I have been well trained to be a nice girl. So well trained, in fact, that, decades after that training took place, my body still goes into spasms whenever I even slightly deviate from the “nice girl” rule book.
Let me tell you… when you’re raised as a pacifist Canadian Mennonite farm girl, that programming runs DEEP. If we didn’t “turn the other cheek”, then we weren’t living the way Jesus taught us. If we weren’t painfully polite, then we were shaming not only our families, but our whole COUNTRY. If we weren’t sacrificing ourselves for other people, then we weren’t living out our faith.
The list goes on and on. Don’t brag about yourself lest you be guilty of the sin of arrogance. Don’t stand up for yourself lest you incite an unnecessary conflict. Don’t let people know how smart you are lest you make other people feel badly about themselves (especially men). Don’t dress too provocatively lest you lead a man to sin. Don’t be angry lest you make other people uncomfortable. Don’t be too bold, too confident, too strong, too pretty, too smart, too obstinate, or too aggressive. Don’t swear, don’t be promiscuous, don’t argue, don’t dance… oh… and… while you’re at it, don’t say no or be rude when an older adult in the family wants to kiss you without your permission.
JUST BE NICE. Be agreeable. Be sacrificial. Be supportive. Be demure. Be modest. And… because we’re Mennonites… be prepared to be a martyr for your faith.
All of that conditioning resulted in this deeply rooted belief… if you are not a “nice girl” you will not be valued, you MOST CERTAINLY won’t get into heaven, and you will be rejected and shamed by your community.
Add to that potent mix the messaging that every woman receives – that if we are NOT nice and we don’t offer ourselves up as shock absorbers for men’s pain, we may run the risk of having their anger and violence directed at us. It doesn’t take very many situations where you experience the truth of that to become convinced that it’s the way the world works.
A patriarchal society values nice girls, because nice girls don’t take up too much space, they don’t claim too much power, they don’t challenge authority, and they certainly don’t threaten to overthrow the system that oppresses them. AND because nice girls are so cooperative, they police each other so that nobody else has to do the nasty work of keeping them in line.
When that kind of social conditioning is woven together with trauma, it’s especially hard to root it out of one’s psyche. For me, there was the trauma related to the threat of hell, the fear of being shamed and/or rejected by the community, the fear of punishment, and the fear of having my life threatened by men who were stronger than I am. (For more about Religious Trauma Syndrome, read this article and the ones that follow it.)
When I look at all of this objectively, it all becomes so clear, and there’s a little part of my brain that asks “why don’t you just let it go and move on?” LOGICALLY, I get it, and that should make it easy to walk away from that programming and choose another way to live, right? Wrong.
When trauma and social conditioning are so deeply intertwined, they don’t respond to logic.They get stuck in our bodies and it’s our BODIES that activate our reactivity into fight/flight/freeze/tend-and-befriend mode. (That last one… “tend and befriend”… personally I think it’s the most helpful one for women with my social conditioning and trauma to understand when considering how we react. Our instinct is to make the situation safe for everyone and we do that at all costs.)
Because my tend and befriend reaction gets easily activated when I’m triggered, and because “nice” was so drilled into me as the highest standard and safest way to live, there are many, many times in my personal history when I’ve put up with the infringement of my boundaries (or didn’t bother to have them in the first place), when I’ve sacrificed myself for someone else’s comfort, when I didn’t stand up for myself even though I was being harmed, when I chose to overlook other people’s bad behaviour, when I masked my anger, etc.
I’ve sacrificed a lot in order to be nice and it has taken its toll on my body and my emotional health.
I’ve done plenty of personal work (therapy, journal practice, art practice, self care, sharing circles, etc.) to overcome that social conditioning and heal the related trauma, and I am far from where I once was, but the work isn’t over. I still get triggered and I still often slip into the pattern of sacrificing too much or overlooking bad behaviour.
Recently, as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to peer into my own shadow, and one of the things that became clear to me was that I needed to do more work to tend to my “psychic membrane” (the language I have adopted to replace “boundaries” – like a cellular membrane, a psychic membrane determines what comes through and what stays out). Some of that work was about allowing more in (joy, nurturing, love, intimacy, etc.) and some was about protecting myself from that which harms me.
The problem with strengthening one’s membrane, though, is that it doesn’t always fit with the “nice girl” box that people want to keep you in. It might mean that you indulge in things that might have been branded as “sinful”, for example. And it might mean that, in protecting yourself from what harms you, you show your anger, you offend people, or you look too proud or “full of yourself”.
