There’s a pedestrian tunnel I pass through regularly, in all seasons. In summer, I often cycle through, and in winter, I pass through on foot. The tunnel provides a safe passage under a busy freeway. It’s a connecting point between my sister’s house and mine, and it’s also along the best cycling route from my house to downtown.
Not long ago, I listened to an interview with someone who’d written a piece for the New York Times on the “empty religions of Instagram”. She was critiquing some self-help social media influencers, and she mentioned that some of them “worship their wounds”. On their Instagram feeds, she said, they make themselves accessible by being wounded people, but then they stay with the wound because it makes them feel special and loved and it gets them more followers.
Because I’ve written a book that includes quite a few of my own vulnerable stories, and because much of my work has its roots in those stories (i.e. the original blog post that catapulted this work into the world was about my mom dying), the words of the writer felt somewhat confronting.
Was I, too, guilty of “worshipping my wounds”? Was I monetizing my woundedness and then staying with the woundedness because it’s become part of my brand and it draws people in?
Whew. That’s a really big question. It stopped me in my tracks and caused me to withdraw even further from the public-facing spaces. I spent hours wrestling with it in my journal and had several good conversations with friends. I dug deep, trying to be as honest with myself as I could.
Somewhat ironically, at the same time, I was teaching my course, Write for Love and Liberation, where I was telling people how liberating and healing it can be to write about your wounds and share your stories. I told them how much more liberated I felt when I was honest about past trauma and abuse and how much that honesty and vulnerability had helped me find community and deepen relationships.
My mind wrestled with the cognitive dissonance of those two things and I didn’t know if they could both be true at the same time.
On the one hand, oversharing and crafting your identity out of a narrative of woundedness and trauma can keep you stuck in your wounds. A relationship or community built out of shared woundedness can give everyone in that relationship or community an excuse to stay wounded. It can also hold people back from healing and growth because people need safety and belonging and are afraid of being abandoned by people who don’t want them to change. (Some of us come from families, for example, that don’t encourage growth because that causes a threat to the family system.)
Plus, a leader who uses her wounds to gather people around her can turn those wounds into performance and connecting points for relationships. She is much more likely to grow unhealthy attachments, to project those wounds onto other people, and to start a cult rather than a healthy growing community. A leader who stays wounded is likely to create trauma bonds with people to ensure that they don’t outgrow her and move on because they’ve healed and no longer need the attachment to her. (Consider the many recent stories of abuse in spiritual communities – those are leaders whose own woundedness tries to trap people and hold them back.)
On the other hand, sharing the stories of our trauma and woundedness can be healing and transformational and those stories can offer beautiful connecting points on which to build community. Some of my biggest personal breakthroughs have come when I’ve read or listened to the stories of people who’ve dared to share their struggles and pain. Over the years, I have heard from many, many people who are grateful that I’ve been so honest in the sharing of my hard stories, because it helps them see themselves more clearly. Shared vulnerability connects us and makes us feel less alone. It can also give us hope that there is a way through the pain into a new story.
So… what is a person to do when they’ve built work that’s rooted in their personal stories, and many of those stories include wounds and trauma that help people find connecting points?
I think the key to that question is in the word that is deliberately part of both my book title and my writing course title… liberation. I think that the writing and sharing of our stories, the gathering of our communities, and the ways in which we show up online, should all be centered around the pursuit of liberation – for ourselves and for each other.
Liberation comes when we can see the wound; name the wound; speak honestly about the wound; erect healthy boundaries with anyone who caused, contributed to, or dismissed the wound; heal the wound; make meaning of the wound; and then free ourselves from the wound and move on.
Liberation comes when we share stories not only of the wounds themselves, but of what it takes to heal the wounds, triumph over the wounds, and stand up to the people or systems that cause the wounds.
Liberation comes when we tell the stories of how we developed healthy boundaries, stopped accepting abuse, and stopped giving ourselves away to people who don’t know how to honour and hold space for us.
