“Weeks passed, and the little Rabbit grew very old and shabby, but the Boy loved him just as much. He loved him so hard that he loved all his whiskers off, and the pink lining to his ears turned grey, and his brown spots faded. He even began to lose his shape, and he scarcely looked like a rabbit any more, except to the Boy. To him he was always beautiful, and that was all that the little Rabbit cared about. He didn’t mind how he looked to other people, because the nursery magic had made him Real, and when you are Real shabbiness doesn’t matter.”
― Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
I wonder if the Boy knew the risk he was taking when he loved the Rabbit so hard he became Real. I wonder if he contemplated the fact that, unlike stuffed bunnies that are easy to control and contain, real bunnies have minds of their own and can hop off into the woods when they choose and leave their loved ones behind.
I’m going to assume that he knew those things, but was confident that his love was big enough to handle the risk (though I admit that it makes me sad that he no longer recognizes the Rabbit once he’s hopped off into the woods).
It takes a special kind of love and a special kind of confidence to give someone the space they need to grow into their Realness – to resist the urge to control them, change them, or take their sovereignty away just so that they won’t ever abandon you. It takes a special kind of belief in yourself and a special kind of ability to love through the shabbiness, through the deconstruction and transformation, and through the stretching away from you.
To witness and hold space for someone who’s learning to liberate themselves from old expectations, old projections, and old social programming can be painful and frightening and it can trigger all kinds of old hurts and unmet needs in us. “Who will they be when they transform and become more authentically themselves?” we wonder… “Will they still want me around? Will I be left behind? Will their stretching require that I stretch too, in order to meet them in that new place in the woods?”
A couple of recent parenting experiences have given me a new appreciation of what the Boy might have felt.
I knew that this was important to her and I’ve witnessed how her climate activism has given her a sense of purpose that I hadn’t seen in her before, so I wanted to support her, but I admit that it worried me. First, there were the things that every parent worries about… How will this impact her mental health? How will this impact her education? How will this impact her future? How will this impact her friendships? And… will she get bullied online?
But there was something else going on for me under the surface… something that made me feel a little like I imagined the Boy might have felt when he contemplated the risks involved in loving the Rabbit into Realness. What if allowing her to step into this was allowing her to hop off into the woods without me? What if she was entering dangerous territory where I could no longer protect her or control her environment, where she’d need to use her own skills to survive?
And what if… in doing what she was choosing to do, she was rejecting the “nursery” – effectively tossing off the social conditioning and safety rules that I’d passed down to her?
In the “nursery” – that space that’s made up of the old furniture we inherited from our parents, all of the old rules that our religions and cultures passed on to us, and all of the old boundaries and limitations that give us comfort but keep us trapped – it’s not safe to challenge authority. It’s not safe to raise your voice too loud, to speak out of turn, to break from old patterns, or to reject the old rules of decorum. It’s ESPECIALLY not safe if you’re a young woman.
Those are the things one can only do once you’ve rejected the nursery and headed into the woods. They can only happen when you dare to be Real.
The question I had to ask myself was… Was I willing to love my daughter in a brave enough way to let her leave the nursery, step into the woods, and become Real?
A whole lot of my social programming started to flare up when I considered it. “Women don’t talk too loud or make spectacles of themselves,” I heard the patriarchy say, as it tried to pull us both back into the nursery. “Mennonites don’t take legal action and ESPECIALLY not against their own government,” the voice from the religious lineage tugged. “You’ll be rejected by your conservative relatives,” I heard my old trauma say. “Your daughter will face ridicule and your family will be shamed,” my fear of abandonment whispered.
One by one, I had to quiet those voices and lean into what mattered – my love for my daughter and my belief that that love was big enough to hold the Realness and the risk. If she feels the urgency to lend her voice to the looming climate crisis, why would I get in her way because of my own fears? The planet no longer has time for our timidity. I chose to support her and we traveled to Vancouver together to participate in a whirlwind series of public events, ceremonies, and workshops.
I opened the nursery door and let my daughter wander into the woods and after I watched her, standing up in front of fifteen thousand people (on stage next to Greta Thunberg and David Suzuki), and being calmly interviewed on live national media, something remarkable happened. I recognized that not only was I helping to love HER into Realness, SHE was helping to love ME into Realness too. When I witnessed her courage in rejecting the social conditioning that wanted to keep her in the nursery, I was able to let go of some of the social conditioning that was still trying to pull me back there too.
A week after we returned home, when I found myself having to defend her against an older male relative who bullied her in a private message, I found a new freedom that had come from silencing the voices of the patriarchy, religion, and family lineage ringing in my head.
