There’s a familiar pattern that shows up when someone criticizes or attacks me. First, I feel it in my body – my throat closes, my muscles tense and the pit of my stomach starts to churn. Usually it’s accompanied with the heat of shame creeping up my neck and into my cheeks. Then my mind starts to race to try to make sense of the messages it’s receiving, usually leaping to the conclusion that I must be a bad person and I need to do something to defend myself or change myself to appease the person who’s doing the criticizing. Often, this is followed with a seemingly endless repetitive churning as my mind becomes fixated on the situation and my body stays in high anxiety mode. I work through the conversation, attack, or criticism again and again, trying to devise the right response that will make the anxious feeling go away.
In recent years, I’ve often had people remark at how I must be brave to speak out publicly about some of the issues I’m passionate about (racism, sexism, injustice, etc.), but in those reactive moments, when the backlash has come, I don’t feel very brave. I feel just as anxious as those people who say they’d never be able to handle it. But I am deeply resolved not to let that anxiety stop me. And I’ve learned how to process the negative information so that it doesn’t keep me hooked in fight, flight, freeze, or tend and befriend mode. (Actually… it’s an ongoing process of learning, not a “once and done” thing. I’m still learning every day.)
Courage is not the absence of fear, but the resolve to act in spite of it.
What’s important to know about that very human reaction to criticism or attack (or any negative information about yourself) is that it’s rooted in the most ancient part of your brain that is looking out for your best interests. The amygdala is responsible for those instinctual reactions that keep you safe – fight, flight, freeze, and tend and befriend. Without it, you probably wouldn’t live past your second birthday because you’d walk into traffic, play with bears, or do any number of other things that you’re meant to be afraid of.
The problem is that, in a trauma situation, the amygdala gets hijacked and doesn’t allow your thinking brain (the orbitofrontal cortex) to take over and speak reason into the situation. You’re stuck in high alert because the amygdala keeps sending danger signals to the body that can’t easily be overwritten with reasonable thoughts.
At this point, you may be thinking “but how can criticism trigger the amygdala when there is no real danger?” Well, the amygdala is not the smartest part of your brain and it doesn’t know real danger from fake danger and so it sends the same signals regardless of the truth.
It all goes back to your childhood. In early life, your primary needs are for safety and belonging. Whenever those things are jeopardized, you become anxious because your immature brain believes that you will cease to exist without those needs being met. Anything that jeopardizes your safety and belonging is a threat that the amygdala is designed to respond to.
Somewhere along the line, likely through an emotional trauma, you (and I) internalized the message that a criticism was a threat to your safety and belonging, and your amygdala learned to respond accordingly. Normally, as you grow up, you should be able to adjust accordingly and learn to use your orbitofrontal cortex to reason with the amygdala about the validity of risk, but a trauma tends to get stuck in your body in such a way that the thinking brain takes longer to engage. And if you never work to heal and shift that trauma and calm the nervous system when you get triggered, you’ll stay in that stuck place and forever be reactive in an unhealthy way.
Let’s throw some attachment theory into the mix as well. Attachment theory teaches us that the ability for an individual to form an emotional and physical “attachment” to another person gives a sense of stability and security necessary to take risks, branch out, and grow and develop as an independent and confident person. That’s the belonging piece that I mentioned as one of our basic needs. With a secure attachment it’s much easier to develop the kind of self esteem and confidence that supports a person in withstanding criticism and attack. Without a secure attachment, a child grows up with a deep sense of insecurity that makes it difficult for healthy emotional development to happen.
A secure attachment is one that allows for both safety AND autonomy. In a secure attachment, a child knows that the parent (or other primary attachment figure) is a safe haven to return to when they are threatened, which makes that child more able to explore and wander away from the parent, building their confidence in themselves as they do so. A secure attachment is flexible to the needs of a child, offering more safety in the early stages and allowing more autonomy as the confidence grows.
Secure attachment continues to be a critical part of emotional development even in adulthood. When you are triggered by a criticism or attack, especially if you have an attachment wound from childhood or you lack a secure attachment in adulthood, your anxiety is immediately heightened and your confidence and resilience are shaken. You find yourself floundering, needing to re-attach and find an anchor that will help you weather the storm. In your moment of floundering, you can’t think clearly, and so you may see the person offering the criticism or attack as the person with whom you need to repair the attachment so that you’ll feel safe again. As a result, your mind races to all of the things you need to do to appease the person and/or get them to change their opinion of you.
Unfortunately, there are many people who, intentionally or inadvertently, will work to destabilize your attachment systems through abuse, gaslighting, dismissal, silencing, shaming, etc. It’s present in abusive relationships of all kinds, whether it’s a marriage, a work situation, a friendship, a classroom or even our government leaders. Especially if you’re in relationships where you regularly face this kind of treatment, you feel constantly unstable and easily triggered. (One of the most valuable resources I’ve read recently on this is Terror, Love and Brainwashing. Though it’s about why people end up and stay in cults, it has a lot of useful information about disorganized/destabilized attachment that relates to any kind of abusive relationship.)
Even if you are a smart and confident person (which I’m assuming you are), you can find yourself reacting to criticism and attacks in less-than-gracious-or-wise ways because of your trauma and/or attachment wounds (which are likely one and the same thing). Also, as the trauma research has been revealing recently, some of your trauma was likely passed down through your cells from the generations above you, so you may be reacting to things in the way that your parents or grandparents were conditioned to react. (Attachment bonds are also somewhat inherited because an insecure or disorganized attachment system in a parent will likely result in the same in the child.)
Sometimes I wonder, in fact, whether every person I meet carries some trauma and/or attachment wound in their body. It seems, at times, to be the very soil we grow in (at least in the part of the world that I’m most familiar with). We have been traumatized by oppressive systems (ie. colonialism, racism, patriarchy) and, on top of that, we have been raised by parents who likely didn’t have any idea how to talk about or heal the trauma they’d inherited and so didn’t know how to create secure attachment bases from which we could grow.
As a result, we have a culture of people who are overly reactive to criticism and attacks, and in their own triggered reactions, lash out at other people to protect themselves. It’s a self-perpetuating problem and it appears to me to be systemic.
Unless we can learn to receive and process negative information, however, our personal development is stunted as is our society’s capacity to evolve. We’ll continue to react defensively whenever difficult conversations need to happen and we’ll reject the important information that helps us evolve.
Take, for example, race conversations. Those of us who enjoy a position of privilege within a racist system have to be able to receive the information that the system is problematic without taking it personal and launching into reactive mode. But we hear terms like “racist” and our bodies and brains react out of our deep need to not have people think badly of us, and we disengage from the conversation. Instead of seeing it as a systemic issue, we see it as a personal attack. (Watch a video by Robin DiAngelo about this.) The same is true for people who benefit from any imbalance system where some have more power than others. (Hence the conversations about white fragility and male fragility.)
