Holding space for yourself in a time of social isolation and liminal space

image credit: Eduard Militaru, Unsplash

Listen to me read this post:

 

The world is settling into an eery quiet in this new age of coronavirus. It’s hard to believe that a thing so small – a virus that is invisible to the human eye – could cause the most significant global disruption any of us has ever seen in our lifetimes.

We have no roadmaps for the future because none of us has ever been here before. Our internal GPS’s are on endless loops of “recalculating” – they’ve run out of maps and nobody has any way of programming them to anticipate the road that’s ahead of us.

The waves of emotion have been flowing through me and around me, sometimes threatening to drown me and sometimes settling into something more manageable that I can float on. 

Last week I found myself in parenting overwhelm, with one daughter having trachea surgery, another daughter losing a friend to suicide, and a third daughter dealing with the loss of an art show she’s worked all year to prepare for. This would be a lot to deal with at the best of times, but in the midst of this new and unfamiliar anxiety and uncertainty of what the future will look like, it felt like too much. It all came to a head when a police officer pulled me over for making an illegal left turn (which I’d done because I was distracted and overtired) and gave me a traffic ticket (while ignoring social distancing). The tears, rage, fear, and frustration spilled over as I drove away, and I didn’t bother trying to stop them.

Though I regret the traffic ticket that got me to breakdown, I don’t regret that moment of release, when I let myself scream and cry in the car (and text my sister for moral support). Like the release valve on a pressure cooker, it helped me settle into a greater sense of calm and acceptance.

This week, I’ve been having flashbacks to another time in my life when I had to live through a form of social isolation – a difficult time that became one of the most meaningful and transformational events of my life. 

Five months into my third pregnancy, I had to shut down my very busy life and confine myself to a hospital room. To try to deal with an incompetent cervix (i.e., it was suddenly 4 centimetres open), doctors attempted a cerclage (i.e., stitching it closed), but they failed and pierced the membrane instead. My unborn child was suddenly exposed and at risk of infection before he was strong enough to fight off that infection. My body – designed to protect a gestating child – was no longer able to do its job.

Medical professionals started pumping my body full of antibiotics and steroids (to speed the baby’s development) and put me on strict bedrest. I was told I wouldn’t be able to leave the hospital until my baby was born. He wasn’t due for another four months, so it felt like an impossibly long time to be confined to an unfamiliar room in an unfamiliar place.

In those early days, panic set in as I watched the whole world suddenly slip out of my control and away from my grasp. In some moments I had full-blown panic attacks – especially the first night when I listened to the screams of another mom down the hall as she realized the baby she’d just given birth to was dead. In other moments, I went into overdrive trying to grab ahold of anything that was still within my grasp to control. I had a full and busy life with a lot of people depending on me – two small children at home and a team of staff at work that needed my leadership during their busiest time of the year – I suddenly felt the urgent need to do EVERYTHING I could to help them survive my absence.

In some of those moments, anger arose alongside the panic, reminding me that I wouldn’t be in this place if it hadn’t been for two different doctors’ errors. The first error had come a week before, when I’d gone to a different hospital because of discomfort and a sense that my hips were shifting and my body was opening before it was meant to. (I’d already had two births, so had some sense of what it should feel like at that stage.) At that time, my GP had made the choice not to do an internal exam (which might have revealed the incompetent cervix at an earlier stage when it would have been easier to address). The second error was when the specialist in charge of my care allowed an intern to do the surgery and the inexperienced intern slipped and pierced my membrane with her sharp needle.

A few days into my hospital stay, the familiar sense of panic threatened to overwhelm me in the middle of the night. In the liminal space between sleep and wake, I found myself wrestling with a mysterious presence that I was sure was in the room with me. (I later said that I felt like it was similar to Jacob wrestling with the angel in the Biblical story.) After much tossing and turning and wrestling with the flood of emotions that passed through me, a question landed on my heart, as though the presence had spoken it out loud.

“Do you choose to stay in this state of fear, anger and resentment, or do you choose peace and forgiveness?”

I took a deep breath and considered the question. I felt justified in all of the big, dark emotions flowing through me, and I felt attached to them because they gave me some sense of power and self-righteousness. But I also knew that those dark emotions would not serve my unborn child. They would cause unhealthiness in my body which would be passed on through the umbilical cord to my child.

“I choose peace,” I whispered. “I choose to forgive the doctors for their errors.”

The moment I made the choice, the anger drained out of my body and the wrestling stopped. I fell asleep soon afterward and in the morning I woke to a new state of serenity and acceptance.

It wasn’t perfect – there were still moments when the fear came back and fed the anger – but that choice changed my whole hospital experience. Nineteen years later, I can now say that it changed my whole life. The seeds for everything I now do – this work of teaching and writing about holding space – were planted in that one moment, that one choice.

For the next few weeks, my hospital room became an unusual kind of spiritual retreat centre. I settled into a time of contemplation and inward reflection. I entertained long and meaningful conversations with friends, family, and the staff at the hospital. I hung artwork from my children on the wall and welcomed plants and flowers from friends. I listened to music on the Fisher Price tape player a friend lent me.

It was in that hospital room that I first became a life coach. There was a new quality to my listening, and again and again I heard from people that sitting with me for a few minutes of their day helped them work through things in their lives where they felt stuck. It wasn’t unusual for nurses, nurses aides, other patients, and even doctors to poke their head into my room and say “I feel drawn to the peacefulness of your space” and then they’d stay awhile or come back during their break. Many of them would remark that they felt different when they left – like something had shifted. Even the young intern who’d pierced my membrane came, weeping, to my room, and I offered forgiveness and told her I hoped that she would go on to become a very good and attentive doctor.

