“I don’t think of myself as a leader.” I hear that statement often from my clients and I understand it – I used to say the same thing myself. It wasn’t until a special mentor/boss took me aside and told me that she saw leadership ability in me and then offered me my first leadership position that I first started to recognize that I had capacity to lead.
One of the reasons that the people I work with don’t see themselves as leaders is because they equate leadership with authoritarianism. In their experience, a leader is in control, has more knowledge than those they lead, provides solutions to all of the problems, and makes all of the tough decisions. In an authoritarian model, the leader has “power over” their subordinates and is expected to be the authority on all things. While that form of leadership may be desirable for some people (especially those who feel fearful about their safety) and may be necessary in some situations (when children are small and need to be kept safe, or when a country is at war), it can easily become destructive and disempowering.
Anyone who’s attracted to what I teach about holding space is not inclined to seek out or emulate that kind of authoritative power and has likely witnessed its destruction, and so they steer clear of the mantle of leadership.
Instead of steering clear of it though, I’d like us to consider an alternative model that fits us better and that I believe is badly needed in the world today. I’d like to invite us to consider what it means for a leader to have “power with”.
Whenever I talk about leadership, I usually end up back at the place where I started, twenty years ago, when I first started to explore what it meant to be a leader. The first three books that really landed for me and helped me define the kind of leader I wanted to be were Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, by Meg Wheatley; The Authentic Leader: It’s about Presence, not Position, by David Irvine; and Calling the Circle: The First and Future Council, by Christina Baldwin. I read a lot of other leadership books (and some of them are listed on my Books & Resourcespage), but these three helped me ground myself in the leadership model that felt most authentic and intuitive for me rather than the one that I saw reflected in the world around me.
These books made leadership feel possible because they were about leading from a place of humility and authenticity rather than authority and control. I didn’t have to be invincible or unflappable to be a leader – I could bring my flaws, my insecurity, and my humanity into the role. I could step into it with curiosity and openness and I could rely on those I lead to bring their skills to the table where mine were lacking.
These three books taught me that a leader:
- is a host rather than a hero
- collaborates rather than controls
- claims and shares power but doesn’t abuse it
- has authority and influence but doesn’t need to be authoritarian
- gathers people for meaningful conversations and practices genuine listening
- shows up authentically and with appropriate vulnerability
- admits what she doesn’t know and allows others to fill in the gaps
- co-creates an environment where ALL can shine
- invites people to contribute with their unique strengths and abilities
- isn’t afraid to apologize and/or admit she is wrong
- balances innovation and progress with stability and contemplation
- knows how to hold space for complexity, growth, change, etc.
Meg Wheatley says that “a leader is anyone willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change and takes the first steps to influence that situation.” In other words, we don’t need to wait until we’ve been given leadership positions in order to lead – we simply have to notice the need and step in to offer what we can to help fill it.
If we alter our definition of leadership to this more collaborative model, what are the most essential competencies and qualities that a leader needs to foster? Here are some of my thoughts (in no particular order):
- Humility. It takes humility and a willingness to give up the need to be right in order to be a collaborative leader. Effective leaders share the spotlight (or step out of it entirely) and share the credit (or give it to whoever earned it). Their humility is not self-deprecating, nor does it mask insecurity, but rather it is honest, authentic, openhearted, and courageous. Humility welcomes the brilliance of others and doesn’t need to outshine it.
- Generosity. Collaborative leaders are generous in their support of other people, generous in offering up their time to others, and generous in how they encourage and inspire people. They don’t see everything they do as transactional (ie. “I’ll do X for you if you do Y for me.”) but instead invite people to function in a “gift economy”, offering up their best toward the common good.
- Self-awareness. Self-aware leaders recognize and admit their weakness, take responsibility for their mistakes, and don’t project their baggage and unhealed wounds onto other people. They also know their strengths and capacities and aren’t afraid to step into their own power. While they embrace community and collaboration, they don’t approach people from a place of neediness, seeking out other people’s affirmation and validation.
- Self-regulation. When effective leaders are overwhelmed, stressed out, or triggered, they practice self-regulation (and/or have support systems that help them co-regulate) in order to calm and control their emotions rather than dumping them on other people. They’ve done enough personal growth work that they recognize how much instability can be created by their dis-regulated emotional outbursts, and so they work to create a more stable and safe environment for everyone.
