Tenderness and fierceness. They seem to be opposites, and yet, surprisingly, they often go hand-in-hand. I first learned that lesson years ago, growing up on the farm, whenever a new mom – a cow, pig, sheep, chicken or goose – would suddenly become aggressive in their efforts to protect their young. One moment they’d be charging at any intruders and the next moment they’d be tenderly caring for their newborn. Their fierceness created a safe space for their tenderness.
I’ve been writing about (and experimenting with) tenderness lately (watch for a new e-book and day retreat early in the new year), and I’m being reminded, once again, that in order to be tender, we must also be fierce; in order to be soft, we must also be strong; and in order to be vulnerable, we must also have boundaries.
As the mother goose teaches, fierceness serves as a guardian for tenderness, boundaries create a safe container for vulnerability.
In recent years, I have become both softer and stronger than I ever was before. Age, maturity, self-love, and a healthy dose of therapy have brought with them increased clarity about what I want and need, where my boundaries need to be, what triggers me, what wounds are still tender and need protection, what I value, what I will or will not put up with, and where and when I need to be fierce. I am more intentional about guarding my energy, more protective of and tender with myself when I feel deep emotions, less tolerant of abusive behaviour, and more willing to say no to what doesn’t feel good and/or align with my values.
Surprisingly, this pandemic period, with its social isolation and slower pace, has increased that clarity even further. Many hours of solitude (especially as my daughters move out) have helped me become more discerning about what I want and need in my life. It turns out, for example, that I really enjoy my own company and I’m not very willing to give up my solitude unless the alternative enriches my life in some way. It’s not that I don’t like other people’s company – I do, but I’m trusting myself more to choose those relationships and opportunities that honour my tenderness and to say a firm (and sometimes fierce) no to those that don’t.
Like a mother goose hissing at intruders while she tucks her goslings under her wings, I am using my strength to protect my tenderness. I am learning to be my own mother.
Because healing and growth are never linear and the healing of a wound sometimes reveals something deeper that needs attention, I’ve discovered that there’s an interesting side-effect of this increased clarity and self-love. The more I learn to clarify my wants, needs, and boundaries, and the more tender and fierce I become, the more it brings out the voices (mostly internal but sometimes external) that want to convince me that I’m becoming “high maintenance, selfish, self-absorbed, demanding, needy, full of myself, hard to please, overly emotional, picky, difficult, and/or overly particular”.
I have a LOT of scripts in my head about why this isn’t the kind of person I should become. There is a lot of disdain in my family of origin and my culture about people who demand too much and focus too much on their own needs (especially if those people are women). I spent many years of my life believing that the best kind of person was the one who accepted their circumstances without complaint, didn’t raise a fuss when other people were unkind to them, didn’t ask for much, didn’t waste time in self-pity, wasn’t overly emotional, and was self-sacrificial in service to other people. In short, the ideal was always to be nice, calm and agreeable. It wasn’t acceptable to be either too tender or too fierce.
As a result of those internalized standards of goodness, I put up with abuse for far longer than I should have, I spent far too much time trying to keep other people happy, and I tried to prove how tough I was by stuffing down a lot of emotions and needs. Because I didn’t think I was allowed to make a fuss, my boundaries were crossed again and again and I tolerated it because I thought that’s what it meant to be a good person. In essence, I abandoned myself in service to other people.
It’s hard to change those scripts when they’re so deeply engrained in one’s psyche. In my case, and maybe in yours, they’re particularly related to gender and religion, but they’re also present in the broader culture. Think about all of the times we’ve joked about celebrities who expect special things in their backstage dressing rooms (like a bowl full of M&Ms with all the brown ones removed), or about those who get mad when media cameras invade their privacy. Every time we hear jokes like that, we internalize the message that to ask for too much or to ask people to respect our boundaries is to become self-absorbed and a “diva”.
But who are those scripts about what it means to be nice, agreeable, and calm really in service to? They are not in service to me or to you. They are not in service to my children, the people I work with or the people who benefit from my work. They are not in service to anyone I love and am in community with.
