When you go white-water rafting, if you’re a novice, your guide will spend some time teaching you how to sit in the boat, how to hold your paddle, how to adjust your centre of gravity, and where to plant your feet so that there’s less chance that you’ll get tossed out of the boat when you hit the rapids. Then, once you’re floating down the river, your guide will watch the river and warn you when the rapids are coming so that you have time to adjust your posture accordingly. An experienced guide will have been down that river many, many times, so they know how to navigate whatever’s coming.
Once you’re through the rapids and you get to a smooth spot on the river, your guide will let you know that you can relax your posture and enjoy the view.
A skilled leader has the same set of skills as that guide. They’re out front watching for rough water, and they’ve prepared their people so that they know how to adjust their posture to meet the needs of the moment. They warn people when necessary and then they help create the conditions for people to feel safe when the rapids subside.
This past year, there’s been a lot of metaphoric white-water rafting for all of us as we’ve had to adapt to the rough water of a pandemic without any guides to tell us when and how to adjust our posture so we don’t get tossed out of the boat. It’s hard to know what’s coming when nobody has been down this river before. Most of our leaders have felt just as confused as the people in the boat, and some of them have given us false information so we’re not always sure who to trust.
When you don’t have a guide you can trust, and your boat is floating down a river you’re unfamiliar with, it’s likely that your body will stay in the posture of hyper-vigilance. You want to be prepared for the rapids because you don’t know when they’re coming. After one set of rapids has passed, you don’t know if you can trust the stretch of smooth water enough to relax and enjoy the view.
As we near what we hope is the end of this pandemic, many of us will find it hard for our bodies to fully relax. We might be a little more edgy and anxious than usual. We might not be sure who we can trust or what circumstances are safe.
Recently, I was lying in my hammock trying to read a book and I noticed that, although there was no imminent threat and I couldn’t possibly be in a safer situation (in my own backyard on a beautiful day in a hammock with the gate closed and nobody else around), there was still tension in my body as though I were preparing for rapids. I scanned the things in my brain to try to figure out if there was something I was forgetting to do or some situation I was worried about, and I couldn’t find anything that should result in the posture of readiness in my body. I concluded that it was just the residual effect of a year and a half of hypervigilance without a guide to tell me when the smooth waters could be trusted. (I went through a similar thing the year before and the year after my divorce, to the point where I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue because there’d been so much adrenaline pumping through my system for so long, trying to keep me prepared for fight/flight/freeze.)
This summer, I’m taking time away from my work and from social media and it’s my hope that it will be what my body needs in order to more fully relax. I know from past experience that for this kind of long-term hypervigilance to leave my body it takes a considerable amount of time and intentional release. I’m giving my body and heart what they need – rest, companionship, fun, and nature.
I hope that you can find the time to let your body relax fully as well. Let’s be gentle with ourselves and let’s acknowledge how hard it is to go white-water rafting without a guide. We’ve done well just to survive without getting tossed out of the boat. Hopefully we’ve hit some smooth water that we can trust.
I got glasses recently. I’ve been lucky enough to make it to fifty-five without them (and still only need a weak prescription), but apparently my eyes are aging with my body. When I first put them on and noticed how clear the road signs and TV screens suddenly were, I realized that what I’d been accepting as clarity was actually slightly blurry.
It’s the same in all parts of our lives – there are lots of things that we don’t realize we’re not seeing until we’re given a new pair of glasses.
I was raised in an evangelical church where we were taught that everyone needed to be saved and the highest calling was to bring lost souls to Jesus. That was the lens I saw the world through for the first half of my life. In our tiny country church, we often had visiting missionaries who would share stories of the places – both faraway and in northern parts of our country – where they were building churches and schools and bringing people the gospel. Those missionaries were held in high regard.
What I couldn’t see back then, because I didn’t have the right pair of glasses, was how much that worldview had allowed Christianity to be in an enmeshed relationship with colonization all over the world. When colonizers want to take over the land and resources, what better bedfellows than Christians who want to convert the “heathens”, and replace their culture and spiritual practices with Christianity?
Around twenty-five years ago, I started to see it. Books, conversations and movies gradually opened my eyes, and I allowed the questions to keep growing. It was hard, at first, because it felt like betrayal of my past and an abandonment of the people whose beliefs I was beginning to question, but once you start to see it, it’s hard to un-see it.
