Our vacation didn’t start well. We’d barely arrived at our AirBnB apartment when my daughter and I got into an argument.
Only one of us could have a bedroom to herself for the week we were there. My daughter had done the research on where to stay in Chicago and had booked the apartment. At some point, while making the arrangements, she’d told the rest of us where we’d sleep, and though I don’t remember the conversation, those arrangements involved me sharing a bedroom with one of her sisters. (The third sister was going to sleep in the living room.)
When we arrived, though, after two tiring days of driving, I suddenly thought “WHY am I paying for this vacation, doing most of the driving, etc., but not reaping the benefits of a room to myself?” And in that moment, the many years of having made sacrifices for my family bubbled to the surface and I thought “nope, not this time.”
I claimed the space, and she reacted. We argued, and then both stormed into separate bedrooms.
In that moment when I claimed the space, it wasn’t just about selfishness – I was trying to change one of my old patterns. For the twenty-two years I was married and the twenty-three I’ve been a mom, I have given up a lot of things and let a lot of my boundaries be crossed – especially on vacations – in order to keep the peace. (I learned it from my mom.) For whatever reason (ie. being away from home, spending too much time in enclosed spaces together, having to make more collective decisions than usual, etc.) our vacations have often been powder-kegs for conflict, especially between my ex-husband and daughters. Conflict makes me anxious and my typical trauma response, in that situation, is to “tend-and-befriend” – to look for whatever compromise I can make and to calm everyone’s emotions in order to smooth things over and return to what feels more safe.
I’ve given up so many things, in fact, that if you ask me (especially while I’m on vacation) which restaurants I like to eat at and where I like to stay, I get a little flummoxed and sometimes a little anxious because I want to make sure everyone else is satisfied first. (If everyone is satisfied and there is little potential for conflict, the little girl in me can relax and feel secure.)
In recent years, though, I’ve been doing a lot of healing and I’ve been trying to change some of those well-engrained patterns. I do this for myself, and I also do this for my daughters – I don’t want them to assume that, when/if they become mothers, they have to sacrifice themselves for everyone else. And I don’t want them to instinctually run from or rush to fix conflict whenever it surfaces.
The challenging thing about changing patterns, though, is that it can be quite disruptive to those who are used to the existing patterns. Also, the person changing the pattern hasn’t yet learned new skills in communicating this new way of being, and there’s tenderness in the exposed wound that they instinctually want to protect, so they can end up treating those they love rather brusquely and sometimes unfairly.
To put it frankly, I was a bit of a bully parent in the way that I claimed the space.
About half an hour later, my daughter came to me in tears. “Can I just tell you how that felt?” she asked, and I, softened by the time that had passed and the tears in her eyes, said “Yes.”
She told me that she’d felt brushed aside by me – that I hadn’t offered her an explanation, hadn’t honoured the agreement she thought we had, hadn’t considered the effort she’d put into researching and booking the place, and hadn’t shown any concern for her feelings or needs. “You don’t usually do that,” she said. “That triggered me and I pushed back.”
“You’re right. I handled that badly,” I said, and then asked if she’d like to hear the words I’d neglected to say earlier. I told her about how I’d been triggered in that moment too – how I’ve so often given up things to keep the family peace and how I’ve been intentional about trying to change that. I also told her about why having a bedroom to myself feels important right now – how it’s helped me heal some of my past trauma and how it helps me be a better mom when I honour my own need for solitude.
We listened, we soothed our own nervous systems when things were difficult to hear, we gave each other space, we forgave each other, and we figured out a compromise that allowed each of us to get at least some of what we needed. (In the language of Brené Brown, we agreed to “rumble” with what had transpired between us.)
The next morning, I told her “I’m proud of us. We managed to find our way through that without continuing to trigger each other and getting stuck in reactivity.”
I’m especially proud of HER, because she initiated the exchange that healed us, after the necessary pause. She was able to soothe her nervous system first and recognize that our relationship was much bigger than this conflict. And she wasn’t afraid to speak truth to her mother even though, ultimately, I’m the one who holds more power in the relationship and could have shut her down (and have done so in the past).
