One Foot in Front of the Other: emotional regulation in a complicated world

photo credit: Elijah Hail, Unsplash

Sometimes emotions get so mixed up and confused, don’t they? And when they get that way, and we get overwhelmed by them, we lose sight of the ways in which they take control of our behaviour and choices.

Saturday was my last day with my youngest daughter, Maddy, before she returned to Vancouver for university. That’s where my emotional roller coaster started this past weekend – with some anticipatory grief and loneliness, mixed in with a little old-fashioned mama-worrying. As I’ve shared before, this particular daughter has been on a complicated health journey the last two years, and it’s taken an emotional toll on our whole family. Having her live far away from me now adds to that complexity.

On Saturday afternoon, Maddy and I went for a “podcast drive”. This has been one of our bonding past-times in recent years, especially during the pandemic when we’ve had few other options. We choose a podcast (usually either a long-form investigative journalism series about an intriguing murder or other crime, or something about cults or cultish leaders) and then head out for a long drive (usually with some tasty beverages). This time we drove to Birds Hill Park and reminisced about the many years we’ve attended the Winnipeg Folk Festival there and lamented the loss of it in the last two years.

On the way home, we drove through downtown Winnipeg and came across the local rally in support of the “Freedom Convoy” that’s recently made its way across Canada to Ottawa (to protest pandemic-related mandates). There were, admittedly, far more vehicles than we expected to see, and that filled us both with some frustration and despair. 

I won’t go into all of the reasons why the Freedom Convoy troubles me (because that’s not what this post is about), except that I will mention a very personal one that felt like a heavy weight in the car for both my daughter and for me. She has lived through this pandemic with a disability and an autoimmune disorder that has made her particularly at risk, and our family has lived for nearly two years with uncertainty over whether her body could survive the virus. For us to witness so many people who want to overthrow mandates that may have helped keep her (and others like her) alive for two years, plus keep the healthcare system functioning well enough that she could have access to the many surgeries she’s needed, feels personal.

(When she finally did catch COVID last month, along with her sisters and me, she had, thankfully, already had three doses of the vaccine and – possibly since it was Omicron – her symptoms were not severe. Plus her trachea was more open than it’s been for much of the last two years – because the hospitals didn’t shut down and deny her access to those ten surgeries – so she was able to breathe relatively well.)

There’s a little more to add about what she was feeling at that moment… At the end of the convoy, Maddy (who’s been a climate activist for several years, partly as a way to cope with the climate anxiety so many youth are experiencing) said, with despondence in her voice, “If so many people distrust science, we’re never going to address climate change. We’re fucked.” On multiple levels, she was feeling abandoned and let down by the generations before her.

Not long after that, we got a text message from my other daughter, who works at a liquor store. She was in tears from the many belligerent customers at the store who, emboldened by the protests, refused to wear masks properly and were taking out their frustrations (and likely releasing some of the adrenaline from participating in the protest) on low-paid retail staff.

(Note: I know that there will be readers of this who may want to respond with other opinions about the convoy, and you have a right to your opinion, but I urge you simply to do your best to hold space for the story of what my daughters and I were feeling at the moment. If you care to stick with me, read to the end of this without rushing to defend your position.)

When we arrived home from our drive, Maddy disappeared into her room for a nap and I… well… at first I simply wandered around the house feeling lost and in despair and unsure of what to do with myself. My emotions felt all jumbled up and confused and there didn’t seem to be any clear way through them, nor was there any clear action that might help alleviate them. I considered going on social media, partly to distract and numb myself, and partly to feed my righteousness with the opinions of like-minded people, but I made a commitment near the beginning of the pandemic to give myself an intentional break from the siren call of social media on the weekends, and I knew that this wasn’t the right time to break that commitment. 

I knew that social media would likely add to the messiness and dysregulation of my emotional state. Or it might over-simplify the emotions by making me believe only one emotion was relevant. Or it might numb the most overt emotions so that I’d miss the gifts of the more quiet ones. Or it might tempt me into reactive activism and then I’d get dragged into one of the many pointless debates that social media engenders that would only serve to activate my already-taxed nervous system. 

Nope – social media would not serve any valuable purpose in that moment, so I stayed away from it. Instead, I bundled up (it’s been a cold winter around here) and headed out for a walk. Walking has long been a critical part of my self-care, and it’s been especially critical during the many months of this pandemic

There’s something about putting one foot in front of another again and again, especially in natural spaces, that helps me work my way through many emotional states that threaten to overwhelm me. It’s a soothing repetitive action that draws me into a mindful state and out of nervous system activation. It slows me down, regulates my breath, and refocuses me so that I am able to witness and experience the emotions more individually and less as a jumbled mess. As I pass through each emotional state, the walking also helps me to release the emotion instead of getting attached to it.

Recently (on an audiobook that I thoroughly enjoyed), I heard Nick Offerman talk about how each step is actually a process of temporarily falling and then catching yourself just before you fall. Plant your foot, lift your other foot, fall forward, plant, lift, fall, plant. That temporary falling between steps, it occurred to me, is a form of liminal space – where we are in the in-between place of what used to feel sturdy and secure and what we hope will feel sturdy and secure in the future. In the in-between place, we have to trust the process and lean into the falling.

At the beginning of my walk, I was feeling unfocused and my mind raced from thought to thought, trying to make sense of the mixed-up emotions going on. It’s the mind’s job to try to make meaning out of emotions, and it stubbornly tries to do that on its own, forgetting that the body might actually be of support in the endeavour. Thankfully, though, I know enough not to leave the sense-making and regulation entirely up to my mind, so I just kept putting one foot in front of another, heading toward where I knew nature could also do its part. 

A few blocks from my house, I stopped short. Right in front of me, lifting its head from the snow where it had been rooting around for food, was a deer. I’d been so distracted that I’d almost missed it. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a special connection with deer and, to borrow a sentiment from The Colour Purple, I think it “pisses God off if you walk by a deer in a field somewhere and you don’t notice it.” Even though I see deer on almost every walk, I still always pause to notice. 

This deer sighting, and the awareness of the distraction that almost made me miss it, was exactly what I needed to bring me up short and remind me to be more fully present. I stood there and the deer and I stared at each other for several moments. Winter deer are particularly fluffy and this one had just had its nose in the snow, so it had a white snout that made me smile. 