Not long after that, I had another opportunity to love someone into their Realness, and in some ways, this required even greater and more personal risk.
I could sense that something was bothering one of my older daughters and so I knocked on her door and asked if she’d talk to me about it. “You’re not going to like what I need to say,” she said, and she was right. What she told me was painful and hard to process. While she’d been trying to stay positive and supportive of her younger sister’s significant moment on the climate activism stage, what it triggered in her was resentment for the ways that she hadn’t received the same support when she was in high school.
“I see her getting the therapy she needs, and I see you cheering her on and protecting her when people bully her, and I feel cheated that I didn’t get those things from you when I was her age,” she said. “I was going through mental health challenges too and I felt like you didn’t believe me or offer me the resources she’s gotten. And most of all, I didn’t feel like you protected me from Dad’s emotional abuse.”
She was right. I wasn’t the mom for her then that I’ve been for her sister in recent years. I was far more stuck in the “nursery” back then, still trying to live up to what I thought my role as a good wife and good mom should be, trying to hold the family together, trying to keep the peace because that’s what my social conditioning had convinced me was right. She had the misfortunate of being in high school during the time when my mom died, I was starting my business, her dad attempted suicide, and our marriage was crumbling. We announced our separation to her and her sisters, in fact, the day after her high school graduation. It was a tumultuous time for me, and in the midst of all of that, I was failing to love my daughter into her Realness.
Fortunately though, it wasn’t too late. She was sitting there in front of me, opening her heart to me, offering me another chance to give her the kind of love she needed. In that one tender moment, there was hope for redemption if I made the right choice. I took a few deep breaths, and I apologized. I took ownership of the ways I’ve failed her and I admitted the mistakes I’d made in clinging to the old stories of what was right instead of stepping into the wilderness with her.
She forgave me and a beautiful thing happened. We both became more Real. We took the risk and found our love was big enough to hold the risk.
Attachment Theory teaches us that we all need healthy attachments (especially in childhood, but also in adulthood) so that we can grow into our own confidence, authenticity and resilience. A healthy attachment system involves both a safe haven and a secure base.The safe haven protects us and offers comfort when we’re afraid or need time for healing, and the secure base offers a launching pad from which we can move into boldness.
That’s what the Boy was offering the Rabbit when he dared to love him into Realness and that’s what I strive to offer my daughters. If I only give them the safety without the freedom, then I keep them stuck in the nursery. But if the freedom is also available to them when they’re ready for it, then they can find the adventure that calls them and they can step into it knowing the door remains open when they need it.
The risk is part of the process.
Note: My daughters have given permission for me to share this.
I sweat. A LOT. And my face turns beet red when I exert myself, so if you’re ever present when I exercise (which, sadly, isn’t often enough) you won’t be able to miss the evidence of my efforts.
But this post isn’t about physical exertion. Instead, it’s about the kind of sweating (both physical and metaphorical) we do when we’re under stress, when we’re afraid of failing, or when we fear that people might be disappointed in us.
Mostly, it’s about vulnerability and when it’s okay to reveal our flaws, our fear, and our fumbling.
Thanks especially to writers like Brené Brown, lots of people are talking about the value of vulnerability, but what’s sometimes missing from the dialogue is the nuance of WHEN it’s appropriate to be vulnerable, HOW MUCH vulnerability is appropriate, and WITH WHOM it’s okay to be vulnerable.
What if, for example, you’re in charge of keeping people who are more vulnerable than you safe from harm (small children, for example) and you admit that you have no clue how to do so and suddenly they feel even more unsafe than before? Was it wise, in that situation, to show your vulnerability? Probably not. That might be when it’s wiser to put on a brave face and prioritize their needs over your own. As a parent, there have certainly been times when I had to keep my fears and self-doubts to myself (or when I cried behind my bedroom door) because it wasn’t in my children’s best interests to doubt my ability to protect or provide for them. As they’ve gotten older, I’ve increased how much I’ll admit my flaws and fears to them, but in the early days they needed my strength more than my vulnerability.
Or what if, by becoming vulnerable, you’re drawing the attention away from the people who need it more than you do and then your vulnerability becomes a stumbling block rather than a building block? If, for example, you’re working with traumatized or oppressed people and you can’t stop crying about how much the work is impacting you, you’re likely making it about yourself rather than about them. Suddenly those people have to spend their energy caring for you rather than themselves. That’s when it’s best to take your vulnerability somewhere else where people have more capacity to do emotional labour on your behalf.