Though I didn’t have the language for it yet, I was learning to hold space. In letting go of the illusion of control and accepting what was, instead of trying to cling to what could have been, I’d found a new practice that would change my life and eventually become my primary purpose in life.

Three weeks into my hospital stay, after I’d fallen asleep with lullabies playing in my ear, I woke up to hear that they wanted me to go down earlier than usual for my morning ultrasound. (They checked in on the baby twice a day to make sure that he was peeing regularly. A functioning bladder meant that he hadn’t developed infection.) I walked downstairs feeling hopeful and content because, just the day before, I’d reached the stage where my baby was considered viable outside the womb.

The ultrasound technician had barely begun when she went completely silent. We were friends by then, so it was unusual for the chatter to stop. “I have to get the doctor,” she said and slipped out of the room. I lay there and began to panic again. When the doctor returned and moved the wand over my belly while looking at the screen, I knew, even before he told me, that my baby had died. Sometime during the night, bacteria had passed through my open cervix and ended his short life.

Later that day, I gave birth to my stillborn son. When I found out, after the ultrasound, that I’d still need to go through the labour and delivery process, I was overwhelmed with the unfairness of it. But a kind social worker told me that many moms of stillborn children had reflected later that the labour process was meaningful for them and that it allowed them to feel more like they’d given birth to a real child. She was right – it was excruciating, but it was meaningful. My son, just like my daughters, was nurtured within me and born through me and his life had meaning and purpose. He wasn’t just a fetus.

The grief in the next few weeks was painful and there were nights when I lay in my bed weeping in anguish (especially when my milk came in and I had no child to nurse), but it’s also true that the sense of peace that I found in the hospital stayed with me and helped me get through the times of darkness.

Nothing was the same after that. Something was awakened in me in that hospital room, and, though it took ten more years for me to find myself to this work, I had a new sense of purpose and calling that wouldn’t leave me alone.

Now, nearly twenty years later, I feel deep gratitude for my time in liminal space and social isolation. I was irrevocably changed by it, and it led me to this remarkable work that fills my life with purpose and joy.

It is likely that, with coronavirus disrupting your world, you are finding yourself in some of the upheaval, panic and loss of control that I experienced at the beginning of my hospital stay. If you are, let me offer a few suggestions, based on my experience.

  1. Remember that no emotional state is ever permanent. The feelings may feel enormous and scary right now, but they will pass. They always pass. Let them pass through you and don’t judge yourself for feeling big feelings. Feel them, label them, and let them pass.
  2. Take a deep breath and let go of whatever you can’t control. Our suffering is often rooted in the fact that we desperately want to feel some control over our lives, but that control is an illusion, especially in a time of such disruption. Clench your hand into a fist and release it – notice how it feels to let go and invite that sensation into your whole body. Do this again and again, as often as you need to.
  3. Notice what overstimulates you and limit your exposure to it. When I was in the hospital, I tried to watch TV one night, but found that it overstimulated my anxious brain, so I stopped and didn’t watch for the rest of the time I was in the hospital. I’m now noticing the same happening with social media occasionally, so I walk away and turn my attention to something more calming.
  4. Focus on the people in front of you. When you let the whole world into your consciousness, it can feel scary and overwhelming, especially right now, but when you focus on those you love, in your small circles, it feels much more grounding and comforting. This is a good time to narrow your focus. Hold space for those who matter most and trust that the others will find their people.
  5. Be still enough to allow your undiscovered gifts to come to the forefront. Sometimes, in times of great upheaval, when we quiet ourselves and tune in to the depths within us, we find resources that we didn’t know we had. Just as I discovered skills in coaching and navigating liminal space, you may discover you have a gift for leadership or baking or problem-solving or virtual hosting or serving your neighbourhood or…. whatever!
  6. Tend the space you’re in. Though I’ve never been the type of person who loves to clean or care for plants, both of those things felt meaningful to me in my small space. Tending the plants I’d gotten from friends gave me a surprising amount of pleasure and helped me feel grounded and peaceful. Right now, with many of us confined to our homes, the small spaces we’re in will need special tending so that we feel supported and held.
  7. Create a space for “cocooning”. As I said in last week’s video about liminal space, this time we’re in can be compared to the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly. Before we get to the new post-coronavirus world, we have to go through a phase of deconstruction and emptiness. In my hospital room, I had a large comfortable chair in the corner that I filled with pillows. That was where I curled up when I needed extra comfort and stillness. Now, during coronavirus, I have a similar spot near my window where I can curl up and feel the sun warm my body.
  8. Allow yourself time and space for processing and meaning-making. In the early days of disruption, your brain will likely be stuck in anxiety overdrive, and you won’t be able to do much higher-functioning processing until you’ve learned how to calm it. But once you’re ready, it can be very helpful to spend time processing your thoughts through journal-writing, art-making, dance, etc. The more you’re able to process it and make meaning out of it, the less it will get stuck in your body as trauma that you’ll have to deal with later.
  9. Connect with the people who matter most to you and let them support you. This is a time when we need each other more than ever. Even if we can’t be in physical contact with each other, we can still support each other and offer love and kindness in all of the ways that we can. It takes a special kind of vulnerability to get through liminal space together, but the deepened relationships that I enjoyed in the hospital tell me that it’s worth it.
  10. Notice what lands on your windowsill. When I was in the hospital, butterflies became special to me after my friend Stephanie gave me an article about a woman who saw butterflies as a representation of her deceased dad. After I read the article, butterflies started showing up in unusual places – including the windowsill of my fifth floor hospital room. In the years since then, they have continued to remind me of my son Matthew, and I receive each one as a special gift from the spirit/natural world. In the time of coronavirus, I wonder what special creatures will show up for each of us.

