When you’re afraid you’ll say the wrong thing

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My baby died before I got to hold him in my arms. I’d been in the hospital for three weeks, trying to save my third pregnancy, but then one morning I went downstairs for my twice-daily ultrasound and found out he had died while I slept. Then came the horrible and unavoidable realization… I had to give birth to him. For three hours I laboured, knowing that at the end of it, instead of a baby suckling at my breast, I would hold death in my arms. That’s the hardest kind of liminal space I’ve ever been through – excruciating pain on top of excruciating grief.

Yes, it was hard, but it was also one of the most tender, beautiful, grace-filled experiences of my life. It changed me profoundly, and set me on the path I am on now. That was the beginning of my journey to understanding the painful beauty of grief, the value of the liminal space, and the essence of what it means to hold space for another person.

When Matthew was born, the nurses in the hospital handled it beautifully. They dressed him in tiny blue overalls and wrapped him in a yellow blanket, lovingly hand-made by volunteers. They took photos of him for us to take home, made prints of his hands and feet for a special birth/death certificate, and then brought him to my room so that we could spend the evening with him. I asked one of the nurses later how they’d known just the right things to do, and she told me that they used to be frustrated because they didn’t know how to support grieving parents, but then had all been sent to a workshop that gave them some tools that changed the experience for the parents and for them.

That evening, our family and close friends gathered in my hospital room to support us and to hold the baby that they had been waiting to welcome.

Now, nearly sixteen years later, I don’t remember a single thing that was said in that hospital room, but I remember one thing. I remember the presence of the people who mattered. I remember that they came, I remember that they gazed lovingly into the face of my tiny baby, and I remember that they cried with me. I have a mental picture in my mind of the way they loved – not just me, but my lifeless son. That love and that presence was everything. I’m sure it was hard for some of them to come, knowing what they were facing, but they came because it mattered.

This past week, I’ve been in a couple of conversations with people who were concerned that they might do or say the wrong thing in response to someone’s hard story. “What if I offend them? What if they think I’m trying to fix them? What if they think I’m insensitive? What if I’m guilty of emotional colonization?” Some of these people admitted that they sometimes avoid showing up for people in grief or struggle because they simply don’t have a clue how to support them.

There are lots of “wrong” things to do in the face of grief – fixing, judging, projecting, or deflecting. Holding someone else’s pain is not easy work.

In her raw and beautiful new book, Love Warrior, Glennon Melton Doyle talks about how hard it was to share the story of her husband’s infidelity and their resulting marriage breakdown. There are six kinds of people who responded.

  • The Shover is the one who “listens with nervousness and then hurriedly explains that ‘everything happens for a reason,’ or ‘it’s darkest before the dawn,’ or ‘God has a plan for you.’”
  • The Comparer is the person “nods while ‘listening’, as if my pain confirms something she already knows. When I finish she clucks her tongue, shakes her head, and respond with her own story.”
  • The Fixer “is certain that my situation is a question and she knows the answer. All I need is her resources and wisdom and I’ll be able to fix everything.”
  • The Reporter “seems far too curious about the details of the shattering… She is not receiving my story, she is collecting it. I learn later that she passes on the breaking news almost immediately, usually with a worry or prayer disclaimer.”
  • The Victims are the people who “write to say they’ve hear my news secondhand and they are hurt I haven’t told them personally. They thought we were closer than that.
  • And finally, there are “the God Reps. They believe they know what God wants for me and they ‘feel led’ by God to ‘share.’”

These are all people who may mean well, but are afraid to hold space. They are afraid to be in a position where they might not know the answer and will have to be uncomfortable for awhile. Wrapped up in their response is not their concern for the other person but their concern for their own ego, their own comfort, and their own pride.

It’s easy to look at a list like that and think “Well, no matter what I do, I’ll probably do the wrong thing so I might as well not try.” But that’s a cop-out. If the person living through the hard story is worth anything to you, then you have to at least show up and try.

From my many experiences being the recipient of support when I walked through hard stories, this is my simple suggestion for what to do:

Be fully present.

Don’t worry so much about what you’ll say. Yes, you might say the wrong thing, but if the friendship is solid enough, the person will forgive you for your blunder. If you don’t even show up, on the other hand, that forgiveness will be harder to come by.

So show up. Be there in whatever way you can and in whatever way the relationship merits – a phone call, a visit, a text message.

Just be there, even if you falter, stumble, or make mistakes. And when you’re there, be FULLY present. Pay attention to what the person is sharing with you and what they may be asking of you. Don’t just listen well enough so that you can formulate your response, listen well enough that you risk being altered by the story. Dare to enter into the grit of the story with them. Ask the kind of questions that show interest and compassion rather than judgement or a desire to fix. Risk making yourself uncomfortable. Take a chance that the story will take you so far out of your comfort zone that you won’t have a clue how to respond.

And when you are fully present, your intuition will begin to whisper in your ear about the right things to do or say. You’ll hear the longing in your friend’s voice, for example, and you’ll find a way to show up for that longing. In the nuances of their story, and in the whisperings they’ll be able to utter because they see in you someone they can trust, you’ll recognize the little gifts that they’ll be able to receive.

It is only when you dare to be uncomfortable that you can hold liminal space for another person.