Or what if you haven’t gained enough trust in the other person or people and you suspect they might further harm you or use your vulnerability against you? Some people are masterful at manipulation and at using other people’s weaknesses to their own advantage (someone who’s trying to sell you an expensive coaching program, for example). Other people may be less intentional about it but still harmful in how they respond to you because of their lack of capacity or self-awareness. With those people, it’s better to withhold your vulnerability rather than put yourself at risk.
Vulnerability, then, is best shared with people who have earned your trust, people who aren’t under too much of their own burden at the time, people who aren’t fully reliant on you for their own safety at the time, and/or people who have enough emotional intelligence and self-awareness to respond in appropriate ways.
Recently, I found myself in a dilemma about whether or not my vulnerability was the best course of action. I was facilitating a three-day workshop on holding space in the Netherlands, and, to be frank, it wasn’t going well. By the end of the first day, I could sense that there was dissatisfaction among participants and I wasn’t sure why. I had started the workshop in much the same way I’ve started many other workshops, and those workshops progressed much more smoothly, so I didn’t understand the source of the problem.
Was it because I was tired, having just spent an intense week in Uganda? Was it the cultural and/or language differences, since this was the first time I was teaching in a place where English isn’t the first language? Was I using language or a teaching style that wasn’t relatable to this audience? Was there some pre-existing conflict among participants that they’d brought with them to this space? Or was it because I’d started with the basics of holding space and many people in the room were already experienced practitioners who wanted higher level training?
One of the things that I sensed was going on (that I picked up from some of the comments coming my way) was that my style of facilitation was falling short of what people had expected of me. There were quite a few experienced facilitators in the room, and most of them had been trained in styles that are different from my own (ie. systemic constellations, for example, which incorporates more movement and less conversation than tends to be my primary style) and I began to feel the scrutiny of their evaluation.
On the morning of the second day, trying to adapt to the style that I sensed they were more comfortable with, I made changes to the process. But that didn’t seem to be sufficient – I got even more feedback during the breaks that indicated the dissatisfaction was growing rather than dissipating. (Sadly, dissatisfaction is contagious and even those who’d seemed happy earlier were now starting to squirm in their seats.) What was especially challenging is that the feedback was often contradictory – one person would come to tell me that they needed more of one thing, while another person would come to me five minutes later to say that they needed more of the exact opposite. It seemed there was no way of meeting all of the expectations in the room, not even if I contorted myself to try to satisfy people.
By lunchtime on the second day, the picture started to become more and more clear to me. There was an expectation in the room that was, quite honestly, impossible for me to live up to, because it was an expectation crafted out of who they THOUGHT I was and not who I REALLY am. A couple of people, in their conversations with me, referred to me as the “Queen of Holding Space”, and it wasn’t reverence I was hearing in their voices but disappointment. These people – because my work has been broadly circulated in certain circles in the Netherlands – had constructed an image of me as a guru who knows all there is to know about holding space and who would walk into the room and wow them immediately with my exquisite ability to hold space.
Unfortunately, I walked into the room fully human, fully flawed, a little jet-lagged, and with a lot that I still need to learn about holding space. I didn’t speak their language (not only the language of their country, but the language of a systemic understanding of the world), I didn’t facilitate in the way that they’d become accustomed, I made mistakes, and the opening check-in circle dragged on too long so the opening pace was slow.
Over lunch, I agonized over what was the right thing to do. Should I just keep trying to adapt my style to find the sweet spot that might satisfy the highest number of people in the room? Or should I simply push through with how I’d planned the workshop and hope that by the end, something of value would be transmitted? Should I hide my fear and flaws in the face of these people who looked up to me and pretend I was oblivious to their dissatisfaction?
OR… should I speak my vulnerability out loud, trust them to have the emotional intelligence to receive it well, and hope that it might help us collectively dive deeper into our learning?
I chose vulnerability. I knew it was a risk and I knew that I might lose some credibility (and people might leave even more dissatisfied than they already were), but it seemed like the only viable option.
I told them that I’d become aware that there was a shadow in the room and that that shadow was a reflection of the way that I was letting people down. (In process work such as this, the shadow refers to “that which is hiding under the surface which is unspoken and therefore potentially destructive”.) I said that I wasn’t interested in the pedestal that people had put me on – that pedestals are lonely, dangerous, and uncomfortable, and that I prefer to be in the circle, alongside them, doing the work in messy and flawed ways and learning shoulder-to-shoulder. I spoke of my imperfections and told them I knew I wouldn’t be able to meet all of the expectations in the room. I promised, though, that I would continue to do my best to offer them what I have learned so far about holding space. I invited them to trust me and to stand by my side as we went deeper into the learning and into brave space together.
