Are we worshipping our wounds or seeking mutual liberation?

(Listen to me read the post.)

Not long ago, I listened to an interview with someone who’d written a piece for the New York Times on the “empty religions of Instagram”. She was critiquing some self-help social media influencers, and she mentioned that some of them “worship their wounds”. On their Instagram feeds, she said, they make themselves accessible by being wounded people, but then they stay with the wound because it makes them feel special and loved and it gets them more followers. 

Those words stuck with me. At the time, I was taking a social media break because I was going through a period that was somewhere between burnout and existential crisis. I was wrestling with some of the pressures I wrote about in this article, about trying to be an ethical leader and influencer while avoiding the trap of starting a cult, and I was having a bit of a vulnerability hangover after spending eight months talking about myself and my book. I was suddenly uncertain about how much I wanted to share and engage on social media, and I was feeling some pressure to be performative, which felt antithetical to my commitment to authenticity. 

Because I’ve written a book that includes quite a few of my own vulnerable stories, and because much of my work has its roots in those stories (i.e. the original blog post that catapulted this work into the world was about my mom dying), the words of the writer felt somewhat confronting. 

Was I, too, guilty of “worshipping my wounds”? Was I monetizing my woundedness and then staying with the woundedness because it’s become part of my brand and it draws people in?

Whew. That’s a really big question. It stopped me in my tracks and caused me to withdraw even further from the public-facing spaces. I spent hours wrestling with it in my journal and had several good conversations with friends. I dug deep, trying to be as honest with myself as I could.

Somewhat ironically, at the same time, I was teaching my course, Write for Love and Liberation, where I was telling people how liberating and healing it can be to write about your wounds and share your stories. I told them how much more liberated I felt when I was honest about past trauma and abuse and how much that honesty and vulnerability had helped me find community and deepen relationships. 

My mind wrestled with the cognitive dissonance of those two things and I didn’t know if they could both be true at the same time. 

On the one hand, oversharing and crafting your identity out of a narrative of woundedness and trauma can keep you stuck in your wounds. A relationship or community built out of shared woundedness can give everyone in that relationship or community an excuse to stay wounded. It can also hold people back from healing and growth because people need safety and belonging and are afraid of being abandoned by people who don’t want them to change. (Some of us come from families, for example, that don’t encourage growth because that causes a threat to the family system.) 

Plus, a leader who uses her wounds to gather people around her can turn those wounds into performance and connecting points for relationships. She is much more likely to grow unhealthy attachments, to project those wounds onto other people, and to start a cult rather than a healthy growing community. A leader who stays wounded is likely to create trauma bonds with people to ensure that they don’t outgrow her and move on because they’ve healed and no longer need the attachment to her. (Consider the many recent stories of abuse in spiritual communities – those are leaders whose own woundedness tries to trap people and hold them back.)

On the other hand, sharing the stories of our trauma and woundedness can be healing and transformational and those stories can offer beautiful connecting points on which to build community. Some of my biggest personal breakthroughs have come when I’ve read or listened to the stories of people who’ve dared to share their struggles and pain. Over the years, I have heard from many, many people who are grateful that I’ve been so honest in the sharing of my hard stories, because it helps them see themselves more clearly. Shared vulnerability connects us and makes us feel less alone. It can also give us hope that there is a way through the pain into a new story.

So… what is a person to do when they’ve built work that’s rooted in their personal stories, and many of those stories include wounds and trauma that help people find connecting points? 

I think the key to that question is in the word that is deliberately part of both my book title and my writing course title… liberationI think that the writing and sharing of our stories, the gathering of our communities, and the ways in which we show up online, should all be centered around the pursuit of liberation – for ourselves and for each other. 

Liberation comes when we can see the wound; name the wound; speak honestly about the wound; erect healthy boundaries with anyone who caused, contributed to, or dismissed the wound; heal the wound; make meaning of the wound; and then free ourselves from the wound and move on. 

Liberation comes when we share stories not only of the wounds themselves, but of what it takes to heal the wounds, triumph over the wounds, and stand up to the people or systems that cause the wounds.

Liberation comes when we tell the stories of how we developed healthy boundaries, stopped accepting abuse, and stopped giving ourselves away to people who don’t know how to honour and hold space for us.

Liberation comes when we don’t hold each other back, when we release unhealthy attachments, and when we refuse to participate in codependent relationships that rely on our woundedness.

