Sometimes, it’s okay to let them see you sweat (a reflection on vulnerability and camel shit)

Sometimes it’s okay to “let them see you sweat.”

I sweat. A LOT. And my face turns beet red when I exert myself, so if you’re ever present when I exercise (which, sadly, isn’t often enough) you won’t be able to miss the evidence of my efforts.

But this post isn’t about physical exertion. Instead, it’s about the kind of sweating (both physical and metaphorical) we do when we’re under stress, when we’re afraid of failing, or when we fear that people might be disappointed in us. 

Mostly, it’s about vulnerability and when it’s okay to reveal our flaws, our fear, and our fumbling.  

Thanks especially to writers like Brené Brown, lots of people are talking about the value of vulnerability, but what’s sometimes missing from the dialogue is the nuance of WHEN it’s appropriate to be vulnerable, HOW MUCH vulnerability is appropriate, and WITH WHOM it’s okay to be vulnerable.

What if, for example, you’re in charge of keeping people who are more vulnerable than you safe from harm (small children, for example) and you admit that you have no clue how to do so and suddenly they feel even more unsafe than before? Was it wise, in that situation, to show your vulnerability? Probably not. That might be when it’s wiser to put on a brave face and prioritize their needs over your own. As a parent, there have certainly been times when I had to keep my fears and self-doubts to myself (or when I cried behind my bedroom door) because it wasn’t in my children’s best interests to doubt my ability to protect or provide for them. As they’ve gotten older, I’ve increased how much I’ll admit my flaws and fears to them, but in the early days they needed my strength more than my vulnerability.

Or what if, by becoming vulnerable, you’re drawing the attention away from the people who need it more than you do and then your vulnerability becomes a stumbling block rather than a building block? If, for example, you’re working with traumatized or oppressed people and you can’t stop crying about how much the work is impacting you, you’re likely making it about yourself rather than about them. Suddenly those people have to spend their energy caring for you rather than themselves. That’s when it’s best to take your vulnerability somewhere else where people have more capacity to do emotional labour on your behalf.

Or what if you haven’t gained enough trust in the other person or people and you suspect they might further harm you or use your vulnerability against you? Some people are masterful at manipulation and at using other people’s weaknesses to their own advantage (someone who’s trying to sell you an expensive coaching program, for example). Other people may be less intentional about it but still harmful in how they respond to you because of their lack of capacity or self-awareness. With those people, it’s better to withhold your vulnerability rather than put yourself at risk. 

Vulnerability, then, is best shared with people who have earned your trust, people who aren’t under too much of their own burden at the time, people who aren’t fully reliant on you for their own safety at the time, and/or people who have enough emotional intelligence and self-awareness to respond in appropriate ways.

Recently, I found myself in a dilemma about whether or not my vulnerability was the best course of action. I was facilitating a three-day workshop on holding space in the Netherlands, and, to be frank, it wasn’t going well. By the end of the first day, I could sense that there was dissatisfaction among participants and I wasn’t sure why. I had started the workshop in much the same way I’ve started many other workshops, and those workshops progressed much more smoothly, so I didn’t understand the source of the problem.

Was it because I was tired, having just spent an intense week in Uganda? Was it the cultural and/or language differences, since this was the first time I was teaching in a place where English isn’t the first language? Was I using language or a teaching style that wasn’t relatable to this audience? Was there some pre-existing conflict among participants that they’d brought with them to this space? Or was it because I’d started with the basics of holding space and many people in the room were already experienced practitioners who wanted higher level training?

One of the things that I sensed was going on (that I picked up from some of the comments coming my way) was that my style of facilitation was falling short of what people had expected of me. There were quite a few experienced facilitators in the room, and most of them had been trained in styles that are different from my own (ie. systemic constellations, for example, which incorporates more movement and less conversation than tends to be my primary style) and I began to feel the scrutiny of their evaluation. 

