What are we talking about when we talk about systems? (A primer on systems theory)

Recently, I created a short video about worthiness and posted it on social media. It was about how it’s hard to develop a sense of self-worth, no matter how many self-help books we read or therapy sessions we attend, if we don’t understand that we are all embedded in systems of worthiness and have been taught, since infancy, how to measure our worth in those systems. I was talking about systems like patriarchy, white supremacy, and colonization.
 
I created that video partly because I was trying to increase the reach for the Centre’s work on social media. We’re starting a new course soon, which means that I have do some marketing, and since my strengths do not lie in the kind of content-creation that gets attention these days, I was trying to stretch myself into a new way of communicating.
 
Ironically, when I tried to boost the post on Facebook so that more people would see it (that’s the way Facebook makes money off of small businesses like ours – it only puts our stuff in front of very limited audiences unless we pay for the post), it got rejected. Apparently, it didn’t comply with their policy about “social issues, elections or politics” (probably because I used the words “white supremacy” in the video).
 
The whole thing really makes me laugh, partly because it feels like a message from the universe saying I should stick with what I do well, and partly because I got rejected by a representative of one of the systems I was naming in the video – namely, capitalism (in the form of social media). Luckily, I know better than to measure my worthiness by their measurement!
 
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The above is a prelude to what I actually want to write about in this post – systems thinking. It occurred to me, after posting the video, that perhaps it would be worthwhile to take a step back and explain what I’m talking about when I talk about the “systems” that measure us. One of the goals of my new course, Know Yourself, Free Yourself is to help people see the systems that they are a part of so that they can learn to live in a more liberated relationship with those systems (particularly those that cause harm). But maybe, before you can see those systems, you have to first have a basic understanding of what you should be looking for?
 
Systems Theory is a vast field of study, with many different tentacles, and it’s a little slippery – kind of like an octopus that keeps slipping out of grasp just when you think you’ve got it – so I won’t do a great job of clarifying it in this short blog post, but I’ll at least give you a primer, as I understand it. While first introduced as a biological concept, it has been expanded as a way to understand families, workplaces, cultures, and beyond.
 
According to Systems Theory, anything that happens within a system must be examined with that system in mind because every part of a system impacts the whole. In other words, you can’t separate an individual from the system they live in, and, at the same time, the system is nothing without the individuals that create and maintain it.
 
Let’s consider the human body as an example of a system. The hand might imagine itself as separate and independent of the feet, but if the hand reaches for a banana, it can only pick it up as long as the feet don’t revolt and move the body to another room. Neither the hand nor the foot can function unless the muscles, heart, skin, and brain cooperate. And then, because they are all interdependent, those things can’t function as long as the hand is being kept away from the banana that will fuel the whole body.
 
You can’t examine the hand without considering what it is attached to (and fed by), and you can’t examine the body without recognizing that the hand is part of what makes it a body.
 
Now extrapolate that out to consider the way that we as individual bodies are connected to the families, cities, cultures, religions, etc. that we are a part of. None of us can be seen entirely separate from these systems, and these systems don’t exist if none of us are willing to contribute to them. Consider a church, for example. A person who’s a member of that church is being influenced by that church and, if you want to truly understand that person, you have to zoom the lens out to see what beliefs, biases, and relationships are part of that person’s life because of the church they’re part of. At the same time, if all of the people who are part of that church walk away from it, the church ceases to exist.
 
Below is a diagram that shows some of the complexity of the various levels of systems that we are all part of. This model emerges out of Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Model of Systems, which focuses primarily on child development, but it can be expanded to all of our social systems.

At the smallest level, you are the individual at the centre (with your own system existing within your body). Then you are part of a number of microsystems (your family, school, peer groups, local church, etc.). Next is the mesosystem (which weaves together the relations between microsystems and exosystem – for example, the relations between your family members and their coworkers). Then the exosystem (your neighbours, friends of family, mass media, government agencies, social welfare systems, social media, etc.). Then the macrosystem (attitudes and ideologies of the culture, ethnicity, geographic location, socioeconomic status, etc.). Finally, the chronosystem holds all of the experiences of a lifetime (environmental events, major life transitions, and historical events).

Let’s expand the analysis of the person who’s a member of a local church. Not only is it insufficient to examine that person separate from the church that they’re a part of, it is also insufficient to examine that church separate from the broader systems that it is part of. That local church is likely part of a denomination that shapes the traditions, historical relevance, ideologies, beliefs, and biases of that church. That denomination may have multiple levels of influence, from the localized grouping of churches, up to the global governance structure. It is also embedded within a religion that informs, among other things, what version of God is worshipped and how members of that religion interact with people of other religions. And then there is the neighbourhood, city, country, and region of the world that the local church is located in – all of these things also have influence, meaning that a local church in one country won’t look the same as a local church in another country even if they’re in the same denomination.

At an even broader scale, that local church (and, by extension, each member of the church), is being influenced by what’s at the macrosystems level. This is where things like colonization, patriarchy, white supremacy, classism, racism, and capitalism come into play. A church rooted in the patriarchy, for example, will likely still be led by a man, and where white supremacy is an issue, that man will likely be white. And, here in North America in particular, no church is completely free of the colonization that built our countries.