None of us knows the outcome of this time of disruption in the world. It’s quite possible that many of us will suffer losses and that we’ll have to walk through considerable grief and ongoing disruption. I wish I could promise you otherwise, but I simply can’t – not after grieving the loss of my son.

I don’t even know if it’s hope that I want to leave you with at the end of this article. Perhaps it’s something other than hope that we need right now – perhaps it’s more like courage and strength and resilience and new skills in navigating hard journeys. Perhaps it’s faith that we can survive this and that we have the capacity to weather the storms that this brings to our lives.

Whatever the future looks like, there is one thing that I feel certain of and it is this… we are meant to be connected to each other, and in this moment, I feel deep gratitude that I am connected to you.

Your companion in this liminal space,

Heather Plett

The liminal space of COVID-19

So here we are… in this unusual liminal space between “the world before COVID-19” and “the world after COVID-19”. I gathered some of my thoughts around what it means to go through the liminal space, and how we need to seek out the wayfinders and imaginal cells in our communities and our world (and within ourselves). Instead of a blog post, I thought a video might feel a little more like the kind of human connection we need right now…

The Girl in the Painted Dress: An allegory for those who want to be free

After I wrote The Girl in the Velcro Dress, a number of people said they wanted to know how the girl reclaimed herself. This is that story. You may wish to read the other post first

Listen to me read The Girl in the Painted Dress:

 

Once there was a girl in a velcro dress whose dress became so weighted down with all of the things other people stuck to it that she could barely move.

One day, exhausted and frustrated from the gargantuan amount of effort that it took to move about in her life, she slipped out of the dress and found herself in a sad little heap underneath. The dress, stiff from all of the expectations and beliefs and baggage that everyone else had layered onto it and she’d picked up herself, stayed perfectly still, creating a tent above the girl.

The girl loved how peaceful and quiet it was in that tent. Nobody could find her there and she didn’t need to satisfy anyone other than herself. She noticed how different her breath felt – long and slow and filling her whole body. Whenever she was wearing the dress, her breath was short and fast and a little strangled because of the weight of the dress, but under the dress, it was different.

Of course, she didn’t allow herself to stay for long, that first time in her tent hideaway. She was a responsible girl and wearing that dress was one of her responsibilities, so she silenced the longing that encouraged her to stay and she stood up and carried on. Carrying on was one of the things she was good at.

Once she’d had a taste of the tent, though, she couldn’t shake it from her mind no matter how hard she tried to stay busy or distract herself. A few days later, when nobody was paying attention, she slipped down inter her tent again for a few more minutes of rest, cut off from the noisy world around her.

Gradually, this became more and more common. The girl started to plan into her day moments when she could slip out of the dress and disappear. Of course, being a responsible girl, she made sure that the moments she chose wouldn’t inconvenience her children, her husband, her mother, her employer, or any of the other people who depended on her. They were moments at the edges of her day, when nobody needed her to cook supper or show up at a meeting or drive them to soccer practice or fill out a form.

At first, those moments in the tent were quiet and dark because what she craved most was rest from the burden of carrying around the dress. But one day, just before slipping down into the tent, she grabbed her music player and took it with her. Laying on the floor of the tent with her headphones on, she felt the most blissful feeling she’d felt in a long, long time. The music filled her whole body and she knew that something new had awakened in her.

“I wonder what else I could bring with me,” she thought, and soon she was experimenting with what things made her feel happy and alive under her dress. Her journal and pen made the cut – she loved to lie under the tent writing about her frustrations, her fears, and her dreams. A new set of paintbrushes and paints also made the cut, as did some scissors and glue. Sometimes, hidden from view from all who knew her, she felt almost childlike again, making joyful messes with art supplies.

There were stretches of time, of course, when the girl couldn’t justify any time under the dress – when her kids were sick or she had important deadlines at work or her husband or her mom needed extra attention. There were also times when she convinced herself how frivolous it all was and she swore she would never do it again. 

But the call of the tent was too strong, and, eventually, she always found herself back under the dress with her journal, her music, and her art supplies.

One day, she noticed a secret doorway underneath the tent, and when she crawled through that doorway, she found a magical room where other tent-people had gathered. The discovery both delighted and frightened her. She wanted to befriend the other tent-people, but she was afraid of being exposed. The fear took over and she scurried back to her own tent, closed the door behind her and slipped quickly back into the dress.

Her curiosity soon got the better of her, though, and a few weeks later, she crept quietly back through the door into the magical room. She curled up in a ball at the edge, hoping nobody would notice her. All she wanted was to be among other people who’d felt trapped in their velcro dresses, to know that she was not alone. Talking to them took too much courage but watching them was safe enough.

