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.
My youngest daughter is on the cusp of graduating from high school. Her oldest sister is on the cusp of graduating from her first university degree, and the middle one is only a year behind. There are moments when I hold my breath, knowing these days in which we all live under the same roof are fleeting and soon they will all have launched into their own separate lives.
Before they go, I hope I pass on at least some of the following bits of wisdom.
You’re not obligated to accept every gift. Whenever they receive a gift from me, they are allowed to tell me that they don’t like it and I do my best not to make it about me and instead to find them something they’d like better. Though I want them to embrace gratitude and to treat people with respect, I don’t want them to assume that they are obligated to receive gifts they don’t want or that they are responsible for looking after the feelings of the gift-giver. When gifts come with strings attached and an indebtedness to the giver, they are not really gifts but tools of abusers and manipulators. As we’ve seen in some of the #metoo stories emerging out of Hollywood, abusers offer elaborate promises and gifts (ie. roles in movies, good jobs, etc.) so that their victims feel a sense of obligation that includes their silence. I hope that by learning that they have the right to resist unwanted “gifts”, my daughters are better equipped to stand up to the tactics of abusers.
You can leave the party early. Especially when they were in high school and starting to attend parties that could possibly get out of hand, I worked with my daughters to ensure that they had an exit strategy in case they ever felt uncomfortable and wanted to leave before their friends did. Even if that exit strategy included me having to get up in the middle of the night and bundle up against the cold to go pick them up, I tried not to shame them for trusting their instincts if it wasn’t safe to accept a ride home with a friend who’d been drinking, or if people were doing things at the party that didn’t fit with their values or comfort zones. I hope that those party exit strategies can be carried into their adult lives and they can apply the principle to jobs they don’t like, relationships that are toxic, commitments they regret making, etc. They don’t have to feel obligated or give in to peer pressure if it means staying where they’re unsafe, uncomfortable, unhappy or undervalued.
You get to feel your feelings and don’t have to be a caretaker or shock absorber for other people’s feelings. I spent a lot of years caretaking other people’s emotions and being a shock absorber when those emotions were particularly volatile (and stuffing down my own emotions in order to do so), and I don’t want that for my daughters. I want them to know that their own feelings are valid, even if those feelings make other people uncomfortable. I want them to know that big feelings are okay, even if other people try to gaslight them into not feeling the way they do. I don’t want them to spend all of their time trying to regulate themselves on other people’s behalf. I want them to find healthy relationships with people who take responsibility for how they feel and who don’t try to stifle other people’s feelings. I want them to know that within healthy relationship, co-regulation is possible, but only if people honour rather than quash those feelings in each other.
You can come back home after you mess up. We’re not looking for perfection in this household, and so I try to admit my mistakes to my daughters, apologize when necessary, and let them know that this is a place where it’s safe to fail. I don’t want them to hide their mistakes or weaknesses, but to speak of them openly so that they can learn from them and grow. And I want them to know that I will provide a safe haven for them to return to when they need to lick their wounds and/or process their shame. I want them to feel safe when they’re here so that they can return to the world feeling more brave.
Sometimes disruption is necessary. But it will rarely be easy. I want them to know that they should follow the “rules” that make sense and help to keep people safe, but I also want them to know that they can break the “rules” that are outdated or that are meant to keep people small and compliant. This isn’t always easy for me to pass on, especially when I’m the one attached to the outdated rules, but I do my best. I want them to know that they don’t have to stick with the status quo when the status quo is harming people. I want them to know that they can speak truth to power. I want them to know that they’re allowed to be disruptors if the disruption is in the service of positive change. Disruption isn’t an easy path to choose, though, so I also want them to be prepared for the ways in which people will resist them and possibly try to hurt them for having the courage to be disruptive.
Power and weakness are companions, not opposites. I want them to see that vulnerability and authenticity are important parts of what it means to be powerful. I want them to know that generative power often emerges out of places of the greatest weakness. I want them to see that sometimes, in their moments of greatest weakness, admitting it allows other people to show up and be powerful and together we can create collective power that is greater than any of us can hold alone. I hope that they’re not afraid to claim their own power, but that it is always “power with” rather than “power over”.