As I stood there, grief rose to the top of the emotion heap, found its way through the swirling clutter of my mind, and landed in my eyes. I stood there crying on the road and the deer watched me and I let it hold space for me in its unique deer-way.

Once the deer had turned and disappeared behind a house, I carried on. That’s when the other emotions started to line up behind grief and I tried to be mindful as each one came up, witnessing them and letting them pass. There was multi-layered grief, over my daughter leaving and over damaged relationships from the divisions this pandemic has fostered. There was helplessness, because I can do so little to protect any of my daughters or to change policies that might protect their future. There was anxiety over my daughter’s health, and over the state of the world in general. There was anticipatory loneliness, because my daughters are moving away and I am increasingly alone. There was frustration over this endless pandemic. There was sadness over our country’s lack of willingness and/or ability to support vulnerable people during a pandemic (and all of us in the face of climate change).  

I walked and walked and, as I did, I breathed through each of my emotions. Drawing on my tenderness practice, I held space for all that I needed to feel and release. I didn’t judge the emotions or try to stifle them. I just walked and breathed. Plant, lift, fall, plant, lift, fall. Breathe, step, feel, breathe, step, feel.

By the end of the walk, my heart was, once again, at peace and my emotions were much more regulated. Though nothing had changed in my circumstances, everything had changed in my heart, mind and body. I had regained enough equilibrium to hold what I needed to hold, including the next morning when it was time to say good-bye to my daughter.

In his work on Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg talks about how important it is in a conflict to name (and allow others to name) what we’re feeling and what we need. There’s a step (or two) before the naming, though, and that involves developing the skills and personal practices that help us get in touch with what we’re feeling. Unless I have developed some emotional intelligence and have some practices (like walking, breathwork, mindfulness, creative practice, meaningful conversations, journal practice, etc.) to help me hold space for my emotions, I won’t be able to tell you what I’m feeling, especially when there’s stress and anxiety flooding my nervous system. 

We are nearly two years into a pandemic, and even those with high emotional intelligence are getting taxed in our ability to stay mindful and present and maintain (and/or return to) some sense of emotional regulation. Sadly, many of us have had no training or modeling in what it takes to hold space for our own emotions, so we often end up projecting those emotions onto other people and making decisions from our amygdalas (i.e. fight/flight/freeze/fawn) rather than settling ourselves enough to access our prefrontal cortexes so that we can make more thoughtful decisions.

When we are functioning largely in high activation and stress, especially for a prolonged period of time, we are also much more inclined toward confirmation bias and self-righteousness. We find evidence that will help support and strengthen our opinions and activation and we surround ourselves with people who help justify and affirm our positions. (For a helpful book on this, read Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).) We also more easily find ourselves on the victim triangle, looking for people to blame for our victimhood (and/or people to rescue us) instead of accepting that nobody is to blame and there are simply some circumstances that are beyond anyone’s control.

Then social media adds fuel to that fire. Not accidentally, social media feeds the activation and victimhood and gathers similarly activated people around us because that keeps us hooked on our screens longer. We get sucked in, and the cycle continues. 

Sadly, an emotionally dysregulated person, fed by other emotionally dysregulated people, is not going to be able to process rational information that doesn’t prop up their belief system no matter how convincing that information is.

I know it’s hard right now, when we’re all exhausted and activated and there are too many people pushing our buttons, but if we want to get off this roller coaster and not get trapped in the powder kegs of conflict swirling around us all the time, we need to find our equilibrium and help others find theirs. That means finding practices that help us hold space for our emotions and then learning to regulate those emotions. It also means taking a break from social media and not giving in to the temptation to express (and/or validate) every opinion that feels really important in those activated moments. And it probably means setting boundaries and limiting how much we hear the voices and opinions that most contribute to the dysregulation of our nervous systems. 

I’m not talking about sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring what’s going on – I’m talking about learning how to be with ourselves first so that we have greater capacity to be with others and engage in the kinds of meaningful conversations that might actually help to move the markers. Otherwise we’re just screaming into the void.

*****

P.S. If you want support in developing a practice that will help you hold space for your emotions, check out my free e-book, The House that Tenderness Built. And consider joining me in a 90 minute online workshop called Living in the House that Tenderness Built on February 12th.

Holding space for yourself in a time of social isolation and liminal space

image credit: Eduard Militaru, Unsplash

Listen to me read this post:

 

The world is settling into an eery quiet in this new age of coronavirus. It’s hard to believe that a thing so small – a virus that is invisible to the human eye – could cause the most significant global disruption any of us has ever seen in our lifetimes.

We have no roadmaps for the future because none of us has ever been here before. Our internal GPS’s are on endless loops of “recalculating” – they’ve run out of maps and nobody has any way of programming them to anticipate the road that’s ahead of us.

The waves of emotion have been flowing through me and around me, sometimes threatening to drown me and sometimes settling into something more manageable that I can float on. 

Last week I found myself in parenting overwhelm, with one daughter having trachea surgery, another daughter losing a friend to suicide, and a third daughter dealing with the loss of an art show she’s worked all year to prepare for. This would be a lot to deal with at the best of times, but in the midst of this new and unfamiliar anxiety and uncertainty of what the future will look like, it felt like too much. It all came to a head when a police officer pulled me over for making an illegal left turn (which I’d done because I was distracted and overtired) and gave me a traffic ticket (while ignoring social distancing). The tears, rage, fear, and frustration spilled over as I drove away, and I didn’t bother trying to stop them.

Though I regret the traffic ticket that got me to breakdown, I don’t regret that moment of release, when I let myself scream and cry in the car (and text my sister for moral support). Like the release valve on a pressure cooker, it helped me settle into a greater sense of calm and acceptance.

This week, I’ve been having flashbacks to another time in my life when I had to live through a form of social isolation – a difficult time that became one of the most meaningful and transformational events of my life. 

Five months into my third pregnancy, I had to shut down my very busy life and confine myself to a hospital room. To try to deal with an incompetent cervix (i.e., it was suddenly 4 centimetres open), doctors attempted a cerclage (i.e., stitching it closed), but they failed and pierced the membrane instead. My unborn child was suddenly exposed and at risk of infection before he was strong enough to fight off that infection. My body – designed to protect a gestating child – was no longer able to do its job.

