At the smallest level, you are the individual at the centre (with your own system existing within your body). Then you are part of a number of microsystems (your family, school, peer groups, local church, etc.). Next is the mesosystem (which weaves together the relations between microsystems and exosystem – for example, the relations between your family members and their coworkers). Then the exosystem (your neighbours, friends of family, mass media, government agencies, social welfare systems, social media, etc.). Then the macrosystem (attitudes and ideologies of the culture, ethnicity, geographic location, socioeconomic status, etc.). Finally, the chronosystem holds all of the experiences of a lifetime (environmental events, major life transitions, and historical events).
Let’s expand the analysis of the person who’s a member of a local church. Not only is it insufficient to examine that person separate from the church that they’re a part of, it is also insufficient to examine that church separate from the broader systems that it is part of. That local church is likely part of a denomination that shapes the traditions, historical relevance, ideologies, beliefs, and biases of that church. That denomination may have multiple levels of influence, from the localized grouping of churches, up to the global governance structure. It is also embedded within a religion that informs, among other things, what version of God is worshipped and how members of that religion interact with people of other religions. And then there is the neighbourhood, city, country, and region of the world that the local church is located in – all of these things also have influence, meaning that a local church in one country won’t look the same as a local church in another country even if they’re in the same denomination.
At an even broader scale, that local church (and, by extension, each member of the church), is being influenced by what’s at the macrosystems level. This is where things like colonization, patriarchy, white supremacy, classism, racism, and capitalism come into play. A church rooted in the patriarchy, for example, will likely still be led by a man, and where white supremacy is an issue, that man will likely be white. And, here in North America in particular, no church is completely free of the colonization that built our countries.
ALL of these systems are at play in that one individual who is a member of that one local church, and so that person cannot be fully witnessed without recognizing what’s at play. Even when that person leaves that church, the systems will still be at play, especially if the person is unconscious of the way that they’ve been influenced while part of that church. (Also at play will be all of the other systems that individual is part of – family systems, community systems, work systems, etc.)
Systems usually evolve as a way to organize us. A system without some form of organization won’t be able to sustain itself or serve the purpose it’s meant for, and so, if we value a system and find meaning in it, we organize it. Imagine, for example, a school that has no sense of order – nobody is responsible for doing the teaching or clean up and students are allowed to do whatever they please. That’s not education, it’s anarchy. (Some would suggest that it would eventually become a self-organizing system, if the desire for education is great enough.)
The problem is that what organizes us often begins to control us. When we become too rigid to allow a system to evolve, when we put the value of the system above the value of the individuals in that system, and when we embed a measurement of worthiness into a system (what Isabel Wilkerson refers to as Caste), then that system is no longer just organizing us, it’s controlling and measuring us. That’s when we end up with the dominance and oppression of systems like colonization.
Then, when a system begins to control people using dominance and oppression, that system begins to cause trauma in its people. A system that causes trauma becomes a system full of traumatized people and (because what happens at the micro level is also what happens at the macro level) it is therefore a traumatized system. Once you have a traumatized system, it becomes particularly destructive and particularly difficult to change. That’s when you see the levels of brokenness that have been showing up in the world – like climate change, and what’s currently happening in the Ukraine.
A traumatized system (just like a traumatized individual) needs people that can hold space for it while it heals. But the challenge is that EVERYBODY in that system has become traumatized and so it’s difficult to step outside of the system enough to help it with its healing. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of trauma.
I am not without hope, though. I have personally witnessed many people, in recent years, who are waking up to this trauma enough so that they can heal it in themselves, and then move themselves far enough outside of the traumatized system so that they can offer healing back to that system and the people in it. These people are learning to work with each other, with the natural world, and with whatever form of spirituality might support them, so that they can work to heal a broken world.
In the Berkana Institute’s Two Loops Model (below), we’re given a hint about what happens when people begin to move away from a traumatized system. The upper loop represents the dominant system, which was once vibrant and alive and served a purpose (the top of the loop). At some point, though, a system’s purpose is fulfilled, and then it needs to complete its cycle so that it can die and make space for a new system. Lots of people resist that system’s death, because it keeps them safe, but some people recognize that the system needs to die and they step away from that system. If those people were traumatized by the dominant system, they must do healing work or they will continue to perpetuate the same trauma that was embedded in the system. As they heal, their imagination becomes reawakened and they become innovators who begin to imagine the birth of something that can replace the dying system. That’s what the bottom loop is for – it represents the evolution of the new system.