On the morning of the second day, trying to adapt to the style that I sensed they were more comfortable with, I made changes to the process. But that didn’t seem to be sufficient – I got even more feedback during the breaks that indicated the dissatisfaction was growing rather than dissipating. (Sadly, dissatisfaction is contagious and even those who’d seemed happy earlier were now starting to squirm in their seats.) What was especially challenging is that the feedback was often contradictory – one person would come to tell me that they needed more of one thing, while another person would come to me five minutes later to say that they needed more of the exact opposite. It seemed there was no way of meeting all of the expectations in the room, not even if I contorted myself to try to satisfy people.

By lunchtime on the second day, the picture started to become more and more clear to me. There was an expectation in the room that was, quite honestly, impossible for me to live up to, because it was an expectation crafted out of who they THOUGHT I was and not who I REALLY am. A couple of people, in their conversations with me, referred to me as the “Queen of Holding Space”, and it wasn’t reverence I was hearing in their voices but disappointment. These people – because my work has been broadly circulated in certain circles in the Netherlands – had constructed an image of me as a guru who knows all there is to know about holding space and who would walk into the room and wow them immediately with my exquisite ability to hold space. 

Unfortunately, I walked into the room fully human, fully flawed, a little jet-lagged, and with a lot that I still need to learn about holding space. I didn’t speak their language (not only the language of their country, but the language of a systemic understanding of the world), I didn’t facilitate in the way that they’d become accustomed, I made mistakes, and the opening check-in circle dragged on too long so the opening pace was slow.

Over lunch, I agonized over what was the right thing to do. Should I just keep trying to adapt my style to find the sweet spot that might satisfy the highest number of people in the room? Or should I simply push through with how I’d planned the workshop and hope that by the end, something of value would be transmitted? Should I hide my fear and flaws in the face of these people who looked up to me and pretend I was oblivious to their dissatisfaction?

OR… should I speak my vulnerability out loud, trust them to have the emotional intelligence to receive it well, and hope that it might help us collectively dive deeper into our learning?

I chose vulnerability. I knew it was a risk and I knew that I might lose some credibility (and people might leave even more dissatisfied than they already were), but it seemed like the only viable option.

I told them that I’d become aware that there was a shadow in the room and that that shadow was a reflection of the way that I was letting people down. (In process work such as this, the shadow refers to “that which is hiding under the surface which is unspoken and therefore potentially destructive”.) I said that I wasn’t interested in the pedestal that people had put me on – that pedestals are lonely, dangerous, and uncomfortable, and that I prefer to be in the circle, alongside them, doing the work in messy and flawed ways and learning shoulder-to-shoulder. I spoke of my imperfections and told them I knew I wouldn’t be able to meet all of the expectations in the room. I promised, though, that I would continue to do my best to offer them what I have learned so far about holding space. I invited them to trust me and to stand by my side as we went deeper into the learning and into brave space together. 

My sharing, like everything else I’d done up until that point, was imperfect, and when I was finished, I wasn’t sure what to do next. When I looked around the room, what I thought I saw was a softening and greater acceptance of the imperfection and releasing of the unmet expectations, but I wasn’t sure if I was interpreting it correctly. 

Slowly, though, things started to shift, and, in the end, my vulnerability helped us go where we needed to go as a group. It didn’t happen magically (there was still some resistance that afternoon) but gradually the energy in the room shifted. We stepped more deeply into a place of trust, depth, and bravery. Other people began to open up and some spoke to their own wrestling with what had been going on in the room. 

The next morning, a couple of moments of inspiration helped to take our learning to an even deeper place. First, I shared a story of how I’d been invited to dance with Ugandan women the week before, how miserably I’d failed at it, but how I recognized that it was in brief moments of my most pure surrender to the music and to those who lead me in the dance when I could most successfully move with the rhythm. “That place of surrender is what brave space is like,” I said. “And today, as we finish up this workshop, I want to invite you into that dance of surrender and trust. I’m asking that you trust the music and that you trust me, as your leader, to know what the rhythm in the room needs to be.” I looked around the room, and what I saw looking back at me were nodding heads and a deeper trust than I’d witnessed up until that point.

The other moment of inspiration was one that I can take no credit for – it came in the form of a piece of camel shit. A participant named Roeland brought a small container that he wanted to add to the collection of items at the centre of the circle (items that represent the people in the circle and that we use as talking pieces). “This is a dried up piece of camel shit,” he said, while people snickered in response. “I picked it up while on a spiritual retreat. At first I thought it was a rock, but when I picked it up, I discovered it had very little weight to it. The lesson in it for me was that my shit is lighter than I expect it to be. I can carry my own shit and it doesn’t feel like the burden I anticipate.”