Medical professionals started pumping my body full of antibiotics and steroids (to speed the baby’s development) and put me on strict bedrest. I was told I wouldn’t be able to leave the hospital until my baby was born. He wasn’t due for another four months, so it felt like an impossibly long time to be confined to an unfamiliar room in an unfamiliar place.

In those early days, panic set in as I watched the whole world suddenly slip out of my control and away from my grasp. In some moments I had full-blown panic attacks – especially the first night when I listened to the screams of another mom down the hall as she realized the baby she’d just given birth to was dead. In other moments, I went into overdrive trying to grab ahold of anything that was still within my grasp to control. I had a full and busy life with a lot of people depending on me – two small children at home and a team of staff at work that needed my leadership during their busiest time of the year – I suddenly felt the urgent need to do EVERYTHING I could to help them survive my absence.

In some of those moments, anger arose alongside the panic, reminding me that I wouldn’t be in this place if it hadn’t been for two different doctors’ errors. The first error had come a week before, when I’d gone to a different hospital because of discomfort and a sense that my hips were shifting and my body was opening before it was meant to. (I’d already had two births, so had some sense of what it should feel like at that stage.) At that time, my GP had made the choice not to do an internal exam (which might have revealed the incompetent cervix at an earlier stage when it would have been easier to address). The second error was when the specialist in charge of my care allowed an intern to do the surgery and the inexperienced intern slipped and pierced my membrane with her sharp needle.

A few days into my hospital stay, the familiar sense of panic threatened to overwhelm me in the middle of the night. In the liminal space between sleep and wake, I found myself wrestling with a mysterious presence that I was sure was in the room with me. (I later said that I felt like it was similar to Jacob wrestling with the angel in the Biblical story.) After much tossing and turning and wrestling with the flood of emotions that passed through me, a question landed on my heart, as though the presence had spoken it out loud.

“Do you choose to stay in this state of fear, anger and resentment, or do you choose peace and forgiveness?”

I took a deep breath and considered the question. I felt justified in all of the big, dark emotions flowing through me, and I felt attached to them because they gave me some sense of power and self-righteousness. But I also knew that those dark emotions would not serve my unborn child. They would cause unhealthiness in my body which would be passed on through the umbilical cord to my child.

“I choose peace,” I whispered. “I choose to forgive the doctors for their errors.”

The moment I made the choice, the anger drained out of my body and the wrestling stopped. I fell asleep soon afterward and in the morning I woke to a new state of serenity and acceptance.

It wasn’t perfect – there were still moments when the fear came back and fed the anger – but that choice changed my whole hospital experience. Nineteen years later, I can now say that it changed my whole life. The seeds for everything I now do – this work of teaching and writing about holding space – were planted in that one moment, that one choice.

For the next few weeks, my hospital room became an unusual kind of spiritual retreat centre. I settled into a time of contemplation and inward reflection. I entertained long and meaningful conversations with friends, family, and the staff at the hospital. I hung artwork from my children on the wall and welcomed plants and flowers from friends. I listened to music on the Fisher Price tape player a friend lent me.

It was in that hospital room that I first became a life coach. There was a new quality to my listening, and again and again I heard from people that sitting with me for a few minutes of their day helped them work through things in their lives where they felt stuck. It wasn’t unusual for nurses, nurses aides, other patients, and even doctors to poke their head into my room and say “I feel drawn to the peacefulness of your space” and then they’d stay awhile or come back during their break. Many of them would remark that they felt different when they left – like something had shifted. Even the young intern who’d pierced my membrane came, weeping, to my room, and I offered forgiveness and told her I hoped that she would go on to become a very good and attentive doctor.

Though I didn’t have the language for it yet, I was learning to hold space. In letting go of the illusion of control and accepting what was, instead of trying to cling to what could have been, I’d found a new practice that would change my life and eventually become my primary purpose in life.

Three weeks into my hospital stay, after I’d fallen asleep with lullabies playing in my ear, I woke up to hear that they wanted me to go down earlier than usual for my morning ultrasound. (They checked in on the baby twice a day to make sure that he was peeing regularly. A functioning bladder meant that he hadn’t developed infection.) I walked downstairs feeling hopeful and content because, just the day before, I’d reached the stage where my baby was considered viable outside the womb.

The ultrasound technician had barely begun when she went completely silent. We were friends by then, so it was unusual for the chatter to stop. “I have to get the doctor,” she said and slipped out of the room. I lay there and began to panic again. When the doctor returned and moved the wand over my belly while looking at the screen, I knew, even before he told me, that my baby had died. Sometime during the night, bacteria had passed through my open cervix and ended his short life.

Later that day, I gave birth to my stillborn son. When I found out, after the ultrasound, that I’d still need to go through the labour and delivery process, I was overwhelmed with the unfairness of it. But a kind social worker told me that many moms of stillborn children had reflected later that the labour process was meaningful for them and that it allowed them to feel more like they’d given birth to a real child. She was right – it was excruciating, but it was meaningful. My son, just like my daughters, was nurtured within me and born through me and his life had meaning and purpose. He wasn’t just a fetus.

The grief in the next few weeks was painful and there were nights when I lay in my bed weeping in anguish (especially when my milk came in and I had no child to nurse), but it’s also true that the sense of peace that I found in the hospital stayed with me and helped me get through the times of darkness.

Nothing was the same after that. Something was awakened in me in that hospital room, and, though it took ten more years for me to find myself to this work, I had a new sense of purpose and calling that wouldn’t leave me alone.

Now, nearly twenty years later, I feel deep gratitude for my time in liminal space and social isolation. I was irrevocably changed by it, and it led me to this remarkable work that fills my life with purpose and joy.

It is likely that, with coronavirus disrupting your world, you are finding yourself in some of the upheaval, panic and loss of control that I experienced at the beginning of my hospital stay. If you are, let me offer a few suggestions, based on my experience.