There have been several times, lately, for example, when I’ve become more firm about the behaviour I will no longer put up with, and other people have reacted with some version of the old “you’re not being nice” shaming that is so triggering for me (and was once painfully effective). Not long ago, for example, a person to whom I once went for a body-work session, spoke of that session publicly (claiming some responsibility for my growth) and I said it was unprofessional to speak of client sessions in public. She didn’t apologize and instead said that I should “stay open.” (ie. “Be nice and don’t call people out.”) Her friend (who’d recommended her to me) jumped into the conversation, said he didn’t understand why I was so angry (ie. “Nice girls don’t get angry.”) and then claimed to know more about my anger than I do. (ie. “Nice girls don’t get defensive when other people define them.”)
And then there were the people a few weeks ago who continued to comment on a post where I clearly stated that “this conversation is closed – all further comments will be deleted”, because my clear boundary apparently didn’t matter to them or they thought I’d be “nice” and still let them express their opinions. (ie. “A nice girl doesn’t make a fuss if her boundaries are ignored.”)
And, while I was writing this post, someone criticized me for asking people to properly attribute a quote that had been taken from my viral blog post. (ie. “Nice girls don’t insist on being given credit for what they create.”)
Every one of these times, my old “be nice or lose everything” trauma has been triggered and I can feel my body respond with a need to do something to make it all better and to be nice to people even if they’ve behaved badly.
Fortunately, though, I’ve learned to hit the pause button when that triggering shows up and to do the necessary self care so that the triggering has less power over me. And then, when the throat-closing-heart-palpitating-brain-spinning reaction has dissipated, I am usually able to respond with more clear-headedness in a way that aligns with my values and in the way I choose to care for myself without putting up with harmful behaviour. (ie. Some of the above-mentioned people have been blocked from my social media.)
The trauma trigger is NOT the truth and it is not the guide I choose to follow. It is simply my amygdala trying to do its job to protect me from the old outcomes that my body is convinced will result. But I am much more than just an amygdala – I am a person with a strong frontal lobe and with lots of tools that help me shift my brain patterns and calm my body responses.
I won’t get it right all of the time, and sometimes, especially when I’m exhausted or emotionally raw, my reactivity will still get the better of me. But I’m learning. And you can too.
No, I don’t want to be a “nice girl” anymore.That doesn’t mean I won’t be kind (I have a LOT of patience for people who want to grow and learn and who take responsibility for their mistakes), but I don’t intend to be complacent when people do harm to me and/or people I care about. And I will challenge authority when it is destructive. And I will take up space. And I will work shoulder-to-shoulder with those who want to disrupt systems of oppression.
There’s a labyrinth on Whidbey Island that is encircled by tall trees that cast shadows across the path. As you walk the labyrinth, you step from light into shadow and back again. It’s a great metaphor for life.
A few weeks ago, I stepped into the shadow.
Just before it happened, I said to a friend “before my business grows to the next level, I have a feeling that I need to look deeper into the fears and shadows that are coming up.” Apparently, the universe heard that as a challenge, because since then, it has offered me non-stop opportunities to wrestle with the very fabric of who I am. I have more shadows than I ever knew!
It’s been one thing after another:
Some of my work has been floating all over the internet unattributed (and/or plagiarized) and one of the major websites responsible for it ignores requests (from me and my readers) that they rectify it. It’s triggered my frustration over the casual theft of writers’/makers’/artists’ work and the related difficulty of making a living with what you create. And it made me look deeper into the discomfort I have in challenging those who do wrong.
The behaviour of someone who’s been a mother-figure for me in the past brought up some of my leftover attachment wounds from my relationship with my mom. I had to wrestle with where my sense of worthiness comes from and why I sometimes feel an impulsive need to protect and soothe those who serve as mother figures.
Despite efforts to communicate them clearly and firmly, my boundaries were ignored by a few people in a few different situations, leaving me feeling unprotected and resentful. I had to lean into those feelings, be intentional about how I responded to the boundary-crossers, and remind myself that I am worthy of having those boundaries and can survive the reactivity of those who feel offended by them.
Conflict bubbled up in multiple circles that I am responsible for and I had to step in to deal with some challenging issues. It brought up some of my “keep the peace at all costs” baggage. I had to summon up the courage to be a conflict transformer and truth-teller rather than a conflict avoider. And I had to invite others to step into the discomfort with me.
An angry man in a parking lot (who’d hit me with his car) triggered some old trauma (and my “tend and befriend” trauma response and made me realize the ways in which I’ve been socially conditioned to be a shock absorber for other people’s pain. And then some of the response to the post I wrote about it triggered an old reaction to critique – second-guessing my interpretation of my own lived experience.
A couple of people who were once important in my life but have dropped out of contact have become friends with each other, triggering some wounding over being abandoned and left out of the loop. I had to energetically release those people, bless them for the roles they’ve played in the past, and remind myself that rejection has never destroyed me in the past.