That exchange with my daughter came at a time when I’ve been especially aware of the impact that wounded parents have on their children when they don’t recognize and work on healing their own woundedness (which, admittedly, has been me in the past). In recent months, my backyard has been a bit of a haven for more than one young person who’s wrestling with how to communicate with reactive parents who shut down their children’s emotions and/or needs or shut down their own emotions and/or needs in the face of whatever triggers them. Listening to these stories and trying to offer support has made it especially clear to me how generational trauma gets passed down through the lineage until someone decides to face it.
Let’s be honest – there are few things that reveal our woundedness, our reactivity, our anxiety, or our fears the way that parenting does.There are few people who can trigger us in the way that our children can. There are few responsibilities that leave us feeling more insecure and uncertain than parenting. It’s a minefield for trauma triggers, for conflict, for overwhelm, for self-doubt, and for exhaustion. AND… it’s also the place where we put the most pressure on ourselves to “do it right” because we know we’re impacting someone else’s life. And it’s the area in which the old trope “never let them see you sweat” feels the most appropriate because we feel the pressure to show confidence in order to offer security to our children.
It’s all of that AND it’s the area of our lives in which we were given the least education and preparation and, for many of us, where we had little modelling of heathy parenting from our own wounded parents.
So here – from one wounded parent to another – are some thoughts on how to parent while you’re still working on your own healing. These come from my most recent parenting experience (with teens and young adults), so are geared to that age of parenting, but most of them can be adapted for younger age children as well.
1. Let them in on the story of your wounds. If you have childhood trauma, or you were in an abusive relationship, or you were sexually assaulted, etc., let them know as much about it as you think they can handle (keeping in mind what’s age-appropriate). This is especially important if the trauma left you with triggers that may show up in a way that your children will notice and be impacted. If they know, for example, that you might be triggered by car accidents because a loved one died in an accident, it might surprise them less when they see you having an anxiety attack or running from the scene. And if they have the understanding that your reactivity comes as a result of the trauma, they’ll be less likely to assume that your anger, etc., is targeted at them and less likely to absorb the shame of responsibility for triggering you.
2. Let them know what you’ll try to do to soothe your own nervous system in the moments when you’re triggered so that they can count on you to take responsibility for yourself and not to fall apart entirely.If you only give them the story of your trauma but don’t tell them about the healing work you’re doing, it will likely create insecurity for them and they’ll have their own vicarious trauma, worried about when and how you might fall apart, snap at them, etc.. If, on the other hand, they know that you might fall apart or be reactive momentarily, but then you’ll do what needs to be done to soothe and heal yourself, their security will increase.
3. Apologize when you mess up. You’re going to mess up – that’s a given. And you will likely wound your children when you mess up. We’re all human and flawed and nobody prepares us for this gargantuan task of raising children. You’ll snap at them, you’ll dismiss their feelings, you’ll make them feel invisible – it happens to all of us at some point, when we’re tired, triggered, overwhelmed, grieving, etc.. Start by forgiving yourself, do what you need to do to deal with the shame of the mistake you made (talk to a friend if that helps), and then apologize to your children. Your apology is a message of love to them and it helps them recognize that whatever happened is not their fault. It also lets them know that it’s okay to screw up once in awhile and it won’t mean that they’re a bad person when they do. (A word of caution, though – don’t over-apologize or insist that they forgive you right away. That can place a burden on them to process it too quickly or to look after your feelings instead of their own and that’s not fair.)
