They are all growing up and moving away from home. I’ve already written about my daughters leaving, but there’s more – it’s become a larger theme in this moment of my life.
My book is growing up and moving away too. Last Tuesday, we launched the Dutch version of the book. This baby that I spent years birthing is now being stewarded and lovingly held by people in another country, in another language. She’s got a life without me now. I can’t even read this new version of my own book, and that feels a little… hmmm… what’s the right word… weird? I have to trust that my book, like my babies, will have a good and meaningful life in a new place, across an ocean from where I am. The translators were recently interviewed on a podcast in Dutch about the book and I am struck by the realization that it doesn’t even need my voice to tell its story.
My business has grown up and morphed into something new this past year as well. What was, for years, a solitary endeavour has become a partnership. My business partner, Krista, now holds a lot of it on her shoulders and there are parts of it that, like my children, only visit me once in a while and no longer come to stay. This week, Krista has been working with our accountant on our balance sheets, and I have been largely oblivious to the process. There is freedom and also a little guilt in that.
The programs I’ve developed are being lovingly held by other people too. Last week, I participated in two calls for our Foundation Program, and I played only a secondary role on the calls (the “guardian”, in circle lingo) while a member of our team hosted each of the conversations. The same thing is beginning to happen in our Certification Program. A new community is growing around the work, and those who come are being expertly held by the Master Practitioners I’ve trained. I am largely a visiting teacher, dropping into the spaces they hold, offering wisdom and support when I can, but trusting them to hold primary responsibility for the container.
It’s all been a little puzzling and paradigm-shifting, this movement away from me, even though I orchestrated much of it and believe it to be next right thing. On the one hand, it’s gratifying to see that all of my love and hard work has supported babies and books and business in beginning to stand on their own feet. On the other hand, it’s a little scary to let go and to trust that they will be okay. On the one hand, it’s lovely to have this new spaciousness that their independence has granted me. On the other hand, it’s lonely to be the one left behind. On the one hand, there’s freedom in letting go. On the other hand, the ground feels wobbly when so many things that anchored me are being released all at once.
“Hold with an open hand,” I often tell people when I’m guiding them in an understanding of what it means to hold space. “When you hold too tightly, you’re at risk of hijacking space instead of holding it. An open bowl is about freedom and trust, a closed bowl is about control and fear.”
Now, here I am, after years of saying those words, learning this lesson in a new way.
It is all part of a paradox that has long challenged and intrigued me – the paradox of living at the intersection between attachment and non-attachment.
At some point in my life, perhaps in those fleeting moments when I held my stillborn son and knew he was never truly mine, this paradox took hold and wouldn’t let me go. Perhaps that’s why I’ve made many of the choices I’ve made – like letting go of much of my work and trusting others to hold it (when conventional wisdom would tell me to hang onto it and the money it brings in) – because I believe that a deeper understanding of this paradox is part of my soul’s purpose.
At the heart of the paradox are two seemingly inconsistent beliefs. Attachment theory teaches the importance of having secure attachments and tethering ourselves to each other, and yet Buddhism’s non-attachment (which is echoed in other spiritual traditions) teaches us to release our grip on people and things. These concepts seem so paradoxical, and cognitive dissonance rises up in me and tempts me to believe only one or the other can be true, and yet… both hold pieces of the truth.
Somewhat clumsily, I am finding my rhythm in this new version of the dance – between loving and letting go. I am learning new discernment about when it’s time to hold tightly and when it’s time to release my grip. I must allow them all – babies, books, and business – to seek out their own journeys, to stretch into their own autonomy, and to live their own truth, while I offer them love and a safe place to land. I must believe that they are wise enough, strong enough, brave enough and resilient enough to walk the paths that call them, even when those paths take them away from me.
I must trust the other people who now hold space for my people and my work, my babies, book and business, to do so with as much care and compassion as I have done.
Truthfully, though, there is no paradox in these teachings. It is only a limited, fearful mind that chooses to see the binary. A deeper exploration reveals that they are more like yin and yang – intertwined and each holding pieces of the other.
Secure attachment is not tethering yourself to another person – it is living side-by-side, connected but not chained. It is to offer what the nest offers the baby bird – a safe place to be comforted, and a brave space to launch from when it’s time.
Non-attachment is not about living an aloof and non-committed life – it is about resisting codependence with other people or things and becoming neither controlled nor controlling, manipulated nor manipulating. It is to love wholeheartedly but to release any illusions that you have control over the outcome of that love.