  1. Remember that no emotional state is ever permanent. The feelings may feel enormous and scary right now, but they will pass. They always pass. Let them pass through you and don’t judge yourself for feeling big feelings. Feel them, label them, and let them pass.
  2. Take a deep breath and let go of whatever you can’t control. Our suffering is often rooted in the fact that we desperately want to feel some control over our lives, but that control is an illusion, especially in a time of such disruption. Clench your hand into a fist and release it – notice how it feels to let go and invite that sensation into your whole body. Do this again and again, as often as you need to.
  3. Notice what overstimulates you and limit your exposure to it. When I was in the hospital, I tried to watch TV one night, but found that it overstimulated my anxious brain, so I stopped and didn’t watch for the rest of the time I was in the hospital. I’m now noticing the same happening with social media occasionally, so I walk away and turn my attention to something more calming.
  4. Focus on the people in front of you. When you let the whole world into your consciousness, it can feel scary and overwhelming, especially right now, but when you focus on those you love, in your small circles, it feels much more grounding and comforting. This is a good time to narrow your focus. Hold space for those who matter most and trust that the others will find their people.
  5. Be still enough to allow your undiscovered gifts to come to the forefront. Sometimes, in times of great upheaval, when we quiet ourselves and tune in to the depths within us, we find resources that we didn’t know we had. Just as I discovered skills in coaching and navigating liminal space, you may discover you have a gift for leadership or baking or problem-solving or virtual hosting or serving your neighbourhood or…. whatever!
  6. Tend the space you’re in. Though I’ve never been the type of person who loves to clean or care for plants, both of those things felt meaningful to me in my small space. Tending the plants I’d gotten from friends gave me a surprising amount of pleasure and helped me feel grounded and peaceful. Right now, with many of us confined to our homes, the small spaces we’re in will need special tending so that we feel supported and held.
  7. Create a space for “cocooning”. As I said in last week’s video about liminal space, this time we’re in can be compared to the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly. Before we get to the new post-coronavirus world, we have to go through a phase of deconstruction and emptiness. In my hospital room, I had a large comfortable chair in the corner that I filled with pillows. That was where I curled up when I needed extra comfort and stillness. Now, during coronavirus, I have a similar spot near my window where I can curl up and feel the sun warm my body.
  8. Allow yourself time and space for processing and meaning-making. In the early days of disruption, your brain will likely be stuck in anxiety overdrive, and you won’t be able to do much higher-functioning processing until you’ve learned how to calm it. But once you’re ready, it can be very helpful to spend time processing your thoughts through journal-writing, art-making, dance, etc. The more you’re able to process it and make meaning out of it, the less it will get stuck in your body as trauma that you’ll have to deal with later.
  9. Connect with the people who matter most to you and let them support you. This is a time when we need each other more than ever. Even if we can’t be in physical contact with each other, we can still support each other and offer love and kindness in all of the ways that we can. It takes a special kind of vulnerability to get through liminal space together, but the deepened relationships that I enjoyed in the hospital tell me that it’s worth it.
  10. Notice what lands on your windowsill. When I was in the hospital, butterflies became special to me after my friend Stephanie gave me an article about a woman who saw butterflies as a representation of her deceased dad. After I read the article, butterflies started showing up in unusual places – including the windowsill of my fifth floor hospital room. In the years since then, they have continued to remind me of my son Matthew, and I receive each one as a special gift from the spirit/natural world. In the time of coronavirus, I wonder what special creatures will show up for each of us.

None of us knows the outcome of this time of disruption in the world. It’s quite possible that many of us will suffer losses and that we’ll have to walk through considerable grief and ongoing disruption. I wish I could promise you otherwise, but I simply can’t – not after grieving the loss of my son.

I don’t even know if it’s hope that I want to leave you with at the end of this article. Perhaps it’s something other than hope that we need right now – perhaps it’s more like courage and strength and resilience and new skills in navigating hard journeys. Perhaps it’s faith that we can survive this and that we have the capacity to weather the storms that this brings to our lives.

Whatever the future looks like, there is one thing that I feel certain of and it is this… we are meant to be connected to each other, and in this moment, I feel deep gratitude that I am connected to you.

Your companion in this liminal space,

Heather Plett

The Wounded Parent: Raising kids while we do our own healing work

Listen to me read this post:

 

Our vacation didn’t start well. We’d barely arrived at our AirBnB apartment when my daughter and I got into an argument.

Only one of us could have a bedroom to herself for the week we were there. My daughter had done the research on where to stay in Chicago and had booked the apartment. At some point, while making the arrangements, she’d told the rest of us where we’d sleep, and though I don’t remember the conversation, those arrangements involved me sharing a bedroom with one of her sisters. (The third sister was going to sleep in the living room.)

When we arrived, though, after two tiring days of driving, I suddenly thought “WHY am I paying for this vacation, doing most of the driving, etc., but not reaping the benefits of a room to myself?” And in that moment, the many years of having made sacrifices for my family bubbled to the surface and I thought “nope, not this time.” 

I claimed the space, and she reacted. We argued, and then both stormed into separate bedrooms.

In that moment when I claimed the space, it wasn’t just about selfishness – I was trying to change one of my old patterns. For the twenty-two years I was married and the twenty-three I’ve been a mom, I have given up a lot of things and let a lot of my boundaries be crossed – especially on vacations – in order to keep the peace. (I learned it from my mom.) For whatever reason (ie. being away from home, spending too much time in enclosed spaces together, having to make more collective decisions than usual, etc.) our vacations have often been powder-kegs for conflict, especially between my ex-husband and daughters. Conflict makes me anxious and my typical trauma response, in that situation, is to “tend-and-befriend” – to look for whatever compromise I can make and to calm everyone’s emotions in order to smooth things over and return to what feels more safe. 

I’ve given up so many things, in fact, that if you ask me (especially while I’m on vacation) which restaurants I like to eat at and where I like to stay, I get a little flummoxed and sometimes a little anxious because I want to make sure everyone else is satisfied first. (If everyone is satisfied and there is little potential for conflict, the little girl in me can relax and feel secure.)

In recent years, though, I’ve been doing a lot of healing and I’ve been trying to change some of those well-engrained patterns. I do this for myself, and I also do this for my daughters – I don’t want them to assume that, when/if they become mothers, they have to sacrifice themselves for everyone else. And I don’t want them to instinctually run from or rush to fix conflict whenever it surfaces.

The challenging thing about changing patterns, though, is that it can be quite disruptive to those who are used to the existing patterns. Also, the person changing the pattern hasn’t yet learned new skills in communicating this new way of being, and there’s tenderness in the exposed wound that they instinctually want to protect, so they can end up treating those they love rather brusquely and sometimes unfairly.