4. Help them to become emotionally literate by modelling it for them.Talk to them about your emotional responses to things (ie. what situations make you feel anxious, what might trigger your grief, etc.) so that they recognize (and aren’t afraid of) their own emotions when they show up. There’s good research that reveals that the more clearly we are able to articulate our emotions the more healthy our relationship with those emotions will be and the less they’ll control us. Help them to recognize that there are no “bad” emotions so that they don’t feel shame or try to hide what they’re going through. A child raised in an environment where all emotions are accepted and can be talked about will be more inclined to live authentically and to seek out help for the emotions that are hard to deal with alone. (If you’re not yet emotionally literate yourself, one way to become more so is to develop a mindfulness practice in which you name each emotion when it comes up. You might also want to write about your feelings in a journal.)
5. Don’t put the burden of holding space for your trauma, grief, healing, etc. on their shoulders. While it’s valuable for them to understand something about your wounds and your healing journey, it shouldn’t be their burden to look after you, soothe you, protect you, etc. That’s reversing the natural order of things and creates insecurity and instability, even for an adult child. Let them know that you have your own support system (therapist, friends, siblings, etc.) to whom you can and will turn when you’re struggling. You’ll take the burden off them, offer them more security, and model that it’s okay for them seek out help when they need it just as you do.
6. Teach them about boundaries by having your own and honouring theirs. Teach them about consent in the same way. Let them know what behaviour isn’t acceptable in your home, what kind of self-care you need in order to be a less grumpy parent, how they should treat your personal space, and what consequences might be in place when they cross a boundary. Let them establish their own, age-appropriate boundaries and honour their right to say no, even to you. For example, once my daughters were old enough to do their own laundry and clean their own rooms, I stopped going into their bedrooms without their permission. This was especially important when their dad moved out of the house and they had to grapple with the grief and fear that came from having their parents separated. I’ve always wanted them to know they have a safe place to go, where nobody is allowed to intrude, especially if/when they need solitude for their own self-care, self-soothing, etc.
7. Work to create an environment where it’s safe for them to challenge you, to talk about the ways your reactivity may have wounded them, and/or to admit their own fears, triggers, etc.A child who can trust that they won’t be shut down for expressing their needs or for being honest about how they feel will have a much greater sense of safety and security in their home and in life. A secure environment, with a healthy attachment to at least one parental figure (that isn’t threatened when they challenge you), is the best place for a child to grow up and to explore who they are. When they find themselves in their own trauma experience, they’ll be more likely to develop resilience if they have that secure base.
8. Don’t take everything personally. Especially in their teens, children go through a period in which they need to push the boundaries, break some rules, reject you, etc. to establish their own sense of independence. This is the normal individuation process – it’s NOT ABOUT YOU. You could be the perfect parent and they’d still feel the need to push against you. If you’re insecure and/or easily triggered, you might be inclined to take it all personally and that will activate your reactivity and trigger old abandonment wounds. Over and over again, you need to repeat a mantra… “It’s not personal – it’s just the way they grow up.” Work on communicating clear boundaries and expectations of acceptable behaviour without doing it in an emotional, triggered way. Give them the space and time they need to grow into themselves, and give them love and patience (even when it seems like they don’t return the love), and you’ll likely find that the relationship that’s on the other side is even better than it was before.
After my conflict with my daughter, I felt remarkably good about the way in which it helped us both to grow and to deepen our relationship. I once heard Dr. Dan Siegel say that “triggers can be your friends” and I agree with him. They can point you in the direction of what needs healing. They can reveal unresolved trauma and provide opportunities for growth and integration. And they can help you deepen your relationships with the people you love most.
If you’re reading through this list and it’s feeling overwhelming because you recognize the ways in which you’ve fallen short – take heart – it’s never too late to do repair work with your children and to change the relationship patterns. I’ve been doing a fair bit of that lately and I can see the ways it’s healing my relationships with my daughters and helping to support them in their growth as young adults. A friend of mine recently went to therapy with her adult daughter (who’s lived away from home for many years) and she said it’s been transformational in their relationship – especially the part where she took responsibility for earlier mistakes.
One more thing… if your children are not ready to trust you yet because of the ways in which they’ve been wounded, don’t give up on them – give them time and space to do their own healing work. As hard as it is to accept, you may have been the cause of trauma for them, and they’ll have their own healing journey to go through before they’re ready to trust.