Those scripts are ONLY in service to those who have something to gain from our silence, our compliance, and our willingness to put up with abuse. They are in service to those who want to maintain power over us, who benefit from our disempowerment and who make money off our lack of self-worth. They are in service to oppressors, abusers and manipulators.
To be of service to our children, our beloveds, our community members and ourselves, we are much better off when we know ourselves well, when we have clear boundaries, when we refuse to put up with abuse, when we commit to our own healing, and when we learn to articulate our needs and desires. To be of service, we need full access to both our fierceness and our tenderness.
Despite the voices that want me to believe I am becoming high maintenance, I have found that this increased clarity about myself gives me increased clarity about my work, helps me be a better mother to my daughters, protects my energy for the things (and people) that are important to me, and makes me stronger and more well-resourced. My increased fierceness and my increased tenderness benefit both me AND my community.
To be in strong, healthy, and loving relationships is NOT to abandon yourself for other people. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve learned a surprising thing from raising daughters into adulthood: If I abandon myself, I am less trustworthy to other people. If I abandon myself, they can’t be certain I won’t abandon them. Those who witness me allowing abuse to happen to myself will have reason to believe that I will allow abuse to happen to them too. (I know this because I have been in some hard healing conversations about this very thing.)
My people need me to be both fierce and tender on THEIR behalf and on MY behalf. They need to know that I’ll show up like the mother goose who won’t let harm come to herself or her little goslings.
Ultimately, those relationships with strong social contracts, rooted in deep respect and care for each other’s needs, boundaries, and wounds are much more beneficial for all involved than those relationships where people abandon themselves for each other. I don’t call that “high maintenance” – I call it “holding space”. It’s a practice that is both fierce and tender.
Want to deepen your practice of holding space for yourself, so that you can be both tender and fierce? Join us for the self-study program 52 Weeks of Holding Space.
Friends, can I level with you for a moment? I’m feeling sad this week… and tender, with my emotions very near the surface. If you dare to ask me, when I’m having a tender moment, how I’m doing with my nearly-empty house, I might just drench your shoulder with tears.
Last week I got home from the second of two long trips to move daughters to opposite ends of this vast country that I live at the centre of. To suddenly, after twenty-five years of parenting my daughters in my home and holding them close (six of those years as a single parent), have the oldest and youngest simultaneously move so far away from me, especially eighteen months into a pandemic when we’ve spent SO much time together… well… it’s a LOT.
I’m okay with the sadness, though. I know how to hold it and welcome it like a gentle friend. I know how to let it pass through me and remind me of all of the ways I have loved and been loved. It’s all a part of this liminal space that I am now in, learning how to be a different kind of mom, and I know that it’s better to feel what I need to feel than to try to numb or bypass those feelings.
What’s harder to hold right now, though, is what is being added on top of the sadness this week on my return to work… discouragement… and that’s what this post is largely about. (Truthfully, I long to write more about this transition I’m in… and I will… but there are other things I need to speak of first.)
This week when I came back to work, I discovered that registration for our programs is slower than it’s ever been and that has me feeling discouraged and sad and… well, weary. Instead of doing the writing that I long to do, I have to try to cram my brain into marketing mode. Few things drain my energy more than marketing mode. I don’t really have any clue how to switch from “processing a big transition” into “selling seats in programs”, so instead, I’m going to do what I’m good at – be honest with you about what’s going on.
I suspect that part of the reason for our low numbers is this general malaise we’re all feeling after so many months of this pandemic (it was referred to as “pandemic flux syndrome” in a recent Washington Post article), plus a weariness from having to do so much of our connecting on Zoom. But I think there are also other things going on and those are the things I’m ruminating about this week as I contemplate what’s the “next right thing” in getting the word out.
There are some things that I want to keep stubbornly believing but that keep getting tested in moments like these when the work of running a meaningful small business feels burdensome.