In the middle of all of this, I was interviewed by a writer for a major publication for an article that has the potential to bring even more readers (and potentially more criticism) to my work, triggering some of the fear of being seen in such a big way. Though the possibility is exciting, it also reminds me of how draining and disruptive it was to have a blog post go viral, and how hard I had to work at maintaining my solid sense of self in the midst of it. (P.S. I’ll share it when it’s published.)
When I put it all down into a list like this, I think “Wow! I really went through all of that in just two weeks! It’s a wonder I’m not lying in my bed quivering!” But I’m really not a mess. At this point (though it doesn’t feel like I’m completely back into the light portion of the path yet) I feel strong and clear and even more solidly committed to this work and how I show up in the world.
It never feels like the fun part of the path when the shadow comes, but I’ve been through enough of the loops of the labyrinth to recognize the value of it. As Mary Oliver said, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
Shadows help us refine our vision and see things we missed in the light. Our pupils dilate and we pick up on nuance and depth we weren’t able to see in the glare of the sunshine.
Shadows invite us to slow down, be alert, and be more intentional about how we walk on the path. We have to look more carefully for the things that might trip us up.
Shadows encourage us to withdraw for awhile and go inward. We have an opportunity to spend time listening to our own voices and seeing our own truths rather than getting lost in the noise of those around us.
Shadows offer us the opportunity to strengthen ourselves and gather our resources for the times when we are invited to step back into the light.
Shadows reveal who is truly with us on the path. When we are in the shadows, we gain clarity over which friends will truly hold space for us in the darkness and which prefer to be only “friends-in-the-light”.
Shadows reveal truth and help us be truth-tellers. When we can speak the truth that the shadow reveals, we cut through nonsense and spiritual bypassing like a knife through butter.
When we receive the gifts of the shadows, though, we have to be intentional about how we unwrap them. Though the initial reaction may be to reject those “gifts”, protect ourselves from them, and/or project them onto someone else like weapons, we are much better served when we slow down, let our eyes adjust, and then lean into the darkness.
Here are the imperfect things I’ve been doing that help me receive these gifts:
Get quiet. I’ve been intentionally withdrawing into silence, spending long hours with my journal and endless cups of tea. And I’ve been listening to Let Yourself by Martyn Joseph on repeat. (“I need you brave, I want you brave, I need you strong to sing along, You are so beautiful.”)
Block out unnecessary voices. I’ve withdrawn from social media this week, recognizing my tendency to use it as a way to numb out and noticing how I am (especially during a time like this) impacted by the noise of other people’s voices.
Protect yourself. One of the other things I’ve noticed about social media is how much it exposes me and how I sometimes end up being a shock absorber for other people’s pain. Sometimes I’m strong enough to let it bounce off me, but when I’m in a place of deep shadow work, I need to protect myself from unnecessary shock absorption.
Reach out. Though I’ve been off social media, my text messages and Zoom line (and a couple of coffee shops) have been burning up with the deep conversations I’ve been having with those who I trust to hold space for my darkness.
Care for your body. Last weekend, I had my favourite body treatment (hammam spa) and I cried my way all the way through it. I hadn’t known just how much I needed to release from my body.
Walk it off. Unfortunately, we’ve been stuck in a deep freeze this week, and I’m a winter wimp who doesn’t like to have my face bitten off by the cold, but my treadmill has seen a few miles as has my yoga mat.
“Konmari” your work and life. I’ve been doing some cleansing, recognizing where the energy leaks are and what no longer “sparks joy”. I’ve cleared a few things off my website and removed myself from the networks and associations that no longer feel like the right fit. And then I processed the grief that some of that brought up.
Write your truth. My journal has been my best friend these past few weeks, and, as always, some deep truth has shown up on the pages. It’s helped me clear out old stories and claim new truth.
Tend to your psychic membrane. In my teachings on holding space, there’s a fairly new concept I’ve developed about how we each have a psychic membrane that, like a cell membrane, helps us determine what to allow in and what to protect ourselves from. I’ve been working on strengthening mine and paying attention to the signals it sends.
Honour your own hard work. Whenever I do work that I’m especially proud of, I reward myself in some way – buying myself a new piece of jewelry or other treat. I do that for both my external work and my internal work. I haven’t done that yet (because it doesn’t feel quite finished yet), but I plan to.
Laugh. Comedy shows on Netflix have helped me not to take myself too seriously.
Make messy art. I bought a large canvass and have been doing some intuitive art-making, combining elements that represent some of the shadows I’ve been peering into. For example, I added paper dolls that were my mother’s and mine.