Both of these concepts invite us to live in such a way that we are both attached and non-attached, both connected and autonomous, both sovereign and interdependent.
Last week, I flew to where my youngest daughter now lives so that I could support her through yet another surgery in this long saga of chronic illness. Though she lives far away from me, she is still my baby. Though she is now independent, she still needs her mom. Though she left the nest, she still needs a safe place that she can sink into and know that she’ll be held – it’s what we all need, no matter how independent we become.
More than once, before and after her surgery, when we were curled up on either ends of the couch, our feet found each other in the middle. This is something we have long done, touched feet in the expanse between us, to remind ourselves that we are still connected. It started in that tumultuous time after the divorce, when she was beginning to return to me after months of non-communication in her anger over the disruption of our family. Sleepily, she would crawl into my bed before getting ready for school, and though she wasn’t yet ready to cuddle with me, she would let my foot brush up against hers – at first only briefly, and then for longer and longer. The day that it began to be her foot reaching for mine, I knew that we would be okay. We were, and continue to be, both attached and non-attached – sovereign individuals living interdependent lives.
On the Foundation Program calls last week, I mentioned to those who’ve come to learn about what it means to hold space, that these lessons they are learning on the pages of my book might not land fully for them until life and nature teach them more deeply. “When you feel confused about a concept,” I said, “hold it lightly and trust that you will understand it more deeply when life offers the lesson. The pages of a book – and even a rich conversation like this with other learners – will never fully offer you the depth of wisdom that your own life will someday offer.”
This continues to be true for me, their teacher. Though I have written for years about what it means to hold space, life still has much to teach me. These days, I am learning the grace of letting go. And I am learning to hold myself in this grief when the letting go feels hard. And I am learning to experiment with this new freedom the letting go offers.
Today, as I settle more deeply into this learning, I find myself wondering whether the mother bird, after she has watched her baby birds leave the nest, must learn a new kind of flight when her flight’s purpose is no longer about finding food to bring back to her babies. Perhaps she, too, needs to launch herself from the nest she has built, into the unknown spaces beyond, trusting that she, too, will find places to perch and be held when she is weary from the flight.
And maybe, in this new flight, as she learns the paradox of loving and letting go, she will also learn, on an even deeper level than she has before, that grief and joy can be held simultaneously and that they are not entirely different emotions. And she will be reminded that every new liminal space she enters will bring the promise of a new story.
There’s a familiar pattern that shows up when someone criticizes or attacks me. First, I feel it in my body – my throat closes, my muscles tense and the pit of my stomach starts to churn. Usually it’s accompanied with the heat of shame creeping up my neck and into my cheeks. Then my mind starts to race to try to make sense of the messages it’s receiving, usually leaping to the conclusion that I must be a bad person and I need to do something to defend myself or change myself to appease the person who’s doing the criticizing. Often, this is followed with a seemingly endless repetitive churning as my mind becomes fixated on the situation and my body stays in high anxiety mode. I work through the conversation, attack, or criticism again and again, trying to devise the right response that will make the anxious feeling go away.
In recent years, I’ve often had people remark at how I must be brave to speak out publicly about some of the issues I’m passionate about (racism, sexism, injustice, etc.), but in those reactive moments, when the backlash has come, I don’t feel very brave. I feel just as anxious as those people who say they’d never be able to handle it. But I am deeply resolved not to let that anxiety stop me. And I’ve learned how to process the negative information so that it doesn’t keep me hooked in fight, flight, freeze, or tend and befriend mode. (Actually… it’s an ongoing process of learning, not a “once and done” thing. I’m still learning every day.)
Courage is not the absence of fear, but the resolve to act in spite of it.
What’s important to know about that very human reaction to criticism or attack (or any negative information about yourself) is that it’s rooted in the most ancient part of your brain that is looking out for your best interests. The amygdala is responsible for those instinctual reactions that keep you safe – fight, flight, freeze, and tend and befriend. Without it, you probably wouldn’t live past your second birthday because you’d walk into traffic, play with bears, or do any number of other things that you’re meant to be afraid of.
The problem is that, in a trauma situation, the amygdala gets hijacked and doesn’t allow your thinking brain (the orbitofrontal cortex) to take over and speak reason into the situation. You’re stuck in high alert because the amygdala keeps sending danger signals to the body that can’t easily be overwritten with reasonable thoughts.