With time though, after lots of people had smiled at her and she felt ready to trust them, she relinquished her anonymous place at the edge of the room and began to mingle tentatively among the people. She discovered that the room held the most interesting mix of people she’d ever come across – weirdos and misfits and artists and dancers and dreamers and revolutionaries. They were doing the most fascinating things in that room, too. Some were painting on the walls, some were clustered in conversation circles, some were gathered around markers and poster boards making protest signs – almost anything imaginable was welcome in that room. Gradually, as the girl’s courage kindled, she joined in, once again experimenting with the things that made her happy. Sometimes, while she was lost in the act of creating, she had flashbacks to how she’d felt back in her childhood before she’d put on the dress.

Emboldened by the support of her new friends, the girl claimed more and more time to slip away into the tent, sometimes even daring to inconvenience the people who depended on her. At first, that caused her a lot of guilt, and that added to the weight of the dress, but she did it anyway because it was the only way she could find enough strength to keep carrying the dress around.

Some days she needed more solitude, and in those times she’d stay alone in her lovely little tent. Other days, she needed companionship, and then she’d slip through the door into the magical room. 

During her times of solitude, the girl became more and more bold with her art supplies, and soon the inside of the dress was covered in paint. Fanciful creatures and shapes danced across the walls in colourful, messy glee.

While the inside of the dress was transforming, so was the outside. The time spent inside the tent and in the magical room were giving the girl enough strength and courage to make changes in her life. She started by anxiously and tentatively saying “no” to people who wanted to add new things to her dress.  Some people, of course, were quite annoyed with this new turn of events, because they were quite accustomed to hanging their things on her, and sometimes she gave in rather than hurt their feelings, but other people were more respectful. The people who were willing to listen to her “no” were the ones she wanted to spend more time with. 

After a bit of practice saying no and standing up for herself when people got upset, she became curious about whether she could peel anything off her dress. She grabbed the first things she could find – an old belief about what good girls are supposed to wear in public – peeled it away and dropped it on the floor. That gave her the courage to peel back another thing and another and each thing that dropped to the floor made her a little bolder to peel back the next.

There were, of course, some things that had been on her dress the longest, and those took a lot of time and effort to peel away. To grow the extra courage and strength she needed to deal with those things, she made repeated visits to the magical room where she could sit in circle with other tent-people who were dealing with similar baggage or had done so in the past.

Once she’d peeled a few things away, she realized that the dress underneath was not as sticky as it once was. People would try to attach new things in the empty spaces, but they simply slipped to the floor. While peeling things away, she hadn’t noticed that she was also peeling away the velcro that was holding it there.

After enough things were peeled away that the dress was nearly bare, the girl saw that the dress was being transformed. With the velcro gone, the paintings on the underside of the dress were now starting to show through. At first, this made her feel too exposed, and so she hid those exposed bits and only uncovered them in the privacy of her own home. But whenever she looked in the mirror, she noticed how happy those painted bits made her feel, and so she took some chances and left the house with nothing covering the paintings.

Some people looked at her in shock and disapproval when they saw her exposed paintings, but she also noticed something else – strangers on the street started to smile and wink at her. When she paused to look at who was smiling, she realized that many of them were her friends from the magical room. They looked different, out here in the real world, but she could see the familiar longing and wildness underneath. 

When those people saw her so boldly walking around outside of the house with her paintings showing, some of them found their own courage and let their coverings slip to the floor revealing that they were wearing imperfect dresses with bits of velcro and bits of paintings peeking through. They grinned at each other when this happened, enjoying the messy imperfection of it all.

Instead of hiding her paintings, the girl began to polish them and add little touches of flourish and sparkle. In the spots where she applied extra sparkle, nothing could stick to the dress and that filled her with even more courage and delight.

The more colourful and sparkly the girl’s dress became, and the more she was able to peel things away, the lighter it was and the more the girl was able to move freely in the world. She discovered that she loved to dance and she loved the way the colourful dress flowed around her as she twirled. She remembered what it felt like to be wild and free – how she’d felt as a child before she’d been told to put on the velcro dress – and now that she’d experienced it again, nothing could convince her to go back.

Whenever she danced and sparkled, people were drawn to the girl in the painted dress. They would stand and watch her, and when she paused to look at them, she recognized the longing in their eyes. It was the same longing she’d had, before she’d discovered the secret tent under her dress.

Sometimes people would ask “how did you learn to do that?” Whenever they did, the girl would lean in and whisper “slip down under your velcro dress and see what you find there”. The people would look at her in wide-eyed wonder and she’d smile at them and encourage them to try. Sometimes they would scoff at her, but sometimes she could see by the light in their eyes that they would go home and find a private place to try. For those with lights in their eyes, she would lean in a second time and say “once you’ve been there for awhile, and you’ve worked up the courage, find the hidden door at the bottom, go through it, and I’ll meet you on the other side.”

That was how the girl in the painted dress claimed a space in the magical room, began to gather her people there, and built a whole new life for herself. She wasn’t perfect, and sometimes things still stuck to her dress, but it was easier and easier to let them go.

The Girl in the Velcro Dress: An allegory for those who carry too much

photo credit: Olivia Buyar, Unsplash

Listen to me read the post:

 

Once there was a girl who wore a velcro dress.

At an early age, before any other options became apparent to her, she’d stitched that dress together out of all of the bits that had been passed down to her by her mother and grandmothers before her. Into the stitches were woven the messages and beliefs from her culture, her religion, her family system, the media, and the grown-ups who knew no better because they wore velcro clothing too. There were also layers of trauma and generational baggage that she didn’t understand but that made its way into the dress anyway. The dress was prickly and uncomfortable, but she wore it because she needed to be clothed.

