Holding space for yourself in a time of social isolation and liminal space

image credit: Eduard Militaru, Unsplash

Listen to me read this post:

 

The world is settling into an eery quiet in this new age of coronavirus. It’s hard to believe that a thing so small – a virus that is invisible to the human eye – could cause the most significant global disruption any of us has ever seen in our lifetimes.

We have no roadmaps for the future because none of us has ever been here before. Our internal GPS’s are on endless loops of “recalculating” – they’ve run out of maps and nobody has any way of programming them to anticipate the road that’s ahead of us.

The waves of emotion have been flowing through me and around me, sometimes threatening to drown me and sometimes settling into something more manageable that I can float on. 

Last week I found myself in parenting overwhelm, with one daughter having trachea surgery, another daughter losing a friend to suicide, and a third daughter dealing with the loss of an art show she’s worked all year to prepare for. This would be a lot to deal with at the best of times, but in the midst of this new and unfamiliar anxiety and uncertainty of what the future will look like, it felt like too much. It all came to a head when a police officer pulled me over for making an illegal left turn (which I’d done because I was distracted and overtired) and gave me a traffic ticket (while ignoring social distancing). The tears, rage, fear, and frustration spilled over as I drove away, and I didn’t bother trying to stop them.

Though I regret the traffic ticket that got me to breakdown, I don’t regret that moment of release, when I let myself scream and cry in the car (and text my sister for moral support). Like the release valve on a pressure cooker, it helped me settle into a greater sense of calm and acceptance.

This week, I’ve been having flashbacks to another time in my life when I had to live through a form of social isolation – a difficult time that became one of the most meaningful and transformational events of my life. 

Five months into my third pregnancy, I had to shut down my very busy life and confine myself to a hospital room. To try to deal with an incompetent cervix (i.e., it was suddenly 4 centimetres open), doctors attempted a cerclage (i.e., stitching it closed), but they failed and pierced the membrane instead. My unborn child was suddenly exposed and at risk of infection before he was strong enough to fight off that infection. My body – designed to protect a gestating child – was no longer able to do its job.

Medical professionals started pumping my body full of antibiotics and steroids (to speed the baby’s development) and put me on strict bedrest. I was told I wouldn’t be able to leave the hospital until my baby was born. He wasn’t due for another four months, so it felt like an impossibly long time to be confined to an unfamiliar room in an unfamiliar place.

In those early days, panic set in as I watched the whole world suddenly slip out of my control and away from my grasp. In some moments I had full-blown panic attacks – especially the first night when I listened to the screams of another mom down the hall as she realized the baby she’d just given birth to was dead. In other moments, I went into overdrive trying to grab ahold of anything that was still within my grasp to control. I had a full and busy life with a lot of people depending on me – two small children at home and a team of staff at work that needed my leadership during their busiest time of the year – I suddenly felt the urgent need to do EVERYTHING I could to help them survive my absence.

In some of those moments, anger arose alongside the panic, reminding me that I wouldn’t be in this place if it hadn’t been for two different doctors’ errors. The first error had come a week before, when I’d gone to a different hospital because of discomfort and a sense that my hips were shifting and my body was opening before it was meant to. (I’d already had two births, so had some sense of what it should feel like at that stage.) At that time, my GP had made the choice not to do an internal exam (which might have revealed the incompetent cervix at an earlier stage when it would have been easier to address). The second error was when the specialist in charge of my care allowed an intern to do the surgery and the inexperienced intern slipped and pierced my membrane with her sharp needle.

A few days into my hospital stay, the familiar sense of panic threatened to overwhelm me in the middle of the night. In the liminal space between sleep and wake, I found myself wrestling with a mysterious presence that I was sure was in the room with me. (I later said that I felt like it was similar to Jacob wrestling with the angel in the Biblical story.) After much tossing and turning and wrestling with the flood of emotions that passed through me, a question landed on my heart, as though the presence had spoken it out loud.

“Do you choose to stay in this state of fear, anger and resentment, or do you choose peace and forgiveness?”

I took a deep breath and considered the question. I felt justified in all of the big, dark emotions flowing through me, and I felt attached to them because they gave me some sense of power and self-righteousness. But I also knew that those dark emotions would not serve my unborn child. They would cause unhealthiness in my body which would be passed on through the umbilical cord to my child.

“I choose peace,” I whispered. “I choose to forgive the doctors for their errors.”

The moment I made the choice, the anger drained out of my body and the wrestling stopped. I fell asleep soon afterward and in the morning I woke to a new state of serenity and acceptance.

It wasn’t perfect – there were still moments when the fear came back and fed the anger – but that choice changed my whole hospital experience. Nineteen years later, I can now say that it changed my whole life. The seeds for everything I now do – this work of teaching and writing about holding space – were planted in that one moment, that one choice.

For the next few weeks, my hospital room became an unusual kind of spiritual retreat centre. I settled into a time of contemplation and inward reflection. I entertained long and meaningful conversations with friends, family, and the staff at the hospital. I hung artwork from my children on the wall and welcomed plants and flowers from friends. I listened to music on the Fisher Price tape player a friend lent me.

It was in that hospital room that I first became a life coach. There was a new quality to my listening, and again and again I heard from people that sitting with me for a few minutes of their day helped them work through things in their lives where they felt stuck. It wasn’t unusual for nurses, nurses aides, other patients, and even doctors to poke their head into my room and say “I feel drawn to the peacefulness of your space” and then they’d stay awhile or come back during their break. Many of them would remark that they felt different when they left – like something had shifted. Even the young intern who’d pierced my membrane came, weeping, to my room, and I offered forgiveness and told her I hoped that she would go on to become a very good and attentive doctor.

Though I didn’t have the language for it yet, I was learning to hold space. In letting go of the illusion of control and accepting what was, instead of trying to cling to what could have been, I’d found a new practice that would change my life and eventually become my primary purpose in life.

Three weeks into my hospital stay, after I’d fallen asleep with lullabies playing in my ear, I woke up to hear that they wanted me to go down earlier than usual for my morning ultrasound. (They checked in on the baby twice a day to make sure that he was peeing regularly. A functioning bladder meant that he hadn’t developed infection.) I walked downstairs feeling hopeful and content because, just the day before, I’d reached the stage where my baby was considered viable outside the womb.

The ultrasound technician had barely begun when she went completely silent. We were friends by then, so it was unusual for the chatter to stop. “I have to get the doctor,” she said and slipped out of the room. I lay there and began to panic again. When the doctor returned and moved the wand over my belly while looking at the screen, I knew, even before he told me, that my baby had died. Sometime during the night, bacteria had passed through my open cervix and ended his short life.

Later that day, I gave birth to my stillborn son. When I found out, after the ultrasound, that I’d still need to go through the labour and delivery process, I was overwhelmed with the unfairness of it. But a kind social worker told me that many moms of stillborn children had reflected later that the labour process was meaningful for them and that it allowed them to feel more like they’d given birth to a real child. She was right – it was excruciating, but it was meaningful. My son, just like my daughters, was nurtured within me and born through me and his life had meaning and purpose. He wasn’t just a fetus.

