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?
On Friday night, we ordered Chinese takeout. A familiar pattern emerged. My husband and daughters advocated for what they wanted to eat, it got a little heated, and we went back and forth between ordering a family pack and each ordering our favourite items.
Where was my voice in all of the hub-bub? In the middle, trying to make sure everyone was happy. Everyone, that is, except me. I never expressed which option I wanted. My happiness was mostly wrapped up in whether or not everyone else was happy.
Yes, it’s a familiar pattern – me, stuck in the peacekeeping role, making sure everyone is happy, but rarely expressing what I WANT. When we’re on vacation and it’s time to pick restaurants, I make sure everyone else gets what they want. When it’s my turn to pick my favourite, I never pick my true favourite, but instead I compromise and pick my second or third favourite that has something on the menu for everyone.
Maybe you know that pattern too? Isn’t that what every mom does? I know it’s certainly a pattern I learned from my own mom.
I enjoyed the Chinese food, but after eating it, I wondered “would I even know what to order if I were to be truthful and insert my voice into this kind of conversation? Do I really know what I want, or am I mostly so accustomed to paying attention to what everyone else wants?”
Ironically, this came after I’d coached not one, but THREE clients last week on how to get more clear about what they want in life. It shows up a lot in my coaching work. Maybe that’s why I noticed it. Here I’d always thought that, since I’d followed my dream into self-employment and know how to teach this stuff, I must be pretty good at figuring out what I want.
But suddenly I wasn’t so sure. Perhaps I have some clarity in the kind of work I want to do, but am I willing to be assertive and express my desires even in the small things? Am I willing to risk other people’s happiness in pursuit of what I want? And am I willing to push through to the prize even when other people say I shouldn’t want what I want?
As women, we have a long history of being told to subdue our desires. “Don’t ask for too much. Your desires are sinful. You should only satisfy yourself after everyone around you has been satisfied. Be a good mom/wife/friend and make sacrifices for people you care about. Don’t be too big or too pushy or too demanding – people will call you self-centred, a bitch, a slut.”
Somewhere along the line, we’ve learned to stuff our desires so deep we hardly know what they are anymore.
Here’s a rather crude analogy… You know that moment when you’re getting ready to board a plane and you realize you have to go to the bathroom, but you’re not sure there’s enough time, and you don’t want to step out of line, so you hold it in? And then you get on the plane and you really don’t want to stink up the airplane toilet (and offend the people close to it), and so you keep holding it? And then the next day you realize you’re constipated because you ignored your bodily urges too long?
It’s the same way with women who stop expressing their desires – we become constipated with desire. We’ve ignored our urges for so long we no longer know how to satisfy them.
Another thing happened over the weekend that piled on top of the Chinese food incident. My daughters were talking about the Advent calendars I fill with candy every year and the only thing I was hearing from them was their complaints that they don’t always like the candy I choose and that I only buy about 5 kinds and so they get a lot of repeats.
I’m a bit ashamed to admit this… but I kind of lost it over the Advent calendars. Tears were shed and I let them know that I’m a little frustrated with having to satisfy their needs all of the time and receiving so little appreciation in return. This year, THEY CAN FILL THEIR OWN ADVENT CALENDARS!
Was I wrong to admit my frustration? Not really. They need to know that moms have feelings too and a little appreciation goes a long way.
But… suddenly I realized that I wasn’t so much upset about the lack of appreciation as I was angry at them for being better at expressing their desires than I am. AND… in showing my anger, I was teaching them the same thing I was taught – that they should shut down their own desires in order to keep other people happy.
In the book “The Shadow King: The invisible force that holds women back“, I was surprised to read Sidra Stone’s assertion that we adopt the inner patriarchy (the voice that tells women that they are not worth as much as men) from our mothers. It is primarily our mothers who teach us how to stay small, how to please the men, how to avoid getting hurt, and how to give up our own desires in deference to others in our lives (especially men). They do it to protect us, because that’s the only way they’ve learned to protect themselves. And so it goes, from generation to generation.
Here I was, passing my own stifled desires on to my daughters. Ouch.