P.S. In case you’re wondering, my daughter has given me permission to share this story. That’s another way in which I teach them about consent – I don’t write about them without giving them the right to say no.
If you want to learn more about holding space for trauma, grief, etc., and you want to expand your capacity to hold space for yourself so that you don’t wound other people, consider signing up for my Holding Space Practitioner Program. The next session starts in October and registration is open.
At the Winnipeg Folk Festival, where you can find me in attendance every year, there’s a lovely tradition where multiple artists share a stage and take turns performing songs that are loosely connected to a predetermined theme. (Rarely have these artists met each other ahead of time.) One of the artists is the pre-selected host of the workshop and their role is to introduce the artists and choose the order in which they play.
More importantly, though, their role is to inject some playful banter into the workshop and to create rapport among the artists – to facilitate a bit of a temporary community on the stage.You could say that they’re holding space for the group so that they’ll function well together and provide the maximum amount of entertainment for the audience.
A host can make or break a workshop. If they’re awkward and fumbling, that doesn’t play well and the other artists have a hard time connecting with each other or building the kind of camaraderie that is a joy to watch. The lack of positive energy (ie. humour, friendship, etc.) on stage is easy to pick up on as an audience member and it makes for a less pleasurable experience. If, on the other hand, the host is a skilled community-builder, using humour and warmth to connect and support the artists onstage, it can make for a magical experience for all involved. The best workshops are those where the artists begin to jam with each other, picking up their instruments to back up each other on songs, or playing a cover tune that everyone can participate in.
This year, my favourite host was Sam Lewis(pictured above, centre). He’s a natural community-builder, with easy humour and lots of warmth. He uplifts the other musicians with supportive responses to their songs, and he connects the artists to each other. On one stage (where he wasn’t the host, but still did the work of community-building) Mariel Buckley (pictured above, right) said something nice about the experience of playing with other artists on stage and he reached across to lightheartedly hold her hand. Luca Fogale(pictured above, left), on the other side of him, made a comment about how touching the moment was, and Sam said “you’re next” and then reached over to hold Luca’s hand too. The whole audience laughed, and you could feel the connection not only between the artists, but with the everyone present. Community onstage extends out into the audience and it makes for a positive experience for everyone. (P.S. All three artists are worth checking out.)
I’ve been reflecting on what that magical quality is in Sam and others like him, and one conclusion I’ve come to is this…
Those who’ve come to receive whatever you have to offer want you to be CONFIDENT. They want you to be a leader and not just a wallflower. Your confidence makes their lives more enjoyable and ease-filled. When you SHINE and you don’t apologize for shining, they can relax and trust you.
Shortly after a workshop where Sam Lewis hosted, I was at another one that was quite the opposite and was, consequently, much less enjoyable or memorable. The host was insecure and apologetic. She didn’t understand the work she needed to do to build community, so she simply fumbled through the introductions of other artists and didn’t build any rapport between them. She was a great musician, but didn’t have natural leadership or community-building skills and it was uncomfortable to watch her.
Not everyone has the right skillset to host, lead, or facilitate, and we’re not all meant to do that work, but whatever work you do, consider that those who receive the service you provide are looking not only for your skills, but your confidence in those skills and in the way you build relationships. When you perform with self-assuredness, their trust in you is heightened and their lives have more ease and enjoyment.
In some cases (especially in a crisis) a person’s confidence can even help to soothe another person’s nervous systems, which helps that person think more clearly and make better decisions. Consider an emergency room doctor, for example – if she is anxious and apologetic and second-guesses her recommendations, the patient will feel much more anxious themselves. If, on the other hand, the doctor has confidence in her abilities and knowledge, even if she’s delivering bad news, the patient will be better able to soothe their nervous system and make the decisions they need to make.