ALL of these systems are at play in that one individual who is a member of that one local church, and so that person cannot be fully witnessed without recognizing what’s at play. Even when that person leaves that church, the systems will still be at play, especially if the person is unconscious of the way that they’ve been influenced while part of that church. (Also at play will be all of the other systems that individual is part of – family systems, community systems, work systems, etc.)

Systems usually evolve as a way to organize us. A system without some form of organization won’t be able to sustain itself or serve the purpose it’s meant for, and so, if we value a system and find meaning in it, we organize it. Imagine, for example, a school that has no sense of order – nobody is responsible for doing the teaching or clean up and students are allowed to do whatever they please. That’s not education, it’s anarchy. (Some would suggest that it would eventually become a self-organizing system, if the desire for education is great enough.)

The problem is that what organizes us often begins to control us. When we become too rigid to allow a system to evolve, when we put the value of the system above the value of the individuals in that system, and when we embed a measurement of worthiness into a system (what Isabel Wilkerson refers to as Caste), then that system is no longer just organizing us, it’s controlling and measuring us. That’s when we end up with the dominance and oppression of systems like colonization.

Then, when a system begins to control people using dominance and oppression, that system begins to cause trauma in its people. A system that causes trauma becomes a system full of traumatized people and (because what happens at the micro level is also what happens at the macro level) it is therefore a traumatized system. Once you have a traumatized system, it becomes particularly destructive and particularly difficult to change. That’s when you see the levels of brokenness that have been showing up in the world – like climate change, and what’s currently happening in the Ukraine.

A traumatized system (just like a traumatized individual) needs people that can hold space for it while it heals. But the challenge is that EVERYBODY in that system has become traumatized and so it’s difficult to step outside of the system enough to help it with its healing. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of trauma.

I am not without hope, though. I have personally witnessed many people, in recent years, who are waking up to this trauma enough so that they can heal it in themselves, and then move themselves far enough outside of the traumatized system so that they can offer healing back to that system and the people in it. These people are learning to work with each other, with the natural world, and with whatever form of spirituality might support them, so that they can work to heal a broken world.

In the Berkana Institute’s Two Loops Model (below), we’re given a hint about what happens when people begin to move away from a traumatized system. The upper loop represents the dominant system, which was once vibrant and alive and served a purpose (the top of the loop). At some point, though, a system’s purpose is fulfilled, and then it needs to complete its cycle so that it can die and make space for a new system. Lots of people resist that system’s death, because it keeps them safe, but some people recognize that the system needs to die and they step away from that system. If those people were traumatized by the dominant system, they must do healing work or they will continue to perpetuate the same trauma that was embedded in the system. As they heal, their imagination becomes reawakened and they become innovators who begin to imagine the birth of something that can replace the dying system. That’s what the bottom loop is for – it represents the evolution of the new system.

In addition to the innovators, there is also a role for hospice workers – those who are willing to support the hospice work of the dying system. Once the old system has been released, the hospice workers join the innovators.

That’s why I’ve created my new course, Know Yourself, Free Yourself. I want to support those people who are waking up – those who are doing their healing so that they can become hospice workers or innovators (or both). I want to help them see the systems more clearly. I want to walk alongside them as they examine their lineage, trauma, beliefs, biases, and relationship patterns. I want to help them imagine themselves as whole people, apart from the systems that measure and control them. I want us to imagine collective liberation and generative love. I want us to know community, connection, and joy. I want us to set our imaginations free so that we can dream our way into new ways of being.

I hope that you will join me in this. It feels really, really important, and perhaps even urgent. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve created three levels for the registration fee – because we want this program to welcome into the circle people from around the world and from across the socioeconomic spectrum.

I look forward to being in conversation with you.

Me and the Multiverse: A Story of Regret, Deconstruction, and Liberation

Tucked into the corners of the mirror in my bedroom are two photos of me. In the black and white photo, I’m a young child, reaching across the table to dip my finger into a bowl of sugar. In the coloured photo, I’m a twenty-six-year-old, standing next to my sister, with a large backpack on my back and a smaller one on my front.

Mostly, I forget that the photos are there, but sometimes I catch sight of them and then I pause for a moment to remember those younger versions of me. When I’m feeling particularly reflective, as I am today, I wonder about the thoughts, fears and dreams of each of those younger versions of me.

They are both, in their own ways, reaching for sweetness. The young child, with a guilty look on her face, is trying to sneak some of the sugar before the grownups notice, snatch it away, or shame her for it. She’s already grown accustomed to being called chubby, and if she didn’t know by then, it wouldn’t be much longer before she’d find out just how undesirable it was to be fat and how shameful it was to want a little more sweetness in her life.

The young woman is standing on British soil on her first grand adventure. She’d reached for sweetness across the ocean, backpacking across Europe to feed her wanderlust. What you can’t see on the photo, though, is the engagement ring on her finger. She’s coming home from that trip to get married and settle down. It will be years before she crosses an ocean again.