1. I want to keep believing that a leader can rest and not suffer any consequences from that rest. (I want to believe we ALL can rest, for that matter.) I took two months of sabbatical this summer, knowing how badly I needed a rest after the grind of launching a book, building a new business, creating and running multiple programs, parenting three daughters, supporting one of those daughters through complex and scary health challenges – all in the middle of a pandemic. It wasn’t a great time to be away from work, given the fact that it’s when we most need to be selling seats in our programs, but I knew I’d crash and burn if I didn’t tend to myself. (And then what good would I be to the people who sign up for those programs?) I created a lot of content before I left and uploaded it so that it would still get to people’s inboxes and social media feeds while I was away. I hoped that that was enough to still attract people to the programs, but… sales went down… possibly because I wasn’t visible and accessible and “in the grind” of making sales (and because social media algorithms don’t put unpaid content in front of many eyes unless it generates a lot of activity). That’s discouraging, because I don’t believe anybody should be forced to be available ALL the time just to make enough money to pay the bills. That’s capitalism at its cruelest and most exhausting.
2. I want to keep believing that collaborative leadership is better than the cult of personality. Last year, I very intentionally took on a business partner, created the Centre for Holding Space, and hired an excellent team of co-teachers, because I believe in collaborative leadership and I believe that the best way for this work to be held is in community. Krista and our team members bring wisdom, ideas, energy, gifts and capacity to this work that enrich it and make it much more beautiful than what comes from me alone. However… we’ve had a harder time selling our programs than I did when I sold from my own platform and was the solitary teacher. On one hand, I get that – I’m a known personality and most people came to this work through me and my writing and teaching, so they trust it more when I am at the helm. But… it also feels like there is a misplaced desire to make me into the guru and for me to have all of the wisdom that people need (which feels like a cultural thing, especially in our western culture with its celebrity-worship). There’s a lot of projection and individualism and disempowerment (i.e. people giving their power over to a leader) baked into that and it saddens and troubles me. (I wrote about that in this post about why people start cults.) I am better when my work is rooted in community than when it’s rooted in ego, and I want to keep believing that’s the right way to go. (Note: I am still very present in the programs and you’ll get lots of opportunities to be in conversation with me.)
3. I want to keep believing that meaningful content is more valuable than gimmicky marketing. I am deeply committed to putting meaningful content into the world, and I keep believing THAT is what will draw the right people to this work (and so far, it mostly has). I refuse to use manipulative marketing language and I will not inundate people with endless emails or try to convince them to buy things they can’t afford. I stand by those values and anyone who’s come to me for coaching or advice on building a business will hear me say what I used to tell my students when I taught public relations courses at university… “The two most important things are to tell good stories and build good relationships.” And yet… sometimes I watch the gimmicky, manipulative marketing tactics fill programs that cost far more than ours and… well, I get discouraged and sad. (For example, marketers would tell me that instead of this post, I should be sending out posts that signal scarcity and trigger your desire to not be left behind – to let you know there are only limited spots available for a limited time and your life will be meaningless if you don’t join, blah, blah, blah. Sadly, much of that plays on our abandonment trauma, and I just won’t do it.)
4. I want to keep believing that work can be meaningful and life-giving AND sustain people financially. And I want to believe in a shared, equitable economy, not one built on greed. I have never had an interest in being wealthy or being an empire-builder. If I did, I’d still be selling programs on my own and pouring my energy into making a name for myself instead of trying to build the Centre for Holding Space. I do, however, believe that meaningful work CAN provide well for the people who create it and contribute to it so that they don’t have to work so hard in our soul-crushing economic systems. I believe it so much that I’ve been working hard to build something beautiful that will not only sustain me and my family, but also sustain Krista and her family and give meaningful well-paid work to our team. This past year has been a struggle, however, as Krista and I have had to pay for a lot of outside support to build the business and it’s meant that Krista has made almost no money from the Centre and I have made less than I have in several years. That saddens me, a lot (especially the part about Krista, because I love her so much and want her to be well-paid).