What then should we do to get better at processing the negative information?
- Learn to soothe your nervous system. Your nervous system is activated by an overly-engaged amygdala and doesn’t allow your orbitofrontal cortex to engage. When you soothe your nervous system, you can re-engage your thinking brain and analyze the situation from a more reasonable perspective. Once you do that, you might recognize some truth in what’s been said about you, or you might decide that the person’s criticism is unwarranted and you are right to ignore it. Soothing your nervous system might be as simple as learning some deep breathing techniques or some tapping techniques. (Gwynn Raimondi has provided a good resource of nervous system soothing techniques. This is the first of three volumes – visit her site and sign up for her newsletter for more.)
- Recognize that trauma is in your body and can’t simply be released by the brain. While talk therapy might be helpful for processing some of your trauma and attachment wounds, it’s also important to seek out some body work (ie. Reiki, cranio-sacral, EMDR, massages, Body Talk, yoga, TRE, etc.). Find what works for you and repeat when necessary. Aside from hiring professionals, I’ve also found that things like Epson salt baths and long walks can help with the release.
- Develop secure attachments and turn to those attachments for support when you’re feeling anxious or threatened. Much of the literature about adult attachment roots these secure attachments in romantic relationships, but they can also be found in friendships, sibling relationships, or in therapeutic relationships. I have a couple of very good friends and a sister, for example, who help to ground me when I’ve been attacked and need a secure base. Wired for Love is a good resource (though I wish there were a version not about romantic relationships).
- Explore healing for the trauma and attachment wounds that come from childhood and/or that you have inherited. Seek out the teachers and professionals that are doing work that resonates with you. I have found some healing, for example, in family constellations and I know there are many other methodologies and practitioners that are doing good work.
- Know that you have a right to healthy boundaries. Not all criticisms and attacks need your attention – in some cases you simply need to recognize your right to guard yourself against them. On social media, recently, for example, I’ve been letting people know that I’m open to reasonable conversation even if they disagree with me, but if they show up for no other purpose than to attack or argue, I will block them. Even if the person attacking is a family member or close friend, you have a right to guard yourself from attack.
- Regularly engage in activities that make you feel strong and grounded. Recently, I built some storage shelves and a folding work table in my garage, and when I finished I felt empowered and self-confident because it was hard work AND I accomplished what I didn’t think I was capable of. The next time I was criticized (the very next day) I more easily let it roll off my back and established a new boundary because I was feeling resilient. Woodworking does that for me. You might find it in gardening, rock-climbing, hiking, swimming, kick-boxing, yoga, dance, etc. In my experience, it’s those activities that engage my body and stretch my capacities that are most effective.
- Recognize when the criticism or attack is pointing to something that is systemic and needs to be viewed that way instead of being received as a personal attack. If, for example, the person is talking about white or male privilege, colonialism, etc., and you feel personally attacked, pause for a moment and reflect on whether the injustice they’re pointing to is embedded in the system you inherited and that you benefit from and isn’t just about you personally. If it is, then do what you need to do to soothe your nervous system, then engage from a more conscious perspective, taking responsibility for how you can contribute to a more just system.
- Tell your stories. As Brené Brown has taught us, the best defence against the kind of shame that often cripples us is to be vulnerable with people who know how to hold space for us. Find a sharing circle, or a few close friends who offer you a non-judgemental space to admit those times when you were triggered and reacted in a way that you regret. Saying it out loud can help it have less power in your life and can increase your resilience for future situations.
Note: Special thanks to my friends Sheila and Saleha – recent conversations with them helped inspire this post.
P.S. Want to learn more about how to hold space for yourself so that you’re more resilient and confident in how you hold space for others? It’s part of my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator offering and the next session starts in January. If you want to be notified when registration opens, send us a note and Krista will put you on the list.
Friday, after a full day of work and a couple of juicy conversations with faraway friends, I headed to my hammock, tucked under two giant maple trees in my newly landscaped backyard. The late afternoon sun peeked through pinholes between the canopy of leaves, bouncing across my body now and then when the breeze rustled through. I hadn’t planned to stay long (there was supper to cook and other mom-duties-as-required), but after a few deep breaths helped me release the day, it was too comfortable to leave.
I texted my daughter (inside the house) and asked if she’d be so kind as to bring me a glass of wine. A short while later, she came with a full glass, letting me know that she’d been painting in the basement (she’s an art student) and had come all the way upstairs to fetch the wine and bring it to me. I thanked her profusely and grinned. Then I sipped slowly, read my book, and decided we’d be having supper late.
Eventually, I dragged myself out of the hammock and cooked supper on the barbecue, eating with my daughters on our new patio. Once they’d gone back inside, though, I turned on the twinkle lights and returned to the hammock. When it was too dark to read, I propped my phone on the small table beside me and watched Netflix until bedtime. Only then did I go inside.
If you’ve been following me on social media, you know how much I’m loving this new backyard. It was nothing but weeds bordered by a fallen-down hedge until a few weeks ago. Now it’s a sanctuary and I plan to spend as much time here as I can before the snow flies. (I’m currently writing this in the backyard – it’s my summer-office.)
As I’ve been enjoying this space – both alone and with friends and family – I’ve been contemplating my relationship with joy. This backyard brings me pure, unadulterated joy. It was something I’d been dreaming of for years, but only this year did I feel like I could justify the expense.
Though it seems strange to admit it, joy doesn’t always come easily for me, and just as I’ve had to justify my backyard, I have to justify my joy. And when it does come, I don’t always trust it. Sometimes I hold it at arms’ length because it makes me nervous. And sometimes I’m so convinced that I’m not worthy of it, that I don’t dare let myself sink into it. And sometimes I spend more time bringing other people joy than myself because that feels like a more worthy pursuit. (It’s like trying to convince myself my backyard is more for my kids, when the truth is that I’ve been back there far more than any of them.)
Even as I’ve been enjoying my backyard, I’ve had those moments when the joy of it feels like too much goodness. “Should you really have spent so much money on this?” my gremlins ask. “Weren’t there other things that would have been more worthy uses of your money? And is it fair that your former husband still pays child support and lives in someone’s basement when you’re enjoying this beautiful space? And should you be lying here in a hammock when there’s work to do?”
There are many reasons why joy and I haven’t always been trusted companions.
For one thing, as Brené Brown says, we often short-circuit our joy as a defence against vulnerability. Joy feels risky, because it can be taken away in a moment, and when we feel it deeply it means that we open ourselves to feeling grief equally deeply. If we only open ourselves to moderate joy, then perhaps we can fool grief into thinking it can only show up in a moderate way as well.