Liberation comes when we don’t hold each other back, when we release unhealthy attachments, and when we refuse to participate in codependent relationships that rely on our woundedness.
Liberation comes when we make a conscious choice to detach ourselves from our wounds and we form new identities not built solely on those wounds.
After a considerable amount of reflection on this topic, I have come to a renewed commitment in my work and my life… I will continue to share honestly and vulnerably and will continue to let people see the wounds and trauma that have been part of my past (when I can do so out of a spirit of generosity) BUT… I will not stay in that place, nor will I stay in relationships that keep me in that place. I will do my best to continue healing whatever reveals itself in me and I will support other people in their healing. I will trust my own need for boundaries and give myself necessary time away from other people’s wounds and healing work. I will distance myself from situations or relationships that trigger my old woundedness. I will actively pursue peace, love, joy, and liberation. I will seek out relationships and communities that value growth (mine and other people’s) and that don’t need to keep anyone wounded to justify their own lack of growth. I will be gentle with those with trauma and wounds, but I won’t settle for wound-worshipping in the spaces I hold.
I am committed to my own liberation. AND I believe, as Lilla Watson says, that “my liberation is tied up with yours”. I am committed to liberated relationships, where we honour each other’s sovereignty AND we lean into community, where we hold space for each other’s trauma AND we seek healing and growth.
of or resembling a nebula or nebulae in deep space; nebular
When the lockdown is over, I will go back to the float spa. When I climb into that white pod, turn off the lights and music, and lie down to float in the warm saltwater, I will drift away into a nebulous field where there are no edges, no beginning and no end, no division between water, air and body. I will be, once again, an astronaut who’s climbed out of the spaceship and is floating in zero gravity. Sometimes, as I float into semi-consciousness, I wonder if the umbilical cord that tethers astronaut to ship is still holding me or if I’m floating in the ether alone, without it. Surprisingly, it’s never an anxious thought, just a curiosity. The floating feels good and safe and free.
My life became less and less tethered this year. I am beginning to float more. My youngest daughter graduated from high school. My oldest graduated from university. All three are perched on the edge of the nest, ready to fly off into broader spaces. They are loosening their tethers to the mothership. They make plans, they speak of new lives in new cities, for when the pandemic no longer holds them here. And in the meantime, my relationship with them shapeshifts into something new.
What happens, I wonder, to the mothership when the astronauts no longer need the tether? When they have found other people, other places in which to anchor? Does the mothership take flight too? Does she become young again, and drift off into unexplored territory, waving at her children as she passes? Or does she simply become one with the void?
My body of work is finding ways to become less tethered to me as well. A new business partner is tending to many of the threads that keep the work grounded. She waves me along as I float further and further away from the ground, into new spaces, new ideas. “Go. Explore,” she says, as I put on my spacesuit and open the spaceship door. My teaching work, too, holds me down less and less. New teachers come in behind me, they hold the space I once held, and they infuse it with new energy and new wisdom. My voice, while still needed, is now part of a chorus and no longer a solo act. I have new freedom to float into uncharted territory.
My book, too, has untethered itself from me. Like cells splitting to grow into organisms, the words that once belonged to me and were only on my screen replicated themselves thousands of times, in digital and print form, and landed in homes and hearts and classrooms and libraries all over the world. Those replicated versions pass from hand to hand without me, untethered to me, living lives of their own. They hold a memory of me, the stories of me, but grow into other things, plant seeds for new ideas, without me. Some even in languages I don’t speak. “Go. Explore,” they say, as I climb out of the spaceship door.
I wonder about this virus. Tiny. Invisible. Floating through the air from body to body. Untethered and free to roam. No umbilical cord holding it in place. If we could anthropomorphize it, give it a mind, a voice, and a purpose, what would it tell us? “I want to kill you.” Or “I want to wake you up.” Or “I want to thrive.” Probably, simply, “I’m just doing what I’m meant to do – find ways to live.”