In addition to the innovators, there is also a role for hospice workers – those who are willing to support the hospice work of the dying system. Once the old system has been released, the hospice workers join the innovators.
That’s why I’ve created my new course, Know Yourself, Free Yourself. I want to support those people who are waking up – those who are doing their healing so that they can become hospice workers or innovators (or both). I want to help them see the systems more clearly. I want to walk alongside them as they examine their lineage, trauma, beliefs, biases, and relationship patterns. I want to help them imagine themselves as whole people, apart from the systems that measure and control them. I want us to imagine collective liberation and generative love. I want us to know community, connection, and joy. I want us to set our imaginations free so that we can dream our way into new ways of being.
I hope that you will join me in this. It feels really, really important, and perhaps even urgent. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve created three levels for the registration fee – because we want this program to welcome into the circle people from around the world and from across the socioeconomic spectrum.
Up until a dozen years ago, I’d only encountered the word “sovereign” in reference to God and I assumed it had something to do with being all-powerful, all-knowing, in control, and holy. I later encountered it in relation to nations, but, because I’d been raised with a highly tuned blasphemy-detector, I wondered whether that meant those nations were trying to be as powerful as God and whether governments had become “false idols”.
A dozen years ago, I came across the word again when I worked in international development and my colleagues were talking about “food sovereignty”. That’s when I became curious about what I’d missed in my earlier understanding of the word.
There are three categories often used for food-related support: food aid, food security, and food sovereignty. If you give a man a fish (food aid), he’ll eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish (food security), he’ll have food for a lifetime. But what if you put a fence around the pond and only allow him to fish on certain days and he has to go hungry in between? Ensuring he has agency over his food choices and accessibility to the sources of that food is food sovereignty. (In the non-profit world, we supported food sovereignty by funding projects where people were advocating for their right to adequate food and agricultural resources.)
According to Wikipedia, sovereignty is “the full right and power of a governing body over itself, without any interference from outside sources or bodies”.With full sovereignty, the man can fish at the pond when/if he wants, make decisions about that pond, and choose whether or not to share the pond with his neighbours.
Largely, the term is associated with nations and their governments, but what if we bring that definition down to land in our own lives? How does it change your relationship with yourself and with others if you consider yourself to be sovereign and you consider those you’re in relationship with to also be sovereign?
To claim sovereignty means that I get to decide what happens to my body, heart, and mind. It means that I have agency and autonomy and am not controlled or manipulated by anyone. I get to make my own decisions and live with the consequences. I get to choose who I am in relationship with and how much space to give them in my life. I can choose to end relationships that cause me harm and walk away from situations and communities that don’t honour my sovereignty.
If I treat you as someone who has your own sovereignty, it means that I assume you have the same right to self-govern your life as I do. You get to tell me how you want to be treated and I can choose to accept those boundaries or walk away. It’s what I teach in my work around holding space – that we offer love to each other without attachment, manipulation, control, or boundary-crossing.
For me, and I suspect for many others, it feels quite foreign to think of myself as sovereign. I’ve got all kinds of old scripts running in my head telling me that it’s selfish to claim the “full right and power” of my own “governing body” without “any interference from outside sources or bodies”. Shouldn’t I be more agreeable than that? Should I be nicer? Shouldn’t I accommodate other people’s needs before my own? Shouldn’t I extend grace to those who interfere? Shouldn’t I overlook the boundary-crossers if they are offering me safety, protection, resources, or employment? Aren’t they entitled to certain rights if I need what they have to offer?
Recently, I had an opportunity to claim my sovereignty in a relationship with someone who hasn’t always respected it in the past. This person was going to be in my house and I was nervous about it because of past experiences when they would fix things without being asked to do so, judge my choices about how my house is arranged and maintained, etc. As the time approached for the visit, I realized that I could make a choice – say nothing and risk further violations, or claim my sovereignty and communicate what kind of behaviour I found unacceptable in my space. I chose the latter. With a simple text, I let the person know what the ground rules would be for the visit. If they wished to comply, they were welcome, but if they didn’t, they could choose not to come. (They chose to comply.)
In essence, what I did was establish a “treaty” with this person – claiming my sovereignty in the relationship and laying out the expectations for what was acceptable. “A treaty is an agreement under international law entered into by actors in international law, namely sovereign states and international organizations.” (Wikipedia) If we can bring the definition of sovereignty down to our own lives, perhaps we can also consider how that sovereignty is negotiated via treaty between sovereign individuals in a relationship?
