Tenderness and fierceness. They seem to be opposites, and yet, surprisingly, they often go hand-in-hand. I first learned that lesson years ago, growing up on the farm, whenever a new mom – a cow, pig, sheep, chicken or goose – would suddenly become aggressive in their efforts to protect their young. One moment they’d be charging at any intruders and the next moment they’d be tenderly caring for their newborn. Their fierceness created a safe space for their tenderness.
I’ve been writing about (and experimenting with) tenderness lately (watch for a new e-book and day retreat early in the new year), and I’m being reminded, once again, that in order to be tender, we must also be fierce; in order to be soft, we must also be strong; and in order to be vulnerable, we must also have boundaries.
As the mother goose teaches, fierceness serves as a guardian for tenderness, boundaries create a safe container for vulnerability.
In recent years, I have become both softer and stronger than I ever was before. Age, maturity, self-love, and a healthy dose of therapy have brought with them increased clarity about what I want and need, where my boundaries need to be, what triggers me, what wounds are still tender and need protection, what I value, what I will or will not put up with, and where and when I need to be fierce. I am more intentional about guarding my energy, more protective of and tender with myself when I feel deep emotions, less tolerant of abusive behaviour, and more willing to say no to what doesn’t feel good and/or align with my values.
Surprisingly, this pandemic period, with its social isolation and slower pace, has increased that clarity even further. Many hours of solitude (especially as my daughters move out) have helped me become more discerning about what I want and need in my life. It turns out, for example, that I really enjoy my own company and I’m not very willing to give up my solitude unless the alternative enriches my life in some way. It’s not that I don’t like other people’s company – I do, but I’m trusting myself more to choose those relationships and opportunities that honour my tenderness and to say a firm (and sometimes fierce) no to those that don’t.
Like a mother goose hissing at intruders while she tucks her goslings under her wings, I am using my strength to protect my tenderness. I am learning to be my own mother.
Because healing and growth are never linear and the healing of a wound sometimes reveals something deeper that needs attention, I’ve discovered that there’s an interesting side-effect of this increased clarity and self-love. The more I learn to clarify my wants, needs, and boundaries, and the more tender and fierce I become, the more it brings out the voices (mostly internal but sometimes external) that want to convince me that I’m becoming “high maintenance, selfish, self-absorbed, demanding, needy, full of myself, hard to please, overly emotional, picky, difficult, and/or overly particular”.
I have a LOT of scripts in my head about why this isn’t the kind of person I should become. There is a lot of disdain in my family of origin and my culture about people who demand too much and focus too much on their own needs (especially if those people are women). I spent many years of my life believing that the best kind of person was the one who accepted their circumstances without complaint, didn’t raise a fuss when other people were unkind to them, didn’t ask for much, didn’t waste time in self-pity, wasn’t overly emotional, and was self-sacrificial in service to other people. In short, the ideal was always to be nice, calm and agreeable. It wasn’t acceptable to be either too tender or too fierce.
As a result of those internalized standards of goodness, I put up with abuse for far longer than I should have, I spent far too much time trying to keep other people happy, and I tried to prove how tough I was by stuffing down a lot of emotions and needs. Because I didn’t think I was allowed to make a fuss, my boundaries were crossed again and again and I tolerated it because I thought that’s what it meant to be a good person. In essence, I abandoned myself in service to other people.
It’s hard to change those scripts when they’re so deeply engrained in one’s psyche. In my case, and maybe in yours, they’re particularly related to gender and religion, but they’re also present in the broader culture. Think about all of the times we’ve joked about celebrities who expect special things in their backstage dressing rooms (like a bowl full of M&Ms with all the brown ones removed), or about those who get mad when media cameras invade their privacy. Every time we hear jokes like that, we internalize the message that to ask for too much or to ask people to respect our boundaries is to become self-absorbed and a “diva”.
But who are those scripts about what it means to be nice, agreeable, and calm really in service to? They are not in service to me or to you. They are not in service to my children, the people I work with or the people who benefit from my work. They are not in service to anyone I love and am in community with.