The velcro made it easy for other people to attach things to her. Some people attached expectations of how she should behave or what she should sacrifice on others’ behalf. Others attached their own needs that they wanted her to meet and the pain that they didn’t know how to carry. Still others attached their disapproval and judgement. There was also the weight of expectation of how she should look, the way that she should dress, the rules for good girl behaviour, the pressure to please people and not step out of line, and so many more things that she lost track of all of the bits that clung to her dress.

It was such a familiar pattern to have other people’s things hanging from her dress that she did it to herself as well – picking up pieces that other people should have been responsible for, saying yes when she wanted to say no, and layering on shame and fear and other people’s opinions. She was so buried under the weight of the dress that she had no idea what she looked like underneath.

Her dress was so sticky, in fact, that she could pick up new burdens simply by noticing a disapproving glance from across the room, or by hearing the passive-aggressive sigh of a person who’d come to rely on her.

By the time she was a young woman, a great deal of things were attached to that dress. She didn’t question the weight of it, though, because she knew that it was simply her lot in life to carry around what other people had tossed her way. It gave her a sense of purpose, in fact, and people started to praise her for just how much she was able to carry without buckling under the weight.

The young woman married and had a few children, and the dress became heavier and heavier. The man she married had a lot of pain and fear and insecurity that was hard for him to carry, and so he tossed it her way, trusting that it would stick and that her vows meant that she’d carry it on his behalf. She lived up to that expectation, believing (because that belief was one of the earliest things that became attached to her dress) that it was her responsibility as a wife to do so. Sadly, like her mother had done before her, she modelled that velcro dress to her daughters, and passed down little bits of it for them to begin crafting their own dresses.

At the places where she worked and volunteered, it was the same. Co-workers and bosses congratulated her for how much she could carry, and then they casually dropped more things on her and walked away.

Finally a day came when the dress became so heavy that the woman could barely breathe under the weight of it. She propped the heavy dress up like a concrete tent, slipped down into the cavity it created underneath, curled up in a ball on the floor and wept and wept. She had no idea what to do with this massive dress that had become her prison.

In her tiny cave under the dress she began to fantasize about what it would be like to live without that dress – about how freely she could move in the world without the weight of other people’s expectations, judgement, and needs.

“Enough!” she shouted to herself to wake herself up from the dream, “Fantasies have nothing to do with the REAL WORLD!” With new resolve, she picked herself up off the floor, slipped back into the dress, and carried on. Because carrying on was what she did best.

But the fantasy wouldn’t let go – it kept popping into her consciousness when she least expected it, and soon she was regularly sneaking away into her little cave beneath the dress, entertaining that fantasy and letting herself slowly begin to believe that another life might be possible.

One day, after the fantasy had grown so big that it consumed her even when she wasn’t hiding in her cave, she allowed a tiny thought to poke its way into her imagination… “What if I start to peel away some of the things stuck to this dress?” That thought made her heart leap, so she reached down and plucked off the thing that was easiest to reach. It was a cultural expectation of how she should dress at work. She dropped it on the floor and suddenly felt a tiny rush of freedom and hope.

Next she plucked off some bits of shame and fear that other people had projected on her, and those too fell on the floor at her feet. 

Suddenly the world was full of possibilities. With each thing she peeled away, she felt a little lighter, a little more herself. She began to remember what she looked like under the dress, and that memory filled her with delight and expectation.

Many of the things she peeled away could simply be dropped on the floor, but other things had to be tenderly and/or cautiously returned to the person who put them there in the first place. Those were often the hardest to release, because one of the things that clung to her dress the most tightly and stubbornly was the expectation that she should never hurt anyone’s feelings.

For some of hardest things to release, she needed the right kind of support – people who were doing the same kind of work, people who had expertise in peeling, and people who were eager to dismantle the systems that had taught her to wear the dress in the first place. Sometimes she sat in circles with others wearing velcro clothing and they all did a little peeling together. The community support made the work feel a little easier.

A few things took much longer to peel away than others. Her husband’s pain, for example, took many years to detach from, and in the process of peeling it away she discovered that the marriage no longer made any sense without that attachment. She felt a little lonely without that long-held weight attached to her dress, but when it was gone she realized just how much closer she was to revealing her true self beneath it.

One day, after she’d peeled quite a few things away, she noticed that the dress underneath no longer had as much stickiness as it once did. Other people would try to toss things into the empty spaces, but those things either slid to the floor or bounced back to the person they belonged to. She was greatly relieved to discover that she no longer needed to catch what wasn’t hers.

She also noticed, as her dress became lighter and less sticky, that she was now more able to support people in holding their own problems and pain without letting any of it get stuck to her. She could sit with them for awhile, offer them a space in her big heart, and then she could walk away without bearing their weight on her dress. She knew that she’d helped them lighten their load for awhile, just by sitting with them, so she didn’t feel guilty for not letting it get stuck to her.

She wasn’t perfect, and sometimes – especially when she was overtired and under-resourced – she would still let things stick that weren’t hers, and sometimes she would berate herself for those moments of weakness, but over time she got better and better at noticing and peeling away whatever didn’t belong.

And one day she noticed how much lighter she felt and how much she loved the shape of herself that was emerging from under the weight of the dress. She looked down at herself, smiled, and said “Hello friend – it’s so lovely to see you again!” In that moment, she danced.

