As a coach and facilitator, I have the honour and privilege of walking alongside people on the journey to healing and transformation. As I hold space for them, they teach me many things.
One of the most important things I’ve learned in this work is that the journey takes time – sometimes many years – and cannot be rushed. I’ve also learned that each person’s journey is unique and what works for one person may not work for another.
This week, during the Open Heart, Moving Pen online writing course, one of my clients (who prefers to remain anonymous) shared a story she’d written that moved me (and other course participants) deeply. Not only is it a powerful story, but it marks a profound transformation for this particular client. She started working with me a year ago (as a coaching client and workshop participant), and the work she has done since then has been awe-inspiring and exciting to witness.
BUT… none of this happened overnight. According to her, “it’s actually been 7 years of really deep work with 15 years of healing work before that.”
She is ready to do beautiful healing work in the world because she focused on her own healing work first. Like a butterfly emerging from a long time in the chrysalis, She is bursting forth with strength and beauty as a writer, leader, and healer.
She asked me to share what she wrote because “it wants to be out in the world, and is not letting me do anything else until I send this off.” It’s a very personal story and she’s not quite ready to attach her name to it, but if it moves something in you, I welcome you to send me a note and I will pass it on to her.
Here it is. I offer a trigger warning as some of the content may be hard to read.
The complicated stories of my past
Why am I not more enraged by this talk about grabbing pussy? Why does it seem normal for a man to take what he wants from a woman?
I know the answer, but don’t want to admit I was taught that’s the way men are.
My dad, the one person in my life who liked spending time with me, enjoyed my company, talked to me like I was an adult. My dad, who taught me how the world works, at least what he’d figured out so far. His one cardinal rule: men cannot help themselves when they see a beautiful woman (or young girl). If they’ve got an urge, they WILL satisfy themselves with whoever’s available. If it doesn’t hurt, if it’s not penetration, it’s OK, it won’t cause any problems, and besides, she LIKES it….
I don’t know which was worse, the fact that he had me caress and lick and suck him, or the fact that he stroked me and my young body responded with pleasure. Just like when he tickled me ruthlessly and insisted that I must like it because I was laughing. He could see my body reacting to his stroking and it confirmed his belief that since I was enjoying the intimate contact, it was harmless.
Equally harmless, in his opinion, was his dalliance with other women. What’s a quick tumble with his secretary on her desk to a preschooler who’s already been a participant? “Don’t worry about her” he said when the secretary looked at me with concern, “She won’t care. She’s seen it before.”
Here’s the thing, this man was the one person in my life who treated me like a person (when he wasn’t treating me like a sex object, of course). Everyone liked him. He was a favorite professor of many students, always making time to help them get through their coursework. He was proud of the diversity of his small department. He annoyed his antsy daughter and anxious wife by starting up conversations with workmen, secretaries, garbage men, everyone he met. In addition to being his precious daughter and best friend, he treated me as the son he never had, teaching me woodworking, basic car repair, how to throw a ball.
After his death several women told me how he was the one adult in their lives who listened to them when they were young, asked questions about their lives, made them feel important. None of them mentioned any sexual behavior on his part; either it didn’t happen with them or their memories of the contact were overshadowed by being seen and validated by an adult. Given my memories, I’m suspicious that it was the latter; when there is no closeness in a young person’s life, the touching is simply a price to be paid for closeness.
To this day, and he’s been dead several years now, I sense that his spirit still doesn’t understand that what he did was wrong. He knew to tell me to keep it a secret, he knew my mom wouldn’t approve, but he was convinced that it was OK, at least until I neared puberty. At some point before puberty he did stop the incest (and that was in some ways agony, because I suddenly lost the only intimacy in my life and I felt deserted), but he continued to teach me. When we watched TV he would repeatedly point out how the women were dressed and acting, and that they deserved whatever attention they got from men. He also taught me that men are weak and easily wounded, that they need women to take treat them gently so they don’t fall apart.
So I learned that being feminine is dangerous: that high heals, makeup, clothing that shows any skin or cleavage, are come-on signals and will get full attention from men. And that if I talked back or resisted they would be devastated and it would be my fault.
The surprising thing? That this story is less painful than the humiliation and shame I encountered at school for being quiet, klutzy, smart, weird. It’s less painful than the teasing and tormenting from my cousin and the neighborhood kids. Less painful than the years of avoiding looking people in the eye because they would see my secrets.
I cannot hate this confused man who raised me and confided in me. Though I did hate him when the memories first started surfacing, I now pity him, and love him, and thank him for helping me understand the mentality of confused patriarchal men trying to make sense of the world. And I wonder… If my dad could do this, how many other girls (and boys) had similar experiences with otherwise kind men?