Those scripts are ONLY in service to those who have something to gain from our silence, our compliance, and our willingness to put up with abuse. They are in service to those who want to maintain power over us, who benefit from our disempowerment and who make money off our lack of self-worth. They are in service to oppressors, abusers and manipulators.
To be of service to our children, our beloveds, our community members and ourselves, we are much better off when we know ourselves well, when we have clear boundaries, when we refuse to put up with abuse, when we commit to our own healing, and when we learn to articulate our needs and desires. To be of service, we need full access to both our fierceness and our tenderness.
Despite the voices that want me to believe I am becoming high maintenance, I have found that this increased clarity about myself gives me increased clarity about my work, helps me be a better mother to my daughters, protects my energy for the things (and people) that are important to me, and makes me stronger and more well-resourced. My increased fierceness and my increased tenderness benefit both me AND my community.
To be in strong, healthy, and loving relationships is NOT to abandon yourself for other people. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve learned a surprising thing from raising daughters into adulthood: If I abandon myself, I am less trustworthy to other people. If I abandon myself, they can’t be certain I won’t abandon them. Those who witness me allowing abuse to happen to myself will have reason to believe that I will allow abuse to happen to them too. (I know this because I have been in some hard healing conversations about this very thing.)
My people need me to be both fierce and tender on THEIR behalf and on MY behalf. They need to know that I’ll show up like the mother goose who won’t let harm come to herself or her little goslings.
Ultimately, those relationships with strong social contracts, rooted in deep respect and care for each other’s needs, boundaries, and wounds are much more beneficial for all involved than those relationships where people abandon themselves for each other. I don’t call that “high maintenance” – I call it “holding space”. It’s a practice that is both fierce and tender.
Want to deepen your practice of holding space for yourself, so that you can be both tender and fierce? Join us for the self-study program 52 Weeks of Holding Space.
(Note: There is a free resource at the bottom of this post.)
“Not only did she survive, but she kept rewriting her stories until she found enough space in them for all of the wounded to be held.”
I’ve embarked on a new project recently. I’m writing a collection of personal essays that will eventually become my next book.
This year, I’m spending time in an intentional liminal space, taking time to imagine the next part of my life. With no more dependents, no partner, and no parents still alive, I have no need to live in the house or city where I currently live and can make choices solely for myself. I’m asking myself what I value, what I no longer need, and what matters most to me. As I look around my house, I’m imagining what kind of space I want next, which of my furniture suited the old part of my life but isn’t needed in the next, and which things I love too much to ever part with.
This seems like a good time to also consider the non-tangible things I want to bring with me into the next part of my life. One by one, I’m excavating the stories that shaped me into who I am – the heartaches, the triumphs, the traumas, and the failures – and I’m holding them up to the light to see what new things they have to reveal, and which parts are no longer relevant. It’s a little like digging through the attic for the family’s antiques to see if they should be polished, repurposed, given away, or discarded.
This isn’t an entirely new process for me – I did something similar when I got divorced and was intentional about turning my home from the sometimes-unsafe place it had been into a sanctuary of healing for my daughters and myself. This time, though, I’m doing it largely for myself (with only a little consideration for what support my daughters still need) and feel more free to share pieces of that journey with you, my readers (if I choose to).
Already, only a short way into the process, the stories are shape-shifting and becoming things I didn’t expect them to be. Some are taking on more nuance, depth, and meaning, and some are revealing to me that I’ve been stubbornly hanging onto tired old versions of them that should have landed on the rubbish heap.
One thing that’s surprising me is that this process is not only changing my view of myself, but also my view of the other people in some of the stories. In some cases, I see them more clearly for who they have always been instead of the way I so badly wanted them to be, and that’s allowing me to be clearer about my boundaries. In other cases, I’m better able to see the whole picture instead of just my part of it, and that allows me to extend a little more mercy.
The first story I took on was in some ways the hardest and in some ways the easiest. It’s the story of how I was raped as a twenty-two-year-old by a stranger who climbed through my window. It’s the hardest because it was pivotal in my life and it’s heartbreaking to more clearly see the many layers of trauma that came from carrying that story forward into my life and marriage. But it’s easiest because the only other player in the story is a stranger and I don’t have to worry about hurting anyone else in my life by telling my version of the story.
