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.
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
(Trigger warning: suicide)
The first time it happened, I was five months pregnant with our first baby.
It started with panic attacks. My then-husband was starting a new job with greater responsibility and, coupled with the expectancy of fatherhood, he was feeling overwhelmed and anxious and started missing work. We tried to get him help – I took him to a psychologist and checked him into an overnight mental health facility when the panic attacks got really bad. I thought things were shifting, but I was wrong.
One morning, after a couple of weeks of stress leave, he got ready for work in the morning, kissed me good-bye, and headed to the office. I was relieved. Maybe this rough spot was finally over. I left for work, assuming we were shifting back into “life as normal”.
A couple of hours later, I phoned his office to check how he was doing. “He didn’t come in today,” his boss told me. “He phoned earlier and said he couldn’t do it.”
I panicked. Where was he? Why had he told me he was going to work when he wasn’t? What was he hiding?
The rest of that long day was a blur of phone calls and tears and hand-wringing that included a car ride out to his favourite fishing hole with my mom to see if he was there. He wasn’t.
Some time that evening, I got a phone call that he was at the hospital. After multiple suicide attempts (that involved a knife and bottles of pills), he’d woken up in his car, realized that, if all of that effort hadn’t killed him, perhaps he was meant to live after all, and drove himself to the hospital. He was rushed into surgery to patch up the damage he’d done and to make sure that none of his internal injuries would be fatal.
The second time it happened, I was “pregnant” with a different kind of baby – I was just about to quit my job to start my own business. Fifteen years had passed (years which included the births of our four children and the loss of one of them), he’d gone back to school to get a university degree, and was finally in a job that looked like it would be permanent enough to support our family while I launched a business.
Once again, a new job with new responsibilities caused the panic attacks to start happening. Once again, we tried to get help. And once again, I got the phone call that he’d taken a lot of pills and needed to be taken to the hospital. (This time, there was no knife involved.)
This time, instead of recuperation time for his physical injuries, there was a very difficult week’s stay in a psychiatric ward. And this time, I had to juggle the needs of three children, trying to keep their lives as close to normal as possible, while driving back and forth to the hospital to support him.
At this point, if you’ve been reading my work long enough, you might be thinking that I’ll be offering “tips on holding space for someone with mental illness”, but that’s not what this post is about. Instead, this post is about me, the former caregiver and advocate of that person with mental illness. And it’s about all of those who, like me, have had to hold space for people with mental illness.
Because when/if we hold space for people with mental illness, we have to practice radically holding space for ourselves too.
It’s taken me a long time to process the impact that those two suicide attempts (as well as the many times when I was worried it might happen again) have had on me. It wasn’t, in fact, until the marriage ended five years after the second attempt, that I finally acknowledged the toll it had taken on me.
Last week, when social media blew up over the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I, like many others, was triggered by the stories. They brought back a flood of memories, accompanied by grief, fear, self-doubt, anger, and all of those other big emotions that are part of what a caregiver/advocate has to carry. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t have time to write a blog post last week, because it would have been a more triggered version of what I want to say. This one comes with a little more reflection.
Both of the times my former husband attempted suicide, my adrenalin kicked in and I went into warrior/mama-bear mode. I protected, I nurtured, I fought flawed health-care systems, I ran the household, I negotiated with psychiatrists, and I made endless calls trying to get the right kind of support.
While most of us are familiar with the fight, flight, or freeze responses associated with stress/trauma, there’s another reaction that has recently been added to the literature, and that’s what I was experiencing (though I didn’t know it at the time). It’s the “tend and befriend” response that is found more frequently in females than males. “…compared to males, females’ physical aggression and fear-related behaviors are less intense and more ‘cerebral’–they are displayed in response to specific circumstances and are less tied to physiological arousal. So while both sexes share the capacity for fight or flight, females seem to use it less.”
Researchers found that, during tough times, stressed females spend significantly more time tending to vulnerable offspring than males.“They reasoned that the adaptive value of fighting or fleeing may be lower for females, who often have dependent young and so risk more in terms of reproductive success if injured or dislocated. And females of many species form tight, stable alliances, possibly reflecting an adaptive tendency to seek out friends for support in times of stress.” (Both quotes are from this article. And here’s a link to a research paper about it.)