Would it teach us how to live? Teach us how to thrive? Teach us how to be present and mindful and connected and interdependent? Would it teach us how to protect each other, to be less selfish, to work together toward a common purpose? Or would it scoff at us for the many ways we refuse to change, and the many ways we give it easy access to bodies in which to grow and pathways in which to travel?
I find myself drawn to the darkness this winter. I go for long walks on snow-covered paths, long after the sun has set, after all of the neighbours have headed indoors. I walk quiet streets and venture further and further into shadowy parks and unlit paths through the woods. The darkness feeds me, nourishes me, wakens me, grounds me.
The deer are shadowy ghosts on the frozen river, and one night a nebulous shape moves toward me through the darkness on a quiet street. Is it a dog? A large cat? I don’t see clearly until our eyes meet. It is a coyote, darting from shadow to shadow at the edge of the road, claiming the neighbourhood when the people are gone. I stand, still and breathless, and watch the trickster until he disappears into the grey at the edge of my sight. This feels like gift sent from the mothership. A thin place, where the veil between heaven and earth dissolves. But only for a moment.
At the beginning of this pandemic, I was in the Netherlands. Many late nights on ancestry.com had given me the names of the towns where my ancestors lived centuries ago. Back before the torture began and they had to flee to Germany, to Russia and then to Canada, always just a breath ahead of their oppressors. Back before they became pariahs, before the establishment declared them to be dangerous for their beliefs and the genocidal agenda began.
I stood there, on those narrow cobblestone streets in little Dutch towns, and I sensed them there with me, behind me, holding me, reminding me. Their DNA, still alive in me. Their stories, their trauma, waking up in my body after a long slumber. I wondered what it was like to be a refugee, an exile, an outcast. I wondered what it was like to lose your homeland, to become untethered from the place that once nurtured you. I wondered, and yet somehow I also knew.
When I returned home from my ancestors’ homeland, I dug for pieces of me in old boxes in my basement. Threads connecting me to my past. There, buried in the boxes, on journal pages and letters home to her mother, was the traumatized twenty-two-year-old, lonely and unprotected on her bed as the rapist climbed through the window and violated her body. I cried for her as she poured herself out onto those pages, trying to heal, trying to find wholeness, trying not to be crushed under the weight of what had been done to her. I cried for her shame, her innocence, and the poison she took into her body and tried to disgorge onto the page. I cried for the way she had never been told that her body was worthy, that sex wasn’t meant to hurt, that men didn’t get to take things from her that she didn’t want to give. I ached for the way she’d become untethered, unmoored, ungrounded.
Is she still me? Am I still her? Where are the edges between her and I? Where is the line between her trauma and my healing? Or is it all nebulous, without shape, without edges, without beginning or end? When does one give way to the other? Is there a moment when trauma loosens its hold and begins to seep out of a body that wants to heal?
I like starry nights, but my favourites, right now, are the cloudy nights when the snow-covered city is held in a pinkish-grey dome. I can walk forever on those nights, navigating the nebulous landscape, venturing into parks and woodlands that hold too much darkness on starry nights. On the unlit trails between the cathedral spires of leaf-less trees, I can’t see clearly enough to know where the path ends and the deep snow begins. I lean into trust and memory and plant one foot in front of the other, hoping my foot won’t sink deeply into untrodden snow. And sometimes, when it’s snowing and I return the way I arrived, my half-hour-old footprints are already obliterated. Was I ever there, or was it just an illusion? Do I hold enough substance to even make a mark?
I am mostly alone on my night-time pilgrimages, but one night I meet a couple carrying flashlights that lend glaring light to the ten feet in front of them but make the void beyond them even darker. I want to ask those people why they spoil the gentle darkness with the light, but I stay silent. I don’t want to spoil the gentle stillness with my voice. Instead, I carry on past them, deeper into the woods, and my eyes readjust to the darkness. Once again, I recognize the nebulous shapes around me as my sturdy and reliable friends, the trees. And sometimes a deer.
People ask me if I’m not scared, out there alone in the dark. I say “My safety was taken away from me at home, in my own bed. Out there in the woods is not where my demons live.”