This is not easy work and it’s not simple. It’s gritty and a little dangerous. It asks a lot of us and it takes us into hard places. But it’s worth it and it’s really, really important.

There’s a term for the kind of thing that people do when they’re trying to fix you, rush you to a resolution, or pressure you to have positive thoughts rather than fully experiencing the grief. It’s called “spiritual bypassing”, a term coined by John Welwood. “I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks,” he says. “When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. And then we tend to use absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits. I see this as an “occupational hazard” of the spiritual path, in that spirituality does involve a vision of going beyond our current karmic situation.”

When we’re too uncomfortable to hold space for another person’s pain, we push them into this kind of spiritual bypassing, not because we believe it’s best for them, but because anything else is too uncomfortable for us. But spiritual bypassing only stuffs the wound further down so that it pops up later in addiction, rage, unhealthy behaviour, and physical or mental illness.

Instead of pushing people to bypass the pain, we have to slow down, dare to be uncomfortable, and allow the person to find their own path through.

There’s a good chance that the person doesn’t want your perfect response – they want your PRESENCE. They want to know that they are supported. They want a container in which they can safely break apart. They want to know you won’t abandon them. They want to know that you will listen. They want to know that they are worth enough to you that you’ll give up your own comfort to be in the trenches with them.

Your faltering attempts at being present are better than your perfect absence.

My memory of that evening in the hospital room with my son Matthew is full of redemption and beauty and grace because it was full of people who love me. None of them knew the right things to say in the face of my pain, but they were there. They listened to me share my birthing story, even though there was no resolution, and they looked into the face of my son even though they couldn’t fix him.

Nothing was more important to me than that. 

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A note about what’s coming… 

A new online writing course… If you want to write to heal, to grow, or to change the world, consider joining me for Open Heart, Moving Pen, October 1-21, 2016. 

An emerging coaching/facilitation program… As I’ve mentioned before, I’m currently writing a book about what it means to hold space. While writing the first three chapters, I began to dream about what else might grow out of this work and I came up with a beautiful idea that I’m very excited about. I’ll be creating a “liminal space coaching/facilitation program” that will provide training for anyone who wants to deepen their work in holding liminal space. When I started dreaming of this, I realized that I’ve been creating the tools for such a program for several years now – Mandala Discovery, The Spiral Path, Pathfinder, 50 Questions, and Openhearted Writing. Participants of the coaching/facilitation program (which will begin in early 2017) will have access to all of these tools to use in their own work, whether that’s as coaches, facilitators, pastors, spiritual directors, hospice workers, or teachers.

If the coaching/facilitation program interests you, you might want to get a head start in working through one or more of those programs so that you’ve done some of the foundational work first. The more personal work you’ve done in holding space for yourself first, the more effective you’ll be in the work. (Participants in any of those courses will be given a discount on the registration cost of the coaching/facilitation program.) 

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Going down to the bone

I am going down to the bone. A deep cleanse, a stripping away – like a diamond cutter chipping away the grit to reveal the sparkle.

img_6268This week, there was a large dumpster parked in front of my house. In went the old couches whose springs no longer held their shape. Then the detritus collected in our garage over the eighteen years we’ve lived here. Broken broom handles, kept just in case there might be a use for them some day. Bent tools, old bicycle tires, empty cardboard boxes. Next came the branches I’d trimmed from the shrubs and trees in the Spring, a broken bench, a rusted table from the backyard, and old playground toys long abandoned by grown children.

Finally, I stripped the floors in two-thirds of the house and dragged those out onto the growing heap in the dumpster. Each room took a little more effort than the last and each increased effort caused a little more wear and tear on my body. First I pulled out the stained carpet in the living room and hallway, the padding underneath, and the strips of upside-down nails at the edge that held it in place. Then the warped cork floor came out of the bathroom.

img_6273The kitchen, with its subfloor and multiple layers of linoleum increased the challenge, but I was up for it. After watching DIY Youtube videos, I set the circular saw at the right depth, put on safety goggles, and cut it into pieces. Then came the prying, the jockeying of appliances, and the endless nail removal.

The entrance, with parquet wood glued solidly to the floor, is challenging me most and it’s the only room that remained uncompleted when they picked up the full dumpster yesterday.

Why have I done this all alone? Multiple reasons, I suppose. Cost is probably the first factor, but there are more. I wanted to prove to myself that I could – that I was strong enough and capable enough and stubborn enough and fierce enough. And I knew that it would be cathartic – to work out through my body some of the stuff that gets stuck in my mind. I was right on both counts – today, though my body aches, I feel strong and fierce and a little more healthy.

img_6266And there were other reasons – deeper reasons… Like the fact that I had some shame about the state of my house and didn’t want anyone to see the stains on the carpet, the layers of grit under the carpet, or the dried bits of food stuck to the floor under the fridge. Or the fact that I felt like this was my work to do – to cleanse this space of the brokenness of the past so that my daughters and I have a new foundation under our feet for the next part of our lives.

Eighteen years ago this month, we moved into this house with two toddlers. Since then, the floors have taken a lot of wear and tear – spilled milk, spilled wine, spilled tears, spilled blood, spilled lives. We sprayed and scrubbed and sprayed and scrubbed again, but carpets can only take so much, and eventually the stains were so deep it was hard to know the original colour of the carpet.