The grief in the next few weeks was painful and there were nights when I lay in my bed weeping in anguish (especially when my milk came in and I had no child to nurse), but it’s also true that the sense of peace that I found in the hospital stayed with me and helped me get through the times of darkness.

Nothing was the same after that. Something was awakened in me in that hospital room, and, though it took ten more years for me to find myself to this work, I had a new sense of purpose and calling that wouldn’t leave me alone.

Now, nearly twenty years later, I feel deep gratitude for my time in liminal space and social isolation. I was irrevocably changed by it, and it led me to this remarkable work that fills my life with purpose and joy.

It is likely that, with coronavirus disrupting your world, you are finding yourself in some of the upheaval, panic and loss of control that I experienced at the beginning of my hospital stay. If you are, let me offer a few suggestions, based on my experience.

  1. Remember that no emotional state is ever permanent. The feelings may feel enormous and scary right now, but they will pass. They always pass. Let them pass through you and don’t judge yourself for feeling big feelings. Feel them, label them, and let them pass.
  2. Take a deep breath and let go of whatever you can’t control. Our suffering is often rooted in the fact that we desperately want to feel some control over our lives, but that control is an illusion, especially in a time of such disruption. Clench your hand into a fist and release it – notice how it feels to let go and invite that sensation into your whole body. Do this again and again, as often as you need to.
  3. Notice what overstimulates you and limit your exposure to it. When I was in the hospital, I tried to watch TV one night, but found that it overstimulated my anxious brain, so I stopped and didn’t watch for the rest of the time I was in the hospital. I’m now noticing the same happening with social media occasionally, so I walk away and turn my attention to something more calming.
  4. Focus on the people in front of you. When you let the whole world into your consciousness, it can feel scary and overwhelming, especially right now, but when you focus on those you love, in your small circles, it feels much more grounding and comforting. This is a good time to narrow your focus. Hold space for those who matter most and trust that the others will find their people.
  5. Be still enough to allow your undiscovered gifts to come to the forefront. Sometimes, in times of great upheaval, when we quiet ourselves and tune in to the depths within us, we find resources that we didn’t know we had. Just as I discovered skills in coaching and navigating liminal space, you may discover you have a gift for leadership or baking or problem-solving or virtual hosting or serving your neighbourhood or…. whatever!
  6. Tend the space you’re in. Though I’ve never been the type of person who loves to clean or care for plants, both of those things felt meaningful to me in my small space. Tending the plants I’d gotten from friends gave me a surprising amount of pleasure and helped me feel grounded and peaceful. Right now, with many of us confined to our homes, the small spaces we’re in will need special tending so that we feel supported and held.
  7. Create a space for “cocooning”. As I said in last week’s video about liminal space, this time we’re in can be compared to the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly. Before we get to the new post-coronavirus world, we have to go through a phase of deconstruction and emptiness. In my hospital room, I had a large comfortable chair in the corner that I filled with pillows. That was where I curled up when I needed extra comfort and stillness. Now, during coronavirus, I have a similar spot near my window where I can curl up and feel the sun warm my body.
  8. Allow yourself time and space for processing and meaning-making. In the early days of disruption, your brain will likely be stuck in anxiety overdrive, and you won’t be able to do much higher-functioning processing until you’ve learned how to calm it. But once you’re ready, it can be very helpful to spend time processing your thoughts through journal-writing, art-making, dance, etc. The more you’re able to process it and make meaning out of it, the less it will get stuck in your body as trauma that you’ll have to deal with later.
  9. Connect with the people who matter most to you and let them support you. This is a time when we need each other more than ever. Even if we can’t be in physical contact with each other, we can still support each other and offer love and kindness in all of the ways that we can. It takes a special kind of vulnerability to get through liminal space together, but the deepened relationships that I enjoyed in the hospital tell me that it’s worth it.
  10. Notice what lands on your windowsill. When I was in the hospital, butterflies became special to me after my friend Stephanie gave me an article about a woman who saw butterflies as a representation of her deceased dad. After I read the article, butterflies started showing up in unusual places – including the windowsill of my fifth floor hospital room. In the years since then, they have continued to remind me of my son Matthew, and I receive each one as a special gift from the spirit/natural world. In the time of coronavirus, I wonder what special creatures will show up for each of us.

None of us knows the outcome of this time of disruption in the world. It’s quite possible that many of us will suffer losses and that we’ll have to walk through considerable grief and ongoing disruption. I wish I could promise you otherwise, but I simply can’t – not after grieving the loss of my son.

I don’t even know if it’s hope that I want to leave you with at the end of this article. Perhaps it’s something other than hope that we need right now – perhaps it’s more like courage and strength and resilience and new skills in navigating hard journeys. Perhaps it’s faith that we can survive this and that we have the capacity to weather the storms that this brings to our lives.

Whatever the future looks like, there is one thing that I feel certain of and it is this… we are meant to be connected to each other, and in this moment, I feel deep gratitude that I am connected to you.

Your companion in this liminal space,

Heather Plett

The Girl in the Painted Dress: An allegory for those who want to be free

After I wrote The Girl in the Velcro Dress, a number of people said they wanted to know how the girl reclaimed herself. This is that story. You may wish to read the other post first

Listen to me read The Girl in the Painted Dress:

 

Once there was a girl in a velcro dress whose dress became so weighted down with all of the things other people stuck to it that she could barely move.

One day, exhausted and frustrated from the gargantuan amount of effort that it took to move about in her life, she slipped out of the dress and found herself in a sad little heap underneath. The dress, stiff from all of the expectations and beliefs and baggage that everyone else had layered onto it and she’d picked up herself, stayed perfectly still, creating a tent above the girl.

The girl loved how peaceful and quiet it was in that tent. Nobody could find her there and she didn’t need to satisfy anyone other than herself. She noticed how different her breath felt – long and slow and filling her whole body. Whenever she was wearing the dress, her breath was short and fast and a little strangled because of the weight of the dress, but under the dress, it was different.

Of course, she didn’t allow herself to stay for long, that first time in her tent hideaway. She was a responsible girl and wearing that dress was one of her responsibilities, so she silenced the longing that encouraged her to stay and she stood up and carried on. Carrying on was one of the things she was good at.

Once she’d had a taste of the tent, though, she couldn’t shake it from her mind no matter how hard she tried to stay busy or distract herself. A few days later, when nobody was paying attention, she slipped down inter her tent again for a few more minutes of rest, cut off from the noisy world around her.

Gradually, this became more and more common. The girl started to plan into her day moments when she could slip out of the dress and disappear. Of course, being a responsible girl, she made sure that the moments she chose wouldn’t inconvenience her children, her husband, her mother, her employer, or any of the other people who depended on her. They were moments at the edges of her day, when nobody needed her to cook supper or show up at a meeting or drive them to soccer practice or fill out a form.