There’s a flipside, though, and that is when a person has too much or unwarranted confidence. When confidence becomes arrogance, or a person doesn’t have the skills to back up the confidence, then it doesn’t serve anyone well. A con artist might, by exuding confidence, convince you to place your trust in them, but there’s nothing substantive behind the smoke and mirrors and there’s a good chance someone will get hurt and/or cheated. This is not the kind of behaviour you want to emulate.
Often arrogance and an air of self-assuredness is actually a mask to hide the LACK of confidence underneath. Recently I was listening to a podcast about Nxivm(pronounced Nexium), a secretive self-improvement society built by Keith Raniere that has all the markings of a cult (Raniere has recently been found guilty of sex trafficking, forced labour, and child abuse). The person being interviewed on the podcast, who was once a high-level member of the organization, said that one of the rules of Nxivm is that you must never question someone who holds a higher rank than you. That kind of unquestionable authoritarianism isn’t genuine confidence – it’s a way of controlling people and masking the fact that you don’t have enough confidence in yourself to withstand the negative things people might say about you.
A person with just the right amount of confidence doesn’t have to hide behind false bravado or make rules to keep people in line. They have confidence in their skills and ability, but are also willing to admit what they don’t know (or when they’re wrong) and to learn from and be challenged by other people.
Confidence and humility go hand-in-hand. One of the things that made Sam Lewis a natural host is that he didn’t need to take the spotlight away from other people and didn’t need the audience to love him more than the other artists. He was confident in his own ability to entertain and offer us well-crafted songs (and wasn’t self-deprecating or apologetic in his offering of them), and he was also humble enough to admit when another musician had written a song he wish he’d written.
Sometimes, in the past when I’ve felt insecure about facilitating a workshop or was intimidated by the audience, I’ve found myself downplaying my skills and wisdom and offering what I have in a somewhat apologetic way, like it’s hardly worthy of the participants time, or like I suspect they know more than I do. When I’ve done that, I’ve noticed that the audience responds the way I did when the insecure host fumbled on the stage – they become fidgety and less focused and they usually communicate (mostly nonverbally) that they’re dissatisfied with the workshop or impatient for it to end. (I leaned in to whisper to my sister when the host was fumbling rather than giving the artists my full attention.)
I recognize that the participants are much better served when I show up with a healthy mix of confidence and humility.I don’t second-guess the wisdom I’ve gained or apologize for the choices I make, but I’m also willing to admit what I don’t know and to learn from the others in the circle. My confidence has a direct impact on the group that’s gathered – everybody is better able to trust the circle and to lean into their own learning and growth.
A lot of us have been well trained to be self-deprecating, because to be otherwise is seen as being cocky, full of ourselves or guilty of the sin of pride. We develop an “aw shucks” attitude, downplaying our accomplishments and acting like we have little to offer. This is especially true for women, because our social conditioning taught us that being too confident was unsafe and would get us ridiculed. Many of us have seen the way confident women have been ridiculed and “taken down a peg or two” (or we’ve been victim ourselves) and so we do what we can to avoid that treatment. I think many of us also have body memories of the historic abuses that were inflicted on the generations that came before us (ie. those branded as witches, who had the audacity to go against the established authoritarian religion) and somewhere in our psyche is a message that “if you step out of line, you’ll get whacked”.
And sometimes, though we feel genuinely confident in our abilities, we don’t want to APPEAR too confident for fear of alienating people. We’re mistaken about what it takes to build community, thinking that by not “showing off” our skills, we don’t make other people feel insecure about their lack of them. But that’s building community on an unstable foundation – you’re much better off being honest and building trust with people. Being falsely humble rarely makes anyone feel comfortable and it cheats people out of the opportunity to benefit from your skills and/or learn from you.
Developing confidence (and revealing yourself to be confident) may take a lot of work for you – to unlearn your old habits and let go of your social conditioning, to distance yourself from those who might ridicule your confidence, to heal the wounds that might have been inflicted on you or those who walked before you – but it’s worth it. And those who are genuinely YOUR people, who want whatever you have to offer (even your children, who feel more safe when you are confident) – they WANT to see you shine.