We didn’t change the carpet, though, because we had hopes for bigger changes. Fourteen years ago, we drew up plans to add a big new kitchen onto the side of the house. There was no point in replacing floors, we told ourselves – we might as well do it all at once. So we put it off until we had the money.

But then we started making choices that pushed the renovation plans further and further into the future. First, Marcel quit his job to go to university and be a stay-at-home dad. Then I took a pay-cut to work in non-profit instead of government. And then I took an even bigger leap (and pay-cut) and became self-employed. The money was just never abundant enough to justify a big expense like a new kitchen.

Instead, we lived with ugly floors and a cramped kitchen. Sadly, though, that changed the way we felt about our house. We put in less and less effort to keep it clean and we invited fewer and fewer people over because the house never looked the way we wanted it to look.

But the floors weren’t the real problem. Perhaps, in fact, they were simply a reflection of the deeper problem. There were stains in our marriage too, and no matter how many times we tried to scrub them out, they kept popping back up again, revealing themselves to us when the light shone through at the right angle. The stains were harder and harder to ignore, and we finally knew that, just like the floors, we had to tear apart our marriage to see whether the foundation beneath it was strong enough to warrant salvaging.

We tried to renovate – visited multiple counsellors over the course of a few years – but finally it was time to make a hard decision. The marriage was too broken to fix. It was better to release ourselves from it so that we each could find our way to growth and healing. Last October, he moved out, and I started decluttering and painting. The flooring, though, had to wait until we’d signed a separation agreement and the house belonged to me.

Now, as I wait for a contractor to install the new flooring (my DIY abilities only take me so far – it’s good to know when to call in the professionals), we walk on bare wooden floors in empty rooms. Our voices echo against the walls in all of this hard space.

It’s all been stripped to the bone – myself, my house, and my marriage. 

Unlike the marriage, the foundation of the house is still sturdy and strong. Only a few places need attention – where it squeaks, new screws will be applied. Soon it will be built upon to create a safe and comfortable home for the family that lives here now – my daughters and me. We’ll begin to fill it with laughter again, and when there are couches with sturdy springs, we’ll welcome friends to sit with us and hear our stories. And when we spill, we’ll mop up the spills and carry on.

We had to let go of dreams along the way – the new kitchen never materialized and the family isn’t the shape we thought it would always be – but we are sturdy enough to survive and resilient enough to adjust and grow new dreams. Despite the dismantling of the marriage, our family still has a solid enough foundation to hold us.

My own foundation is strong too. In fact, it feels stronger than ever. All of this chipping away is bringing me closer and closer to my essence, to the diamond under the grit. I’ve cleared out what didn’t serve me anymore, I’ve put some new screws in place to fix whatever squeaked, and I’ve called in professionals when that seemed wise. I feel fresh and alive and ready to hold space for whatever wants to unfold next in my life.

The liminal space has been hard and painful and I still ache from the effort it’s taken. Some of the tearing away revealed grit and shadow I didn’t want anyone to see, not even myself. But in the end, there is grace and the light is shining through and it is all worth it.

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Inspired by Dr. Seuss: A mandala journal prompt for the liminal space

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Sometimes, when you’ve read too many deep thinkers and thought too many deep thoughts, you just have to go back to Dr. Seuss for some clarity. While writing the first three chapters of my book on holding space in the last few weeks, I was puzzling over how to describe liminal space. I finally went back to this…

You can get so confused
that you’ll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place…
…for people just waiting.

Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

In the first chapter of the book, I wrote about the liminal space we were in when we were expecting Mom’s death (an expansion of the blog post that was the catalyst for this book). Mom was in that liminal space herself (not quite dead, but no longer quite alive) and we were in that space with her) not quite bereaved and yet no longer able to participate in full relationship with her).

Inspired by Dr. Seuss, I wrote my own version…

We were waiting.
Waiting for her breath to change
or the pain to come
or the song to end
or the light to change
or the birds to visit
or the night to come
or the nurse to say “it’s almost over”.
Just waiting.

Ironically, (or perhaps serendipitously), while I’ve been writing these chapters, I’ve been in another kind of Waiting Place. This time, I am “not quite divorced and yet no longer in a marriage”. It’s been a summer of waiting. Waiting for divorce lawyers to draw up separation papers, waiting for the bank to clear the mortgage, waiting for the real estate lawyer to draw up new papers for the house, waiting for the land transfer title to go through so that I own the house. Each waiting period has been compounded with at least one of the parties involved going on vacation, so what should have taken a few weeks has dragged on for six months.

Last winter, I decluttered and repainted the interior of my house. Anticipating the new flooring that we badly need, I moved all of the living room furniture into the garage before painting. But then it took months longer than I expected to push all of the paperwork through, so the floors still aren’t finished and the furniture is still in the garage. My living room, quite literally, feels like The Waiting Place. (In fact, a friend dropped in to pick something up and thought she had the wrong place because it looked like we’d moved out.) “Waiting for the bank to call. Waiting for the lawyer to return from a month-long vacation. Waiting for the old carpet to be torn out. Waiting for the furniture to be moved back in. Everyone is just waiting.”