At this point, you may be thinking “but how can criticism trigger the amygdala when there is no real danger?” Well, the amygdala is not the smartest part of your brain and it doesn’t know real danger from fake danger and so it sends the same signals regardless of the truth.
It all goes back to your childhood. In early life, your primary needs are for safety and belonging. Whenever those things are jeopardized, you become anxious because your immature brain believes that you will cease to exist without those needs being met. Anything that jeopardizes your safety and belonging is a threat that the amygdala is designed to respond to.
Somewhere along the line, likely through an emotional trauma, you (and I) internalized the message that a criticism was a threat to your safety and belonging, and your amygdala learned to respond accordingly. Normally, as you grow up, you should be able to adjust accordingly and learn to use your orbitofrontal cortex to reason with the amygdala about the validity of risk, but a trauma tends to get stuck in your body in such a way that the thinking brain takes longer to engage. And if you never work to heal and shift that trauma and calm the nervous system when you get triggered, you’ll stay in that stuck place and forever be reactive in an unhealthy way.
Let’s throw some attachment theory into the mix as well. Attachment theory teaches us that the ability for an individual to form an emotional and physical “attachment” to another person gives a sense of stability and security necessary to take risks, branch out, and grow and develop as an independent and confident person. That’s the belonging piece that I mentioned as one of our basic needs. With a secure attachment it’s much easier to develop the kind of self esteem and confidence that supports a person in withstanding criticism and attack. Without a secure attachment, a child grows up with a deep sense of insecurity that makes it difficult for healthy emotional development to happen.
A secure attachment is one that allows for both safety AND autonomy. In a secure attachment, a child knows that the parent (or other primary attachment figure) is a safe haven to return to when they are threatened, which makes that child more able to explore and wander away from the parent, building their confidence in themselves as they do so. A secure attachment is flexible to the needs of a child, offering more safety in the early stages and allowing more autonomy as the confidence grows.
Secure attachment continues to be a critical part of emotional development even in adulthood. When you are triggered by a criticism or attack, especially if you have an attachment wound from childhood or you lack a secure attachment in adulthood, your anxiety is immediately heightened and your confidence and resilience are shaken. You find yourself floundering, needing to re-attach and find an anchor that will help you weather the storm. In your moment of floundering, you can’t think clearly, and so you may see the person offering the criticism or attack as the person with whom you need to repair the attachment so that you’ll feel safe again. As a result, your mind races to all of the things you need to do to appease the person and/or get them to change their opinion of you.
Unfortunately, there are many people who, intentionally or inadvertently, will work to destabilize your attachment systems through abuse, gaslighting, dismissal, silencing, shaming, etc. It’s present in abusive relationships of all kinds, whether it’s a marriage, a work situation, a friendship, a classroom or even our government leaders. Especially if you’re in relationships where you regularly face this kind of treatment, you feel constantly unstable and easily triggered. (One of the most valuable resources I’ve read recently on this is Terror, Love and Brainwashing. Though it’s about why people end up and stay in cults, it has a lot of useful information about disorganized/destabilized attachment that relates to any kind of abusive relationship.)
Even if you are a smart and confident person (which I’m assuming you are), you can find yourself reacting to criticism and attacks in less-than-gracious-or-wise ways because of your trauma and/or attachment wounds (which are likely one and the same thing). Also, as the trauma research has been revealing recently, some of your trauma was likely passed down through your cells from the generations above you, so you may be reacting to things in the way that your parents or grandparents were conditioned to react. (Attachment bonds are also somewhat inherited because an insecure or disorganized attachment system in a parent will likely result in the same in the child.)
Sometimes I wonder, in fact, whether every person I meet carries some trauma and/or attachment wound in their body. It seems, at times, to be the very soil we grow in (at least in the part of the world that I’m most familiar with). We have been traumatized by oppressive systems (ie. colonialism, racism, patriarchy) and, on top of that, we have been raised by parents who likely didn’t have any idea how to talk about or heal the trauma they’d inherited and so didn’t know how to create secure attachment bases from which we could grow.
As a result, we have a culture of people who are overly reactive to criticism and attacks, and in their own triggered reactions, lash out at other people to protect themselves. It’s a self-perpetuating problem and it appears to me to be systemic.
