Healing money-related trauma

Yesterday I did something BIG. It was so big that it left me trembling and in tears.

Finally, after nearly nine years of being in business, I passed all of the bookkeeping duties for my business over to an accountant. I opened my books and showed EVERYTHING to another person and then I entrusted her with it. And then I went to the bank and opened a business account to finally separate my business accounting more formally from my personal accounting.

I’ve had support in nearly every area of my business (hiring an assistant, hiring assistant teachers, etc.), but up until now, I’ve always managed all of the bookkeeping (except for tax time).

Why is this such a big deal and why did it take me so long? This feels big to say, and I’ve been taking several big breaths in order to say it out loud…

I have money-related trauma.

Money brings up all kinds of anxiety for me, and I regularly find myself in some version of fight/flight/freeze because of it. Usually, to be honest, I’m in flight or freeze mode, avoiding thinking about it, avoiding receiving advice about it, and avoiding doing my bookkeeping until it’s an absolute necessity. As a result, my “books” are rather chaotic and cobbled together (with blurry lines between personal and business) and it just felt like too much of a hurdle to bring someone else into that mess.

Whenever something has caused consistent and unpredictable insecurity in childhood, there’s a good chance that it’s left behind some of the markings of trauma. For me (and my siblings), money was one of those things. We grew up never knowing whether we’d lose the farm to bankruptcy, whether my parents would be able to fix the series of beat-up old cars and trucks that were always breaking down at inopportune times, whether the answer to “can I have the $2 I need for a field trip?” would be yes or no, whether our phone or hydro would be cut off, or whether we could fix the hole in the ceiling where the shingles had leaked. 

These constant worries, especially when they happen to powerless children, have a way of priming the nervous system to always be in hyper-vigilance about when their security will be taken away. It’s evident in all of my siblings, though the way it’s manifest itself is fairly different (some tend toward “fight”, needing to control every penny, while others tend toward “flight” and freeze”).

Also, as I’ve learned in working with family constellations, when a parent does not resolve an issue in their lifetime, the offspring will unconsciously take on that story and feel like they’re betraying the parent if they abandon it. In my case, I’ve been living my father’s “failure in business” story, believing that I wasn’t entitled to this business success that has come my way, and therefore avoiding too much attachment to the success (and even sabotaging it by not being too strategic about it).

The other piece of this is that trauma and shame are intricately intertwined and so it’s hard to heal it because it’s hard to reveal it. The trauma causes reactive behaviour and we fear being judged because of it but we feel powerless to change it. Instead of reaching out for help, we bury it beneath shame. So becomes a spiral of triggering, reactive behaviour, and cover-ups to hide that reactive behaviour. 

Unless we find the courage to break that pattern and speak that shame out loud to someone who will hold space for us to find healing, we stay stuck in the spiral. No money-management course in the world can help us out of that spiral unless we heal the trauma that it’s rooted in.

In the past few months, I’ve been working to break that pattern, culminating in yesterday’s BIG step to trust an accountant with all of it. Fortunately, a friend referred me to someone who was gracious and supportive (and only once slightly raised an eyebrow at some weird manual system I’d built in that over-complicated what could be very simple.)

And today I’m talking about it, because (as Brene Brown says) vulnerability is our defence against shame. AND, as I keep learning again and again, there is always someone out there waiting for someone else to speak it out loud so that we can find the courage too.

On the way home from my accountant’s office, yesterday, I found myself weeping and trembling. It wasn’t shame that was making me weep – it was great relief and release. It was also profound love and compassion for the scared little girl in me who did the best she could with the resources she had – who made it through a scary childhood and who grew up to be an adult who built a successful business despite the trauma buried at the heart of it.

(Note: I am asking for no advice or judgement in response to this, as that will potentially re-trigger my shame. Any comments like that will be deleted without discussion. I already have the support I need.)

Power saws and wild women

 

Listen to me read this post…

 

 

“Can you believe my mom built an ACTUAL couch?!” Those words made me chuckle when my daughter said them to her friend. Every mom secretly covets a Daughter Brag, especially from a teenager.

Yes, I built a couch. And a coffee table to go with it. (As well as a bonus barbecue table out of the scraps.) It’s for outdoor use, built with 2X4s and covered with foam cushions that I shaped to fit and sewed covers for. It’s rough, imperfect, and simple… but it’s magnificent. And it’s big enough to host a party.

A month ago, on Father’s Day (because… what better day to buy something for yourself when you’re a single mom, and what better day to find a sale at the hardware store?), I bought a compound mitre saw. It’s a scary-beautiful thing and I’ve wanted one for a long time. It’s scary, because a part of me was scared I’d slice off a finger the first time I tried to use it. And it’s beautiful because it makes me feel powerful and self-reliant. Even in the weeks before I found time to use it, when I’d gaze at it sitting on my garage floor, I’d feel a rush of excitement just because it’s mine. It’s a badass woman who keeps a power saw in her garage!

Why did I build a couch? Because I’m not in the habit of starting with small projects once I decide to try something. I thrive on the rush of adrenaline that comes from diving into something big that almost tips me into overwhelm. It’s what keeps me going and keeps me excited and keeps me challenged.

And also because a couch feels like self-reliance, resourcefulness, and self-empowerment. If I can build my own furniture, I have the power to craft my own environment.

