Once there was a girl in a velcro dress whose dress became so weighted down with all of the things other people stuck to it that she could barely move.
One day, exhausted and frustrated from the gargantuan amount of effort that it took to move about in her life, she slipped out of the dress and found herself in a sad little heap underneath. The dress, stiff from all of the expectations and beliefs and baggage that everyone else had layered onto it and she’d picked up herself, stayed perfectly still, creating a tent above the girl.
The girl loved how peaceful and quiet it was in that tent. Nobody could find her there and she didn’t need to satisfy anyone other than herself. She noticed how different her breath felt – long and slow and filling her whole body. Whenever she was wearing the dress, her breath was short and fast and a little strangled because of the weight of the dress, but under the dress, it was different.
Of course, she didn’t allow herself to stay for long, that first time in her tent hideaway. She was a responsible girl and wearing that dress was one of her responsibilities, so she silenced the longing that encouraged her to stay and she stood up and carried on. Carrying on was one of the things she was good at.
Once she’d had a taste of the tent, though, she couldn’t shake it from her mind no matter how hard she tried to stay busy or distract herself. A few days later, when nobody was paying attention, she slipped down inter her tent again for a few more minutes of rest, cut off from the noisy world around her.
Gradually, this became more and more common. The girl started to plan into her day moments when she could slip out of the dress and disappear. Of course, being a responsible girl, she made sure that the moments she chose wouldn’t inconvenience her children, her husband, her mother, her employer, or any of the other people who depended on her. They were moments at the edges of her day, when nobody needed her to cook supper or show up at a meeting or drive them to soccer practice or fill out a form.
At first, those moments in the tent were quiet and dark because what she craved most was rest from the burden of carrying around the dress. But one day, just before slipping down into the tent, she grabbed her music player and took it with her. Laying on the floor of the tent with her headphones on, she felt the most blissful feeling she’d felt in a long, long time. The music filled her whole body and she knew that something new had awakened in her.
“I wonder what else I could bring with me,” she thought, and soon she was experimenting with what things made her feel happy and alive under her dress. Her journal and pen made the cut – she loved to lie under the tent writing about her frustrations, her fears, and her dreams. A new set of paintbrushes and paints also made the cut, as did some scissors and glue. Sometimes, hidden from view from all who knew her, she felt almost childlike again, making joyful messes with art supplies.
There were stretches of time, of course, when the girl couldn’t justify any time under the dress – when her kids were sick or she had important deadlines at work or her husband or her mom needed extra attention. There were also times when she convinced herself how frivolous it all was and she swore she would never do it again.
But the call of the tent was too strong, and, eventually, she always found herself back under the dress with her journal, her music, and her art supplies.
One day, she noticed a secret doorway underneath the tent, and when she crawled through that doorway, she found a magical room where other tent-people had gathered. The discovery both delighted and frightened her. She wanted to befriend the other tent-people, but she was afraid of being exposed. The fear took over and she scurried back to her own tent, closed the door behind her and slipped quickly back into the dress.
Her curiosity soon got the better of her, though, and a few weeks later, she crept quietly back through the door into the magical room. She curled up in a ball at the edge, hoping nobody would notice her. All she wanted was to be among other people who’d felt trapped in their velcro dresses, to know that she was not alone. Talking to them took too much courage but watching them was safe enough.
With time though, after lots of people had smiled at her and she felt ready to trust them, she relinquished her anonymous place at the edge of the room and began to mingle tentatively among the people. She discovered that the room held the most interesting mix of people she’d ever come across – weirdos and misfits and artists and dancers and dreamers and revolutionaries. They were doing the most fascinating things in that room, too. Some were painting on the walls, some were clustered in conversation circles, some were gathered around markers and poster boards making protest signs – almost anything imaginable was welcome in that room. Gradually, as the girl’s courage kindled, she joined in, once again experimenting with the things that made her happy. Sometimes, while she was lost in the act of creating, she had flashbacks to how she’d felt back in her childhood before she’d put on the dress.
Emboldened by the support of her new friends, the girl claimed more and more time to slip away into the tent, sometimes even daring to inconvenience the people who depended on her. At first, that caused her a lot of guilt, and that added to the weight of the dress, but she did it anyway because it was the only way she could find enough strength to keep carrying the dress around.
Some days she needed more solitude, and in those times she’d stay alone in her lovely little tent. Other days, she needed companionship, and then she’d slip through the door into the magical room.
During her times of solitude, the girl became more and more bold with her art supplies, and soon the inside of the dress was covered in paint. Fanciful creatures and shapes danced across the walls in colourful, messy glee.
While the inside of the dress was transforming, so was the outside. The time spent inside the tent and in the magical room were giving the girl enough strength and courage to make changes in her life. She started by anxiously and tentatively saying “no” to people who wanted to add new things to her dress.Some people, of course, were quite annoyed with this new turn of events, because they were quite accustomed to hanging their things on her, and sometimes she gave in rather than hurt their feelings, but other people were more respectful. The people who were willing to listen to her “no” were the ones she wanted to spend more time with.