At first, those moments in the tent were quiet and dark because what she craved most was rest from the burden of carrying around the dress. But one day, just before slipping down into the tent, she grabbed her music player and took it with her. Laying on the floor of the tent with her headphones on, she felt the most blissful feeling she’d felt in a long, long time. The music filled her whole body and she knew that something new had awakened in her.

“I wonder what else I could bring with me,” she thought, and soon she was experimenting with what things made her feel happy and alive under her dress. Her journal and pen made the cut – she loved to lie under the tent writing about her frustrations, her fears, and her dreams. A new set of paintbrushes and paints also made the cut, as did some scissors and glue. Sometimes, hidden from view from all who knew her, she felt almost childlike again, making joyful messes with art supplies.

There were stretches of time, of course, when the girl couldn’t justify any time under the dress – when her kids were sick or she had important deadlines at work or her husband or her mom needed extra attention. There were also times when she convinced herself how frivolous it all was and she swore she would never do it again. 

But the call of the tent was too strong, and, eventually, she always found herself back under the dress with her journal, her music, and her art supplies.

One day, she noticed a secret doorway underneath the tent, and when she crawled through that doorway, she found a magical room where other tent-people had gathered. The discovery both delighted and frightened her. She wanted to befriend the other tent-people, but she was afraid of being exposed. The fear took over and she scurried back to her own tent, closed the door behind her and slipped quickly back into the dress.

Her curiosity soon got the better of her, though, and a few weeks later, she crept quietly back through the door into the magical room. She curled up in a ball at the edge, hoping nobody would notice her. All she wanted was to be among other people who’d felt trapped in their velcro dresses, to know that she was not alone. Talking to them took too much courage but watching them was safe enough.

With time though, after lots of people had smiled at her and she felt ready to trust them, she relinquished her anonymous place at the edge of the room and began to mingle tentatively among the people. She discovered that the room held the most interesting mix of people she’d ever come across – weirdos and misfits and artists and dancers and dreamers and revolutionaries. They were doing the most fascinating things in that room, too. Some were painting on the walls, some were clustered in conversation circles, some were gathered around markers and poster boards making protest signs – almost anything imaginable was welcome in that room. Gradually, as the girl’s courage kindled, she joined in, once again experimenting with the things that made her happy. Sometimes, while she was lost in the act of creating, she had flashbacks to how she’d felt back in her childhood before she’d put on the dress.

Emboldened by the support of her new friends, the girl claimed more and more time to slip away into the tent, sometimes even daring to inconvenience the people who depended on her. At first, that caused her a lot of guilt, and that added to the weight of the dress, but she did it anyway because it was the only way she could find enough strength to keep carrying the dress around.

Some days she needed more solitude, and in those times she’d stay alone in her lovely little tent. Other days, she needed companionship, and then she’d slip through the door into the magical room. 

During her times of solitude, the girl became more and more bold with her art supplies, and soon the inside of the dress was covered in paint. Fanciful creatures and shapes danced across the walls in colourful, messy glee.

While the inside of the dress was transforming, so was the outside. The time spent inside the tent and in the magical room were giving the girl enough strength and courage to make changes in her life. She started by anxiously and tentatively saying “no” to people who wanted to add new things to her dress.  Some people, of course, were quite annoyed with this new turn of events, because they were quite accustomed to hanging their things on her, and sometimes she gave in rather than hurt their feelings, but other people were more respectful. The people who were willing to listen to her “no” were the ones she wanted to spend more time with. 

After a bit of practice saying no and standing up for herself when people got upset, she became curious about whether she could peel anything off her dress. She grabbed the first things she could find – an old belief about what good girls are supposed to wear in public – peeled it away and dropped it on the floor. That gave her the courage to peel back another thing and another and each thing that dropped to the floor made her a little bolder to peel back the next.

There were, of course, some things that had been on her dress the longest, and those took a lot of time and effort to peel away. To grow the extra courage and strength she needed to deal with those things, she made repeated visits to the magical room where she could sit in circle with other tent-people who were dealing with similar baggage or had done so in the past.

Once she’d peeled a few things away, she realized that the dress underneath was not as sticky as it once was. People would try to attach new things in the empty spaces, but they simply slipped to the floor. While peeling things away, she hadn’t noticed that she was also peeling away the velcro that was holding it there.

After enough things were peeled away that the dress was nearly bare, the girl saw that the dress was being transformed. With the velcro gone, the paintings on the underside of the dress were now starting to show through. At first, this made her feel too exposed, and so she hid those exposed bits and only uncovered them in the privacy of her own home. But whenever she looked in the mirror, she noticed how happy those painted bits made her feel, and so she took some chances and left the house with nothing covering the paintings.

Some people looked at her in shock and disapproval when they saw her exposed paintings, but she also noticed something else – strangers on the street started to smile and wink at her. When she paused to look at who was smiling, she realized that many of them were her friends from the magical room. They looked different, out here in the real world, but she could see the familiar longing and wildness underneath. 

When those people saw her so boldly walking around outside of the house with her paintings showing, some of them found their own courage and let their coverings slip to the floor revealing that they were wearing imperfect dresses with bits of velcro and bits of paintings peeking through. They grinned at each other when this happened, enjoying the messy imperfection of it all.

Instead of hiding her paintings, the girl began to polish them and add little touches of flourish and sparkle. In the spots where she applied extra sparkle, nothing could stick to the dress and that filled her with even more courage and delight.

The more colourful and sparkly the girl’s dress became, and the more she was able to peel things away, the lighter it was and the more the girl was able to move freely in the world. She discovered that she loved to dance and she loved the way the colourful dress flowed around her as she twirled. She remembered what it felt like to be wild and free – how she’d felt as a child before she’d been told to put on the velcro dress – and now that she’d experienced it again, nothing could convince her to go back.

Whenever she danced and sparkled, people were drawn to the girl in the painted dress. They would stand and watch her, and when she paused to look at them, she recognized the longing in their eyes. It was the same longing she’d had, before she’d discovered the secret tent under her dress.

Sometimes people would ask “how did you learn to do that?” Whenever they did, the girl would lean in and whisper “slip down under your velcro dress and see what you find there”. The people would look at her in wide-eyed wonder and she’d smile at them and encourage them to try. Sometimes they would scoff at her, but sometimes she could see by the light in their eyes that they would go home and find a private place to try. For those with lights in their eyes, she would lean in a second time and say “once you’ve been there for awhile, and you’ve worked up the courage, find the hidden door at the bottom, go through it, and I’ll meet you on the other side.”

That was how the girl in the painted dress claimed a space in the magical room, began to gather her people there, and built a whole new life for herself. She wasn’t perfect, and sometimes things still stuck to her dress, but it was easier and easier to let them go.

Caregiver Overwhelm: A story for those who tend and befriend

Photo source: Cristian Newman, Unsplash

Listen to me reading the post:

 

A couple of days ago, I cried in the carwash. It seemed a fitting place for waterworks, and a little screaming, if necessary. I was on my way home with the groceries that were needed to cook supper for my family, but I wasn’t ready to be home yet, so I used the excuse that the car needed washing to buy myself some crying time.