The couch-building was SO MUCH FUN. Cutting wood with a compound mitre saw was SO MUCH FUN. I worked for long hours in shady spots on my patio (and then in the garage when it rained), often forgetting to eat, because, like a child who has to be told it’s suppertime, I was so engrossed in play.

The compound mitre saw makes me feel like I’ve found my way back to the little girl I once was – the little girl who was most happy when she was living wild, building teepee-like structures with a friend in the woods on our farm and then begging her mom to lend them a pot and let them pick vegetables from the garden so they could cook their own stew on the fire at the centre of the teepee. Or the little girl who would spend hours on her horse, racing down country lanes, wondering what might be around that next corner. Or the little girl who begged her dad to teach her how to drive a tractor, because she wanted to be just as empowered and self-reliant as her big brothers.

I want a big, beautiful, powerful, adventurous, self-reliant, openhearted life. I want a life where scary-beautiful compound mitre saws are possible and adventure is always just around the next corner. I want a life that takes me to the edges of my comfort, and then nudges me past, into the unknown. 

I’m not saying it’s what everyone should want, but it’s what I want. It’s what I’ve ALWAYS wanted – even when I didn’t speak it out loud.

It took me a long time to believe I was worthy of a big, beautiful, powerful, adventurous, self-reliant, openhearted life, or even that I had the right to ask for it. I believed it as a little girl in the makeshift teepee in the woods, but then, little by little, it was trained out of me. Like a wild animal who’s been domesticated and then forgets how to survive in the wilderness, I lost sight of my wildness for a long, long time. I’m fifty-three and I feel like I’ve just now, in the four years since my divorce, come back to it once again.

It was trained out of me in all of the little ways that girls are trained not to ask for too much. In the playground when the boys got to be wild and adventurous and the girls were expected to be quiet and polite. In Sunday school when I was taught that my desires were sinful and should never be entertained (unless they were in alignment with God’s desires). In grade school when I was taught that nice little girls shouldn’t be too loud or too bossy or too demanding or too smart (and they should certainly never use power tools). In youth group when I was taught that I should seek a good man and become a good wife. At home when I was taught that women weren’t allowed to be in leadership positions or drive tractors or have too many opinions or speak from a podium. In junior high when girls could only take sewing and cooking classes while the boys got to play with power saws and wood.

It was trained out of me in all of the little ways that wives and mothers are shamed into giving up who they are to accommodate their husbands and children. In the ways my needs came second (or third) and keeping the peace meant giving myself up, inch by inch. In the guilt-inducing comments I’d get from friends and strangers after a business trip about how hard it must be for my children when I’m away. In the way my ex-husband’s insecurity and fear of the world were projected onto me and shamed me into staying small. In the way women’s magazines focus on decorating and dieting while men’s magazines focus on strength and adventure.

It was trained out of me, but it was still there, lurking under the surface. Every time it would emerge and I’d speak too loudly or do something dangerous or step out of line or want too much it would be stuffed back in, either by the shaming comments from someone who wanted me to behave, or by my own internalized oppression. As I said in a Facebook post earlier this week… Those with internalized oppression are the best at policing and silencing themselves. That’s how abuse works – at some point you don’t need the abuse to keep you silent, you simply need the body memory of it.

Several years ago, a friend met someone who knew me in high school and asked that person what I was like back then. “Nice. And quiet.” was the response. Those three words have haunted me for a long time. What a boring way to be described! I don’t WANT to be “Nice. And quiet.” That’s the version of me that I’ve been trained to be and I’m done with it. I want to be something different – more wild, more dangerous, and more powerful.

I want to be “the woman who uses power tools and builds couches”, “the woman with an unquenchable thirst for adventure”, “the woman who lives close to the edge”, and “the woman who speaks boldly and without apology”. I want to be “the woman in touch with her wildness and passion.” And, for my daughters’ sake, I want to be “the woman who raises wild and unruly women.”

My ex-husband used to say, when he was feeling insecure and needy, “Some day you’ll be successful and you’ll leave me. You’ll publish a book and buy a fancy car and you won’t need me anymore.” It used to make me angry, because it was passive-aggressive and meant to make me feel guilty for the kinds of desires that would take me away from him. He wasn’t entirely wrong, though – it was in re-discovering my own power and self-reliance that I found the courage to walk away from a relationship that wanted to keep me safe and small.

In that brave act (that took me five tumultuous years to follow through on), I re-awakened the woman who refuses to be “Nice. And quiet.” I re-awakened the little girl who wanted to build her own home in the woods and cook stew over a campfire and ride her horse into the wilderness. I re-awakened the woman who longed to own power tools and build her own furniture. I re-awakened the wild heart that wasn’t willing to settle for relationships that kept her small and safe.

I re-awakened her, and though I had to abandon the version of God who wanted to punish me for wanting to much, I have found instead a God/dess who thrives in my wildness, who created me to be this way and who dances with me through this big, beautiful, wild world.

In this stunning, truth-telling article (which my daughter forwarded to me because we’ve been having many conversations about what women give up in the months since she broke up with her boyfriend of three years), there’s a story from Japanese folklore of a crane who plucks out her own feathers so that a man will marry her. In doing so, she loses her identity and her ability to fly. “To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work. She never sleeps. She plucks out all her feathers, one by one.”

I became that crane wife, plucking out my wildness and losing my capacity for flight. I started becoming it when I was a little girl being taught not to want too much and I perfected it when I was a wife and mother teaching my own girls (by my example) not to want too much.