Liberation comes when we make a conscious choice to detach ourselves from our wounds and we form new identities not built solely on those wounds.

After a considerable amount of reflection on this topic, I have come to a renewed commitment in my work and my life… I will continue to share honestly and vulnerably and will continue to let people see the wounds and trauma that have been part of my past (when I can do so out of a spirit of generosity) BUT… I will not stay in that place, nor will I stay in relationships that keep me in that place. I will do my best to continue healing whatever reveals itself in me and I will support other people in their healing. I will trust my own need for boundaries and give myself necessary time away from other people’s wounds and healing work. I will distance myself from situations or relationships that trigger my old woundedness. I will actively pursue peace, love, joy, and liberation. I will seek out relationships and communities that value growth (mine and other people’s) and that don’t need to keep anyone wounded to justify their own lack of growth. I will be gentle with those with trauma and wounds, but I won’t settle for wound-worshipping in the spaces I hold. 

I am committed to my own liberation. AND I believe, as Lilla Watson says, that “my liberation is tied up with yours”. I am committed to liberated relationships, where we honour each other’s sovereignty AND we lean into community, where we hold space for each other’s trauma AND we seek healing and growth.  

When I published my book, The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership, my publisher wasn’t certain whether we should include “liberation” in the title. I insisted though, and I’m glad I did. Because I believe that when we hold space for each other, we choose to serve mutual liberation. 

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p.s. We’ve recently re-launched Write for Love and Liberation as a self-study program, in case you need support as you work through your own stories of healing.

We’ve also opened registration for the Holding Space Foundation Program, where you can learn more about holding space for yourself and others.

Sovereignty is a Relational Concept

(Listen to me read the post)

A few years ago, I had a pretty big a-ha moment when I realized that the concept of holding space (which I’ve spent the last seven years exploring in a deep way as I developed programs and wrote a book about it) is, at its core, about freedom and sovereignty. Here’s a quote from one of the last chapters of my book

“If I treat you as someone entitled to your own sovereignty, it means that I assume you have the same right to self-govern your life as I. You get to tell me how you want to be treated and I can choose to accept those boundaries or walk away.

“Sovereignty is what we’ve been talking about throughout this discussion on holding space – that we offer love to each other without attachment, manipulation, control, or boundary-crossing. It’s the starting point to developing healthy, strong social contracts between us.”

It’s taken me a lot of hard learning to get to the place where I can embrace a concept like sovereignty. As I’ve written about in the past, I had to let go of a lot of social conditioning, work through some trauma and abuse, and rewrite some old narratives to even begin to believe I have a right to self-govern my life and choose what’s best for me and my body. Similarly, I had to learn how to treat other people as sovereign individuals, and that’s especially tricky when you’re a parent trying to respect your daughters’ boundaries but haven’t often had your own boundaries respected. I still slip up sometimes, and the old scripts still play in my head, especially when I’m tired, confused, or feel beaten up, but I feel clearer and clearer about what it means to own my sovereignty and be in relationships with people who are equally sovereign.

Lately, though, I’ve had some concerns about the ways in which sovereignty gets talked about, especially in the wellness/self-help industry. It’s becoming an increasingly common term among those who talk about things like personal empowerment, self-love, etc. 

Here’s what concerns me… Some of what’s being said ignores the way in which sovereignty is a relational concept.

When you talk about sovereignty without also talking about community and the kinds of social contracts that allow people to be in relationships while still maintaining their sovereignty, then you’re probably actually talking about selfishness and willful ignorance of the impact of your choices. And when you’re talking about those things, then your version of sovereignty is rooted in colonization rather than equity.

A sovereign nation becomes a colonizing nation when it takes its sovereignty too far, ignores the sovereignty of others, and lives by its own set of rules. It bulldozes over other nations’ rights (especially weaker and/or more community-oriented nations), exploits whatever resources it wants, enslaves and marginalizes people of other nations, and ignores any treaties that might have been written.

An individual can take their sovereignty too far in much the same way, centering their own right to do what they want over anyone else’s rights. 

Sadly, most of us have been socially conditioned by the colonization that’s steeped into our cultures. As a result, when we claim a word like sovereignty (as the self-empowerment influencers have done), the concept can still hold the shadow of the culture within it. What you end up with is self-empowered people who believe in their own rights to self-govern their own bodies and choose what’s best for them, but who don’t recognize that those choices might actually be harming other people.