Your body is your own. For years, I gave away my own body because I believed I was under contract to do so and because I was being coerced even when I was unwilling. I accepted the old rules of what it means to be a woman in a marriage, because that was the only way I’d seen modelled and the only way that I’d been taught to behave. I’ve spent the last several years reclaiming my body and relearning how to treat it, and I want my daughters to see that another way is possible. I want them to know that they can lavish love on their own bodies, that they can protect their own bodies, that they can say no to anyone who doesn’t treat their bodies well and that they can say a big and holy YES to those who make their bodies feel alive, safe and loved.
You can ask for what you need, but those needs shouldn’t supersede the needs of those more marginalized than you. I want them to know that they are worthy of having their needs met. I want them to pay attention to themselves enough so that they are actually aware of their own needs and can articulate them clearly. I don’t want them to be afraid to ask for what they need or to be so focused on other people that they consistently overlook themselves. I don’t want them to be haunted by shame for being too selfish or asking for too much. However, I don’t want them to be greedy and I want them to recognize how meeting their own needs will sometimes mean that people with less access to privilege won’t get their needs met. I want them to be aware of injustice and be willing to sacrifice their own needs in order to centre those who rarely get their turn. I want them to balance self-care with other-care, and worthiness with justice.
You can love who you want, as long as that love is generative and not stifling. This is a home in which there is little pressure to be heteronormative. Two of my daughters have, in fact, come out and we have celebrated them and embraced their choices and never asked them to be anyone other than who they are. I want them to know that whoever they choose to be in an intimate relationship with, they don’t have to be afraid to introduce that person to me for fear of my judgement. I do, however, want them to know that I will speak up if I see the person they’re in relationship with treat them in ways that harm their spirits (or the other way around). If they choose to be in relationships (and they are always free to choose singleness instead), I hope that those relationships are ones in which they are supported to flourish and grow and shine.
Friendships matter. Community matters. Family matters. But no relationships are worth abandoning yourself over. I hope that they find deep and lasting friendships (and hang onto the ones they already have). I hope that they surround themselves with people who will support them, challenge them, laugh with them, travel with them, grieve with them, and feed them. I hope that they recognize that friendships are worth fighting for, that forgiveness and grace are necessary parts of being in relationships with flawed human beings, that having people in your corner is essential for meaningful success, and that conflict is worth working through when you’re with the right people. I want them to find out how much richness comes when they make friends with people whose skin colour is different from theirs, whose beliefs are different, and/or who grew up in other countries.I also want them to know, though, that sometimes it’s best to walk away from friendships or communities that hold them back. I want them to dare to choose their own growth and happiness over stifling relationships. I don’t want them to stay stuck in places or with people that don’t value or respect them.
The hardest parts of life are usually the ones that result in the most growth. There’s a part of me that longs to protect my daughters from the hard parts of life, but the wiser part of me knows that I have grown most when life has been hard. I have been changed by grief and trauma, and I know that the work I now do is rich and meaningful because of all of the darkness and pain I have traveled through. I want them to recognize that they have the strength and resilience to survive hard things and that there is something to strive for on the other side. I hope that they always know that they don’t have to survive the hard things alone and that, whenever I am able, I will walk alongside them. I also want them to know that they should never be ashamed to ask their friends or family for help, to hire a therapist, and/or to seek treatment for mental illness, trauma, etc.. I don’t want them to bypass the pain, but rather to move through it with grace and grit and people who love them.
There’s a lot of beauty and magic in the world – don’t miss it. Some of my favourite moments with my daughters are ones in which we’ve stood in reverence in front of a stunning sunset over the mountains, we’ve giggled with glee at an amusement park, we’ve sat around a campfire watching the flames leap up, or we’ve driven for hours and hours just to hear our favourite bands in concert. I hope that they always give themselves permission to have fun, to seek out adventure, to be in awe of the natural world, and to surround themselves with beauty. I hope that they take the time to pause and notice even the simplest bits of magic. I want them to live fully and reverently and to fill their lives with meaningful experiences.