The line at the top of this post is from that piece. I wrote it after wrestling for several days with the story, when I realized that the process of writing had allowed me to hold my rapist differently. In the end, as I witnessed my own triumph, courage, and resilience in that narrative, I was also able to more gently witness the brokenness and pain that my rapist must have been tormented with (and is likely still tormented with, if he is still alive). How much hatred and shame must one be carrying to climb through a stranger’s window to fulfill their own sexual desires? That’s a burden I would never want to carry.
I am reminded, as I work with this story, that “my liberation is tied up with his” (in the words of Lilla Watson). If I want to be truly liberated, no longer carrying the shame and pain of that narrative, than I have to release my rapist from the story so that he has the potential to be free of it too. (That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be justice or accountability for such a crime – simply that the justice should be restorative, and healing should be the goal.)
As I said in the above quote, the rewriting process is allowing me to find enough spaciousness in those stories and in my attachment to them for all of the wounded to be held. Whether or not they choose to heal is none of my business – I simply release them to their own choices and find my own healing that requires nothing of them.
I am now working on other stories – the ones in which there are people who played longer and more complicated roles in my narrative. I don’t know yet how those stories will shape-shift, but I will hold myself tenderly so that I have the strength to make space in the stories for their healing too. I will not gloss over the hard things or try to justify other people’s actions – I will simply try to tell the truth in a liberated way that isn’t weighed down with bitterness or a need for revenge.
Though this post focuses primarily on the writing and rewriting of these stories, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the words on a page only represent part of the process. While writing is my first love, it’s best when it doesn’t stand alone, especially as a path toward healing. I also have regular therapy sessions with a therapist who incorporates somatic healing practices. And, as I’ve learned from modalities such as Narrative Therapy and Family Systems Constellations, I sometimes practice rearranging the story with physical objects that represent the players in those stories. I am also fond of rituals that help me mark and energetically move through important moments and shifts, like when I burn something that represents an old version of a story I’m releasing. (Perhaps I’ll share more about those practices in another post.)
A year from now, when I have (hopefully) a clearer picture of what this next part of my journey will be, I want to be on the journey with more lightness and liberation. This is not a perfect process (stories have a way of popping back up long after I think I’ve let them go) but I’m okay with the imperfection of it. Whatever emerges from my imperfect process, I hope to share it with you.
Are you currently in your own liminal space and want a tool that will help you? I’ve created a free resource that you can download (in PDF): Journal Prompts for the Liminal Space. (After you click on it, you can save it for future use.) And if you want even more, check out my online self-study program, Write for Love and Liberation.
I was standing on the shore as the sun set. The lake was a large blanket and the waves lapping at my feet were so small and thin they looked like someone was pulling a string under that blanket.
To my right, the hombre sky faded from blue to pink. To my left, where the sun was gently slipping beneath the horizon, the blue faded into yellow and shades of orange.
This being November, long after beach-lovers have given up for the winter, I was mostly alone. A flock of geese landed for the night, taking a break from their seasonal journey to the south.
I stood in reverence, barely able to take in so much beauty all at once. It was an embarrassment of riches – a thin place, as the Celtics say, where the sacred feels momentarily reachable through the veil.
Two thoughts landed in quick succession in my quieted mind.
First… “How amazing that the world offers up such beauty, so generously, when there is only one person here to witness it!”
Then… “But…I am a part of this beauty, not apart from it! I am not simply witness, I am part of nature. Just like the geese, I am a momentary part of this landscape.”
It took a little longer for the third thought to land. “If the natural world offers itself so generously, without reservation, and I am a part of that world, then who am I to do otherwise? Who am I to pretend I am separate? And who am I to allow my insecurities, doubts, fear, and social conditioning to get in the way of my contribution to the beauty I’m already part of?”
My eyes filled with tears. First, to truly believe I am beautiful and part of a beautiful world… that’s not a natural way for me to see myself. I have a thousand reasons why I am not good enough, not thin enough, not pretty enough, not talented enough to claim “beauty” as part of my identity. Second, to recognize that what I have to offer to the collective beauty of the world is unquestionably worthy disrupts the narrative that so often runs in my head.