Let’s say, for example, that your self-care practice involves paying people to care for your children and clean your house while you get a massage. You have a sovereign right to do all of those things (and I’m all for it). But… let’s imagine that the people doing these things for you are exploited labourers who aren’t being fully compensated for their work because they’re undocumented immigrants or they’re marginalized in a way that makes other work hard to find. Is that truly a sovereign self-care practice if it doesn’t uphold the sovereignty and rights of others? 

Or let’s say that you believe you have the sovereign right not to wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic and you pass the virus on to the person working at the grocery store who passes it on to their immuno-compromised child or elderly parent who dies as a result. Is that truly a sovereign choice if it ignores the sovereignty and rights of that family?

Sovereignty has a shadow side and that shadow looks like colonization. If your sovereignty does not acknowledge and uphold the sovereignty of others, then it’s individualism, and an excuse to be self-centred in your choices. 

The only way for sovereignty to work in the world is for it to be interwoven with community (which comes with morality, responsibility, and justice).

Sovereignty needs guardrails. To avoid the shadow side, we need to hold it in a relationship with community. Social contracts serve as the guardrails, holding the two in balance.

We can think about sovereignty and community as a yin and yang relationship – they function together, balancing each other out and holding each other accountable. Within each is a bit of the other. And in the space in between is a social contract that weaves the relationship together and keeps one from swallowing the other whole. 

Community that’s left unchecked swallows individual rights and erases sovereignty. Sovereignty that’s left unchecked destroys community and leaves everyone isolated and paranoid of each other.   

Social contracts (like treaties between countries) guide us in naming and honouring what our individual rights are, what boundaries we need in order to uphold each person’s sovereignty, what we’re willing to give up in service to the community, how we’ll share and/or distribute assets and resources, how we’ll address conflict, and how we’ll celebrate and cherish the bond between us. Not only do they guide the relationship and protect each person’s freedom within that relationship, they also offer the freedom to leave if the relationship no longer serves or if there is irreparable harm done. Clear and supportive social contracts make a relationship stronger, more resilient, more adaptable, and more supportive of the people in it. 

When Krista and I entered into a business partnership, we went through a process called Conscious Contracts (with a lawyer trained in the process) and we developed a Peace Covenant that gives us guardrails for our relationship. This helps us hold both sovereignty and community as values at the core of our business. What Krista has often said throughout this process is “I don’t want to be in a relationship with anyone who feels trapped in that relationship or who clings to it too desperately.” We value the relationship, and we are both free to leave if/when that feels necessary.

There is also a process called Blueprints of We that is a form of social contract that could be helpful for all kinds of relationships (not just business partnerships). I encourage you to check it out for your marriage, your family, your community organization, your church, etc.

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P.S.If you want to learn more about how to hold space for people’s sovereignty, while also leaning in to community, we welcome you to join us for the Holding Space Foundation Program. Registration just opened for the session that starts in October 2021.

Expectations, Trauma, and Over-Functioning

A few weeks ago, when I was teetering on the edge of crawl-under-the-covers-and-don’t-come-out-until-2022 burnout, I was on Zoom with a couple of wise friends. We were checking in about how our lives were going, and I had just unloaded a long list of stressors, fumbles, and mom-worries. I was fighting back tears.

They both looked at me with kindness and one of them said “Nothing is expected of you here.” That’s when the tears spilled out and down my face.

My body wasn’t entirely sure what to do with their offering. Was it REALLY possible that a space was available to me where there were NO expectations? Could I REALLY be fully myself and not have to meet anyone’s needs or worry about letting people down? 

While, on the one hand, the tension in me started to ease (because I have a high level of trust in these two friends), on the other hand there was still a little voice whispering “This is too good to be true. Stay on alert because they might change their minds.”

I live in a body that is highly attuned to other people’s expectations and easily triggered if I can’t read those expectations or doubt my capacity to meet them. Raised by a father who was prone to anger and a mother who was prone to insecurity and self-doubt, I learned early how to read the room. If the expectations of one weren’t met, I risked facing anger. If the expectations of the other weren’t met, I risked the parentification of having to soothe the self-deprecation and shame. Add to that the expectations of being the oldest daughter on a farm where poverty was always knocking at the door, who had to take on extra responsibilities when Mom had to find full-time work. Add to that a religion that taught me that if I didn’t make the right choices and meet the expectations laid out in the Bible, I was doomed to hell.