To put it frankly, I was a bit of a bully parent in the way that I claimed the space.

About half an hour later, my daughter came to me in tears. “Can I just tell you how that felt?” she asked, and I, softened by the time that had passed and the tears in her eyes, said “Yes.”

She told me that she’d felt brushed aside by me – that I hadn’t offered her an explanation, hadn’t honoured the agreement she thought we had, hadn’t considered the effort she’d put into researching and booking the place, and hadn’t shown any concern for her feelings or needs. “You don’t usually do that,” she said. “That triggered me and I pushed back.”

“You’re right. I handled that badly,” I said, and then asked if she’d like to hear the words I’d neglected to say earlier. I told her about how I’d been triggered in that moment too – how I’ve so often given up things to keep the family peace and how I’ve been intentional about trying to change that. I also told her about why having a bedroom to myself feels important right now – how it’s helped me heal some of my past trauma and how it helps me be a better mom when I honour my own need for solitude.

We listened, we soothed our own nervous systems when things were difficult to hear, we gave each other space, we forgave each other, and we figured out a compromise that allowed each of us to get at least some of what we needed. (In the language of Brené Brown, we agreed to “rumble” with what had transpired between us.)

The next morning, I told her “I’m proud of us. We managed to find our way through that without continuing to trigger each other and getting stuck in reactivity.”

I’m especially proud of HER, because she initiated the exchange that healed us, after the necessary pause. She was able to soothe her nervous system first and recognize that our relationship was much bigger than this conflict. And she wasn’t afraid to speak truth to her mother even though, ultimately, I’m the one who holds more power in the relationship and could have shut her down (and have done so in the past).

That exchange with my daughter came at a time when I’ve been especially aware of the impact that wounded parents have on their children when they don’t recognize and work on healing their own woundedness (which, admittedly, has been me in the past). In recent months, my backyard has been a bit of a haven for more than one young person who’s wrestling with how to communicate with reactive parents who shut down their children’s emotions and/or needs or shut down their own emotions and/or needs in the face of whatever triggers them. Listening to these stories and trying to offer support has made it especially clear to me how generational trauma gets passed down through the lineage until someone decides to face it.

Let’s be honest – there are few things that reveal our woundedness, our reactivity, our anxiety, or our fears the way that parenting does. There are few people who can trigger us in the way that our children can. There are few responsibilities that leave us feeling more insecure and uncertain than parenting. It’s a minefield for trauma triggers, for conflict, for overwhelm, for self-doubt, and for exhaustion. AND… it’s also the place where we put the most pressure on ourselves to “do it right” because we know we’re impacting someone else’s life. And it’s the area in which the old trope “never let them see you sweat” feels the most appropriate because we feel the pressure to show confidence in order to offer security to our children.

It’s all of that AND it’s the area of our lives in which we were given the least education and preparation and, for many of us, where we had little modelling of heathy parenting from our own wounded parents.

So here – from one wounded parent to another – are some thoughts on how to parent while you’re still working on your own healing. These come from my most recent parenting experience (with teens and young adults), so are geared to that age of parenting, but most of them can be adapted for younger age children as well.

1. Let them in on the story of your wounds. If you have childhood trauma, or you were in an abusive relationship, or you were sexually assaulted, etc., let them know as much about it as you think they can handle (keeping in mind what’s age-appropriate). This is especially important if the trauma left you with triggers that may show up in a way that your children will notice and be impacted. If they know, for example, that you might be triggered by car accidents because a loved one died in an accident, it might surprise them less when they see you having an anxiety attack or running from the scene. And if they have the understanding that your reactivity comes as a result of the trauma, they’ll be less likely to assume that your anger, etc., is targeted at them and less likely to absorb the shame of responsibility for triggering you.

2. Let them know what you’ll try to do to soothe your own nervous system in the moments when you’re triggered so that they can count on you to take responsibility for yourself and not to fall apart entirely. If you only give them the story of your trauma but don’t tell them about the healing work you’re doing, it will likely create insecurity for them and they’ll have their own vicarious trauma, worried about when and how you might fall apart, snap at them, etc.. If, on the other hand, they know that you might fall apart or be reactive momentarily, but then you’ll do what needs to be done to soothe and heal yourself, their security will increase.

3. Apologize when you mess up. You’re going to mess up – that’s a given. And you will likely wound your children when you mess up. We’re all human and flawed and nobody prepares us for this gargantuan task of raising children. You’ll snap at them, you’ll dismiss their feelings, you’ll make them feel invisible – it happens to all of us at some point, when we’re tired, triggered, overwhelmed, grieving, etc.. Start by forgiving yourself, do what you need to do to deal with the shame of the mistake you made (talk to a friend if that helps), and then apologize to your children. Your apology is a message of love to them and it helps them recognize that whatever happened is not their fault. It also lets them know that it’s okay to screw up once in awhile and it won’t mean that they’re a bad person when they do. (A word of caution, though – don’t over-apologize or insist that they forgive you right away. That can place a burden on them to process it too quickly or to look after your feelings instead of their own and that’s not fair.)

4. Help them to become emotionally literate by modelling it for them. Talk to them about your emotional responses to things (ie. what situations make you feel anxious, what might trigger your grief, etc.) so that they recognize (and aren’t afraid of) their own emotions when they show up. There’s good research that reveals that the more clearly we are able to articulate our emotions the more healthy our relationship with those emotions will be and the less they’ll control us. Help them to recognize that there are no “bad” emotions so that they don’t feel shame or try to hide what they’re going through. A child raised in an environment where all emotions are accepted and can be talked about will be more inclined to live authentically and to seek out help for the emotions that are hard to deal with alone. (If you’re not yet emotionally literate yourself, one way to become more so is to develop a mindfulness practice in which you name each emotion when it comes up. You might also want to write about your feelings in a journal.)

5. Don’t put the burden of holding space for your trauma, grief, healing, etc. on their shoulders. While it’s valuable for them to understand something about your wounds and your healing journey, it shouldn’t be their burden to look after you, soothe you, protect you, etc. That’s reversing the natural order of things and creates insecurity and instability, even for an adult child. Let them know that you have your own support system (therapist, friends, siblings, etc.) to whom you can and will turn when you’re struggling. You’ll take the burden off them, offer them more security, and model that it’s okay for them seek out help when they need it just as you do.