To avoid the risk of feeling any emotion too deeply and getting knocked over by it, we numb ourselves and shut down our vulnerability. But… “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” (Brene Brown)
Related to that is the unworthiness piece. Surely I haven’t done enough and am not valuable enough to deserve a beautiful backyard like this, the gremlins in my head like to whisper. This is the kind of space that IMPORTANT people get to enjoy – not mediocre people like ME. The moment I discovered a crack in my basement that will require part of the patio be temporarily dismantled, for example, a little voice in my head told me that it was inevitable – I didn’t deserve such a nice patio, so it would have to be destroyed to keep me humble.
And then there are the lessons we learned about joy from the social conditioning that shaped us. I had a relatively joyful childhood, but we weren’t supposed to be TOO joyful, because that might lead to ecstasy and ecstasy was the gateway to sin. Physical joy was the most dangerous, because our bodies too easily fall into temptations and can’t be trusted. Dancing was taboo, laziness was ungodly (ie. hammocks meant for nothing but lying around), alcohol was sinful, and only wholesome sex within a committed male-female marriage was permissible. To this day, there are still echoes of this messaging reverberating in my mind whenever joy and I get too acquainted.
Recently, I answered the door to two people who’d come to share their version of the truth with me and I was reminded of these old scripts that still pop up in my subconscious now and then. When I opened the door, one asked where I turn to for my marital advice (clearly a segue meant to direct me to the Bible). “I don’t,” I said. “I’m no longer married.” “I’m so sorry,” was his response. “A lot of that goes on because of our fleshly desires.” (I brought the conversation to a fairly abrupt halt, not wanting to listen to further implications that I should feel shame for my divorce.)
I was caught off guard by his comment about “fleshly desires”, but I understand what’s at the heart of it for him. He can only see divorce as sin-related. We’re meant to be husband and wife under God, in his view of the world, and when we deviate from that, it must be because of our “sins of the flesh”.
It may be somewhat true that my “fleshly desires” contributed to my marriage ending, but not in the way that he was implying. I ended my marriage because I’d learned to be more true to myself, to seek out my own happiness and not give it up for someone else, to trust myself when I didn’t feel safe, and to erect and hold boundaries when I was being emotionally and physically violated. My “flesh” desired a safe and joyful life without the anxiety, struggle and self-sacrifice that was so present for me in my marriage. That pursuit may fit his definition of sin, but it doesn’t fit mine.
That brief conversation has been on my mind a fair bit since then, not because it triggered me (it didn’t) but because I recognize how a belief system like that (which isn’t too far from what I was raised with) is a thief of our joy. In that line of thinking, it is better for me to suffer through my marriage than to be single and dare to feel joy. Marriage is considered a higher good than personal happiness.
While I hope that belief system brings peace to the people who rang my doorbell, I reject that way of thinking for myself. I choose this joyful single life and I feel no guilt about it. Personally, I think this is closer to the message of hope, joy, and grace that Jesus brought than a life of struggle and personal sacrifice would have been (but that may be my attempt to subvert scripture to my own gain).
There’s a third piece that’s coming up for me when I think about my relationship with joy and it’s related to what I wrote in my last post about my Mennonite lineage. Pure unadulterated joy, when you’ve been raised in a lineage of pain and martyrdom, can feel like a betrayal of the memory of those who died in the fire or moved from country to country in their search for peace. How could I relax in a hammock in a beautiful backyard without worries or struggles when my foremothers gave their lives for their faith? How could I choose a Friday evening under the twinkle lights when there is still so much injustice and pain in the world? How could I be so selfish when there are widows and orphans who need to be cared for? Surely there is a cross I must bear or a cause I must fight for. Surely I should feel guilty for enjoying so much abundance that I get to spend money on patio furniture and hammocks. These thoughts, though perhaps not explicit, are definitely part of the subconscious guilt that pokes through.
As activists and writers like bell hooks and Maya Angelou have reminded us, though, joy is a radical, revolutionary act and should not be associated with guilt. It tells our oppressors that they have not won. It lets our ancestors know that their struggle was worth it. It is triumph in the face of persecution. It is our way to survive and thrive in spite of the injustice. Joy goes hand and hand with our commitment to justice and peace – one fuels the other and both can live in harmony.
My ancestors may have died in the flames and/or been displaced from their land multiple times, but I don’t believe they’d want me to deny myself joy because of some misplaced duty to their memory.
There’s a fourth reason why joy is a bit of a challenge for me and that has to do with the “tortured artist” archetype that runs fairly deeply in my psyche. As a writer who has no trouble writing about grief and trauma and other deeply personal struggles, I have an underlying fear that I might become boring when I’m too happy. I run out of things to write about and I fear that people will see me as one of those social media influencers with a charmed, curated life. Grief is easier to tap into when I’m writing – joy leans toward the more frivolous and self-absorbed.
It’s been a pattern for me that some of you may have recognized if you’ve follow me for awhile – I write more prolifically when life is not running smoothly. I have more to say about that than I do about beauty, easy, comfort and joy. And I feel more connected to my clients when I can relate to their struggle.
As a result, I tend to look for the struggle because, in a somewhat unhealthy way, that’s what gives me meaning, what builds my relationships, and what makes my creative juices flow. I am, you could say, overly attached to the struggle because of the way it grows my work.
I’m trying to change all of that though – to re-examine who I am when joy is in my life and to question the old patterns and beliefs that keep me from embracing it. Because just as I have been unafraid to know grief, I want to be unafraid to know joy.
Grief has been my teacher for many years, and now I am embracing joy as my teacher too. I wonder what lessons I can learn if I dive into it with as much commitment and intention as I have into grief. And I wonder how my relationships might shift if I seek out people who can have great capacity for both grief AND joy.
I remember the day clearly. I don’t remember the date, but it must have been a warm summer day, because I was wearing my favourite turquoise summer dress.
I was walking home from church pushing a double stroller with a toddler and infant inside. I was glad that my children couldn’t see me because I was crying.
I was lonely. I’d just been to a new church because I was seeking some form of community, but it hadn’t happened that morning. I’d had to spend the whole service in the nursery caring for my children and there had been no opportunities to make the kind of connections I was craving. I’d slipped out of church when nobody came to speak with me after the service. I was feeling too insecure and overwhelmed to reach out to them, so when they didn’t come to me, I left.
That was the loneliest period of my life. With two small children and a full-time job, I had little time for a social life. Most of the friends I’d had before children were either busy with their own children or were childless and didn’t understand my new reality. At work, I’d moved into a management position, so didn’t feel as welcome in the lunchroom conversations as I once was.