I look forward to stepping out of the shadows and back into the light. When I do so, it will be with a strengthened sense of self and a stronger psychic membrane to protect and nurture me.
“Of all the losses experienced in personal relationships, ambiguous loss is the most devastating because it remains unclear, indeterminate.” – Pauline Boss
When I teach about holding space, I almost always start by teaching about liminal space. It helps participants to have a more clear understanding of the depths and complexity of the space they’re holding and the space they must journey through themselves.
Liminal space is the space between stories. It’s a term that emerges out of an anthropological study of rituals that mark a person’s transition from one part of their lives to another. The “limen” is the empty space between who they once were and who they are becoming – like a vision quest for a young person going through a coming-of-age ceremony, for example.
To illustrate the liminal space, I talk about the cocoon phase of a butterfly transformation – it’s the empty space in the middle in which the contents of a cocoon looks like neither the caterpillar nor the butterfly. It’s a space of surrender, ambiguity, and usually a sense of lostness.
The more I teach it, though, the more I realize the limitations of this metaphor, largely because of the linear, goal-oriented transformation that it points toward. The intent of the cocoon is always to produce a butterfly. A butterfly is always the sign that the liminal space journey has been a “success”. There is always (unless the cocoon is destroyed) one direction with one outcome in this transformation.
But what about when the liminal space journey does not result in a lighter, more beautiful creature that can fly? And what about when the liminal space emptiness becomes the pattern for the rest of a person’s life?
Does EVERY liminal space bring a new story of freedom, flight, and beauty?
The answer is no. Life is never that simple. When a person is aging with dementia, for example, there is diminishing capacity and less and less freedom. And when a family member has gone missing or has gone to jail or become addicted to drugs there is no resolution and rarely a happy ending. And when a refugee leaves a beloved homeland and can never return, they live with a lifelong yearning for what cannot be reclaimed. And when a person must learn to function in a wheelchair they know they’ll be in for the rest of their life, there is loss of mobility, autonomy and access to the things they love to do. None of these things offer a simple, linear destination.
Life is always more complex than a simple metaphor can reflect, so we take from it whatever it can offer and then look beyond it to find more complex truth.
Pauline Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” to describe situations where there is no clarity, closure, or resolution. According to her, there are two types of ambiguous loss:
Type I: physical absence with psychological presence ( e.g., missing, disappeared, kidnapped, separated, military deployment)
Type II: psychological absence with physical presence (e.g., addictions, dementia, chronic mental illnesses: e.g., autism, depression, bi polar, schizophrenia, etc.)
“Due to the ambiguity surrounding the loss, individuals, couples, and families remain confused. Without comprehension, they can’t make sense of their situation to cope. Without meaning, they can’t find hope to help them move forward with their lives. They are simply stuck.” (From the book Ambiguous Loss, by Pauline Boss)
What is undeniable in these situations of ambiguous loss, even when the “after” story is much harder and more bleak than the “before”, is that there is some kind of transformation. A person’s life has been irrevocably changed. Even if the period of ambiguous loss ends (ie. a member of the military returns from deployment) there is change in the relationship and change in the individuals involved. I remember, for example, a friend who was married to a member of the military who said “When he’s deployed, I have to get used to him being away, and then when I’m finally used to it, he returns and I have to get used to THAT. Whenever I get used to something, it changes.” Her new life was one of impermanence and cycles of loss.
If only we could simply serve as cocoons when we hold space, knowing that a person will emerge better, stronger, and more beautiful after the liminal space journey. If only we could always bring hope to this work and not despair. If only life were more linear and less messy.
But if that were the case, I’d have to find other work, because little of what I teach would have any relevance. This work is only relevant BECAUSE the future is unclear and cocoons don’t always result in butterflies.
Yesterday, for the umpteenth time, I was asked to define holding space, and what came out of my mouth, for the first time, was “Holding space is showing up for what IS, not for what we want it to be or what we will manipulate it into being.”
It’s about letting go of the outcome. It’s about showing up even when the grief is deep and messy and there is no happy ending. It’s about surrendering rather than controlling. It’s about learning to accept the non-linear nature of all of our lives.
When life gets messy and you are in a relationship in which you’re holding space for someone who’s experiencing this kind of complexity and ambiguity, here are some things to keep in mind.
Don’t try to fix the grief. Whether it’s a loss of mobility, the absence of a family member, or the loss of one’s country, there will be grief involved, and it may be messier and stay around longer than you anticipate. Someone who’s been displaced from their country, for example, may grieve that loss for the rest of their life. A comment like “at least you’re safer here” doesn’t help to diminish the loss.