Here in the northern hemisphere, the wild and unruly growth of Spring and early Summer has passed. The grass in my backyard doesn’t need to be cut very often anymore and the weeds have grown lacklustre in their efforts to take over the property. It’s harvest season, and, though I’m not much of a gardener (I’d rather build something for my backyard than plant something), I’m happy to see the farmers’ market full of abundance from other people’s fields.
In my business, though, it seems to be a different season. I’m heading into Spring, planting seeds, preparing the soil, and gathering up the tools and resources I’ll need for a busy season of growth.
I’ve known for awhile that the next level of growth and (more significantly) investment in that growth would be coming, but I did my best to resist it. On the more “simple” side of things, my website has been in need of a major overhaul for quite some time. (Krista, my business manager, keeps reminding me of how much more functional my shopping cart could be, for example.) Also, I’ve been working on a book on holding space for a few years now, and it really needs to move from “draft” to “published”. And, to support it all, I need to improve the accounting system that was good enough for a little one-woman shop but is stretched to capacity (and, frankly, was never very good in the first place, due to my lack of financial expertise).
On the more “complex” side of things (at least for me it feels complex), an increasing number of people have been asking for some version of a license, so that they can teach my Holding Space content within their organizations or from their consultancy practices. (I’m currently working with an adult learning organization, for example, that is embedding it into the training they offer educators, facilitators and tutors.) In addition, I feel the need to do more Train the Trainer programming so that my Holding Space Practitioner Program can continue to grow beyond my capacity to teach it (especially as my travel increases).
Why did I resist all of that? There were a lot of reasons and it’s hard to narrow down just one or two. For one thing, it’s a lot of WORK to shepherd a business through that kind of growth and it requires SKILLS that aren’t among my strengths. It also costs a lot of MONEY and involves a significant amount of RISK. All of that brings up a lot of fear and doubt and tired old stories about how I’m “not really a business-woman” and “I shouldn’t reach for too much”.
Back in the Spring, when I was worn out from a few big trips and a fair bit of emotionally exhausting work, I was overwhelmed and a little discouraged and I wondered if it was all worth it. The idea of growth, at that time, seemed far beyond what I had the energy to imagine.
Couldn’t I just stay this size and putter along at the pace I’d already established? Would it be so bad if my business didn’t grow? Plenty of people stay in intentionally small businesses with folksy websites and cobbled together accounting systems – couldn’t I be one of them?
Over the Summer, after I’d rested awhile and my head was a little clearer, I decided to give space to those questions and to spend some time discerning what my relationship with growth would be and what growth would require of me.
Here are some of the things I’ve been asking myself during this time:
Is the growth of my business a healthy and necessary thing, or is it simply tied to a capitalist culture that has us all conditioned to believe that the only good business is a growing business?
What is enough? Am I satisfied with this comfortable life that affords me a comfortable home and enough extra to take my daughters on a modest vacation once a year?
ON THE OTHER HAND… and this is a big one… is this really about MY growth (and – by extension – my business) or is it about the growth of this WORK? If I limit the amount I choose to grow, am I limiting how much this valuable work (that I have the honour of stewarding) can grow?
If I believe that this work is a calling and not just an occupation (and I do), shouldn’t I show up in the best and boldest way that I know how to steward it into the world? And shouldn’t I keep growing the community that can steward it with me?
What does it look like if I trust the WORK to guide me (and, by extension, the community that gathers for that work) rather than the other way around? AND/OR… what is a healthy way for us to be in interdependent relationship?
If the work grows, can I continue to do it in the way that I love – rooted in genuine relationships/community and hosted in reasonably-sized circles? What variation of that style can be adapted to a more expanded audience?
If it’s about the WORK and not about me, what do I need to do to work through my personal limitations and blocks so that the work can thrive? And who are the people who can help me work through them and build the structures needed to support them?