There’s a tricky thing about trauma, though, that I didn’t understand back then. If the trauma isn’t adequately released at the time, it roots itself in the body and, from then on, whenever a stimulus brings up a body memory of the trauma event, the body responds exactly as it did during the trauma. In other words, though there were only two suicide attempts in our twenty-two year marriage, there were a LOT of stimuli that triggered my “tend and befriend” response (as well as my less prominent fight/flight/freeze). The mental illness of my partner didn’t simply disappear in the in-between times, so any time there were hints of it showing up, although I didn’t consciously think “he’s going to attempt suicide again”, my body responded as though that were true.
Though “tend and befriend” might seem like a more gentle, healthy response to stress than fight, flight, or freeze, I can tell you that it often is not, especially when it’s a triggered response and is unnecessary in that moment. When it showed up, for example, when I was exhausted and yet still had to go into warrior/mama-bear mode on behalf of my children, it drove me to burnout. And when it showed up at the expense of my own well-being (ie. protecting my then-husband rather than looking out for my own interests), it nearly killed me and left me vulnerable to abusive behaviour and manipulation.
It was so present, in fact, that it took several years longer than it should have for me to end the failing marriage. I was so afraid that the marriage breakdown would cause him to attempt suicide again and that my children would have to bear the grief of that, that I held the marriage together much longer than I should have. I was so used to assuming that I was responsible for his emotions and the way they impacted my children, that I couldn’t imagine the world functioning any other way. It took a lot of work for me to release myself of that responsibility. Even three years later, I can be unreasonably triggered by a simple text message from him.
Several years ago (before the marriage ended and after my mom died), I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue. I was exhausted. My heightened state of alertness and responsibility meant that my adrenal glands had been overproducing for so long that I could barely function anymore. I started taking supplements and tried to change my diet and sleep patterns, but it wasn’t until my marriage ended and the stimulus was largely removed from my day-to-day existence that I finally started to feel like sleep was replenishing me and I wasn’t among the walking dead anymore.
It’s not gone, though. There are still stimuli that trigger the same response in me. When, for example, my children’s emotional meltdowns or panic attacks are similar to their dad’s, I get triggered into the same anxiety and the same tend and befriend response. I rush too quickly to fix things and I don’t always wait for those involved to take responsibility for doing their own emotional work. I’m getting better at recognizing it and finding ways to self-sooth so that it’s not destructive to me or my children, but I’m not foolish enough to think the problem is fixed. I’m still actively working to heal it and release it from my body.
How then, do we as caregivers and advocates stay in the work for people we love without burning ourselves out or resorting to destructive patterns? How do we hold space for ourselves when we find ourselves holding space for those with mental illness?
Here are some thoughts on that…
- Recognize the trauma/stress that you are carrying. Unfortunately, it can often be our own strength, and our internal narratives of how we “can handle anything” that contribute to our downfall. If we don’t recognize the impact on our bodies of the trauma that’s being caused by a loved one’s mental illness, it roots itself in our bodies and can become an unhealthy, subconscious response to even the slightest stimuli. This denial can cause burnout, addiction, and destructive behaviour if not addressed.
- Care for your body. This is important, because your body is the container that holds the trauma. Go for whatever body treatments help you to release what you’re holding – massage, reiki, craniosacral, EMDR, acupuncture, etc. And take care of yourself with healthy food and movement. Pay attention to the signals your body sends you, because your body may be letting you know that you’re carrying too much. (Take it from someone who’s wrestling with how my weight may be a signal my body’s been sending me about the trauma.)
- Resist the urge to take on responsibility for anyone else’s emotional or mental health. You can not fix them. You can not make them happy. You can not even ensure that a person will not attempt to take their own life. You can support them and hold space for them (if you are not becoming too damaged in the process), but the outcome is not on you. Even if, in your desperation, you said what you’re pretty sure was the WRONG thing just before the suicide or attempt (which I did), the outcome wasn’t your fault. Let that go.