- Self-forgiveness. While self-awareness, self-regulation, and generosity are important qualities, leaders are still human and they’ll mess up occasionally, and do selfish things or react to triggers in unhealthy ways. When they do, they take responsibility for it, make any necessary restitutions, learn what they need to from the experience, and then practice self-forgiveness and self-care.
- Courage. Courage is defined by Google as “the ability to do something that frightens one” and “strength in the face of pain or grief”. I like the combination of these two definitions because it’s not about the absence of fear, but rather the ability and strength to act in spite of it. Effective leaders might be quaking in their boots, but still step forward and do and/or say what’s right. Courage is contagious – when we are in the company of those who practice it, we are more inclined to find the capacity in ourselves.
- Power. When I first turned away from authoritarian leadership and chose a different model, I thought power was a dirty word, but I’ve changed my mind since. Power is only dirty if it is abused and if it exists apart from love. As Martin Luther King said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” Effective leaders aren’t afraid of power – they claim it, share it, and use it with love.
- Resilience. An effective leader can survive struggle and opposition and can find their way back to strength. It’s not that they are never beaten down – they are – but they get up the next day (or the next week, or month) and do what needs to be done to get back on track. If one path doesn’t work, they adapt and find an alternative. If one attempt fails, they try something else. Repeatedly, they return to their sense of purpose and meaning and they persevere.
- Meaning-making. When I first started learning about leadership, I kept hearing about how a leader had to have a sense of vision, and while I agree to a certain point, it always felt like there was something missing from that model. A vision might inspire us for the future, but what about the present? Instead, I now focus on meaning-making. An effective leader strives to make meaning out of the current moment even when the vision is blurred and the future looks dim. Even when there is only struggle and no hope, a leader looks for meaning and purpose.
- The ability to hold space. This may be the competency that is the most counter-cultural when compared to an authoritarian leadership model. An effective leader is willing and able to be present for others while they make the journey through liminal space. They don’t impose their own desired outcome and they don’t rush the process. They practice mindfulness and presence, while not backing away from complexity and confusion.
This is only a partial list, and I can think of others (like the ability to build strength in diversity, for example), but this is, at least, a start in exploring what kind of leadership we need for times like these. I wonder how the world might change if we seek to be, to follow, and to elect leaders like these.
Friday, after a full day of work and a couple of juicy conversations with faraway friends, I headed to my hammock, tucked under two giant maple trees in my newly landscaped backyard. The late afternoon sun peeked through pinholes between the canopy of leaves, bouncing across my body now and then when the breeze rustled through. I hadn’t planned to stay long (there was supper to cook and other mom-duties-as-required), but after a few deep breaths helped me release the day, it was too comfortable to leave.
I texted my daughter (inside the house) and asked if she’d be so kind as to bring me a glass of wine. A short while later, she came with a full glass, letting me know that she’d been painting in the basement (she’s an art student) and had come all the way upstairs to fetch the wine and bring it to me. I thanked her profusely and grinned. Then I sipped slowly, read my book, and decided we’d be having supper late.
Eventually, I dragged myself out of the hammock and cooked supper on the barbecue, eating with my daughters on our new patio. Once they’d gone back inside, though, I turned on the twinkle lights and returned to the hammock. When it was too dark to read, I propped my phone on the small table beside me and watched Netflix until bedtime. Only then did I go inside.
If you’ve been following me on social media, you know how much I’m loving this new backyard. It was nothing but weeds bordered by a fallen-down hedge until a few weeks ago. Now it’s a sanctuary and I plan to spend as much time here as I can before the snow flies. (I’m currently writing this in the backyard – it’s my summer-office.)
As I’ve been enjoying this space – both alone and with friends and family – I’ve been contemplating my relationship with joy. This backyard brings me pure, unadulterated joy. It was something I’d been dreaming of for years, but only this year did I feel like I could justify the expense.
Though it seems strange to admit it, joy doesn’t always come easily for me, and just as I’ve had to justify my backyard, I have to justify my joy. And when it does come, I don’t always trust it. Sometimes I hold it at arms’ length because it makes me nervous. And sometimes I’m so convinced that I’m not worthy of it, that I don’t dare let myself sink into it. And sometimes I spend more time bringing other people joy than myself because that feels like a more worthy pursuit. (It’s like trying to convince myself my backyard is more for my kids, when the truth is that I’ve been back there far more than any of them.)
