Liminal Space and Liberation: On finding new wisdom in old stories

(Note: There is a free resource at the bottom of this post.)

“Not only did she survive, but she kept rewriting her stories until she found enough space in them for all of the wounded to be held.”

I’ve embarked on a new project recently. I’m writing a collection of personal essays that will eventually become my next book.

This year, I’m spending time in an intentional liminal space, taking time to imagine the next part of my life. With no more dependents, no partner, and no parents still alive, I have no need to live in the house or city where I currently live and can make choices solely for myself. I’m asking myself what I value, what I no longer need, and what matters most to me. As I look around my house, I’m imagining what kind of space I want next, which of my furniture suited the old part of my life but isn’t needed in the next, and which things I love too much to ever part with.

This seems like a good time to also consider the non-tangible things I want to bring with me into the next part of my life. One by one, I’m excavating the stories that shaped me into who I am – the heartaches, the triumphs, the traumas, and the failures – and I’m holding them up to the light to see what new things they have to reveal, and which parts are no longer relevant. It’s a little like digging through the attic for the family’s antiques to see if they should be polished, repurposed, given away, or discarded.

This isn’t an entirely new process for me – I did something similar when I got divorced and was intentional about turning my home from the sometimes-unsafe place it had been into a sanctuary of healing for my daughters and myself. This time, though, I’m doing it largely for myself (with only a little consideration for what support my daughters still need) and feel more free to share pieces of that journey with you, my readers (if I choose to).

Already, only a short way into the process, the stories are shape-shifting and becoming things I didn’t expect them to be. Some are taking on more nuance, depth, and meaning, and some are revealing to me that I’ve been stubbornly hanging onto tired old versions of them that should have landed on the rubbish heap.

One thing that’s surprising me is that this process is not only changing my view of myself, but also my view of the other people in some of the stories. In some cases, I see them more clearly for who they have always been instead of the way I so badly wanted them to be, and that’s allowing me to be clearer about my boundaries. In other cases, I’m better able to see the whole picture instead of just my part of it, and that allows me to extend a little more mercy.

The first story I took on was in some ways the hardest and in some ways the easiest. It’s the story of how I was raped as a twenty-two-year-old by a stranger who climbed through my window. It’s the hardest because it was pivotal in my life and it’s heartbreaking to more clearly see the many layers of trauma that came from carrying that story forward into my life and marriage. But it’s easiest because the only other player in the story is a stranger and I don’t have to worry about hurting anyone else in my life by telling my version of the story.

The line at the top of this post is from that piece. I wrote it after wrestling for several days with the story, when I realized that the process of writing had allowed me to hold my rapist differently. In the end, as I witnessed my own triumph, courage, and resilience in that narrative, I was also able to more gently witness the brokenness and pain that my rapist must have been tormented with (and is likely still tormented with, if he is still alive). How much hatred and shame must one be carrying to climb through a stranger’s window to fulfill their own sexual desires? That’s a burden I would never want to carry.

I am reminded, as I work with this story, that “my liberation is tied up with his” (in the words of Lilla Watson). If I want to be truly liberated, no longer carrying the shame and pain of that narrative, than I have to release my rapist from the story so that he has the potential to be free of it too. (That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be justice or accountability for such a crime – simply that the justice should be restorative, and healing should be the goal.)

As I said in the above quote, the rewriting process is allowing me to find enough spaciousness in those stories and in my attachment to them for all of the wounded to be held. Whether or not they choose to heal is none of my business – I simply release them to their own choices and find my own healing that requires nothing of them.

I am now working on other stories – the ones in which there are people who played longer and more complicated roles in my narrative. I don’t know yet how those stories will shape-shift, but I will hold myself tenderly so that I have the strength to make space in the stories for their healing too. I will not gloss over the hard things or try to justify other people’s actions – I will simply try to tell the truth in a liberated way that isn’t weighed down with bitterness or a need for revenge.