- Get help. Don’t be ashamed to reach out to friends, family, professionals, etc. You can’t do this alone and you shouldn’t. Sometimes it’s as simple as having a friend who will let you cry in their presence so that you can release what’s bottled up inside. Or asking a family member to step in to care for the person with mental illness. And don’t hesitate to hire a trauma professional to get to the deeper place of healing (or look for social services support, if you don’t have the financial resources).
- Know when to walk away. For those of us with a strong tend-and-befriend reflex, it’s really, really hard to walk away from someone who’s hurting, even when we’re being destroyed in the process. But consider the possibility that the person you’re supporting may actually be better off on their own, learning to walk in the world without the crutch you’ve offered them. Consider that your triggered tend-and-befriend response, though it’s comfortable and familiar to them, might actually be to their detriment as well as your own. And also… consider that they may be manipulating you (knowingly or unknowingly) to get you to stay.
- Create and hold the boundaries you need in order to stay healthy.Again, this is especially hard for anyone caught in the tend-and-befriend patterns. We want to make sure everyone else is cared for before we care for ourselves, because that’s what we believe will serve our overactive nervous system. But an un-boundaried life will destroy you. Practice saying no to the small things so that you can work up the courage to say no to the big things.
- Pay attention to how seemingly healthy responses may actually be unhealthy ones. Whenever I kicked into tend-and-befriend response, I always thought I was doing the right thing, tending to and protecting those I was responsible for, and sacrificing my own interests for theirs. But those responses were masking what was going on underneath and they were setting patterns into play that have taken years to release.
There is nothing easy about this, and if you find yourself in a place where you must hold space for someone with mental illness, know this… I see you. I witness how hard you are working. I know the tears you cry into your pillow at the end of the day. I get it and I hope that you will find the support you need so that you will not be destroyed by this.
Please, take care of yourself. The world needs you.
* * *
Note: If this post resonated with you, check out the work that I do in helping people learn how to hold space for each other and for themselves.
I remember the day clearly. I don’t remember the date, but it must have been a warm summer day, because I was wearing my favourite turquoise summer dress.
I was walking home from church pushing a double stroller with a toddler and infant inside. I was glad that my children couldn’t see me because I was crying.
I was lonely. I’d just been to a new church because I was seeking some form of community, but it hadn’t happened that morning. I’d had to spend the whole service in the nursery caring for my children and there had been no opportunities to make the kind of connections I was craving. I’d slipped out of church when nobody came to speak with me after the service. I was feeling too insecure and overwhelmed to reach out to them, so when they didn’t come to me, I left.
That was the loneliest period of my life. With two small children and a full-time job, I had little time for a social life. Most of the friends I’d had before children were either busy with their own children or were childless and didn’t understand my new reality. At work, I’d moved into a management position, so didn’t feel as welcome in the lunchroom conversations as I once was.
More than anything, though, I felt like I no longer knew HOW to make friends. I’ve always been better at deep connections than small-talk, so the brief conversations with other parents at the playground did little to feed my hunger. At work I wasn’t making deep enough connections either, because the further I moved up in management, the more it seemed that people were guarded and not interested in really knowing each other.
This week, I thought back to that young woman crying on the sidewalk, walking her children home, and I teared up at the memory. How lost and lonely she was! How much she craved depth and meaning and friendship!
I’m not that young woman anymore. This past week, as I traveled from Portland to Ashland to L.A. to Reno, connecting with some of my closest friends and sparking new friendships along the way, I realized just how far I’ve come since that moment. I now have an abundance of deep friendships, both at home and in places as far away as Australia. In fact, I’ve built a business on deep conversations and holding space, and so the very things I once craved are the things that are now the core of my work.
That’s how it works, sometimes, and that’s why I don’t regret those lonely moments. I wouldn’t know just how beautiful this life is if I’d never glimpsed the opposite. And I wouldn’t be able to relate to my clients if I’d never known loneliness or loss or disconnection. Those moments in the liminal space helped to shape me and teach me and prepare me for this work.
Last week, I was in Reno for a few days, connecting with my dear friends Lorraine and TuBears, who I met five years ago at Lake Tahoe at the annual gathering for Gather the Women. While I was there, we had such a beautiful connection, that we decided to share one of our conversations with you. In the video, we talked about what kind of conditions help to create the kind of trust and depth we enjoy in our relationship.