If YOU shine, then they feel more secure and THEY can shine too.
p.s. Registration is now open for the next offering of the Holding Space Practitioner Program, starting October 2019. To grow your own confidence in how you hold space for other people, check it out.
In the long shadows of early morning, on a recent trip to the Netherlands, I stood at the edge of a pond watching the light and breeze play with the surface of the water. Near where I stood, tall, straight reeds were reflected on the rippling water. It occurred to me, as I stood there, that if I were only able to look at the reflections of those reeds and not see the reeds directly, then I would never know for certain what the reeds looked like. The reflections kept moving and wiggling and reshaping themselves on the ripples, never quite the same from one second to the next.
This, I believe, is what my relationship with the concept of holding space is like. Though I have been staring at it intently for several years, writing many posts and a great deal of course content, and traveling the world to teach it, I am still only looking at a reflection of it and trying to describe it from the place I stand, knowing that you may be on another shore looking at it from a different perspective.
The longer I stare at it, though, the more I learn about this beautiful reed and the more I find myself dancing along with the reflection, open to the flow of what comes with each breeze.
Here are some recent reflections about how to hold space, gathered after a few intense months of teaching, traveling, and holding space.
Stay curious. When judgement creeps in, it’s difficult to hold space for someone (or ourselves) because we’re inclined to want to change them, criticize them, or impose our own expectations on them. Judgement and curiosity don’t coexist well, though, so in order to shift out of judging mind, bring in curiosity. Ask curious questions and listen with openness for the answers. When the other person recognizes that there is curiosity and openness in our questions rather than judgement, they’ll be better able to trust that we have their best interests at heart.
Release attachment to outcome. I’ve said this phrase hundreds of times, at nearly every workshop, retreat, or online course I’ve ever taught, and yet it’s still one that I have to remind myself of on a daily basis. Clinging to a desired outcome – or even a believe that there WILL BE a positive outcome of some sort – is to bring in your own ego, your own desires, and your own expectations. To hold space is to open yourself up to the possibility that what comes (if anything DOES come) is outside of your control and may not be aligned with what you want. When you let go of outcome, you’ll be less inclined to label something as “failure” or “success” and simply accept it as what is. (Sure, there may be times when you’re working toward a specific outcome, but then you’re not really holding space.) As is taught in Open Space, “whatever happens is the only thing that could happen.”
Let go of “perfect” and embrace “good enough”. Holding space is not something we can ever do with precision and perfection, because we’re dealing with humans (ourselves included) who are flawed and fumbling and at some point we’re bound to trigger each other’s old wounds, annoy each other, or let each other down. Accepting that as part of the process rather than beating ourselves up over not knowing exactly what to offer the other person (or ourselves) allows us to lean into it with grace and love and a “heart at peace”. And when the fumble comes, as it inevitably will, forgiveness is the next stop on the journey.
Don’t assume you know what another person needs. When we hold space for others, we have to use discernment and our loving knowledge of the other person to try to do what’s right for them, but sometimes we miss the mark because we can’t fully know what that person needs at that moment. If the context is right, and the question is not too overwhelming for them to answer in the moment, we can ask what they need, but we can also do our best and then not take it personally when they say “that’s not what I need right now”. They might not, in fact, know exactly what they need and only realize it when they’re offered something they DON’T need. (For example, if I reach out to hug someone who’s in pain, they may suddenly know that they don’t want to be touched right now because touch re-triggers the wound they’re trying to heal.) To hold space for someone is to allow them the autonomy of discovering their needs and finding ways of having them met.
When your own reactivity is triggered, calm your nervous system first. Often, a failure to hold space for someone comes from a triggered reaction that results when the nervous system is flooded. If your fight, flight, freeze, or tend-and-befriend reactivity has been activated by a situation, you can’t hold space well until you calm yourself down. For example, if someone lashes out at you in anger when you believe you’re doing your best to be supportive, your first reaction will likely be to defend yourself with an equal amount of anger, or leave the situation as quickly as possible. (Or – as the “tend-and-befriend” reactivity might suggest – fix the situation so that they’re not angry anymore.) When you take a few deep breaths (or find other ways of calming yourself – tapping, for example), you can re-engage the internal systems that help you respond more calmly and you might realize the anger is coming out of that person’s grief or helplessness and is not a reflection of who you are and is not yours to fix.