It’s been frustrating and what little patience I had at the beginning of the summer has been stretched to the limit. A person can only take so much of The Waiting Place. It’s been wreaking havoc with my emotions, bringing up old fears and frustration, and getting in the way of my most important relationships.

Finally, today, I decided it was time to do what I tell my coaching clients to do when they’re in the liminal space between what was and what is yet to come – stay present for what’s right now, find the tools and practices that help with processing, and open myself to what wants to emerge out of the liminal space.

For the first time in a long time, I took out my mandala journal and created a new mandala for the liminal space. It helped. Here’s a mandala journal prompt that I created out of my own process…

 

Liminal Space – a mandala journal prompt

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In anthropology, a liminal space is a threshold. It’s an ambiguous space in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. That liminal space finds us between who we once were and who we are becoming. It’s disorienting, uncomfortable, and it almost always takes far longer than we expect.

Much like The Waiting Place in “Oh The Places You’ll Go“, it feels like “a most useless place”, but it’s not. It’s a time of hibernation, a time of transformation, a time of resting, and a time of deep learning.

Nobody teaches us more about liminal space than the lowly caterpillar. Not knowing why, and not having the capacity to imagine its future as a butterfly, a caterpillar knows only that it must surrender, shed its skin, create the shell of a chrysalis, and then dissolve into a formless, gel-like substance awaiting rebirth.

The liminal space is about surrender. It’s about releasing the caterpillar identity before we have the vision for the butterfly. It’s about falling apart so that we can rebuild. It’s about daring to go into the darkness so that we can, one day, emerge into the light. It’s about trusting Spirit to direct the transformation.

One of the most critical things that the caterpillar teaches us in its transformation is that we need the shell of the chrysalis to hold space for us when we fall apart.

We need a protective shell that holds us in our formless state. It keeps us safe in the midst of transformation. It protects us from outside elements so that we can focus on the important internal work we need to do. It believes in the possibility for us even before we have the capacity to believe it ourselves.

When we enter our own chrysalis, whether that is the waiting place of divorce, grief, pregnancy, job loss, career change, graduation, children moving away, or any number of human experiences, we must build our own chrysalises that hold the space for our transformation. Like a patchwork quilt, we stitch together the people or groups who hold space for us (family, friends, pastors, therapists, coaches, churches, sharing circles, etc.), the practices that help us hold space for ourselves (journaling, artwork, prayer, body work, meditation, etc.), and the spaces which make us feel safe for transformation (our home, the park, a church, etc.)

Mandala Prompt

1. Draw a large circle and a second slightly smaller circle inside it.
2. At the centre of the mandala, glue or draw an image or words that represent the liminal space. (I used an image from The Waiting Place in “Oh, the Places You’ll Go”. Another idea might be an image of a chrysalis.)
3. In the space between the image and the next largest circle, write sentences, words, or phrases that represent what The Waiting Place is like. Explore your emotions, fears, resistance, etc., and also explore your wishes, your opportunities for learning, etc. You can use the following as prompts for starting your sentences:
– I feel…
– I am…
– I fear…
– I want…
– I will…
– I am learning…
– I wish…
(Note: I blurred mine in the image above, since it was a little too personal to share.)
4. Imagine that the outer rim (between the two outer circles) is your chrysalis. Inside the rim, write down all of the people who hold space for you, all of the practices that help you hold space, and all of the places you go when you need to hold space for yourself.
5. Colour/decorate your mandala however you wish. As you are doing so, set an intention for what you wish to invite in as you surrender to the chrysalis. For example, I whispered an intention for more patience and grace as I wait for the next story to emerge.

Want more prompts like this? Sign up for Mandala Discovery and you’ll receive 30 prompts on topics such as grief, fear, play, grace, community, etc.

 

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Holding liminal space

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“I’m holding space for you.” That phrase has become more and more common in our vernacular lately, and there’s a part of me that delights in hearing it and a part of me that sometimes cringes.

The part that cringes is the part that hears the cliché that that phrase has become. Those words are said (especially on social media) sometimes far too glibly and casually. It’s become a throw-away phrase, not unlike “thoughts and prayers”, that makes us feel like we’re being supportive without requiring that we get our hands dirty. If I’m holding space for you, we seem to think, you can’t accuse me of being an absent friend, but you also can’t expect me to do any of the messy work with you.

When we toss those words out too casually, the space we’re holding becomes a shallow one. “If I just drop this ‘I’m holding space for you’ comment on your anguished Facebook post, I can come back later when your problems are resolved and we can celebrate together. No fuss, no mess.”

There is an element of spiritual bypassing to this understanding of holding space.

Spiritual bypassing is a term coined by John Welwood. “Although most of us were sincerely trying to work on ourselves,” he says, “I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.   

“When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. And then we tend to use absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits. I see this as an “occupational hazard” of the spiritual path, in that spirituality does involve a vision of going beyond our current karmic situation.”

There is something in our nature and/or culture (especially in the West) that has conditioned us to want the easy path. We want to get to “spiritual” without taking the journey through “messy”. We search for those tools and practices that will help us avoid the darkness, the brokenness, and the rawness. And, in the ways that we hold space for each other, we hope to avoid other people’s rawness and darkness too. It is our unspoken fear that if we have to be too present for their darkness, then we will have no choice but to see our own.