Unless we can learn to receive and process negative information, however, our personal development is stunted as is our society’s capacity to evolve. We’ll continue to react defensively whenever difficult conversations need to happen and we’ll reject the important information that helps us evolve.
Take, for example, race conversations. Those of us who enjoy a position of privilege within a racist system have to be able to receive the information that the system is problematic without taking it personal and launching into reactive mode. But we hear terms like “racist” and our bodies and brains react out of our deep need to not have people think badly of us, and we disengage from the conversation. Instead of seeing it as a systemic issue, we see it as a personal attack. (Watch a video by Robin DiAngelo about this.) The same is true for people who benefit from any imbalance system where some have more power than others. (Hence the conversations about white fragility and male fragility.)
What then should we do to get better at processing the negative information?
Learn to soothe your nervous system. Your nervous system is activated by an overly-engaged amygdala and doesn’t allow your orbitofrontal cortex to engage. When you soothe your nervous system, you can re-engage your thinking brain and analyze the situation from a more reasonable perspective. Once you do that, you might recognize some truth in what’s been said about you, or you might decide that the person’s criticism is unwarranted and you are right to ignore it. Soothing your nervous system might be as simple as learning some deep breathing techniques or some tapping techniques. (Gwynn Raimondi has provided a good resource of nervous system soothing techniques. This is the first of three volumes – visit her site and sign up for her newsletter for more.)
Recognize that trauma is in your body and can’t simply be released by the brain. While talk therapy might be helpful for processing some of your trauma and attachment wounds, it’s also important to seek out some body work (ie. Reiki, cranio-sacral, EMDR, massages, Body Talk, yoga, TRE, etc.). Find what works for you and repeat when necessary. Aside from hiring professionals, I’ve also found that things like Epson salt baths and long walks can help with the release.
Develop secure attachments and turn to those attachments for support when you’re feeling anxious or threatened. Much of the literature about adult attachment roots these secure attachments in romantic relationships, but they can also be found in friendships, sibling relationships, or in therapeutic relationships. I have a couple of very good friends and a sister, for example, who help to ground me when I’ve been attacked and need a secure base. Wired for Love is a good resource (though I wish there were a version not about romantic relationships).
Explore healing for the trauma and attachment wounds that come from childhood and/or that you have inherited. Seek out the teachers and professionals that are doing work that resonates with you. I have found some healing, for example, in family constellations and I know there are many other methodologies and practitioners that are doing good work.
Know that you have a right to healthy boundaries. Not all criticisms and attacks need your attention – in some cases you simply need to recognize your right to guard yourself against them. On social media, recently, for example, I’ve been letting people know that I’m open to reasonable conversation even if they disagree with me, but if they show up for no other purpose than to attack or argue, I will block them. Even if the person attacking is a family member or close friend, you have a right to guard yourself from attack.
Regularly engage in activities that make you feel strong and grounded. Recently, I built some storage shelves and a folding work table in my garage, and when I finished I felt empowered and self-confident because it was hard work AND I accomplished what I didn’t think I was capable of. The next time I was criticized (the very next day) I more easily let it roll off my back and established a new boundary because I was feeling resilient. Woodworking does that for me. You might find it in gardening, rock-climbing, hiking, swimming, kick-boxing, yoga, dance, etc. In my experience, it’s those activities that engage my body and stretch my capacities that are most effective.
Recognize when the criticism or attack is pointing to something that is systemic and needs to be viewed that way instead of being received as a personal attack. If, for example, the person is talking about white or male privilege, colonialism, etc., and you feel personally attacked, pause for a moment and reflect on whether the injustice they’re pointing to is embedded in the system you inherited and that you benefit from and isn’t just about you personally. If it is, then do what you need to do to soothe your nervous system, then engage from a more conscious perspective, taking responsibility for how you can contribute to a more just system.
Tell your stories. As Brené Brown has taught us, the best defence against the kind of shame that often cripples us is to be vulnerable with people who know how to hold space for us. Find a sharing circle, or a few close friends who offer you a non-judgemental space to admit those times when you were triggered and reacted in a way that you regret. Saying it out loud can help it have less power in your life and can increase your resilience for future situations.
Note: Special thanks to my friends Sheila and Saleha – recent conversations with them helped inspire this post.
P.S. Want to learn more about how to hold space for yourself so that you’re more resilient and confident in how you hold space for others? It’s part of my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator offering and the next session starts in January. If you want to be notified when registration opens, send us a note and Krista will put you on the list.