On trauma, shadow, and flawed leadership

photo credit: Denys Argyriou, Unsplash

Listen to me read the blog post:

 

It happened repeatedly in my youth. I’d come home from a friend’s house and walk into the house to find nobody there. I’d look in all of the rooms, start to get that panicky feeling and then go out to the farmyard to see if somebody was in the barn or cattle pasture. Suddenly, I was desperate to know that somebody was home – that they hadn’t all abandoned me. I only felt secure when I heard my dad’s voice or spotted my mom in the garden.

It was the end times I was most afraid of – being left behind when the rapture came. Every person I know who’s grown up in an evangelical home has a similar memory. “What if they’ve all gone and we didn’t get taken with them? What if we weren’t Christian enough? What if we haven’t sufficiently confessed our sins and will be denied entry into heaven?”

There’s a certain trauma that gets left in a person’s body when you grow up with that fear. There’s a heightened awareness that threads through your nervous system, reminding you always that you have to be good enough, obedient enough and repentant enough to make the cut when the second coming suddenly separates the saved from the unsaved.

It’s taken me a long time to recognize how much of that early conditioning has left me with an easily triggered fear of being found out to be sinful, wrong, or bad. To be bad is to be separated from God, shunned from your community, and at risk of spending an eternity in the fires of hell. Even long after you stop believing in hell, the trauma stays rooted in your body.

Abandonment. Shame. Shunning. Pain. Death. This is what my amygdala still tries to convince me – in moments when it’s triggered into fight/flight/freeze/fawn – are the consequences of being bad.

I have been wondering, lately, whether this isn’t just a personal experience (the result of being raised in an evangelical home) but a collective one.

How much have we ALL been socialized into this kind of reactivity, even those not raised in evangelicalism? How much of that trauma remains deeply and subconsciously rooted in our culture, here in North America (and elsewhere), given the fact that we are, ostensibly, “Christian” nations, colonized by countries where Christianity was the dominant religion? How much have we internalized the fear of separation and abandonment that a sin-doctrine embeds in a culture, even long after it’s not the central narrative?

There’s a pattern that I’ve witnessed over and over again when I teach the Holding Space Practitioner Program… people show up eager to learn about holding space for others, and somewhere around Module 2 (on holding space for yourself) they come face-to-face with their own biases, trauma, blind spots, and shadow. Suddenly… WHOA! I start getting remarks about how hard the work has become and how they need more time (we’ve lengthened this module for that reason), and the resistance shows up. Some push back, some want to abandon ship, some create conflict. Many end up begrudgingly thanking me for nudging them into work they were avoiding doing, but first they have to fight it. 

It’s hard to look into your shadow. It’s painful and shame-inducing to suddenly have to face your biases, blindspots and blunders. It’s also, if my theory is right, trauma-inducing. It triggers a deeply rooted, culturally sanctioned, subconscious fear that we will be abandoned, shunned, and “sent out of the kingdom”. We’ll lose our standing in the community, we’ll risk an eternity of pain and separation, and we might even be put to death. Or at least that’s what the amygdala believes.

It’s why we have things like white fragility (though I appreciate what this writer says about renaming it “white flammability”). People who’ve convinced themselves they are good people, in good standing with their community, are suddenly sent into spasms when their biases and blindspots are revealed. They can’t fathom the fact that they are capable of causing harm. They haven’t been equipped to hold space for their own shame. Subconsciously, they’re terrified that they will be abandoned and, at worst, banished from the kingdom. 

It’s also why we’ve developed such a punitive legal system in our culture. We might call it a “justice” system, but it’s really not about justice. It’s about shaming, blaming, and punishing those who do wrong. It’s about creating separation from those of us who are seen to be “upstanding citizens” and those who are criminals. It’s about sending people out of our communities and abandoning them in prisons, so that we can hide the collective shadow in our culture. Out of fear of our own shadow, we call out those with more obvious shadows (or those marginalized by the dominant culture and made to look like they are bad) and project our shame onto them. 

Because of this collective fear of being wrong, we’ve not only punished the transgressors, but we’ve also elevated and idolized those with curated lives who look like they’ve managed to transcend the messiness the rest of us get stuck in. We overlook the cracks in those we want to emulate because we want to see the polished life, and we want to believe that it’s possible for us, too, to live untarnished lives. We project our unhealthy aspirations and expectations of ourselves onto those who appear most worthy of our adoration. Social media makes this even more tempting because it allows us unprecedented access into our heroes’ lives and opinions.

When you find yourself in a position of influence like that, with people projecting their ideals onto you, it becomes surprisingly tempting to give them what they want. If they give you money to teach them how to live a charmed and curated life like yours (or to model it onscreen), it’s even more tempting. The money allows you to put even more polish on your life, so it perpetuates the cycle. Meanwhile, your own trauma and fear of abandonment is at play, so you work extra hard at meeting people’s expectations of you for fear of being found out and suddenly shunned and left behind. 