6. Teach them about boundaries by having your own and honouring theirs. Teach them about consent in the same way. Let them know what behaviour isn’t acceptable in your home, what kind of self-care you need in order to be a less grumpy parent, how they should treat your personal space, and what consequences might be in place when they cross a boundary. Let them establish their own, age-appropriate boundaries and honour their right to say no, even to you. For example, once my daughters were old enough to do their own laundry and clean their own rooms, I stopped going into their bedrooms without their permission. This was especially important when their dad moved out of the house and they had to grapple with the grief and fear that came from having their parents separated. I’ve always wanted them to know they have a safe place to go, where nobody is allowed to intrude, especially if/when they need solitude for their own self-care, self-soothing, etc.

7. Work to create an environment where it’s safe for them to challenge you, to talk about the ways your reactivity may have wounded them, and/or to admit their own fears, triggers, etc. A child who can trust that they won’t be shut down for expressing their needs or for being honest about how they feel will have a much greater sense of safety and security in their home and in life. A secure environment, with a healthy attachment to at least one parental figure (that isn’t threatened when they challenge you), is the best place for a child to grow up and to explore who they are. When they find themselves in their own trauma experience, they’ll be more likely to develop resilience if they have that secure base.

8. Don’t take everything personally. Especially in their teens, children go through a period in which they need to push the boundaries, break some rules, reject you, etc. to establish their own sense of independence. This is the normal individuation process – it’s NOT ABOUT YOU. You could be the perfect parent and they’d still feel the need to push against you. If you’re insecure and/or easily triggered, you might be inclined to take it all personally and that will activate your reactivity and trigger old abandonment wounds. Over and over again, you need to repeat a mantra… “It’s not personal – it’s just the way they grow up.” Work on communicating clear boundaries and expectations of acceptable behaviour without doing it in an emotional, triggered way. Give them the space and time they need to grow into themselves, and give them love and patience (even when it seems like they don’t return the love), and you’ll likely find that the relationship that’s on the other side is even better than it was before.

After my conflict with my daughter, I felt remarkably good about the way in which it helped us both to grow and to deepen our relationship. I once heard Dr. Dan Siegel say that “triggers can be your friends” and I agree with him. They can point you in the direction of what needs healing. They can reveal unresolved trauma and provide opportunities for growth and integration. And they can help you deepen your relationships with the people you love most.

If you’re reading through this list and it’s feeling overwhelming because you recognize the ways in which you’ve fallen short – take heart – it’s never too late to do repair work with your children and to change the relationship patterns. I’ve been doing a fair bit of that lately and I can see the ways it’s healing my relationships with my daughters and helping to support them in their growth as young adults. A friend of mine recently went to therapy with her adult daughter (who’s lived away from home for many years) and she said it’s been transformational in their relationship – especially the part where she took responsibility for earlier mistakes.

One more thing… if your children are not ready to trust you yet because of the ways in which they’ve been wounded, don’t give up on them – give them time and space to do their own healing work. As hard as it is to accept, you may have been the cause of trauma for them, and they’ll have their own healing journey to go through before they’re ready to trust.

P.S. In case you’re wondering, my daughter has given me permission to share this story. That’s another way in which I teach them about consent – I don’t write about them without giving them the right to say no.

______

If you want to learn more about holding space for trauma, grief, etc., and you want to expand your capacity to hold space for yourself so that you don’t wound other people, consider signing up for my Holding Space Practitioner Program. The next session starts in October and registration is open.

What if there is no happy ending?

“Of all the losses experienced in personal relationships, ambiguous loss is the most devastating because it remains unclear, indeterminate.” – Pauline Boss

When I teach about holding space, I almost always start by teaching about liminal space. It helps participants to have a more clear understanding of the depths and complexity of the space they’re holding and the space they must journey through themselves.

Liminal space is the space between stories. It’s a term that emerges out of an anthropological study of rituals that mark a person’s transition from one part of their lives to another. The “limen” is the empty space between who they once were and who they are becoming – like a vision quest for a young person going through a coming-of-age ceremony, for example.

To illustrate the liminal space, I talk about the cocoon phase of a butterfly transformation – it’s the empty space in the middle in which the contents of a cocoon looks like neither the caterpillar nor the butterfly. It’s a space of surrender, ambiguity, and usually a sense of lostness.

The more I teach it, though, the more I realize the limitations of this metaphor, largely because of the linear, goal-oriented transformation that it points toward. The intent of the cocoon is always to produce a butterfly. A butterfly is always the sign that the liminal space journey has been a “success”. There is always (unless the cocoon is destroyed) one direction with one outcome in this transformation.

But what about when the liminal space journey does not result in a lighter, more beautiful creature that can fly? And what about when the liminal space emptiness becomes the pattern for the rest of a person’s life?

Does EVERY liminal space bring a new story of freedom, flight, and beauty?

The answer is no. Life is never that simple. When a person is aging with dementia, for example, there is diminishing capacity and less and less freedom. And when a family member has gone missing or has gone to jail or become addicted to drugs there is no resolution and rarely a happy ending. And when a refugee leaves a beloved homeland and can never return, they live with a lifelong yearning for what cannot be reclaimed. And when a person must learn to function in a wheelchair they know they’ll be in for the rest of their life, there is loss of mobility, autonomy and access to the things they love to do. None of these things offer a simple, linear destination.

Life is always more complex than a simple metaphor can reflect, so we take from it whatever it can offer and then look beyond it to find more complex truth.

Pauline Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” to describe situations where there is no clarity, closure, or resolution. According to her, there are two types of ambiguous loss:

  • Type I: physical absence with psychological presence ( e.g., missing, disappeared, kidnapped, separated, military deployment)
  • Type II: psychological absence with physical presence (e.g., addictions, dementia, chronic mental illnesses: e.g., autism, depression, bi polar, schizophrenia, etc.)