But what if I begin to truly inhabit this belief, the same way the sun, the geese, the sand and the water do?
Not just me, but you, my dear reader. What if we embrace a radical belief in collective beauty and our part in contributing to that beauty? What if we deconstruct all of those voices in our heads that tell us otherwise, and we simply stand at the shore in reverence and humility and choose to believe we are part of what we see?
Will it change the way you do your work? Will it change the way you create? Will it change the way you show up for your friends? Will it change YOU?
This morning I had a lovely conversation with one of the people participating in our Holding Space Foundation Program who’s been following my work since my blog post went viral. She mentioned how impactful it had been to her to learn that I’d been toiling in relative anonymity for ten years before my post went viral and millions of people suddenly showed up at my website. That I continued to be faithful to the work despite how few people were noticing it early on meant a lot to her.
Maya, if you’re reading this, I want you to know that you, too, are part of the beauty of this world. You can stand on the shore and know that you are making a contribution, even when nobody else shows up to bear witness to the generosity of that beauty.
And I want you to know that too, dear reader. Stay faithful to your work, to your play, to your craft, and to your love. Show up on the shore again and again and offer up your contribution. Do it generously and without apology, even when it makes sense to nobody else but you.
I can’t promise you that millions will come, but I can promise that it matters. You matter. Your craft matters. Your love matters. Your beauty matters.
They are all growing up and moving away from home. I’ve already written about my daughters leaving, but there’s more – it’s become a larger theme in this moment of my life.
My book is growing up and moving away too. Last Tuesday, we launched the Dutch version of the book. This baby that I spent years birthing is now being stewarded and lovingly held by people in another country, in another language. She’s got a life without me now. I can’t even read this new version of my own book, and that feels a little… hmmm… what’s the right word… weird? I have to trust that my book, like my babies, will have a good and meaningful life in a new place, across an ocean from where I am. The translators were recently interviewed on a podcast in Dutch about the book and I am struck by the realization that it doesn’t even need my voice to tell its story.
My business has grown up and morphed into something new this past year as well. What was, for years, a solitary endeavour has become a partnership. My business partner, Krista, now holds a lot of it on her shoulders and there are parts of it that, like my children, only visit me once in a while and no longer come to stay. This week, Krista has been working with our accountant on our balance sheets, and I have been largely oblivious to the process. There is freedom and also a little guilt in that.
The programs I’ve developed are being lovingly held by other people too. Last week, I participated in two calls for our Foundation Program, and I played only a secondary role on the calls (the “guardian”, in circle lingo) while a member of our team hosted each of the conversations. The same thing is beginning to happen in our Certification Program. A new community is growing around the work, and those who come are being expertly held by the Master Practitioners I’ve trained. I am largely a visiting teacher, dropping into the spaces they hold, offering wisdom and support when I can, but trusting them to hold primary responsibility for the container.
It’s all been a little puzzling and paradigm-shifting, this movement away from me, even though I orchestrated much of it and believe it to be next right thing. On the one hand, it’s gratifying to see that all of my love and hard work has supported babies and books and business in beginning to stand on their own feet. On the other hand, it’s a little scary to let go and to trust that they will be okay. On the one hand, it’s lovely to have this new spaciousness that their independence has granted me. On the other hand, it’s lonely to be the one left behind. On the one hand, there’s freedom in letting go. On the other hand, the ground feels wobbly when so many things that anchored me are being released all at once.
“Hold with an open hand,” I often tell people when I’m guiding them in an understanding of what it means to hold space. “When you hold too tightly, you’re at risk of hijacking space instead of holding it. An open bowl is about freedom and trust, a closed bowl is about control and fear.”
Now, here I am, after years of saying those words, learning this lesson in a new way.
It is all part of a paradox that has long challenged and intrigued me – the paradox of living at the intersection between attachment and non-attachment.
At some point in my life, perhaps in those fleeting moments when I held my stillborn son and knew he was never truly mine, this paradox took hold and wouldn’t let me go. Perhaps that’s why I’ve made many of the choices I’ve made – like letting go of much of my work and trusting others to hold it (when conventional wisdom would tell me to hang onto it and the money it brings in) – because I believe that a deeper understanding of this paradox is part of my soul’s purpose.