For the last few months, as I prepare to write a book on what it means to hold space, I’ve been wrestling with these concerns around shallowness and spiritual bypassing. If I am to be so closely associated with the concept of holding space (ie. Google the term and my name pops up at or near the top), then I need to be clear about what I mean by it, and what I mean by it is far from shallow.

In order to deepen the term, I started to consider what kind of space I wanted to talk about holding. Is it safe space? Not entirely – sometimes it feels frightening and unclear and requires that we step into that which makes us uncomfortable. Is it brave space? Sometimes, but other times it just feels like soft space that doesn’t require bravery. Is it deep space? Often it is, but then there are those times when shallow is good enough, at least for a first step.

Finally I came up with this… It’s about holding liminal space.

Liminal originates from the Latin word “limen” which means “a threshold”. In anthropology, liminality is “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants ‘stand at the threshold’ between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.” (from Wikipedia)

A liminal space, then, is a period in which something (social hierarchy, culture, belief, tradition, identity, etc.) has been dissolved and a new thing has not yet emerged to take its place. It’s that period of uncertainty, ambiguity, restlessness, fear, discomfort, and anguish. It’s the space between, when a trapeze artist let’s go of one swing and doesn’t yet know whether she’ll be able to reach the other swing. There is nothing shallow about liminal space.

In the article Grieving as Sacred Space, Richard Rohr describes liminal space as “…a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the “tried and true” but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are in between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. It is no fun.”

It was that liminal space that I talked about when I first described the kind of holding space that happened at my mom’s deathbed. It was messy and raw and it lead us into the depths of our darkest grief when Mom finally breathed her last breath. It was also a time when we were “finally out of the way” and had to surrender to the God of our understanding.

It’s that liminal space that I talked about when I was in a place of burnout from the demands of a growing business and the ending of a marriage. Or when I was stepping into complex, trauma-informed, race relations work where I was challenged with my own bias.

This weekend, along with millions of Canadians, I watched some of that liminal space unfold in front of me on stage as Gord Downie performed what was probably his final concert. In a remarkable show of courage and strength, he went out on tour with his band, The Tragically Hip, despite the fact that he has inoperable brain cancer that will probably kill him in less than a year.  In a moment I don’t think I’ll ever forget (watch the video clip here), with pure anguish written on his face and tears rolling down his cheeks, he screamed a primal scream that ripped through the air and left a scar across the whole country. This was not a scream that could be resolved. It was not a cry for help or for pity. It was a scream that emerged from the deepest place in him and touched into the deepest places in us.

When we hold liminal space, we are willing to hold that kind of scream, to witness it and not judge or resolve it. We are willing to be in both the darkest and lightest of places with each other, to be alongside that kind of anguish and terror in tandem with the profound joy and celebration of a life well-lived. We are willing to crack open and be at our rawest and most vulnerable and we are willing to hold each other in that unresolved place.

That is what I mean when I talk about holding space. There is no spiritual bypassing in that place and no shallowness. It can rip you apart and leave you breathless. It can require much more of you than you knew you had to give. It takes strength and courage and resilience and a fierce commitment to love.

Holding that kind of space is one of the most sacred acts we can do for each other. When we do it, we are standing on holy ground.

I have the great privilege of coaching and sometimes creating ceremony for people who are in that liminal space. This is not a task I take lightly and sometimes I fail at it (especially when I let my ego get in the way). I need to be spiritually and emotionally prepared for the darkness to show up and for the anguish to overwhelm people as they take this journey. I also need to be prepared for the most powerful kind of light and love to emerge. It’s what coaches, therapists, pastors, hospice workers, healers, spiritual directors, nurses, and midwives must all do. It’s humbling, beautiful, and exhausting work.

I had the privilege of creating a “liminal space” ceremony for a couple of people recently, and I can tell you that it was one of the most beautiful and yet energetically draining things I’ve done in a long time. I created a metaphoric journey that invited them, over the course of a couple of hours, to peer into both their shadow and their light. When they dove into their own darkness, I held them both physically and emotionally. When they stepped into the light, I was there to steady them. At the end of the ceremony, we celebrated what they are about to birth.

For hours after the ceremony, I suffered from a powerful headache. That night, I had frightening and disorienting dreams. It took me a few days of intentional self-care and gentleness to shake off the weariness. While it was an amazing experience for all of us, it took a lot out of me both physically and emotionally.

That’s why I am so insistent that self-care needs to be a high priority for anyone who holds liminal space. We can’t do this well unless we are well-grounded and supported.

The next time you say to someone “I’m holding space for you,” ask yourself if you’re only willing and able to hold shallow space, or if you’re truly willing to be there for the liminal space. If it’s shallow space you’re holding (and, to be clear, that is necessary too – when we’re in that liminal space, we don’t need everyone in our circles to hold the depth of it), perhaps better words would be “I love you and am standing by you.”

If, on the other hand, you want to hold liminal space, make sure you’re prepared for the primal scream.

P.S. If you’re in the midst of that primal scream and need someone to hold that space with you, check out my coaching page. If you host liminal space, consider joining us in The Helper’s Circle

Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection and my bi-weekly reflections.