5. I want to keep believing that people are ready for depth and not just “self-help pablum”. On one of our long driving days last week, my daughter and I listened to an audiobook that we thought was a memoir and it turned out to be “self-help pablum”. In other words, it was easily digestible and provided enough nutrients for someone who’s in their infancy in personal development, but lacked depth, nuance and sustenance for anyone further along in their development. I don’t want to denigrate it, because I think it might be the right kind of thing for someone who’s just awakening to a longing for a different kind of life, but I get discouraged about how much of what is available still fits into that category and how often people think that’s enough. This particular influencer has ten times as many followers on social media as I do, and there are many, many others just like her, because that’s what sells and gets attention. It’s a low-risk kind of personal development path because it doesn’t ask you to disrupt anything or see the ways our systems are flawed. It doesn’t expect you to witness your own privilege, challenge your biases, or stand up to oppressive systems. But…I want to keep believing that people are ready for more, and I’ll stay devoted to that belief because I see that readiness in all of the people who show up for our programs.
6. I want to keep believing that holding space is one of the most important skills people need right now. Like it or not, we are in a time of disruption, unrest and change and we need new skills to meet the challenges we face. In this collective liminal space when so much of our lives are being unsettled by the pandemic, climate change, racism (and all of the “-isms”), political upheaval, etc., we need to learn how to practice sitting with discomfort, how to hold space for ourselves when there is disruption, how to witness our own biases without being buried in shame, how to support each other in times of grief and trauma, and how to be in community even in the darkest of times. When things get hard and complicated, we need less individualism and more community, less reactivity and more co-regulation, less grind and more rest, less hero-leadership and more host-leadership, less competition and more collaboration. We need to know how to hold grief and how to process fear. We need to know how to walk alongside people who are in liminal space. We need to know how to conscientiously disrupt the patterns that no longer serve us. These are all things that we focus on in our programs, and, more than ever, I believe this is what we need to learn, together.
Despite my discouragement in this moment, I have not lost hope or passion for this work. This too, shall pass. (If I gave up easily, I wouldn’t have made it through my first year of self-employment.) I will keep showing up for it, because I believe in it wholeheartedly, and I know that many of you will keep showing up for it too. I am deeply grateful for all of you who join me in this quest for a better way to be in deep connection with ourselves, with each other, and with Mystery.
Let us carry on, because it is the right thing to do.
Recently I learned about the Navajo ceremony that honours a baby’s first laugh. Whoever is the first person to make a baby laugh is expected to throw a dinner party on that baby’s behalf. In one account of this tradition, the person who had to throw such a party (the baby’s aunt) also had to give that baby the gift of turquoise.
The Navajo believe that when a baby is born, she belongs to two worlds: the spirit world and the physical world. The first laugh is seen as a sign of the baby’s desire to leave the spirit world and join her earthly family and community. Further, the Navajo believe that laughter is a sign that people understand the meaning of k’é (kinship).
This ceremony (and the belief around it) delights me for so many reasons. First, it feels so meaningful to give laughter such an elevated place in one’s spiritual journey. (Maybe that’s why some of my funniest friends are Indigenous – they know the value of laughter.) Second, while it’s an expensive commitment, I love the idea of placing the responsibility for hosting the celebration on the laugh-instigator. Playing with a baby takes on a whole new meaning when you might be the one to set this all in motion. Third, I love the idea of community gathering for a feast in honour of laughter. It seems that a community built on that foundation has a lot going for it.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to appropriate this ceremony or belief, I wonder how we could let it inform us. How might it change our spiritual practices and gatherings if we believed that laughter is as spiritual as prayer or anything else? What if we gathered for feasts to honour a person who’s been on a hard journey and has learned to laugh again? What if those of us who are facilitators and community-gatherers put laughter on the list of priorities for every gathering?
Though I grew up in a spiritual tradition that’s not known for placing laughter at the centre, I was lucky enough to be part of a family that knew the value of laughter. Whenever we gathered, especially if my dad’s sisters were present, there was certain to be laughter in our midst. The sound of my aunts laughing is one of the things that feels most like home to me.
We’ve all been through a lot in the last year and a half, with the pandemic separating us from our communities and diminishing our opportunities for laughter. I think that right now, as we emerge from this pandemic, we’re in a moment in history when we are especially in need of the healing power of laughter. We need to gather with our families, friends, and communities and we need to feast and laugh until our bodies feel reconnected with each other and with the spirit world.