Beneath the sweetness of both photos, there is an undertone of sadness. When you peel back the layers, they tell the story of a young woman who’s learning about the limitations of what she is allowed to reach for. She’s learning how far she can go before she gets pulled back. She’s learning not to want too much. She’s learning about shame and expectations and acceptability and responsibility and… all of what it means to grow up a woman.

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In the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once, Evelyn Wang is a Chinese-American woman who runs a struggling laundromat with her husband, Waymond. Through a strange turn of events, she discovers that she’s living in a multiverse and that every choice she’s made throughout her life has created an alternate universe where another version of her continues to live out the consequences of the other option of that choice. (For example, in one, she chose not to marry and is living a successful life as a movie star.) In the Alpha Universe – the original universe – people have discovered the existence of other universes and they have found a way to “verse-jump” between them, to access the skills, memories, and bodies of their parallel universe counterparts. They have come to Evelyn for help.

The multiverse is being threatened by Jobu Tupaki, who turns out to be Evelyn’s daughter Joy, whose mind was splintered in the Alpha Universe when the Alpha version of Evelyn pushed her to extensively verse-jump and inhabit other bodies. Evelyn (the laundromat version) is tasked with stopping Jobu Tupaki in order to save the multiverse. To do so, she must verse-jump and briefly inhabit other versions of the person she could have been if she’d made other choices.

In the end (spoiler alert), she must repair a breech with her daughter and talk her out of a nihilistic, destructive view of life so that she doesn’t destroy the multiverse.

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As I stand in front of the mirror, remembering those other versions of me, I can’t help but wonder what life could be like if either of those two younger versions of me had made other choices. What if young-child-me had chosen not to accept the shame imposed by a fatphobic culture and had learned to live a life of radical self-love right from the beginning? What if young-adult-me had admitted to herself just how much she loved to travel and how much she doubted that marriage was the right path, and she’d sent back the ring and extended her stay in Europe?

Where would I be now, if I hadn’t been trying so hard to live in a way that was acceptable to my family/community/religion of origin? What if I’d had – right from the start – the kind of safety and belonging I needed to know it was okay to make different choices?

I used to think it was wrong to have regrets, but then I listened to Dan Pink talk about his new book, The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward, and now I’ve changed my tune. I’m letting myself see the places where I could have made other choices. I’m holding that regret with tenderness, not with judgement, so that I can make more conscious choices going forward.

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What we only see a glimpse of in Everything Everywhere All at Once is the long-term impact of laundromat-Evelyn discovering the alternative outcomes of the choices she made throughout her life. I want the sequel, the rest of the story. Does she simply accept the status quo, accept that she’s doing the best that she can, or does she recognize the possibility for making new choices that free her from some of the restraints of the old ones? What adjustments does she make in order to live a more liberated future? How does she learn to love herself into her own wholeness?

That begs the question outside of the multiverse… Is there a moment when a person can wake up and see the past, present, and future through less clouded lenses? Is there a moment when you have both the vision and the strength to hold the possibility that your life could still turn out differently? A moment that doesn’t bury you under the weight of regret over the intervening years since those original choices were made? A moment (or, more likely, a series of moments) when you can choose a path toward a life more free of the burdens of other people’s expectations and rules, and the weight of the cultural systems that have shaped you?

I believe there is. Like Richard Rohr in the book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, I believe that most of us reach a threshold in midlife when something happens – a fall, a tragedy, a failure, a relationship breakdown – when we can choose to cling to the life we’ve worked so hard to construct (a life that lives up to the standards we thought were acceptable and that offered us safety and belonging), or we can lean into something more ambiguous, more openhearted, and more authentic. It’s a liminal space moment, when we can choose to fall into the abyss – to release the past, deconstruct the rules and expectations we were working so hard to follow, and dare to become more fully ourselves.

Like a giant game of Jenga, we construct our lives out of the pieces we’ve mostly inherited or constructed based on what we’ve been taught – belief systems, values, rules, cultural practices, relationship patterns, identity, career path, gender expression, and so on. Then, somewhere in the middle, a few pieces get knocked out of our foundation, or we choose to remove them, or we see that they are made of nothing but vapour. Then suddenly what we’ve constructed begins to tumble. Suddenly we see that what we’ve built is precariously balanced and not as sturdy as we’d imagined it to be.

We can choose to accept the deconstruction of the tower, sit in the messiness for awhile, and then find the courage and strength to carry on. Or we can desperately cling to what was and keep plugging the holes and propping up the tower.

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Easter weekend always brings back memories of a particular moment when I knew my Jenga tower was about to crash. In 2011, on Easter weekend, we got confirmation that Mom had cancer that would likely kill her.  At a family Easter gathering, just after we’d learned about the cancer, my former husband and I got into a big fight. On the way home, while I tried to keep the conversation restrained so our sleeping daughters in the back of the van wouldn’t hear, I told him I was ready to end the marriage and would only give it another chance if he would take the initiative to find us a marriage therapist. Then, on Sunday morning in church, after years of trying to hang onto the shards of my faith, I finally admitted to myself that I no longer knew how to find meaning in the version of the Easter story I’d always heard in church.