At the heart of the paradox are two seemingly inconsistent beliefs. Attachment theory teaches the importance of having secure attachments and tethering ourselves to each other, and yet Buddhism’s non-attachment (which is echoed in other spiritual traditions) teaches us to release our grip on people and things. These concepts seem so paradoxical, and cognitive dissonance rises up in me and tempts me to believe only one or the other can be true, and yet… both hold pieces of the truth.
Somewhat clumsily, I am finding my rhythm in this new version of the dance – between loving and letting go. I am learning new discernment about when it’s time to hold tightly and when it’s time to release my grip. I must allow them all – babies, books, and business – to seek out their own journeys, to stretch into their own autonomy, and to live their own truth, while I offer them love and a safe place to land. I must believe that they are wise enough, strong enough, brave enough and resilient enough to walk the paths that call them, even when those paths take them away from me.
I must trust the other people who now hold space for my people and my work, my babies, book and business, to do so with as much care and compassion as I have done.
Truthfully, though, there is no paradox in these teachings. It is only a limited, fearful mind that chooses to see the binary. A deeper exploration reveals that they are more like yin and yang – intertwined and each holding pieces of the other.
Secure attachment is not tethering yourself to another person – it is living side-by-side, connected but not chained. It is to offer what the nest offers the baby bird – a safe place to be comforted, and a brave space to launch from when it’s time.
Non-attachment is not about living an aloof and non-committed life – it is about resisting codependence with other people or things and becoming neither controlled nor controlling, manipulated nor manipulating. It is to love wholeheartedly but to release any illusions that you have control over the outcome of that love.
Both of these concepts invite us to live in such a way that we are both attached and non-attached, both connected and autonomous, both sovereign and interdependent.
Last week, I flew to where my youngest daughter now lives so that I could support her through yet another surgery in this long saga of chronic illness. Though she lives far away from me, she is still my baby. Though she is now independent, she still needs her mom. Though she left the nest, she still needs a safe place that she can sink into and know that she’ll be held – it’s what we all need, no matter how independent we become.
More than once, before and after her surgery, when we were curled up on either ends of the couch, our feet found each other in the middle. This is something we have long done, touched feet in the expanse between us, to remind ourselves that we are still connected. It started in that tumultuous time after the divorce, when she was beginning to return to me after months of non-communication in her anger over the disruption of our family. Sleepily, she would crawl into my bed before getting ready for school, and though she wasn’t yet ready to cuddle with me, she would let my foot brush up against hers – at first only briefly, and then for longer and longer. The day that it began to be her foot reaching for mine, I knew that we would be okay. We were, and continue to be, both attached and non-attached – sovereign individuals living interdependent lives.
On the Foundation Program calls last week, I mentioned to those who’ve come to learn about what it means to hold space, that these lessons they are learning on the pages of my book might not land fully for them until life and nature teach them more deeply. “When you feel confused about a concept,” I said, “hold it lightly and trust that you will understand it more deeply when life offers the lesson. The pages of a book – and even a rich conversation like this with other learners – will never fully offer you the depth of wisdom that your own life will someday offer.”
This continues to be true for me, their teacher. Though I have written for years about what it means to hold space, life still has much to teach me. These days, I am learning the grace of letting go. And I am learning to hold myself in this grief when the letting go feels hard. And I am learning to experiment with this new freedom the letting go offers.
Today, as I settle more deeply into this learning, I find myself wondering whether the mother bird, after she has watched her baby birds leave the nest, must learn a new kind of flight when her flight’s purpose is no longer about finding food to bring back to her babies. Perhaps she, too, needs to launch herself from the nest she has built, into the unknown spaces beyond, trusting that she, too, will find places to perch and be held when she is weary from the flight.
And maybe, in this new flight, as she learns the paradox of loving and letting go, she will also learn, on an even deeper level than she has before, that grief and joy can be held simultaneously and that they are not entirely different emotions. And she will be reminded that every new liminal space she enters will bring the promise of a new story.