Seventeen years ago, I wrote my first blog post when I was preparing for my first trip to Africa. I wrote this… I won’t preach from my white-washed Bible. I won’t expect that my English words are somehow endued with greater wisdom than theirs. I will listen and let them teach me. I will open my heart to the hope and the hurt. I will tread lightly on their soil and let the colours wash over me. I will allow the journey to stretch me and I will come back larger than before.
I experienced things on that trip that gave me an even more clear lens on the relationship between colonizers and Christians and the harm done in the name of Christ, and I came home angry, disillusioned and with lots to process. I no longer wanted to be associated with a religion that had done so much harm.
Recently, I’ve been watching the response of Christians to the discovery, here in Canada, of hundreds of unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools (which were largely run by churches), and I recognize what it’s like to be suddenly asked to put on a new pair of glasses and see the truth of what’s been done in the name of religion. It can be painful, and many want to stay in a state of ignorance, because they can’t get past the cognitive dissonance that comes when something they believe to be good and true and just (the church) has caused so much harm.
But once you put on a new pair of glasses, it’s only with intentional denial that you can stay in the belief that the world looks better without them.
It’s taken me some time to get used to my new glasses. I don’t always love them, because they’re a little disorienting (they’re bifocals, so the world looks different depending on which part of the lens I’m looking through), and it takes some effort to keep them clean, but I know I’ll be better off when I get used to wearing them. I just have to give myself time for the adjustment period.
If you’re having a hard time getting used to a new view and you’re tempted to go back to the old one, don’t give up. Just give your eyes time to adjust.
(Note: I believe that it’s possible to decolonize Christianity and I believe that Jesus provided the model for it. I am glad that there are those who are working hard to dig deeper in that work.)
I adopted a new journal practice this Spring, after reading the book Discovering Your Inner Mother. I wanted to nurture all of the parts of me that are connected to old stories, and I wanted to learn to mother myself better.
Each morning, when I sit down with my journal (often sitting on the dock in the local park – my new favourite journal-writing spot), I write, at the top of the page, “Which Heather wants to show up on the page today?” And then I wait a moment to see which voice from my past wants to be heard.
Sometimes it’s the preteen who wants to tell me about how she felt like an outsider at school because she grew up Mennonite and didn’t have a TV and never got to read Teen Beat and didn’t have any entry points into the celebrity-focused conversations the other girls loved to have. Plus she was poor and wore hand-me-down clothes.
Sometimes it’s the young mom who wants to speak about how overwhelmed she felt, with babies and a demanding job, and how she doubted herself and wished she had more of a community to lean on, especially when her husband struggled with mental illness.
Whoever shows up, I hold space for her, as a patient and loving mother would, and when she’s finished speaking, I assure her that she is safe and protected and loved and that I will always listen to her and make choices that hold her best interests at heart.
Recently, during a therapy session, I had a breakthrough in naming and healing one of my traumas. I was able to connect a body sensation that is often present in times of stress and trauma-triggering with a specific moment when harm was done to younger Heather. After doing some work on it, my therapist asked “what are you feeling now, in your body?”
“I still have a bit of the sensation, but it’s weakened, and… there’s something else. I feel a little excitement in me. Almost like there’s a little girl jumping up and down inside my chest. She’s excited because she thinks that if I let go of that trauma, then maybe she can finally come out and play.”
And then I realized that there was something missing from my journal practice. I was allowing the voices of Wounded Heather to show up on the page, at whatever age she was, but I hadn’t yet invited Playful Heather or Passionate Heather or Sensuous Heather. I hadn’t yet considered the voices that Wounded Heather might have silenced because it didn’t feel safe to express those other things. (As I wrote earlier in the Spring, there is a danger in worshipping our wounds.)
Since then, I’ve been listening to the voices that have been silenced by the trauma. I have invited Sensuous Heather to tell me what she most longs for. I’ve asked Playful Heather what her favourite forms of play are. I’ve let Passionate Heather guide me in seeing the world through her eyes. I’ve asked those voices to tell me when they were silenced and what I can do to set them free.
When this post goes out into the world, I will still be on my summer sabbatical. I have taken this sabbatical partly because I want to dedicate more time to listening to those other voices.
Just before my sabbatical started, I told a dear friend “I think I’ve grown tired of my trauma. I’m ready to find out what’s next.” And so… here I am, in that place of discovery, exploring what joy, passion, desire, and sensuousness feel like in a body that’s a little closer to healing and liberation.