My sharing, like everything else I’d done up until that point, was imperfect, and when I was finished, I wasn’t sure what to do next. When I looked around the room, what I thought I saw was a softening and greater acceptance of the imperfection and releasing of the unmet expectations, but I wasn’t sure if I was interpreting it correctly.
Slowly, though, things started to shift, and, in the end, my vulnerability helped us go where we needed to go as a group. It didn’t happen magically (there was still some resistance that afternoon) but gradually the energy in the room shifted. We stepped more deeply into a place of trust, depth, and bravery. Other people began to open up and some spoke to their own wrestling with what had been going on in the room.
The next morning, a couple of moments of inspiration helped to take our learning to an even deeper place. First, I shared a story of how I’d been invited to dance with Ugandan women the week before, how miserably I’d failed at it, but how I recognized that it was in brief moments of my most pure surrender to the music and to those who lead me in the dance when I could most successfully move with the rhythm. “That place of surrender is what brave space is like,” I said. “And today, as we finish up this workshop, I want to invite you into that dance of surrender and trust. I’m asking that you trust the music and that you trust me, as your leader, to know what the rhythm in the room needs to be.” I looked around the room, and what I saw looking back at me were nodding heads and a deeper trust than I’d witnessed up until that point.
The other moment of inspiration was one that I can take no credit for – it came in the form of a piece of camel shit. A participant named Roeland brought a small container that he wanted to add to the collection of items at the centre of the circle (items that represent the people in the circle and that we use as talking pieces). “This is a dried up piece of camel shit,” he said, while people snickered in response. “I picked it up while on a spiritual retreat. At first I thought it was a rock, but when I picked it up, I discovered it had very little weight to it. The lesson in it for me was that my shit is lighter than I expect it to be. I can carry my own shit and it doesn’t feel like the burden I anticipate.”
From that point on, that piece of camel shit became a symbol for the group of what it means to “take responsibility for your own shit”. At one point, it became the talking piece and we all discovered how light it was to “hold our own shit”. But then one person put it down and chose another talking piece because “that’s not my shit and I don’t want to carry it,” she said. We all laughed and realized that some of the deepest learning of the day was coming from the lighthearted way that we could talk about taking responsibility for whatever we brought into the room. It wasn’t lost on us that this was connected to what I’d spoken of earlier – that some of the dissatisfaction and shadow in the room was because we’d each brought our own shit (ie. expectations and fear of letting people down) with us and had projected it onto other people. (This is true for me as well as anyone else. There were moments when I was looking for people to blame rather than recognizing my own part in what was transpiring.)
By the end of that third day, the energy had completely changed, and the workshop ended with some of the warmest hugs and words of appreciation I’d ever received. Several people remarked on how we, as a group, had been through a liminal space journey together – how we’d started with one version of who we were and what we expected, how my vulnerable sharing had helped us let go of that story and those expectations, and how we’d emerged into something new. This is one of the first things I teach in my holding space workshops – that when we hold space, we have to be prepared to hold the complexity of the liminal space.
It’s quite possible that my vulnerability could have backfired and that people might have left the room frustrated and disappointed. (Perhaps some did and I’m not aware of it.) It’s never a guarantee when we take a risk like that. But more often than not, I’ve found that my willingness to be imperfect and authentic, as the leader of that space, is directly correlated with how deep the learning can go.
In retrospect, though, there were a couple of factors that helped the vulnerability land well. For one thing, I let the participants know that they didn’t have to take care of me – that I wasn’t so vulnerable that they had to spend their energy making sure I was okay. Whenever I teach, I have other people that I trust outside of the circle to whom I can send a distress signal (usually via text message) simply to ask them for virtual support. I’m careful not to have the expectation that people who’ve come to learn from me also have to look after my emotional well-being. (Though I do appreciate their concern, I don’t make it their responsibility.)
Secondly, I paired the vulnerability with strength – letting them know that I was still prepared to take responsibility for leadership and for making decisions about what direction the workshop would take. I invited them to trust my sense of the right pace, content, etc.
As in the Buddhist teaching around warriorship, I practiced showing up with a “strong back and soft belly” – prepared to show them my vulnerability while still carrying myself with strength.
In the end, the workshops that take me through the most difficult terrain are usually the ones where I walk away with the most learning. I hope the same is true for those who were there with me. I am forever grateful for their willingness to step into the liminal space with me.