Since then, I’ve been thinking more about those conditions for deep and meaningful friendships. Here’s what I came up with:
1.) Do your own work. Though meaningful friendships can and should help support growth, you can’t rely on friends to do your inner work for you. Showing up with too much neediness and not enough sense of your own responsibility to work through your weakness, jealousy, anger, fear, etc. will either destroy the friendship or make it so lopsided it won’t hold the kind of depth you crave.
2.) Let your friends do their own work. Just as you can’t rely on a friend to do your work, you can’t do theirs either. Let them take responsibility for their hang-ups, mistakes, and emotions. And when they’re feeling lost, walk beside them and offer a light to illuminate the path, but don’t take responsibility for their journey.
3.) Take chances. Deep friendships are built on trust and you can’t build trust if you don’t take some risks, share some secrets, and open your heart just a little more than what feels safe. This doesn’t happen all at once, but as you build trust, keep offering a little more of yourself so that your friend can help hold what you might not share with other people.
4.) Be trustworthy. Guard your friend’s secrets, show up when you say you’re going to show up, and apologize when you mess up. Be the kind of person they can trust, who’s dependable and faithful. And take responsibility for it when you fail so that you can begin to rebuild the trust.
5.) Be an advocate and an ally. Sometimes friendship is about standing up for each other or at least standing alongside each other when there are forces working against you. If your friend faces discrimination that you don’t face, learn to be the kind of ally that they most need and want (that may look different for each person). If they face abuse and are having trouble standing up for themselves, find ways of advocating for them without taking their power away.
6.) Be open to change. Friends change us and we change them. When a relationship grows, it creates the possibility for something new in each person and in the space in between – the “we space”. Be willing to learn from the other person and from the places and ideas that you explore together. Don’t cling to an old identity – evolve along with the relationship.
7.) Support each other’s greatness. The best kind of friends are those who aren’t intimidated by someone’s success or strength. There might be moments of jealousy now and then, and the sense that you’ve been left behind (we’re all human, after all), but don’t let that get in the way of your friendship. Don’t assume that they don’t need you anymore, because the truth is that they probably need you MORE. Success can feel like a surprisingly scary and lonely place sometimes. Be there for them through the success AND the failure and trust that they’ll be there for you too.
8.) Pay attention to what they need and be honest about what you need. Friendship is symbiotic and reciprocal. It’s not transactional (ie. I give you something and then you owe me something in return) – it’s an ebb and flow of meeting whosever needs are most relevant in the moment, with as much balance as possible. When trust is built, you can be more honest about what your needs are and when you think those aren’t being met, and you can receive the honesty of your friend in the same way.
9.) Respect their boundaries and communicate your own. In a friendship, there is usually some unspoken agreement about what is acceptable and unacceptable. It can be helpful to speak it out loud so that all involved have clarity and know how best to respect each other. If, for example, you have a family commitment on Sundays that means you aren’t available to your friends, let them know that Sundays are off limits and expect them to respect those limits. Or if you don’t like receiving text messages after 10 p.m., say so and then don’t respond to their late night texts. And if your friend communicates similar boundaries, don’t make fun of them or push past them – respect them.
10.) Don’t run away from conflict. At some point in every friendship, conflict bubbles to the surface. Instead of running away, try to see it as an opportunity to deepen your friendship. The deepest friendships are those that weather a few storms, so step into the conflict and see what it has to teach you. Perhaps the conflict will help you to better articulate a boundary that was inadvertently crossed. Or your friend will figure out how to talk about the trauma that was triggered unknowingly. Sometimes conflict is generative instead of destructive.
There is no perfect friendships because there are no perfect people. No matter how strong your friendship is, you may still fail or betray your friend and they may still do the same to you. And sometimes, even with lots of friends, you’ll still have lonely moments (which I have, occasionally, when I’m the only single person at a party full of couples). But regardless, life is richer when you make the effort to invest in deep and meaningful friendships.
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Want to know more about growing deep and meaningful relationships? We talk a lot about this in the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program AND you’ll have the added bonus of growing friendships with people from all over the world who enrol in the program with you. If you’d rather study with me in-person, join me in B.C. or the Netherlands.