I love slow mornings. Though I usually wake fairly early (on my own body-clock, not with an alarm), I take my time getting out of bed, sometimes reaching for my journal or a book first. Once I’m finally out from under the covers, I go from there to the bathtub where I also take my time (with a bath that sometimes includes Epsom salts). Eventually I end up in the kitchen, where I boil water for my tea and then have a late breakfast of yoghurt, fruit, and granola. Only after all of that do I open emails and my calendar and start to figure out what the day will require of me.
This is one of the many perks of working from home and owning my own business, where I get to decide when/if I start my workday.
I used to have lots of stories about how this makes me a lazy person and how I should be more disciplined and productive and how those people with strict morning routines (especially those that include rigorous workouts) are probably better people, but then I realized that those are stories I don’t need to carry anymore. They’re stories that I’ve been taught to carry by a capitalist system with an industrial mindset that elevates the value of grind culture and being obedient and “disciplined” workers. I don’t want that to be part of my life or the culture of my business, so I get to make my own rules. I’m always going to choose the “rules” that honour my humanity, my needs, and my own internal rhythms. (I put disciplined in quotation marks, because there are lots of other ways to bring discipline to your work without being attached to an arbitrary time clock.)
The further I get from a traditional workplace (it’s been ten years now), the more attuned I’ve become to my own natural rhythms and ways of working. As a writer/thinker/creator, I need lots of quiet time to process ideas and get lost in contemplation. I need slow mornings and long walks and/or bike rides to let my mind wrap itself around new ideas. Sometimes I need to check out of social media for awhile and be in conversation only with the voices in my own head (or with the squirrel currently perched on the branch outside my window). That’s not “wasted” time the way my socially conditioned inner critic sometimes tries to convince me it is. It’s actually very productive time, because it’s where my ideas are generated and played with before they end up on the page or in a workshop.
Because I intentionally carve out these times for myself, and I spend lots of time playing with ideas before sharing them with my readers or students, I also have rather remarkable capacity for high-intensity production when the ideas land in their more fully formed shape. That’s when it’s time to engage another of my favourite practices… I go away for a week, to a cabin or a place loaned to me by a friend, and I create a surprising volume of content – often working for twelve-hour days. That’s how I’ve written my book and created most of my courses – in short, intense, and focused bursts (that follow long, slow, meandering times of contemplation).
I have learned that these ways of functioning likely mean that I am on the spectrum for ADHD. As some have said, “attention deficit” is probably a misnomer and it should instead be called “attention dysregulation” – because people with ADHD might have a deficit of attention at times, when they’re doing things they don’t love to do, but then they become hyper-focused when they’re doing something that they love to do (as when I’m alone with my ideas in a cabin in the woods, or I’m building something with wood).
I feel privileged in that I have the opportunity to craft a life that works well with my own internal rhythm and the way my brain works. It not only serves me well, but it allows me to serve other people well. I have more capacity to hold space for other people because I am well-resourced and in a rhythm that fits me. And I have the capacity to adjust the rhythm of my days so that I can do things like meet my family’s needs and spend time with friends during times when they are available.
Many others are forced to live with rhythms, rules, and structures that don’t fit them nearly as well. Sometimes, in fact, there’s a certain violence to the way we try to force humans to fit into mechanized structures – especially when those humans are neurodivergent or disabled or otherwise disadvantaged by those structures. Our systems lose their humanity and begin to assume that we are all machines that need to function in a prescribed way in order to keep the system functioning well. And when we don’t function that way, the system creates narratives that shame us into thinking we are deficient and have less value because of it.
I wonder what it would look like to build systems and workplaces that do a better job of honouring human rhythms, capacity and needs. I wonder what we’d need to change in order to value people as they ARE rather than as we EXPECT them to be. I realize that in certain industries it might not work, but far too many workplaces still function as though every workplace is a factory that produce widgets rather than a place focused on serving the needs of real and complex humans.