It’s been a healthy and worthwhile process to go through. I didn’t do it in a traditional business planning way, though. (You can wipe any pictures of spreadsheets, planning software, or even sticky notes out of your mind.) I did it while wielding power tools in my backyard. Not only did the process of building furniture with wood inspire my metaphor-loving mind, but the hands-on nature of it helped me shift out of over-thinking mode and break some of the old patterns deeply rooted in my brain.
Instead of relying on my mind alone to find a path through all of this complexity (which is one of my patterns), I let my body and heart help me find the way. My mind would most certainly have gotten stuck in old stories of scarcity, unworthiness, fear, ego, limitation, etc. while my body reminded me “You love building, so just keep building until it feels like the right time to stop!”
At the end of the summer, I feel relaxed, happy and energized to do the next right thing that this work is asking of me. That next right thing appears to be investing in a structure that will support growth, and to do so with integrity and with my values intact.
After all of that reflection, these things feel true:
I am not interested in growth just for the sake of growth, but I AM interested in helping more people learn about the beauty of holding space.
I value community and relationships, so I will continue to grow this work in ways that foster opportunities for deep connections and meaningful conversations.
I will continue to hold true to my authenticity and integrity and will not grow this work simply to feed my ego or bank account. If the work changes me in ways that don’t feel authentic, I will hit the pause button until I can return to alignment.
Success for me will equal success for my extended community. If, for example, my financial resources grow, then I will be better able to support other women in business, to pay people well when they work for me, to give people scholarships for my workshops, and to fund the growth of the school in Uganda.
While I love the work and will continue to serve it to the best of my ability, I won’t jeopardize what/who I hold most dear. If/when necessary, I will put my family and closest friends first. I will also prioritize my own wellbeing and self-care.
One of the great benefits of putting community at the centre of my business model is that the moment I decided I was ready to dive into this new phase, I realized that many of the skills required already exist within my community (or one step removed). I’ve spent the last week in lovely, open-hearted conversations with people who believe in the work that I do and who have expertise that I don’t have (ie. developing a licensing model, setting up an accounting system, managing the details, designing a website, publishing a book, etc.). It reminds me that business development can be rooted in joy, love and community and doesn’t have to burdensome or boxy or involve boardroom tables or powerpoint presentations.
Sure, I still have moments of fear and doubt, but I feel remarkably supported, resourced, and ready.
And you, my friends, who read this newsletter/blog… you too are in this community, supporting the growth of this work. I couldn’t do it without you reading what I write, showing up at my workshops and retreats, inviting me to speak and teach, and offering encouragement and love. I am deeply humbled by the many ways that you continue to show up. A deep bow of gratitude to you!
Some time in the next few months, I expect I’ll be launching a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the publishing of the book on holding space (because every step of this process requires a financial investment) and I trust that when the moment is right, the community will show up as you always have.
Peace to you, my friends. May you lean into your own seasons of growth whenever it is right for you.
Yesterday, on the last day of 2017, I was encouraging my teenage daughter to clean her room. (If you asked for her version of the story, she might use the word “nagging”, but I’m the one telling this story, so let’s stick with “encouraging”.) She had been avoiding it for the better part of the day, despite repeated “encouragement”.
“I think I’ll feel more like doing it tomorrow,” she said. “You know… new year, new me?”
“So… you’re thinking that 2018 will transform you into the kind of person who keeps her bedroom clean?” I asked.
“A girl can dream.” And then we both laughed, because we both know there is no magical turning of the calendar that will transform her into a different person.
We keep hoping that will happen, though, don’t we? Even if we turn up our noses at new year’s resolutions, we create these little fantasies that “maybe THIS will be the year that I lose weight, get my finances in order, stop procrastinating, start exercising, stop self-sabotaging, pay my taxes on time, stop worrying, stop smoking, stop getting into unhealthy relationships, etc.” There’s just something about an as-yet untarnished year stretching in front of us that feels like a good opportunity for a fresh start.
But… just as my daughter already knows, at 15, that it will take more than a calendar change to motivate her to keep her room clean, we all know, deep down, that real change takes a great deal more effort and commitment.