More than anything, though, I felt like I no longer knew HOW to make friends. I’ve always been better at deep connections than small-talk, so the brief conversations with other parents at the playground did little to feed my hunger. At work I wasn’t making deep enough connections either, because the further I moved up in management, the more it seemed that people were guarded and not interested in really knowing each other.
This week, I thought back to that young woman crying on the sidewalk, walking her children home, and I teared up at the memory. How lost and lonely she was! How much she craved depth and meaning and friendship!
I’m not that young woman anymore. This past week, as I traveled from Portland to Ashland to L.A. to Reno, connecting with some of my closest friends and sparking new friendships along the way, I realized just how far I’ve come since that moment. I now have an abundance of deep friendships, both at home and in places as far away as Australia. In fact, I’ve built a business on deep conversations and holding space, and so the very things I once craved are the things that are now the core of my work.
That’s how it works, sometimes, and that’s why I don’t regret those lonely moments. I wouldn’t know just how beautiful this life is if I’d never glimpsed the opposite. And I wouldn’t be able to relate to my clients if I’d never known loneliness or loss or disconnection. Those moments in the liminal space helped to shape me and teach me and prepare me for this work.
Last week, I was in Reno for a few days, connecting with my dear friends Lorraine and TuBears, who I met five years ago at Lake Tahoe at the annual gathering for Gather the Women. While I was there, we had such a beautiful connection, that we decided to share one of our conversations with you. In the video, we talked about what kind of conditions help to create the kind of trust and depth we enjoy in our relationship.
Since then, I’ve been thinking more about those conditions for deep and meaningful friendships. Here’s what I came up with:
1.) Do your own work. Though meaningful friendships can and should help support growth, you can’t rely on friends to do your inner work for you. Showing up with too much neediness and not enough sense of your own responsibility to work through your weakness, jealousy, anger, fear, etc. will either destroy the friendship or make it so lopsided it won’t hold the kind of depth you crave.
2.) Let your friends do their own work. Just as you can’t rely on a friend to do your work, you can’t do theirs either. Let them take responsibility for their hang-ups, mistakes, and emotions. And when they’re feeling lost, walk beside them and offer a light to illuminate the path, but don’t take responsibility for their journey.
3.) Take chances. Deep friendships are built on trust and you can’t build trust if you don’t take some risks, share some secrets, and open your heart just a little more than what feels safe. This doesn’t happen all at once, but as you build trust, keep offering a little more of yourself so that your friend can help hold what you might not share with other people.
4.) Be trustworthy. Guard your friend’s secrets, show up when you say you’re going to show up, and apologize when you mess up. Be the kind of person they can trust, who’s dependable and faithful. And take responsibility for it when you fail so that you can begin to rebuild the trust.
5.) Be an advocate and an ally. Sometimes friendship is about standing up for each other or at least standing alongside each other when there are forces working against you. If your friend faces discrimination that you don’t face, learn to be the kind of ally that they most need and want (that may look different for each person). If they face abuse and are having trouble standing up for themselves, find ways of advocating for them without taking their power away.
6.) Be open to change. Friends change us and we change them. When a relationship grows, it creates the possibility for something new in each person and in the space in between – the “we space”. Be willing to learn from the other person and from the places and ideas that you explore together. Don’t cling to an old identity – evolve along with the relationship.
7.) Support each other’s greatness. The best kind of friends are those who aren’t intimidated by someone’s success or strength. There might be moments of jealousy now and then, and the sense that you’ve been left behind (we’re all human, after all), but don’t let that get in the way of your friendship. Don’t assume that they don’t need you anymore, because the truth is that they probably need you MORE. Success can feel like a surprisingly scary and lonely place sometimes. Be there for them through the success AND the failure and trust that they’ll be there for you too.
8.) Pay attention to what they need and be honest about what you need. Friendship is symbiotic and reciprocal. It’s not transactional (ie. I give you something and then you owe me something in return) – it’s an ebb and flow of meeting whosever needs are most relevant in the moment, with as much balance as possible. When trust is built, you can be more honest about what your needs are and when you think those aren’t being met, and you can receive the honesty of your friend in the same way.
9.) Respect their boundaries and communicate your own. In a friendship, there is usually some unspoken agreement about what is acceptable and unacceptable. It can be helpful to speak it out loud so that all involved have clarity and know how best to respect each other. If, for example, you have a family commitment on Sundays that means you aren’t available to your friends, let them know that Sundays are off limits and expect them to respect those limits. Or if you don’t like receiving text messages after 10 p.m., say so and then don’t respond to their late night texts. And if your friend communicates similar boundaries, don’t make fun of them or push past them – respect them.
10.) Don’t run away from conflict. At some point in every friendship, conflict bubbles to the surface. Instead of running away, try to see it as an opportunity to deepen your friendship. The deepest friendships are those that weather a few storms, so step into the conflict and see what it has to teach you. Perhaps the conflict will help you to better articulate a boundary that was inadvertently crossed. Or your friend will figure out how to talk about the trauma that was triggered unknowingly. Sometimes conflict is generative instead of destructive.
There is no perfect friendships because there are no perfect people. No matter how strong your friendship is, you may still fail or betray your friend and they may still do the same to you. And sometimes, even with lots of friends, you’ll still have lonely moments (which I have, occasionally, when I’m the only single person at a party full of couples). But regardless, life is richer when you make the effort to invest in deep and meaningful friendships.
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Want to know more about growing deep and meaningful relationships? We talk a lot about this in the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program AND you’ll have the added bonus of growing friendships with people from all over the world who enrol in the program with you. If you’d rather study with me in-person, join me in B.C. or the Netherlands.
Two days before the end, I sat on a stool next to the armchair where Mom lay. When she leaned toward me, I leaned in too, afraid I’d miss what she’d say with her disappearing voice.
“I don’t know how to do this,” she said, looking at me with eyes that were searching but unfocused. My own words worked their way past a lump in my throat. “I don’t know how to do this either,” I said. And then we just sat there and breathed together, our foreheads nearly touching as we imagined this great gaping space in front of us that neither of us knew how to navigate.
She was soon to cross over into the afterlife. I was soon to cross over into the land of motherless daughters. Neither of us had any idea how we would make the journey. Neither of us had any advice or platitudes or ways of fixing this. Neither of us could offer to go on that journey with the other. All we had was this empty space… this liminal space… where we could sit together and fix our gaze upon each other and find an anchor in each other’s eyes.
Looking back over our 46 years together, that moment was quite possibly the most honest and sacred moment we ever shared. We had no expectations of each other. We had no reason to pretend we were anyone other than exactly who we were. There was no point in acting like we had wisdom or answers the other didn’t have, and no point in clinging to old hurts or misunderstandings that had never been (and would never be) resolved. All of that was stripped away and all we had was this moment… this meeting at the intersection of who we were and who we were about to become.