Two years earlier, I’d quit my job to start self-employment, but didn’t yet have a stable income. A few years before that, my dad died. That meant that the four foundational pieces on which my Jenga tower was built – marriage, faith, career, and parents – were all at risk simultaneously, some by my choice and some by forces outside my control.

I woke up on the Monday after Easter with an all-consuming sense of dread, terrified that my whole life was about to be destroyed and that my daughters would be taken down with me. For the next few years, I tried desperately to plug the holes and prop up the tower. I kept going to church and I kept trying to save my marriage. Five years later, though, everything was gone – mom had died, my marriage ended, and I stopped going to church. There was nothing but a pile of Jenga pieces on the floor at my feet.

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In a game of Jenga, the toppling of the tower marks the end of the game. Life is not like that, though. Instead of marking the end of the story, deconstruction offers an invitation to write a whole new narrative. It’s the moment when you learn that you can let go of the pieces of the tower that don’t belong to you, and you can begin to build something much more sturdy, beautiful, and true. It’s the moment when you realize that the tower was probably also a cage.

My life was not destroyed the way my anxiety told me it would be. It was wobbly for awhile, and I woke up many mornings with that familiar sense of dread, but then I discovered that my deconstruction was liberating me from my tower/cage. It allowed me to tell the truth and to free myself of the parts of my life that didn’t feel true. I discovered I could build the kind of work that gave my life purpose and joy. I could grow relationships with much deeper and more authentic roots. I could search for the version of faith that felt most alive for me. I could say yes to what I loved and no to what limited me. I could find healing for the wounds left behind by the cage and I could grow in ways I never dreamed possible.

Today, when I look at those two photos of younger-me, with the reflection of current-me in the mirror between them, I invite them back into my life and I tell them that, from now on, I will do my best to be true to them. I will build a life that their dreams can be proud of. I will not let them be shamed for the ways in which they reached for sweetness. I will not let them be tethered to other people’s fears or limitations. I will continue to dismantle any of the pieces of the tower/cage that might still bind them.

Unlike laundromat-Evelyn, I can’t step into a parallel universe to discover the alternative outcomes of the choices made by either of the younger versions of me. But I can make choices on their behalf that honour and liberate them, choices less bound by whatever kept them caged.

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If you find yourself at any stage of tower deconstruction or reconstruction, you might find support in my new course, Know Yourself, Free Yourself: Self-exploration as a path to liberation and love. I hope you’ll join me!

Go through the tunnel

There’s a pedestrian tunnel I pass through regularly, in all seasons. In summer, I often cycle through, and in winter, I pass through on foot. The tunnel provides a safe passage under a busy freeway. It’s a connecting point between my sister’s house and mine, and it’s also along the best cycling route from my house to downtown.

While it’s designed for safety (keeping pedestrians off the busy freeway), there are many times when the tunnel feels less than safe. It’s dimly lit, so when I pass through after dark, it’s hard to see what might be hiding in the shadows. Its walls are covered in graffiti and there are often signs that people have been taking advantage of the shelter and obscurity of it to do some late-night partying. In the summer on my bike, I am often fearful I might puncture a tire on broken glass.

While the tunnel offers shelter from the elements and a brief respite from rain or snow, it’s also lower than the ground around it and there isn’t proper drainage, so rainwater collects in large puddles on the concrete floor. In the Spring, when snow is melting, it’s nearly impossible to pass through without rubber boots.

A few days ago, I passed through the tunnel and found it especially treacherous (see photo). Melting snow and slush had frozen into an unpredictable landscape that made each step dangerous.

As I was reaching the far side of the tunnel, I looked up from my careful concentration on where to place my next step and saw the light streaming in. The bright sunlight made me pause for a moment to appreciate what it meant to near the end of my careful, dangerous journey. As I stood there, my body almost involuntarily took a deep, lung-filling breath. It felt like hope.

That’s very similar to how I felt last month when I landed in Costa Rica, where I’d traveled to spend a couple of weeks at my friend’s farm working on my next book and the new course that’s launching this week. After two years of no travel, two years of social distancing, two years of anxiety over COVID, two years of supporting my three daughters through big transitions (and one through complex medical challenges), I felt like I was finally arriving at the end of a long tunnel.

When my friend Mary picked me up at the airport, I burst into tears. I’d been holding so much anxiety for so long, tiptoeing through the treacherous tunnel, that I just needed to release it before my body could fully relax and enjoy the sun and warmth of Costa Rica. Once the tears settled, so did my body and breath.

Like that light shining on me at the end of the tunnel, Costa Rica offered me light and hope again (especially after what has been a long, cold, and hard winter here in Manitoba). It invited me to stop holding my breath and stop tensing my leg muscles for every step I needed to take in the unsafe territory of the pandemic.

Sometimes when we’re in the middle of the tunnel, we forget that the tunnel ends. We assume we’ll always be afraid of the next step, always be holding our bodies tense, always be breathing in that shallow anxiety-ridden way. Unfortunately, when that kind of anxiety is present for a prolonged period, our bodies assume they need to stay in high alert, and we get stuck in an activated state. I remember that feeling so clearly after my divorce, when a naturopath told me I’d developed adrenal fatigue from too many months of high stress. Our bodies can only take so much before they start to protest.