And then I married a man who was prone to both anger AND insecurity (probably because that was what was familiar to me). I spent the next twenty-two years on high alert, trying to read the expectations and anticipate which of those reactions would be triggered if expectations weren’t met. Add to that the expectations of three daughters with their own needs (who were also learning to navigate their dad’s moods and needs). Add to that the expectations of a demanding career and then the financial burden of self-employment. Add to that the residual effect of a religion that told me I had to be a good wife and a culture that idealizes the sacrifice of motherhood.

Anticipating expectations and meeting needs is deeply engrained in the way I live and, quite frankly, it contributed to the success I had in my past career as a Communications Director. It’s part of what has always made me “high-functioning” and “calm under stress” and “a good leader”. (Back when I was sixteen and had to take over for my mom who’d been hospitalized, many people commented on my high capacity to support the family’s needs. That’s been the theme in many, many crises and high-stress situations since. Because we are so reliable under stress, high-functioning people like me tend to overlook our trauma and stress until one day we crumble and it can no longer be ignored.)

That’s why the tend-and-befriend trauma response resonates with me as much as it does. I could never fully see myself in fight, flight, or freeze, so it took a long time for me to recognize that there was trauma in me. When I learned that there was a fourth response, my whole life suddenly made sense. I know what it means to be on high alert and how to discern, in an instant, who has to be protected and who has to be calmed in order to minimize the threat. I know what it means to deprioritize my own needs when there is a threat (real or perceived). I know how to kick into high-functioning-mode when the expectations are high. I know how to scan for possible danger, how to soothe those who are afraid and how to calm those who are angry.

I know how to do all of that at the expense of myself. 

When you’ve had a period in your life when you had to spend your days in a psychiatric ward with your husband after his suicide attempt and evenings with your anxious children who don’t understand what happened to their dad, you learn some pretty unique and specific skills in “tending and befriending”. And your body remembers and is easily activated back into that kind of high alert whenever a new threat shows up.

That activation was present a few weeks ago when my friends made that kind offering of space without expectations. And that’s why my body was reluctant to trust it. Because a space without expectations, where people care for me unconditionally, is a space my amygdala tells me is unfamiliar and unpredictable and therefore unsafe.

If you’re a long-time reader, you might be wondering… how does a person with this kind of trauma end up spending her life teaching people how to hold space? Isn’t that counter-intuitive?

No, quite the opposite. It is precisely BECAUSE I am so highly attuned to what’s in the room that I learned early how to listen to people, how to tune in to the complexity, how to set aside my own baggage in the face of other people’s needs, and how to ask good questions that help people articulate their needs, desires, and fears. And because I was so accustomed to being in spaces and relationships where expectations were high (and the consequences of unmet expectations were equally high), I was uniquely able to identify and articulate what it means to release oneself of those expectations and to hold space without attachment to outcome. (It’s worth noting that the section of my book on “holding space for yourself” was the hardest section for me to write – I needed to dig a little deeper for that.)

Because I know, so intimately, what it means to have space hijacked, I also know what it means to have space held. Sometimes the deepest clarity comes when you’ve spent a lot of time examining the flipside of something.

It was partly my own longing that led me to this work. I could see it and name it and dream it, and then, because my trauma also made me high-functioning, I could begin to build it and invite people into it… and fiercely protect it and work doggedly on it until it grew.

My trauma has alchemized into a gift. 

But… it isn’t always a gift. It’s a two-sided coin. It holds both shadow and light. 

The shadow side of it means that sometimes I still over-function. Sometimes I get burned out from the over-functioning. Sometimes I try to control situations that are outside of my control. Sometimes I slip into performance mode because I’m trying to meet expectations. Sometimes I spiral into over-thinking and over-doing and over-tending and over-befriending. And sometimes I go into a tailspin if I can’t read the expectations or there are too many of them or I lack the capacity to meet them and I fear the consequences. Sometimes the simple act of opening my in-box can be paralyzing because I fear it will be full of people’s expectations and/or disappointments over unmet expectations.