The problem, as I see it, is that few of us have an embodied understanding of sovereignty because we have been socially conditioned by colonial systems. “Colonization is a process by which a central system of power dominates the surrounding land and its components.” (Wikipedia)
Colonizers are not respecters of treaties. They may create them, but they either use their power to manipulate what the treaties contain, or they bull-doze over them to take the resources they want.
In a colonial system, everyone is impacted. Both the colonizers and the colonized become shaped by the imbalance of power and the lack of respect for boundaries and sovereignty. Some learn to take what’s not theirs and others learn that their rights are easily violated and their resources easily taken. Most of us find ourselves somewhere at the intersections – having power in some relationships and no power in others.
In a colonial system, nobody walks away unscathed. Nobody ends up with a well-balanced understanding of what it means to hold sovereignty as a core value in a relationship.
As a result, we have a lot of people the world over who’ve grown up with a warped sense of how to be in relationships with each other, both on a small scale and a large scale, both in one-on-one relationships and in country-to-country or community-to-community relationships. We cross boundaries, we downplay our own rights to boundaries, we fail to communicate our expectations of how we want to be treated, we emotionally colonize, we manipulate, we are victimized, and we run away from conflict because we haven’t been adequately prepared for it. We wound each other and we suffer from the wounds inflicted on us.
Consequently, we face the kind of actions being challenged by the #metoo movement, Idle No More, and Black Lives Matter. And we face the resulting backlash. When colonized people rise up to claim their sovereignty, it makes those in power nervous.
How do we change this? How do we decolonize ourselves and reclaim and honour sovereignty in our relationships and communities?
Well, it is both a small-scale and a large scale problem (and every scale in between), so there is no one-size-fits all solution. We have to do the hard work of claiming our own sovereignty (and that needs to be accompanied with a lot of self-care and community care) and we have to do the hard work of dismantling our imbalanced systems of power. We have to practice negotiating and communicating better treaties/agreements in our personal relationships and we have to address the ways in which the colonizers in our countries have ignored and/or failed to negotiate or ratify treaties with other sovereign nations or people groups. We have to learn how to enter into conflict in more generative ways that help all parties emerge with their sovereignty intact. We have to practice having harder conversations and not running away whenever we feel attacked for violating another person’s sovereignty. We have to learn how to communicate expectations and boundaries and not be offended when other people communicate theirs. And we have to evolve the way we raise our children so that they will grow up with a better sense of their own sovereignty.
I’ve begun the slow (and sometimes painful) work of decolonizing my relationships and I know that I still have a long way to go. Sometimes I feel the way I did when I first started dancing (after being raised in a no-dancing-allowed Mennonite home) – like I’m stumbling across the room stomping on people’s toes while I try to find a rhythm that fits with the person I’m dancing with. Just like dancing isn’t a natural act for someone raised with Mennonite roots, claiming sovereignty doesn’t feel like a natural act for someone raised with colonial roots.
But when we learn to dance together well – like a highly-skilled pair of tango dancers – we learn to respect each other’s space, honour each other’s bodies, and not get in the way of each other’s brilliance. We find intimacy not by violating each other’s space, but by spending many hours in practice, learning to negotiate the space between us. We might step on each other’s toes now and then, but we commit to staying on the dance floor and trying again. When one person violates the agreements we’ve made, they take responsibility and we figure out how to move on.
The better we become at dancing together, the closer we are to being truly free.
During an interview for a podcast recently, I was asked “what’s the opposite of holding space?” Though I’ve done many interviews on the subject of holding space since the original post went viral, that’s the first time I’ve been asked that question. As is typically the case for me, the right question can crack open months worth of thought, and this one did just that.
As I contemplated, I searched for a term or word that might describe the opposite of holding space, but I didn’t find one that fully satisfied me. Finally, I came up with this:
The opposite of holding space is hijacking space.
When you hijack a vehicle (a plane, train, ship, etc.), you illegally seize it for your own purposes and force it to a different destination.
While holding space involves supporting without judging, fixing, or controlling the outcome, hijacking space involves manipulating, disempowering, and imposing various forms of judgment and control.
When we hold space, we liberate. We give someone the freedom to be who they are, to make sovereign choices, and to control their own outcome. When we hold space, we leave the person feeling supported and empowered.
When we hijack space, we violate. We take away a person’s freedom, limit their ability to make choices, and take control of the outcome. When we hijack space, we leave the person disenfranchised and weakened.