From that point on, that piece of camel shit became a symbol for the group of what it means to “take responsibility for your own shit”. At one point, it became the talking piece and we all discovered how light it was to “hold our own shit”. But then one person put it down and chose another talking piece because “that’s not my shit and I don’t want to carry it,” she said. We all laughed and realized that some of the deepest learning of the day was coming from the lighthearted way that we could talk about taking responsibility for whatever we brought into the room. It wasn’t lost on us that this was connected to what I’d spoken of earlier – that some of the dissatisfaction and shadow in the room was because we’d each brought our own shit (ie. expectations and fear of letting people down) with us and had projected it onto other people. (This is true for me as well as anyone else. There were moments when I was looking for people to blame rather than recognizing my own part in what was transpiring.)

By the end of that third day, the energy had completely changed, and the workshop ended with some of the warmest hugs and words of appreciation I’d ever received. Several people remarked on how we, as a group, had been through a liminal space journey together – how we’d started with one version of who we were and what we expected, how my vulnerable sharing had helped us let go of that story and those expectations, and how we’d emerged into something new. This is one of the first things I teach in my holding space workshops – that when we hold space, we have to be prepared to hold the complexity of the liminal space.

It’s quite possible that my vulnerability could have backfired and that people might have left the room frustrated and disappointed. (Perhaps some did and I’m not aware of it.) It’s never a guarantee when we take a risk like that. But more often than not, I’ve found that my willingness to be imperfect and authentic, as the leader of that space, is directly correlated with how deep the learning can go.

In retrospect, though, there were a couple of factors that helped the vulnerability land well. For one thing, I let the participants know that they didn’t have to take care of me – that I wasn’t so vulnerable that they had to spend their energy making sure I was okay. Whenever I teach, I have other people that I trust outside of the circle to whom I can send a distress signal (usually via text message) simply to ask them for virtual support. I’m careful not to have the expectation that people who’ve come to learn from me also have to look after my emotional well-being. (Though I do appreciate their concern, I don’t make it their responsibility.)

Secondly, I paired the vulnerability with strength – letting them know that I was still prepared to take responsibility for leadership and for making decisions about what direction the workshop would take. I invited them to trust my sense of the right pace, content, etc.

As in the Buddhist teaching around warriorship, I practiced showing up with a “strong back and soft belly” – prepared to show them my vulnerability while still carrying myself with strength.

In the end, the workshops that take me through the most difficult terrain are usually the ones where I walk away with the most learning. I hope the same is true for those who were there with me. I am forever grateful for their willingness to step into the liminal space with me.

* * * *

Want to learn more about holding space? Check out my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. The next session starts in January 2019.

Leadership for times like these

“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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. The ability to hold spaceThis 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.

How to process criticism, attacks, and negative information about yourself without getting knocked flat

There’s a familiar pattern that shows up when someone criticizes or attacks me. First, I feel it in my body – my throat closes, my muscles tense and the pit of my stomach starts to churn. Usually it’s accompanied with the heat of shame creeping up my neck and into my cheeks. Then my mind starts to race to try to make sense of the messages it’s receiving, usually leaping to the conclusion that I must be a bad person and I need to do something to defend myself or change myself to appease the person who’s doing the criticizing. Often, this is followed with a seemingly endless repetitive churning as my mind becomes fixated on the situation and my body stays in high anxiety mode. I work through the conversation, attack, or criticism again and again, trying to devise the right response that will make the anxious feeling go away.

In recent years, I’ve often had people remark at how I must be brave to speak out publicly about some of the issues I’m passionate about (racism, sexism, injustice, etc.), but in those reactive moments, when the backlash has come, I don’t feel very brave. I feel just as anxious as those people who say they’d never be able to handle it. But I am deeply resolved not to let that anxiety stop me. And I’ve learned how to process the negative information so that it doesn’t keep me hooked in fight, flight, freeze, or tend and befriend mode. (Actually… it’s an ongoing process of learning, not a “once and done” thing. I’m still learning every day.)