I’d hit overwhelm. My daughter had had surgery earlier in the day, after many months of repeated attempts to address her breathing problems, and the surgery wasn’t entirely successful. Plus we found out new information about her prognosis that’s been discouraging for both of us. In addition to the worry about her, I found myself hitting some nervous system overload due to some things that happened at the hospital that triggered some of my past trauma. This came at the tail end of a month of traveling and teaching, so my resources were already depleted.

Overwhelm happens, and I’ve come to accept it as simple reality in this life I’ve chosen (or any life, for that matter). Sometimes one simply must cry in a carwash to release all of the emotions one is holding, especially when some of that holding is on other people’s behalf. Sometimes a single good cry is enough and sometimes it isn’t.

I have a lot of capacity for holding space, but sometimes I max out on that capacity. It happens to the best of us, and I share this with you to encourage you to give yourself permission to admit when you’re maxed out too.

In this post, though, I want to go a little further and talk about some of the deeper layers of why we get maxed out in this work of holding space and what we can do about it.

What I’ve encountered, again and again, as I travel the world and meet with people who hold space, is that this work especially calls wounded people. My workshops are full of wounded, healing people. (I considered calling them “wounded healers”, but holding space is more about “being with” than it is about “healing”. Perhaps “wounded witnesses” is better.) We become good at holding space for the brokenness and pain in the world partly because we already intimately know the brokenness and pain in ourselves. We learn to bear witness to grief and fear and trauma and all of the other complex emotions in others because we know those things in ourselves.  

The challenge is that, even when we do a lot of healing, we continue to carry those wounds with us for life. We never become perfectly healed, saintly people – we just become people who learn to carry those wounds with grace, integrate them into our lives, and use them to help us better understand other people who are wounded. 

When scar tissue grows over a flesh wound, that scar tissue may be thicker than the original skin, but it’s also usually more tender and vulnerable and may need special care. Similarly, when we have emotional wounds, we might grow emotional scar tissue over it that protects us, but we remain tender and vulnerable because of it. We’ll likely need to be extra tender with ourselves whenever that emotional wound is bumped. 

These wounds that we carry are both blessings and curses. They help us to see the world through more compassionate eyes and they help grow our ability to sit with messiness and discomfort, but they also make us more vulnerable and more in need of healthy boundaries and robust self-care.

Let me share a little about that woundedness in me…

I mentioned above that my nervous system was flooded while I was at the hospital, and that’s because of the multiple traumas that were being triggered while I was there. 

A.) I once spent three weeks in another part of that same hospital trying to prolong my third pregnancy, and that pregnancy ended with the stillbirth of my son. During that three week period, I had a significant psychotic break that was probably brought on by the steroids the medical team was pumping into my body to try to speed the development of my son. It was one of the scariest and most confusing 24 hours of my life.

B.) During the course of my marriage, my former husband attempted suicide twice and had to spend a week in the hospital each time. During those times, I served as his advocate and primary caregiver, and (during the second attempt) also had to be a supportive mom to our three young daughters. 

That second trauma is the one that’s left the most complex mark on my life. Both times he went into the kind of intense emotional tailspin that resulted in a suicide attempt were times when I’d turned my attention away from him. The first time, I was five months pregnant with our first child. The second time, I was about to launch my own business.

My trauma brain became conditioned to believe that “when I turn my attention away from suffering, people die”. (Or at least they attempt to die – trauma brain doesn’t know the difference.)

That’s just the tip of the iceberg of that particular trauma. It’s hard to go into the details, because the story is not mine alone (and I don’t want to blame or slander anyone), but there were many, many ways, in my marriage, that my trauma brain was conditioned to believe that I (and others) would suffer whenever I was inattentive to another’s suffering, whenever I didn’t sacrifice myself to fill another’s needs, whenever I tried to erect or hold boundaries, and whenever I tried to protect my children from the instability created by the mental illness.

When it comes to stress and trauma, I am well acquainted with all of the typical amygdala reactivity – fight, flight, and freeze – but I am most intimately familiar with one identified more recently as “tend and befriend”. Researchers who named the tend and befriend response found that some people (especially women) react to stressful situations by tending to those most vulnerable to harm and by befriending the perpetrator in order to reduce the harm. Again and again, we put our bodies on the line to try to mitigate harm, until it becomes so much a part of who we are that we no longer notice ourselves doing it. (This has also become a culturally expected role of women – especially mothers – so the complexity of it runs deep. Our trauma often becomes part of the way we are controlled by the dominant culture.)

I spent much of my marriage tending and befriending, in many, many stressful situations, so that pattern is deeply ingrained in me and is easily triggered whenever anything reminds me (usually subconsciously) of the original trauma. Triggers can appear out of nowhere, and I never know what will trigger me, but some of the common sources are: when someone exhibits the behavioural patterns of my former husband’s mental illness, when I am critiqued for not caring enough or being inattentive to suffering, when I feel manipulated by passive-aggressiveness, when conflict makes a situation feel unstable, or when someone ignores or makes fun of one of my boundaries. This can happen in the middle of a workshop I’m facilitating, while I’m interacting with friends or family, or even when someone responds critically to a Facebook post of mine. Each time it happens, my body responds the same way – as though the threat is always just as serious as a person potentially dying.

A flooded nervous system can feel different for each person, but here’s what happens to me, usually instantly and simultaneously: Adrenaline pumps through my body (the physiological preparation for fight or flight) and my heart begins to race, my muscles tense, and I become hyper-alert to any perceived threat. My throat tightens and if I try to speak it might come out sounding choked or emotional. My brain gets buzzy (amygdala hijacking) and I can’t focus, think clearly, or access my capacity for logic and reason. I become hyper-focused on the source of the triggering and my brain keeps looping back to it even when I try to redirect it elsewhere (sometimes long into the night, when I’m trying to sleep). I have an overwhelming compulsion to respond to the perceived threat – usually in a tend and befriend manner, but often also in a fight/flight/freeze fashion – even when I try to convince myself that it doesn’t logically make sense to. Sometimes I dissociate (freeze) and feel numb and checked out, going through the motions of relationships and life but not fully present.

My therapist has helped me to accept that, though I’ve made huge progress in healing the trauma, there will always be a part of it that I will carry with me, like emotional scar tissue. I’ve stopped hoping that I’ll eventually never be triggered and instead I’m learning to integrate this wound into my life and respond with self-compassion when the triggering happens.

The added complexity of this kind of trauma is that it’s not only rooted in my marriage, it’s generational, cultural, and religious. I inherited it from my mom, who had much of the same trauma running through her body and likely inherited it from her mom (and so on). I also inherited it from my patriarchal culture and pacifist religion (i.e., “turn the other cheek” is a deeply held belief in my Mennonite upbringing). With something so deeply rooted in my cells, it’s unrealistic to hope that I can transform it over the course of only a few years. It’s likely something that my children will continue to heal for many years too, because they’ve inherited it from me (though we’re doing our best to heal it together).