What I want to tell you about having work that goes viral

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In recent weeks, I’ve had a few people whose work is growing and who want to be prepared for more growth ask me what advice I’d give them from my experience of having a blog post go viral. A year and a half ago, my blog post about holding space went viral. So many people visited that my website crashed once and threatened to crash another time. There continue to be viral spikes now and then when someone with a large following discovers and shares it. By now, I would estimate that around 3 million people have seen that post either on my site or on other sites where it’s been shared (especially Uplift Connect). It’s been quoted in books and journals, it’s inspired videos and other articles, and it’s been plagiarized more than once.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that experience and what I learned from it. It really was life-changing and it’s taken my work into a deeper and more focused place. It has opened remarkable doorways for me, brought in lots of new clients and speaking engagements, and allowed me to travel to some interesting places to do interesting work. Now, a year and a half later, I’m working with an agent to grow the ideas that started in that blog post into a full-length book.

Yes, that post has been a great blessing and a dream come true, but it has required great sacrifice of me as well. The fall-out from that post has brought me to the brink of burnout more than once. It has exhausted and overwhelmed me. It has changed relationships and has sent me into therapy. It has placed a burden on my shoulders that I wasn’t always prepared to carry. Sometimes hundreds of emails fill my in-box, each one of them a request for some energetic output on my part.

At first I was going to write a “what I wish I’d known before it happened” kind of post, but truthfully, I don’t know if I would have done much differently. Even in the really hard spots, there were lessons to learn that couldn’t have been learned without some struggle. So instead, I will give you some of my stories and lessons and you can make of them what you will. Some of these are related to business growth and some are related to personal growth – I really can’t separate the two because they are so blended in what I do.