After a bit of practice saying no and standing up for herself when people got upset, she became curious about whether she could peel anything off her dress. She grabbed the first things she could find – an old belief about what good girls are supposed to wear in public – peeled it away and dropped it on the floor. That gave her the courage to peel back another thing and another and each thing that dropped to the floor made her a little bolder to peel back the next.
There were, of course, some things that had been on her dress the longest, and those took a lot of time and effort to peel away. To grow the extra courage and strength she needed to deal with those things, she made repeated visits to the magical room where she could sit in circle with other tent-people who were dealing with similar baggage or had done so in the past.
Once she’d peeled a few things away, she realized that the dress underneath was not as sticky as it once was. People would try to attach new things in the empty spaces, but they simply slipped to the floor. While peeling things away, she hadn’t noticed that she was also peeling away the velcro that was holding it there.
After enough things were peeled away that the dress was nearly bare, the girl saw that the dress was being transformed. With the velcro gone, the paintings on the underside of the dress were now starting to show through. At first, this made her feel too exposed, and so she hid those exposed bits and only uncovered them in the privacy of her own home. But whenever she looked in the mirror, she noticed how happy those painted bits made her feel, and so she took some chances and left the house with nothing covering the paintings.
Some people looked at her in shock and disapproval when they saw her exposed paintings, but she also noticed something else – strangers on the street started to smile and wink at her. When she paused to look at who was smiling, she realized that many of them were her friends from the magical room. They looked different, out here in the real world, but she could see the familiar longing and wildness underneath.
When those people saw her so boldly walking around outside of the house with her paintings showing, some of them found their own courage and let their coverings slip to the floor revealing that they were wearing imperfect dresses with bits of velcro and bits of paintings peeking through. They grinned at each other when this happened, enjoying the messy imperfection of it all.
Instead of hiding her paintings, the girl began to polish them and add little touches of flourish and sparkle. In the spots where she applied extra sparkle, nothing could stick to the dress and that filled her with even more courage and delight.
The more colourful and sparkly the girl’s dress became, and the more she was able to peel things away, the lighter it was and the more the girl was able to move freely in the world. She discovered that she loved to dance and she loved the way the colourful dress flowed around her as she twirled. She remembered what it felt like to be wild and free – how she’d felt as a child before she’d been told to put on the velcro dress – and now that she’d experienced it again, nothing could convince her to go back.
Whenever she danced and sparkled, people were drawn to the girl in the painted dress. They would stand and watch her, and when she paused to look at them, she recognized the longing in their eyes. It was the same longing she’d had, before she’d discovered the secret tent under her dress.
Sometimes people would ask “how did you learn to do that?” Whenever they did, the girl would lean in and whisper “slip down under your velcro dress and see what you find there”. The people would look at her in wide-eyed wonder and she’d smile at them and encourage them to try. Sometimes they would scoff at her, but sometimes she could see by the light in their eyes that they would go home and find a private place to try. For those with lights in their eyes, she would lean in a second time and say “once you’ve been there for awhile, and you’ve worked up the courage, find the hidden door at the bottom, go through it, and I’ll meet you on the other side.”
That was how the girl in the painted dress claimed a space in the magical room, began to gather her people there, and built a whole new life for herself. She wasn’t perfect, and sometimes things still stuck to her dress, but it was easier and easier to let them go.
A couple of days ago, I cried in the carwash. It seemed a fitting place for waterworks, and a little screaming, if necessary. I was on my way home with the groceries that were needed to cook supper for my family, but I wasn’t ready to be home yet, so I used the excuse that the car needed washing to buy myself some crying time.
I’d hit overwhelm. My daughter had had surgery earlier in the day, after many months of repeated attempts to address her breathing problems, and the surgery wasn’t entirely successful. Plus we found out new information about her prognosis that’s been discouraging for both of us. In addition to the worry about her, I found myself hitting some nervous system overload due to some things that happened at the hospital that triggered some of my past trauma. This came at the tail end of a month of traveling and teaching, so my resources were already depleted.
Overwhelm happens, and I’ve come to accept it as simple reality in this life I’ve chosen (or any life, for that matter).Sometimes one simply must cry in a carwash to release all of the emotions one is holding, especially when some of that holding is on other people’s behalf. Sometimes a single good cry is enough and sometimes it isn’t.
I have a lot of capacity for holding space, but sometimes I max out on that capacity. It happens to the best of us, and I share this with you to encourage you to give yourself permission to admit when you’re maxed out too.
In this post, though, I want to go a little further and talk about some of the deeper layers of why we get maxed out in this work of holding space and what we can do about it.
What I’ve encountered, again and again, as I travel the world and meet with people who hold space, is that this work especially calls wounded people. My workshops are full of wounded, healing people. (I considered calling them “wounded healers”, but holding space is more about “being with” than it is about “healing”. Perhaps “wounded witnesses” is better.) We become good at holding space for the brokenness and pain in the world partly because we already intimately know the brokenness and pain in ourselves. We learn to bear witness to grief and fear and trauma and all of the other complex emotions in others because we know those things in ourselves.
The challenge is that, even when we do a lot of healing, we continue to carry those wounds with us for life. We never become perfectly healed, saintly people – we just become people who learn to carry those wounds with grace, integrate them into our lives, and use them to help us better understand other people who are wounded.