If you want to adopt a new writing practice that will help you heal and grow, you might want to try Write for Love and Liberation, which was recently re-launched as a self-study program.
On a news program recently, I heard a judge being quoted as saying that, in deciding the sentence for someone who’d been charged with a crime, he was influenced by neither emotions nor public opinion. And my response was… REALLY?! Is such a thing even possible? I think it would take some kind of unnatural, non-human capacity for detachment to be influenced by neither your emotions nor public opinion. (Or perhaps sometimes it’s sociopathic or narcissistic personality disorder?) We are all influenced, in big and little ways, every single day, even when we’re not conscious of the influence.
Back when I used to teach university courses in communications and public relations, I would teach my students to pay special attention to the voices and ideas that most influenced them. A final assignment in my Writing for Public Relations classes was to do a presentation on one piece of writing that had influenced them in their lives. It could be a book, a movie script, an advertisement, or even a poster. I wanted them to at least be conscious of when and how they were being influenced, and, as they became public relations professionals themselves, I hoped that they would make conscious choices to use their influence wisely and not put unnecessary propaganda into the world. (I also taught them the difference between propaganda and persuasion.) Many of the students had never considered who they were most influenced by.
Part of the reason why I’m taking the sabbatical and social media break that I’m currently on is that I want to be more conscious of the voices I allow in to influence me. Sometimes, when I’m not paying enough attention to how much I’m online, social media feels like a whole lot of noise, and in the midst of that noise, I can hardly hear my own voice. I start to feel like I’m in a boat without an oar and I’m just drifting along on the current of public opinion, not choosing my own direction.
It’s an easy thing to slip into, and it can happen for a lot of reasons. Sometimes it happens because I’m just too tired or emotionally drained to make conscious choices and I find myself picking up my phone like a drug that comforts me in my exhaustion. Sometimes it happens because I’m feeling disconnected or abandoned and I want to renew my feelings of connection with people (especially in a pandemic). Sometimes I’m just bored and slip into mindless behaviour.
I am not against social media, by any stretch. I value the very real friendships it has made possible in my life, and I acknowledge the fact that it has helped me grow a thriving business. It would be hypocritical to turn my nose up at it after all of the value that it has brought.
But I want to live in a conscious relationship with social media. I want to be conscious of when it feeds me and when it harms me. I want to witness when I feel like it’s sucking me in almost without my consent. I want to notice when I’m feeling manipulated by the algorithms and when I’m making choices I wouldn’t otherwise make because I’ve been unconsciously influenced.
I especially want to be conscious of when it makes me lose connection with my own voice and the voices of people who matter the most to me. My voice is important to me and I want it to ring clear and true and full of integrity.
This summer, I am intentionally focusing on the relationships that happen offline – with my daughters, my friends, my family, and myself. I am doing a kind of social media detox to see if I think and feel differently when I’m not being fed with a constant stream of other people’s opinions. I’m going to spend a lot of time listening to myself and to those who sit with me for long, slow conversations over campfires. I’ll also read books, but only those that feel nourishing to me and don’t take me down a river I don’t want to float along.
It doesn’t mean I won’t be influenced by voices other than my own. That seems like an impossible thing to achieve (and not necessarily a desirable one, because it borders on narcissism). But it means that when I AM influenced, I’m doing so consciously and with my full consent.
When I talk about holding space for ourselves, I often introduce the concept of psychic membranes – the container in which we can protect, nourish, and support ourselves. The cell membrane serves as a metaphor for what it means to have healthy boundaries that allow nourishment in, keep harm out, connect us with others, and maintain homeostasis (similar pressure inside and outside the cell). In my book, I go on to imagine how our psychic membranes interact with each other and how we can stretch them into bowls in order to hold space for people. With intact and healthy membranes, we can do this without threatening anyone’s sovereignty.
A new element of this metaphor has emerged for me lately and that’s the idea of Velcro membranes.
When a healthy membrane interacts with another healthy membrane, those two “cells” can support each other without becoming enmeshed or codependent. They are autonomous beings who have a supportive social contract between them that allows them to choose when and how they wish to be in contact with each other. Healthy membranes allow us to form consent-based environments.