With Easter coming up this weekend, I’ve been thinking about an Easter eleven years ago when I entered one of the hardest, darkest tunnels of my life. We found out my mom had cancer, and two days later I told my husband we either needed to separate or go for counselling. (I wrote about it the following Easter, and now, when I read that post, I feel so much tenderness for past-me who was feeling hopeful that life was settling. She didn’t yet know that the tunnel was about to get darker.)

What I keep having to relearn every time I go through a tunnel like that is that the tunnels are the places that shape us most. Tunnels cause us to pause and take stock of our lives. They remind us that there’s no point in carrying extra baggage, especially when every step must be taken carefully. They help us re-evaluate what’s important and, like a kiln that turns mud into stone, they strengthen us into vessels with strength and purpose.

The tunnel I walk through regularly is dark and hidden. A lot of people in the city don’t even know it exists, because it’s not in a high traffic area. You only arrive there if you happen to live in the area or you know it exists. From the road above, it’s entirely invisible. Almost every time I pass through it, I walk through alone.

That’s how tunnels in our lives often feel. They are usually times of loneliness and isolation, when we find ourselves set apart from the people we love because nobody really understands what we’re going through and we don’t know how to talk about it. In the years between that fateful Easter, when told my husband I was ready for a separation, and the day five years later when we finally gave up on counselling and separated, very few people in my life knew what was going on. Many were surprised when I told them we’d separated. I simply didn’t know how to talk about it.

Part of the reason I do the work that I do is because I don’t want people to feel so lonely when they pass through tunnels like that. I want them to know that there are others going through similar tunnels, and others who’ve been through the tunnels before them. I want them to find encouragement and hope in community.

That’s one of the reasons I’ve created my newest course, Know Yourself, Free Yourself: Self-exploration as a Path to Liberation and Love. I know that self-exploration can be challenging and lonely sometimes, especially when we learn hard things about ourselves and we have to dismantle old belief systems or disrupt maladaptive patterns. I don’t want you to have to do it alone. I want to offer you guides, companions and insights to help you navigate the tunnel. Consider this course to be like a flashlight that helps you find safe passage through.

The route that I walk that includes the tunnel is nearly 10,000 steps long. Only about 100 of those steps are through the tunnel. That means that for 9900 steps, I don’t have to deal with the challenges of the tunnel. When I’m in the tunnel, I often overlook the fact that it is a relatively short period of time, but when I emerge, the steps that take me home feel much more carefree and easy.

The course that I’m creating isn’t just about tunnels. It’s about liberation and love. It’s about the light at the end, when your body feels relief and hopefulness and you know that you have grown and changed and will never be the same again. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all of my years of going through tunnels, it’s that when we surrender to the tunnel, we always feel more freedom on the other side. And that freedom is worth every challenging step.

If you’re in a tunnel right now, I want you to know that you’re not alone. I want you to know that there’s a light at the end. I hope that you will see it soon and that you will discover that the tunnel offered you gifts you didn’t know you were gathering along the way.

p.s. I’d love to have you join us in Know Yourself, Free Yourself: Self-exploration as a Path to Liberation and Love

Protected and Nurtured: on winter parkas and float spas (and the metaphor in between)

My friend Saleha laughs at me and shakes her head in puzzlement when I bundle up in -30° C weather and go for my daily walks. “It’s not weather that’s fit for humans,” she says, and she’s mostly right. This is the kind of weather that could kill me if I weren’t dressed for it or if I stood in one place for too long.

I do it anyway, because my walks help to keep me grounded and, as I said last week, they help me soothe some of the emotional overload that’s so often present these days. A few days ago, I snapped a picture of myself to send to Saleha just before heading out the door. She sent back a TikTok video and emoji poking fun at me.

I have the right clothes for winter walking – a down-filled parka and down-filled mittens, a pair of good ski pants, warm and sturdy boots, and a woolen hat and scarf. It can be surprisingly pleasant (unless there’s a lot of wind) and I usually come home sweaty and happy.

I was looking at the selfie I’d snapped for Saleha when it suddenly occurred to me what a good metaphor this is for how our bodies protect us when they sense danger in the environment. My layers of clothing protect me against the cold the way my nervous system protects me against the threat of harm. Like putting a coat on, my nervous system becomes activated (i.e. fight/flight/freeze/fawn) so that I can survive the threat and come home alive.

I love my parka for how well it takes care of me when it’s cold. I also love my nervous system for how well it takes care of me when there’s a threat. They both do their jobs beautifully. I am happy, though, when neither of those things need to do their jobs.

Imagine if I somehow convinced myself that I still need to wear those layers of clothing when I go to the beach in the summer and it’s +30° C outside in the blazing sun. You’d not only look at me funny, but you’d worry that I’d die of heat stroke from being overprotected.

That’s what happens when stress or trauma gets stuck in your body. Your normally well-functioning nervous system becomes convinced there is a threat when there is no real threat. It’s just trying to do its job, but it’s become conditioned to misinterpret the situation and can inadvertently cause harm.