I cut off someone in traffic recently. It was completely my fault. I wasn’t paying enough attention and drifted into the other lane when mine was suddenly blocked off for construction. The moment I realized what I’d done, though, shame-brain quickly tried to find someone else to blame. “Maybe the other driver was going too fast. Maybe it was the way the construction pylons were placed on the road that made it difficult to know where the lanes were.”
Shame-brain isn’t very good at holding space for mistakes. In fact, shame-brain turns all of those mistakes – even the ones that are very human, relatively harmless, and completely accidental – into monsters that have to be banished from the kingdom. Because those monsters are threats that might topple the foundation that the kingdom was built on.
From shame-brain’s perspective, mistakes are dangerous.
A mistake makes me question my own value, safety, and belonging. If I MAKE a mistake, perhaps it means that I AM a mistake. And if I’m a mistake, people will stop loving me. I will be abandoned. I’ll be lonely and unprotected. I’ll be a failure. I’l lose my place in society and I won’t be able to get a job or find love. Yes, shame-brain can take even the simplest mistakes to extreme consequences in an instant.
Mistakes are human. In fact, they’re important pieces of information that help us learn and grow. Consider a child who’s learning to ride a bike – when she falls a couple of times, she’ll realize that the action that resulted in the fall shouldn’t be replicated and she’ll adjust accordingly and probably do better the next time. The same is true in school. When a student makes a mistake on a spelling quiz, he will (hopefully) spell that word correctly the next time.
I think, though, that it’s actually in the school system that we begin to be taught that mistakes aren’t just valuable pieces of information that help us learn, they are punishable offences that brand us. When we make a mistake on a test, we rarely get a chance to try again. Instead, that test mark goes into our final grade and we live with the mark of those mistakes forever. Tests don’t teach us how to learn and grow – they teach us that the person who makes the least mistakes wins. (It was a great source of frustration for me, when I taught in a university setting, that so much emphasis was placed on how to get good grades rather than how to learn.)
This is accentuated by our legal system. Mistakes are rarely treated as opportunities for growth – they are offences punishable by law that often go onto your permanent record. Instead of offering opportunities for repair, restitution, and restoration, we pass out judgements and lock people behind bars. Three of my friends have recently navigated (or are currently navigating) the legal system with their sons whose offences occurred in their formative teen years. These young men (some of whose actions did, admittedly, harm other people) are not being taught repair and restitution. They are learning shame. They’re learning just how much they can be “banished from the kingdom” for making mistakes. The same is true for one my friends who has been living under the shadow of an unfair legal conviction that makes it difficult for her to sign a lease or get a job. She has told few people of this part of her story because of what she risks losing as a result. Some mistakes (or appearances of mistakes) are costly.
Shame, the way we in western, colonized cultures, experience and express it, is deeply rooted in a culture of dominance (ie. patriarchy, white supremacy, colonization, etc.). In a culture of dominance, the person who’s seen to be the least flawed (NOT the person who IS the least flawed, but who can rig the system to ensure that they are SEEN TO BE the least flawed), dominates. The person with the greatest amount of shame is oppressed. Shame is heaped on the people on the lower levels of the system – BIPOC, women, LGBTQ+, etc., so that they can be dominated. They’re locked up for minor offences, they’re shamed for wearing the wrong clothes or having sex with the wrong person, they’re blamed for their own poverty, they’re ostracized for contracting AIDS, etc.
“Perhaps the act of ‘psychological colonisation’ is simply the process of shaming another culture.” from this article
In a culture of shame, mistake monsters are easily created. In fact, nobody needs to create them for us. After a lifetime of social conditioning, we can be counted on to create those monsters all by ourselves. Nobody was in the car with me when I cut off the other driver – and yet, the mistake monster showed up quickly to haunt me.
In the Maori culture (according to this article by Anahera Gildea), shame is treated differently. “The root word for shame in English means ‘to cover oneself’. Like with blankets, maybe. Or mud. Or hatred. To be camouflaged in a thicket, on a bank, or in the darkness of the night. Māori do not hide their shame. Nor their grief. It is visible to themselves and others because it means they have become dislodged, disconnected, from their ‘whakapapa’ (loosely translated as ‘lineage’).”