When scar tissue grows over a flesh wound, that scar tissue may be thicker than the original skin, but it’s also usually more tender and vulnerable and may need special care. Similarly, when we have emotional wounds, we might grow emotional scar tissue over it that protects us, but we remain tender and vulnerable because of it. We’ll likely need to be extra tender with ourselves whenever that emotional wound is bumped.
These wounds that we carry are both blessings and curses. They help us to see the world through more compassionate eyes and they help grow our ability to sit with messiness and discomfort, but they also make us more vulnerable and more in need of healthy boundaries and robust self-care.
Let me share a little about that woundedness in me…
I mentioned above that my nervous system was flooded while I was at the hospital, and that’s because of the multiple traumas that were being triggered while I was there.
A.) I once spent three weeks in another part of that same hospital trying to prolong my third pregnancy, and that pregnancy ended with the stillbirth of my son. During that three week period, I had a significant psychotic break that was probably brought on by the steroids the medical team was pumping into my body to try to speed the development of my son. It was one of the scariest and most confusing 24 hours of my life.
B.) During the course of my marriage, my former husband attempted suicide twice and had to spend a week in the hospital each time. During those times, I served as his advocate and primary caregiver, and (during the second attempt) also had to be a supportive mom to our three young daughters.
That second trauma is the one that’s left the most complex mark on my life. Both times he went into the kind of intense emotional tailspin that resulted in a suicide attempt were times when I’d turned my attention away from him. The first time, I was five months pregnant with our first child. The second time, I was about to launch my own business.
My trauma brain became conditioned to believe that “when I turn my attention away from suffering, people die”. (Or at least they attempt to die – trauma brain doesn’t know the difference.)
That’s just the tip of the iceberg of that particular trauma. It’s hard to go into the details, because the story is not mine alone (and I don’t want to blame or slander anyone), but there were many, many ways, in my marriage, that my trauma brain was conditioned to believe that I (and others) would suffer whenever I was inattentive to another’s suffering, whenever I didn’t sacrifice myself to fill another’s needs, whenever I tried to erect or hold boundaries, and whenever I tried to protect my children from the instability created by the mental illness.
When it comes to stress and trauma, I am well acquainted with all of the typical amygdala reactivity – fight, flight, and freeze – but I am most intimately familiar with one identified more recently as “tend and befriend”. Researchers who named the tend and befriend response found that some people (especially women) react to stressful situations by tending to those most vulnerable to harm and by befriending the perpetrator in order to reduce the harm. Again and again, we put our bodies on the line to try to mitigate harm, until it becomes so much a part of who we are that we no longer notice ourselves doing it. (This has also become a culturally expected role of women – especially mothers – so the complexity of it runs deep. Our trauma often becomes part of the way we are controlled by the dominant culture.)
I spent much of my marriage tending and befriending, in many, many stressful situations, so that pattern is deeply ingrained in me and is easily triggered whenever anything reminds me (usually subconsciously) of the original trauma. Triggers can appear out of nowhere, and I never know what will trigger me, but some of the common sources are: when someone exhibits the behavioural patterns of my former husband’s mental illness, when I am critiqued for not caring enough or being inattentive to suffering, when I feel manipulated by passive-aggressiveness, when conflict makes a situation feel unstable, or when someone ignores or makes fun of one of my boundaries. This can happen in the middle of a workshop I’m facilitating, while I’m interacting with friends or family, or even when someone responds critically to a Facebook post of mine. Each time it happens, my body responds the same way – as though the threat is always just as serious as a person potentially dying.
A flooded nervous system can feel different for each person, but here’s what happens to me, usually instantly and simultaneously: Adrenaline pumps through my body (the physiological preparation for fight or flight) and my heart begins to race, my muscles tense, and I become hyper-alert to any perceived threat. My throat tightens and if I try to speak it might come out sounding choked or emotional. My brain gets buzzy (amygdala hijacking) and I can’t focus, think clearly, or access my capacity for logic and reason. I become hyper-focused on the source of the triggering and my brain keeps looping back to it even when I try to redirect it elsewhere (sometimes long into the night, when I’m trying to sleep). I have an overwhelming compulsion to respond to the perceived threat – usually in a tend and befriend manner, but often also in a fight/flight/freeze fashion – even when I try to convince myself that it doesn’t logically make sense to. Sometimes I dissociate (freeze) and feel numb and checked out, going through the motions of relationships and life but not fully present.
My therapist has helped me to accept that, though I’ve made huge progress in healing the trauma, there will always be a part of it that I will carry with me, like emotional scar tissue. I’ve stopped hoping that I’ll eventually never be triggered and instead I’m learning to integrate this wound into my life and respond with self-compassion when the triggering happens.
The added complexity of this kind of trauma is that it’s not only rooted in my marriage, it’s generational, cultural, and religious. I inherited it from my mom, who had much of the same trauma running through her body and likely inherited it from her mom (and so on). I also inherited it from my patriarchal culture and pacifist religion (i.e., “turn the other cheek” is a deeply held belief in my Mennonite upbringing). With something so deeply rooted in my cells, it’s unrealistic to hope that I can transform it over the course of only a few years. It’s likely something that my children will continue to heal for many years too, because they’ve inherited it from me (though we’re doing our best to heal it together).