“I’m holding space for you.” That phrase has become more and more common in our vernacular lately, and there’s a part of me that delights in hearing it and a part of me that sometimes cringes.
The part that cringes is the part that hears the cliché that that phrase has become. Those words are said (especially on social media) sometimes far too glibly and casually. It’s become a throw-away phrase, not unlike “thoughts and prayers”, that makes us feel like we’re being supportive without requiring that we get our hands dirty. If I’m holding space for you, we seem to think, you can’t accuse me of being an absent friend, but you also can’t expect me to do any of the messy work with you.
When we toss those words out too casually, the space we’re holding becomes a shallow one. “If I just drop this ‘I’m holding space for you’ comment on your anguished Facebook post, I can come back later when your problems are resolved and we can celebrate together. No fuss, no mess.”
There is an element of spiritual bypassing to this understanding of holding space.
Spiritual bypassing is a term coined by John Welwood. “Although most of us were sincerely trying to work on ourselves,” he says, “I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.
“When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. And then we tend to use absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits. I see this as an “occupational hazard” of the spiritual path, in that spirituality does involve a vision of going beyond our current karmic situation.”
There is something in our nature and/or culture (especially in the West) that has conditioned us to want the easy path. We want to get to “spiritual” without taking the journey through “messy”. We search for those tools and practices that will help us avoid the darkness, the brokenness, and the rawness. And, in the ways that we hold space for each other, we hope to avoid other people’s rawness and darkness too. It is our unspoken fear that if we have to be too present for their darkness, then we will have no choice but to see our own.
For the last few months, as I prepare to write a book on what it means to hold space, I’ve been wrestling with these concerns around shallowness and spiritual bypassing. If I am to be so closely associated with the concept of holding space (ie. Google the term and my name pops up at or near the top), then I need to be clear about what I mean by it, and what I mean by it is far from shallow.
In order to deepen the term, I started to consider what kind of space I wanted to talk about holding. Is it safe space? Not entirely – sometimes it feels frightening and unclear and requires that we step into that which makes us uncomfortable. Is it brave space? Sometimes, but other times it just feels like soft space that doesn’t require bravery. Is it deep space? Often it is, but then there are those times when shallow is good enough, at least for a first step.
Finally I came up with this… It’s about holding liminal space.
Liminal originates from the Latin word “limen” which means “a threshold”. In anthropology, liminality is “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants ‘stand at the threshold’ between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.” (from Wikipedia)
A liminal space, then, is a period in which something (social hierarchy, culture, belief, tradition, identity, etc.) has been dissolved and a new thing has not yet emerged to take its place. It’s that period of uncertainty, ambiguity, restlessness, fear, discomfort, and anguish. It’s the space between, when a trapeze artist let’s go of one swing and doesn’t yet know whether she’ll be able to reach the other swing. There is nothing shallow about liminal space.
In the article Grieving as Sacred Space, Richard Rohr describes liminal space as “…a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the “tried and true” but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are in between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. It is no fun.”
It was that liminal space that I talked about when I first described the kind of holding space that happened at my mom’s deathbed. It was messy and raw and it lead us into the depths of our darkest grief when Mom finally breathed her last breath. It was also a time when we were “finally out of the way” and had to surrender to the God of our understanding.
It’s that liminal space that I talked about when I was in a place of burnout from the demands of a growing business and the ending of a marriage. Or when I was stepping into complex, trauma-informed, race relations work where I was challenged with my own bias.
This weekend, along with millions of Canadians, I watched some of that liminal space unfold in front of me on stage as Gord Downie performed what was probably his final concert. In a remarkable show of courage and strength, he went out on tour with his band, The Tragically Hip, despite the fact that he has inoperable brain cancer that will probably kill him in less than a year. In a moment I don’t think I’ll ever forget (watch the video clip here), with pure anguish written on his face and tears rolling down his cheeks, he screamed a primal scream that ripped through the air and left a scar across the whole country. This was not a scream that could be resolved. It was not a cry for help or for pity. It was a scream that emerged from the deepest place in him and touched into the deepest places in us.
When we hold liminal space, we are willing to hold that kind of scream, to witness it and not judge or resolve it. We are willing to be in both the darkest and lightest of places with each other, to be alongside that kind of anguish and terror in tandem with the profound joy and celebration of a life well-lived. We are willing to crack open and be at our rawest and most vulnerable and we are willing to hold each other in that unresolved place.
That is what I mean when I talk about holding space. There is no spiritual bypassing in that place and no shallowness. It can rip you apart and leave you breathless. It can require much more of you than you knew you had to give. It takes strength and courage and resilience and a fierce commitment to love.