All we had was the space of “I don’t know.” And in that moment, it was the most painfully beautiful place to be.
I’ve come to believe that is the most potent space we can meet people in our relationships… the space of “I don’t know”. It’s the place where we shed our expectations and pretences. It’s the place where we reveal ourselves to each other and admit that much of what we think we know is simply smoke and mirrors. It’s the place where we seek no heroes or answers, where we ask only to be anchored by each other’s presence.
It’s the place where the true work of holding space can happen.
It’s not often that we find ourselves in this space with other people. It’s not often that we are both strong enough and vulnerable enough to offer that kind of space to each other. It goes against every instinct to protect ourselves and to prove ourselves. It takes effort and courage and a whole lot of trust. For those of us who’ve been wounded, marginalized, and oppressed, it’s even more difficult than for those who walk in the world with privilege and more assurance of safety. Perhaps, in fact, it’s the kind of space that some of us only enter in our final days on earth, when we have nothing left to lose.
Imagine, though, if more of our relationships found us in such a place. Imagine if you could trust people in your life to hold you and offer you an anchor no matter how much you’ve failed them or betrayed them in the past. Imagine if you could enter more conversations with people without having to posture and protect yourself.
We may never find perfection in our quest for this kind of space, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it more often. I like to imagine, for example, what it would be like to intentionally seek to enter that kind of space when there are people working through conflict or reconciliation. What if, for example, those of us who are settlers in this country, could drop our baggage at the door and seek to show up with our Indigenous brothers and sisters in that kind of way, admitting that we don’t know what to do and showing our willingness to seek answers from the liminal space? And what if those who govern our country – our politicians – were willing to stop their posturing in order to sit in that space with each other, people from all sides of the political spectrum admitting that they don’t know the way forward but are willing to plant seeds for the future together? And what if we could do that with our own children? Or our parents? Or our communities?
Recently, my friend Beth and I have been practicing sitting in that space together. We have some parallel stories (ie. we’ve both recently ended a 20+ year marriage and we’re raising children around the same age). Plus we’ve both had an increasing awareness of our need, as settlers in Canada, to decolonize ourselves and we’ve had a recent experience together that heightened that awareness. In addition, we’ve been navigating some challenges in a community that is close to both of our hearts. So there is a liminal space element to both of our lives lately, as we evolve in the way in which we show up in our work, our families, and our communities.
Beth and I have long conversations over Zoom, where we just talk with little expectation of outcome or even clarity. One of us will text “can we circle up?” and we’ll find time to hold space for each other in a little virtual circle on our computer screens. Often our conversations end on a similar note as we began – still confused as to a way forward. In the middle of it, though, we each find an anchor with which to ground our wobbly selves.
We are meeting in the space of “I don’t know”. As we do so, we have to regularly renew our commitment and intention to keep laying down our pretences and instincts toward self-protection. This is not a natural space to be in with another person – it takes effort and humility. We want to impress each other, to prove our value, and we want to make sure we’re safe before we fully trust each other. We have to fight those inclinations in order to offer our vulnerability in such a space. We have too many stories of betrayed trust in the past to rush into an unguarded relationship like this.
I am lucky enough to have a few other friendships on similar journeys, and each one of them takes similar commitment and practice. The space of “I don’t know” can never be taken lightly – it is a great privilege that must be fostered and nurtured before it can grow into a plant that bears fruit. But once you taste of that fruit, you find yourself craving more and more of it, and relationships without it become less and less tolerable. And when you lose it, there is a deep grief and a hard journey back to that level of trust once again.
Sometimes I find it especially challenging to enter into this space because I am, in more and more of the spaces in which I find myself, a teacher/mentor/coach/facilitator who is expected to know things. People look to me with expectation and hope that I will help them find clarity and purpose, and I don’t want to let them down. I find myself becoming guarded sometimes, wanting to prove myself and not let people see me vulnerable. And yet… often it serves my students and clients well if I am willing to enter the space of “I don’t know” with them, to be humble enough to be in the learning with them, to show up willing to be shaped by our collective experience in the liminal space. (It’s a fine line to navigate and I don’t always get it right.)
The culture most of us live in has conditioned us to resist the space of “I don’t know.” Especially in North America (and I suspect in Europe as well, though my experience is limited), we have attempted to eradicate all chaos and insecurity from our culture. Out of our fear of uncertainty, we turn toward authoritarian leadership that, we believe, will keep us safe and always know how to make the path clear in front of us. We want assurances and safety and so we surround ourselves with people who look like us and talk like us. We resist the risk of engaging in spaces that make us feel like we don’t know what we’re doing, and so we marginalize those people who potentially bring that kind of risk into our lives.
But we can never live fully secure lives. We can never fully eradicate chaos. Every one of us will face illness, loss, death, and political instability. It’s simply a part of life. And the more we practice becoming comfortable in the space of “I don’t know” the more resilient we’ll become and the more expansive and beautiful our lives will be.
I believe (though I am far from an expert on such matters) that there are Indigenous cultures that understand how to navigate this space much more comfortably than those of us from European decent. Having sat in sweat lodges and other ceremonies and conversations with Indigenous people here and in other parts of the world, I have witnessed this invitation to sit in the liminal space, to release our baggage and false sense of our own importance. I have heard words spoken to me in Maori, Cree, and Choctaw that explain these concepts better than any English words I know.
As I learn to decolonize myself, I am learning how to receive the wisdom they have to offer without appropriating it or pretending I know something I’ve only recently begun to explore. Inherent in many of these traditions is a deep connection with the earth, which teaches us to be patient in the fallow seasons, to trust the unfurling or dying when the seasons shift, and to surrender ourselves to the mystery of it all. In New Zealand, for example, I was recently taught about the Maori concept of “a te wa” – “when the time is right” – that teaches us patience in the discomfort of waiting. I seek to trust the wisdom of “a te wa.”
In the liminal space, we need that kind of patience. We need the ceremonies and rituals that allow us to stay present for the discomfort. We need the teachers who can model how to stay present. And we need the relationships that anchor us there.
I don’t know how to fix much of the political mess in the world. I don’t know how to eradicate poverty or racism or prejudice of any kind. I don’t know how to help a friend whose life has been deeply altered by time spent in prison. I don’t know how to ensure that women can walk in the world without fearing sexual assault. I don’t know how to parent a child with the kind of anxiety I’ve never navigated in my life. I don’t know how to repair the damage when trust has been lost in a community. I don’t know how to navigate the world as a single mom when my children begin to move out of our home. I don’t know how to hold space for a friend or family member whose lives have suddenly been threatened by gang members. I don’t know how to repair the damage that has been done by settlers in my lineage who took what wasn’t theirs to take.