While holding space offers people an open bowl for their journey through liminal space, hijacking space puts a lid on that bowl.
Some forms of hijacking space are obvious and intentional (such as violence, abuse, overpowering, or bullying), but other forms are much more subtle and inadvertent. Many of these more subtle forms of hijacking space include the kinds of behaviour of which we are all guilty—and usually more frequently than we care to admit.
Here are some of the ways that we hijack space:
expecting them to experience or interpret situations the same way we do
acting as the “tone police” when their emotions are stronger than we’re comfortable with (ie. insisting that they calm down before we’ll talk to them)
gaslighting them and making them believe that they are going crazy and/or are no longer in control of their own emotions
one-upping their story with a better one of our own (and thereby dismissing the value of theirs)
implying that our emotional response to something is more important than theirs
dismissing the value of their work and/or taking credit for it ourselves
not allowing them to trust their intuition and insisting they do things our way
acting dismissively when they share a personal story
not hearing them when they ask us to change our behaviour toward them
ignoring and/or dismissing their emotional state
fixing their problems for them and taking away their power to fix them themselves
taking over their emotions and feeling those emotions deeper than they do
apologizing too much so that they become responsible for making us feel better
expecting them to feed our egos
passive-aggressively trying to manipulate their behaviour
shaming them for feeling too much, speaking too much, eating too much, etc.
over-explaining things (with an assumption that they can’t understand otherwise)
expecting them to educate us about how we should be in relationships with them instead of doing the hard work ourselves
worrying about them in a way that implies we don’t trust them enough to look after themselves
Hijacking space, at its worst, is a tool of oppression. Those who uphold the patriarchy or white supremacy, for example, are usually masterful at hijacking, whether or not they know they’re doing it. We have all seen it happen – the person in power dismissing, fixing, shaming, interrupting in ways that keeps the other person disempowered and fearful. Even in race relations work, where people are conscious and intentional about being in conversation and reconciliation, I have seen people’s ideas being dismissed, emotions being shamed, and/or problems being fixed. (I have even, admittedly, caught myself doing it.) It can feel surprisingly threatening to see an oppressed person claim agency over their own bodies, emotions, etc., and, in response, those who are used to holding the power fall back on the tools of hijacking space that have been passed down through the generations.
But we can’t simply dismiss it as something “they” do.Each of us finds ways of hijacking space. We do it to our children, to our friends, to our spouses, to our employees, and even to our parents. We even do it to ourselves when we police our own emotions in order to make other people feel better (ie. the inner patriarch that Sidra Stone talks about in The Shadow King: The Invisible Force that Holds Women Back).
Just this week, my teenage daughter came home from film camp complaining about a girl in her group who annoyed her, and I was tempted to jump in and assure her that it wasn’t really as bad as she said it was and that she needed to be kind to people no matter what, etc. If I’d done that, I would have immediately disempowered and shamed her. Instead I tried to listen without judgement and speak with compassionate guidance. The next day, she figured out how to deal with this person on her own without me needing to intervene.
We also do it in situations where we’re trying to increase our power in a relationship. Consider a time, for example, when you felt intimidated by someone, and, consequently you interrupted them, dismissed their emotions and/or tried to control the outcome of the conversation. Though it might have felt good, in the moment, to be doing it to someone with seemingly more power than you, it doesn’t serve either of you well in the end. Change doesn’t happen when space is hijacked.
In the talk I gave at a conference a few months ago, I talked about holding space as “being the bowl” for someone else. After a Lego house falls apart, I explained in my analogy, a bowl serves to contain all of the broken pieces before they can become what they’re meant to transform into after that. The bowl doesn’t intervene – it just holds, protects, and creates safe space for the brokenness and emergence.
As hijackers, instead of serving as the bowl that holds, we become the mold that shapes. Instead of creating safe space for the emergence, we break the house and we force it into the shape of our choosing. We manipulate, direct, and judge.
Consider, in your own life, how often you have made choices that weren’t authentic to you, simply because you didn’t want to stir someone’s anger or because that person was shaming you for your choices? Sometimes it’s the subtlest of behaviours that have the most power.
It takes a lot of emotional maturity to be the bowl instead of the mold. We have to do our own work to dismantle our inner patriarch and to look deeply into our shadow. We have to address our shame and our fear, and we have to practice releasing control and sharing power. We have to find the spiritual practices that allow us to detach from other people’s emotions and their outcomes and to allow them their autonomy. We have to practice trust in ourselves and in each other.