Courage is not the absence of fear, but the resolve to act in spite of it.

What’s important to know about that very human reaction to criticism or attack (or any negative information about yourself) is that it’s rooted in the most ancient part of your brain that is looking out for your best interests. The amygdala is responsible for those instinctual reactions that keep you safe – fight, flight, freeze, and tend and befriend. Without it, you probably wouldn’t live past your second birthday because you’d walk into traffic, play with bears, or do any number of other things that you’re meant to be afraid of.

The problem is that, in a trauma situation, the amygdala gets hijacked and doesn’t allow your thinking brain (the orbitofrontal cortex) to take over and speak reason into the situation. You’re stuck in high alert because the amygdala keeps sending danger signals to the body that can’t easily be overwritten with reasonable thoughts.

At this point, you may be thinking “but how can criticism trigger the amygdala when there is no real danger?” Well, the amygdala is not the smartest part of your brain and it doesn’t know real danger from fake danger and so it sends the same signals regardless of the truth.

It all goes back to your childhood. In early life, your primary needs are for safety and belonging. Whenever those things are jeopardized, you become anxious because your immature brain believes that you will cease to exist without those needs being met. Anything that jeopardizes your safety and belonging is a threat that the amygdala is designed to respond to.

Somewhere along the line, likely through an emotional trauma, you (and I) internalized the message that a criticism was a threat to your safety and belonging, and your amygdala learned to respond accordingly. Normally, as you grow up, you should be able to adjust accordingly and learn to use your orbitofrontal cortex to reason with the amygdala about the validity of risk, but a trauma tends to get stuck in your body in such a way that the thinking brain takes longer to engage. And if you never work to heal and shift that trauma and calm the nervous system when you get triggered, you’ll stay in that stuck place and forever be reactive in an unhealthy way.

Let’s throw some attachment theory into the mix as well. Attachment theory teaches us that the ability for an individual to form an emotional and physical “attachment” to another person gives a sense of stability and security necessary to take risks, branch out, and grow and develop as an independent and confident person. That’s the belonging piece that I mentioned as one of our basic needs. With a secure attachment it’s much easier to develop the kind of self esteem and confidence that supports a person in withstanding criticism and attack. Without a secure attachment, a child grows up with a deep sense of insecurity that makes it difficult for healthy emotional development to happen.

A secure attachment is one that allows for both safety AND autonomy. In a secure attachment, a child knows that the parent (or other primary attachment figure) is a safe haven to return to when they are threatened, which makes that child more able to explore and wander away from the parent, building their confidence in themselves as they do so. A secure attachment is flexible to the needs of a child, offering more safety in the early stages and allowing more autonomy as the confidence grows.

Secure attachment continues to be a critical part of emotional development even in adulthood. When you are triggered by a criticism or attack, especially if you have an attachment wound from childhood or you lack a secure attachment in adulthood, your anxiety is immediately heightened and your confidence and resilience are shaken. You find yourself floundering, needing to re-attach and find an anchor that will help you weather the storm. In your moment of floundering, you can’t think clearly, and so you may see the person offering the criticism or attack as the person with whom you need to repair the attachment so that you’ll feel safe again. As a result, your mind races to all of the things you need to do to appease the person and/or get them to change their opinion of you.

Unfortunately, there are many people who, intentionally or inadvertently, will work to destabilize your attachment systems through abuse, gaslighting, dismissal, silencing, shaming, etc. It’s present in abusive relationships of all kinds, whether it’s a marriage, a work situation, a friendship, a classroom or even our government leaders. Especially if you’re in relationships where you regularly face this kind of treatment, you feel constantly unstable and easily triggered. (One of the most valuable resources I’ve read recently on this is Terror, Love and Brainwashing. Though it’s about why people end up and stay in cults, it has a lot of useful information about disorganized/destabilized attachment that relates to any kind of abusive relationship.)