There are so many things I don’t know. And I don’t want you to give me the answers. I simply want you to meet me there… in the space of “I don’t know.”
* * * * *
Note: This is similar to the content I teach in my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. The next offering starts in June 2018.
Yesterday, on the last day of 2017, I was encouraging my teenage daughter to clean her room. (If you asked for her version of the story, she might use the word “nagging”, but I’m the one telling this story, so let’s stick with “encouraging”.) She had been avoiding it for the better part of the day, despite repeated “encouragement”.
“I think I’ll feel more like doing it tomorrow,” she said. “You know… new year, new me?”
“So… you’re thinking that 2018 will transform you into the kind of person who keeps her bedroom clean?” I asked.
“A girl can dream.” And then we both laughed, because we both know there is no magical turning of the calendar that will transform her into a different person.
We keep hoping that will happen, though, don’t we? Even if we turn up our noses at new year’s resolutions, we create these little fantasies that “maybe THIS will be the year that I lose weight, get my finances in order, stop procrastinating, start exercising, stop self-sabotaging, pay my taxes on time, stop worrying, stop smoking, stop getting into unhealthy relationships, etc.” There’s just something about an as-yet untarnished year stretching in front of us that feels like a good opportunity for a fresh start.
But… just as my daughter already knows, at 15, that it will take more than a calendar change to motivate her to keep her room clean, we all know, deep down, that real change takes a great deal more effort and commitment.
This past week, while I was off work and taking a hiatus from social media, I had some time to think about what it takes to make meaningful change. Just like anyone else, there are areas of my life that I’d like to change. I’d like to lose weight, exercise more, keep my home more consistently clean, be more organized about my finances, etc. I ate too much over the holidays and was far too stationary, choosing the couch over the gym, and I could recognize the temptation to slip into that old familiar spiral of “I’m fat and too lazy and can’t seem to change that about myself, so I must be a bad person and therefore not worthy of love.” (I didn’t slip too far down that spiral, but could see it looming on the horizon.)
I’ve also been thinking about meaningful personal change on a broader spectrum – in those areas of our lives where we may be even more destructive (to ourselves and/or to others) such as addiction, abuse, etc. In this wave of accusations of sexual misconduct that’s resulted from the #metoo movement, for example, we’re discovering more and more men who’ve been guilty of deviant, destructive behaviour. Some have apologized and promised to do better in the future, but I can’t help but wonder… will they really change, or will they simply take their destructive behaviour further underground? Isn’t “getting caught” as ineffective a means of impacting meaningful change as the turning of the calendar? The high rate of recidivism in our prisons would suggest that getting caught and being punished rarely results in real change.
So what DOES result in meaningful behaviour change? How does a person become more healthy or less destructive to themselves and/or another person?
I haven’t found a magic cure, like a calendar change (if I had, I’d be 50 pounds lighter), but I do believe that these are some of the contributing factors to meaningful behaviour change:
1. Start with self-compassion and self-acceptance. This I know to be true… self-loathing and shame are never effective motivators for meaningful change. If you hate yourself and you’re wallowing in the shame of your unhealthy or destructive behaviour, you’ll keep behaving in the same way because you’ll believe that you’re incapable of anything better. You may, subconsciously, want to destroy yourself because of your perceived lack of worthiness, and you may even believe that you deserve to get caught and be punished.
It’s a vicious cycle – when I overeat, for example, I feel badly about myself. When I feel badly about myself, I don’t think I’m worthy of anything better and I want to bury the shame, so I eat some more. I have to break that cycle and it starts with extending love to myself so that I can begin to believe in my own capacity to do better. That requires that I first love myself unconditionally, EXACTLY as I am RIGHT NOW, at the weight I currently am, with the flaws I currently have. And it means committing to that kind of unconditional love EVEN IF I never make the change I’m longing for.
How do I do that? By committing to it on a daily basis, by extending kindness to myself whenever I can, by looking at myself in the mirror when I can and not flinching, by changing my self-talk from “I am useless” to “I am worthy”, and by forgiving myself over and over again when I slip up, and by not blocking the intense feelings (ie. grief, fear, shame, etc.) when they threaten to overwhelm me.
In the book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, Christopher Germer says “Change comes naturally when we open ourselves up to emotional pain with uncommon kindness. Instead of blaming, criticizing, and trying to fix ourselves (or someone else, or the whole world) when things go wrong and we feel bad, we can start with self-acceptance. Compassion first! This simple shift can make a tremendous difference in your life.”
2. Go deeper. A negative behaviour is never just a behaviour – it’s a mask for hidden shame, it’s a way to get a need met, it’s a response to past trauma, and/or it’s a way to avoid pain. If you can’t figure out why you can’t let go of an unhealthy pattern, it’s likely because that pattern is deeply rooted in your past pain, shame, trauma, grief, etc. It’s quite possible, that you developed that particular behaviour as a coping mechanism and there’s a subconscious part of your brain and/or body that believes that if you let go of the behaviour, you’ll be inviting back the pain or you will no longer be protecting yourself from danger. I have considered, for example, that the extra weight I carry may be my body’s way of protecting me from the kind of sexual trauma I’ve suffered in the past.
Unless you work to heal the wound that the behaviour is masking or protecting (and it may be multiple wounds rather than a single source), it will be next to impossible to make sustainable change to that behaviour. You might change the behaviour for awhile, but there’s a very good chance it will return or another destructive behaviour will move in to take its place. Our wounds have a way of getting our attention, one way or another, until we peel away the bandages and expose them to the air. I suspect, for example that many of the perpetrators of sexual abuse that we’re hearing about in the news have been victims of some kind of trauma in the past and their unhealthy use of power and their sexual deviance is really an unhealthy cry for help.
Healing of these wounds may require the support of professionals – therapists, counsellors, body workers, grief coaches, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
3. Recognize the forces at play beyond yourself. In much of modern day self-help literature, there is an underlying belief that you, and you alone, are in control of your own life. “You make your own choices, your thoughts control your outcome, you attract what shows up in your life, etc.” While there is some truth to these beliefs, they are all only partly true.
You are a product of your environment. You have been socially conditioned by the culture and system that you grew up in. You have a fore-ordained place in the social hierarchy that exists, and no matter how much you resist it, you will always be impacted by it. Your value in society is, at least in part, determined by your social status. If you are disabled, for example, you lack some of the privileges that non-disabled people enjoy. If you are a person of colour or transgender, you will likely suffer the effects of oppression and bias that others never face.
These factors limit our ability to make meaningful change in a number of ways. For one thing, a person with limited financial resources, or someone who lives in a rural location, may not have access to therapists or healthy food options or social support networks. A person who’s been ostracized for their gender or skin colour may have a harder time accessing the kind of help they need.