Though this post focuses primarily on the writing and rewriting of these stories, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the words on a page only represent part of the process. While writing is my first love, it’s best when it doesn’t stand alone, especially as a path toward healing. I also have regular therapy sessions with a therapist who incorporates somatic healing practices. And, as I’ve learned from modalities such as Narrative Therapy and Family Systems Constellations, I sometimes practice rearranging the story with physical objects that represent the players in those stories. I am also fond of rituals that help me mark and energetically move through important moments and shifts, like when I burn something that represents an old version of a story I’m releasing. (Perhaps I’ll share more about those practices in another post.)

A year from now, when I have (hopefully) a clearer picture of what this next part of my journey will be, I want to be on the journey with more lightness and liberation. This is not a perfect process (stories have a way of popping back up long after I think I’ve let them go) but I’m okay with the imperfection of it. Whatever emerges from my imperfect process, I hope to share it with you.

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Are you currently in your own liminal space and want a tool that will help you? I’ve created a free resource that you can download (in PDF): Journal Prompts for the Liminal Space. (After you click on it, you can save it for future use.) And if you want even more, check out my online self-study program, Write for Love and Liberation.

In liminal space, we seek absolutes and binaries to help us make sense of the world

The view through my streaky window.
(Listen to me read the post.)

I washed the windows this past weekend. Well… I washed MOST of the windows. And those that I washed, I had to do twice.

I am remarkably bad at washing windows. If there’s an opposite of a “superpower” mine would be window-washing. I have never, in my fifty-five years on this planet, had a streak-free window.

After washing the outside of the windows of the front and west side of my house, I came back inside and saw that they still looked like they were covered in at least a year’s worth of grime and dust. I gave up and tossed my squeegee aside in frustration. The next day I tried again – this time with the stepladder and various cloths for scrubbing and drying (as the experts on the internet told me to do). When I finished the last of those (with reasonably good results), I smashed my finger in my stepladder and was in so much pain, I gave up on the rest. Perhaps the windows on the east side will be cleaned before the snow falls and perhaps they won’t. I make no promises.

Sadly, I’ve been dealing with some self-doubt recently that comes with the territory when I’m in the kind of liminal space I mentioned in my last two posts. When I’m feeling this way, my brain quickly slides into a self-doubt spiral… and so… I am bad at washing windows, therefore I suck at keeping my house clean, therefore I don’t really deserve to own a home, therefore I am a bad parent, therefore I have failed my daughters, therefore I am bad at all of the important things in life, therefore I must suck at my work, therefore I am a horrible person, therefore… Sigh. You get the picture. Perhaps you’ve been there too? (It’s a little like the children’s book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie”, but instead it’s “If You Give an Overwhelmed Brain a Self-Doubt”.)

Seriously though?! WHAT does washing windows have to do with parenting or running a business? Since I’ll never make a living as a window-washer, there is NO logical connection! (I hereby banish you to my messy basement, self-doubt gremlins! You can make friends with the dust-bunnies down there. Be gone!!)

Here’s the thing… When we’re in the middle of liminal space, where things feel uncertain and the future looks murky, our brains try really hard to simplify the world by casting it in absolutes.

It doesn’t matter WHAT that absolute is, just so long as it is clearly black or white and it’s dependable and solid and it’s not as murky as the rest of the world looks at the time. That gives the anxious brain something to land on in liminal space. I am ABSOLUTELY a failure. The world is ABSOLUTELY going to hell in a hand-basket. One of my family members is ABSOLUTELY going to die of this pandemic. Our government leaders are ABSOLUTELY failing to protect us. There are ABSOLUTELY evil masterminds in the world trying to control and destroy us.

That’s why we become increasingly polarized during a time like this. It’s why we’re more likely to find an enemy to blame when we’re stressed out (or we turn ourselves into the enemy, which is often my tendency, as the window-washing story reveals). We lose our capacity for nuance and for seeing the grey-zone because the whole WORLD looks like a grey-zone and that’s SCARY! The higher-functioning, rational parts of our brains give way to the more immediate demands of the freaked-out amygdalae and, in our fight for survival, we simplify whatever we can so that it’s easier to navigate and easier to make decisions. We can’t see that someone (or something) is “sort-of bad and sort-of good”, we can only see GOOD and BAD and nothing in-between.