Shame, then, in the Maori understanding, is not associated with punishable offences you can’t recover from, but a reminder of how your actions have disconnected you and how you now have an opportunity to be restored.
I am left wondering, when I consider the damage shame-brain and mistake monsters are doing to all of us in non-Indigenous, colonized cultures… how do we create a mistake culture – where mistakes aren’t monsters but friends? How do we shift attitudes away from “mistake as punishable offence” to “mistake as valuable information for growth”? How do we focus not on the danger of the mistake, but on the possibility for reconnecting ourselves?
What if we treated mistakes as “miss-takes”, the way we do when we’re taking photos?
Over the weekend, I went with my sister to visit the town where we grew up. Because they are such fleeting flowers and are so connected to our youth, we took dozens of photos of crocuses. Some of those photos were miss-takes – they came out blurry, the angle was wrong, or they were over-exposed. Those photos could later be deleted from our cameras. But they weren’t just miss-takes – they provided us with valuable information about how to change the angle, the light, or the focus. Those miss-takes helped us eventually take a few photos we were proud of. They helped us find greater connection with the crocuses and with the land on which we’ve wandered since we first learned to walk
In the Stó:lō Nation (Indigenous to Canada), their restorative justice practices are built on an understanding of mistakes as “miss-takes”. As in the Maori culture, they see the mistakes as signposts that indicate disconnection, and that point toward an opportunity for restoration and reconnection. They don’t, in fact, have a word for justice. Instead, Stó:lō Elders created the word Qwi:qwelstóm kwelam t’ ey (qwi:qwelstóm) – roughly translated as, “they are teaching you, moving you toward the good”. “It is a concept of ‘justice’ centered upon the family and reflects a way of life that focuses on relationships and the interconnectedness of all life. It has four key elements: ‘the role of Elders; the role of family, family ties, and community connections; teachings; and spirituality.’” Justice, in a culture like this, is not a system of punishment, it is a way of re-connecting those in conflict with their higher selves and their spiritual guides. (Source: Indigenous Centered Conflict Resolution Processes in Canada, by Nisha Sikka, George Wong, and Catherine Bell)
What if we decolonized our culture and we let the Stó:lō Nation and the Maori Nation teach us about justice systems that restore right relationships and bring people back to themselves? What if we recognized the flaws in the colonial system of “justice”, humbled ourselves, and became learners instead of colonizers? And what if we extended that learning beyond justice to our education systems? How would it change the learning environment if we changed our testing practices and treated mistakes as valuable pieces of information that helped a student come into the fullness of who they are and what they are capable of? What if we removed the sting of shame and accepted, instead, a collective responsibility for restoring the community?
Recently, I have witnessed some mistakes made by white spiritual/self-help teachers who lack an awareness of their social conditioning and unconscious bias. They are causing harm to people of colour (by images and words that they use and actions that they take), and when they do so, their first instinct is often to defend themselves and/or to hide their shame. They don’t yet understand that the impact of their mis-steps is more important than the intent, so they try to convince their followers that they are good people, worthy of continued admiration. They are afraid the mistakes will destroy them – banish them from the kingdom and leave them penniless.
I get it, I’ve been there too. I made a mistake once, while doing race relations work, and my shame reared up (just as it did when I cut off that person in traffic) and made me want to use every means possible to protect myself from the mistake monster. Luckily, I was working with people who were less interested in my mistake than in my continued efforts to seek reconciliation and restitution. The mistake did not kill me or banish me from the kingdom – it taught me and further shaped my work. Now, three years later, I am grateful for that mistake and the opportunities for growth it presented.
One of the most important things I learned (or re-learned) from that experience, is that mistakes are most valuable when they are brought into the light, discussed, apologized for, and learned from. A mistake that’s hidden turns into shame. A mistake that’s owned and repaired and/or apologized for turns into learning.