Support (but do not impose) meaning-making. As Viktor Frankl teaches in Man’s Search for Meaning, those people who find meaning in hardship and loss (in his case, concentration camps) have the greatest ability to survive and thrive in spite of it. When, for example, someone who lost a family member to drug addiction uses their experience to support others on the same journey, it can help them to not drown in the grief they still carry. But don’t try to make meaning for them – they have to arrive at it in their own timing.
Practice mindfulness as a way of letting go of attachment to the outcome. A mindfulness practice of some kind (and I give no prescriptions, because it looks different for everyone) teaches us to notice what is present and then to release it without judgement or attachment. One of the mantras I adopted early on is this work that has sustained me through many moments when I desperately wanted control is “The outcome is not my responsibility.” Show up for what’s needed in the moment, and let the rest go. You are not God.
Keep showing up. Many people, when they experience great loss, disability, chronic illness, etc., also experience the loss of friendships. The relationship has changed because the things that you can do together may have changed, or you don’t know how to be present in a situation that you can’t fix, or you’re afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. Your own fear of change or the loss that you have experienced because of the change in your friend makes it hard to show up. But your consistent presence may be one of the things this person relies on to help them survive this liminal space. You may not know what to do or what to say, but your presence often speaks louder than words.
Don’t lose your sense of humour. Of course, you don’t want to make inappropriate jokes at a funeral or at someone’s hospital bedside, but there’s also a good chance that your friend needs you to bring some laughter into the space. A sense of humour helps to build a resilient spirit, so don’t be afraid to laugh with a person who may be tired of all of the sombre people they’re suddenly surrounded by. They will likely appreciate the normalcy of it in the middle of what feels like an upended life.
This is far from a perfect science. There is plenty of ambiguity and each situation is different. Each person is different, too, so the best you can do is to be humble, offer what you can, and let love be your guide.
I sweat. A LOT. And my face turns beet red when I exert myself, so if you’re ever present when I exercise (which, sadly, isn’t often enough) you won’t be able to miss the evidence of my efforts.
But this post isn’t about physical exertion. Instead, it’s about the kind of sweating (both physical and metaphorical) we do when we’re under stress, when we’re afraid of failing, or when we fear that people might be disappointed in us.
Mostly, it’s about vulnerability and when it’s okay to reveal our flaws, our fear, and our fumbling.
Thanks especially to writers like Brené Brown, lots of people are talking about the value of vulnerability, but what’s sometimes missing from the dialogue is the nuance of WHEN it’s appropriate to be vulnerable, HOW MUCH vulnerability is appropriate, and WITH WHOM it’s okay to be vulnerable.
What if, for example, you’re in charge of keeping people who are more vulnerable than you safe from harm (small children, for example) and you admit that you have no clue how to do so and suddenly they feel even more unsafe than before? Was it wise, in that situation, to show your vulnerability? Probably not. That might be when it’s wiser to put on a brave face and prioritize their needs over your own. As a parent, there have certainly been times when I had to keep my fears and self-doubts to myself (or when I cried behind my bedroom door) because it wasn’t in my children’s best interests to doubt my ability to protect or provide for them. As they’ve gotten older, I’ve increased how much I’ll admit my flaws and fears to them, but in the early days they needed my strength more than my vulnerability.
Or what if, by becoming vulnerable, you’re drawing the attention away from the people who need it more than you do and then your vulnerability becomes a stumbling block rather than a building block? If, for example, you’re working with traumatized or oppressed people and you can’t stop crying about how much the work is impacting you, you’re likely making it about yourself rather than about them. Suddenly those people have to spend their energy caring for you rather than themselves. That’s when it’s best to take your vulnerability somewhere else where people have more capacity to do emotional labour on your behalf.
Or what if you haven’t gained enough trust in the other person or people and you suspect they might further harm you or use your vulnerability against you? Some people are masterful at manipulation and at using other people’s weaknesses to their own advantage (someone who’s trying to sell you an expensive coaching program, for example). Other people may be less intentional about it but still harmful in how they respond to you because of their lack of capacity or self-awareness. With those people, it’s better to withhold your vulnerability rather than put yourself at risk.
Vulnerability, then, is best shared with people who have earned your trust, people who aren’t under too much of their own burden at the time, people who aren’t fully reliant on you for their own safety at the time, and/or people who have enough emotional intelligence and self-awareness to respond in appropriate ways.
Recently, I found myself in a dilemma about whether or not my vulnerability was the best course of action. I was facilitating a three-day workshop on holding space in the Netherlands, and, to be frank, it wasn’t going well. By the end of the first day, I could sense that there was dissatisfaction among participants and I wasn’t sure why. I had started the workshop in much the same way I’ve started many other workshops, and those workshops progressed much more smoothly, so I didn’t understand the source of the problem.