Unfortunately, that charmed place on a pedestal rarely lasts. People find the cracks in your facade and when they start poking around, they find that those cracks are really deep, dark chasms of shadow. And then, because they feel betrayed by you, because you no longer give them hope that a shadow-free life is possible, they tear you down, with a vengeance. That’s what “cancel-culture” is all about.

Sadly, if those influencers had known, early on in their development, that the uncomfortable shadow work that they avoided is what could have saved them from the destructiveness of the tear-down, they might have found themselves on a different trajectory. Sure, they wouldn’t have found the same level of celebrity and status, but they would have found something much better and longer-lasting — authentic community. Relationships rooted in truth-telling and vulnerability are worth a lot more than those shallowly rooted in performance. 

In recent months, with Black Lives Matter at the forefront of our consciousness, we’ve seen several people, especially in the coaching and personal development world, with large followings and lots of influence, whose cracks have been revealed. People are pointing out the lack of consciousness around anti-racism and anti-oppression and revealing where harm has been done to the marginalized in their communities. Some of them, in avoidance of the shame of being called out, use gaslighting to shame and reject anyone who might challenge them. Some teach spiritual bypassing as a way of avoiding the darkness and keeping their followers in a state of compliance and fake peace. 

Some of these leaders, sadly, have developed cult-like followings where people are shamed by others in the in-group for daring to challenge what their leader says. As Alexandra Stein has pointed out in Terror, Love, and Brainwashing, these leaders manipulate their followers into unhealthy attachment systems, where followers will do anything to stay connected to the leader because of the way that their needs are met in the community. The leaders manipulate the trauma coursing through our culture, reminding people that they will be rejected if they step out of line, if they point out the flaws in the leader or what’s being taught within the community. The trauma bond floods the nervous system and makes it nearly impossible for people to think clearly and notice how messed up the leader, community, and/or belief system is.

The only solution, as I see it, is for us to work to heal the collective trauma and begin to create greater space in our culture for shadow work. We need to make it acceptable to speak of our mistakes, to admit our biases, to own up to the ways in which we cause harm because of our trauma and social conditioning. We also need to build collective systems in which we learn how to co-regulate in those moments when we are triggered so that we don’t cause so much harm as a result.

We also need to change our collective views about leadership. When leaders and influencers can be flawed and vulnerable, when they don’t feel the pressure to meet unrealistic expectations, and when they are embedded into communities that both support them and hold them accountable, then there is less inclination for them to become abusive when their biases and blindspots are pointed out. They don’t have to hide their shadows because they’ve never pretended they didn’t have them. 

In just a few weeks, we’ll be launching the Centre for Holding Space. One of the reasons why I’m going into partnership in launching this, instead of building it alone, is that I want to be intentional about building a structure that doesn’t elevate me into an unrealistic position of leadership and influence. I don’t want to be the influencer who cracks under the pressure of meeting people’s expectations. I want to be able to continue to reveal my shadow, and I want to be held accountable for the ways my biases and blindspots get in the way of the work. I don’t want my trauma – my deeply held fear of being found to be bad – to be running the show and separating me from my humanity or the humanity of those in my community. I want to be imperfect and I want to keep striving to welcome imperfect people into the circle with me.

My partner, Krista, is very good at supporting me and helping me stay grounded and honest. We have built a solid relationships of trust in which neither of us has to be performative or defensive of our flaws. We are also growing an incredible team of people that is eager to support this work as it grows, and they’re all equally committed to showing up flawed and vulnerable alongside us.

In building a solid foundation for our business, we recently worked through a Conscious Contract with our lawyer, in which we developed a co-founders agreement that will help us work through conflict and hold space for the shadow when it shows up in ourselves and our business. We’ll hold each other accountable for doing the messy work and for staying in the discomfort long enough for transformation to happen. 

We are excited to welcome you, our readers, clients, and friends, into this space we’re creating. We want to hold space for your imperfections. We want to create a space of healing where trauma isn’t shamed and nobody is shunned for being wrong. 

Whenever I teach my workshops on holding space, I warn people that there will likely be a moment when they have to face their own shadow and their discomfort might make them want to run from the room. “You’re allowed to step out of the room if you need to,” I say, “but know that you are always welcome back. We will hold the space for you to return.”

This is what I want for the Centre for Holding Space to be – a place where people can peer into their shadows, and trust that, even if they run away, they’re still welcome back in the room. Because when people come back to meet themselves in the circle, that’s when the real healing happens. 

Sometimes we feel compelled to do hard things

hard things

In 2004, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. As the founder of the Greenbelt Movement, she mobilized thousands of women to plant millions of trees across Kenya. Besides planting trees, she was instrumental in freeing political prisoners, protecting women’s rights, and creating a more democratic election process.

I knew some of these things about Wangari Maathai, but before I read her biography, Unbowed, I had no idea just how much she’d had to struggle through nearly every step of her journey. For starters, her husband divorced her because she was “too strong-minded for a woman” and he was “unable to control her”. From then on, in a patriarchal society, she was forever branded as obstinate divorced woman who didn’t know her place and shouldn’t be trusted.