I’m not going to be that crane anymore. I’m done with plucking out my feathers. I’m going to fly even if it intimidates those stuck on the ground. I’m going to fly even if it’s risky and dangerous and others want to project their fear onto me and protect me from the danger. I’m going to fly and I’m going to use power tools and I’m going to build furniture and I’m going to follow adventure where it leads me.

In my work, I often talk about the difference between safe space and brave space. Safe space is necessary for the healing phase of our journeys, but if we stay there too long, we get comfortable and then safe becomes oppressive and growth doesn’t happen. In safe space, we start silencing others who present dangerous ideas that make us uncomfortable. Growth is limited in safe spaces.

In brave space, on the other hand, we agree to the risks inherent in speaking dangerous things into the circle and living close to the edge. We agree to occasionally make each other uncomfortable (and accept it from others) because we know that it will help us grow. We agree to look at our own blindspots and the ways in which we’re addicted to comfort.

I want to live in brave space. That’s why I’m buying power saws that might cut off a finger but that allow me to build beautiful things. And that’s why I’m growing my team and pushing the edges of my workand traveling around the world to be in places and sit in circles that nudge me into discomfort. I spent many years in safe space, healing the wounds of the past, and that was a valuable investment for a time, but now I want brave space.

Some day, I might find myself in another intimate relationship. I am not so fiercely self-reliant that I don’t crave intimacy and community and someone to walk alongside me in my adventures. Sometimes self-reliance becomes lonely and hard and closed off – I don’t want that.

I know, though, that I will bring my wildness with me into any relationship I enter, and if that person doesn’t bring their wildness too, then it won’t be worthy of my time. And if that person doesn’t delight in my wildness, then it also won’t be worthy of either of our time.

I will bring my wildness and I will embrace those who want to walk alongside me on this brave adventure – whether in an intimate partner relationship or in the many beautiful friendships I am fostering all over the world. I will bring my power tools and my willingness to walk on the edges and do brave things and I will support others in doing the same.

We will gather around fires in wild spaces and we will talk of our adventures and our fears and we will help each other find our way back to our wild selves.

This week, I plan to sleep on my new couch, outdoors, under the gazebo (which I also built), because that’s what a wild woman would do.

 


 

p.s. If you want to be in circle with others exploring brave space, come join us in the Holding Space Practitioner Programwhich starts again in October 2019. Or come join me in an openhearted writing circle in B.C. in August

 

The humanity behind the harm: Extending grace to ourselves and others

 

I am a good person. At least that’s what I tell myself on a regular basis. I make a few mistakes now and then, but on the whole, I’m a good person. I pay my taxes, I never litter, I’m polite to baristas and sales clerks, I don’t yell at my children, and I recycle. 

Much of my identity, security, and sense of belonging is wrapped up in being a “good person”. If I am a good person, then people will love me, the system will protect me, and I won’t go to hell. If I am a good person, then the world feels orderly and safe. 

The value I place in being a good person is so deeply rooted in my psyche that the minute I fear I’m being found out to be NOT a good person, I get panicky. My throat starts to close, the blood rushes to my head, and my flight/fight/freeze impulses send my nervous system into spasms. 

Why? Because I grew up knowing that being good was the way to gain approval and affection from my parents, friends, and school teachers, and that made me feel safe. And I grew up with the deeply held belief that not being good would result in abandonment and condemnation to hell. While, deep down, I might have an underlying fear that I am NOT good, I’ve been able to sufficiently stuff down that fear and convince myself that goodness is my prevailing quality.

Good = belonging, safety, affection, and ease. Bad = abandonment, disapproval, insecurity, and eternal punishment.

Good people don’t harm other people. At least that’s the tape that’s been running on endless loop in my subconscious for over five decades. BAD people harm other people, but that’s not me, so I don’t have to worry about it. 

La la la la la – fingers in my ears as you try to accuse me of doing harm – I’m not listening because I AM A GOOD PERSON! It must have been some OTHER person who did the harm because it was NOT ME! What you’re saying is so far from my definition of self that it feels DANGEROUS to receive the information, so I REFUSE! Please go away before my carefully constructed self image crumbles at my ankles.

Perhaps you’ve had the same reaction when someone accuses you of doing harm? (Please tell me I’m not alone!)

But… sadly, there’s this universal truth that my amygdala has a hard time processing… we ALL do harm sometimes. 

We do harm for many reasons: we’ve been harmed by someone else; we suddenly felt unsafe and we reacted out of a desperate need for safety; we don’t know how to process our anger or shame in healthy ways; we’ve been socially conditioned not to recognize certain behaviour as harmful; we’ve got blindspots and biases that keep us from seeing the other person as fully human; our mental illness causes irrational or dangerous behaviour; or we feel trapped in a position in which we have to defend or protect ourselves. 

Even the most well-intentioned, emotionally healthy people do harm sometimes. It’s inevitable. The best we can do is to learn to process the information about the harm we’ve done without falling apart or lashing out and thereby increasing the harm.

Recently, I’ve had to receive that kind of information from several people. First there were two separate people who, a day apart, let me know that I’d harmed them by comments I’d made to them (one recent and one several months earlier). My first reaction, in both cases, was to become defensive, claim innocence, or dismiss them for being so sensitive. But, because I care about both of these people and want to maintain relationships with them, I chose to slow down and shift out of “reaction” into “response”. I listened to what they had to say and realized that, in both cases, it was true that I’d said hurtful things because, at the time, I was in emotional pain and was trying to deflect that pain. (Pain is contagious – when we try to deflect it, we usually project it onto others and then we both feel pain.) I apologized and took responsibility for harm done. 