    1. There are few things more vital than good support. Because my business hadn’t grown enough, I was running a one-woman show before my post went viral, doing everything on a shoestring budget. I didn’t have a good hosting plan for my website and I didn’t have anyone with the technical capacity to support website challenges. I was self-taught and relied on the inexpensive hosting package of a big and impersonal business. That was a nearly fatal flaw. When the traffic increased exponentially, the big and impersonal business kept threatening me with menacing emails about the fact that I didn’t have enough capacity in my hosting package, but weren’t responding to any of my requests for support. When my website crashed, they completely ignored my repeated requests for urgent support for more than 24 hours. Finally, a website super girl stepped forward, stayed up all night, and rescued my site from disaster. It was running again (now hosted by her) by the time I woke up in the morning. I now pay a fair bit more for web hosting, but that’s a monthly bill I pay quite happily for the peace of mind it’s brought me.
    2. Having a lot of good content and programs already available helped immensely. I’ve been blogging for more than a dozen years and had several reasonably-priced programs available on my site (ie. Mandala Discovery, The Spiral Path, and Lead with Your Wild Heart) which meant that new visitors could engage with my work and invest in it right away. I know I could have done better if I’d had a savvy marketer working with me, but I did alright, given the circumstances. I am grateful that the viral spike happened far enough into my business development that I could support it and it wasn’t just a flash-in-the-pan success. That meant that, in the early days when not many people were showing up, I had to be faithful to the work and believe that it had meaning, continuously creating whether or not people were paying attention.
    3. The internet has created a market where people feel they are entitled to free content and advice. While I am grateful for the income that this post brought in, it is also true that far more people came looking for free support. This is not a critique of those people (I’ve done the same thing myself on occasion, though I try not to anymore), but it was amazing to me how many people reached out for free advice on everything from parenting to palliative care to marriage to business development. Because I love to engage with people and have built many beautiful relationships online, my first instinct was to respond to every one of the emails I received and often that meant giving out free advice.  That is exhausting and unsustainable. I had to learn how to create better boundaries for myself and I had to practice letting people down for the sake of my own health and well-being. Now, a year and a half later, I have finally hired an assistant who is managing that flow and helping me to protect my energy.
    4. I can’t over-state how important good self-care and healthy boundaries are. I’ve always considered myself to be fairly good at self-care (I take lots of hot baths, go on lots of long walks, step away from my work regularly, journal and make art often, have some really supportive relationships, etc.) but I realized with this experience that the bigger my work and audience gets, the more intentional I need to be about self-care and boundaries. In working with a therapist, for example, I realized that I still have a long way to go in terms of honouring my body and protecting my energy while I make myself available to more and more people. I’ve been working on that this summer.
    5. People are looking for more depth than we sometimes expect – don’t dumb it down. I work in some pretty deep and sometimes dark places. I talk about grief, shadow, conflict, race relations, vulnerability, etc. That’s not the kind of work that one would normally associate with “going viral”. And yet, I’ve found that my audience shows up when I take the most risks in going to those deep places. My blog post started with the death of my mother and it included a definition of holding space that is fairly intense and doesn’t fit with some of the more New-Agey or Law-of-Attraction type understanding of holding space. And yet, that is clearly what people are hungry for, because they keep coming. Far too many coaches and writers write from a more shallow place (“do these ten steps and you’ll have a rich and happy life”) and they might get rich from it, but I don’t think it’s feeding the real hunger in the world.
    6. Fame is shallow. It’s the real work that matters. Sure it’s flattering that three million people have seen my post, but I can’t dwell in abstract numbers or I risk getting lost in ego. To me, the real work is in the circles that gather in my workshops, the individuals who sit across from me in my coaching sessions, or the people who engage with me when I speak at conferences. Last week, I held space for a powerful and intense ceremony for two people who are launching a beautiful new movement into the world. Sitting there in the grass, bearing witness as they took a metaphorical journey into the work that calls them was as good as my work gets and it is a great privilege that I get to do it. I don’t ever want to forget that.
    7. Not every audience is worth spending my energy on. At the beginning, it was flattering to be invited to do radio interviews, etc., but I learned fairly quickly that if my gut was telling me it wasn’t the right audience, I should pay attention. More than one interview fell flat because the interviewer really didn’t understand my work and didn’t know how to ask good questions. I walked away from those interviews feeling drained and frustrated. Since then, I’ve been more selective in what speaking engagements or interviews I’ll agree to. I’ve also become somewhat suspect of online summits where a lot of speakers are doing free webinars, especially when there has been little thought to the diversity of the speakers. I would only agree to one of those if it was just the right invitation and just the right intention around what it’s offering. It’s not true that “all PR is good PR” – sometimes it drains your valuable energy and/or links you to products and organizations that don’t fit with your values and integrity.
    8. There are great risks involved in taking your work to a deeper place. There’s a Bible verse that says “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” That rings true for me in this work. I feel that I have been given a great gift and great responsibility in doing this work, but it is also requiring much of me and I can’t take that lightly. In order for me to be doing this work with integrity, I have to be willing to peer into my shadow and address my own shame and discomfort. Some of the emails I get, for example, are negative and attacking. Sometimes I need to ignore them and stand in my strength, but sometimes I need to accept what is truthful in them. And always I need to be resilient enough to return to the work and remember that it’s not about me.
    9. It is, ironically, harder to build real relationships when lots of people know who you are. This was rather unexpected for me, but I’ve noticed that people respond to me differently once they know that I had a blog post that went viral. When I’m at conferences or other public gatherings where people know my work, they assume I’m the expert or teacher and they approach me that way, assuming I know something that they don’t know. Some have read a fair bit of my work already, so I am automatically at a disadvantage, not knowing anything about them. It’s new territory to navigate, and it hasn’t kept me from some beautiful experiences of deep connection, but it definitely shifts the initial connection in a relationship. Sometimes this is okay (it allows me to maintain some boundaries), but sometimes it leaves me feeling a little lonely when everyone else is connecting on more equal playing field. I remember a similar thing happening when I first stepped into management – I was no longer privy to much of the office chit-chat that helped build relationships among staff.
    10. Only do this work if you’re prepared to have your life shaken up. One of the most significant results of this deeper personal work that cracked open for me when I started writing about holding space was that my 22 year marriage unraveled only months after my post first went viral. That wasn’t accidental timing. The post, and my resulting work, caused me to see that I wasn’t living in integrity. While I was busy teaching people to hold space, I was in a marriage where neither I nor my husband knew how to hold space for each other. We were pretending we did, but we really didn’t, even after years of trying. The viral blog post made that even more apparent, when I started looking for deeper emotional support than he knew how to give. I knew that, in order for this work to grow, I had to be honest with myself and step away and also release him to what would support him better.
    11. The outcome is not my responsibility. This has been my mantra since the early days of my business when I was stressing out about whether anyone would read my blog or pay for my offerings. After the discouragement of canceled workshops (due to low registrations) and ignored blog posts, I had to remind myself that I am called to this work and will continue to do it whether three people show up or three million. I am responsible for showing up and doing this work with integrity and commitment, but I am not responsible for the numbers or what people take from it. When I get caught up in numbers or people’s responses, it messes with my ego, my work suffers and my voice gets weak. When I stay in the work and write and teach what I’m most passionate about, the right people show up and I get to do beautiful, meaningful work.
    12. Nothing is worth more than my own family and health. This work is gratifying and humbling and I breathe a prayer of thanksgiving every day that I get to do it. But no matter how many people visit my blog or come to my workshops, I would walk away from it all if that sacrifice were ever required of me for the sake of my daughters or myself. There are only so many balls that a person can juggle, and I know which ones are glass. I love this work, but I am not a slave to it.

    If this resonates with you, please share it with anyone whose work may be growing. I often wondered, while I was in the middle of it, where to turn for help and support from someone who’d been there before me. I found some of that support along the way and I want to offer it to others. If you’re growing your work and need coaching to help you stay grounded, check out my coaching page. If you’re just beginning to dream of what your work is in the world, you may benefit from Pathfinder: A Creative Journal for Finding Your Way or The Spiral Path: A Woman’s Journey to Herself.

    Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection and my bi-weekly reflections.

    The back of the spiral: Taking some time for radical self-care

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    I was walking home from the grocery store one day, about five years ago, when I saw the most unusual birds in the sky. They looked like mystical creatures straight out of Avatar and they were floating in large spirals across the sky. I didn’t realize they were pelicans until weeks later when I saw them again, close enough to identify.

    I became captivated by pelicans. The more I watched them, the more I realized that they were teaching me something. When I watched them float in their giant spirals, moving slowly from one side of the sky to the other, I realized that their path represents the journey that we are all on – a spiral path instead of a straight line.