Tonight is my weekly women’s circle, and I’m looking forward to it as I always do. It’s not a perfect space (we are all human and we don’t always know how to hold space for each other), but it is beautifully imperfect. We show up – sometimes 2 women and sometimes 12 – with our scars, our fragility, our fierceness, and our love, and we offer each other the kind of listening we don’t find many other places in our lives. We don’t fix anything or offer advice or platitudes. We just listen and we hold space for each other.
People often ask me to write about how this women’s circle got started, so I’m finally sitting down to offer our birth story as a gift to anyone else who’d like to create something similar.
I had been longing for a women’s circle for several years before I finally got one off the ground. I had a couple of false starts (circles that got started but then faltered and died), so I was a little leery of trying again, but I kept longing for it and believing it was possible, so I made one more attempt.
Before sending out an invitation to those women I thought might be interested, I spent some time considering what my intentions were and what I wanted from the circle. This is an important step because it helps to shape what evolves. Some of the things I wanted were:
1.) A circle that would nourish me as much as the others in the room.Doing this work for a living means that I hold space for a lot of people but don’t always find ways to have space held for me. The creation of this circle was partly selfish in that I really wanted a space where I could be as vulnerable and flawed and held as anyone else who showed up. I wanted to be intentional about inviting people with a level of maturity that they could hold space for me without expecting me to be the “expert” in the room.
2.) A circle that I didn’t have to own by myself. I didn’t want to host it every week and I didn’t want to be the primary leader. Given my travel schedule, I knew that I wouldn’t always be available, and I wanted the circle to have enough strength that it would exist even if I were away for a long stretch of time. I also didn’t want to have to do the emotional labour of keeping everyone informed, managing people’s feelings if they got left out, etc. The only way for it to work was to have shared and/or rotating leadership.
3.) A circle that was accessible to anyone who needed it. I didn’t want it to be a closed, exclusive group, where only those who were members were allowed in. I often get emails from women looking for a circle like this, so I wanted it to remain open to everyone. I also wanted us to welcome diversity and make people feel welcome no matter their race, religion, abilities, etc. (This was a bit challenging, because I also didn’t want to impose my “rules” on the group if I was not going to be the primary leader. I mentioned this desire to the group and we worked through it together to determine whether it could become a shared intention. In the end, it did.)
4.) A circle that had as few barriers for entry as possible. At first I considered having it in a person’s home, but then I wondered whether strangers would feel welcome in the space and whether accessibility would be an issue for people with disabilities, etc.. I found a wheelchair accessible space in a church on a well-traveled street (with buses available) that was available for low rent. (Note: one of the possible barriers that we haven’t fully addressed is that some people may not feel comfortable stepping into a church, but we haven’t found a more neutral space for as low rent.)
5.) A circle that would meet the needs of those who showed up and wasn’t strictly formed by my own agenda. Though I was being intentional about it in advance, I didn’t want to attach too many preconceived notions about what would happen in the circle, how often we’d meet, etc. For it to be collectively owned, I knew it needed to be collectively formed.
6.) A circle that was story-driven rather than agenda-driven. I wanted to create a space for sharing and listening that would adapt to whatever people brought into the circle each week. I didn’t want to create a book club or study group, but rather a place where we could have spaciousness for vulnerability and relationship building. (Again, though, I had to be careful about not imposing too many of my expectations on the group.)
With these intentions held lightly in mind, I arranged for the space to host the first gathering, and I sent out an email to everyone I knew who’d ever shown interest in being in a women’s circle. I invited them to come with their own ideas of what we might create together. I also created an invitation page on my website and, because I wanted to be inclusive, said that “all who identify as women are welcome”.
I arrived at the church early and set up the circle. The intentions about how a space is arranged helps create the tone of the gathering, so I set up a comfortable circle of chairs, with a small, low table in the centre. I covered the table with a tablecloth and placed on it a candle, a bell, some talking pieces, and a box of tissues. (I have yet to attend a women’s circle where tears don’t flow.) I also brought an assortment of teas and had hot water and teacups ready.
Fifteen women came to that first gathering. I read a poem to open the circle, and then we did a check-in round (passing a talking piece around the circle, inviting people to share a little about who they were and what brought them to circle) and then we had a conversation about what people might want from circle, how often they’d like to hold it, what our shared values were, etc. Someone suggested “I think we should have it every week and even if you can’t make it every week, at least you always know that it’s available to you.” There was enough interest in this suggestion that we decided to make it a weekly gathering.
For the next five months, since I have the most training in hosting a circle, I served as host. I arrived early each week to set up the room, I gave gentle guidance about the practices of circle, (ie. We speak with intention. We listen with attention. We tend the well-being of the circle.), and I helped the group find its own groove.