Then, when I came home from my recent trip, I had to hear from my daughters that I had harmed them with some of the choices I’ve made recently. Again, I noticed the reactivity bubbling up in me and I was tempted to become passive aggressive and let them know how hard it is to be a single mom (while running a business that feeds them), how under-appreciated I often feel, etc. But, again, I knew that the reaction would do more harm and they would be less inclined to be honest with me in the future which would damage our relationship. Once again, I slowed down, took a few deep breaths, apologized and asked how I can support them better in the future.

I know that I’m not alone in being reactive when it comes to acknowledging harm that I’ve done. I see the same thing played out again and again, especially in tough conversations when people are being confronted with information about how their biases and blindspots may have caused harm. That’s why, for example, the term “white fragility” has become so common (and also male fragility, etc.). None of us likes to be told that our behaviour is “racist”, “sexist”, etc., and yet we all have biases that were formed in us at a young age and those biases make us blind to the impact of some of our behaviour.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to help people (myself included) better receive information about harm we’ve done, and how we can create environments where people can process that information (without becoming destructive) and then move forward toward repair, reconciliation and/or redemption. It takes self-reflection, self-forgiveness, and some emotional maturity to be able to receive that kind of information. It also takes community support and at least one person who believes in our capacity for goodness even when we’ve done harm. It’s hard to recover alone – we need people who can see our potential when we can’t.

Shame recovery is rarely a solo act – it happens best in relationship.

Not long ago, I found myself in a series of intense and deeply personal conversations with a man who has come to the awareness that he has done harm to women. There was little in his social conditioning that supported healthy masculinity, so he’d been blind to the harm he’d caused before it was pointed out to him. In the past year, this man has moved through various phases in this awareness – denial, shame, self-loathing, extensive therapy and personal growth, attempts at repair, despair, etc. 

I am profoundly grateful for the openhearted conversations I had with this man. Normally, I would avoid a conversation like that because I’d be triggered by it and the harm that has been caused to me by men would get in the way of my ability to hear him and extend grace to him. This time it was different, though. Surprisingly, hearing him speak with honesty and without guardedness about his shame, pain, confusion, and desire to be a better man offered me some healing for the harm that’s been done to me in the past. One of the last things I said to him was “you’ve allowed me to see the humanity behind the harm”. I also said “I will hold onto the belief that redemption is possible for you even when you don’t believe it yourself.” (Note: That man has given permission for this portion of his story to be shared.)

I can’t help but wonder… are we so different, him and I? Yes, the magnitude of the harm may be different, but at the heart of it, aren’t we the same? Given the same set of conditions, the same set of unhealthy gender expectations and cultural shaping, isn’t it possible that I might have done the same harm he has done? (We discovered many threads of similarities, for example, in the way we think and the way we process information about the world, so it seems we might respond similarly to the same set of circumstances.)

What has left me troubled after these conversations is that, despite the work he has done to take responsibility for his actions and learn how to be a better man, this man feels abandoned by those who once cared for him and he can find no place to turn for the kind of community support that might help restore him to goodness. He was surprised by my kindness because he’s learned not to expect kindness from anyone and questions whether he’s worthy of it.

Yes, we need to hold people accountable for harm they have done, and yes, our first responsibility as a society is to stand up for and protect victims of harm, but… we also need to build into our culture better ways to support the restitution and redemption of those who perpetuated the harm (if they are willing to do the hard work of restitution), especially when the culture is partially to blame for how they came to be who they are. To simply see them as “perpetrators” is to discard them and to take no responsibility for the re-shaping of them. Ultimately, this response will only result in more harm being done. 

Those left to wallow in their own shame, without the resources to heal and recover from that shame, become increasingly destructive to themselves and to others.

After the harm I caused those two friends and my daughters, I was able to be restored to my goodness. Their forgiveness and willingness to accept the repairs I offered helped me let go of shame and the relationships survived. That’s how restitution works – it restores us, heals us, and allows us to believe in ourselves and connect with each other again. 

Restitution happens in community.

In some cultures, restitution is built into the way that they address conflict and injustice. Among the Stó:lō people (an Indigenous nation in Canada), for example, the word used instead of “justice” is Qwi:qwelstóm kwelam t’ ey – roughly translated as, “they are teaching you, moving you toward the good” (from: Indigenous Centered Conflict Resolution Processes in Canada). When someone does harm, that person is asked to participate in a community circle and to prepare themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually to receive what is offered there. The purpose of this healing and peace building circle is to restore balance in the person, to help them see the harm they’ve done, and to reconnect them to the relationships that sustain them and hold them accountable. 

Perhaps if we were to write a new cultural narrative – one in which restoration and repair are valued over judgement and punishment, and in which community is valued over capitalism – we might be more equipped to find healing when harm is done and to “move people toward the good”. Perhaps if we knew that our communities would gather around us rather than abandon us when we do harm we’d be better equipped to receive information about how we’ve harmed people.

Instead, we tend to discard people, sending them off to prison, rejecting them from our communities, or punishing them on social media. Instead of holding them accountable and then creating community support in which they can make repairs and be restored to goodness, we remind them again and again of the harm they’ve caused, sending them further and further into shame.