That didn’t stop her, though. She felt strongly compelled to work for the environment and for women’s rights and so she stuck with it through multiple imprisonments, repeated death threats, and almost every obstacle possible. For most of her adult life, she was fighting a corrupt government that wanted to silence her. When nobody would rent office space to her organization because they’d become too controversial, she opened her small home to a staff of eighty. When the death threats became too plentiful, she went into hiding but refused to stay silent. When mothers were protesting the unjust imprisonment of their sons, she slept with them in a church for months on end. When the government was fostering conflict between tribes, she met with them in secret to try to bring them back to peace.

What compelled her to do all of that? She had a PhD and a professorship – she could have chosen to live out her days as a mild-mannered professor. Why did she risk her life again and again for what she believed in?

She simply couldn’t see any other way to live.

“Many people assume that I must have been inordinately brave to face down the thugs and police during the campaign for Karura Forest. The truth is that I simply did not understand why anyone would want to violate the rights of others or to ruin the environment… What people see as fearlessness is really persistence. Because I am focused on the solution, I don’t see danger. Because I don’t see danger, I don’t allow my mind to imagine what might happen to me, which is my definition of fear. If you don’t foresee the danger and see only the solution, then you can defy anyone and appear strong and fearless.”

I was thinking about Wangari Maathai this week as I coached my clients. Many of my clients also feel compelled to do hard things. One is preparing to run for politics, even though she knows it will be the hardest thing she’s ever done and she will get beaten up along the way for being an idealistic woman. Another is studying to go into the ministry, even though she’s already butted her head repeatedly against the patriarchal church and faces a double whammy of discrimination as a disabled woman. A third is determined to finish a book that’s taken her twenty years to write, even though she’s over seventy and has every right to take the easy road at this stage of her life. Still others are advocating for human rights, following non-conformist paths into work that nobody understands, and daring to heal from abusive pasts.

What makes these women do what they do even though they know it will be hard? When I ask them this question, they usually just shrug and say “I just feel like I have to. It doesn’t feel like I’ll have a fulfilled life if I don’t at least try.”

For those of us following a path to authenticity and our own calling, there will invariably come a time when we find ourselves compelled to do really hard things. When that time comes, we know that if we don’t make the choice to go through, something inside us will die. 

It might be the risk of quitting a job or ending a relationship or walking away from an opportunity or standing up for justice or caring for an autistic child or giving up our material goods or fighting a broken system or protecting the oceans or planting vegetables or writing a book or becoming a poet. The hard things in our lives might not seem like hard things for others, but for us it takes all of our courage to stay the course and face the fallout.

Why do we do it? Because we have no other choice. Because something inside us compels us. Because we don’t want to die unlived lives. Because, like Wangari, we choose to focus on the solution and not the obstacles.

It’s a little like natural childbirth. Once your body decides it’s time to go into labour, you have no choice but to go through. When my second daughter was born, close on the heals of the first, the first labour pain brought back a rush of memory of how hard it had been the first time, and I said out loud “I change my mind. I’m not having this baby!” But I really didn’t have a choice. This baby wanted to be born and my body knew it had to let that happen, no matter how hard it was going to be. And when the labouring has done the work of opening the cervix, and the compulsion to push comes on, there is nothing our minds can do but follow along on the course the body feels compelled to take.

And sometimes we feel that compulsion to do the hard thing even when we know the outcome is almost certain failure. We still have to do what we have to do, or we die. When I was told that my third baby had died in utero, I didn’t know how I’d find the strength to go through what my body had to go through to birth him. How can one go through excruciating pain without knowing there is a hopeful outcome?

And yet… I found the strength. I had to. My body gave me no other choice. And it turned out that what the social worker had told me was right… “The birth will be hard, but there will come a day when you won’t regret going through it, because at least then you will know that that this baby is real and you have a right to grief him.”

Sometimes we do hard things even though we’re pretty sure they’re doomed for failure. Wangari Maathai has been instrumental in planting millions of trees, but in the time those trees were being planted, just as many were being cut down. One might wonder whether the end game was worth the struggle. And yet, she simply knew she had to do it. Because it was the right thing to do.

Another woman who does that in our country is Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party. She knows that, every time she gathers a slate of candidates to run for election, there’s an almost guaranteed certainty that all but one or two will fail. And yet she keeps doing it. Because it’s the right thing to do.

In her book, So Far From Home, Margaret Wheatley talks about those people who just keep doing hard things, even though they know the pain of repeated failure.

“My great teachers these days are people who no longer need hope in order to do their work, even though their projects and organizations began with bright, hope-filled dreams. As ‘the blood-dimmed tide’ of greed, fear, and oppression drowns out their voices and washes away their good work, they become more committed to their work, not because it will succeed, but just because it is right for them to be doing it.”

And so, we strap on our boots and prepare to do the hard work. Because it is right for us to be doing it. And we know that even a painful joy is better than no joy at all.

Note: If you are seeking your path through the hard things, you might find some support in The Spiral Path which starts on Monday.

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