Here are some of the things that I do when I am dysregulated (another name for nervous system flooding):
1.) Practice self-soothing in the moment that it happens. Take deep breaths, go for a walk, drink a glass of water, let myself cry, listen to soothing music, lay my hands on my throat and/or heart to soothe the places where I feel my body respond, etc. (For more suggestions, I recommend Gwynn Raimondi’s Nervous System Soothing card deck.) When it happened in the hospital, I walked to the cafeteria for a cup of tea and sat in a hidden corner taking deep breaths while sipping the tea slowly.
2.) Strengthen my boundaries and become fierce about enforcing them. I can, admittedly, come across as rather abrupt and sometimes even a little cruel when I’ve been triggered and need to erect boundaries, but I’ve learned to give myself permission to protect myself in the way that I need to. Sometimes I simply don’t have the spoons to finesse my boundary-enforcement, so occasionally I find myself apologizing after the fact (though I’m careful not to over-apologize or take responsibility for other people’s reactions, because that can be part of my tend and befriend tendency as well). In the hospital, for example, when I became overwhelmed, I gave myself permission to not sit in the same waiting room as my former husband (who I wasn’t expecting to be there) and not explain myself either, because I knew that if I did so, my body would be on high alert and I would have to work extra hard to fight the compulsion to tend and befriend.
3.) Reach out to people who help me co-regulate. I have a few close friends who respond to my texts, in my moments of dysregulation, with just the right compassion, understanding, and protectiveness that help to calm and centre me (i.e., holding space). They were my lifeline in the hospital. Some even offered to drive across town to sit with me, but I decided it wasn’t necessary. They continued to check in on me after the worst of the perceived crisis was over, and I am grateful for the way they supported me through it. The added benefit in admitting to close friends when I’m dysregulated is that the vulnerability helps to normalize it, to mitigate shame, and to build resilience (as Brené Brown teaches).
4.) Continue to look after my body after the flooding has subsided. In a particularly overwhelming incident, it can take quite awhile to return to a sense of calm. Sometimes I still feel shaky and edgy a day or two later. That’s when I immerse myself in epson salt baths, get a massage if necessary, and do some movement practice (sometimes it’s as simple as dancing around my house to the song Brave).
5.) Give myself some intentional time for processing/healing after it’s over. To continue to integrate this trauma wound into my life, I give it a chance to speak to me. After my nervous system has returned to calm, I usually take out my journal and write about the experience and what it revealed. As part of that practice, I always try to find ways to congratulate myself for the ways I’ve made progress, or simply for the way that I survived. This week I had to reschedule a couple of meetings so that I could spend a morning in a coffee shop with my journal, but it was worth it. Sometimes the processing also includes a visit to my therapist or other support-worker.
6.) Treat myself for adrenal fatigue, if necessary. After my marriage ended, I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue, a condition caused by being in a prolonged state of nervous system and adrenaline overload. I took adrenal health supplements for some time and, though I don’t need them regularly anymore, I still take them occasionally when I go through a period of overload and fatigue.
7.) Practice self-compassion, forgiveness, and grace. This week, I dropped multiple balls, and in some cases, let people down. That’s the kind of thing I tend to beat myself up over, but I’m getting better at acknowledging my imperfections and forgiving myself for the ways I fumble when my brain’s not focusing clearly and/or I’m distracted or overwhelmed and/or I don’t have as much time or energy for things as I expect.
This trauma wound often feels like a burden that I’m stuck carrying for the rest of my life, but I’ve also come to see it as a gift. I likely wouldn’t be doing the work that I do in the way that I do it without such an intimate understanding of trauma. It allows me to be more compassionate with other trauma-impacted people, it helps me to be more attentive to what’s going on beneath the surface with people I’m teaching or coaching, and it’s taught me a lot about boundaries and the value and importance of holding space for yourself.
When I teach, I do it not only from my strengths, but from my weaknesses. I believe that people can benefit from the authentic sharing of the ways that I still get triggered and overwhelmed and the ways that I fail people that I’m trying to help, especially when I’m dysregulated. Sometimes I’ve even admitted to having a flooded nervous system in the middle of a workshop. The response to that kind of sharing is almost always relief and understanding – they’re glad to know that we don’t have to be perfect to do this work of holding space and that their wounds are as welcome as mine.
To be wounded is not to be broken or useless – it is simply to be human and real. It is also to be tender and openhearted. When we learn to treat our own woundedness with compassion and understanding, we can treat other people’s woundedness the same way.
If you find yourself overwhelmed, be as tender as you can with yourself and recognize that you are doing the best that you can with the skills that you have. Your body is uniquely designed to have the kinds of responses that you have, so don’t beat yourself up for the ways that those responses have become maladaptive. Instead, learn to hold space for them, integrate them, find the gifts beneath the pain, and do your best to heal and transform them as much as you can.
We are not meant to be superheroes. We are meant to be imperfect humans fumbling through this life together. We are meant to be wounded witnesses.
At an early age, before any other options became apparent to her, she’d stitched that dress together out of all of the bits that had been passed down to her by her mother and grandmothers before her. Into the stitches were woven the messages and beliefs from her culture, her religion, her family system, the media, and the grown-ups who knew no better because they wore velcro clothing too. There were also layers of trauma and generational baggage that she didn’t understand but that made its way into the dress anyway. The dress was prickly and uncomfortable, but she wore it because she needed to be clothed.