I am working hard to witness and heal these patterns in myself, and to catch myself before I go into a tailspin. I am spending more and more time in conversations and relationships like the one I mentioned above where the expectations are low (or at least clearly articulated and not projected). I am carving out more and more intentional time for myself where there are no expectations (including being off social media, where I sometimes take on too much of the expectations that I be “The Good Author/Influencer/Ally/Friend”). I am letting go of some of my perfectionism and learning (and relearning) that sometimes I need to let people down in order to be true to myself. I am, once again, in therapy, working to loosen the grip of the trauma that’s been re-activated this year. I have a strong business partner who manages a lot of the expectations and reminds me to rest and have healthy boundaries. I am dating someone who has high capacity for naming and claiming her own expectations, for witnessing me fully and authentically, and for taking responsibility for her own baggage (which has been rather revolutionary). And, as my daughters grow into their adulthood, I am taking on less and less responsibility and trusting them to be self-aware and self-lead (and they are stepping up to the challenge).

This summer, I am going on sabbatical and, other than helping my daughters move to faraway cities on opposite sides of the country (yikes!), my time will be blessedly free of responsibilities or expectations. After a year of so much intensity, where my body has been on high alert not only to the danger posed by the virus (especially for my immuno-compromised daughter), but also the additional pressure of launching a book, a new business, and several new programs, I need to claim spaciousness for rest and restoration and nourishment and fun and laughter and love.  

I am becoming more and more curious about this next phase of my life, when my daughters move out, when the Centre is in its second year and on more solid ground, and the responsibilities and expectations are reduced. Will I know how to adapt to this new way of being? Will my body truly be able to relax into it? Will it heal me or scare me or a bit of both? Will I set healthy boundaries and claim space for rest? Or will I take on more responsibilities than is necessary just because that’s what I’m familiar with? Time will tell. Check back in a year or two.

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P.S. If you’re nearing burnout from trying to meet people’s expectations, you might find meaning and support in my new self-study program, Holding Space in Times of Disruption and Overwhelm. It’s offered on a pay-what-you-can because we want it to be accessible to anyone who needs it.

Confessions of an Imperfect Mother

I turned off the radio this morning, on the way home from driving my daughter to work. It was making me feel a little rage-y and I didn’t want to be in a bad mood. 

In the lead-up to Mother’s Day, the radio station was holding a contest where people could phone in and nominate a mother for a prize. The people phoning in, mostly nominating their mothers or wives, were saying things like “she sacrifices EVERYTHING for her kids” or “she’s ALWAYS available” or “she’s a mother to the WHOLE NEIGHBOURHOOD” or “she’s the STRONGEST and most GENEROUS person I know”. 

When I got home, I said to one of my other daughters “I want you to phone in, list off all of my imperfections and a few of my failures, and then say ‘our mom stopped being a martyr for everyone in the family, and we appreciate that because it’s teaching us we don’t have to do that when/if we become moms.’” And she said “yeah, I could tell them about the times when you’ve flown to the other side of the world for three weeks and left us behind.” (She’s right – I did. Multiple times.)

Can we please stop this glorification and objectification of motherhood? Can we stop layering unrealistic standards and expectations onto mothers so that they only think they’re “good enough” when they’ve given everything up for their families, kept a tidy house, stuffed down all of their emotions, AND volunteered for every school opportunity?

And while we’re at it… can we build more supports for mothers into our communities, so that they feel less alone and can stop pressuring themselves to be solitary superheroes?

I am an imperfect mother who wears no cape. There are often dust bunnies in the corners and I have fed my kids far too much processed food. I hardly ever volunteered for school things and I am notoriously bad at making small talk with other moms on the sports field. I have sometimes put my work ahead of my kids, and I’ve made quite a few mistakes when I thought I was doing what was best for them. I sometimes let my old trauma and social conditioning get in the way of honouring their dignity and autonomy. I get angry sometimes and even a little vengeful on occasion. I am forgetful, distractable, selfish, and sometimes insensitive. 

I don’t want my daughters to say otherwise because it wouldn’t be true. I don’t want them to wear rose-coloured glasses about how perfect I’ve been, because then, if they ever become moms, they’ll judge themselves according to an illusion and the same impossible standards. I want them to have permission to be imperfect moms too.