We are going to make mistakes. Accept that as a given. Especially if you’re doing work that challenges you, holding space for people in places where there may be power imbalances, deep wounds, trauma, racial injustice, grief, fear, etc., occasionally you’ll offend people, you’ll let your own triggered wounds take over your rational mind, and you’ll be blind to your social conditioning. Even when your best intentions are to be kind, your impact may be very different.
Go into this work expecting mistakes to happen. And sometimes those mistakes will mean that you have to bear someone’s anger or face rejection. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news – that’s simply part of this work. That’s why we all need lots of self-care and community-care – so that we won’t be destroyed when the winds threaten to blow us over.
Those mistakes don’t need to destroy us. They can become our teachable moments.
Instead of battling the mistake monster, we need to befriend him – take him under our wing and hold space for him until he’s brave enough to take off his monster mask and reveal that, underneath, he is “miss-take”, not monster. Once we do that, we can learn from the mistake, make reparations where we need to, and keep trying until we get it right. Eventually, the picture will emerge in focus and with the right amount of light.
The next time a mistake monster shows up, take a lesson from art therapy and draw a picture of him. Make him as ugly as you need him to be, but then give him soft eyes. Talk to that monster and let him know you’re willing to learn the lessons he has brought you. You will likely find that he will soften in the space that you hold for him.
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If you want to learn more about how to hold space for your own mistakes and for others, consider signing up for Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, or join me in B.C. or the Netherlands.
Up until a dozen years ago, I’d only encountered the word “sovereign” in reference to God and I assumed it had something to do with being all-powerful, all-knowing, in control, and holy. I later encountered it in relation to nations, but, because I’d been raised with a highly tuned blasphemy-detector, I wondered whether that meant those nations were trying to be as powerful as God and whether governments had become “false idols”.
A dozen years ago, I came across the word again when I worked in international development and my colleagues were talking about “food sovereignty”. That’s when I became curious about what I’d missed in my earlier understanding of the word.
There are three categories often used for food-related support: food aid, food security, and food sovereignty. If you give a man a fish (food aid), he’ll eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish (food security), he’ll have food for a lifetime. But what if you put a fence around the pond and only allow him to fish on certain days and he has to go hungry in between? Ensuring he has agency over his food choices and accessibility to the sources of that food is food sovereignty. (In the non-profit world, we supported food sovereignty by funding projects where people were advocating for their right to adequate food and agricultural resources.)
According to Wikipedia, sovereignty is “the full right and power of a governing body over itself, without any interference from outside sources or bodies”. With full sovereignty, the man can fish at the pond when/if he wants, make decisions about that pond, and choose whether or not to share the pond with his neighbours.
Largely, the term is associated with nations and their governments, but what if we bring that definition down to land in our own lives? How does it change your relationship with yourself and with others if you consider yourself to be sovereign and you consider those you’re in relationship with to also be sovereign?
To claim sovereignty means that I get to decide what happens to my body, heart, and mind. It means that I have agency and autonomy and am not controlled or manipulated by anyone. I get to make my own decisions and live with the consequences. I get to choose who I am in relationship with and how much space to give them in my life. I can choose to end relationships that cause me harm and walk away from situations and communities that don’t honour my sovereignty.
If I treat you as someone who has your own sovereignty, it means that I assume you have the same right to self-govern your life as I do. You get to tell me how you want to be treated and I can choose to accept those boundaries or walk away. It’s what I teach in my work around holding space – that we offer love to each other without attachment, manipulation, control, or boundary-crossing.
For me, and I suspect for many others, it feels quite foreign to think of myself as sovereign. I’ve got all kinds of old scripts running in my head telling me that it’s selfish to claim the “full right and power” of my own “governing body” without “any interference from outside sources or bodies”. Shouldn’t I be more agreeable than that? Should I be nicer? Shouldn’t I accommodate other people’s needs before my own? Shouldn’t I extend grace to those who interfere? Shouldn’t I overlook the boundary-crossers if they are offering me safety, protection, resources, or employment? Aren’t they entitled to certain rights if I need what they have to offer?