The velcro made it easy for other people to attach things to her. Some people attached expectations of how she should behave or what she should sacrifice on others’ behalf. Others attached their own needs that they wanted her to meet and the pain that they didn’t know how to carry. Still others attached their disapproval and judgement. There was also the weight of expectation of how she should look, the way that she should dress, the rules for good girl behaviour, the pressure to please people and not step out of line, and so many more things that she lost track of all of the bits that clung to her dress.
It was such a familiar pattern to have other people’s things hanging from her dress that she did it to herself as well – picking up pieces that other people should have been responsible for, saying yes when she wanted to say no, and layering on shame and fear and other people’s opinions. She was so buried under the weight of the dress that she had no idea what she looked like underneath.
Her dress was so sticky, in fact, that she could pick up new burdens simply by noticing a disapproving glance from across the room, or by hearing the passive-aggressive sigh of a person who’d come to rely on her.
By the time she was a young woman, a great deal of things were attached to that dress. She didn’t question the weight of it, though, because she knew that it was simply her lot in life to carry around what other people had tossed her way. It gave her a sense of purpose, in fact, and people started to praise her for just how much she was able to carry without buckling under the weight.
The young woman married and had a few children, and the dress became heavier and heavier. The man she married had a lot of pain and fear and insecurity that was hard for him to carry, and so he tossed it her way, trusting that it would stick and that her vows meant that she’d carry it on his behalf. She lived up to that expectation, believing (because that belief was one of the earliest things that became attached to her dress) that it was her responsibility as a wife to do so. Sadly, like her mother had done before her, she modelled that velcro dress to her daughters, and passed down little bits of it for them to begin crafting their own dresses.
At the places where she worked and volunteered, it was the same. Co-workers and bosses congratulated her for how much she could carry, and then they casually dropped more things on her and walked away.
Finally a day came when the dress became so heavy that the woman could barely breathe under the weight of it.She propped the heavy dress up like a concrete tent, slipped down into the cavity it created underneath, curled up in a ball on the floor and wept and wept. She had no idea what to do with this massive dress that had become her prison.
In her tiny cave under the dress she began to fantasize about what it would be like to live without that dress – about how freely she could move in the world without the weight of other people’s expectations, judgement, and needs.
“Enough!” she shouted to herself to wake herself up from the dream, “Fantasies have nothing to do with the REAL WORLD!” With new resolve, she picked herself up off the floor, slipped back into the dress, and carried on. Because carrying on was what she did best.
But the fantasy wouldn’t let go – it kept popping into her consciousness when she least expected it, and soon she was regularly sneaking away into her little cave beneath the dress, entertaining that fantasy and letting herself slowly begin to believe that another life might be possible.
One day, after the fantasy had grown so big that it consumed her even when she wasn’t hiding in her cave, she allowed a tiny thought to poke its way into her imagination… “What if I start to peel away some of the things stuck to this dress?” That thought made her heart leap, so she reached down and plucked off the thing that was easiest to reach. It was a cultural expectation of how she should dress at work. She dropped it on the floor and suddenly felt a tiny rush of freedom and hope.
Next she plucked off some bits of shame and fear that other people had projected on her, and those too fell on the floor at her feet.
Suddenly the world was full of possibilities. With each thing she peeled away, she felt a little lighter, a little more herself. She began to remember what she looked like under the dress, and that memory filled her with delight and expectation.
Many of the things she peeled away could simply be dropped on the floor, but other things had to be tenderly and/or cautiously returned to the person who put them there in the first place. Those were often the hardest to release, because one of the things that clung to her dress the most tightly and stubbornly was the expectation that she should never hurt anyone’s feelings.
For some of hardest things to release, she needed the right kind of support – people who were doing the same kind of work, people who had expertise in peeling, and people who were eager to dismantle the systems that had taught her to wear the dress in the first place. Sometimes she sat in circles with others wearing velcro clothing and they all did a little peeling together. The community support made the work feel a little easier.
A few things took much longer to peel away than others. Her husband’s pain, for example, took many years to detach from, and in the process of peeling it away she discovered that the marriage no longer made any sense without that attachment. She felt a little lonely without that long-held weight attached to her dress, but when it was gone she realized just how much closer she was to revealing her true self beneath it.
One day, after she’d peeled quite a few things away, she noticed that the dress underneath no longer had as much stickiness as it once did. Other people would try to toss things into the empty spaces, but those things either slid to the floor or bounced back to the person they belonged to. She was greatly relieved to discover that she no longer needed to catch what wasn’t hers.
She also noticed, as her dress became lighter and less sticky, that she was now more able to support people in holding their own problems and pain without letting any of it get stuck to her. She could sit with them for awhile, offer them a space in her big heart, and then she could walk away without bearing their weight on her dress. She knew that she’d helped them lighten their load for awhile, just by sitting with them, so she didn’t feel guilty for not letting it get stuck to her.
She wasn’t perfect, and sometimes – especially when she was overtired and under-resourced – she would still let things stick that weren’t hers, and sometimes she would berate herself for those moments of weakness, but over time she got better and better at noticing and peeling away whatever didn’t belong.