Here are some of the things that I do when I am dysregulated (another name for nervous system flooding):

1.) Practice self-soothing in the moment that it happens. Take deep breaths, go for a walk, drink a glass of water, let myself cry, listen to soothing music, lay my hands on my throat and/or heart to soothe the places where I feel my body respond, etc. (For more suggestions, I recommend Gwynn Raimondi’s Nervous System Soothing card deck.) When it happened in the hospital, I walked to the cafeteria for a cup of tea and sat in a hidden corner taking deep breaths while sipping the tea slowly.

2.) Strengthen my boundaries and become fierce about enforcing them. I can, admittedly, come across as rather abrupt and sometimes even a little cruel when I’ve been triggered and need to erect boundaries, but I’ve learned to give myself permission to protect myself in the way that I need to. Sometimes I simply don’t have the spoons to finesse my boundary-enforcement, so occasionally I find myself apologizing after the fact (though I’m careful not to over-apologize or take responsibility for other people’s reactions, because that can be part of my tend and befriend tendency as well). In the hospital, for example, when I became overwhelmed, I gave myself permission to not sit in the same waiting room as my former husband (who I wasn’t expecting to be there) and not explain myself either, because I knew that if I did so, my body would be on high alert and I would have to work extra hard to fight the compulsion to tend and befriend.

3.) Reach out to people who help me co-regulate. I have a few close friends who respond to my texts, in my moments of dysregulation, with just the right compassion, understanding, and protectiveness that help to calm and centre me (i.e., holding space). They were my lifeline in the hospital. Some even offered to drive across town to sit with me, but I decided it wasn’t necessary. They continued to check in on me after the worst of the perceived crisis was over, and I am grateful for the way they supported me through it. The added benefit in admitting to close friends when I’m dysregulated is that the vulnerability helps to normalize it, to mitigate shame, and to build resilience (as Brené Brown teaches). 

4.) Continue to look after my body after the flooding has subsided. In a particularly overwhelming incident, it can take quite awhile to return to a sense of calm. Sometimes I still feel shaky and edgy a day or two later. That’s when I immerse myself in epson salt baths, get a massage if necessary, and do some movement practice (sometimes it’s as simple as dancing around my house to the song Brave).

5.) Give myself some intentional time for processing/healing after it’s over. To continue to integrate this trauma wound into my life, I give it a chance to speak to me. After my nervous system has returned to calm, I usually take out my journal and write about the experience and what it revealed. As part of that practice, I always try to find ways to congratulate myself for the ways I’ve made progress, or simply for the way that I survived. This week I had to reschedule a couple of meetings so that I could spend a morning in a coffee shop with my journal, but it was worth it. Sometimes the processing also includes a visit to my therapist or other support-worker.

6.) Treat myself for adrenal fatigue, if necessary. After my marriage ended, I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue, a condition caused by being in a prolonged state of nervous system and adrenaline overload. I took adrenal health supplements for some time and, though I don’t need them regularly anymore, I still take them occasionally when I go through a period of overload and fatigue. 

7.) Practice self-compassion, forgiveness, and grace. This week, I dropped multiple balls, and in some cases, let people down. That’s the kind of thing I tend to beat myself up over, but I’m getting better at acknowledging my imperfections and forgiving myself for the ways I fumble when my brain’s not focusing clearly and/or I’m distracted or overwhelmed and/or I don’t have as much time or energy for things as I expect.

This trauma wound often feels like a burden that I’m stuck carrying for the rest of my life, but I’ve also come to see it as a gift. I likely wouldn’t be doing the work that I do in the way that I do it without such an intimate understanding of trauma. It allows me to be more compassionate with other trauma-impacted people, it helps me to be more attentive to what’s going on beneath the surface with people I’m teaching or coaching, and it’s taught me a lot about boundaries and the value and importance of holding space for yourself.

When I teach, I do it not only from my strengths, but from my weaknesses. I believe that people can benefit from the authentic sharing of the ways that I still get triggered and overwhelmed and the ways that I fail people that I’m trying to help, especially when I’m dysregulated. Sometimes I’ve even admitted to having a flooded nervous system in the middle of a workshop. The response to that kind of sharing is almost always relief and understanding – they’re glad to know that we don’t have to be perfect to do this work of holding space and that their wounds are as welcome as mine.

To be wounded is not to be broken or useless – it is simply to be human and real. It is also to be tender and openhearted. When we learn to treat our own woundedness with compassion and understanding, we can treat other people’s woundedness the same way.

If you find yourself overwhelmed, be as tender as you can with yourself and recognize that you are doing the best that you can with the skills that you have. Your body is uniquely designed to have the kinds of responses that you have, so don’t beat yourself up for the ways that those responses have become maladaptive. Instead, learn to hold space for them, integrate them, find the gifts beneath the pain, and do your best to heal and transform them as much as you can.

We are not meant to be superheroes. We are meant to be imperfect humans fumbling through this life together. We are meant to be wounded witnesses.

Loving someone into Realness (what the Velveteen Rabbit teaches about holding space)

Listen to me read the post:

“Weeks passed, and the little Rabbit grew very old and shabby, but the Boy loved him just as much. He loved him so hard that he loved all his whiskers off, and the pink lining to his ears turned grey, and his brown spots faded. He even began to lose his shape, and he scarcely looked like a rabbit any more, except to the Boy. To him he was always beautiful, and that was all that the little Rabbit cared about. He didn’t mind how he looked to other people, because the nursery magic had made him Real, and when you are Real shabbiness doesn’t matter.”
― Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

I wonder if the Boy knew the risk he was taking when he loved the Rabbit so hard he became Real. I wonder if he contemplated the fact that, unlike stuffed bunnies that are easy to control and contain, real bunnies have minds of their own and can hop off into the woods when they choose and leave their loved ones behind.

I’m going to assume that he knew those things, but was confident that his love was big enough to handle the risk (though I admit that it makes me sad that he no longer recognizes the Rabbit once he’s hopped off into the woods).

It takes a special kind of love and a special kind of confidence to give someone the space they need to grow into their Realness – to resist the urge to control them, change them, or take their sovereignty away just so that they won’t ever abandon you. It takes a special kind of belief in yourself and a special kind of ability to love through the shabbiness, through the deconstruction and transformation, and through the stretching away from you.

To witness and hold space for someone who’s learning to liberate themselves from old expectations, old projections, and old social programming can be painful and frightening and it can trigger all kinds of old hurts and unmet needs in us. “Who will they be when they transform and become more authentically themselves?” we wonder… “Will they still want me around? Will I be left behind? Will their stretching require that I stretch too, in order to meet them in that new place in the woods?”

A couple of recent parenting experiences have given me a new appreciation of what the Boy might have felt.

First, my youngest daughter announced she was joining a lawsuit against the federal government over the impacts of climate change. Now… there are no parenting books that teach you the “ten easy steps for supporting your teenage daughter when she decides to sue the federal government.” Nope – you just have to muddle through that one on your own.