There were a few bumps those first few months. There was some resistance to the talking piece round, for example (people wanted to interject with questions, advice, etc.), and some said they wanted us to have more free-flowing conversation. Some lamented the fact that we didn’t have more time for informal conversation over tea. We considered whether we should adapt the format, having a circle time and then having a less formal portion of the evening.
In the end, what emerged for our circle was this simple format:
When people are seated (starting at 7 p.m.), someone rings the bell to call us to pause. Somewhere along the line we adopted three rings as our preferred choice for opening and closing.
If there are new people in the room, someone (usually whoever brought the bag) shares the principles of circle and a little about the flow of the evening.
Whoever has brought a poem or quote to share reads it. This is entirely voluntary and not planned. Sometimes we have a reading and sometimes we don’t.
Then we have our first talking-piece round. Whoever wants to start picks up the talking piece and shares whatever story is on their heart to share. We tend to dive deeply into vulnerable sharing quite quickly. It’s a chance to unload our grief or celebrate our joy – whatever has been going on for us that week. Nobody interrupts and nobody attempts to fix.
The first sharing round usually takes about an hour. Once that is finished, we put down the talking piece, grab tea if we want it, and have about 20 minutes of informal conversation.
Depending on how much time we have left (we try to end not too much later than 9 p.m.), we either do another full round of sharing, or do a shorter round with each of us setting an intention for the week.
When the second talking piece round is complete, we ring the bell again and the circle is over. Usually we’re not in a rush to leave our chairs and we sit for some more informal conversation.
This is the format that works for us and may or may not work for other groups. It allows us to show up without anyone needing to do any advance planning and it frees us up to share without needing to attach our sharing to an agenda or theme.
After about five months of serving as the primary host, I had some travel coming up and knew it was a good time to pass on the leadership. To ease that transition, I created a circle kit that could float from person to person, depending on who was available each week. In a cloth bag, I packed the following items: (Some of which were purchased for the group from our shared funds, which we take a collection for periodically to pay the rent.)
the key for the building we meet in (with the security code written on the bag)
an assortment of talking pieces
an assortment of teas
a candle holder and candles
a box of tissue
an envelope with the group’s funds
Our circle kit now travels from woman to woman. Each week someone volunteers to take it home and show up the next week to unlock the building and set up the space. Those who take responsibility for the bag have also occasionally replenished it with tea, tissue, and candles. This means that there is no onerous responsibility placed on anybody’s shoulders and we all share the ownership.
There’s been an ebb and flow to the circle. Sometimes we’re strong, regularly attracting ten to twelve women, and sometimes we go through a period when only two women show up each week. Sometimes newcomers come for awhile and then don’t come back. Some members will only come every three months or so, when they can get away from family duties.
It’s hard to know right now what the lifespan of the group will be. Before Christmas, when few people were showing up, we wondered whether it was worth it to keep making the effort. But since then, there’s been a bit of a resurgence, so we carry on. There is enough commitment to it that it seems worth it.
There is a natural lifespan to groups like this, and even if it some day falters and fades away, I will always know that it meant something, that it held an important place in the world and it made a difference for whoever showed up. Many beautiful things have happened in the circle and lives have been changed from being part of it. We’ve opened up in ways we rarely do otherwise. We’ve bonded with each other on an authentic level that’s fairly rare in our culture. We’ve become best friends and it’s not unusual for us to gather for Saturday breakfast, when we want more of each other’s company.
We’ve learned a lot about holding space for each other by showing up week after week without expectation, without agenda, and without advice. We’ve peeled away our masks, shed lots of tears, and weathered many storms together. We’ve gotten better and better at offering each other unconditional love.
If you want to know more about how to start your own circle, here are a few resources:
A series of circle training videos created by me and other members of Gather the Women. (While you’re there, consider joining Gather the Women, an organization that supports women’s circles all over the world.)
The Circle Way website where you can find out about upcoming trainings and sign up for the newsletter
I wrote a very personal post recently for The Helpers’ Circle about how much I struggle with The Fear of Letting People Down (and how I’ve learned to talk myself out of it). Here’s a quote from that post…
“My Fear of Letting People Down started at a young age. I became very practiced at being The Good Girl, the one who didn’t show her anger, who took responsibility for her work and did it well, who didn’t rock the boat and who could be depended on at all costs. I needed people to be happy with me – to notice my good work and to not get angry. When people were pleased with me and nobody was angry, my world felt safe.”