Holding that kind of space is one of the most sacred acts we can do for each other. When we do it, we are standing on holy ground.
I have the great privilege of coaching and sometimes creating ceremony for people who are in that liminal space. This is not a task I take lightly and sometimes I fail at it (especially when I let my ego get in the way). I need to be spiritually and emotionally prepared for the darkness to show up and for the anguish to overwhelm people as they take this journey. I also need to be prepared for the most powerful kind of light and love to emerge. It’s what coaches, therapists, pastors, hospice workers, healers, spiritual directors, nurses, and midwives must all do. It’s humbling, beautiful, and exhausting work.
I had the privilege of creating a “liminal space” ceremony for a couple of people recently, and I can tell you that it was one of the most beautiful and yet energetically draining things I’ve done in a long time. I created a metaphoric journey that invited them, over the course of a couple of hours, to peer into both their shadow and their light. When they dove into their own darkness, I held them both physically and emotionally. When they stepped into the light, I was there to steady them. At the end of the ceremony, we celebrated what they are about to birth.
For hours after the ceremony, I suffered from a powerful headache. That night, I had frightening and disorienting dreams. It took me a few days of intentional self-care and gentleness to shake off the weariness. While it was an amazing experience for all of us, it took a lot out of me both physically and emotionally.
That’s why I am so insistent that self-care needs to be a high priority for anyone who holds liminal space. We can’t do this well unless we are well-grounded and supported.
The next time you say to someone “I’m holding space for you,” ask yourself if you’re only willing and able to hold shallow space, or if you’re truly willing to be there for the liminal space. If it’s shallow space you’re holding (and, to be clear, that is necessary too – when we’re in that liminal space, we don’t need everyone in our circles to hold the depth of it), perhaps better words would be “I love you and am standing by you.”
If, on the other hand, you want to hold liminal space, make sure you’re prepared for the primal scream.
P.S. If you’re in the midst of that primal scream and need someone to hold that space with you, check out my coaching page. If you host liminal space, consider joining us in The Helper’s Circle.
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On the plane earlier this week, I was reading a new book on narrative coaching that had been sent to me by the author, David Drake. I worked and studied with David a few years ago when we were trying to create the (sadly ill-fated) Canadian Centre for Narrative Coaching, and he’d included a piece I wrote at that time in the introduction of this recently released book. (I was pleased to discover that he also included a quote from me in a chapter on holding space.)
When I read the following sentence (a quote from Ram Dass) I had to stop and put the book down for a while…
Do not speak unless you can improve on silence.
That’s one of those powerful, weighty sentences that could change a person’s life.
“What would it mean to build that habit into my everyday life?” I wondered, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
What if I were intentional about speaking only when it improves on the silence?
Would I hurt people less frequently?
Would my words have more weight and less waste?
Would I pause more intentionally before interrupting or correcting people?
Would the conversations I’m in shift their tone?
Would I be more fully present for people’s stories?
Not long ago, a participant at a workshop I’d co-facilitated gave some feedback that hurt a little at first, but was valuable for me to hear. “Sometimes you talk too much,” he said. It caught me off guard, because I try to be very intentional about not claiming too much space and allowing all of the voices in the room to be heard. (That’s the nature of The Circle Way – especially when we pass a talking piece around, each person has equal space to be heard.) But after I sat with it for awhile, I realized that there was truth in what he said.
Sometimes, I do talk too much. When I’m feeling insecure about the content I’m teaching, I talk too much. When I notice people disengaging and I begin to worry that they’re not catching on, I talk too much. When someone disagrees with me and I feel the need to defend myself, I talk too much. It’s not just in teaching settings – it happens in my daily life too. When I’m frustrated with my children and I need them to understand me, I talk too much. When I’m feeling misunderstood by a friend, I talk too much.
For me (and maybe for you), talking too much is directly connected to my ego. When my ego feels threatened, I talk too much. When my ego needs attention, I talk too much.
When I am more grounded in True Self, I let go of my need to over-explain, justify, or defend, and I am more intentional about how much I speak and how much I honour silence.
In this noisy world, it’s counter-cultural to believe that silence can have more value than wasted words. Consider the last conversation you were in. When everyone fell silent, did you feel uncomfortable? Did you feel the pressure to speak, if only to fill the void? What would happen if you simply allowed the silence to happen?
One of the practices of The Circle Way is the council of silence. When anybody in the circle feels the need for a pause, they ask the guardian to ring the bell, and then we sit in silence for a few moments until the bell is rung a second time. It’s a beautiful and intentional choice to sit for a moment within the gravitas of someone’s words or the emotions that have arisen in the circle. The more I sit in circles, the more I wish we could incorporate a similar practice in our everyday conversations.