When the impact is different from the intent, consider your responsibility for repair and course correction. Recently, at a workshop I was facilitating, I lead the group in an activity that I thought might respond to a need that had arisen, but the impact of the activity (for at least a few in the room) was the exact opposite of what I’d intended and I had to face their frustration. My triggered response was to sink into shame over my misjudgement and/or to lash out with a defence of my intentions, but that wouldn’t have served the group well and would have centred me rather than the people I was holding space for. Since I was the teacher and therefore had the most authority/power in the situation, I had to take responsibility for the impact, make repairs, and course correct. Once I did, we were able to regain damaged trust and move forward together.
Just because one person’s needs aren’t being met doesn’t mean nobody’s needs are being met. This applies, in particular, to when you’re holding space for groups. Sometimes I make the incorrect assumption that the voice that speaks the loudest is the voice that speaks for the whole group, but that is rarely the truth. (That person may influence people by speaking loudly, but other people’s dissatisfaction may be because they’re easily influenced by powerful people.) It’s nearly impossible to know what everyone needs unless you ask each person independently, so when you’re holding space for multiple people, know that you’re likely going to let some people down while other people will be satisfied. This is where point #3 (letting go of perfection) is important. Do the best you can and trust that the people you hold space for are sovereign individuals, capable of having their needs met without you needing to contort yourself to meet them.
Walk a balancing act between “I’m responsible for the impact of my actions” and “other people need to take responsibility for their responses”. I recognize, in writing this list, that #2 and #6 might sound contradictory and that it’s confusing to know when we should take responsibility for the impact and when we should let go and trust that each individual will take responsibility for their own reactions. I think we need to hold BOTH in our hearts and use discernment to determine when we need to make repairs, and when we simply let go and allow people to have their own experiences. This is humbling (and sometimes humiliating) work and we have to have enough integrity to repair damage even if it was unintentional, and enough fortitude to not take things personally when people don’t react well to our actions.
Remember that we are all sovereign beings making our own sovereign choices. No matter how well you hold space for someone, they’re still going to act and be the way that THEY choose. If, for example, you hold space for someone who’s been wrestling with their own demons, and afterwards they choose to do something that you think is self-destructive, you can’t beat yourself up over your failure to help them course-correct. To hold space is to recognize their right to make their own choices, even when those choices make no sense to you.
Don’t try to retain this list – instead, lean into your intuition and the wisdom in your body/heart/mind. If, the next time you hold space, you try to live up to this list (or any of the other teachings I’ve offered), you’re likely trying too hard to make this an academic exercise and it will fall flat. Choose authenticity over perfection. While reading this may be helpful to you, don’t cling to it too tightly – simply let it land on your heart and then, when the moment to hold space for someone comes, trust that you have enough wisdom for that moment. If you fail, forgive yourself (and come back for a re-read of this list, if that’s helpful) and try again the next time.
Those are my reflections for now, after staring for a long time into the rippling water. Though I thought, four years ago when I wrote the blog post that went viral, that I knew what holding space was and little more needed to be said, I’ve since discovered that there is so much more that was left to discover and I’ll keep staring at the reflection for as long as I can.
Soon, these reflections (and many more) will emerge in the form of a book that is near completion and about to undergo editing and publication. It’s humbling to write a book and to commit ideas to print when you’re fairly certain that those ideas will continue to evolve and change, but I’ve committed to a belief that it’s “good enough for now”. Stay tuned for publication date, and, in the meantime, consider signing up for the upcoming offering of the Holding Space Practitioner Program (formerly “Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program) that begins in October, with registration opening in July.
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.