I believe in anti-perfectionism motherhood. I believe in doing the best we can with what we have. I believe in showing our flaws and honouring our efforts. I believe in “good enough” and “I’m too tired to do better”. I believe in apologizing and trying again. I believe in giving ourselves permission to say no. I believe in asking for help. I believe in healthy boundaries. I believe in making motherhood more realistic and manageable by supporting it with community care. I believe that fathers (and other caregivers) should be supported in developing more capacity for emotional labour to take some of the load off mothers. I believe we should reject martyrdom as a motherhood construct. I believe we should celebrate imperfection and honour our limitations. I believe in forgiveness and grace and love and self-care. 

I also believe that there are reasons why this glorification and objectification of motherhood has become so baked into our cultures. The patriarchy has created an environment in which a.) women (and, by extension, “women’s work”) are undervalued, and b.) we have to perform and compete to prove our worthiness. 

Mothers who are fighting to prove their worthiness within a system are women who are exhausted, overwhelmed and more easily dominated, shamed and controlled.

“Historically, patriarchal cultures have not only treated motherhood as a mandate for women, they’ve also made it oppressive, holding mothers to unreasonable standards, such as requiring them to:

  • Relinquish personal ambitions to care for their families.
  • Deplete themselves to support their families and raise children.
  • Be the primary caretakers of the household.
  • Constantly serve others and others’ needs, while not attending to their own. 
  • Handle everything with ease 100 percent of the time; have well-behaved children and maintain a high standard of beauty, a sex drive, a successful career, and a solid marriage.

“Our society’s unspoken messages to mothers include:

  • ‘If motherhood is difficult, then it’s your own fault.’
  • ‘Shame on you if you’re not superhuman.’
  • ‘There are ‘natural mothers’ for whom motherhood is easy. If you are not one of these, there is something deeply wrong with you.’”

From Discovering the Inner Mother: A Guide to Healing the Mother Wound and Claiming Your Personal Power, by Bethany Webster

It’s not going to be easy to disrupt this narrative of the Perfect Mother, given that it’s one of the pillars that’s propping up the patriarchy, but if we want to liberate ourselves from oppressive systems, we have to keep chipping away at the old tropes until they release their grip. This begins, I believe, by telling the truth, healing the wounds, and freeing our children from the baggage we inherited. 

That’s why I’m having different conversations with my daughters. We are wrestling, together, with the mistakes I made in the past that can be traced back to the flawed narrative I’d inherited about what it meant to be a Good Mother. We’re unpacking which parts of our family baggage are systemic and how we can disrupt those patterns in ourselves. And we’re wrestling with how to let go of perfectionism and accept “good enough”, even while we continue to feel the pressure from outside forces. And I’m helping them give themselves permission to be different kinds of mothers (or not be mothers at all) than I was or their grandmothers were.

More than anything, I want to model more self-compassion and less perfectionism for my daughters. 

Perfectionism is deeply rooted in our fears of being deemed unworthy, and motherhood is extra hard when you’re always fighting to prove your own worthiness. Unfortunately, the game is rigged against us and we’re fighting a losing battle because the Perfect Mother doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion. We keep finding ourselves pressured into measuring ourselves against the impossible standards of the Perfect Mother that’s idealized on Mother’s Day, but it’s nothing but a mirage.

We cannot perform ourselves into worthiness. We have to find that in ourselves and we have to support others in finding it in themselves too. 

We’ll only dismantle patriarchy if we create alternative models of community where we don’t have to play by patriarchy’s rules and we can find love and acceptance without having to endlessly strive for it. I’m starting in my home, with my daughters.

*****

P.S. I’ve just created a brand new course on Holding Space in Times of Disruption and Overwhelm. Check it out! It’s “pay what you can” because I want it to be accessible to anyone who needs it in this strange time of so much disruption.

Also… my book, The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership, was recently awarded a silver medal in the Nautilus Book Awards, in the category of Relationships and Communication.

Tales of an Invisible Woman

image credit: Steiner Engeland, Unsplash

Once there was an Invisible Woman. 

She wasn’t born that way – in the beginning she was just like every other child, expressing herself freely and wanting to be seen and accepted and loved for who she was. Sadly, though, it was her quest for love and acceptance that convinced her that, in order to survive in the world as it presented itself to her, she had to become an Invisible Woman.