Even as I’ve been enjoying my backyard, I’ve had those moments when the joy of it feels like too much goodness. “Should you really have spent so much money on this?” my gremlins ask. “Weren’t there other things that would have been more worthy uses of your money? And is it fair that your former husband still pays child support and lives in someone’s basement when you’re enjoying this beautiful space? And should you be lying here in a hammock when there’s work to do?”
There are many reasons why joy and I haven’t always been trusted companions.
For one thing, as Brené Brown says, we often short-circuit our joy as a defence against vulnerability. Joy feels risky, because it can be taken away in a moment, and when we feel it deeply it means that we open ourselves to feeling grief equally deeply. If we only open ourselves to moderate joy, then perhaps we can fool grief into thinking it can only show up in a moderate way as well.
To avoid the risk of feeling any emotion too deeply and getting knocked over by it, we numb ourselves and shut down our vulnerability. But… “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” (Brene Brown)
Related to that is the unworthiness piece. Surely I haven’t done enough and am not valuable enough to deserve a beautiful backyard like this, the gremlins in my head like to whisper. This is the kind of space that IMPORTANT people get to enjoy – not mediocre people like ME. The moment I discovered a crack in my basement that will require part of the patio be temporarily dismantled, for example, a little voice in my head told me that it was inevitable – I didn’t deserve such a nice patio, so it would have to be destroyed to keep me humble.
And then there are the lessons we learned about joy from the social conditioning that shaped us. I had a relatively joyful childhood, but we weren’t supposed to be TOO joyful, because that might lead to ecstasy and ecstasy was the gateway to sin. Physical joy was the most dangerous, because our bodies too easily fall into temptations and can’t be trusted. Dancing was taboo, laziness was ungodly (ie. hammocks meant for nothing but lying around), alcohol was sinful, and only wholesome sex within a committed male-female marriage was permissible. To this day, there are still echoes of this messaging reverberating in my mind whenever joy and I get too acquainted.
Recently, I answered the door to two people who’d come to share their version of the truth with me and I was reminded of these old scripts that still pop up in my subconscious now and then. When I opened the door, one asked where I turn to for my marital advice (clearly a segue meant to direct me to the Bible). “I don’t,” I said. “I’m no longer married.” “I’m so sorry,” was his response. “A lot of that goes on because of our fleshly desires.” (I brought the conversation to a fairly abrupt halt, not wanting to listen to further implications that I should feel shame for my divorce.)
I was caught off guard by his comment about “fleshly desires”, but I understand what’s at the heart of it for him. He can only see divorce as sin-related. We’re meant to be husband and wife under God, in his view of the world, and when we deviate from that, it must be because of our “sins of the flesh”.
It may be somewhat true that my “fleshly desires” contributed to my marriage ending, but not in the way that he was implying. I ended my marriage because I’d learned to be more true to myself, to seek out my own happiness and not give it up for someone else, to trust myself when I didn’t feel safe, and to erect and hold boundaries when I was being emotionally and physically violated. My “flesh” desired a safe and joyful life without the anxiety, struggle and self-sacrifice that was so present for me in my marriage. That pursuit may fit his definition of sin, but it doesn’t fit mine.
That brief conversation has been on my mind a fair bit since then, not because it triggered me (it didn’t) but because I recognize how a belief system like that (which isn’t too far from what I was raised with) is a thief of our joy. In that line of thinking, it is better for me to suffer through my marriage than to be single and dare to feel joy. Marriage is considered a higher good than personal happiness.
While I hope that belief system brings peace to the people who rang my doorbell, I reject that way of thinking for myself. I choose this joyful single life and I feel no guilt about it. Personally, I think this is closer to the message of hope, joy, and grace that Jesus brought than a life of struggle and personal sacrifice would have been (but that may be my attempt to subvert scripture to my own gain).