As Krista and I build the Centre for Holding Space, we are doing our best to keep humanity at the centre of our organization and to disrupt any of the old patterns that have been normalized by capitalism but that might not serve us well. Sometimes we have to dig deeply and do some uncomfortable work to uncover our own social conditioning about the “right” ways to do things, and sometimes it’s easier to just accept “the way things have always been done”. But we know that change doesn’t come without some measure of disruption, and so we’re doing our best to walk our talk.
I encourage you to consider how your life might have been unknowingly structured by systems that don’t put your humanity at the centre. Perhaps you’ve bought into a lifestyle that doesn’t match your rhythm or capacity? Maybe you’re inadvertently doing violence to yourself because of the social conditioning that’s taught you to assume there is no other way?
I believe that this is one of the gifts of this pandemic. It has allowed us to re-imagine workplaces and expectations around how and when people will work. If we pay attention, and open ourselves to change, perhaps we’ll find ourselves moving into more human-centred environments.
Even if you’re not in a position to change how, when, and where you work, perhaps there are changes you can make to your life to honour yourself more? Maybe it’s a simple matter of accepting that you have a different rhythm than other people and that doesn’t make you wrong? Maybe you need to wake up later (or earlier), move more (or less), slow down (or speed up), spend more (or less) time alone, be in nature more, and/or find new ways to engage your creative energy?
I was once sharing a room at a retreat with a high-functioning businesswoman who was holding a lot on her shoulders. Each evening, after our sessions ended, I’d hear her on the phone talking with her husband about their clients and business operations. Though she was on retreat, she couldn’t stop working because so many clients (and her husband) depended on her.
When she got off the phone one evening, I commented about how much capacity she had, and then I asked, “Do you ever get to fall apart? Do you ever get to just be weak and not be the capable one in the room? And do you have anyone in your life capable of holding you when you fall apart?”
She paused a moment, and I could see by the look on her face that the question had touched a deep and well-guarded place in her heart. In a voice that was quieter and more tender than I’d heard before, she admitted that she didn’t ever let herself fall apart and that she trusted nobody to be able to hold her if she did. When we dug a little deeper, she talked about how losing her mom at a young age had forced her to grow up too quickly and become “the competent one”. Now she didn’t know how to step out of that persona and was afraid of what would happen if she did.
I encounter a lot of people just like her in this work. People who hold space for others are very often “the competent ones” who hold other people but don’t let themselves fall apart. And, I admit, I have those same tendencies myself. I knew to ask her the question partly because I saw myself in her – I know what it feels like to try to hold the whole world together for the people who matter most to us.
Unfortunately, most people are uncomfortable with human frailty, and seeing other people fall apart makes them feel disoriented and uncertain about how to respond. That’s especially true when the person falling apart is a person they rely on to provide stability and strength so that they feel safe in the world. Those of us who are “the competent ones” know that it will cause discomfort and fear in other people if we falter, so we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to hold ourselves together. As a marriage counsellor once defined my role in my former marriage, we go a step beyond competent into the unhealthy zone of “the over-functioning ones”.
To live balanced and emotionally healthy lives, though, even strong ones need to be able to give themselves permission to be weak without needing to protect the people around them. But in order to do so, we need to find the right containers where we won’t have to worry about other people’s reactions to our weakness. (It’s when we take too much responsibility for other people’s reactivity that we begin to over-function.)
This past week, I’ve been revisiting the manuscript of a memoir that I had nearly ready for publication three years ago (but put on hold in order to write The Art of Holding Space). In the memoir, I share a story of a time when I had a fairly spectacular falling apart and it scared a lot of people, including myself.
I was in the hospital at the time (twenty-one years ago), trying to prolong my third pregnancy after a botched surgery put it into jeopardy. Because my doctor was afraid I’d go into labour too soon, I was given steroids to speed up the baby’s development. What I didn’t expect was the way that steroids can mess with a person’s mind.
For the first two weeks of my hospital stay, I was doing remarkably well and people were amazed at how calm and strong I was. I was so calm and strong, in fact, that people started coming to sit with me when they needed someone to talk to. Friends, nurses, other patients, nurses’ aides, even doctors – a surprising number of people dropped in to visit my room for no reason other than to sit and chat with me because they found me to be a peaceful and supportive presence. Many of them opened up to me about their fears and struggles. I believe it’s when I first learned I had the capacity to hold space for people (though I didn’t yet have the language).