First she watched her mother for clues in how to become an Invisible Woman. Her mother had become quite adept at it, so there were lots of things to learn from her. She watched her mother sacrifice nearly everything for her husband, her children, her church, and the people who needed her. She noticed how her mother made herself disappear by rarely expressing an opinion, especially when there were men present whose opinions mattered more. She noticed how, in church, her mother never complained about the fact that she and the other women were only allowed to teach Sunday School (it was okay to be Visible to children) and feed people and that when it came to any forms of leadership or power, they had to stay Invisible.

She also received a lot of clues from her cultural and religious lineage. Historically, her people were known as The Quiet in The Land because of the way they had withdrawn from society due to persecution. (She learned of one woman who’d been burned at the stake with a screw through her tongue to prevent her from speaking to the gathered crowds as she prepared to die. Her fifteen year old son later combed through the ashes to find the tongue screw.) Understandably, there was among her people a suspiciousness of Visibility because of the danger it posed.

When she started to emerge into the world outside of her mother’s kitchen and her Sunday School classroom, she noticed that other women behaved much the same way her mother did, so she thought it must be the Right Way to Behave. She wanted to ask questions about whether she had a right to Visibility, and why some people seemed to have more rights than others, but it didn’t seem like there was anyone around who would be receptive to her questions, so she stayed silent.

Because she was busy learning to be Invisible, she learned to camouflage her skills in Leadership and Communication so as not to threaten the people around her who were used to women like her being Invisible. She had a few chances to become at least partially Visible, and she tested them out occasionally, but mostly she got the message that good girls were comfortable being Invisible and trying too hard would mean she was arrogant.   

When she went to university, she decided to study Theatre and Literature, because, secretly, she wanted to write and be on stage, but she didn’t tell too many people about those dreams because she thought they’d laugh at her for her misguided desire for Visibility. She assumed that Visible people must be better than her or smarter than her or they were born with the acceptable gender for Visibility, so she kept convincing herself she was okay with Invisibility.

In her Theatre classes, she tried only half-heartedly to be picked for roles on the stage (even though she secretly wanted them) and instead proved herself to be useful behind the stage where Invisible People could be of service. She started to write plays, and some of them were produced on stage, but mostly she stayed Invisible even when she was the originator of the ideas. When a professor thought that one of her plays was good enough to be submitted to the CBC, she was sure he must be mistaken (because he was allowed to be Visible and couldn’t really understand) so she didn’t follow through.

Her theatre experience revealed to her that she was actually pretty good at helping OTHER people to become Visible (she wrote the words that they said on stage) and that lead to her first career. She became a Communications Professional, which mostly meant that she wrote a lot of words that were either uncredited or credited to other people, and that she advised a lot of people in how to be Visible in a way that served the purpose of the government department or non-profit she was working for. 

She wrote speeches for the people on the stage, she arranged for many people to talk to the media, she organized press conferences and tours, and she produced documentaries, but she stayed resolutely behind the curtain. If you were to look at the photos or videos of events she organized for Prime Ministers, Premiers, scientists, and celebrities, you would see little evidence that she was there. She hired photographers who took pictures of the Visible People and then stood beside the photographers with the lenses pointed away from her.

Periodically, she would renew her attempts at seeking Visibility, but, because she was also becoming a mother (which added a whole new layer of Invisibility), she had little time for that pursuit and found little encouragement. When her first two babies were small and she was on her second maternity leave, she wrote a novel during her daughters’ naps, but when that novel was finished and she was trying to get it published, she had to go back to work and no longer had time for it. The novel sat on her shelf and collected dust along with her other dreams.

One day though, several years later, she recognized the growing restlessness in her, and she finally admitted to herself that she’d never fully given up the hope of Visibility. She had to work through a lot of self-doubt and shame over this, because the voices in her head kept telling her it was a sign of her arrogance and lack of gratitude for the great life she had and the great jobs she was getting with her skills in supporting others’ Visibility, but she decided it was time to at least try. She didn’t think it was just selfishness that wouldn’t let her release the longing.

While still working at supporting other people’s Visibility, she started a blog to test out what it would be like to write about her OWN ideas and stories instead of everyone else’s. At first, she was very secretive about her blog because she was afraid that people would judge her for trying to become Visible. She called that blog Fumbling for Words, because she wasn’t sure she trusted her own words yet and she wanted a place to practice. 

She grew to love that blog, and it sparked a dream in her that she’d someday be able to make a living as a writer. That dream wouldn’t die, and finally, though it seemed completely preposterous to everyone including herself, she quit her job as a Communications Professional, and started her path toward Visibility. 