There’s a third piece that’s coming up for me when I think about my relationship with joy and it’s related to what I wrote in my last post about my Mennonite lineage. Pure unadulterated joy, when you’ve been raised in a lineage of pain and martyrdom, can feel like a betrayal of the memory of those who died in the fire or moved from country to country in their search for peace. How could I relax in a hammock in a beautiful backyard without worries or struggles when my foremothers gave their lives for their faith? How could I choose a Friday evening under the twinkle lights when there is still so much injustice and pain in the world? How could I be so selfish when there are widows and orphans who need to be cared for? Surely there is a cross I must bear or a cause I must fight for. Surely I should feel guilty for enjoying so much abundance that I get to spend money on patio furniture and hammocks. These thoughts, though perhaps not explicit, are definitely part of the subconscious guilt that pokes through.
As activists and writers like bell hooks and Maya Angelou have reminded us, though, joy is a radical, revolutionary act and should not be associated with guilt. It tells our oppressors that they have not won. It lets our ancestors know that their struggle was worth it. It is triumph in the face of persecution. It is our way to survive and thrive in spite of the injustice. Joy goes hand and hand with our commitment to justice and peace – one fuels the other and both can live in harmony.
My ancestors may have died in the flames and/or been displaced from their land multiple times, but I don’t believe they’d want me to deny myself joy because of some misplaced duty to their memory.
There’s a fourth reason why joy is a bit of a challenge for me and that has to do with the “tortured artist” archetype that runs fairly deeply in my psyche. As a writer who has no trouble writing about grief and trauma and other deeply personal struggles, I have an underlying fear that I might become boring when I’m too happy. I run out of things to write about and I fear that people will see me as one of those social media influencers with a charmed, curated life. Grief is easier to tap into when I’m writing – joy leans toward the more frivolous and self-absorbed.
It’s been a pattern for me that some of you may have recognized if you’ve follow me for awhile – I write more prolifically when life is not running smoothly. I have more to say about that than I do about beauty, easy, comfort and joy. And I feel more connected to my clients when I can relate to their struggle.
As a result, I tend to look for the struggle because, in a somewhat unhealthy way, that’s what gives me meaning, what builds my relationships, and what makes my creative juices flow. I am, you could say, overly attached to the struggle because of the way it grows my work.
I’m trying to change all of that though – to re-examine who I am when joy is in my life and to question the old patterns and beliefs that keep me from embracing it. Because just as I have been unafraid to know grief, I want to be unafraid to know joy.
Grief has been my teacher for many years, and now I am embracing joy as my teacher too. I wonder what lessons I can learn if I dive into it with as much commitment and intention as I have into grief. And I wonder how my relationships might shift if I seek out people who can have great capacity for both grief AND joy.
(Trigger warning: suicide)
The first time it happened, I was five months pregnant with our first baby.
It started with panic attacks. My then-husband was starting a new job with greater responsibility and, coupled with the expectancy of fatherhood, he was feeling overwhelmed and anxious and started missing work. We tried to get him help – I took him to a psychologist and checked him into an overnight mental health facility when the panic attacks got really bad. I thought things were shifting, but I was wrong.
One morning, after a couple of weeks of stress leave, he got ready for work in the morning, kissed me good-bye, and headed to the office. I was relieved. Maybe this rough spot was finally over. I left for work, assuming we were shifting back into “life as normal”.
A couple of hours later, I phoned his office to check how he was doing. “He didn’t come in today,” his boss told me. “He phoned earlier and said he couldn’t do it.”
I panicked. Where was he? Why had he told me he was going to work when he wasn’t? What was he hiding?
The rest of that long day was a blur of phone calls and tears and hand-wringing that included a car ride out to his favourite fishing hole with my mom to see if he was there. He wasn’t.
Some time that evening, I got a phone call that he was at the hospital. After multiple suicide attempts (that involved a knife and bottles of pills), he’d woken up in his car, realized that, if all of that effort hadn’t killed him, perhaps he was meant to live after all, and drove himself to the hospital. He was rushed into surgery to patch up the damage he’d done and to make sure that none of his internal injuries would be fatal.
The second time it happened, I was “pregnant” with a different kind of baby – I was just about to quit my job to start my own business. Fifteen years had passed (years which included the births of our four children and the loss of one of them), he’d gone back to school to get a university degree, and was finally in a job that looked like it would be permanent enough to support our family while I launched a business.