I knew that this was important to her and I’ve witnessed how her climate activism has given her a sense of purpose that I hadn’t seen in her before, so I wanted to support her, but I admit that it worried me. First, there were the things that every parent worries about… How will this impact her mental health? How will this impact her education? How will this impact her future? How will this impact her friendships? And… will she get bullied online?

But there was something else going on for me under the surface… something that made me feel a little like I imagined the Boy might have felt when he contemplated the risks involved in loving the Rabbit into Realness. What if allowing her to step into this was allowing her to hop off into the woods without me? What if she was entering dangerous territory where I could no longer protect her or control her environment, where she’d need to use her own skills to survive?

And what if… in doing what she was choosing to do, she was rejecting the “nursery” – effectively tossing off the social conditioning and safety rules that I’d passed down to her?

In the “nursery” – that space that’s made up of the old furniture we inherited from our parents, all of the old rules that our religions and cultures passed on to us, and all of the old boundaries and limitations that give us comfort but keep us trapped – it’s not safe to challenge authority. It’s not safe to raise your voice too loud, to speak out of turn, to break from old patterns, or to reject the old rules of decorum. It’s ESPECIALLY not safe if you’re a young woman.

Those are the things one can only do once you’ve rejected the nursery and headed into the woods. They can only happen when you dare to be Real.

The question I had to ask myself was… Was I willing to love my daughter in a brave enough way to let her leave the nursery, step into the woods, and become Real?

A whole lot of my social programming started to flare up when I considered it. “Women don’t talk too loud or make spectacles of themselves,” I heard the patriarchy say, as it tried to pull us both back into the nursery. “Mennonites don’t take legal action and ESPECIALLY not against their own government,” the voice from the religious lineage tugged. “You’ll be rejected by your conservative relatives,” I heard my old trauma say. “Your daughter will face ridicule and your family will be shamed,” my fear of abandonment whispered.

One by one, I had to quiet those voices and lean into what mattered – my love for my daughter and my belief that that love was big enough to hold the Realness and the risk. If she feels the urgency to lend her voice to the looming climate crisis, why would I get in her way because of my own fears? The planet no longer has time for our timidity. I chose to support her and we traveled to Vancouver together to participate in a whirlwind series of public events, ceremonies, and workshops.

I opened the nursery door and let my daughter wander into the woods and after I watched her, standing up in front of fifteen thousand people (on stage next to Greta Thunberg and David Suzuki), and being calmly interviewed on live national media, something remarkable happened. I recognized that not only was I helping to love HER into Realness, SHE was helping to love ME into Realness too. When I witnessed her courage in rejecting the social conditioning that wanted to keep her in the nursery, I was able to let go of some of the social conditioning that was still trying to pull me back there too.

A week after we returned home, when I found myself having to defend her against an older male relative who bullied her in a private message, I found a new freedom that had come from silencing the voices of the patriarchy, religion, and family lineage ringing in my head.

Not long after that, I had another opportunity to love someone into their Realness, and in some ways, this required even greater and more personal risk.

I could sense that something was bothering one of my older daughters and so I knocked on her door and asked if she’d talk to me about it. “You’re not going to like what I need to say,” she said, and she was right. What she told me was painful and hard to process. While she’d been trying to stay positive and supportive of her younger sister’s significant moment on the climate activism stage, what it triggered in her was resentment for the ways that she hadn’t received the same support when she was in high school.

“I see her getting the therapy she needs, and I see you cheering her on and protecting her when people bully her, and I feel cheated that I didn’t get those things from you when I was her age,” she said. “I was going through mental health challenges too and I felt like you didn’t believe me or offer me the resources she’s gotten. And most of all, I didn’t feel like you protected me from Dad’s emotional abuse.”

She was right. I wasn’t the mom for her then that I’ve been for her sister in recent years. I was far more stuck in the “nursery” back then, still trying to live up to what I thought my role as a good wife and good mom should be, trying to hold the family together, trying to keep the peace because that’s what my social conditioning had convinced me was right. She had the misfortunate of being in high school during the time when my mom died, I was starting my business, her dad attempted suicide, and our marriage was crumbling. We announced our separation to her and her sisters, in fact, the day after her high school graduation. It was a tumultuous time for me, and in the midst of all of that, I was failing to love my daughter into her Realness.

Fortunately though, it wasn’t too late. She was sitting there in front of me, opening her heart to me, offering me another chance to give her the kind of love she needed. In that one tender moment, there was hope for redemption if I made the right choice. I took a few deep breaths, and I apologized. I took ownership of the ways I’ve failed her and I admitted the mistakes I’d made in clinging to the old stories of what was right instead of stepping into the wilderness with her.

She forgave me and a beautiful thing happened. We both became more Real. We took the risk and found our love was big enough to hold the risk.

Attachment Theory teaches us that we all need healthy attachments (especially in childhood, but also in adulthood) so that we can grow into our own confidence, authenticity and resilience. A healthy attachment system involves both a safe haven and a secure base. The safe haven protects us and offers comfort when we’re afraid or need time for healing, and the secure base offers a launching pad from which we can move into boldness.

That’s what the Boy was offering the Rabbit when he dared to love him into Realness and that’s what I strive to offer my daughters. If I only give them the safety without the freedom, then I keep them stuck in the nursery. But if the freedom is also available to them when they’re ready for it, then they can find the adventure that calls them and they can step into it knowing the door remains open when they need it.

The risk is part of the process.

___________

Note: My daughters have given permission for me to share this.

 

Finding her voice: A quest for healing in the family lineage

image purchased from iStock

Listen to me read this post:

“When one woman doesn’t speak, other women get hurt.”
Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds

“When I get my grad pictures taken,” my daughter Maddy said yesterday, “I want to have one taken where I’m holding a megaphone.” She graduates from high school in June. She’s hoping to buy her own megaphone before then, just because it’s something she feels that she should own.

Last week, while I was away in B.C. leading back-to-back retreats, Maddy was at home using her voice and learning to use a megaphone. As one of the leaders of Manitoba Youth for Climate Action, she’d helped to organize two major events – a die-in for climate action (with hundreds of youth pretending to die on the steps of the Human Rights Museum, to represent those lives being lost to climate change), and a climate strike (with 12,000 people participating in our city). Each day I’d get text messages from her with videos, photos, and multiple links to media interviews she’d done. In one of those news clips, she can be seen leading the marchers in a chant, megaphone in hand (video at the bottom of this link).

It was that short clip – my daughter shouting into a megaphone in front of thousands of marchers – that moved me to tears. The fact that she not only had the courage to USE her voice at seventeen (to speak on behalf of a planet that has suffered because of the greed and carelessness of many generations before her) but to AMPLIFY it was remarkable.

Not long before that, at a retreat on Holding Space for Yourself, I’d spoken about the ways that we, especially as women, keep ourselves small and hold back our voices. This wasn’t a “shame on you for being silent” conversation – it was an acknowledgement of the trauma, shame, and silencing we face and that generations before us have faced – all of those stories we carry in our bones, our hearts, and our bodies that tell us we are not worthy of having our voices heard and that we are in danger if we speak too loudly.