I am in a new relationship now. No, not new… evolved. Shapeshifted. Once a friendship, now… more. Intimacy. Care. Intention. Listening. Exploration. Holding. Touching… but only for fleeting moments. We are hundreds of miles apart, and there is a pandemic in the gap between us, so we cancel plans to spend time together, and instead we grow a relationship in the nebulous digital spaces where there is no third dimension. Only flat video images and words on a screen. We long for more shape, less nebulousness, but the pandemic stands as a sentry at the gate, guarding the gap between us. We each stay tethered to our own cities.
What is the shape of love when bodies can’t collide? How do you become tethered when there is no touch and miles of space between you? What does this make us? What do we call ourselves?
In my basement is a large canvas. At the beginning of the pandemic, when fear and confusion and overwhelm and grief were the ingredients of the soup we were all swimming in, I threw paint at the void of that canvas and then dove in with my hands, smearing the paint around in swirls and nebulous shapes. Waves of emotion came through me as I painted, layer upon layer of paint applied only with my hands. Catharsis. Release. Deconstruction.
In the months since, that canvas calls me back, again and again. I layer on more and more paint, always obliterating whatever took shape the last time I stood in front of it. Each time I visit it, it evolves into something different than it was before. The canvas receives it all – my anger, my disappointment, my sadness, my joy, my fear, my love – and it blends it all together in swirls of colour. I am reminded that there are only blurred lines between my emotions and no single feeling speaks of only one truth.
My identity is reshaping itself in this nebulous time. Author. Business partner. I add those, like layers of paint on the canvas, to the evolving shape of who I am, who I was, and who I am becoming. I wonder if my ancestors knew, when I stood on their land at the beginning of this year, the shape of who I’d be, centuries after they died. I wonder how their identity is still alive in me, how I am tethered to them, how they witness me, if they do, from the beyond, on the other side of the thin place.
I wonder what stories DNA would tell, if we could give them voices too, like the virus. Would they sing ancestral songs of triumph and resilience? Would they chant laments in memory of the pain? Would they whisper to us, as they shape us into who we are, the secrets of the hard-won wisdom woven into them by those they shaped before us?
My son once floated in the nebulous space in my womb, tethered to the mothership, nourished through my umbilical cord. I wonder what he thought while he floated. Did he feel safe, like I do in the float tank? Did he dream of the day the cord would loosen and allow him to begin to explore the world? Or did he want to stay in there where he was safe, for as long as he could, with me?
But then, before his body had grown enough to support his journey outside of me, the membrane that held that space for him was violently torn by a doctor trying to protect him, and he was left exposed. The fluid that he’d floated in drained from my body, like a leak in the float tank. He tried to survive, and for weeks he did, but then one night, a tiny bacteria (harmless in me but dangerous in him), as tiny as the virus that is now killing thousands, entered his once-protected space and snuffed out his unborn life.
I wonder where he is now. Is he with the ancestors, on the other side of the thin place, watching, witnessing, floating? And is he telling them about the shape of me, from the inside where he once lived? I wonder what secrets his DNA whispered into my body before he floated away.
And now, perhaps something else uncovered in the shape of who I am… neurodivergent? My daughters, both diagnosed with ADHD, point toward me and say “you too, mom.” They see the patterns I don’t yet see, they point to the ways my brain works like theirs, they witness the places I fumble, forget, and get distracted. And they also see the ways I triumph, adapt and fight to thrive. They guide me into seeing myself anew. Who am I if I have ADHD? And what does it change in me if I fit into this unknown and yet familiar shape?
And there is one more layer of paint emerging in this nebulous year. Or perhaps an old layer, once submerged, now being revealed. My new relationship… it’s with a woman. She sits on the other side of my video screen, tethered to her city, separated by miles and a pandemic. Who does this make me now? Lesbian? Bi-sexual? Queer? Shapeshifter? Who was I then and who am I now? Or am I simply floating in the ether, searching for a new tether that offers the safety and belonging I wasn’t sure I’d know? Does it matter what I call myself? Or her? Do I need my identity tethered to a word? (Perhaps I do, if only to acknowledge the courage and resilience of those who came before and cleared the way so that I could float here now, in a safer place.)