After writing it, I was thinking about how many things get in the way of our quest for authenticity – fear, shame, duty, etc.. In almost every conversation I have, whether in coaching sessions or workshops, I hear a deep longing for greater authenticity, and almost always a deep sadness that the path to authenticity seems so treacherous and never-ending. And the fear always keeps us company… the fear of letting people down, the fear of embarrassing ourselves, the fear of rejection, the fear of judgement, the fear of falling flat on our faces, and the fear of being alone.
We want to be real. We want to be true to ourselves. We want to be bold in being who we truly are. And yet… so much gets in the way that sometimes it seems impossible. There are bills to pay, people to please, rules to follow, wounds to protect, and shame to hide.
Why is that the case? Why have we found ourselves in a culture that is so hell-bent on making people live inauthentic lives?
I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to that question. It’s probably a nature+nurture thing. At least some of it can be connected to the materialistic lifestyles we’ve adopted – a function of living in a production-oriented, economy-driven world. Shiny things are the most desirable, and so we make ourselves more shiny.
But there’s also something else, and it’s about love.
Not long after I wrote the piece for The Helpers’ Circle, I interviewed my friend Lianne Raymond (who knows a great deal about psychology and child development) for one of the monthly interviews I’m sharing in the circle and Lianne said something quite profound that cracked open something new for me in this regard.
“Given a choice between authenticity and love, a child will always choose love.”
Wow. She’s right! That’s where it all begins! From the very first time we open our eyes and seek out our mothers’ smiles, our primary quest is for love. Love is the foundation – the ground we learn to walk on. From the moment we slipped out of the womb (and before), we needed it nearly as much as we needed the air we breathed. We did everything we could to get that love, even if it meant gradually giving up pieces of ourselves to please the person whose love we sought.
A world in which we were loved is a world in which we are safe.
Even good parents and guardians can unintentionally attach behaviour to love. I remember my own mother (who did so many things right) used to say things like “if you love me, you’ll wash the dishes”. And though I haven’t used those same words, I know there are moments I unintentionally make it clear to my daughters that it’s easier to love them when I see certain behaviour. We are all flawed in this effort to love each other.
Whether it was to please our parents, our teachers, or our peers, we quickly learned, as children, what behaviour brought us the most love and what behaviour resulted in that love being withheld. We adapted, we conformed, and we sacrificed. Some of us never really got the love we were seeking, and so the world became a very unsafe place. We didn’t know how to behave because nothing we did brought us the love we so badly needed.
Somewhere along the way, we forgot what it meant to be real. We only knew what pleased or displeased the people whose affections we craved. And some of us, raised in volatile or unstable environments, knew how to run for cover or to morph ourselves into whatever shapes would best protect us.
Then one day we grew up and didn’t recognize ourselves anymore. We saw only strangers looking back in the mirror at us. We realized that, instead of being authentic, we had become composites of all of the behaviours that other people expected of us.
To reveal the real work of art, hidden under the collage of other people’s expectations, takes a lot of courageous effort. Every layer we peel away reveals a tenderness, a shame, a wound. Every step we take to recovering our authenticity puts us at risk. We may be shamed for it, we may be rejected, we may not be loved. The little child in us shrieks “YOU CAN’T DO THAT! You’re breaking the rules! You need to be loved! You need to be safe!”
But “safe” begins to feel like “stuck” and we long for more. We long for truth. We long for freedom. We long for ourselves.
Gradually, those of us who finally decide that authenticity is the only way we can truly live, realize that we have no choice but to break the rules. We have no choice but to risk being unloved. We have no choice but to give up the safety we worked so hard to find.
After much agony, fear, and faltering, those of us who find the courage come back to ourselves. Many of us lose people along the way – we lose those people who only know how to love us when we behave in a certain way. But we find other people. We find people who are on similar paths to authenticity and we realize that we can cobble together new families and new communities that hold space for us no matter how we behave.
Finally, we find a new kind of safety – one that is rooted in real love, not conditional love – and in that place of safety, we unfurl into whoever we are meant to be.
It may never be perfect (even now I sometimes find myself hiding parts of myself from those whose love I value most because I don’t want them to reject me), but it feels a little closer to being Real.
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p.s. To see the interview with Lianne or to read the post I mentioned, about The Fear of Letting People Down, you’ll have to become part of The Helpers’ Circle.
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“Last night, someone asked if I liked being alone. ‘It depends,’ I said. ‘Sometimes I’m my best friend. Sometimes I’m my worst enemy. We’ll see who shows up.’”
That’s a quote from the beginning of this article by Parker Palmer, when he’s about to spend a week alone in the winter woods. He goes on to share the pages from his journal during that week and it’s clear from what he shares that the quote is true. (I highly recommend you take the time to read it.)