Recently, I had an opportunity to claim my sovereignty in a relationship with someone who hasn’t always respected it in the past. This person was going to be in my house and I was nervous about it because of past experiences when they would fix things without being asked to do so, judge my choices about how my house is arranged and maintained, etc. As the time approached for the visit, I realized that I could make a choice – say nothing and risk further violations, or claim my sovereignty and communicate what kind of behaviour I found unacceptable in my space. I chose the latter. With a simple text, I let the person know what the ground rules would be for the visit. If they wished to comply, they were welcome, but if they didn’t, they could choose not to come. (They chose to comply.)
In essence, what I did was establish a “treaty” with this person – claiming my sovereignty in the relationship and laying out the expectations for what was acceptable. “A treaty is an agreement under international law entered into by actors in international law, namely sovereign states and international organizations.” (Wikipedia) If we can bring the definition of sovereignty down to our own lives, perhaps we can also consider how that sovereignty is negotiated via treaty between sovereign individuals in a relationship?
The problem, as I see it, is that few of us have an embodied understanding of sovereignty because we have been socially conditioned by colonial systems. “Colonization is a process by which a central system of power dominates the surrounding land and its components.” (Wikipedia)
Colonizers are not respecters of treaties. They may create them, but they either use their power to manipulate what the treaties contain, or they bull-doze over them to take the resources they want.
In a colonial system, everyone is impacted. Both the colonizers and the colonized become shaped by the imbalance of power and the lack of respect for boundaries and sovereignty. Some learn to take what’s not theirs and others learn that their rights are easily violated and their resources easily taken. Most of us find ourselves somewhere at the intersections – having power in some relationships and no power in others.
In a colonial system, nobody walks away unscathed. Nobody ends up with a well-balanced understanding of what it means to hold sovereignty as a core value in a relationship.
As a result, we have a lot of people the world over who’ve grown up with a warped sense of how to be in relationships with each other, both on a small scale and a large scale, both in one-on-one relationships and in country-to-country or community-to-community relationships. We cross boundaries, we downplay our own rights to boundaries, we fail to communicate our expectations of how we want to be treated, we emotionally colonize, we manipulate, we are victimized, and we run away from conflict because we haven’t been adequately prepared for it. We wound each other and we suffer from the wounds inflicted on us.
Consequently, we face the kind of actions being challenged by the #metoo movement, Idle No More, and Black Lives Matter. And we face the resulting backlash. When colonized people rise up to claim their sovereignty, it makes those in power nervous.
How do we change this? How do we decolonize ourselves and reclaim and honour sovereignty in our relationships and communities?
Well, it is both a small-scale and a large scale problem (and every scale in between), so there is no one-size-fits all solution. We have to do the hard work of claiming our own sovereignty (and that needs to be accompanied with a lot of self-care and community care) and we have to do the hard work of dismantling our imbalanced systems of power. We have to practice negotiating and communicating better treaties/agreements in our personal relationships and we have to address the ways in which the colonizers in our countries have ignored and/or failed to negotiate or ratify treaties with other sovereign nations or people groups. We have to learn how to enter into conflict in more generative ways that help all parties emerge with their sovereignty intact. We have to practice having harder conversations and not running away whenever we feel attacked for violating another person’s sovereignty. We have to learn how to communicate expectations and boundaries and not be offended when other people communicate theirs. And we have to evolve the way we raise our children so that they will grow up with a better sense of their own sovereignty.
I’ve begun the slow (and sometimes painful) work of decolonizing my relationships and I know that I still have a long way to go. Sometimes I feel the way I did when I first started dancing (after being raised in a no-dancing-allowed Mennonite home) – like I’m stumbling across the room stomping on people’s toes while I try to find a rhythm that fits with the person I’m dancing with. Just like dancing isn’t a natural act for someone raised with Mennonite roots, claiming sovereignty doesn’t feel like a natural act for someone raised with colonial roots.
But when we learn to dance together well – like a highly-skilled pair of tango dancers – we learn to respect each other’s space, honour each other’s bodies, and not get in the way of each other’s brilliance. We find intimacy not by violating each other’s space, but by spending many hours in practice, learning to negotiate the space between us. We might step on each other’s toes now and then, but we commit to staying on the dance floor and trying again. When one person violates the agreements we’ve made, they take responsibility and we figure out how to move on.
The better we become at dancing together, the closer we are to being truly free.