Even if you are a smart and confident person (which I’m assuming you are), you can find yourself reacting to criticism and attacks in less-than-gracious-or-wise ways because of your trauma and/or attachment wounds (which are likely one and the same thing). Also, as the trauma research has been revealing recently, some of your trauma was likely passed down through your cells from the generations above you, so you may be reacting to things in the way that your parents or grandparents were conditioned to react. (Attachment bonds are also somewhat inherited because an insecure or disorganized attachment system in a parent will likely result in the same in the child.)

Sometimes I wonder, in fact, whether every person I meet carries some trauma and/or attachment wound in their body. It seems, at times, to be the very soil we grow in (at least in the part of the world that I’m most familiar with). We have been traumatized by oppressive systems (ie. colonialism, racism, patriarchy) and, on top of that, we have been raised by parents who likely didn’t have any idea how to talk about or heal the trauma they’d inherited and so didn’t know how to create secure attachment bases from which we could grow.

As a result, we have a culture of people who are overly reactive to criticism and attacks, and in their own triggered reactions, lash out at other people to protect themselves. It’s a self-perpetuating problem and it appears to me to be systemic.

Unless we can learn to receive and process negative information, however, our personal development is stunted as is our society’s capacity to evolve. We’ll continue to react defensively whenever difficult conversations need to happen and we’ll reject the important information that helps us evolve.

Take, for example, race conversations. Those of us who enjoy a position of privilege within a racist system have to be able to receive the information that the system is problematic without taking it personal and launching into reactive mode. But we hear terms like “racist” and our bodies and brains react out of our deep need to not have people think badly of us, and we disengage from the conversation. Instead of seeing it as a systemic issue, we see it as a personal attack. (Watch a video by Robin DiAngelo about this.) The same is true for people who benefit from any imbalance system where some have more power than others. (Hence the conversations about white fragility and male fragility.)

What then should we do to get better at processing the negative information?

  1. Learn to soothe your nervous system. Your nervous system is activated by an overly-engaged amygdala and doesn’t allow your orbitofrontal cortex to engage. When you soothe your nervous system, you can re-engage your thinking brain and analyze the situation from a more reasonable perspective. Once you do that, you might recognize some truth in what’s been said about you, or you might decide that the person’s criticism is unwarranted and you are right to ignore it. Soothing your nervous system might be as simple as learning some deep breathing techniques or some tapping techniques. (Gwynn Raimondi has provided a good resource of nervous system soothing techniques. This is the first of three volumes – visit her site and sign up for her newsletter for more.)
  2. Recognize that trauma is in your body and can’t simply be released by the brain. While talk therapy might be helpful for processing some of your trauma and attachment wounds, it’s also important to seek out some body work (ie. Reiki, cranio-sacral, EMDR, massages, Body Talk, yoga, TRE, etc.). Find what works for you and repeat when necessary. Aside from hiring professionals, I’ve also found that things like Epson salt baths and long walks can help with the release.
  3. Develop secure attachments and turn to those attachments for support when you’re feeling anxious or threatened. Much of the literature about adult attachment roots these secure attachments in romantic relationships, but they can also be found in friendships, sibling relationships, or in therapeutic relationships. I have a couple of very good friends and a sister, for example, who help to ground me when I’ve been attacked and need a secure base. Wired for Love is a good resource (though I wish there were a version not about romantic relationships).
  4. Explore healing for the trauma and attachment wounds that come from childhood and/or that you have inherited. Seek out the teachers and professionals that are doing work that resonates with you. I have found some healing, for example, in family constellations and I know there are many other methodologies and practitioners that are doing good work.
  5. Know that you have a right to healthy boundaries. Not all criticisms and attacks need your attention – in some cases you simply need to recognize your right to guard yourself against them. On social media, recently, for example, I’ve been letting people know that I’m open to reasonable conversation even if they disagree with me, but if they show up for no other purpose than to attack or argue, I will block them. Even if the person attacking is a family member or close friend, you have a right to guard yourself from attack.
  6. Regularly engage in activities that make you feel strong and grounded. Recently, I built some storage shelves and a folding work table in my garage, and when I finished I felt empowered and self-confident because it was hard work AND I accomplished what I didn’t think I was capable of. The next time I was criticized (the very next day) I more easily let it roll off my back and established a new boundary because I was feeling resilient. Woodworking does that for me. You might find it in gardening, rock-climbing, hiking, swimming, kick-boxing, yoga, dance, etc. In my experience, it’s those activities that engage my body and stretch my capacities that are most effective.
  7. Recognize when the criticism or attack is pointing to something that is systemic and needs to be viewed that way instead of being received as a personal attack. If, for example, the person is talking about white or male privilege, colonialism, etc., and you feel personally attacked, pause for a moment and reflect on whether the injustice they’re pointing to is embedded in the system you inherited and that you benefit from and isn’t just about you personally. If it is, then do what you need to do to soothe your nervous system, then engage from a more conscious perspective, taking responsibility for how you can contribute to a more just system.
  8. Tell your stories. As Brené Brown has taught us, the best defence against the kind of shame that often cripples us is to be vulnerable with people who know how to hold space for us. Find a sharing circle, or a few close friends who offer you a non-judgemental space to admit those times when you were triggered and reacted in a way that you regret. Saying it out loud can help it have less power in your life and can increase your resilience for future situations.