But then one day, I fell apart – quite spectacularly. Nobody was certain whether it was caused by stress, steroids, or a combination of the two, but I had an unexpected psychotic break (that started with a panic attack) and for twenty-four hours, I was not in my right mind. To anyone watching, I was speaking complete gibberish (though it made sense to me and much of it still does – but that’s a story for the memoir). I was acting irrationally and completely out of character for the calm and strong person they’d come to assume I was.
Witnessing me that way was scary and baffling for the staff who had gotten to know me quite well during those two weeks. After the psychosis was over, they treated me very differently from how they had before. I felt like I’d become a pariah. None of the staff dropped in for casual conversations anymore and when they had to enter my room, they completed their tasks quickly, with little conversation, and left just as quickly. After a few days, a few began to trust me again and came back for conversations, but many never did.
It’s experiences like that that remind me how much discomfort we have with human frailty. Even health care workers, who see people under all kinds of stress, come unmoored in the presence of a psychotic break, especially in someone they deem to be competent and reliable. It’s a scary thing to witness and you desperately want to fix it so that the world feels safe again. But you don’t know what to do in response, so you get a little frozen and, more often than not, avoid it entirely. Just ask anyone who’s been through a tragedy and they will tell you that some of their friends and family had no idea how to show up, so they disappeared. It’s quite common, sadly, to lose friends when you are at your most broken.
The experience was shame-inducing, and even now, when I talk about it, I sometimes feel the grip of shame closing my throat. Despite the shame, though, I believe that it was good for me. It’s good to be reminded of our own human frailty now and then, to be brought face-to-face with our weakness. As a person who has built an identity around competence, I needed the reminder that even I can fall apart under the right set of circumstances – and that doesn’t mean that I stay broken or that the brokenness defines me. It helps me to stay humble and to get out of my ego, to accept the ebb and flow of life and to have more compassion for my own and other people’s brokenness. I’ve had a few broken-open moments since then (on a less spectacular scale) and know that I can survive them.
So… what do we do with human frailty? How do we let ourselves be frail when we’re feeling broken? And when we see brokenness in other people, how do we keep ourselves from running away?
For one thing, as I said to my roommate at that retreat, we need to find the right people who can hold us when we break. Not just anyone has the courage, and fortitude to stick around in the face of frailty, so we need to seek out those people who do. They need to be self-reflective, emotionally mature and compassionate people who don’t let their own fears and baggage get in the way. Many of us only ever find one or two people who have that kind of capacity and sometimes we have to hire someone (a therapist or coach, for example).
For another thing, we have to learn to hold ourselves in our own brokenness first so that we can hold other people in their brokenness. If we are afraid to be broken, if we shame ourselves when we are most frail, then we’ll treat other people the same way. In fact, if you want to know how well a person will be able to hold space for you, pay attention to the way they treat themselves when they fail or make a mistake. Do they take responsibility for it and treat themselves with kindness and forgiveness, or do they deflect blame and/or treat themselves harshly?
For a third thing, we have to let go of delusions and perfectionism. We can’t expect ourselves (or others) to be strong all of the time and we can’t expect the world to be safe and stable all of the time. That’s the kind of fantasy that’s sold to us by a capitalist system that wants us to believe if we just invest in the right botox or fancy car or training program or self-help book, we can create bubbles of protection and happiness around ourselves and we can always “be our best selves”. That’s all just smoke and mirrors though, and we deserve better.
We have to let go of the delusion and learn to practice radical acceptance of imperfection, flaws, weakness, and fumbling – in ourselves and in each other. When we see brokenness, we need to replace judgement with lovingkindness. When we do, we discover that acceptance is a much more peaceful, contented way of living. We put less pressure on ourselves and we offer forgiveness more easily.
Because every single one of us is going to fall apart sometimes – even the competent ones. And if we can hold that brokenness in ourselves, then we can hold it in each other.
Want to learn more about how to hold space for yourself and others in times of brokenness? Join us for the Holding Space Foundation Program, starting the week of October 25th.