The pauses make our conversations more meaningful and they teach us how to be better listeners.
Intentional silence is one of the most important principles of holding space. To hold space for other people (and for ourselves) we have to know when to speak and when to remain silent. When our egos get in the way, we want to offer advice, improve on someone’s story, control the outcome, or at least let people know how smart we are. All of those things are detrimental to the process of holding space. They draw the attention away from the person you’re holding space for and draw it toward yourself.
“Silence is a place in which your restless minds, internal chatter, and fragmented attention can find the stillness you need to listen well.” David Drake
If you want to listen well, you have to learn when not to speak.
Sometimes our words improve on the silence, but often they do not. When we pay close attention, we will learn to discern the difference.
Now that it’s September, I’m getting back into the rhythm of writing weekly reflections. This one’s fairly short.
I have a few more thoughts about holding space to share with you…
In the past six months, since my blog post went viral, I’ve done more than half a dozen interviews on the topic of holding space. The nice thing about talking about something so much is that I gain a deeper understanding every time I talk about it. Sometimes I say things I didn’t know I knew!
This week, I was doing an interview for an upcoming podcast, when I heard myself say this…
Sometimes the hardest thing about holding space is it can feel and look a lot like doing nothing.
When we’re holding space well, we’re keeping our ego out of it, not controlling the outcome, not giving unsolicited advice, and not taking people’s power away. That can feel a lot like doing nothing.
We all want to DO SOMETHING. When a friend, family member, student, or client is hurting, confused or overwhelmed, it’s really hard not to step in and fix the situation, offer resources, or give advice. Think about all of the food that people give away when someone is grieving – everyone wants something to do in response to the gaping void this person is feeling. Or think about the last time someone confided in you and your first instinct was to rush in and offer them something that might help.
I see it (and feel it myself) often when I host circles. When someone in the circle is crying, people lean in and really, really want to have something to offer – advice, other ways of framing the story, tissue, SOMETHING. But the practice in the circle is to remain silent and to listen with attention when someone else is holding the talking piece. And the greatest healing I have seen take place in the circle is when people feel genuinely and unconditionally listened to.
It’s true that often there are perfectly valid and practical things to do in response to someone else’s pain. I am eternally grateful for all of the people who brought food, looked after my dad’s farm animals, helped us prepare the farm for sale, etc., after Dad died, for example.
But just as often, people need our presence more than they need our actions or advice.
Giving people our presence can feel a whole lot harder than giving them our advice. It can make us feel vulnerable, useless, and unproductive. And yet, when I think back to the people who were the greatest support during my own difficult times, it was often those people who knew how to show up, listen deeply, withhold judgement, and trust me to know how to find my own path through it that were the most memorable. I remember people who showed up after my son died and simply sat there and held his lifeless body while we cried together. And I remember people who came when my husband was in the hospital who sat on park benches or in vehicles or coffee shops and let me talk or cry or scream. They said little and “did” less, but it was just what I needed.
I find the same thing in my work of hosting retreats and workshops. The ones that are the most successful are usually the ones in which I speak the least. When I give people gentle guidance and a safe container to do their own work, they get much more out of it than when I dump a lot of content on them. (The same can be said for parenting.)
This has been well modelled for me by my mentor, Christina Baldwin. At a recent writing retreat, we had a 24 hour silent, solitary, writing period. “I will be in the kitchen area all day, holding space for you,” said Christina. Ostensibly, she was “doing nothing”, and yet we all felt incredibly supported, knowing that she was there, gently holding us. While we did our deep work, we could trust that she was present for us, even though she never said a word. We also knew that the next day in the circle, she would hold the container while we talked about whatever came up.
The next time you’re inclined to do something in support of someone you care about, pause for a moment and consider what they really need. Is there a practical need you can fill, or would it be best to show up and offer deep listening, trust, and unconditional love?
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“In a futile attempt to erase our past, we deprive the community of our healing gift. If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others.” – Brennan Manning
On Sunday I sat in a circle of wounded healers. These were the openhearted people who had gathered for our second Race to Peace
It started with Rosanna Deerchild, the first to offer healing out of her own wounds. In the Maclean’s article that named our city the most racist in Canada, Rosanna shared how she has faced racism on a weekly basis. “Someone honks at me, or yells out ‘How much’ from a car window, or calls me a stupid squaw, or tells me to go back to the rez. Every time, it still feels like getting punched in the face.”