Everyone’s over-reactive nervous system looks a little different (and can also be situation-dependent), so we don’t always recognize it in each other. (It’s not as simple to discern as a parka on the beach.) While one person might tend toward dissociation (freeze), someone else might have an easily triggered temper (fight), or they might run from the room as quickly as possible (flight). Others might become overly solicitous to the source of the perceived threat (fawn), or they might look after everyone else in the room and try to mitigate the threat while abandoning their own need for safety (tend-and-befriend).

Right now, with this pandemic entering its third year, it feels like almost all of us have been walking around with our parkas on for two years, trying to protect ourselves from harm even when the harm is invisible and sometimes non-existent. Not only is the virus a threat, but, for many of us, there are relationship landmines to protect ourselves from, especially in families or communities where people have different opinions about vaccines, etc. Add to that the racial injustices and political unrest that seem to be escalating and it’s just… TOO MUCH.

When do we get to take our parkas off? When can we trust that the environment is safe enough to lean into? For many of us, that might take quite some time because our bodies have become so primed for danger. (Here in Canada, when Spring finally arrives, we often still take our parkas along on long road trips because we never know when the weather might take a turn for the worse.)

I am looking forward to Spring! In more ways than one!

This past weekend, in need of some intentional self-care, I went to the float spa. In a way, the float spa experience is the opposite of the walking-outside-in-winter experience. To get the full experience, you have to strip naked, surrender to the salt water, close the pod to block out light and sound, and float. No effort required. For an hour, you simply lay there and try to rest your mind and body in a womb-like space.

According to the website of the spa I visit, Without the constant noise of analyzing the world around you, your body lowers its levels of cortisol, the main chemical component of stress. Your brain releases elevated levels of dopamine and endorphins. Not having to fight gravity lets your muscles, joints, and bones take a well-deserved break. Your body suddenly has loads of extra resources, which it gets to focus on things like healing and resting.”

A float spa experience is one of trust and good boundaries. It wouldn’t feel safe if the pod were situated in an area exposed to the public, but with the door to the private room locked, I am able to trust that no harm will come to my body. There are times, though, when I just can’t get to that level of trust. I’ve tried the float spa a couple of times when I’ve been in periods of high stress and burnout and I simply wasn’t able to quiet my over-active brain enough to enjoy the experience. Fortunately, this most recent visit was not one of those times.

This post is not meant to be an endorsement for float spas (they’re certainly not for everyone, and there are less expensive ways to get access to a soothing experience), but rather it’s meant to offer the comparison and to suggest that we all need to find and create spaces where enough of the conditions for safety are met so that our over-active nervous systems can rest. We all need to be able to take off our parkas sometimes, or we’re going to pass out from heat exhaustion on the beach.

One of the other things I do (that’s like a float-spa for my brain) is to stay off social media on the weekends because I know that social media often floods me with too much cortisol. I’ve also limited my activity on social media and limited the amount I express my opinion on hot-button issues so that I don’t get sucked into as many of the cortisol-inducing debates that usually end up leading nowhere (and are engineered by social media to keep us hooked). (That’s been especially challenging recently with our country so divided over the “freedom convoy”.)

I don’t want to “die on the beach”, so I need to regularly take off my metaphorical parka and climb naked into the pod. In other words, I had to make an intentional move away from warrior stance into tenderness.

It’s not that I intend to stay silent on issues of injustice, but if I want to function well enough to do the work that I love, I need better boundaries and more of what makes me feel nurtured and protected. Instead of being a warrior for social justice on social media (where I’m often convinced it makes little difference), I will do my best to continue to bring love, liberation and justice into the spaces I hold. I will protect those spaces with fierce boundaries and help people find what they need so that they can contribute to a world of more love, liberation and justice.

A few people have asked me, lately, why I’ve seemingly turned from my focus on holding space toward tenderness as a theme, and my answer is that those two things are inextricably intertwined. You simply CAN’T hold space without tenderness. And if you never offer tenderness to yourself, then you’ll be much more inclined to hijack space rather than to hold it.

That’s why I wrote the free e-book, The House That Tenderness Built, and why I’m hosting the workshop, Living in the House that Tenderness Built this weekend. I’m doing it because I want to give people their own version of a float spa, where they can take off your metaphorical parkas, let the sun shine on your faces, and let their bodies, minds and hearts rest.

I can’t fix any of the problems people face and I can’t protect them from injustice or a deadly virus, but I can help them find ways to treat themselves when the problems threaten to overwhelm them.

There is far too much evidence of the lack of tenderness in our world these days, and so it’s my mission to help people find it and bring it back. I want it for you and I want it for me. Let’s be tender together. It’s the only way we’ll find the resources we’ll need to step back into the less-than-tender world.

One Foot in Front of the Other: emotional regulation in a complicated world

photo credit: Elijah Hail, Unsplash

Sometimes emotions get so mixed up and confused, don’t they? And when they get that way, and we get overwhelmed by them, we lose sight of the ways in which they take control of our behaviour and choices.