I am finding that I want to play with words the way I play with paint on the canvas. I want to swirl them around with my hands, squish them with my fingers, blur them together, and make nebulous shapes in the chaos. After long months of arranging words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters, chapters into a book – and all of it into meaning, I want to remove the boxes. Remove the form. Remove even the meaning. Let the words float.
And what am I left with then, if the words flow like the paint from my hands onto blank pages? What do I hold, if there is no shape, if there are no answers, if there is no meaning, if it is all nebulous?
And perhaps this is what the pandemic offers. This nebulous space in which to float. This way of being that is less tethered to doing and completing and resolving. These long, solitary walks in shadowy places that change the shape of who we are, that blur the edges of who we encounter, that give us new identity and new connection to the spaces we’re in. This liminal landscape that allows us to transform, to shapeshift, to blur the edges, to become something new, to reclaim something old, to be reminded of who we already are.
Perhaps this is what the virus would say, if it could. “Just be.”
If you find that you, too, are being reshaped in these nebulous times, you might want to join my exploration by signing up for 52 Weeks of Holding Space.
Here in the northern hemisphere, the wild and unruly growth of Spring and early Summer has passed. The grass in my backyard doesn’t need to be cut very often anymore and the weeds have grown lacklustre in their efforts to take over the property. It’s harvest season, and, though I’m not much of a gardener (I’d rather build something for my backyard than plant something), I’m happy to see the farmers’ market full of abundance from other people’s fields.
In my business, though, it seems to be a different season. I’m heading into Spring, planting seeds, preparing the soil, and gathering up the tools and resources I’ll need for a busy season of growth.
I’ve known for awhile that the next level of growth and (more significantly) investment in that growth would be coming, but I did my best to resist it. On the more “simple” side of things, my website has been in need of a major overhaul for quite some time. (Krista, my business manager, keeps reminding me of how much more functional my shopping cart could be, for example.) Also, I’ve been working on a book on holding space for a few years now, and it really needs to move from “draft” to “published”. And, to support it all, I need to improve the accounting system that was good enough for a little one-woman shop but is stretched to capacity (and, frankly, was never very good in the first place, due to my lack of financial expertise).
On the more “complex” side of things (at least for me it feels complex), an increasing number of people have been asking for some version of a license, so that they can teach my Holding Space content within their organizations or from their consultancy practices. (I’m currently working with an adult learning organization, for example, that is embedding it into the training they offer educators, facilitators and tutors.) In addition, I feel the need to do more Train the Trainer programming so that my Holding Space Practitioner Program can continue to grow beyond my capacity to teach it (especially as my travel increases).
Why did I resist all of that? There were a lot of reasons and it’s hard to narrow down just one or two. For one thing, it’s a lot of WORK to shepherd a business through that kind of growth and it requires SKILLS that aren’t among my strengths. It also costs a lot of MONEY and involves a significant amount of RISK. All of that brings up a lot of fear and doubt and tired old stories about how I’m “not really a business-woman” and “I shouldn’t reach for too much”.
Back in the Spring, when I was worn out from a few big trips and a fair bit of emotionally exhausting work, I was overwhelmed and a little discouraged and I wondered if it was all worth it. The idea of growth, at that time, seemed far beyond what I had the energy to imagine.
Couldn’t I just stay this size and putter along at the pace I’d already established? Would it be so bad if my business didn’t grow? Plenty of people stay in intentionally small businesses with folksy websites and cobbled together accounting systems – couldn’t I be one of them?
Over the Summer, after I’d rested awhile and my head was a little clearer, I decided to give space to those questions and to spend some time discerning what my relationship with growth would be and what growth would require of me.
Here are some of the things I’ve been asking myself during this time:
Is the growth of my business a healthy and necessary thing, or is it simply tied to a capitalist culture that has us all conditioned to believe that the only good business is a growing business?