When Rosanna’s face appeared, without her blessing, on the front cover of Maclean’s, and she was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as the “face of racism”, she made a courageous choice. Instead of responding with outrage, she decided to reach out with healing. She offered to host dinner and a conversation with people in the city about race relations, and out of that willingness, Race to Peace was born.
Rosanna’s choice inspired others to make similar choices. In the circle that gathered on Sunday, there were many who had been wounded and are now willing to extend healing.
There was the man who’d gotten a girl pregnant at 13, joined a gang, landed in jail, and was now studying to be a social worker so that he could help other young men stay out of gangs and jail and make a positive impact on the world.
There was the woman who’d immigrated from the Philippines and had experienced racism in trying to find a job in Canada and wanted to support other job-seekers with similar stories.
There was the man who’d experienced conflict in El Salvador who is now passionate about peace in his adopted country.
There was my husband, who dropped out of school in junior high because of his own anxiety and insecurity, found the courage to go to university as a 40 year old father, and now teaches in a jail.
And there was me… once raped by an indigenous man and determined not to let that make me bitter toward people of his race or gender.
The term “wounded healer” comes out of the work of psychologist Carl Jung, who believed that analysts are compelled to treat patients because the analysts themselves are wounded. My friend Jo, who is also a psychologist, says that most of the people she studied with ended up in psychology for that very reason. According to some research by Alison Barr, “73.9% of counselors and psychotherapists have experienced one or more wounding experiences leading to their career choice.”
This is not unique to psychologists. Caregivers of all kinds (nurses, hospice workers, coaches, social workers, grief counselors, etc.) are often in the line of work they’re in because they first experienced their own wounds. (Of note: Henri Nouwen has written a book related to the topic, called Wounded Healer.)
“As soon as healing takes place, go out and heal somebody else.” – Maya Angelou
We are always given a choice what to do with our wounds. We can use them as an excuse to go out and wound other people (which is at the root of most of the pain in the world), or we can do the hard work of healing and then use that healing as a gift to help in other’s healing. The wounded healer emerges in all of us who make the right choice.
I first stepped into my coaching vocation in a hospital room.
I’d landed there in the middle of my third pregnancy after my cervix had suddenly become incompetent and medical intervention had failed to correct the situation. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have been in that situation if it hadn’t been for a series of doctors’ errors.
Lying on my back in a hospital room, fearing for my son’s life, I realized I had a choice to make. I could be bitter and resentful and blame the doctors for what had happened, or I could accept the situation and forgive the doctors. I chose the second.
Once I made that choice, I was at peace. Though it was stressful not knowing what would happen to the baby and not being in control of my own life while I waited, I was surprisingly calm. Since I could do nothing else, I began to turn my hospital room into a little spiritual retreat centre, with gentle music playing, cards and pictures from my kids on the wall, and fresh fruit and flowers on the windowsill.
People began to notice how peaceful my room was, and unexpected visitors started showing up. Other patients, cleaning staff, doctors, friends, and even other people’s visitors – all of them showed up there at one time or another and all remarked at the peacefulness of the room. Some of the nurses on the floor started dropping in during their breaks because my room was more relaxing than their coffee room. A cancer patient from across the hall became a regular visitor because her visits made her feel less anxious.
While they were there, people began to share things with me – personal things that they were working through in their own lives. There was the nurse who was struggling with parenting decisions, another nurse who’d moved from Africa and was finding it difficult to adjust to a new culture, the cancer patient who was afraid to die, and a friend who was trying to make a difficult decision about whether to step into leadership.
Without intending to, I became confidante and coach to those people. Long before I knew the term “holding space” I was doing it in that hospital room for anyone who needed it. I had plenty of time on my hands and I was willing to be of service and that willingness drew people to me. It was both humbling and eye-opening.
There I was, confined to my hospital room, serving as a wounded healer to friends and strangers alike. Because of my own fear, I could hold theirs without judgement. Because I’d walked through injustice and anger and came through to forgiveness, they saw something in me that they could trust. Because I made the effort to create a peaceful space in a tumultuous situation and environment, they sought me out as friend and healer.
That experience changed my life and led me to the work that I now do. None of it could have happened, though, if I hadn’t first been wounded. If that pregnancy had been easy and had resulted in a living child (instead of my stillborn son, Matthew), I might have carried on in my relatively successful corporate job. I might never have discovered my ability to hold space for other people and might never have contributed to the healing of their wounds.
The same can be said for that long ago rape. If I hadn’t been changed by that circumstance, healed the wound the rapist left me with, and come through determined not to perpetuate a cycle of oppression and wounding, I might never have stepped forward when Rosanna spoke of her desire to hold conversations about race relations.
Each of us has a choice – stay wounded and let the wounds fester, or seek healing and offer that healing to others.