I was sitting on the dock on the Red River at the local park. It’s my favourite place to sit with my journal on these pleasant Spring/Summer mornings. I can usually sit there uninterrupted, but sometimes I have to share the dock with people launching their boats.
One morning, three men, who were probably in their thirties, pulled up and backed their boat into the water. None was very experienced at launching the boat. (I’ve done it often with my former husband when he owned a boat, so I can recognize a newbie when I see one.) Once the boat was in the water, I heard the person who was likely the new owner of the old boat talking about how he’d patched a leak and was hoping it would be waterproof. He wondered whether anyone could see the duct tape where he’d patched it.
The chatter between the three men was full of expletives and bravado as they got ready to set off in their boat. Soon they were headed down the river, and when they left, NOT ONE SINGLE LIFE JACKET WAS IN SIGHT – not on their bodies and not in their small boat.
Three men in a leaky boat with no life jackets and lots of bravado. How could I, a person who loves metaphors especially when they’re about containers that hold space for people, possibly resist that metaphor when it was handed to me so beautifully?!
At the same time as I was watching these men, a friend was texting about her decision to quit her job because she was feeling bullied by her boss. She said she needed to find a place where she could feel safer going to work every day. I told her about the boat. “You need to find a place that feels safer than a leaky boat with no life jackets and you need people who value your safety over their own bravado,” I said. (Fortunately, in this friendship, we are those people for each other – I wouldn’t invite her into a leaky boat.)
If you’re in relationships with people who don’t value your safety, whose bravado/insecurity/whatever prevents them from making wise choices that have your best interests at heart, then it might be time to make some changes. If you’re feeling unsafe, whether it’s emotionally, physically, sexually, etc., and you can’t trust them to prioritize your safety and not make fun of you for needing that safety, then this might be a good time to re-evaluate whether they actually bring value to your life.
If you need space held for you, especially if you’re going through the complexity of liminal space and you feel wobbly and uncertain about the future, then you need something better than a leaky boat with questionable friends and no life jackets.
As I watched the three men disappear around the bend of the river, I had a sudden awareness of how many times, in the past, I’ve trusted the wrong people and climbed into leaky boats (most of them more dangerous on an emotional level than a physical level). Fortunately, I am older and wiser now, and more discerning in my relationships, and have learned to surround myself with the right people. We don’t coddle each other, but we honour each other’s boundaries and needs for safety and nobody coerces anyone else to climb into leaky boats.
A few days later, on that same dock, another boat pulled up beside me. This time it was the fire department’s water rescue crew, and every person on the boat, though they are likely highly skilled in the water, was wearing a life jacket. They know the risk and though they are likely the most able to survive despite the risk, they don’t go out on the water without the proper safety gear.
Those who are trained to prioritize other people’s safety know that they also need to guard their own safety so that they can be of service when there is a crisis. The same is true in the circles I host. As a leader, if I deprioritize my own safety and climb into leaky boats, then I may not be of value to other people when they need me most.
Not long ago, I listened to an interview with someone who’d written a piece for the New York Times on the “empty religions of Instagram”. She was critiquing some self-help social media influencers, and she mentioned that some of them “worship their wounds”. On their Instagram feeds, she said, they make themselves accessible by being wounded people, but then they stay with the wound because it makes them feel special and loved and it gets them more followers.
Because I’ve written a book that includes quite a few of my own vulnerable stories, and because much of my work has its roots in those stories (i.e. the original blog post that catapulted this work into the world was about my mom dying), the words of the writer felt somewhat confronting.
Was I, too, guilty of “worshipping my wounds”? Was I monetizing my woundedness and then staying with the woundedness because it’s become part of my brand and it draws people in?
Whew. That’s a really big question. It stopped me in my tracks and caused me to withdraw even further from the public-facing spaces. I spent hours wrestling with it in my journal and had several good conversations with friends. I dug deep, trying to be as honest with myself as I could.