 

The Shadow Side of the Good

Photo by Martino Pietropoli on Unsplash

Listen to me read this post: 

 

On an episode of the TV show The Good Place, we’re introduced to Doug Forcett, a former stoner who, during a magic mushroom trip, figured out the formula for the afterlife (ie. how to make enough points to get into the Good Place). Doug is living a “perfect” life, ensuring each choice he makes gains him points. He lives on a farm in Canada where he is kind to a fault, treats every plant and animal with respect, and never fails to recycle.

It doesn’t take long to discover, though, that Doug is living a paralyzed and tortured life. He goes into spasms of guilt and fear every time he makes a misstep (ie. he steps on a snail and kills it), he eats nothing but radishes and lentils and drinks his own filtered urine, and he allows himself to be victimized by the neighbourhood bully who takes advantage of his extreme altruism and forgiveness. In the last scene that we see Doug, he is about to walk hundreds of miles to make a donation in atonement for killing the snail.

Yes, there is a shadow side to trying too hard to be good. That shadow deepens when, in the next episode, it is revealed that every “good” choice has dozens of ripple effects that are “bad” (ie. buying an organic tomato that has to be shipped a long distance from another country where there are no ethical labour practices) and even Doug hasn’t made enough points to get into The Good Place.

That episode was fresh in my memory this past weekend when I was doing some research into the trauma of my people, the Mennonites. Inspired by the Collective Trauma Summit, I’d come across a Masters thesis about the trauma suffered by Russian Mennonite women who suffered under the Stalinist regime. (Note: My own branch of the Mennonites had left Russia for Canada before this time, when their right to conscientious objector status was taken away and they were being forced to join the army.)

The torture suffered by the Mennonites under Stalin was brutal. Because they were identified as ethnic Germans, they were treated as the enemy during the first and second World Wars. Their villages were destroyed, their land and/or harvested crops were taken from them and they were left without food, many women were raped, and in some villages, all of the men over sixteen were killed or put in prison. For twenty-five years, until they eventually fled the country, they were treated to unimaginable horrors. About half of the families that left were female-led because so many men had been killed.

As I read through the accounts of these atrocities, this paragraph landed the most heavily on my heart:

“What complicated these traumatic experiences for Mennonites was the fact that they did not defend themselves against such assault, upholding their 400-year pacifist stance. In many cases, husbands and fathers witnessed the brutal rapes of their wives and daughters and did not retaliate.”

I re-read that paragraph several times, overcome with the horror of what it must have been like to be a woman who was not only brutally raped, but whose husband or father did nothing to stop it. What utter betrayal that must have been to know that someone you loved chose their need to be “good” according to their faith over protecting you, their beloved!

That deep-seated value of pacifism – a core tenet of the Mennonite faith that is, in many ways, quite beautiful – has the ironic potential to create the conditions for the greatest form of betrayal for the most marginalized among the community – the women. Much like the fictional Doug Forcett, they were paralyzed by their belief in what it means to be good, and the result of that paralysis was betrayal of those they loved most. 

(Side-note: As I’ve written before, after my own rape in my early twenties, my own pacifist father responded by admitting how he suddenly saw in himself a capacity to kill my rapist. That was both surprising and comforting for me at the time. I don’t know, though, what he would have done had he been given the opportunity to defend me.)

There is a shadow side to pacifism, just as there is a shadow side to trying too hard to be good, and far too often, it’s those with little power who are most impacted by that shadow. An insistence on goodness, in fact, can become a tool of oppression, by which those with power can keep those without power in line and silent.

Here are a few other shadows worth reflecting on: 

The Shadow Side of Gratitude: While there has been much written about the values of living a grateful life (ie. having a gratitude practice can build resilience and hope and help us live in greater freedom), the shadow side is that it can be a form of spiritual bypassing. When we force ourselves (or others) to be grateful, we ignore the very real pain and grief that we need to process and hold space for in order to heal and transform it. Those darker emotions that we bury when we turn too quickly to gratitude will find more destructive ways of surfacing later on – as trauma, addictions, physical ailments, emotional breakdowns, etc..

The Shadow Side of Forgiveness: Much like gratitude, forgiveness can be a form of spiritual bypassing in which we rush past the complexity of our genuine feelings of rage, pain, betrayal, etc., deny ourselves the right to justice, repair and healing, and let the other person off the hook before they’ve shown genuine remorse. Forgiveness, if there is no remorse and atonement on the part of the person who’s done harm, puts the burden of emotional labour on the shoulders of the victim, and while it may be personally healing for them to forgive, it may also serve to re-victimize them and deny them of their full humanity. In the case of domestic abuse, for example, forgiveness may lead to further abuse. In order to extricate themselves, the victim may, instead, need to hang onto to rage at least long enough to propel themselves out of the situation and establish the boundaries that protect them. 

The Shadow Side of Civility: As a recovering conflict-avoider, I’ve long believed that civility was one of the highest goods, but then I started to learn (especially through BIPOC people whose wisdom I value) that an insistence on civility can have harmful consequences. For one thing, it’s almost always those who already have more power who get to decide the rules about what is civil and what is not. For another thing, asking for civility when people have a genuine right to have strong emotions related to their oppression and victimization can be to silence, shame, and further oppress them. And for a third thing, an insistence on civility can often lead to more insidious and underhanded forms of communication (ie. passive aggressiveness, manipulation, tone policing, etc.) rather than more direct and truthful forms. 