Unfortunately, that kind of healthy interaction doesn’t always happen, and many of us have scars (emotional and physical) from the times it didn’t work that way. Sometimes we do harm to each other and sometimes we develop unhealthy attachment systems.
Unhealthy attachments can look like membranes that have Velcro on their surfaces. Now, instead of coming into contact and maintaining the freedom to choose how and when to interact, the two cells become hooked in a way that doesn’t support the growth and sovereignty of either. The relationship is now codependent and enmeshed and the membranes can’t move independently of each other.
Let’s imagine that the trauma in our lives turns into Velcro on the surface of our membranes. Some of us develop loops and some of us develop hooks (or some combination of the two), and both are attempts to get our needs met. Those of us with loops can easily be hooked in and abused or manipulated by someone, because our traumatized brains convince us that hook-people will help us get our needs met. Those of us with hooks become abusers and manipulators and we hook other people in to try to coerce them into meeting our needs. Those of us with a combination can be both abusers and abused.
The only way to stop hooking or being hooked is to work on healing the trauma that created the Velcro. As trauma heals it’s like cutting the loops and hooks so that the membrane surface is now covered with nothing more than short threads that are difficult to attach to.
A healed membrane allows you to begin to enter relationships in a new way. It allows you to explore what a generative social contract might look like, where the best interests of each party are prioritized.
What will you do to start cutting the loops and hooks on the surface of your membrane? And what might need to be done in order to disentangle yourself from those people with whom you’re enmeshed?
I was sitting on the dock on the Red River at the local park. It’s my favourite place to sit with my journal on these pleasant Spring/Summer mornings. I can usually sit there uninterrupted, but sometimes I have to share the dock with people launching their boats.
One morning, three men, who were probably in their thirties, pulled up and backed their boat into the water. None was very experienced at launching the boat. (I’ve done it often with my former husband when he owned a boat, so I can recognize a newbie when I see one.) Once the boat was in the water, I heard the person who was likely the new owner of the old boat talking about how he’d patched a leak and was hoping it would be waterproof. He wondered whether anyone could see the duct tape where he’d patched it.
The chatter between the three men was full of expletives and bravado as they got ready to set off in their boat. Soon they were headed down the river, and when they left, NOT ONE SINGLE LIFE JACKET WAS IN SIGHT – not on their bodies and not in their small boat.
Three men in a leaky boat with no life jackets and lots of bravado. How could I, a person who loves metaphors especially when they’re about containers that hold space for people, possibly resist that metaphor when it was handed to me so beautifully?!
At the same time as I was watching these men, a friend was texting about her decision to quit her job because she was feeling bullied by her boss. She said she needed to find a place where she could feel safer going to work every day. I told her about the boat. “You need to find a place that feels safer than a leaky boat with no life jackets and you need people who value your safety over their own bravado,” I said. (Fortunately, in this friendship, we are those people for each other – I wouldn’t invite her into a leaky boat.)
If you’re in relationships with people who don’t value your safety, whose bravado/insecurity/whatever prevents them from making wise choices that have your best interests at heart, then it might be time to make some changes. If you’re feeling unsafe, whether it’s emotionally, physically, sexually, etc., and you can’t trust them to prioritize your safety and not make fun of you for needing that safety, then this might be a good time to re-evaluate whether they actually bring value to your life.
If you need space held for you, especially if you’re going through the complexity of liminal space and you feel wobbly and uncertain about the future, then you need something better than a leaky boat with questionable friends and no life jackets.
As I watched the three men disappear around the bend of the river, I had a sudden awareness of how many times, in the past, I’ve trusted the wrong people and climbed into leaky boats (most of them more dangerous on an emotional level than a physical level). Fortunately, I am older and wiser now, and more discerning in my relationships, and have learned to surround myself with the right people. We don’t coddle each other, but we honour each other’s boundaries and needs for safety and nobody coerces anyone else to climb into leaky boats.
A few days later, on that same dock, another boat pulled up beside me. This time it was the fire department’s water rescue crew, and every person on the boat, though they are likely highly skilled in the water, was wearing a life jacket. They know the risk and though they are likely the most able to survive despite the risk, they don’t go out on the water without the proper safety gear.
Those who are trained to prioritize other people’s safety know that they also need to guard their own safety so that they can be of service when there is a crisis. The same is true in the circles I host. As a leader, if I deprioritize my own safety and climb into leaky boats, then I may not be of value to other people when they need me most.