Saturday was my last day with my youngest daughter, Maddy, before she returned to Vancouver for university. That’s where my emotional roller coaster started this past weekend – with some anticipatory grief and loneliness, mixed in with a little old-fashioned mama-worrying. As I’ve shared before, this particular daughter has been on a complicated health journey the last two years, and it’s taken an emotional toll on our whole family. Having her live far away from me now adds to that complexity.

On Saturday afternoon, Maddy and I went for a “podcast drive”. This has been one of our bonding past-times in recent years, especially during the pandemic when we’ve had few other options. We choose a podcast (usually either a long-form investigative journalism series about an intriguing murder or other crime, or something about cults or cultish leaders) and then head out for a long drive (usually with some tasty beverages). This time we drove to Birds Hill Park and reminisced about the many years we’ve attended the Winnipeg Folk Festival there and lamented the loss of it in the last two years.

On the way home, we drove through downtown Winnipeg and came across the local rally in support of the “Freedom Convoy” that’s recently made its way across Canada to Ottawa (to protest pandemic-related mandates). There were, admittedly, far more vehicles than we expected to see, and that filled us both with some frustration and despair. 

I won’t go into all of the reasons why the Freedom Convoy troubles me (because that’s not what this post is about), except that I will mention a very personal one that felt like a heavy weight in the car for both my daughter and for me. She has lived through this pandemic with a disability and an autoimmune disorder that has made her particularly at risk, and our family has lived for nearly two years with uncertainty over whether her body could survive the virus. For us to witness so many people who want to overthrow mandates that may have helped keep her (and others like her) alive for two years, plus keep the healthcare system functioning well enough that she could have access to the many surgeries she’s needed, feels personal.

(When she finally did catch COVID last month, along with her sisters and me, she had, thankfully, already had three doses of the vaccine and – possibly since it was Omicron – her symptoms were not severe. Plus her trachea was more open than it’s been for much of the last two years – because the hospitals didn’t shut down and deny her access to those ten surgeries – so she was able to breathe relatively well.)

There’s a little more to add about what she was feeling at that moment… At the end of the convoy, Maddy (who’s been a climate activist for several years, partly as a way to cope with the climate anxiety so many youth are experiencing) said, with despondence in her voice, “If so many people distrust science, we’re never going to address climate change. We’re fucked.” On multiple levels, she was feeling abandoned and let down by the generations before her.

Not long after that, we got a text message from my other daughter, who works at a liquor store. She was in tears from the many belligerent customers at the store who, emboldened by the protests, refused to wear masks properly and were taking out their frustrations (and likely releasing some of the adrenaline from participating in the protest) on low-paid retail staff.

(Note: I know that there will be readers of this who may want to respond with other opinions about the convoy, and you have a right to your opinion, but I urge you simply to do your best to hold space for the story of what my daughters and I were feeling at the moment. If you care to stick with me, read to the end of this without rushing to defend your position.)

When we arrived home from our drive, Maddy disappeared into her room for a nap and I… well… at first I simply wandered around the house feeling lost and in despair and unsure of what to do with myself. My emotions felt all jumbled up and confused and there didn’t seem to be any clear way through them, nor was there any clear action that might help alleviate them. I considered going on social media, partly to distract and numb myself, and partly to feed my righteousness with the opinions of like-minded people, but I made a commitment near the beginning of the pandemic to give myself an intentional break from the siren call of social media on the weekends, and I knew that this wasn’t the right time to break that commitment. 

I knew that social media would likely add to the messiness and dysregulation of my emotional state. Or it might over-simplify the emotions by making me believe only one emotion was relevant. Or it might numb the most overt emotions so that I’d miss the gifts of the more quiet ones. Or it might tempt me into reactive activism and then I’d get dragged into one of the many pointless debates that social media engenders that would only serve to activate my already-taxed nervous system. 

Nope – social media would not serve any valuable purpose in that moment, so I stayed away from it. Instead, I bundled up (it’s been a cold winter around here) and headed out for a walk. Walking has long been a critical part of my self-care, and it’s been especially critical during the many months of this pandemic

There’s something about putting one foot in front of another again and again, especially in natural spaces, that helps me work my way through many emotional states that threaten to overwhelm me. It’s a soothing repetitive action that draws me into a mindful state and out of nervous system activation. It slows me down, regulates my breath, and refocuses me so that I am able to witness and experience the emotions more individually and less as a jumbled mess. As I pass through each emotional state, the walking also helps me to release the emotion instead of getting attached to it.

Recently (on an audiobook that I thoroughly enjoyed), I heard Nick Offerman talk about how each step is actually a process of temporarily falling and then catching yourself just before you fall. Plant your foot, lift your other foot, fall forward, plant, lift, fall, plant. That temporary falling between steps, it occurred to me, is a form of liminal space – where we are in the in-between place of what used to feel sturdy and secure and what we hope will feel sturdy and secure in the future. In the in-between place, we have to trust the process and lean into the falling.

At the beginning of my walk, I was feeling unfocused and my mind raced from thought to thought, trying to make sense of the mixed-up emotions going on. It’s the mind’s job to try to make meaning out of emotions, and it stubbornly tries to do that on its own, forgetting that the body might actually be of support in the endeavour. Thankfully, though, I know enough not to leave the sense-making and regulation entirely up to my mind, so I just kept putting one foot in front of another, heading toward where I knew nature could also do its part. 