The Shadow Side of Charity: When I used to work in international development, we used to have long debates about the best ways to support people in need. One of the things that often came up was the way that charity, if it isn’t nuanced and offered with care and respect for people’s dignity and sovereignty, can be destructive and further contribute to an unjust world. For example, much of the charity we saw in international development comes from a place of “white saviorism” where more privileged white people think they know what’s best for less privileged people of colour, and it makes them feel good to impose that charity on them. Misplaced charity can also be disruptive to the local economy (ie. dumping used clothing on Kenyan markets means that much of their local clothing industry has disappeared) and can be disempowering to those who’d be better served by justice.

The Shadow Side of Peace: As I mentioned above, I was raised in a long lineage of pacifism, and so “keeping the peace” was one of the highest goods. But the result of that kind of a belief system was that it took me a long time to leave an abusive situation, I often remained silent in the face of injustice, I let people I loved get hurt, and – to this day – I often have a trauma response when voices are raised and conflict bubbles. When peace is valued too highly, it is largely the most marginalized who suffer. In the book Women Talking, Miriam Toews writes a fictional account of the true story of a Mennonite settlement in which women were being drugged and raped and none of the male leaders were listening to their cries for justice. The male leaders were more intent on keeping the peace (ie. forgiving the men who did it and restoring them to community) than they were in caring for the victims of the rapes. “We are not members,” says one of the women, “. . . we are commodities. . . . When our men have used us up so that we look sixty when we’re thirty and our wombs have literally dropped out of our bodies onto our spotless kitchen floors, finished, they turn to our daughters.” 

The Shadow Side of Good Intentions: The problem with good intentions is that we often hide behind them and think that they are enough, even when those good intentions have undesirable outcomes. But what about when the impact is different from the intent? What if, for example, we extend charity (as mentioned above) that results in disempowerment or further injustice? Can we simply say “well, that wasn’t my intention” and go on doing what we’ve always done? No, not if we want to live in a just and ethical world. Especially when we have more agency than the person negatively impacted by our good intentions, we have to be willing to take responsibility for the impact, learn to do better, and make necessary repairs and/or change our future behaviour. 

The Shadow Side of Positivity: In the self-help world in recent years, there’s been a lot of talk of the value of positive thinking and the power of attraction (ie. if we think positive thoughts we attract positive things), but there’s a lot of shadow that’s usually not discussed by the self-help gurus. For one thing, insisting that people are responsible for what they attract is a convenient way of overlooking the injustice of the world and blaming a person for the bad that comes their way (ie. if you lose your job, it must be your own fault for your bad attitude rather than the racist behaviour of your boss). For another thing, just as gratitude can be a form of spiritual bypassing, positivity can also deny and shut down the full expression of our humanity in a way that short-circuits healing, growth, and justice.

I write this not to say that we should toss aside our civility, pacifism, forgiveness, gratitude, etc. No – quite the opposite. I think we should embrace them more fully and with more clarity, holding them up to the light so that we can see them for ALL of the shades of complexity contained within. I think we should examine each of these good things and use our discernment to help us see when we’re slipping from the light into the shadows. 

To embrace these good things blindly rather than examining them is to choose to stay in an immature, binary spirituality and worldview.

Sometimes, when we witness the shadow side of the good, we’ll need to make choices that make us feel like we’re deviating from our values, and, especially when those values are attached to our sense of safety and belonging (ie. part of our religious upbringing, social conditioning, and/or community values) that can feel like self-betrayal and can result in a trauma response. But perhaps what it really means, when we pause to reflect on it, is that we have developed a more nuanced and robust values system that’s indicative of our growth.

Finding her voice: A quest for healing in the family lineage

image purchased from iStock

Listen to me read this post:

“When one woman doesn’t speak, other women get hurt.”
Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds

“When I get my grad pictures taken,” my daughter Maddy said yesterday, “I want to have one taken where I’m holding a megaphone.” She graduates from high school in June. She’s hoping to buy her own megaphone before then, just because it’s something she feels that she should own.

Last week, while I was away in B.C. leading back-to-back retreats, Maddy was at home using her voice and learning to use a megaphone. As one of the leaders of Manitoba Youth for Climate Action, she’d helped to organize two major events – a die-in for climate action (with hundreds of youth pretending to die on the steps of the Human Rights Museum, to represent those lives being lost to climate change), and a climate strike (with 12,000 people participating in our city). Each day I’d get text messages from her with videos, photos, and multiple links to media interviews she’d done. In one of those news clips, she can be seen leading the marchers in a chant, megaphone in hand (video at the bottom of this link).

It was that short clip – my daughter shouting into a megaphone in front of thousands of marchers – that moved me to tears. The fact that she not only had the courage to USE her voice at seventeen (to speak on behalf of a planet that has suffered because of the greed and carelessness of many generations before her) but to AMPLIFY it was remarkable.

Not long before that, at a retreat on Holding Space for Yourself, I’d spoken about the ways that we, especially as women, keep ourselves small and hold back our voices. This wasn’t a “shame on you for being silent” conversation – it was an acknowledgement of the trauma, shame, and silencing we face and that generations before us have faced – all of those stories we carry in our bones, our hearts, and our bodies that tell us we are not worthy of having our voices heard and that we are in danger if we speak too loudly.