Note: Special thanks to my friends Sheila and Saleha – recent conversations with them helped inspire this post. 

___

P.S. Want to learn more about how to hold space for yourself so that you’re more resilient and confident in how you hold space for others? It’s part of my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator offering and the next session starts in January. If you want to be notified when registration opens, send us a note and Krista will put you on the list.

What gets in the way of joy? Some thoughts on fear, guilt, and “fleshly desires”

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.

What’s the poetry your heart wants to sing? And how might it liberate us?

György Faludy decided, at age nine, to become a poet because he was afraid of dying. Lying in bed at night, in terror of not waking up in the morning, he resolved to create a world with words where he could feel safe, a world of his creation that would live on after he himself disappeared.

Faludy was Jewish, and in pre-World War II Budapest, he was blacklisted and his poetry banned from print. Undeterred, however, he became a translator and disguised his own poetry as the poetry of the French masters he was translating.

When German troops invaded Hungary, Faludy was thrown into deportation camp with other Jews. He managed to escape and succeeded in crossing half of warring Europe to end up in North Africa, where he was captured once again and thrown into another camp. When the allied troops finally liberated North Africa, he emigrated to Canada and then to the United States.

Though he continued to work as a translator in several languages in the U.S., he never felt as comfortable writing in an adopted language when the poetry of his heart wanted to be sung. After the war, he returned to Hungary, hopeful that his poetry would finally be accepted. The new regime, however, was even less receptive to his poetry than the old had been, and he was arrested, tortured by police, and thrown into a Communist “punitive” camp.

Still undeterred, Faludy produced some of his best poetry under the harshest circumstances in prison camp. What’s remarkable is that none of this poetry was written down because he had no access to pen or paper. He memorized all of his poetry and then, so that it would not be forgotten, taught other inmates to memorize it as well. Toward the end of his captivity, he wrote a long elegy to his wife and each part of it was memorized by different inmates. Some of these prisoners were released before Faludy and went to visit Faludy’s wife to recite the part of the poem they had memorized.

When Faludy was finally released, he escaped once more to the West and published his prison verses, relying on his memory, aided by mnemonic devices. (For instance, he made sure the first poem he composed began with the letter A, the second with B, and so on.) After it was published, he received letters from all over the world, from Brazil to New Zealand, from people who’d been in prison camp with him, containing corrections to his poems. Most of these corrections were incorporated into later editions of Faludy’s work.

(Source: The Evolving Self, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

What drives a man like Faludy to write poetry at such great cost and under such harsh circumstances? Surely he could have lived a reasonably good, risk-free life as a translator or high school literature teacher. If he had, he would have been spared at least one of his prison camp experiences.

But poetry wouldn’t leave him alone – it was both his vocation and his salvation; his siren song and his life raft. It compelled him forward, even into the harshest of circumstances. Then, when he was in those harsh circumstances, it gave him meaning and helped sustain his life.

What was the best thing I learned?
That after need
left my ravaged body
love did not leave.
– György Faludy

As Viktor Frankl says in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”  Like Faludy, Frankl survived Nazi concentration camp and it was his conclusion that those who had the greatest chance of surviving were those who were the most determined to find meaning in their suffering. By turning his suffering into poetry, Faludy found a sense of purpose and personal sovereignty that kept him from being destroyed.