For another thing, there is often internalized oppression at play, even when no external force is limiting us.
A person of colour who’s grown up in a white supremacist culture will have received so many messages that they are less worthy than a white person that those messages will persist in their internal narrative. A woman who’s grown up in a patriarchal system might be a die-hard feminist, but still carry the residual shame of being a woman that she’s always been taught. Recently, while choosing a Netflix movie to watch, I realized that, though I have been overweight most of my life and believe that I am unbiased toward overweight people, I had a hard time believing that a movie with an overweight lead actor would be as good as one with a thin person. I still have internalized oppression toward fat people that’s been conditioned in me over fifty years of viewing the thin ideal on TV screens and fashion magazines.
This kind of internalized oppression makes self-compassion exponentially more difficult and therefore leaves meaningful behaviour change even more out of reach. Fifty years of internalized belief (that’s backed up by society’s standards) that fat people have less value is a pretty big boulder to push out of the way, especially when it’s complicated by the wounds that have been inflicted on this overweight body.
What can we do about this? We can educate ourselves about what forces are at play beyond us, we can choose, little by little, to release and challenge the shame and oppression inflicted on us, we can be kinder to ourselves and others who’ve suffered, and we can choose to contribute to a more just world. This knowledge does not excuse us of personal responsibility, but it does help us to be more self-compassionate when we recognize the additional burden we carry.
4. Make connections. Social isolation is one of the most significant contributors to unhealthy, destructive behaviour, whether it’s addiction, abuse, or simply poor choices. According to this article in Psychology Today, the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection. Addiction, the writer says, is not a substance disorder, it’s a personal disorder.
Canadian psychologist Brian Alexander discovered that rats that were placed in large cages with other rats, where there were hamster wheels and multi-colored balls to play with, plenty of tasty food to eat, and spaces for mating and raising litters, were much less likely to develop an addiction to heroin than those rats living in isolated cages. Given a choice between pure water and heroin-infused water, those in isolation quickly became addicted to the heroin, while those living in community ignored it. Even rats who’d previously been isolated and sucking on the heroin water left it alone once they were introduced to communal living.
Humans are much the same – those who have families and/or support support networks are much less likely to become addicts than those who are isolated. We are social creatures – our relationships help us cope, help us heal, and help us make good choices.
Healthy relationships are those in which we can fail and still be loved, we can speak of our shame and not have more heaped upon us, we can change without being held back by their fear, and we can learn to trust even if our trust has been broken in the past. In healthy relationships, our stories matter and we are not judged for the colour of our skin, the sizes of our waists, or the limitations of our disabilities. Healthy relationships allow us to be our best selves and forgive us for being our worst selves.
In an interview on CBC radio, Alan Jacobs, the author of How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, talked about the value of amplifying constructive voices. “If we can just stop amplifying the worst voices in society, and instead, try to promote the more constructive voices, it really would make a difference,” Jacobs suggested. He goes on to suggest “looking for people who are like-hearted, not necessarily like-minded – people who you don’t always agree with but hold the same virtues like generosity, charity, and honesty.”
These healthy, constructive relationships may be difficult to find, especially if you are already mired in shame and self-loathing, but they are not impossible. You can start by taking a course in something that interests you to find people with similar interests, or join a group on meetup.com. If you happen to be in my city, you’re welcome to join our women’s circle – we meet twice-monthly for a sharing circle where nobody is judged, no advice is offered, and friendship is freely offered.
5. Find spiritual/creative practices that support your intentions. Any time I’ve made a meaningful change in my life, and/or done deep healing work that contributes to the behaviour change, it has been supported by some form of spiritual/creative practice, whether it is a mandala journal practice, a journal practice (that might be supported by something like my 50 Questions), a labyrinth practice (ie. The Spiral Path), a body practice, a mindfulness practice, or an art practice. I recently participated in an online photographic self-expression (ie. creative selfies – offered by Amy Walsh of the Bureau of Tactical Imagination) course that surprised me with some of the ways it healed past wounds.
It seems each time I uncover something new that needs healing or changing, I find a different practice to support it. Different personal growth work seems to respond to different practices. I’ve signed up for two art-related courses for early 2018 because I know that the more time I spend in creativity, the more healthy I am in body and mind. There is something about engaging the creative part of my brain that unlocks a deeper part of me and heals what’s been hidden in the past. I also have an intention to find a body practice that works for me (once my injured shoulder heals).
One of my favourite journal practices is to have conversations with myself and to write those out as dialogue on the page. It might be a conversation between my current self and my younger self that helps uncover an unhealed wound or an unmet need. Or it might be a conversation with my fear to discover what message the fear is trying send me. Or it might be a conversation with my future self that helps my desires and longings to come to the surface. Feel free to experiment with this in your own journal – you might be surprised by what comes to the surface.
6. Take small steps and start fresh each day. “How do you eat an elephant?” asks the familiar proverb. “One bite at a time.” Don’t overwhelm yourself with unrealistic goals that may doom you for failure before you’ve even begun. Instead, set small, manageable intentions. And when you fail to meet those expectations, forgive yourself and start again.
Decide, for example, that “just for today, I will make healthy choices.” And then when you wake up the next morning, set the same goal again. And again. And again. A day of healthy choices is much more attainable than a life-long change. It’s also less to forgive if you’re simply forgiving yourself for failing today rather than for being a life-long failure.
Yes, meaningful change is possible, but remember that it may also not be necessary. Ask yourself if the change you’re seeking is genuinely what you want, or is, instead, the result of cultural norms imposed on you. Perhaps, instead of setting an unrealistic goal to become a new you, your only goal should be to practice self-compassion and acceptance of yourself just the way you are. Maybe it’s the norms of society that need to be changed rather than you?
Perhaps the most radical change you can make is to believe that you are doing the best that you can with the hand you’ve been dealt and that that’s good enough.
Yesterday morning I was in an emotional tailspin. The night before, at the end of a long day of coaching clients, I made a couple of mistakes that were pointed out by people and it put me in a shame spiral. And then, partly because I was already fragile, another person’s actions annoyed me and I landed in an anger spiral that resulted in me saying some words I shouldn’t have.
I could just chalk this up to jet lag and excuse myself for it all by saying that I’m still adjusting to being home and that I jumped into client work too quickly after the intensity of facilitating three retreats and I should have known better than to interact with people who challenge me after a full day of coaching… but that would largely be me letting myself off the hook for bad behaviour. All of those things are true… but there’s also something else for me to consider in this. It’s what I tell my clients all of the time…
My discomfort will not kill me.