Somewhat ironically, at the same time, I was teaching my course, Write for Love and Liberation, where I was telling people how liberating and healing it can be to write about your wounds and share your stories. I told them how much more liberated I felt when I was honest about past trauma and abuse and how much that honesty and vulnerability had helped me find community and deepen relationships.
My mind wrestled with the cognitive dissonance of those two things and I didn’t know if they could both be true at the same time.
On the one hand, oversharing and crafting your identity out of a narrative of woundedness and trauma can keep you stuck in your wounds. A relationship or community built out of shared woundedness can give everyone in that relationship or community an excuse to stay wounded. It can also hold people back from healing and growth because people need safety and belonging and are afraid of being abandoned by people who don’t want them to change. (Some of us come from families, for example, that don’t encourage growth because that causes a threat to the family system.)
Plus, a leader who uses her wounds to gather people around her can turn those wounds into performance and connecting points for relationships. She is much more likely to grow unhealthy attachments, to project those wounds onto other people, and to start a cult rather than a healthy growing community. A leader who stays wounded is likely to create trauma bonds with people to ensure that they don’t outgrow her and move on because they’ve healed and no longer need the attachment to her. (Consider the many recent stories of abuse in spiritual communities – those are leaders whose own woundedness tries to trap people and hold them back.)
On the other hand, sharing the stories of our trauma and woundedness can be healing and transformational and those stories can offer beautiful connecting points on which to build community. Some of my biggest personal breakthroughs have come when I’ve read or listened to the stories of people who’ve dared to share their struggles and pain. Over the years, I have heard from many, many people who are grateful that I’ve been so honest in the sharing of my hard stories, because it helps them see themselves more clearly. Shared vulnerability connects us and makes us feel less alone. It can also give us hope that there is a way through the pain into a new story.
So… what is a person to do when they’ve built work that’s rooted in their personal stories, and many of those stories include wounds and trauma that help people find connecting points?
I think the key to that question is in the word that is deliberately part of both my book title and my writing course title… liberation. I think that the writing and sharing of our stories, the gathering of our communities, and the ways in which we show up online, should all be centered around the pursuit of liberation – for ourselves and for each other.
Liberation comes when we can see the wound; name the wound; speak honestly about the wound; erect healthy boundaries with anyone who caused, contributed to, or dismissed the wound; heal the wound; make meaning of the wound; and then free ourselves from the wound and move on.
Liberation comes when we share stories not only of the wounds themselves, but of what it takes to heal the wounds, triumph over the wounds, and stand up to the people or systems that cause the wounds.
Liberation comes when we tell the stories of how we developed healthy boundaries, stopped accepting abuse, and stopped giving ourselves away to people who don’t know how to honour and hold space for us.
Liberation comes when we don’t hold each other back, when we release unhealthy attachments, and when we refuse to participate in codependent relationships that rely on our woundedness.
Liberation comes when we make a conscious choice to detach ourselves from our wounds and we form new identities not built solely on those wounds.
After a considerable amount of reflection on this topic, I have come to a renewed commitment in my work and my life… I will continue to share honestly and vulnerably and will continue to let people see the wounds and trauma that have been part of my past (when I can do so out of a spirit of generosity) BUT… I will not stay in that place, nor will I stay in relationships that keep me in that place. I will do my best to continue healing whatever reveals itself in me and I will support other people in their healing. I will trust my own need for boundaries and give myself necessary time away from other people’s wounds and healing work. I will distance myself from situations or relationships that trigger my old woundedness. I will actively pursue peace, love, joy, and liberation. I will seek out relationships and communities that value growth (mine and other people’s) and that don’t need to keep anyone wounded to justify their own lack of growth. I will be gentle with those with trauma and wounds, but I won’t settle for wound-worshipping in the spaces I hold.
I am committed to my own liberation. AND I believe, as Lilla Watson says, that “my liberation is tied up with yours”. I am committed to liberated relationships, where we honour each other’s sovereignty AND we lean into community, where we hold space for each other’s trauma AND we seek healing and growth.