We need a cultural revolution that returns us to community. We need more reconciliation circles and fewer courtrooms. We need more focus on repair and less on punishment. 

We need to move people toward the good.

Walk into any mainstream bookstore and you’ll find shelves full of books on self-care, but where are the books on community care? Who’s teaching us how to support each other and not abandon each other? 

We have movements like #metoo and #timesup that call out toxic masculinity (and that’s a good thing – don’t get me wrong), but where are the circles for accountability, repair, and restitution? Who’s helping perpetrators face the truth of the harm they’ve done so that they can make repairs and be restored to their communities?

I don’t think we need to re-invent the wheel when it comes to growing the containers that can hold space for restitution, reconciliation, and harm reduction – we simply need to seek out and amplify the practices that were once part of our communal cultures, before we became so individualistic and driven by capitalism. In many Indigenous communities the world over, for example, practices already exist that can help us find a way forward. (If you know of such practices, I welcome you to share them in the comments.) 

Perhaps if we look hard enough, we’ll uncover what we all need in order to see the harm we do with more clear eyes and to hold space for it in ourselves and in others so that restoration can happen.

____

 

We talk about this (and many other aspects of holding space) in my Holding Space Practitioner Program. The next online program starts in October. The next in-person training is in B.C., Canada in September

The beauty of having space held for you

photo credit: Milada Vigerova, Unsplash

Listen to this post…

 

I have a confession to make. I’m not very good at letting people hold space for me.

It’s true. I’ve built my work around what it means to hold space, and I understand how valuable it is, and yet… I often bump up against resistance around asking and/or allowing people to hold space for me. (Isn’t it true that we often teach what we most need to learn?)

It’s partly because I’ve spent much of my adult life in the roles of teacher, parent, facilitator, leader, manager, coach, advocate, etc., and so I have this internal script around needing to be the strong and supportive one in every relationship. And it’s partly because my life experiences have left me with a somewhat avoidant (and sometimes disorganized) attachment style, and so when it comes to the intimate situations where I need to trust someone to hold space for me, I can get triggered into a “this person might harm me or ask too much of me so I’d better pull back before that becomes a possibility” stance.

I’ve been working on those things in my intimate relationships (especially in the four years since the end of my marriage revealed so many well-ingrained patterns that had become survival skills). It takes a lot of time and effort to adjust those old scripts, and to heal the associated wounds, so I don’t expect it to change overnight.

A few weeks ago, I had a beautiful experience of having space held for me, and it taught me a lot about what’s possible and what I need more of in my life.

I’d been looking for a place to go for a week where I could finish writing my book (tentatively titled Be the Bowl: The Fine Art of Holding Space). I am much more successful at the focused work required for a project as large as a book when I can step away from my commitments, my family, the dirty dishes in the sink, and the many distractions that the internet provides, so I was looking for a private space. 

In the past, I have rented a cabin, stayed a few extra days in a hotel room after a business trip, or stayed at a local retreat centre to get big projects done. All of those are solo efforts (except for the time I shared a cabin with a friend who was also writing a book), and that’s usually the way I like it. This time, though, for reasons I can’t articulate, I had a feeling I needed something a little different. While I needed privacy and quiet, I also needed companionship and nurturing. 

My friends Lorraine and TuBears had offered me the use of the small cottage in their backyard (which TuBears normally uses as an office) and since I’d spent time in their home before and I love them dearly (you can watch a video we once made about our friendship), I was pretty sure it would be the right space where I could write without interruption and still have the value of friendship and support. 

I couldn’t have been more right. It was a magical week. The writing flowed beautifully, I finished the book in record time, and I even had time for a first edit. 

I’m pretty sure that what I wrote in that special space in their backyard is some of my best writing on the subject of holding space, partly because the space is sacred (it’s full of the sacred objects that TuBears has collected from her rich life as a Sundance dancer, shamanic practitioner, spiritual guide, and Choctaw elder), and partly because I had two of the best possible people holding space for me.

If you asked them, they would probably say they “didn’t do anything special”, but that’s not how it felt for me. They were attentive to my needs (Lorraine would sometimes pop in, mid-afternoon when my energy was flagging, with a smoothie or chai latte, and they always had delicious and healthy meals available), they kept the distractions away (they wouldn’t even let me help with dishes after meals, but rather sent me back to my writing cave), they listened to me when I needed to wrestle with a concept I was writing about, and they shared their own stories of what holding space meant for them. Even before I arrived, they’d put intention and love into preparing for me. They’d prayed over the space and smudged it so that it would be ready to support me while I wrote. They’d prepared all of the things they thought I’d need while I wrote – a kettle, a mug, teabags, and a basket full of tasty treats. 

We had long conversations in the evenings, and those conversations both enhanced my writing and gave me a break from it. When TuBears dropped a few wisdom bombs into our conversation, from her years of dancing at Sundance and holding space for people’s vision quests, I knew that I needed to interview her for the book, and so she’s become an integral part of my final chapter. 

We also laughed. A LOT. Together, Lorraine and TuBears have the capacity to created a space that is, in equal measure, both light-hearted and able to hold deep pain. Every time we’re together, I find myself telling them things I don’t normally tell anyone else, because I know that they will hold it with just the right amount of weightiness and humour. They help me to trust myself but not take myself too seriously.

Perhaps most profoundly, Lorraine and TuBears demonstrated a deep belief in me. They are unequivocal cheerleaders of my work and they want this book to be born, and so they were delighted to help midwife it into existence. When you have people with that kind of commitment to and belief in your work, it makes it much easier to shine.