This past week, while I was off work and taking a hiatus from social media, I had some time to think about what it takes to make meaningful change. Just like anyone else, there are areas of my life that I’d like to change. I’d like to lose weight, exercise more, keep my home more consistently clean, be more organized about my finances, etc. I ate too much over the holidays and was far too stationary, choosing the couch over the gym, and I could recognize the temptation to slip into that old familiar spiral of “I’m fat and too lazy and can’t seem to change that about myself, so I must be a bad person and therefore not worthy of love.” (I didn’t slip too far down that spiral, but could see it looming on the horizon.)
I’ve also been thinking about meaningful personal change on a broader spectrum – in those areas of our lives where we may be even more destructive (to ourselves and/or to others) such as addiction, abuse, etc. In this wave of accusations of sexual misconduct that’s resulted from the #metoo movement, for example, we’re discovering more and more men who’ve been guilty of deviant, destructive behaviour. Some have apologized and promised to do better in the future, but I can’t help but wonder… will they really change, or will they simply take their destructive behaviour further underground? Isn’t “getting caught” as ineffective a means of impacting meaningful change as the turning of the calendar? The high rate of recidivism in our prisons would suggest that getting caught and being punished rarely results in real change.
So what DOES result in meaningful behaviour change? How does a person become more healthy or less destructive to themselves and/or another person?
I haven’t found a magic cure, like a calendar change (if I had, I’d be 50 pounds lighter), but I do believe that these are some of the contributing factors to meaningful behaviour change:
1. Start with self-compassion and self-acceptance. This I know to be true… self-loathing and shame are never effective motivators for meaningful change. If you hate yourself and you’re wallowing in the shame of your unhealthy or destructive behaviour, you’ll keep behaving in the same way because you’ll believe that you’re incapable of anything better. You may, subconsciously, want to destroy yourself because of your perceived lack of worthiness, and you may even believe that you deserve to get caught and be punished.
It’s a vicious cycle – when I overeat, for example, I feel badly about myself. When I feel badly about myself, I don’t think I’m worthy of anything better and I want to bury the shame, so I eat some more. I have to break that cycle and it starts with extending love to myself so that I can begin to believe in my own capacity to do better. That requires that I first love myself unconditionally, EXACTLY as I am RIGHT NOW, at the weight I currently am, with the flaws I currently have. And it means committing to that kind of unconditional love EVEN IF I never make the change I’m longing for.
How do I do that? By committing to it on a daily basis, by extending kindness to myself whenever I can, by looking at myself in the mirror when I can and not flinching, by changing my self-talk from “I am useless” to “I am worthy”, and by forgiving myself over and over again when I slip up, and by not blocking the intense feelings (ie. grief, fear, shame, etc.) when they threaten to overwhelm me.
In the book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, Christopher Germer says “Change comes naturally when we open ourselves up to emotional pain with uncommon kindness. Instead of blaming, criticizing, and trying to fix ourselves (or someone else, or the whole world) when things go wrong and we feel bad, we can start with self-acceptance. Compassion first! This simple shift can make a tremendous difference in your life.”
2. Go deeper. A negative behaviour is never just a behaviour – it’s a mask for hidden shame, it’s a way to get a need met, it’s a response to past trauma, and/or it’s a way to avoid pain. If you can’t figure out why you can’t let go of an unhealthy pattern, it’s likely because that pattern is deeply rooted in your past pain, shame, trauma, grief, etc. It’s quite possible, that you developed that particular behaviour as a coping mechanism and there’s a subconscious part of your brain and/or body that believes that if you let go of the behaviour, you’ll be inviting back the pain or you will no longer be protecting yourself from danger. I have considered, for example, that the extra weight I carry may be my body’s way of protecting me from the kind of sexual trauma I’ve suffered in the past.
Unless you work to heal the wound that the behaviour is masking or protecting (and it may be multiple wounds rather than a single source), it will be next to impossible to make sustainable change to that behaviour. You might change the behaviour for awhile, but there’s a very good chance it will return or another destructive behaviour will move in to take its place. Our wounds have a way of getting our attention, one way or another, until we peel away the bandages and expose them to the air. I suspect, for example that many of the perpetrators of sexual abuse that we’re hearing about in the news have been victims of some kind of trauma in the past and their unhealthy use of power and their sexual deviance is really an unhealthy cry for help.