Once again, a new job with new responsibilities caused the panic attacks to start happening. Once again, we tried to get help. And once again, I got the phone call that he’d taken a lot of pills and needed to be taken to the hospital. (This time, there was no knife involved.)
This time, instead of recuperation time for his physical injuries, there was a very difficult week’s stay in a psychiatric ward. And this time, I had to juggle the needs of three children, trying to keep their lives as close to normal as possible, while driving back and forth to the hospital to support him.
At this point, if you’ve been reading my work long enough, you might be thinking that I’ll be offering “tips on holding space for someone with mental illness”, but that’s not what this post is about. Instead, this post is about me, the former caregiver and advocate of that person with mental illness. And it’s about all of those who, like me, have had to hold space for people with mental illness.
Because when/if we hold space for people with mental illness, we have to practice radically holding space for ourselves too.
It’s taken me a long time to process the impact that those two suicide attempts (as well as the many times when I was worried it might happen again) have had on me. It wasn’t, in fact, until the marriage ended five years after the second attempt, that I finally acknowledged the toll it had taken on me.
Last week, when social media blew up over the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I, like many others, was triggered by the stories. They brought back a flood of memories, accompanied by grief, fear, self-doubt, anger, and all of those other big emotions that are part of what a caregiver/advocate has to carry. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t have time to write a blog post last week, because it would have been a more triggered version of what I want to say. This one comes with a little more reflection.
Both of the times my former husband attempted suicide, my adrenalin kicked in and I went into warrior/mama-bear mode. I protected, I nurtured, I fought flawed health-care systems, I ran the household, I negotiated with psychiatrists, and I made endless calls trying to get the right kind of support.
While most of us are familiar with the fight, flight, or freeze responses associated with stress/trauma, there’s another reaction that has recently been added to the literature, and that’s what I was experiencing (though I didn’t know it at the time). It’s the “tend and befriend” response that is found more frequently in females than males. “…compared to males, females’ physical aggression and fear-related behaviors are less intense and more ‘cerebral’–they are displayed in response to specific circumstances and are less tied to physiological arousal. So while both sexes share the capacity for fight or flight, females seem to use it less.”
Researchers found that, during tough times, stressed females spend significantly more time tending to vulnerable offspring than males.“They reasoned that the adaptive value of fighting or fleeing may be lower for females, who often have dependent young and so risk more in terms of reproductive success if injured or dislocated. And females of many species form tight, stable alliances, possibly reflecting an adaptive tendency to seek out friends for support in times of stress.” (Both quotes are from this article. And here’s a link to a research paper about it.)
There’s a tricky thing about trauma, though, that I didn’t understand back then. If the trauma isn’t adequately released at the time, it roots itself in the body and, from then on, whenever a stimulus brings up a body memory of the trauma event, the body responds exactly as it did during the trauma. In other words, though there were only two suicide attempts in our twenty-two year marriage, there were a LOT of stimuli that triggered my “tend and befriend” response (as well as my less prominent fight/flight/freeze). The mental illness of my partner didn’t simply disappear in the in-between times, so any time there were hints of it showing up, although I didn’t consciously think “he’s going to attempt suicide again”, my body responded as though that were true.
Though “tend and befriend” might seem like a more gentle, healthy response to stress than fight, flight, or freeze, I can tell you that it often is not, especially when it’s a triggered response and is unnecessary in that moment. When it showed up, for example, when I was exhausted and yet still had to go into warrior/mama-bear mode on behalf of my children, it drove me to burnout. And when it showed up at the expense of my own well-being (ie. protecting my then-husband rather than looking out for my own interests), it nearly killed me and left me vulnerable to abusive behaviour and manipulation.
It was so present, in fact, that it took several years longer than it should have for me to end the failing marriage. I was so afraid that the marriage breakdown would cause him to attempt suicide again and that my children would have to bear the grief of that, that I held the marriage together much longer than I should have. I was so used to assuming that I was responsible for his emotions and the way they impacted my children, that I couldn’t imagine the world functioning any other way. It took a lot of work for me to release myself of that responsibility. Even three years later, I can be unreasonably triggered by a simple text message from him.