“Due to the ambiguity surrounding the loss, individuals, couples, and families remain confused. Without comprehension, they can’t make sense of their situation to cope. Without meaning, they can’t find hope to help them move forward with their lives. They are simply stuck.” (From the book Ambiguous Loss, by Pauline Boss) 

What is undeniable in these situations of ambiguous loss, even when the “after” story is much harder and more bleak than the “before”, is that there is some kind of transformation. A person’s life has been irrevocably changed. Even if the period of ambiguous loss ends (ie. a member of the military returns from deployment) there is change in the relationship and change in the individuals involved. I remember, for example, a friend who was married to a member of the military who said “When he’s deployed, I have to get used to him being away, and then when I’m finally used to it, he returns and I have to get used to THAT. Whenever I get used to something, it changes.” Her new life was one of impermanence and cycles of loss.

If only we could simply serve as cocoons when we hold space, knowing that a person will emerge better, stronger, and more beautiful after the liminal space journey. If only we could always bring hope to this work and not despair. If only life were more linear and less messy.

But if that were the case, I’d have to find other work, because little of what I teach would have any relevance. This work is only relevant BECAUSE the future is unclear and cocoons don’t always result in butterflies.

Yesterday, for the umpteenth time, I was asked to define holding space, and what came out of my mouth, for the first time, was “Holding space is showing up for what IS, not for what we want it to be or what we will manipulate it into being.” 

It’s about letting go of the outcome. It’s about showing up even when the grief is deep and messy and there is no happy ending. It’s about surrendering rather than controlling. It’s about learning to accept the non-linear nature of all of our lives.

When life gets messy and you are in a relationship in which you’re holding space for someone who’s experiencing this kind of complexity and ambiguity, here are some things to keep in mind.

  1. Don’t try to fix the grief. Whether it’s a loss of mobility, the absence of a family member, or the loss of one’s country, there will be grief involved, and it may be messier and stay around longer than you anticipate. Someone who’s been displaced from their country, for example, may grieve that loss for the rest of their life. A comment like “at least you’re safer here” doesn’t help to diminish the loss.
  2. Support (but do not impose) meaning-making. As Viktor Frankl teaches in Man’s Search for Meaning, those people who find meaning in hardship and loss (in his case, concentration camps) have the greatest ability to survive and thrive in spite of it. When, for example, someone who lost a family member to drug addiction uses their experience to support others on the same journey, it can help them to not drown in the grief they still carry. But don’t try to make meaning for them – they have to arrive at it in their own timing.
  3. Practice mindfulness as a way of letting go of attachment to the outcome. A mindfulness practice of some kind (and I give no prescriptions, because it looks different for everyone) teaches us to notice what is present and then to release it without judgement or attachment. One of the mantras I adopted early on is this work that has sustained me through many moments when I desperately wanted control is “The outcome is not my responsibility.” Show up for what’s needed in the moment, and let the rest go. You are not God.
  4. Keep showing up. Many people, when they experience great loss, disability, chronic illness, etc., also experience the loss of friendships. The relationship has changed because the things that you can do together may have changed, or you don’t know how to be present in a situation that you can’t fix, or you’re afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. Your own fear of change or the loss that you have experienced because of the change in your friend makes it hard to show up. But your consistent presence may be one of the things this person relies on to help them survive this liminal space. You may not know what to do or what to say, but your presence often speaks louder than words.
  5. Don’t lose your sense of humour. Of course, you don’t want to make inappropriate jokes at a funeral or at someone’s hospital bedside, but there’s also a good chance that your friend needs you to bring some laughter into the space. A sense of humour helps to build a resilient spirit, so don’t be afraid to laugh with a person who may be tired of all of the sombre people they’re suddenly surrounded by. They will likely appreciate the normalcy of it in the middle of what feels like an upended life.

This is far from a perfect science. There is plenty of ambiguity and each situation is different. Each person is different, too, so the best you can do is to be humble, offer what you can, and let love be your guide.

*****
For more on this topic, I recommend this podcast on The Myth of Closure, with Pauline Boss. 

What gets in the way of joy? Some thoughts on fear, guilt, and “fleshly desires”

Friday, after a full day of work and a couple of juicy conversations with faraway friends, I headed to my hammock, tucked under two giant maple trees in my newly landscaped backyard. The late afternoon sun peeked through pinholes between the canopy of leaves, bouncing across my body now and then when the breeze rustled through. I hadn’t planned to stay long (there was supper to cook and other mom-duties-as-required), but after a few deep breaths helped me release the day, it was too comfortable to leave.

I texted my daughter (inside the house) and asked if she’d be so kind as to bring me a glass of wine. A short while later, she came with a full glass, letting me know that she’d been painting in the basement (she’s an art student) and had come all the way upstairs to fetch the wine and bring it to me. I thanked her profusely and grinned. Then I sipped slowly, read my book, and decided we’d be having supper late.

Eventually, I dragged myself out of the hammock and cooked supper on the barbecue, eating with my daughters on our new patio. Once they’d gone back inside, though, I turned on the twinkle lights and returned to the hammock. When it was too dark to read, I propped my phone on the small table beside me and watched Netflix until bedtime. Only then did I go inside.

If you’ve been following me on social media, you know how much I’m loving this new backyard. It was nothing but weeds bordered by a fallen-down hedge until a few weeks ago. Now it’s a sanctuary and I plan to spend as much time here as I can before the snow flies. (I’m currently writing this in the backyard – it’s my summer-office.)

As I’ve been enjoying this space – both alone and with friends and family – I’ve been contemplating my relationship with joy. This backyard brings me pure, unadulterated joy. It was something I’d been dreaming of for years, but only this year did I feel like I could justify the expense.

Though it seems strange to admit it, joy doesn’t always come easily for me, and just as I’ve had to justify my backyard, I have to justify my joy. And when it does come, I don’t always trust it. Sometimes I hold it at arms’ length because it makes me nervous. And sometimes I’m so convinced that I’m not worthy of it, that I don’t dare let myself sink into it. And sometimes I spend more time bringing other people joy than myself because that feels like a more worthy pursuit. (It’s like trying to convince myself my backyard is more for my kids, when the truth is that I’ve been back there far more than any of them.)

Even as I’ve been enjoying my backyard, I’ve had those moments when the joy of it feels like too much goodness. “Should you really have spent so much money on this?” my gremlins ask. “Weren’t there other things that would have been more worthy uses of your money? And is it fair that your former husband still pays child support and lives in someone’s basement when you’re enjoying this beautiful space? And should you be lying here in a hammock when there’s work to do?”