Healing of these wounds may require the support of professionals – therapists, counsellors, body workers, grief coaches, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
3. Recognize the forces at play beyond yourself. In much of modern day self-help literature, there is an underlying belief that you, and you alone, are in control of your own life. “You make your own choices, your thoughts control your outcome, you attract what shows up in your life, etc.” While there is some truth to these beliefs, they are all only partly true.
You are a product of your environment. You have been socially conditioned by the culture and system that you grew up in. You have a fore-ordained place in the social hierarchy that exists, and no matter how much you resist it, you will always be impacted by it. Your value in society is, at least in part, determined by your social status. If you are disabled, for example, you lack some of the privileges that non-disabled people enjoy. If you are a person of colour or transgender, you will likely suffer the effects of oppression and bias that others never face.
These factors limit our ability to make meaningful change in a number of ways. For one thing, a person with limited financial resources, or someone who lives in a rural location, may not have access to therapists or healthy food options or social support networks. A person who’s been ostracized for their gender or skin colour may have a harder time accessing the kind of help they need.
For another thing, there is often internalized oppression at play, even when no external force is limiting us.
A person of colour who’s grown up in a white supremacist culture will have received so many messages that they are less worthy than a white person that those messages will persist in their internal narrative. A woman who’s grown up in a patriarchal system might be a die-hard feminist, but still carry the residual shame of being a woman that she’s always been taught. Recently, while choosing a Netflix movie to watch, I realized that, though I have been overweight most of my life and believe that I am unbiased toward overweight people, I had a hard time believing that a movie with an overweight lead actor would be as good as one with a thin person. I still have internalized oppression toward fat people that’s been conditioned in me over fifty years of viewing the thin ideal on TV screens and fashion magazines.
This kind of internalized oppression makes self-compassion exponentially more difficult and therefore leaves meaningful behaviour change even more out of reach. Fifty years of internalized belief (that’s backed up by society’s standards) that fat people have less value is a pretty big boulder to push out of the way, especially when it’s complicated by the wounds that have been inflicted on this overweight body.
What can we do about this? We can educate ourselves about what forces are at play beyond us, we can choose, little by little, to release and challenge the shame and oppression inflicted on us, we can be kinder to ourselves and others who’ve suffered, and we can choose to contribute to a more just world. This knowledge does not excuse us of personal responsibility, but it does help us to be more self-compassionate when we recognize the additional burden we carry.
4. Make connections. Social isolation is one of the most significant contributors to unhealthy, destructive behaviour, whether it’s addiction, abuse, or simply poor choices. According to this article in Psychology Today, the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection. Addiction, the writer says, is not a substance disorder, it’s a personal disorder.
Canadian psychologist Brian Alexander discovered that rats that were placed in large cages with other rats, where there were hamster wheels and multi-colored balls to play with, plenty of tasty food to eat, and spaces for mating and raising litters, were much less likely to develop an addiction to heroin than those rats living in isolated cages. Given a choice between pure water and heroin-infused water, those in isolation quickly became addicted to the heroin, while those living in community ignored it. Even rats who’d previously been isolated and sucking on the heroin water left it alone once they were introduced to communal living.
Humans are much the same – those who have families and/or support support networks are much less likely to become addicts than those who are isolated. We are social creatures – our relationships help us cope, help us heal, and help us make good choices.
Healthy relationships are those in which we can fail and still be loved, we can speak of our shame and not have more heaped upon us, we can change without being held back by their fear, and we can learn to trust even if our trust has been broken in the past. In healthy relationships, our stories matter and we are not judged for the colour of our skin, the sizes of our waists, or the limitations of our disabilities. Healthy relationships allow us to be our best selves and forgive us for being our worst selves.
In an interview on CBC radio, Alan Jacobs, the author of How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, talked about the value of amplifying constructive voices. “If we can just stop amplifying the worst voices in society, and instead, try to promote the more constructive voices, it really would make a difference,” Jacobs suggested. He goes on to suggest “looking for people who are like-hearted, not necessarily like-minded – people who you don’t always agree with but hold the same virtues like generosity, charity, and honesty.”