What is enough? Am I satisfied with this comfortable life that affords me a comfortable home and enough extra to take my daughters on a modest vacation once a year?
ON THE OTHER HAND… and this is a big one… is this really about MY growth (and – by extension – my business) or is it about the growth of this WORK? If I limit the amount I choose to grow, am I limiting how much this valuable work (that I have the honour of stewarding) can grow?
If I believe that this work is a calling and not just an occupation (and I do), shouldn’t I show up in the best and boldest way that I know how to steward it into the world? And shouldn’t I keep growing the community that can steward it with me?
What does it look like if I trust the WORK to guide me (and, by extension, the community that gathers for that work) rather than the other way around? AND/OR… what is a healthy way for us to be in interdependent relationship?
If the work grows, can I continue to do it in the way that I love – rooted in genuine relationships/community and hosted in reasonably-sized circles? What variation of that style can be adapted to a more expanded audience?
If it’s about the WORK and not about me, what do I need to do to work through my personal limitations and blocks so that the work can thrive? And who are the people who can help me work through them and build the structures needed to support them?
It’s been a healthy and worthwhile process to go through. I didn’t do it in a traditional business planning way, though. (You can wipe any pictures of spreadsheets, planning software, or even sticky notes out of your mind.) I did it while wielding power tools in my backyard. Not only did the process of building furniture with wood inspire my metaphor-loving mind, but the hands-on nature of it helped me shift out of over-thinking mode and break some of the old patterns deeply rooted in my brain.
Instead of relying on my mind alone to find a path through all of this complexity (which is one of my patterns), I let my body and heart help me find the way. My mind would most certainly have gotten stuck in old stories of scarcity, unworthiness, fear, ego, limitation, etc. while my body reminded me “You love building, so just keep building until it feels like the right time to stop!”
At the end of the summer, I feel relaxed, happy and energized to do the next right thing that this work is asking of me. That next right thing appears to be investing in a structure that will support growth, and to do so with integrity and with my values intact.
After all of that reflection, these things feel true:
I am not interested in growth just for the sake of growth, but I AM interested in helping more people learn about the beauty of holding space.
I value community and relationships, so I will continue to grow this work in ways that foster opportunities for deep connections and meaningful conversations.
I will continue to hold true to my authenticity and integrity and will not grow this work simply to feed my ego or bank account. If the work changes me in ways that don’t feel authentic, I will hit the pause button until I can return to alignment.
Success for me will equal success for my extended community. If, for example, my financial resources grow, then I will be better able to support other women in business, to pay people well when they work for me, to give people scholarships for my workshops, and to fund the growth of the school in Uganda.
While I love the work and will continue to serve it to the best of my ability, I won’t jeopardize what/who I hold most dear. If/when necessary, I will put my family and closest friends first. I will also prioritize my own wellbeing and self-care.
One of the great benefits of putting community at the centre of my business model is that the moment I decided I was ready to dive into this new phase, I realized that many of the skills required already exist within my community (or one step removed). I’ve spent the last week in lovely, open-hearted conversations with people who believe in the work that I do and who have expertise that I don’t have (ie. developing a licensing model, setting up an accounting system, managing the details, designing a website, publishing a book, etc.). It reminds me that business development can be rooted in joy, love and community and doesn’t have to burdensome or boxy or involve boardroom tables or powerpoint presentations.
Sure, I still have moments of fear and doubt, but I feel remarkably supported, resourced, and ready.
And you, my friends, who read this newsletter/blog… you too are in this community, supporting the growth of this work. I couldn’t do it without you reading what I write, showing up at my workshops and retreats, inviting me to speak and teach, and offering encouragement and love. I am deeply humbled by the many ways that you continue to show up. A deep bow of gratitude to you!
Some time in the next few months, I expect I’ll be launching a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the publishing of the book on holding space (because every step of this process requires a financial investment) and I trust that when the moment is right, the community will show up as you always have.
Peace to you, my friends. May you lean into your own seasons of growth whenever it is right for you.
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.