    I used to believe that life was lived on a straight path. We take one step after another, always moving forward, learning, growing, getting married, having children, growing our careers, etc. I hung onto that belief for the first thirty-four years of my life until suddenly I knew it wasn’t true anymore.

    A medical condition and failed surgery landed me in the hospital in the middle of my third pregnancy. For the next three weeks, in that hospital room, everything I’d ever believed was called into question and the world began to look very different.

    At the end of those three weeks, I gave birth to my stillborn son. That event was the catalyst that changed me forever. From that point on, I let go of my hope for the straight path and learned to trust the spiral.

    On the spiral path, sometimes we move in a forward motion, and sometimes we move back. Each time we spiral backward, though, we learn something new and we don’t go quite as far back as we did the last time. The net result is a slow but steady movement in the direction of our purpose. 

    Last year, when I was finally able to dive back into the memoir that had been put on hold when my mom died, I decided to call it The Path of the Pelican: Lessons from a short life. It’s the story of how my stillborn son, Matthew, changed my life. It’s the story of how I learned to lean into the spiral.

    This week, I’m turning fifty (on Friday, May 20th), and it seemed like the perfect time to launch a crowdfunding campaign to finance the self-publishing of my book. But then some things started shifting for me in recent weeks, and I realized I couldn’t do it.

    It took me a long time to admit it, but I can’t deny it anymore.

    I am at the back of the spiral. 

    I am exhausted. I simply do not have the energy to launch a campaign.

    I have lived the past year pushing into the forward spiral and making significant progress in my path across the sky. It’s been an incredible year of growth for my work, especially after my blog post went viral (and continues to have viral bumps). I’ve had more opportunities for public speaking, teaching, radio interviews, writing, etc., then I did in the first four years of my self-employment combined. I could hardly have dreamed of what this year would bring me.

    But with all of those opportunities comes a great deal of expectation. On many days, my inbox feels like a tsunami wave of people’s stories, questions, and requests for support or advice. It feels wonderful and I appreciate it, but it also feels overwhelming, and some days, I lie awake at night trembling with the fear that I will let all of these wonderful people down.

    If all of this came with a financial exchange, I would hire someone to provide administrative support and the workload would be more manageable. But much of it does not come with any money attached, and so I stumble through, trying to hold back the tsunami wave on my own.

    Please do not read this as a complaint, and please do not feel guilty if you contributed to that wave. I am humbled and deeply grateful for all of it – every story that is shared, every request, and every connection made.

    But these past few weeks, I’ve hit a wall and I need to be honest. I am making mistakes I don’t normally make. I am letting people down. I am finding myself, some days, standing in front of grocery store shelves in tears, unable to make the simplest decision. And many days, it takes every bit of my strength just to open my inbox.

    Added to that mix is the stress of the dismantling of my marriage. These past few weeks, my husband and I have been trying to come to an amicable separation agreement, and most days, we’re managing to be kind to each other. But some days, there are old stories that are triggered. And some days, I lie awake at night wondering if I can count on my still fledgling business to pay for the mortgage on the house I’m choosing to stay in with my daughters.

    And then there have been the other projects I’ve taken on this year that have nothing to do with my business or my family… like co-hosting race relations conversations and sponsoring a Syrian refugee family.

    I am doing the best I can to juggle all of this, but right now, I need to let go of some of the balls that will bounce and do my best to keep the glass balls in the air.

    One of those glass balls is my health, and it has begun to suffer. I have had a persistent cough since the beginning of March. A rather scary x-ray result showed a spot on my lungs. That was followed with heavy-duty antibiotics, but the cough has not gone away. My body is sending me a message that I need to listen to.

    It’s time for radical self-care. It’s time to do what I so often tell my coaching clients to do, and what I wrote about in the follow-up to that viral blog post…hold space for myself firstI simply can’t be of service to anyone if I don’t replenish my own stores first.

    For at least this week, I’ll be taking time off, canceling coaching sessions, putting an auto-responder on my email, staying off social media, and taking care of myself. I will sleep as much as I need to sleep, go for long walks in the woods, have lunches with supportive friends, and then celebrate my fiftieth birthday with an afternoon at the spa and a quiet meal out with my family instead of the big celebration I’d hoped for.

    I have been on this spiral path long enough to know that when I trust the wind underneath me and let myself float backwards for awhile, I will eventually gain the strength to once again return to the front of the spiral. Some day soon, I will have what it takes to get my book published. Some day soon, I will finish the Mandala Discovery facilitators’ kit I have been promising people all year. Some day soon, I will launch the new product I had planned to launch in honour of my fiftieth birthday.

    But for now, I will rest and replenish. And I will pause from holding space for so many people and let some of them hold space for me instead.

    Thank you for your patience while I hit the pause button.

     

    p.s. Because I know people will ask what kind of support I need right now, I will be honest and say that the best kind of support would be some greater financial stability so that I am able to take time off without worry. If you want to invest in my business so that I can return to the front of the spiral and continue to share my work, consider purchasing one of my offerings that takes the least effort for me to support… like Mandala DiscoveryThe Spiral Path, or Lead with Your Wild Heart. Or… (this takes some humility to include)… make a donation via Paypal.

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