Making mistakes won’t kill me. Getting angry won’t kill me. Having to clean up from my mistakes won’t kill me. If anything, those things will make me a little more resilient and help me grow. And I am reminded, once again, that when I insist on self-care and periods of quiet and introspection after doing intense work far from home, it’s not only for my own good, but for the good of those impacted by my moods.
Today I’m not talking to any clients and I’m going to be gentle with myself. And I’m going to make retributions for some of the mistakes I made yesterday. And I’m choosing not to hide the shame bits because there is worthwhile learning in them.
I used to run from discomfort – try to numb myself from it in any way I could. Shut down the anger, eat away the shame, distract myself from the pain, lash out when I needed to blame someone other than me. I was too scared to look inside of it, too scared I’d see only ugliness in the shadows.
I still hide sometimes (hello Netflix, my favourite distraction) but I’m learning, gradually, to stay more present in it, breathe/pray/dance/journal my way through it, until it begins to crack open and I find the gems in the shadows. It takes less time to shift than it used to – I still got a reasonable night’s sleep the night before last, despite the places my spiralling brain wanted to take me. I will survive. I can see my own shadow now without letting it consume me.
Though I might not like it, discomfort is one of my greatest teachers. In fact, I’m not sure if I ever learn anything worthwhile without at least a little discomfort.
Discomfort became fairly central to one of my retreats last week. It’s usually at least somewhat present at all of my retreats (because I encourage people to stretch themselves), but at this one we had an opportunity to go deeper with it than usual.
The retreat was about holding space for others, and each of the retreat participants had been given an assignment that, on the fourth day of the retreat, they would practice holding space for the group. On Saturday, each person signed up for a 45 minute slot when they could host a conversation on a topic that mattered to them, teach us a movement/art/meditation practice that would help us hold space for ourselves, or find some other creative and meaningful way of helping us explore what it means to hold space.
Few people go on retreat and expect to do some of the hosting/teaching themselves, so there was, not surprisingly, some resistance and discomfort. Some handled it with humour, some shut down with anxiety, and some pushed back against me. None of it was offensive (they were genuinely good-hearted and emotionally mature people taking ownership of their own responses), but I could sense the work they needed to do in order to step forward into their own leadership.
I assigned this work not because I wanted the easy way out (ie. a day of no teaching), but because I knew that they would leave the retreat with more skills if they practiced what they were learning in a safe and supportive environment. And I knew, from personal experience, that working through their discomfort would be good for them in the end.
At the beginning of all of my retreats, I introduce participants to the concept of “brave space”. “While we will work together to make this space safe for everyone,” I say, “I prefer to talk about ‘brave spaces’ rather than safe ones. Sometimes, when we focus on safety, we’re actually focusing on comfort, and we don’t take risks or face challenges with bravery. While you are here, I want to encourage you to be brave, to have conversations that challenge you, to face the shadow in yourself when it shows up, to look after yourself in radical ways, and to dare to re-engage even when things get difficult.” (Note: click on the link above to learn more about where this concept emerged.)
I follow that up by saying “this is also a consent-based environment. While I will encourage your bravery, and may nudge you past comfort, I also promise to accept ‘no’ as an answer. You alone know what you can handle and I invite you to take responsibility for where your boundaries need to be and what you’re not willing to consent to.”
Thirdly, I say (in the words of my teacher, Christina Baldwin) that “in this space, we ask for what we need and offer what we can. That means we are each invited to honour our own needs, look after ourselves, and respond as well as we can to other people’s needs. We will practice reciprocity, step into our personal leadership, honour boundaries, and do our best to make this space both brave and safe for all of us.”
When I assigned the participants at this retreat the task of hosting a 45 minute segment of our Saturday, I encouraged them to step into brave space. “This is your chance to push past your comfort zone, to try something that might feel too risky at home where you’re surrounded by people who know you. In this environment, where people are committed to holding space for each other, dare to push through your discomfort to find your bravery.”
When Saturday arrived, the air was charged with a mixture of anticipation, excitement and fear. I knew it would be good, but of course I also had moments of doubt, wondering whether it might backfire. Would people hate it and hate me and leave the retreat with a bad taste in their mouths? Would we have enough energy to support nine people’s individual steps into courage? Would it be repetitive if too many sessions were similar? Would those with anxiety simply shut down and not be able to participate? How would I support them if they did?
You can probably guess how it all played out. The day was brilliant. People were courageous and supportive and creative and inspiring. We had nine very different sessions, each one of them keeping us engaged and inspired. We made art, we learned movement practice, we had an honest conversation about creating more inclusive space in women’s circles, we learned a beautiful Maori greeting (hongi), we practiced mindfulness, and we played. It was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time.
On Sunday morning, after the last session, I invited everyone to participate in a ritual to mark what had transpired. On a piece of paper, each person wrote down what they wanted to honour themselves for and what commitment they wanted to make to themselves for the future. They then carried the piece of paper into the labyrinth, and placed it on a cairn of stones at the centre. When they emerged from the labyrinth, I offered each one a personal blessing, reflecting on something I’d witnessed in them during the week, and then, if they chose, they could step over a line on the ground that marked the crossing of a threshold into whatever would come next.
Standing at the edge of the labyrinth was a beautiful experience. There was energy and excitement mixed with contemplation and some fear. There was commitment and resolve and courage and fierceness. There were tears and there was laughter. There was humanity and humility and hope. That labyrinth served as the container for the complexity of all human emotions, while I “held the rim”.
Rhonda, one of the retreat participants, later said this of the labyrinth experience… “I realized at that moment, at the center of the labyrinth, everything that I had always sought, chased, pursued, agonized to find and discover in my own life and purpose was already within. I just need to accept it. I felt God look at me with the biggest smile and say ‘It’s about time.’ It was a most defining moment. I feel like I am no longer living ‘from’ my history.”
Later that day, it was time for us all to depart. As I looked around the circle of women, I couldn’t help but notice the difference from just a few days earlier. These were courageous, strong women who were now a little more aware of their own courage and strength. They had worked through their discomfort, trusted each other to hold space for their fear, and emerged triumphant.
The good-byes from that retreat were different from what they often are at retreats. People were ready to go home. They were ready and excited to step into what was next. Unlike what often happens at the end of retreats, they didn’t seem to have the need to cling to the comfort and warmth of the circle that had held them. Though they valued the support of the group, they stepped away with a sense of self-reliance.
They had come as learners and they were leaving as leaders.
They had chosen not to let their discomfort keep them from finding their courage. I can hardly wait to see what they are capable of!
Today, while I consider what to do with the discomfort I faced a couple of days ago, I make a new resolve to step into courage because I have the memory of those women to inspire me.
Sign up for my six month Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program to learn more about what it means to hold space.