Was it because I was tired, having just spent an intense week in Uganda? Was it the cultural and/or language differences, since this was the first time I was teaching in a place where English isn’t the first language? Was I using language or a teaching style that wasn’t relatable to this audience? Was there some pre-existing conflict among participants that they’d brought with them to this space? Or was it because I’d started with the basics of holding space and many people in the room were already experienced practitioners who wanted higher level training?
One of the things that I sensed was going on (that I picked up from some of the comments coming my way) was that my style of facilitation was falling short of what people had expected of me. There were quite a few experienced facilitators in the room, and most of them had been trained in styles that are different from my own (ie. systemic constellations, for example, which incorporates more movement and less conversation than tends to be my primary style) and I began to feel the scrutiny of their evaluation.
On the morning of the second day, trying to adapt to the style that I sensed they were more comfortable with, I made changes to the process. But that didn’t seem to be sufficient – I got even more feedback during the breaks that indicated the dissatisfaction was growing rather than dissipating. (Sadly, dissatisfaction is contagious and even those who’d seemed happy earlier were now starting to squirm in their seats.) What was especially challenging is that the feedback was often contradictory – one person would come to tell me that they needed more of one thing, while another person would come to me five minutes later to say that they needed more of the exact opposite. It seemed there was no way of meeting all of the expectations in the room, not even if I contorted myself to try to satisfy people.
By lunchtime on the second day, the picture started to become more and more clear to me. There was an expectation in the room that was, quite honestly, impossible for me to live up to, because it was an expectation crafted out of who they THOUGHT I was and not who I REALLY am. A couple of people, in their conversations with me, referred to me as the “Queen of Holding Space”, and it wasn’t reverence I was hearing in their voices but disappointment. These people – because my work has been broadly circulated in certain circles in the Netherlands – had constructed an image of me as a guru who knows all there is to know about holding space and who would walk into the room and wow them immediately with my exquisite ability to hold space.
Unfortunately, I walked into the room fully human, fully flawed, a little jet-lagged, and with a lot that I still need to learn about holding space. I didn’t speak their language (not only the language of their country, but the language of a systemic understanding of the world), I didn’t facilitate in the way that they’d become accustomed, I made mistakes, and the opening check-in circle dragged on too long so the opening pace was slow.
Over lunch, I agonized over what was the right thing to do. Should I just keep trying to adapt my style to find the sweet spot that might satisfy the highest number of people in the room? Or should I simply push through with how I’d planned the workshop and hope that by the end, something of value would be transmitted? Should I hide my fear and flaws in the face of these people who looked up to me and pretend I was oblivious to their dissatisfaction?
OR… should I speak my vulnerability out loud, trust them to have the emotional intelligence to receive it well, and hope that it might help us collectively dive deeper into our learning?
I chose vulnerability. I knew it was a risk and I knew that I might lose some credibility (and people might leave even more dissatisfied than they already were), but it seemed like the only viable option.
I told them that I’d become aware that there was a shadow in the room and that that shadow was a reflection of the way that I was letting people down. (In process work such as this, the shadow refers to “that which is hiding under the surface which is unspoken and therefore potentially destructive”.) I said that I wasn’t interested in the pedestal that people had put me on – that pedestals are lonely, dangerous, and uncomfortable, and that I prefer to be in the circle, alongside them, doing the work in messy and flawed ways and learning shoulder-to-shoulder. I spoke of my imperfections and told them I knew I wouldn’t be able to meet all of the expectations in the room. I promised, though, that I would continue to do my best to offer them what I have learned so far about holding space. I invited them to trust me and to stand by my side as we went deeper into the learning and into brave space together.
My sharing, like everything else I’d done up until that point, was imperfect, and when I was finished, I wasn’t sure what to do next. When I looked around the room, what I thought I saw was a softening and greater acceptance of the imperfection and releasing of the unmet expectations, but I wasn’t sure if I was interpreting it correctly.
Slowly, though, things started to shift, and, in the end, my vulnerability helped us go where we needed to go as a group. It didn’t happen magically (there was still some resistance that afternoon) but gradually the energy in the room shifted. We stepped more deeply into a place of trust, depth, and bravery. Other people began to open up and some spoke to their own wrestling with what had been going on in the room.
The next morning, a couple of moments of inspiration helped to take our learning to an even deeper place. First, I shared a story of how I’d been invited to dance with Ugandan women the week before, how miserably I’d failed at it, but how I recognized that it was in brief moments of my most pure surrender to the music and to those who lead me in the dance when I could most successfully move with the rhythm. “That place of surrender is what brave space is like,” I said. “And today, as we finish up this workshop, I want to invite you into that dance of surrender and trust. I’m asking that you trust the music and that you trust me, as your leader, to know what the rhythm in the room needs to be.” I looked around the room, and what I saw looking back at me were nodding heads and a deeper trust than I’d witnessed up until that point.