I’ve become convinced that learning to be alone is one of the most important lessons of any spiritual journey.
If you want to be an exceptional artist or articulate writer, you will benefit from learning to be alone. Even if your work is primarily with other people and you want to be a powerful leader, impactful teacher, or compassionate healer, you will benefit from being alone. In fact, for almost any path you care to take, learning to be alone will be of benefit.
I’m not talking about the kind of alone where you have an empty house for an evening so you pour a drink, pop some popcorn, and curl up on the couch with your favourite movie. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of aloneness (I enjoy it regularly), but what I’m talking about is solitude – the kind of aloneness where you let go of anything that will distract you (especially electronics) and are truly present for yourself.
In solitude, you choose to be present for your own thoughts, whether they’re good or bad. You don’t reach for your smartphone to distract you when the gremlins in your head start reminding you of all of your flaws. You don’t turn on the television when the fear rises up in your belly. You don’t reach for a drink or call a friend or busy yourself with the distractions of household duties when you start to feel the ache of loneliness.
Solitude like that can be scary, especially if you’re new to it. It’s really, really tempting to shut down all of those emotions and thoughts that show up in those moments of stillness. But if you do that, you miss the beauty of solitude. You miss the opportunity to really listen to the whispers of your own heart. You miss the chance to fall in love with your own company. And you miss the beauty you might overlook when the distractions get in the way.
It took me a long time to learn to be alone and to truly enjoy it. In early adulthood, I avoided it, assuming that someone who hangs out with herself must be a loser. In early parenthood, I started to crave it, but told myself it was selfish and I should sacrifice for my kids.
Luckily, I started taking business trips when my kids were young and they afforded me the opportunity to practice being alone. Even there, though, I resisted solitude at first. I told myself I had to make productive use of my paid-for travel, or I told myself I would draw too much unwanted attention and sympathy if I were to eat alone in a restaurant. So I’d order room service and eat my meals in front of the TV in my room and would barely venture out of the hotel.
It didn’t take long, though, before I got sick of room service meals and corporate hotels. I wanted to explore the cities I was in, even if I had nobody to do it with. So I started small, going down to the hotel restaurant for a quick meal, arming myself with a magazine to keep me from looking foolish just staring around the room. It didn’t take long, though, and I was branching out, going for long walks in the evenings and finding more and more interesting restaurants where I’d order a glass of wine and savour my time with myself, not caring about whether people were noticing and feeling sorry for me. I also started staying in bed and breakfasts where solitude feels more like a comforting blanket than it does in a corporate hotel.
Once I learned to be alone on my business trips, I started looking for more and more opportunities for solitude. I added an extra day onto a business trip when I could afford the time, or I booked an overnight for a silent retreat in a local monastery. It became not only a guilty pleasure but a necessity. I realized I was a better leader, a more compassionate mother, and a more creative writer when I found regular opportunities for solitude.
As much as I enjoy my friends and family and like to surround myself with community, regular solitude is no longer optional for me, it’s essential.
Here’s what I learned about the benefits of learning to be alone:
When you learn to enjoy your own company, loneliness no longer feels threatening.
You have more spaciousness to work through your own emotions, so you don’t take them out on those around you as often.
You don’t feel the need to do everything it takes to surround yourself with other people, so you don’t end up in or stay in bad relationships. You realize it’s better to be alone than to be with someone who’s not healthy for you.
You have more opportunities for adventure because you don’t have to wait for someone else to join you.
The spaciousness in your life and in your mind allows for more creative ideas to show up. Your muse takes delight in an undistracted mind.
You notice more of the beauty around you and can pause in reverence and reflection when there is nobody placing expectations on you or rushing you along.
You have more confidence going to conferences and parties because you don’t have as much fear of what people will think if you’re sitting in the corner alone. (Ironically, this confidence is attractive and you’ll draw interesting people to you.)
You practice taking greater risks because you discover that the only person you need to please is yourself.
You get better and better at hearing the whispers of your own heart and you begin to live a more authentic and fulfilled life.
You will find yourself in greater ownership of your own life, not swaying to the whims of others, not as easily influenced by what everyone else thinks is right.
If you’re afraid of solitude and have a tendency to fill your life with distractions and noise, try it just for a little while. Go for a walk in the woods without your smartphone. Stop in at the local coffee shop and sit for fifteen minutes with a good cup of coffee. Turn off the TV and pick up your journal instead.
Be present for yourself and listen to what your heart is whispering.
“Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people – it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.” – Parker Palmer