When I was Maddy’s age, I was still tangled in the grip of those influences in my life that told me that my voice had little value and should never be amplified. I remember, for example, simply wanting to read the scripture from the pulpit in the tiny rural church I grew up in (not even sharing my OWN words, but reading GOD’S out loud) and being told (by my father, who was the leader of the church at the time) that women weren’t allowed to do that. I KNEW I had leadership capacity and I KNEW I had something to say, but again and again I heard that that was a space reserved only for men.

That belief, seeded deep into my psyche, stayed with me for a long, long time, and even now, at fifty-three, I still have moments of sell-doubt when I know the old messages need to be rejected all over again. I spent most of my career, in fact, in service to that deep-seeded belief. Though I knew I had things to say, I spent the first half of my career working as a communications professional, teaching OTHER people how to communicate, helping OTHER people perform well in media interviews, putting words in OTHER people’s mouths by writing their speeches for them. I was the expert in communications, but rarely did I get to speak.

My job was to pass the megaphone to everyone else and to make sure they sounded good when they used it. Just as I’d been taught so many years before… “a woman’s role is to serve quietly in the background, letting the men have the shining roles.”

A few weeks after my mom died, I wrote a post about women’s voices. In it, I talked about how it was challenging to find my own voice, given the messaging I’d received (a lot of which, sadly, came from my mother) about the lack of value of that voice.

From that post: In recent years, while I’ve been growing my body of work, I’ve had a hard time sharing what I do with my Mom. Some things – like the teaching I do at the university – was fairly easy for her to grasp, but other things just didn’t make sense to her. For one thing, she remained committed to a Christian tradition that frowned upon women in leadership, so when I started teaching women how to lead with more courage, creativity and wild-heartedness, it didn’t really fit with her paradigms. 

There was a time when it made me angry that my mom, who should have been my greatest advocate and ally, contributed to my silencing and the shame and fear I had to wrestle with in order to speak, but I don’t blame her any more. Years of healing work have helped me to understand how much she herself had been silenced and shamed and how much she felt responsible (though it was largely unconscious responsibility) for protecting me from the harm that comes to women who speak.

In the seven years since that post, I’ve learned a lot more about internalized oppression and trauma and how we adopt the language and behaviour of the systems that oppress us to silence, gaslight, and shame ourselves. It’s what keeps us submissive, silent, and in service to those who have more power. And then, because we’ve been well trained in it, we do the same to our offspring – passing down the oppression from generation to generation to generation. 

I’ve also been learning more and more about trauma and how it’s intricately intertwined with oppression. I recognize it in myself every time I begin to speak of things that threaten to disrupt the status quo – my throat begins to close up, my body trembles, and I know that my flooded nervous system is trying to convince me to RUN! PROTECT YOURSELF! YOU ARE NOT SAFE HERE! It’s trauma from my own youthful attempts to speak and it’s trauma inherited from generations and generations of women – some of whom were branded as witches and burned at the stake for the very things I now speak of.

No, my mom is not to blame. Her silence, insecurity, and shame were all deeply embedded in the training that she, too, had received. That was all she knew how to pass down to her daughters.

My dad is also not to blame. He, too, was playing the role he’d been taught to play and held his own fear of how deviating from that role might bring harm to him and his family. (I remember the way he agonized about saying no to me when I wanted to speak – I’m certain he WANTED to let me.)

My parents were doing the best that they knew how and I love them for it. I love them for the many ways that they DID support me – the curiosity that my dad helped to foster in me, the way my mom modelled how to hold space long before I knew the term, the way they both encouraged me to read and learn and be open to other people’s views.

Despite their best efforts, though, I acknowledge the pain that was passed down to me. I acknowledge the trauma of being a woman with a voice who was taught that voice was worthless. I acknowledge the wounds I had to heal in order to get to this place where I now trust that I have something to say. I acknowledge the fear I still feel sometimes when my voice causes too much disruption and I face rejection and punishment from a system that doesn’t want to be disrupted. I acknowledge all of that AND I acknowledge the painstaking work that is required for ALL of us to heal what other generations have bequeathed us with.

This post started with my daughter Maddy and I want to end there. I was moved to tears by the video clip of my daughter with a megaphone partly because of the pride I feel for her and partly because the healing work I’ve done has disrupted what’s being passed from generation to generation. THAT is something to celebrate.

She can claim her space and use her voice at an early age partly because she has inherited less of the baggage that prevented me from doing the same. Her voice now rings loud and clear with all of the other youth around the planet calling on us to disrupt the systems that are destroying our planet. (It’s not lost on me that the disruption of patriarchal oppression allows youth to rise up to call for further disruption.)

It still takes courage for her to do what she does (and I take credit for none of that – SHE did this, not me), but at least she started out on more sturdy ground.

This is why I believe that the work of holding space – where we dive into trauma, oppression, generational wounding, power, privilege, etc. (especially in Module 4 of the program) – is so critical and this is why I believe we must hold space for ourselves so that we can better hold space for others. This isn’t just about creating spaces for meaningful conversations – it’s about LIBERATION. It’s about DISRUPTION. It’s about COLLECTIVE HEALING. And it’s about changing the patterns so that we can free ourselves from dysfunctional systems.

If you have healing work to do to be liberated from what you’ve inherited, know that you’re doing it not only for yourself, but for the generations that come after you.

The more we can hold space for ourselves in this healing, the more we can work collectively to disrupt the systems that keep us chained.

___________________

Want to join me for the Holding Space Practitioner Program? The next session starts October 28, 2019.

p.s. Maddy has given permission for me to talk about her in this post.

When the space you hold is too safe

Last week I had the pleasure of hosting a retreat with a circle of beautiful women in one of the most beautiful locations I’ve ever worked. The retreat centre was so beautiful and luxurious, in fact, that it wouldn’t have surprised me to see Oprah emerge from a room raving about her new favourite things.

The women who’d flown me to Costa Rica for this retreat were warm, friendly, wise and strong. They clearly loved each other deeply and were willing to support each other through thick and thin. They’d been a small community for seven years already, meeting monthly for personal development conversations and yearly for a retreat with a facilitator/teacher like me. They knew each other’s stories, and had supported each other through death, divorce, family illness and everything in between. One night, when we sat together over drinks and a delicious meal, they each took turns describing the beauty and strength they saw in each other and it was one of the most moving things I’ve ever witnessed.

When things are too beautiful though, there’s often a shadow lurking just beneath the surface.

When I say there was a “shadow”, I’m not talking about an ugly meanness or pettiness that was being masked by so much kindness and love. No – I saw nothing that would suggest that their kindness and love for each other was anything other than genuine.

The shadow was quite different from that. What was there beneath the surface (and which was acknowledged by the group toward the end of the first day) was a tendency they had to hold a SAFE space which sometimes kept them from being BRAVE.