I apologized to them for reacting as I did, and said I’d give them money to choose their own candy. I’ve tried not to shame them for wanting what they want. We’ve moved on, but there is still much for me to learn from this, and much more for me to teach my daughters.
By now you may be thinking “but… isn’t it better to be unselfish, to live a compassionate life of sacrifice?” Yes, I believe in compassion and sacrifice and putting others first, but I’m beginning to believe that we must first understand ourselves (and that includes our desires) before we can adequately understand and serve others. It’s a paradox – to know others, we must first know ourselves. To serve others, we must first serve ourselves. To teach others, we must first teach ourselves. Because in knowing ourselves and our own desires, we are able to give out of our generosity and love rather than out of our obligation and shame.
Put on your own oxygen mask first.
Here’s a somewhat parallel situation from my teaching experience… The more I teach, the more I am silent in the classroom, allowing others to explore their own voices and their own questions and come to their own conclusions. This, I believe, is the best way for them to learn. BUT… I could not get to this stage where I am comfortable with my silence and where I can teach from a place in the circle instead of the front of the room until I was comfortable with my own voice. I had to learn to express myself before I began to understand when it was best to hold back and let others express themselves. When I need to, I assert myself, but I do that from a place of confidence and self-understanding rather than from a place of needing to be heard and not trusting my own voice.
In the same way, I believe we need to learn to understand our own desires before we become really effective at helping other people understand and satisfy theirs. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” many of us were taught. I’ve heard that dozens of times from Sunday School teachers and preachers, but always they were focused on the do unto others part, and nobody taught me how to understand the as you would have them do unto you part.
What if we can only “do unto others” once we are clear about what we “would have them do unto us?” What if an exploration of our desires is what will heal us and then we will be strong enough to help heal others?
Our health depends on us releasing that which constipates us.
“If I’ve never been encouraged to think of myself as someone capable of making choices in the simplest matters – what tastes good to me, how I like my room to look, what kind of people I want to be around – there is a certain kind of fire and light that will quite possibly never ignite in my life. I won’t know how to reach out for what matters most or even, possibly, to recognize it when it comes – when it whispers to me, from the depths of my own being.” – Carol Lee Flinders, At the Root of this Longing: Reconciling a Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst
Another incident happened after the Advent calendars, and I am still processing the implications. An article was published in a local newspaper that features me and my work in The Circle Way. (You can find the article here, scroll to page 15.) I was excited. Though I’ve had quite a few articles published in various newspapers and magazines, and I’ve been mentioned and quoted in others, this was the first one that was all about me and the work I’m passionate about.
I took a photo, posted it on Facebook and said “Look! Look! A feature article about my work in The Circle Way featured in The Aquarian!“ And almost as soon as I’d posted it, I was second-guessing myself. Should I have been more subdued? Would people think I was bragging? Was the “look! look!” revealing too much about how much this means to me? Should I want this kind of exposure, or should I be more satisfied with staying small?
But then I went back to the Chinese food incident. Why shouldn’t I WANT this? Why shouldn’t I be delighted that the work I care so much about is getting exposure? What is wrong with having this desire?
When I’m completely honest with myself, this is what I want! I want to be teaching people. I want to be featured in interviews and articles about what’s important to me. I want my work to get bigger. I want to be featured in even bigger magazines and newspapers, because I want to reach more and more people with the healing potential of my work. That doesn’t make me arrogant, it makes me honest.
I WANT TO WANT THIS AND I DON’T WANT TO BE ASHAMED FOR WANTING IT!
Because when I admit that I want this, I can help other people get closer to what they want. When I put on my own oxygen mask first, I can help those still floundering. And I can do it from a healthy place of satisfied desires and deeper self-understanding.
That’s a powerful place from which to serve.
The more I work with women who are learning to express their desires, the more I am becoming aware that women’s desires will help heal the world. The women I work with have deep desires that are not selfish – they are for more equality, more community, more connection with the earth, more wildness, more peace, more love, more art, and more creative expression. These are all things that will heal the world.
And now I may just have to go and hide for awhile because I have a vulnerability hangover for admitting what I really want. Somebody please hug me.
P.S. You can follow your own desires in 2015 with A Soulful Year.