A few blocks from my house, I stopped short. Right in front of me, lifting its head from the snow where it had been rooting around for food, was a deer. I’d been so distracted that I’d almost missed it. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a special connection with deer and, to borrow a sentiment from The Colour Purple, I think it “pisses God off if you walk by a deer in a field somewhere and you don’t notice it.” Even though I see deer on almost every walk, I still always pause to notice. 

This deer sighting, and the awareness of the distraction that almost made me miss it, was exactly what I needed to bring me up short and remind me to be more fully present. I stood there and the deer and I stared at each other for several moments. Winter deer are particularly fluffy and this one had just had its nose in the snow, so it had a white snout that made me smile. 

As I stood there, grief rose to the top of the emotion heap, found its way through the swirling clutter of my mind, and landed in my eyes. I stood there crying on the road and the deer watched me and I let it hold space for me in its unique deer-way.

Once the deer had turned and disappeared behind a house, I carried on. That’s when the other emotions started to line up behind grief and I tried to be mindful as each one came up, witnessing them and letting them pass. There was multi-layered grief, over my daughter leaving and over damaged relationships from the divisions this pandemic has fostered. There was helplessness, because I can do so little to protect any of my daughters or to change policies that might protect their future. There was anxiety over my daughter’s health, and over the state of the world in general. There was anticipatory loneliness, because my daughters are moving away and I am increasingly alone. There was frustration over this endless pandemic. There was sadness over our country’s lack of willingness and/or ability to support vulnerable people during a pandemic (and all of us in the face of climate change).  

I walked and walked and, as I did, I breathed through each of my emotions. Drawing on my tenderness practice, I held space for all that I needed to feel and release. I didn’t judge the emotions or try to stifle them. I just walked and breathed. Plant, lift, fall, plant, lift, fall. Breathe, step, feel, breathe, step, feel.

By the end of the walk, my heart was, once again, at peace and my emotions were much more regulated. Though nothing had changed in my circumstances, everything had changed in my heart, mind and body. I had regained enough equilibrium to hold what I needed to hold, including the next morning when it was time to say good-bye to my daughter.

In his work on Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg talks about how important it is in a conflict to name (and allow others to name) what we’re feeling and what we need. There’s a step (or two) before the naming, though, and that involves developing the skills and personal practices that help us get in touch with what we’re feeling. Unless I have developed some emotional intelligence and have some practices (like walking, breathwork, mindfulness, creative practice, meaningful conversations, journal practice, etc.) to help me hold space for my emotions, I won’t be able to tell you what I’m feeling, especially when there’s stress and anxiety flooding my nervous system. 

We are nearly two years into a pandemic, and even those with high emotional intelligence are getting taxed in our ability to stay mindful and present and maintain (and/or return to) some sense of emotional regulation. Sadly, many of us have had no training or modeling in what it takes to hold space for our own emotions, so we often end up projecting those emotions onto other people and making decisions from our amygdalas (i.e. fight/flight/freeze/fawn) rather than settling ourselves enough to access our prefrontal cortexes so that we can make more thoughtful decisions.

When we are functioning largely in high activation and stress, especially for a prolonged period of time, we are also much more inclined toward confirmation bias and self-righteousness. We find evidence that will help support and strengthen our opinions and activation and we surround ourselves with people who help justify and affirm our positions. (For a helpful book on this, read Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).) We also more easily find ourselves on the victim triangle, looking for people to blame for our victimhood (and/or people to rescue us) instead of accepting that nobody is to blame and there are simply some circumstances that are beyond anyone’s control.

Then social media adds fuel to that fire. Not accidentally, social media feeds the activation and victimhood and gathers similarly activated people around us because that keeps us hooked on our screens longer. We get sucked in, and the cycle continues. 

Sadly, an emotionally dysregulated person, fed by other emotionally dysregulated people, is not going to be able to process rational information that doesn’t prop up their belief system no matter how convincing that information is.

I know it’s hard right now, when we’re all exhausted and activated and there are too many people pushing our buttons, but if we want to get off this roller coaster and not get trapped in the powder kegs of conflict swirling around us all the time, we need to find our equilibrium and help others find theirs. That means finding practices that help us hold space for our emotions and then learning to regulate those emotions. It also means taking a break from social media and not giving in to the temptation to express (and/or validate) every opinion that feels really important in those activated moments. And it probably means setting boundaries and limiting how much we hear the voices and opinions that most contribute to the dysregulation of our nervous systems. 

I’m not talking about sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring what’s going on – I’m talking about learning how to be with ourselves first so that we have greater capacity to be with others and engage in the kinds of meaningful conversations that might actually help to move the markers. Otherwise we’re just screaming into the void.

*****

P.S. If you want support in developing a practice that will help you hold space for your emotions, check out my free e-book, The House that Tenderness Built. And consider joining me in a 90 minute online workshop called Living in the House that Tenderness Built on February 12th.

Becoming high maintenance (or not)

photo credit: Gary Bendig, Unsplash

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.

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