It wasn’t easy, choosing that path and sticking to it. There were far more bumps than she could have anticipated. She had to make a living to support her family, and so, at the beginning, she still found herself doing lots of work that supported other people’s Visibility more than her own. And she had to keep wrestling with her self-doubt and fear and other people’s judgement and her social conditioning, and some days she wanted to run back to Invisibility because she felt overwhelmed and vulnerable. Some days she convinced herself she wasn’t meant for Visibility.

Sadly, she discovered that some of the people she cared about weren’t very comfortable with her increased Visibility, so some of her relationships changed. She considered the possibility of returning to Invisibility, in order to keep her life more stable and make the people around her more comfortable, but once she’d committed to this path, she knew she could never be happy going back. 

The thing that surprised her most, though, was how much she started to notice the expectations and projections that are placed on Visible people. The more she became Visible, the more she exposed herself to other people’s criticism, blame, and expectations that she perform a certain way. Especially when she started to move beyond simply sharing her stories to also sharing the wisdom she’d gained, she noticed that people either wanted to put her on a pedestal as a wise guide or tear her down because she proved to be more flawed than they wanted their heroes to be. 

One day, she became more Visible than she could have dreamed possible. A blog post (about her mom dying and a nurse who held space at the deathbed) went viral and suddenly there were millions of people all over the world reading her words. This was very exciting for her, but it was also very stressful. When her inbox filled up with emails from lovely people who wanted to share their stories with her, she suddenly felt overwhelmed by the pressure of wanting to support all of these people who, like her, just wanted to be Seen. She tried to witness them all and send them all love, but it became too much for her to carry alone (especially while she was also struggling with the primary relationship in her life in which she was not feeling Seen), and so she shut down her inbox for awhile and disappeared. 

She didn’t disappear for long, though, because she now knew that there was a Purpose to her Visibility. It wasn’t just a longing to be Seen, or a desire to make herself the centre of the narrative – it was a longing to support all of the other people who also wanted to be Seen. She realized she had a special gift for seeing Invisible People and perhaps that was what her quest for Visibility was all about.

Before she could support all of those other people, though, she found that she had work to do in making sure she was strong enough for what Visibility required of her. She removed herself from the relationship that made her feel Invisible and she began a search for the kind of people who would strengthen her and stand by her as she became more and more Visible. She sought therapy and she did lots of other deep work to help her stand more firmly in self-love and courage. She also found a person who could work alongside her in helping her to develop more clear boundaries that kept her more protected from other people’s projections and expectations (and she eventually made that person her business partner). 

As she became more and more confident being the Visible Woman, her work continued to grow and the community around it grew with it. She still had moments of crippling self-doubt, and moments when other people’s opinions would sideline her for awhile, but because her Purpose felt so clear and there was now so much Meaning attached it, she was able to return again and again to the work that made her come Alive.

One day, the Visible Woman finally made her long-held dream come true… she published a book. It wasn’t the book she’d written years earlier when her children were small, or even the book she wrote near the beginning of her quest for Visibility, it was the book that grew out of the blog post that millions of people had read. It was her response to the hundreds of people in her inbox who wanted to feel Seen and wanted to know how to support other people in being Seen.

In realizing this dream, the Visible Woman discovered that everything from her past had value – even the parts where she was mostly Invisible and supporting other people in becoming Visible – because it turned out that her quest was not just about her own Visibility. It was about learning how to share that Visibility, how to help people step into their own Visibility, how to teach people to hold the space for Visibility for all, and how to help people heal from the pain of their own Invisibility.

Now that her book is published, the Visible Woman gets to speak with lots of media people about that book (and she laughed quite a lot when her publisher assigned a Communications Professional to help HER to be Visible), and she gets to spend her days supporting a lot of beautiful people who are Becoming Visible and who are learning The Art of Holding Space (which could also be called The Art of Helping People Feel Seen).

We can’t really say that the Visible Woman lived happily ever after, because there is a lot of responsibility that comes with being Visible and sometimes there is still some pain and discomfort, but we CAN say that she found meaning, purpose, contentment and community in her quest for Visibility. And she continues to delight in making Visibility feel like more than just a dream for the people in her circles.

*****

If you are on your own quest for Visibility, join us in the upcoming online writing program Write for Love and Liberation. Or take a solo journey along The Spiral Path.

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