And one day she noticed how much lighter she felt and how much she loved the shape of herself that was emerging from under the weight of the dress. She looked down at herself, smiled, and said “Hello friend – it’s so lovely to see you again!” In that moment, she danced.
My youngest daughter is on the cusp of graduating from high school. Her oldest sister is on the cusp of graduating from her first university degree, and the middle one is only a year behind. There are moments when I hold my breath, knowing these days in which we all live under the same roof are fleeting and soon they will all have launched into their own separate lives.
Before they go, I hope I pass on at least some of the following bits of wisdom.
You’re not obligated to accept every gift. Whenever they receive a gift from me, they are allowed to tell me that they don’t like it and I do my best not to make it about me and instead to find them something they’d like better. Though I want them to embrace gratitude and to treat people with respect, I don’t want them to assume that they are obligated to receive gifts they don’t want or that they are responsible for looking after the feelings of the gift-giver. When gifts come with strings attached and an indebtedness to the giver, they are not really gifts but tools of abusers and manipulators. As we’ve seen in some of the #metoo stories emerging out of Hollywood, abusers offer elaborate promises and gifts (ie. roles in movies, good jobs, etc.) so that their victims feel a sense of obligation that includes their silence. I hope that by learning that they have the right to resist unwanted “gifts”, my daughters are better equipped to stand up to the tactics of abusers.
You can leave the party early. Especially when they were in high school and starting to attend parties that could possibly get out of hand, I worked with my daughters to ensure that they had an exit strategy in case they ever felt uncomfortable and wanted to leave before their friends did. Even if that exit strategy included me having to get up in the middle of the night and bundle up against the cold to go pick them up, I tried not to shame them for trusting their instincts if it wasn’t safe to accept a ride home with a friend who’d been drinking, or if people were doing things at the party that didn’t fit with their values or comfort zones. I hope that those party exit strategies can be carried into their adult lives and they can apply the principle to jobs they don’t like, relationships that are toxic, commitments they regret making, etc. They don’t have to feel obligated or give in to peer pressure if it means staying where they’re unsafe, uncomfortable, unhappy or undervalued.
You get to feel your feelings and don’t have to be a caretaker or shock absorber for other people’s feelings. I spent a lot of years caretaking other people’s emotions and being a shock absorber when those emotions were particularly volatile (and stuffing down my own emotions in order to do so), and I don’t want that for my daughters. I want them to know that their own feelings are valid, even if those feelings make other people uncomfortable. I want them to know that big feelings are okay, even if other people try to gaslight them into not feeling the way they do. I don’t want them to spend all of their time trying to regulate themselves on other people’s behalf. I want them to find healthy relationships with people who take responsibility for how they feel and who don’t try to stifle other people’s feelings. I want them to know that within healthy relationship, co-regulation is possible, but only if people honour rather than quash those feelings in each other.
You can come back home after you mess up. We’re not looking for perfection in this household, and so I try to admit my mistakes to my daughters, apologize when necessary, and let them know that this is a place where it’s safe to fail. I don’t want them to hide their mistakes or weaknesses, but to speak of them openly so that they can learn from them and grow. And I want them to know that I will provide a safe haven for them to return to when they need to lick their wounds and/or process their shame. I want them to feel safe when they’re here so that they can return to the world feeling more brave.
Sometimes disruption is necessary. But it will rarely be easy. I want them to know that they should follow the “rules” that make sense and help to keep people safe, but I also want them to know that they can break the “rules” that are outdated or that are meant to keep people small and compliant. This isn’t always easy for me to pass on, especially when I’m the one attached to the outdated rules, but I do my best. I want them to know that they don’t have to stick with the status quo when the status quo is harming people. I want them to know that they can speak truth to power. I want them to know that they’re allowed to be disruptors if the disruption is in the service of positive change. Disruption isn’t an easy path to choose, though, so I also want them to be prepared for the ways in which people will resist them and possibly try to hurt them for having the courage to be disruptive.
Power and weakness are companions, not opposites. I want them to see that vulnerability and authenticity are important parts of what it means to be powerful. I want them to know that generative power often emerges out of places of the greatest weakness. I want them to see that sometimes, in their moments of greatest weakness, admitting it allows other people to show up and be powerful and together we can create collective power that is greater than any of us can hold alone. I hope that they’re not afraid to claim their own power, but that it is always “power with” rather than “power over”.
Your body is your own. For years, I gave away my own body because I believed I was under contract to do so and because I was being coerced even when I was unwilling. I accepted the old rules of what it means to be a woman in a marriage, because that was the only way I’d seen modelled and the only way that I’d been taught to behave. I’ve spent the last several years reclaiming my body and relearning how to treat it, and I want my daughters to see that another way is possible. I want them to know that they can lavish love on their own bodies, that they can protect their own bodies, that they can say no to anyone who doesn’t treat their bodies well and that they can say a big and holy YES to those who make their bodies feel alive, safe and loved.