The other moment of inspiration was one that I can take no credit for – it came in the form of a piece of camel shit. A participant named Roeland brought a small container that he wanted to add to the collection of items at the centre of the circle (items that represent the people in the circle and that we use as talking pieces). “This is a dried up piece of camel shit,” he said, while people snickered in response. “I picked it up while on a spiritual retreat. At first I thought it was a rock, but when I picked it up, I discovered it had very little weight to it. The lesson in it for me was that my shit is lighter than I expect it to be. I can carry my own shit and it doesn’t feel like the burden I anticipate.”
From that point on, that piece of camel shit became a symbol for the group of what it means to “take responsibility for your own shit”. At one point, it became the talking piece and we all discovered how light it was to “hold our own shit”. But then one person put it down and chose another talking piece because “that’s not my shit and I don’t want to carry it,” she said. We all laughed and realized that some of the deepest learning of the day was coming from the lighthearted way that we could talk about taking responsibility for whatever we brought into the room. It wasn’t lost on us that this was connected to what I’d spoken of earlier – that some of the dissatisfaction and shadow in the room was because we’d each brought our own shit (ie. expectations and fear of letting people down) with us and had projected it onto other people. (This is true for me as well as anyone else. There were moments when I was looking for people to blame rather than recognizing my own part in what was transpiring.)
By the end of that third day, the energy had completely changed, and the workshop ended with some of the warmest hugs and words of appreciation I’d ever received. Several people remarked on how we, as a group, had been through a liminal space journey together – how we’d started with one version of who we were and what we expected, how my vulnerable sharing had helped us let go of that story and those expectations, and how we’d emerged into something new. This is one of the first things I teach in my holding space workshops – that when we hold space, we have to be prepared to hold the complexity of the liminal space.
It’s quite possible that my vulnerability could have backfired and that people might have left the room frustrated and disappointed. (Perhaps some did and I’m not aware of it.) It’s never a guarantee when we take a risk like that. But more often than not, I’ve found that my willingness to be imperfect and authentic, as the leader of that space, is directly correlated with how deep the learning can go.
In retrospect, though, there were a couple of factors that helped the vulnerability land well. For one thing, I let the participants know that they didn’t have to take care of me – that I wasn’t so vulnerable that they had to spend their energy making sure I was okay. Whenever I teach, I have other people that I trust outside of the circle to whom I can send a distress signal (usually via text message) simply to ask them for virtual support. I’m careful not to have the expectation that people who’ve come to learn from me also have to look after my emotional well-being. (Though I do appreciate their concern, I don’t make it their responsibility.)
Secondly, I paired the vulnerability with strength – letting them know that I was still prepared to take responsibility for leadership and for making decisions about what direction the workshop would take. I invited them to trust my sense of the right pace, content, etc.
As in the Buddhist teaching around warriorship, I practiced showing up with a “strong back and soft belly” – prepared to show them my vulnerability while still carrying myself with strength.
In the end, the workshops that take me through the most difficult terrain are usually the ones where I walk away with the most learning. I hope the same is true for those who were there with me. I am forever grateful for their willingness to step into the liminal space with me.
“I don’t think of myself as a leader.” I hear that statement often from my clients and I understand it – I used to say the same thing myself. It wasn’t until a special mentor/boss took me aside and told me that she saw leadership ability in me and then offered me my first leadership position that I first started to recognize that I had capacity to lead.
One of the reasons that the people I work with don’t see themselves as leaders is because they equate leadership with authoritarianism. In their experience, a leader is in control, has more knowledge than those they lead, provides solutions to all of the problems, and makes all of the tough decisions. In an authoritarian model, the leader has “power over” their subordinates and is expected to be the authority on all things. While that form of leadership may be desirable for some people (especially those who feel fearful about their safety) and may be necessary in some situations (when children are small and need to be kept safe, or when a country is at war), it can easily become destructive and disempowering.
Anyone who’s attracted to what I teach about holding space is not inclined to seek out or emulate that kind of authoritative power and has likely witnessed its destruction, and so they steer clear of the mantle of leadership.
Instead of steering clear of it though, I’d like us to consider an alternative model that fits us better and that I believe is badly needed in the world today.I’d like to invite us to consider what it means for a leader to have “power with”.
These books made leadership feel possible because they were about leading from a place of humility and authenticity rather than authority and control. I didn’t have to be invincible or unflappable to be a leader – I could bring my flaws, my insecurity, and my humanity into the role.I could step into it with curiosity and openness and I could rely on those I lead to bring their skills to the table where mine were lacking.