There are many reasons why joy and I haven’t always been trusted companions.

For one thing, as Brené Brown says, we often short-circuit our joy as a defence against vulnerability. Joy feels risky, because it can be taken away in a moment, and when we feel it deeply it means that we open ourselves to feeling grief equally deeply. If we only open ourselves to moderate joy, then perhaps we can fool grief into thinking it can only show up in a moderate way as well.

To avoid the risk of feeling any emotion too deeply and getting knocked over by it, we numb ourselves and shut down our vulnerability. But… “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” (Brene Brown)

Related to that is the unworthiness piece. Surely I haven’t done enough and am not valuable enough to deserve a beautiful backyard like this, the gremlins in my head like to whisper. This is the kind of space that IMPORTANT people get to enjoy – not mediocre people like ME. The moment I discovered a crack in my basement that will require part of the patio be temporarily dismantled, for example, a little voice in my head told me that it was inevitable – I didn’t deserve such a nice patio, so it would have to be destroyed to keep me humble.

And then there are the lessons we learned about joy from the social conditioning that shaped us. I had a relatively joyful childhood, but we weren’t supposed to be TOO joyful, because that might lead to ecstasy and ecstasy was the gateway to sin. Physical joy was the most dangerous, because our bodies too easily fall into temptations and can’t be trusted. Dancing was taboo, laziness was ungodly (ie. hammocks meant for nothing but lying around), alcohol was sinful, and only wholesome sex within a committed male-female marriage was permissible. To this day, there are still echoes of this messaging reverberating in my mind whenever joy and I get too acquainted.

Recently, I answered the door to two people who’d come to share their version of the truth with me and I was reminded of these old scripts that still pop up in my subconscious now and then. When I opened the door, one asked where I turn to for my marital advice (clearly a segue meant to direct me to the Bible). “I don’t,” I said. “I’m no longer married.” “I’m so sorry,” was his response. “A lot of that goes on because of our fleshly desires.” (I brought the conversation to a fairly abrupt halt, not wanting to listen to further implications that I should feel shame for my divorce.)

I was caught off guard by his comment about “fleshly desires”, but I understand what’s at the heart of it for him. He can only see divorce as sin-related. We’re meant to be husband and wife under God, in his view of the world, and when we deviate from that, it must be because of our “sins of the flesh”.

It may be somewhat true that my “fleshly desires” contributed to my marriage ending, but not in the way that he was implying. I ended my marriage because I’d learned to be more true to myself, to seek out my own happiness and not give it up for someone else, to trust myself when I didn’t feel safe, and to erect and hold boundaries when I was being emotionally and physically violated. My “flesh” desired a safe and joyful life without the anxiety, struggle and self-sacrifice that was so present for me in my marriage. That pursuit may fit his definition of sin, but it doesn’t fit mine.

That brief conversation has been on my mind a fair bit since then, not because it triggered me (it didn’t) but because I recognize how a belief system like that (which isn’t too far from what I was raised with) is a thief of our joy. In that line of thinking, it is better for me to suffer through my marriage than to be single and dare to feel joy. Marriage is considered a higher good than personal happiness.

While I hope that belief system brings peace to the people who rang my doorbell, I reject that way of thinking for myself. I choose this joyful single life and I feel no guilt about it. Personally, I think this is closer to the message of hope, joy, and grace that Jesus brought than a life of struggle and personal sacrifice would have been (but that may be my attempt to subvert scripture to my own gain).

There’s a third piece that’s coming up for me when I think about my relationship with joy and it’s related to what I wrote in my last post about my Mennonite lineage. Pure unadulterated joy, when you’ve been raised in a lineage of pain and martyrdom, can feel like a betrayal of the memory of those who died in the fire or moved from country to country in their search for peace. How could I relax in a hammock in a beautiful backyard without worries or struggles when my foremothers gave their lives for their faith? How could I choose a Friday evening under the twinkle lights when there is still so much injustice and pain in the world? How could I be so selfish when there are widows and orphans who need to be cared for? Surely there is a cross I must bear or a cause I must fight for. Surely I should feel guilty for enjoying so much abundance that I get to spend money on patio furniture and hammocks. These thoughts, though perhaps not explicit, are definitely part of the subconscious guilt that pokes through.

As activists and writers like bell hooks and Maya Angelou have reminded us, though, joy is a radical, revolutionary act and should not be associated with guilt. It tells our oppressors that they have not won. It lets our ancestors know that their struggle was worth it. It is triumph in the face of persecution. It is our way to survive and thrive in spite of the injustice. Joy goes hand and hand with our commitment to justice and peace – one fuels the other and both can live in harmony.

My ancestors may have died in the flames and/or been displaced from their land multiple times, but I don’t believe they’d want me to deny myself joy because of some misplaced duty to their memory.

There’s a fourth reason why joy is a bit of a challenge for me and that has to do with the “tortured artist” archetype that runs fairly deeply in my psyche. As a writer who has no trouble writing about grief and trauma and other deeply personal struggles, I have an underlying fear that I might become boring when I’m too happy. I run out of things to write about and I fear that people will see me as one of those social media influencers with a charmed, curated life. Grief is easier to tap into when I’m writing – joy leans toward the more frivolous and self-absorbed.

It’s been a pattern for me that some of you may have recognized if you’ve follow me for awhile – I write more prolifically when life is not running smoothly. I have more to say about that than I do about beauty, easy, comfort and joy. And I feel more connected to my clients when I can relate to their struggle.

As a result, I tend to look for the struggle because, in a somewhat unhealthy way, that’s what gives me meaning, what builds my relationships, and what makes my creative juices flow. I am, you could say, overly attached to the struggle because of the way it grows my work.

I’m trying to change all of that though – to re-examine who I am when joy is in my life and to question the old patterns and beliefs that keep me from embracing it. Because just as I have been unafraid to know grief, I want to be unafraid to know joy.

Grief has been my teacher for many years, and now I am embracing joy as my teacher too. I wonder what lessons I can learn if I dive into it with as much commitment and intention as I have into grief. And I wonder how my relationships might shift if I seek out people who can have great capacity for both grief AND joy.

Pin It on Pinterest