When I was Maddy’s age, I was still tangled in the grip of those influences in my life that told me that my voice had little value and should never be amplified. I remember, for example, simply wanting to read the scripture from the pulpit in the tiny rural church I grew up in (not even sharing my OWN words, but reading GOD’S out loud) and being told (by my father, who was the leader of the church at the time) that women weren’t allowed to do that. I KNEW I had leadership capacity and I KNEW I had something to say, but again and again I heard that that was a space reserved only for men.

That belief, seeded deep into my psyche, stayed with me for a long, long time, and even now, at fifty-three, I still have moments of sell-doubt when I know the old messages need to be rejected all over again. I spent most of my career, in fact, in service to that deep-seeded belief. Though I knew I had things to say, I spent the first half of my career working as a communications professional, teaching OTHER people how to communicate, helping OTHER people perform well in media interviews, putting words in OTHER people’s mouths by writing their speeches for them. I was the expert in communications, but rarely did I get to speak.

My job was to pass the megaphone to everyone else and to make sure they sounded good when they used it. Just as I’d been taught so many years before… “a woman’s role is to serve quietly in the background, letting the men have the shining roles.”

A few weeks after my mom died, I wrote a post about women’s voices. In it, I talked about how it was challenging to find my own voice, given the messaging I’d received (a lot of which, sadly, came from my mother) about the lack of value of that voice.

From that post: In recent years, while I’ve been growing my body of work, I’ve had a hard time sharing what I do with my Mom. Some things – like the teaching I do at the university – was fairly easy for her to grasp, but other things just didn’t make sense to her. For one thing, she remained committed to a Christian tradition that frowned upon women in leadership, so when I started teaching women how to lead with more courage, creativity and wild-heartedness, it didn’t really fit with her paradigms. 

There was a time when it made me angry that my mom, who should have been my greatest advocate and ally, contributed to my silencing and the shame and fear I had to wrestle with in order to speak, but I don’t blame her any more. Years of healing work have helped me to understand how much she herself had been silenced and shamed and how much she felt responsible (though it was largely unconscious responsibility) for protecting me from the harm that comes to women who speak.

In the seven years since that post, I’ve learned a lot more about internalized oppression and trauma and how we adopt the language and behaviour of the systems that oppress us to silence, gaslight, and shame ourselves. It’s what keeps us submissive, silent, and in service to those who have more power. And then, because we’ve been well trained in it, we do the same to our offspring – passing down the oppression from generation to generation to generation. 

I’ve also been learning more and more about trauma and how it’s intricately intertwined with oppression. I recognize it in myself every time I begin to speak of things that threaten to disrupt the status quo – my throat begins to close up, my body trembles, and I know that my flooded nervous system is trying to convince me to RUN! PROTECT YOURSELF! YOU ARE NOT SAFE HERE! It’s trauma from my own youthful attempts to speak and it’s trauma inherited from generations and generations of women – some of whom were branded as witches and burned at the stake for the very things I now speak of.

No, my mom is not to blame. Her silence, insecurity, and shame were all deeply embedded in the training that she, too, had received. That was all she knew how to pass down to her daughters.

My dad is also not to blame. He, too, was playing the role he’d been taught to play and held his own fear of how deviating from that role might bring harm to him and his family. (I remember the way he agonized about saying no to me when I wanted to speak – I’m certain he WANTED to let me.)

My parents were doing the best that they knew how and I love them for it. I love them for the many ways that they DID support me – the curiosity that my dad helped to foster in me, the way my mom modelled how to hold space long before I knew the term, the way they both encouraged me to read and learn and be open to other people’s views.

Despite their best efforts, though, I acknowledge the pain that was passed down to me. I acknowledge the trauma of being a woman with a voice who was taught that voice was worthless. I acknowledge the wounds I had to heal in order to get to this place where I now trust that I have something to say. I acknowledge the fear I still feel sometimes when my voice causes too much disruption and I face rejection and punishment from a system that doesn’t want to be disrupted. I acknowledge all of that AND I acknowledge the painstaking work that is required for ALL of us to heal what other generations have bequeathed us with.

This post started with my daughter Maddy and I want to end there. I was moved to tears by the video clip of my daughter with a megaphone partly because of the pride I feel for her and partly because the healing work I’ve done has disrupted what’s being passed from generation to generation. THAT is something to celebrate.

She can claim her space and use her voice at an early age partly because she has inherited less of the baggage that prevented me from doing the same. Her voice now rings loud and clear with all of the other youth around the planet calling on us to disrupt the systems that are destroying our planet. (It’s not lost on me that the disruption of patriarchal oppression allows youth to rise up to call for further disruption.)

It still takes courage for her to do what she does (and I take credit for none of that – SHE did this, not me), but at least she started out on more sturdy ground.

This is why I believe that the work of holding space – where we dive into trauma, oppression, generational wounding, power, privilege, etc. (especially in Module 4 of the program) – is so critical and this is why I believe we must hold space for ourselves so that we can better hold space for others. This isn’t just about creating spaces for meaningful conversations – it’s about LIBERATION. It’s about DISRUPTION. It’s about COLLECTIVE HEALING. And it’s about changing the patterns so that we can free ourselves from dysfunctional systems.

If you have healing work to do to be liberated from what you’ve inherited, know that you’re doing it not only for yourself, but for the generations that come after you.

The more we can hold space for ourselves in this healing, the more we can work collectively to disrupt the systems that keep us chained.

___________________

Want to join me for the Holding Space Practitioner Program? The next session starts October 28, 2019.

p.s. Maddy has given permission for me to talk about her in this post.

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