This is not something we do consciously and often we’re completely unaware that we’re doing it. (I, for example, was only aware of how I’d done it a few hours AFTER the window-washing debacle.) But I would venture to guess that if you were to do a media scan of how differently media reports the news during a crisis compared to when we’re not in crisis (or even how differently we communicate on social media), you’d be able to see the pattern of how things get more simplified into binaries and absolutes during times when more people are scared and overwhelmed with the uncertainty (including those people reporting the news). Dig deeply enough and you’ll likely find that this is an explanation for much of the conflict in the world – we get scared, we lose sight of nuance, we turn people into enemies, we justify our own righteousness in black and white terms, and we attack in order to defend our safety.

What starts with “that person make a questionable decision” soon deteriorates into “THAT PERSON IS BAD AND I MUST DEFEND MYSELF AGAINST THEM.” Or the internalized version… “I failed at this particular task” deteriorates into “I AM A COLLOSSAL FAILURE.”

My window-washing story was a benign example of this, just to make a point, and fortunately I didn’t create any enemies or even break any windows. I bring it up for a good reason though – it helps us see the patterns in ourselves in moments that are relatively benign so that we’re more able to see those same patterns when there’s a lot more at stake.

When I’m not in liminal space, I’m able to laugh off my lack of window-washing skills, ignore the streaks, and still see the big picture. I can acknowledge that I’m good at other things and therefore my streaky windows don’t tell a very important part of the story of who I am. And I can do the same for others – I can see them as complex and flawed and still doing their best to be good people.

But in the liminal space? All of that is harder to see. That’s when the streaks in the window REALLY matter.

The more we know ourselves, the more we see these patterns in ourselves and the better we’re able to soothe ourselves so that we don’t make destructive choices. The more capacity we have for holding space for ourselves (and finding others to hold space for us) during liminal space, the less we find ourselves trapped by binary thinking and the less tempted we are to lash out at the “enemy”.

Because I’ve witnessed this pattern in myself again and again, I was able to step away from the window-washing to regain my perspective. I went for a walk and instead of looking through streaky windows at a murky world, I appreciated the bright sunlight and could clearly see the way the natural world greeted me with its imperfections and beauty. I witnessed the changing leaves on the trees and remembered that the world is cyclical and always changing and there are no absolutes. Eventually I felt grounded again. On my walk, I reminded myself of how insignificant a skill window-washing really is in the big picture of my life and I came back feeling much better about myself. By the time I was home, I had regained my capacity for nuance and complexity as well as my ability to see myself as imperfect and yet beautiful. (And now I’m looking up from my desk at a streaky window and it makes me chuckle.)

When I teach people in the Holding Space Foundation Program, I hear again and again from people that what surprises them most about the program is what they learn about themselves. The second module, on holding space for ourselves, is always the most profound because people learn to see themselves differently and they begin to recognize (and learn to hold space for) the patterns that drive them. They witness their own tendencies in the middle of liminal space, they see how and when they are tempted to reach for absolutes and binaries, they see their social conditioning and they recognize how all of that may have resulted in unconscious bias and/or self-destructive behaviours. It’s one of the most beautiful things to witness, because when people learn to treat themselves differently, they learn to see the world differently, and then they’re able to treat others differently.

The more clearly we see ourselves, the more capacity we have to face the world even when it feels uncertain and scary. The more we can hold space for our own nuance, complexity and imperfection, the more we are able to do the same for others.

And this is where I can’t resist returning to the metaphor… It really doesn’t matter how good I am at washing windows. Because I am much more focused on helping people see themselves and each other more clearly than I am on streak-free windows.

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P.S. If you’d like to join us in the Holding Space Foundation Program to learn more about your own patterns, there’s still time to sign up for the session that starts October 25, 2021.

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