Lorraine and TuBears are able to show up in that way and hold space for what I needed because they have done a lot of work in holding space for themselves. They are both strong and grounded people, and so their offering felt clean and generous, without hidden expectations. I never felt an obligation to pay attention to them, to offer them the right amount of gratitude, to reciprocate their generosity, or to feed their egos. Of course I WANTED to express gratitude and offer back some gifts, but it wasn’t out of a sense of obligation or expectation.

As I’ve written before, this is what it means to be in relationship with people when all parties are able to maintain their sovereignty and act out of love and commitment to each other rather than expectation, oppression, guilt, fear, power imbalance, or obligation. When we can hold space with sovereignty as our grounding principle, then we don’t layer our old wounds and expectations onto each other and we give each other the space to grow and to shine. We don’t feel threatened by another person’s greatness, nor do we diminish our own greatness to make the other person feel better. 

At the end of my week with them, I knew that I’d not only been able to do good work, but that I’d had some profound healing in the container they provided for me. In trusting them and letting them hold space for me, I’d had a beautiful opportunity to continue to re-write the old scripts about my need to be self-sufficient and not get too close to people. 

Since then, I’ve been reflecting on what was at play in order for me to allow space to be held for me (and what will allow me to find greater intimacy in future relationships), and here are some of the things I’ve come up with:
– I needed to have a high level of trust that Lorraine and TuBears would provide the space and support without expectation or unspoken conditions. My prior experience with them demonstrated that they could.
– I needed to work on releasing the leftover garbage from old attachment wounds so that I wouldn’t be as easily triggered by having to rely on and trust someone else for the kind of support they gave me.
– I needed them to be sufficiently mature and self-aware, and not needy or co-dependent so that I wouldn’t have to spend the week worrying about whether I was hurting their feelings or not reciprocating enough.
– I needed to pay attention to my own needs and be honest in articulating them.

– I needed to let love in and be gracious in receiving their generosity and kindness.

One of the teaching tools I often use is a collapsible bowl that can be either shallow or deep or somewhere in between. It demonstrates how we can hold space at different levels. Although I often have space held for me at the shallower or medium levels, I don’t often find myself held at the deepest level. (That’s usually what I do for other people instead of the other way around.) With Lorraine and TuBears, though, I was able to trust at the deepest level.

I can’t imagine a better way to finish a book on holding space than with my own profound learning about what it’s like to have space held for ME! 

This is toxic masculinity. And we are tired of absorbing it.

(photo credit: Unsplash – Alex Mihai)

I was on my way to the dentist, feeling anxious because I had a broken tooth and was sure the repair would be expensive and painful and that it must somehow be my fault and I’d be shamed for not flossing, eating hard candy, or clenching my teeth when I sleep. I was also feeling a little guilty for driving the two blocks, but didn’t want to have to walk home in the extreme cold with a frozen mouth.

Driving slowly through the parking lot, I got hit from behind by another car. In my anxious state of mind, my automatic thought was that I must have done something wrong because I was distracted. But just as quickly, I realized that there was nothing I could have done in that moment that would have caused the bump – it had to be something that hit me.

I turned and processed what had happened. A car was pulling out, hadn’t seen me, and hit the back passenger side of my car.

The driver of the car that hit me pulled up beside me and we both rolled down our windows. “I’m sorry,” said the guy, looking strangely frantic, given how minor the incident was, “but I didn’t hit you.”

“What do you mean you didn’t hit me? My car moved. Clearly you hit me.”

“Look,” he said, pointing back, “there’s a block of ice on the ground – that’s what you hit.”

“What are you talking about?” I said, looking in the mirror at the tiny block of ice. “How could a block of ice have caused my car to move like that?”

And then he just kept yelling “I didn’t hit you! I didn’t hit you!”

And I said, in as calm a voice as I could muster, “Can we just get out of our cars and look at our cars to see if there is any damage?”

His voice began to escalate. “But I didn’t hit you!!”

“Before you drive away, I’m JUST asking you to get out of your car and come with me so we can see if there is damage.”

He kept yelling, but got out of his car and we both went to look at the side of my car. Sure enough, there was a small dent on the fender near the wheel (ironically in the same spot I’d had repaired a few months earlier after I’d backed into a pole).

“I didn’t hit you!” He yelled. “How do I know that dent wasn’t there before?!” (Well, for one thing, I knew because that whole section of the car’s body had been repaired and repainted, but I didn’t think to say that at the moment.) He started wildly flinging his arms, pointing at other dings and marks on the car. “Next you’re going to say I caused that! And that! And that!”

“No, but you DID cause THAT!” I said – pointing at the small dent.

“I DIDN’T HIT YOU! LOOK – THERE’S THE BLOCK OF ICE. AND LOOK AT THE SKID MARKS BY THE BLOCK OF ICE. YOUR CAR WAS HIT BY THAT AND THE DENT WAS ON YOUR CAR ALREADY!”

I glanced toward where he was pointing. In the thin layer of snow on the ground, my tire marks showed clearly where I’d been traveling in a straight line and then was jolted five inches to the left. Near the zigzag was not a block of ice, but a lump of compacted snow that had likely been dislodged from my mud flaps on impact.