I don’t know how I would respond to prison camp, or even if I would, like Faludy, choose to return to a country where I was at risk just so that I could continue to write in my mother tongue. But I do have some sense of what it’s like to have a purpose that has such a strong tug at your heart that you’re willing to sacrifice a stable and easy life in your quest for it.

Eight years ago this month, I handed in my notice at my stable, well-paying management job for the insecurity of self-employment. Why? Because I felt compelled to. Because I knew my life would continue to feel incomplete if I didn’t follow the calling that kept whispering in my ear.  Because I knew that my own liberation was tied up with my sense of purpose.

Many have asked me how I stayed motivated during the lean years, and how I knew I was doing the right thing even when few were showing up for my workshops and the bills were barely getting paid. I hardly know how to answer them. I stayed motivated because I have always poured my heart into my work and, even when few paid attention to it, knew that it had meaning. It was the poetry that my heart wanted to sing.

That doesn’t mean that I didn’t have doubts and that there weren’t some days when I found myself deep in despair, not knowing whether the meaning I found in my work would ever translate into something other people would understand. There were days, in fact, when I wondered whether I was speaking a foreign language. But I persevered, not because I thought this work would ever turn me into a millionaire, but because that deeply rooted sense of purpose kept whispering in my ear, nudging me to take the next right step, calling me toward my own liberation.

I am writing this piece today, because I feel compelled to call you too to step forward and take your own next right step into the purpose that calls you toward your liberation. 

I believe that we are at a crucial time in the world when we need more meaning-makers to step forward, to take risks, to breathe their poetry into life, to answer the call. It’s an “all hands on deck” moment, when the storms are raging, the mast of the ship is threatening to break under the pressure, and the waves are threatening to swallow us. In this darkening moment, when the world seems to be diving deeper and deeper into chaos and humans seem intent on self-destruction, we need poets, artists, creators, resisters, leaders, space-holders, lovers, gardeners, explorers, and teachers to do what Faludy knew to do as a nine-year-old – create a world with words, art, and imagination where we can continue to thrive despite the mayhem around us.

I’m not saying that you all have to leave your careers to follow some mysterious quest as I did, or that you have to risk poverty or prison in order to do work that you love. But I AM telling you that the generous, unapologetic outpouring of your gift will make the world better for you and for the people around you, even if people think you’re a little crazy for doing it. It won’t necessarily fix the brokenness of the world or change the outcome of this trajectory we’re on, but it will make the struggle more bearable and will help us find liberation.

I am reminded of that powerful moment in Les Miserable, when the oppressed people rise up together to resist the source of their oppression. Together, they stand on the barricades they’ve built and they sing at the top of their lungs…

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the songs of angry men?
It is the music of the people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

In that moment, music gives them meaning. It gives them belonging and community. It gives them purpose and strength. It liberates them and makes them stronger than their oppression.

In prison, Faludy’s poetry may have done nothing to change the outcome for himself or the other prisoners, but it gave them all a way to look toward the light. It gave them a reason to wake up in the morning. It lent them strength, and it helped them claim their own sovereignty even within prison walls. He wasn’t the only one invested in the poetry. All those who memorized it with him became invested too – so invested that they sought out his wife upon their release and/or sent in poetry corrections years later. His poetry became THEIR poetry. His purpose became THEIR purpose. His liberation became THEIR liberation.

The outpouring of one person’s gifts can give meaning to all those who receive it, even in our darkest time. It can liberate us, even inside prison walls.

I urge you, friends – don’t let the gift die inside you. Don’t let the poetry remain unwritten or the songs unsung. Write it, sing it, paint it, dance it, teach it, plant it, grow it – do what it takes to nurture that which is growing in your heart.

Don’t do it for wealth or fame, but do it for love. Do it for the light it shines into the shadows. Do it for the way it transforms a prison cell into a classroom or a garden. Do it for liberation from whatever imprisons you.

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it” ― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

When you hold space for someone with mental illness

(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…

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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. 

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