These three books taught me that a leader:
is a host rather than a hero
collaborates rather than controls
claims and shares power but doesn’t abuse it
has authority and influence but doesn’t need to be authoritarian
gathers people for meaningful conversations and practices genuine listening
shows up authentically and with appropriate vulnerability
admits what she doesn’t know and allows others to fill in the gaps
co-creates an environment where ALL can shine
invites people to contribute with their unique strengths and abilities
isn’t afraid to apologize and/or admit she is wrong
balances innovation and progress with stability and contemplation
knows how to hold space for complexity, growth, change, etc.
Meg Wheatley says that “a leader is anyone willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change and takes the first steps to influence that situation.” In other words, we don’t need to wait until we’ve been given leadership positions in order to lead – we simply have to notice the need and step in to offer what we can to help fill it.
If we alter our definition of leadership to this more collaborative model, what are the most essential competencies and qualities that a leader needs to foster?Here are some of my thoughts (in no particular order):
Humility. It takes humility and a willingness to give up the need to be right in order to be a collaborative leader. Effective leaders share the spotlight (or step out of it entirely) and share the credit (or give it to whoever earned it). Their humility is not self-deprecating, nor does it mask insecurity, but rather it is honest, authentic, openhearted, and courageous. Humility welcomes the brilliance of others and doesn’t need to outshine it.
Generosity. Collaborative leaders are generous in their support of other people, generous in offering up their time to others, and generous in how they encourage and inspire people. They don’t see everything they do as transactional (ie. “I’ll do X for you if you do Y for me.”) but instead invite people to function in a “gift economy”, offering up their best toward the common good.
Self-awareness.Self-aware leaders recognize and admit their weakness, take responsibility for their mistakes, and don’t project their baggage and unhealed wounds onto other people. They also know their strengths and capacities and aren’t afraid to step into their own power. While they embrace community and collaboration, they don’t approach people from a place of neediness, seeking out other people’s affirmation and validation.
Self-regulation.When effective leaders are overwhelmed, stressed out, or triggered, they practice self-regulation (and/or have support systems that help them co-regulate) in order to calm and control their emotions rather than dumping them on other people. They’ve done enough personal growth work that they recognize how much instability can be created by their dis-regulated emotional outbursts, and so they work to create a more stable and safe environment for everyone.
Self-forgiveness.While self-awareness, self-regulation, and generosity are important qualities, leaders are still human and they’ll mess up occasionally, and do selfish things or react to triggers in unhealthy ways. When they do, they take responsibility for it, make any necessary restitutions, learn what they need to from the experience, and then practice self-forgiveness and self-care.
Courage. Courage is defined by Google as “the ability to do something that frightens one” and “strength in the face of pain or grief”. I like the combination of these two definitions because it’s not about the absence of fear, but rather the ability and strength to act in spite of it. Effective leaders might be quaking in their boots, but still step forward and do and/or say what’s right. Courage is contagious – when we are in the company of those who practice it, we are more inclined to find the capacity in ourselves.
Power. When I first turned away from authoritarian leadership and chose a different model, I thought power was a dirty word, but I’ve changed my mind since. Power is only dirty if it is abused and if it exists apart from love. As Martin Luther King said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” Effective leaders aren’t afraid of power – they claim it, share it, and use it with love.
Resilience.An effective leader can survive struggle and opposition and can find their way back to strength. It’s not that they are never beaten down – they are – but they get up the next day (or the next week, or month) and do what needs to be done to get back on track. If one path doesn’t work, they adapt and find an alternative. If one attempt fails, they try something else. Repeatedly, they return to their sense of purpose and meaning and they persevere.
Meaning-making. When I first started learning about leadership, I kept hearing about how a leader had to have a sense of vision, and while I agree to a certain point, it always felt like there was something missing from that model. A vision might inspire us for the future, but what about the present? Instead, I now focus on meaning-making. An effective leader strives to make meaning out of the current moment even when the vision is blurred and the future looks dim. Even when there is only struggle and no hope, a leader looks for meaning and purpose.
The ability to hold space. This may be the competency that is the most counter-cultural when compared to an authoritarian leadership model. An effective leader is willing and able to be present for others while they make the journey through liminal space. They don’t impose their own desired outcome and they don’t rush the process. They practice mindfulness and presence, while not backing away from complexity and confusion.
This is only a partial list, and I can think of others (like the ability to build strength in diversity, for example), but this is, at least, a start in exploring what kind of leadership we need for times like these. I wonder how the world might change if we seek to be, to follow, and to elect leaders like these.
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.