As quickly as I’d glanced away, though, I turned back to look into his eyes. Instinctively I knew I couldn’t take my eyes off this raging, irrational man or I would not be safe. Behind the anger in his eyes, I could see something else. Fear? Trauma? Shame? Maybe he was driving without a license? Maybe he’d been traumatized by parents who wouldn’t allow him to make mistakes? My mind reeled with the possibilities, wondering what parts of his history and his pain I needed to draw on to diffuse this situation.

“Look – I’m not going to take you to court or anything, so stop over-reacting and simply realize that what just happened could only have happened if your car hit mine.” My fingers touched the edge of the cell phone in my pocket, wondering whether I should pull it out to record this moment or take a photo of his license plate.

“I DIDN’T HIT YOU!” Seeing the rage increase in his eyes, I made a split-second decision to let it all go rather than risk being punched in the face. I left the cell phone in my pocket.

“Sir,” I said, as calmly and deliberately as I could muster, “the damage is minor enough that I’m not going report it. Get back in your car now and drive away.”

“Okay,” he said, getting back into his car. “But I didn’t hit you.”

I got back into my car and carried on to the dentist. As I sat in front of the dentist’s office, trembling, I had a flashback, realizing that this wasn’t just the story of a five minute encounter with an irrational man in a parking lot – it was a story of my whole lifetime. And it was the story of every woman I know. 

It’s a story as old as history. Man does wrong. Woman second-guesses herself, thinking she may have done wrong. Man swears he didn’t do wrong, gaslights the woman to try to convince her she’s crazy for thinking wrong was done, yells at her and makes her afraid he might hit her if she calls him out for what he did wrong. Woman does the emotional labour of trying to calm him and assure him he’s not a horrible person because she needs to keep herself safe. And then she carries the trembling with her when she goes.

Last night, as I sat down to journal after processing this five minute encounter nearly all day, I could feel the ache in my body and I knew that it was not from whiplash (the jolt was too minor) but from holding my body tense and alert throughout the encounter as I reacted instantaneously to what I needed to do to stay safe in that moment. It was also from holding a whole lifetime of such encounters in my body. I wrote “It’s still in my body. I can feel the shakiness, the tingling, the tight throat, and the tears that want to come but are blocked.”

Suddenly, a new thought appeared in my journal and every cell in my body knew the truth of it.

Women have learned to be the shock absorbers for men’s pain.

We are masterful at absorbing the intensity of it and diffusing it so that it won’t cause further damage.

This is a story of a whole lifetime, and a thousand lifetimes before mine. It’s a story of generation after generation – a story we carry in our DNA. It’s a story of a whole lineage of shock absorbers showing up in my instinctual need and ability to keep that man from exploding.

This is the story of a childhood with a father who would never hit his children, but who would throw hammers at trees or tractors in his rage. It’s the story of a little girl who learned, from a young age, to jump up very quickly, if she heard him come in from the barn, to make sure there was food on the table so that she didn’t have to face his anger. It’s also the story of a woman who, at thirty-five and with children of her own, could still feel her body react in the same way when she heard the back door of the farmhouse open.

This is the story of a twenty-two year old, naked and trembling in her bed while the rapist held a tight grip on her throat and a blade over her head. It’s the story of how her mind raced, trying to find just the right thing to say that might soothe him enough so that he would do the least amount of damage. And it’s the story of how she sat with him on her bed for an hour after he raped her, listening to him tell stories of his childhood. 

This is also the story of a wife and mother who learned to contort herself to absorb the pain, shame, anger, and insecurity of a man who needed someone else to blame, because she thought it was her job. It’s the story of how she learned to anticipate his mood the moment he stepped in the door, and how she did everything to fend off his darkness to keep her daughters safe. It’s also the story of how she woke up one day and realized she’d taught her daughters how to become shock absorbers too.

And this is the story of Dr. Anita Hill, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Tarana Burk, and every person with a #metoo story. Every single one of us has absorbed the pain of men who didn’t know how to diffuse it on their own.

We are exhausted. Our bodies have been nearly destroyed by the many shocks we’ve absorbed (and many HAVE been destroyed).

We don’t hate men, as those who would dismiss us as “angry feminists” might have us believe. Quite the contrary – we love them and we want better for them. And for us. And for our daughters and sons.

We simply want to stop being shock absorbers. We want men to learn how to diffuse their own pain without throwing it, like hand grenades, into someone else’s yard.

There is another five minute encounter with a man that happened shortly after the first one that helps to bring this into perspective. The dentist (a man) looked into my mouth and said. “It’s the crown that’s broken. We just put that in last year and it shouldn’t have broken, so we’ll take full responsibility for it and replace it. I’m really sorry about that.” Simple as that. No defensiveness, no deflection, no gaslighting or trying to convince me it was my fault. Simply taking responsibility for it.

THAT is what we are asking men to do. Just take responsibility and learn to deal with the shame and fear that might come along with that responsibility. Once that happens, we’ll stop talking about toxic masculinity.

****

P.S. If your response to this is “Why are you assuming this is a male/female thing? Couldn’t it as easily have been a female ranting and raving?”, my response is this… it is not purely a male/female thing, but it IS a power thing. In that situation, as a man, he has more physical and cultural power and so my instinctive reaction to him was about knowing (and remembering in my body) that he could hurt me. And, though I can’t speak for him, I suspect that some of his behaviour was about knowing I would absorb it rather than punch him first. I believe this is also the case with BIPOC people who have learned to be the shock absorbers for the pain that we as white people have not learned to process. The person with more power is more likely to assume that the person with less will absorb it. The closer you are to the top of a hill, the more you can afford to throw hand grenades. 