Because they cared so much for each other and were accepting and supportive of each other’s choices and paths through life, they were reluctant to ask each other hard questions or challenge unhealthy patterns when they saw them. They all wanted their community space to feel safe, but that safety was getting in their way of their growth and perhaps even their healing.

(The added challenge, from my limited cultural perspective, is that, much like Canadians, Costa Ricans tend to err on the side of politeness. But politeness as a cultural value is often a way of masking the complexity that’s underneath.)

When a space is too safe and we’ve become comfortable in that safety, we don’t want to challenge it, we don’t want to say anything that will rock the boat, and we don’t want to offend anyone else lest they abandon us. One of the results is that we become reluctant to be too vulnerable because our shadows might scare the other people away. We choose comfort over courage and we chase away or silence anyone who threatens that comfort.

It wasn’t that these women wanted to be stuck in comfort. On the contrary – they are all brave and bold women who have accomplished remarkable things in their careers and families and they are in this community precisely because they WANT to grow and evolve. Growth does not scare them. Hard work does not scare them. Facing uncomfortable truth does not scare them. Quite the opposite – few groups have been more direct and courageous in ASKING me to help them see the shadow they had trouble seeing for themselves.

What I witnessed was less of a desire to stay safe and more of an entrenched pattern that had become part of their way of co-existing. It was a pattern that was hard to see because they were too close to it. Like a piece of lettuce stuck between your teeth, some things are hard to see without a mirror. They’d brought me to Costa Rica partly because they recognized in me a potential mirror.

Over the course of the second day, once we’d started to shine a light into the shadowy places, these women began to open up and share increasingly vulnerable and painful things – unresolved things, shameful things, trauma, fear, etc.. They also started to ask each other more challenging questions, inviting bravery, growth and new perspectives. In the evening of the second day, the pattern had shifted significantly and they were excited about what was possible with the new language and brave questions I’d offered. That evening’s conversation was vulnerable, openhearted, brave, and deep.

During the course of our last evening together, they asked me to give direct feedback about what I’d witnessed in their group, what things they seemed to be afraid to talk about, where they were stuck, and how they could continue to grow. I was able to speak honestly because I knew these women had the strength to receive what I’d say without defensiveness, as well as the courage to take whatever I offered to heart. They didn’t need me to give them courage (they already had it in spades), they simply needed someone to help them see what was hidden from their view.

What I witnessed among these women is not uncommon among communities, friendships, families, etc. where there is deep care and love. Sometimes we mistake “care” with “letting people stay comfortable in old patterns”. And sometimes we assume that holding space is only about providing safe space where a person feels free of judgement and free of the need to change or grow. Holding space, though, is much more complex than that. (Otherwise I wouldn’t have enough content for an 8 month course.)

Now… I don’t want to give the impression that this is a binary thing – that a space is either safe or brave and that one is better than the other. That’s simply not true. For one thing, there are times when we need to be held in safety without any pressure to change our behaviour or our choices. Especially when healing from trauma or when deep in new grief, safety is paramount and should not be compromised.

ALSO a feeling of safety is usually a first step in establishing enough trust so that we CAN step into bravery. A loving community like these women have provides the solid ground from which we can leap into courage.

BUT at some point safety is not enough and sometimes it even creates a barrier to our growth. As I’ve said before, safety can become a trap and a crutch. In fact some people who cling to their own safety do harm to others in the process. (For example, in race relations or gender conversations when the dominant people in the room demand a “safe space” what they’re really asking for is allowances for their fragility. That fragility, left unchallenged, can cause great harm to the more marginalized in the room. When I work in those spaces, I make safety for marginalized people a greater priority than safety for those who’ve always assumed the privilege of safety.)

If you find yourself in a community that has become too safe (and perhaps somewhat stagnant), here are some things that might help:

  1. Check-in about people’s readiness for more bravery. A community that’s thrust into bravery without preparation and/or discernment about their readiness can quickly become fractured beyond repair. Start with a hard conversation, revealing what you believe to be true about an over-reliance on safety, and ask people whether they feel emotionally stable enough to try something different. If most people are comfortable with the way things are, you may need to seek out another community to meet your needs. (Sometimes, on the other hand, when you’re establishing a new community where bravery needs to be built in, transparency around that expectation should be built into the way people are invited in. In my courses, for example, I include an indication of this expectation in the group agreements.)
  2. Build trust that can support bravery. If we don’t trust the people we’re with, it’s much more difficult to be brave in their presence. Trust-building involves keeping stories confidential, showing up when you promise to show up, being an engaged listener, withholding scorn, and being dependable. To build trust (and, consequently, bravery), people in the community need to be willing to be vulnerable and authentic with each other and to take off their masks so that others feel more safe to take off their masks.
  3. Invite an outsider to serve as the mirror. One of the things that really impressed me about this group was their openness to hearing what I was witnessing and their genuine desire to be nudged out of their comfort zones. An outsider (especially one who is skilled in community-building, facilitation and truth-telling) can offer a perspective that is nearly impossible to see from the inside. It can feel risky to let someone peer into your group’s shadows, and it can take some investment of time and money, but it can also be transformative. Be discerning, though, in who you invite in and how much you’ll allow yourselves to be disrupted.
  4. Invite the pink elephant into the room. One of my favourite ways of inviting the shadow to be revealed in a circle (and encouraging more bravery) is to use a pink elephant as a talking piece. (This is something that emerged out of a moment of inspiration and challenge in one of my team retreats and I credit Susan Dupuis for the idea.) When I pull out the pink elephant, I tell people that I have a sense that there’s something beneath the surface that people might be afraid to reveal, and then I pass it around the room and invite anyone who wants to share something to offer it to the group. A talking piece helps to slow down the conversation and keeps people from interjecting while tender things are being spoken.
  5. Practice asking braver questions. If people have indicated a readiness for brave space, then start by asking braver questions that invite new perspectives and growth. At the end of our time together in Costa Rica, the women had agreed that, when one shares a story that indicates they might be stuck in the safety zone, they’ll ask “are you ready for a brave question?” If the person says yes, they’ll offer something that will invite the person to see their story through a new lens. A brave question might be something like “What might change if you let go of this resentment?” or “How are you trying to protect yourself from pain?” or “Do you believe you’re worthy of more happiness?” (For more brave questions, check out 50 Questions that Could Change Your Life.)
  6. Take care of each other. Stepping into bravery and vulnerability can leave us feeling tender and raw, and that’s a time when community support is even more necessary. If you are in a transition period with your community/family/partnership/etc., where you’re learning to be more brave, make sure you’re also setting aside extra time for play, self-care, group-care, and laughter. Eat meals together, go for walks in nature together, go dancing – anything that helps you to deepen your bond so that your container is strong enough to hold the bravery.

Not everyone is ready for bravery, and you may have some resistance in your group or family, but when the readiness is there, a brave space can bring transformation and growth that’s far beyond what’s possible in the comfort zone.

Note: Thank you to the women who hired me for this retreat for giving me permission to share it.

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Learn lots more about safe space and brave space (and how to hold both) in my online course, Holding Space Practitioner Program.

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