Several years ago (before the marriage ended and after my mom died), I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue. I was exhausted. My heightened state of alertness and responsibility meant that my adrenal glands had been overproducing for so long that I could barely function anymore. I started taking supplements and tried to change my diet and sleep patterns, but it wasn’t until my marriage ended and the stimulus was largely removed from my day-to-day existence that I finally started to feel like sleep was replenishing me and I wasn’t among the walking dead anymore.
It’s not gone, though. There are still stimuli that trigger the same response in me. When, for example, my children’s emotional meltdowns or panic attacks are similar to their dad’s, I get triggered into the same anxiety and the same tend and befriend response. I rush too quickly to fix things and I don’t always wait for those involved to take responsibility for doing their own emotional work. I’m getting better at recognizing it and finding ways to self-sooth so that it’s not destructive to me or my children, but I’m not foolish enough to think the problem is fixed. I’m still actively working to heal it and release it from my body.
How then, do we as caregivers and advocates stay in the work for people we love without burning ourselves out or resorting to destructive patterns? How do we hold space for ourselves when we find ourselves holding space for those with mental illness?
Here are some thoughts on that…
- Recognize the trauma/stress that you are carrying. Unfortunately, it can often be our own strength, and our internal narratives of how we “can handle anything” that contribute to our downfall. If we don’t recognize the impact on our bodies of the trauma that’s being caused by a loved one’s mental illness, it roots itself in our bodies and can become an unhealthy, subconscious response to even the slightest stimuli. This denial can cause burnout, addiction, and destructive behaviour if not addressed.
- Care for your body. This is important, because your body is the container that holds the trauma. Go for whatever body treatments help you to release what you’re holding – massage, reiki, craniosacral, EMDR, acupuncture, etc. And take care of yourself with healthy food and movement. Pay attention to the signals your body sends you, because your body may be letting you know that you’re carrying too much. (Take it from someone who’s wrestling with how my weight may be a signal my body’s been sending me about the trauma.)
- Resist the urge to take on responsibility for anyone else’s emotional or mental health. You can not fix them. You can not make them happy. You can not even ensure that a person will not attempt to take their own life. You can support them and hold space for them (if you are not becoming too damaged in the process), but the outcome is not on you. Even if, in your desperation, you said what you’re pretty sure was the WRONG thing just before the suicide or attempt (which I did), the outcome wasn’t your fault. Let that go.
- Get help. Don’t be ashamed to reach out to friends, family, professionals, etc. You can’t do this alone and you shouldn’t. Sometimes it’s as simple as having a friend who will let you cry in their presence so that you can release what’s bottled up inside. Or asking a family member to step in to care for the person with mental illness. And don’t hesitate to hire a trauma professional to get to the deeper place of healing (or look for social services support, if you don’t have the financial resources).
- Know when to walk away. For those of us with a strong tend-and-befriend reflex, it’s really, really hard to walk away from someone who’s hurting, even when we’re being destroyed in the process. But consider the possibility that the person you’re supporting may actually be better off on their own, learning to walk in the world without the crutch you’ve offered them. Consider that your triggered tend-and-befriend response, though it’s comfortable and familiar to them, might actually be to their detriment as well as your own. And also… consider that they may be manipulating you (knowingly or unknowingly) to get you to stay.
- Create and hold the boundaries you need in order to stay healthy.Again, this is especially hard for anyone caught in the tend-and-befriend patterns. We want to make sure everyone else is cared for before we care for ourselves, because that’s what we believe will serve our overactive nervous system. But an un-boundaried life will destroy you. Practice saying no to the small things so that you can work up the courage to say no to the big things.
- Pay attention to how seemingly healthy responses may actually be unhealthy ones. Whenever I kicked into tend-and-befriend response, I always thought I was doing the right thing, tending to and protecting those I was responsible for, and sacrificing my own interests for theirs. But those responses were masking what was going on underneath and they were setting patterns into play that have taken years to release.
There is nothing easy about this, and if you find yourself in a place where you must hold space for someone with mental illness, know this… I see you. I witness how hard you are working. I know the tears you cry into your pillow at the end of the day. I get it and I hope that you will find the support you need so that you will not be destroyed by this.
Please, take care of yourself. The world needs you.
* * *
Note: If this post resonated with you, check out the work that I do in helping people learn how to hold space for each other and for themselves.