system soothing techniques. This is the first of three volumes – visit her site and sign up for her newsletter for more.)
Recognize that trauma is in your body and can’t simply be released by the brain. While talk therapy might be helpful for processing some of your trauma and attachment wounds, it’s also important to seek out some body work (ie. Reiki, cranio-sacral, EMDR, massages, Body Talk, yoga, TRE, etc.). Find what works for you and repeat when necessary. Aside from hiring professionals, I’ve also found that things like Epson salt baths and long walks can help with the release.
Develop secure attachments and turn to those attachments for support when you’re feeling anxious or threatened. Much of the literature about adult attachment roots these secure attachments in romantic relationships, but they can also be found in friendships, sibling relationships, or in therapeutic relationships. I have a couple of very good friends and a sister, for example, who help to ground me when I’ve been attacked and need a secure base. Wired for Love is a good resource (though I wish there were a version not about romantic relationships).
Explore healing for the trauma and attachment wounds that come from childhood and/or that you have inherited. Seek out the teachers and professionals that are doing work that resonates with you. I have found some healing, for example, in family constellations and I know there are many other methodologies and practitioners that are doing good work.
Know that you have a right to healthy boundaries. Not all criticisms and attacks need your attention – in some cases you simply need to recognize your right to guard yourself against them. On social media, recently, for example, I’ve been letting people know that I’m open to reasonable conversation even if they disagree with me, but if they show up for no other purpose than to attack or argue, I will block them. Even if the person attacking is a family member or close friend, you have a right to guard yourself from attack.
Regularly engage in activities that make you feel strong and grounded. Recently, I built some storage shelves and a folding work table in my garage, and when I finished I felt empowered and self-confident because it was hard work AND I accomplished what I didn’t think I was capable of. The next time I was criticized (the very next day) I more easily let it roll off my back and established a new boundary because I was feeling resilient. Woodworking does that for me. You might find it in gardening, rock-climbing, hiking, swimming, kick-boxing, yoga, dance, etc. In my experience, it’s those activities that engage my body and stretch my capacities that are most effective.
Recognize when the criticism or attack is pointing to something that is systemic and needs to be viewed that way instead of being received as a personal attack. If, for example, the person is talking about white or male privilege, colonialism, etc., and you feel personally attacked, pause for a moment and reflect on whether the injustice they’re pointing to is embedded in the system you inherited and that you benefit from and isn’t just about you personally. If it is, then do what you need to do to soothe your nervous system, then engage from a more conscious perspective, taking responsibility for how you can contribute to a more just system.
Tell your stories. As Brené Brown has taught us, the best defence against the kind of shame that often cripples us is to be vulnerable with people who know how to hold space for us. Find a sharing circle, or a few close friends who offer you a non-judgemental space to admit those times when you were triggered and reacted in a way that you regret. Saying it out loud can help it have less power in your life and can increase your resilience for future situations.
Note: Special thanks to my friends Sheila and Saleha – recent conversations with them helped inspire this post.
P.S. Want to learn more about how to hold space for yourself so that you’re more resilient and confident in how you hold space for others? It’s part of my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator offering and the next session starts in January. If you want to be notified when registration opens, send us a note and Krista will put you on the list.