You can ask for what you need, but those needs shouldn’t supersede the needs of those more marginalized than you. I want them to know that they are worthy of having their needs met. I want them to pay attention to themselves enough so that they are actually aware of their own needs and can articulate them clearly. I don’t want them to be afraid to ask for what they need or to be so focused on other people that they consistently overlook themselves. I don’t want them to be haunted by shame for being too selfish or asking for too much. However, I don’t want them to be greedy and I want them to recognize how meeting their own needs will sometimes mean that people with less access to privilege won’t get their needs met. I want them to be aware of injustice and be willing to sacrifice their own needs in order to centre those who rarely get their turn. I want them to balance self-care with other-care, and worthiness with justice.
You can love who you want, as long as that love is generative and not stifling. This is a home in which there is little pressure to be heteronormative. Two of my daughters have, in fact, come out and we have celebrated them and embraced their choices and never asked them to be anyone other than who they are. I want them to know that whoever they choose to be in an intimate relationship with, they don’t have to be afraid to introduce that person to me for fear of my judgement. I do, however, want them to know that I will speak up if I see the person they’re in relationship with treat them in ways that harm their spirits (or the other way around). If they choose to be in relationships (and they are always free to choose singleness instead), I hope that those relationships are ones in which they are supported to flourish and grow and shine.
Friendships matter. Community matters. Family matters. But no relationships are worth abandoning yourself over. I hope that they find deep and lasting friendships (and hang onto the ones they already have). I hope that they surround themselves with people who will support them, challenge them, laugh with them, travel with them, grieve with them, and feed them. I hope that they recognize that friendships are worth fighting for, that forgiveness and grace are necessary parts of being in relationships with flawed human beings, that having people in your corner is essential for meaningful success, and that conflict is worth working through when you’re with the right people. I want them to find out how much richness comes when they make friends with people whose skin colour is different from theirs, whose beliefs are different, and/or who grew up in other countries.I also want them to know, though, that sometimes it’s best to walk away from friendships or communities that hold them back. I want them to dare to choose their own growth and happiness over stifling relationships. I don’t want them to stay stuck in places or with people that don’t value or respect them.
The hardest parts of life are usually the ones that result in the most growth. There’s a part of me that longs to protect my daughters from the hard parts of life, but the wiser part of me knows that I have grown most when life has been hard. I have been changed by grief and trauma, and I know that the work I now do is rich and meaningful because of all of the darkness and pain I have traveled through. I want them to recognize that they have the strength and resilience to survive hard things and that there is something to strive for on the other side. I hope that they always know that they don’t have to survive the hard things alone and that, whenever I am able, I will walk alongside them. I also want them to know that they should never be ashamed to ask their friends or family for help, to hire a therapist, and/or to seek treatment for mental illness, trauma, etc.. I don’t want them to bypass the pain, but rather to move through it with grace and grit and people who love them.
There’s a lot of beauty and magic in the world – don’t miss it. Some of my favourite moments with my daughters are ones in which we’ve stood in reverence in front of a stunning sunset over the mountains, we’ve giggled with glee at an amusement park, we’ve sat around a campfire watching the flames leap up, or we’ve driven for hours and hours just to hear our favourite bands in concert. I hope that they always give themselves permission to have fun, to seek out adventure, to be in awe of the natural world, and to surround themselves with beauty. I hope that they take the time to pause and notice even the simplest bits of magic. I want them to live fully and reverently and to fill their lives with meaningful experiences.
“Weeks passed, and the little Rabbit grew very old and shabby, but the Boy loved him just as much. He loved him so hard that he loved all his whiskers off, and the pink lining to his ears turned grey, and his brown spots faded. He even began to lose his shape, and he scarcely looked like a rabbit any more, except to the Boy. To him he was always beautiful, and that was all that the little Rabbit cared about. He didn’t mind how he looked to other people, because the nursery magic had made him Real, and when you are Real shabbiness doesn’t matter.”
― Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
I wonder if the Boy knew the risk he was taking when he loved the Rabbit so hard he became Real. I wonder if he contemplated the fact that, unlike stuffed bunnies that are easy to control and contain, real bunnies have minds of their own and can hop off into the woods when they choose and leave their loved ones behind.
I’m going to assume that he knew those things, but was confident that his love was big enough to handle the risk (though I admit that it makes me sad that he no longer recognizes the Rabbit once he’s hopped off into the woods).
It takes a special kind of love and a special kind of confidence to give someone the space they need to grow into their Realness – to resist the urge to control them, change them, or take their sovereignty away just so that they won’t ever abandon you. It takes a special kind of belief in yourself and a special kind of ability to love through the shabbiness, through the deconstruction and transformation, and through the stretching away from you.
To witness and hold space for someone who’s learning to liberate themselves from old expectations, old projections, and old social programming can be painful and frightening and it can trigger all kinds of old hurts and unmet needs in us. “Who will they be when they transform and become more authentically themselves?” we wonder… “Will they still want me around? Will I be left behind? Will their stretching require that I stretch too, in order to meet them in that new place in the woods?”
A couple of recent parenting experiences have given me a new appreciation of what the Boy might have felt.
I knew that this was important to her and I’ve witnessed how her climate activism has given her a sense of purpose that I hadn’t seen in her before, so I wanted to support her, but I admit that it worried me. First, there were the things that every parent worries about… How will this impact her mental health? How will this impact her education? How will this impact her future? How will this impact her friendships? And… will she get bullied online?