My visit to Laker Memorial School, Kitgum District, Uganda

What can I tell you about my experience in Kitgum District of Uganda? I’ve tried about half a dozen times to write this article and to reflect on what the experience meant to me, but so far every attempt falls short. I was going to tell you about how it felt to be the only white person I saw for five days (how all of the children would shout “Munu!” – white person! – when I walked by, and how they’d peer in my bedroom window while I tried to nap, like I was an exotic zoo animal), and then I was going to talk about how this trip felt different from my other visits to Africa, and then I thought I’d start by reflecting on how complicated it feels to be white, relatively wealthy, and a representative of colonization in a place like Uganda and still walk with consciousness and humility… but all of those attempts make this story too much about me and what I really want to tell you about is the school that was the primary reason for my visit.

Laker Memorial School in Kitgum District, Uganda, is the school my friend Nestar started five years ago and which I have been supporting financially for almost that long. What I learned on this visit is that it is named after Nestar’s mom, Laker, a strong and courageous woman who believed in educating children and who worked hard to raise school fees for her children despite the many obstacles life threw in her path (ie. they had to flee their farm when her children were still young because the rebels had attacked their region, and she became a single mom when her husband died a few years later). Though the school is currently housed in a temporary facility that was never meant to be a school (they had to cut windows into the classroom walls so that the children would have fresh air), Nestar’s dream is to some day build a new school on the land that her mother owned.

Though Laker Memorial School is primitive by western standards (there are few textbooks and no computers, the paint is peeling off the classroom walls, and all of the teaching aids are handwritten by the teachers), it was clear to me as soon as I visited that the level of education is high, that there is a strong commitment to fostering excellence in the children, and that the leadership of the school has passion and a vision for the future. On the first day I visited, I heard some beautiful music drifting out of one of the classrooms and I went to investigate. When I was invited into the classroom, I discovered that the school choir was practicing their school anthem, which had been written by the head teacher (who was delighted to share it with me). They were singing in four part harmony – at a higher quality than any school choir I’ve ever heard in Canada.

 

During that first visit, I also had a chance to visit the school kitchen, a small lean-to hut behind the main school building where the school cook was stirring a huge pot over the fire. I was in awe of the muscles and agility required to stir such a pot AND the fact that she was doing it barefoot, just inches away from the fire. (Note: providing school lunches is one of the ways a school like this attracts students – because then the children get at least one solid meal every day.)

A couple of days after we arrived, I was welcomed as the “chief guest” at the kindergarten graduation. I was imagining the kind of small-scale graduation ceremonies my children had when they completed kindergarten – where parents perch on the edges of tiny chairs in the kindergarten classroom and the children wear paper mortar-boards they’ve made in class. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This was a full-day celebration that included much music and dancing, a huge feast, a spelling bee, a drawing contest, and many speeches from dignitaries (including myself). It was a joyous day and I laughed harder than I’ve laughed in a long time when the women invited me up to dance and I proved to them that a white woman’s hips just can’t shake the way a Ugandan woman’s can.

I don’t use the word “awe” lightly (my dad taught me well about the overuse of superlatives), but I am truly in awe of what has been created in just five years at Laker Memorial School. The vision of Nestar and the people she has gathered around her in support of the school (including several of her siblings who serve on the board) is spectacular. It is no easy feat to create a school (and the foundation that supports that school) out of nothing in a remote part of Uganda, where people still struggle from the after-effects of 20 years of civil war, and then to grow it from a couple of dozen students in one grade level to 250 in 8 grade levels in just five years. Nestar does much of the fundraising herself (she sells homemade jam in markets in the Netherlands, where she now lives), and together with her husband Ed, runs the non-profit for next-to-nothing so that all donations can go directly to the school. (And, it should be added, she does all of this while raising four children.)

While I was at the kindergarten graduation, seated with the other special guests, I had the opportunity to chat with several local politicians and community and church leaders from the region (including the school inspector). What I heard from all of them is that the school is developing a strong reputation not only in the Kitgum District but across Uganda for quality education and excellent teachers. It was clear from the way that they spoke of it that they too are impressed with what Nestar has managed to create and the quality of people she has attracted to serve in school leadership.

To give you a sense of who Nestar is and what she brings to the school and the children being educated there, I want to share a little story of a tiny moment that represents so much more of what I witnessed in my time with her. During the spelling bee, when kindergarten students were taking turns spelling the words read by the teachers, she took aside one of the boys who had failed to spell his word. “Don’t ever be afraid to try,” Nestar said to the young boy, leaning over to look him in the eye. “You might fail, but at least you tried, and trying is always the first step to succeeding.” She spoke from her own years of experience, having tried a big and bold thing in starting a school, knowing she could have failed.

If Laker Memorial School produces even a handful of young leaders, like Nestar, who lead with compassion, vision, and humility (and I’m certain it will do more than that), then the world will be a better place.

Over the years, I have helped raise money for classroom furniture, textbooks, and, most recently, the construction of a latrine to increase sanitation at the school. Many of you, my readers and friends, have been generous supporters of this school along with me, and I thank you for that. I can assure you that your donations are going to a very good cause and that every dollar is being well spent. I hope that you will consider continued support (you can do so on UKEF’s website) and that perhaps you’ll even consider making a monthly donation.

These children have hope for a better future because this school exists.

Please support them.

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