But there was something else going on for me under the surface… something that made me feel a little like I imagined the Boy might have felt when he contemplated the risks involved in loving the Rabbit into Realness. What if allowing her to step into this was allowing her to hop off into the woods without me? What if she was entering dangerous territory where I could no longer protect her or control her environment, where she’d need to use her own skills to survive?
And what if… in doing what she was choosing to do, she was rejecting the “nursery” – effectively tossing off the social conditioning and safety rules that I’d passed down to her?
In the “nursery” – that space that’s made up of the old furniture we inherited from our parents, all of the old rules that our religions and cultures passed on to us, and all of the old boundaries and limitations that give us comfort but keep us trapped – it’s not safe to challenge authority. It’s not safe to raise your voice too loud, to speak out of turn, to break from old patterns, or to reject the old rules of decorum. It’s ESPECIALLY not safe if you’re a young woman.
Those are the things one can only do once you’ve rejected the nursery and headed into the woods. They can only happen when you dare to be Real.
The question I had to ask myself was… Was I willing to love my daughter in a brave enough way to let her leave the nursery, step into the woods, and become Real?
A whole lot of my social programming started to flare up when I considered it. “Women don’t talk too loud or make spectacles of themselves,” I heard the patriarchy say, as it tried to pull us both back into the nursery. “Mennonites don’t take legal action and ESPECIALLY not against their own government,” the voice from the religious lineage tugged. “You’ll be rejected by your conservative relatives,” I heard my old trauma say. “Your daughter will face ridicule and your family will be shamed,” my fear of abandonment whispered.
One by one, I had to quiet those voices and lean into what mattered – my love for my daughter and my belief that that love was big enough to hold the Realness and the risk. If she feels the urgency to lend her voice to the looming climate crisis, why would I get in her way because of my own fears? The planet no longer has time for our timidity. I chose to support her and we traveled to Vancouver together to participate in a whirlwind series of public events, ceremonies, and workshops.
I opened the nursery door and let my daughter wander into the woods and after I watched her, standing up in front of fifteen thousand people (on stage next to Greta Thunberg and David Suzuki), and being calmly interviewed on live national media, something remarkable happened. I recognized that not only was I helping to love HER into Realness, SHE was helping to love ME into Realness too. When I witnessed her courage in rejecting the social conditioning that wanted to keep her in the nursery, I was able to let go of some of the social conditioning that was still trying to pull me back there too.
A week after we returned home, when I found myself having to defend her against an older male relative who bullied her in a private message, I found a new freedom that had come from silencing the voices of the patriarchy, religion, and family lineage ringing in my head.
Not long after that, I had another opportunity to love someone into their Realness, and in some ways, this required even greater and more personal risk.
I could sense that something was bothering one of my older daughters and so I knocked on her door and asked if she’d talk to me about it. “You’re not going to like what I need to say,” she said, and she was right. What she told me was painful and hard to process. While she’d been trying to stay positive and supportive of her younger sister’s significant moment on the climate activism stage, what it triggered in her was resentment for the ways that she hadn’t received the same support when she was in high school.
“I see her getting the therapy she needs, and I see you cheering her on and protecting her when people bully her, and I feel cheated that I didn’t get those things from you when I was her age,” she said. “I was going through mental health challenges too and I felt like you didn’t believe me or offer me the resources she’s gotten. And most of all, I didn’t feel like you protected me from Dad’s emotional abuse.”
She was right. I wasn’t the mom for her then that I’ve been for her sister in recent years. I was far more stuck in the “nursery” back then, still trying to live up to what I thought my role as a good wife and good mom should be, trying to hold the family together, trying to keep the peace because that’s what my social conditioning had convinced me was right. She had the misfortunate of being in high school during the time when my mom died, I was starting my business, her dad attempted suicide, and our marriage was crumbling. We announced our separation to her and her sisters, in fact, the day after her high school graduation. It was a tumultuous time for me, and in the midst of all of that, I was failing to love my daughter into her Realness.
Fortunately though, it wasn’t too late. She was sitting there in front of me, opening her heart to me, offering me another chance to give her the kind of love she needed. In that one tender moment, there was hope for redemption if I made the right choice. I took a few deep breaths, and I apologized. I took ownership of the ways I’ve failed her and I admitted the mistakes I’d made in clinging to the old stories of what was right instead of stepping into the wilderness with her.
She forgave me and a beautiful thing happened. We both became more Real. We took the risk and found our love was big enough to hold the risk.
Attachment Theory teaches us that we all need healthy attachments (especially in childhood, but also in adulthood) so that we can grow into our own confidence, authenticity and resilience. A healthy attachment system involves both a safe haven and a secure base.The safe haven protects us and offers comfort when we’re afraid or need time for healing, and the secure base offers a launching pad from which we can move into boldness.
That’s what the Boy was offering the Rabbit when he dared to love him into Realness and that’s what I strive to offer my daughters. If I only give them the safety without the freedom, then I keep them stuck in the nursery. But if the freedom is also available to them when they’re ready for it, then they can find the adventure that calls them and they can step into it knowing the door remains open when they need it.
The risk is part of the process.
Note: My daughters have given permission for me to share this.