These healthy, constructive relationships may be difficult to find, especially if you are already mired in shame and self-loathing, but they are not impossible. You can start by taking a course in something that interests you to find people with similar interests, or join a group on meetup.com. If you happen to be in my city, you’re welcome to join our women’s circle – we meet twice-monthly for a sharing circle where nobody is judged, no advice is offered, and friendship is freely offered.
5. Find spiritual/creative practices that support your intentions. Any time I’ve made a meaningful change in my life, and/or done deep healing work that contributes to the behaviour change, it has been supported by some form of spiritual/creative practice, whether it is a mandala journal practice, a journal practice (that might be supported by something like my 50 Questions), a labyrinth practice (ie. The Spiral Path), a body practice, a mindfulness practice, or an art practice. I recently participated in an online photographic self-expression (ie. creative selfies – offered by Amy Walsh of the Bureau of Tactical Imagination) course that surprised me with some of the ways it healed past wounds.
It seems each time I uncover something new that needs healing or changing, I find a different practice to support it. Different personal growth work seems to respond to different practices. I’ve signed up for two art-related courses for early 2018 because I know that the more time I spend in creativity, the more healthy I am in body and mind. There is something about engaging the creative part of my brain that unlocks a deeper part of me and heals what’s been hidden in the past. I also have an intention to find a body practice that works for me (once my injured shoulder heals).
One of my favourite journal practices is to have conversations with myself and to write those out as dialogue on the page. It might be a conversation between my current self and my younger self that helps uncover an unhealed wound or an unmet need. Or it might be a conversation with my fear to discover what message the fear is trying send me. Or it might be a conversation with my future self that helps my desires and longings to come to the surface. Feel free to experiment with this in your own journal – you might be surprised by what comes to the surface.
6. Take small steps and start fresh each day. “How do you eat an elephant?” asks the familiar proverb. “One bite at a time.” Don’t overwhelm yourself with unrealistic goals that may doom you for failure before you’ve even begun. Instead, set small, manageable intentions. And when you fail to meet those expectations, forgive yourself and start again.
Decide, for example, that “just for today, I will make healthy choices.” And then when you wake up the next morning, set the same goal again. And again. And again. A day of healthy choices is much more attainable than a life-long change. It’s also less to forgive if you’re simply forgiving yourself for failing today rather than for being a life-long failure.
Yes, meaningful change is possible, but remember that it may also not be necessary. Ask yourself if the change you’re seeking is genuinely what you want, or is, instead, the result of cultural norms imposed on you. Perhaps, instead of setting an unrealistic goal to become a new you, your only goal should be to practice self-compassion and acceptance of yourself just the way you are. Maybe it’s the norms of society that need to be changed rather than you?
Perhaps the most radical change you can make is to believe that you are doing the best that you can with the hand you’ve been dealt and that that’s good enough.
That was a question that came up during the Soulful Year virtual planning session on Saturday. It was asked in relation to an exercise that invites you to reflect on the grief, grace, gratitude and growth of the last year and then to release it so that you are ready to receive the year ahead. (You can find the exercise here.) The person asking it wanted to make sure she’d done a good enough job of processing what had happened in the past so that it wouldn’t get in the way of the future.
“Instead of asking ‘have I gone deep enough?’” I said, “ask yourself ‘have I gone as deep as I’m prepared to go right now?’”
“There will always be another layer,” I continued, “and perhaps when you’re working on another exercise this afternoon, something else will come up for you that you’ll want to add to this mandala. That’s okay. You can always go back. Just go as deep as you can right now and trust that, if there are more layers to uncover, those will come up at the right time.”
Here’s a story to illustrate the point…
Last weekend, I was decluttering and re-organizing my laundry/storage/pantry room in the basement. It’s one of those catch-all places for everything that doesn’t fit in the rest of the house, so it holds a lot of clutter. I hadn’t thoroughly cleaned it in a long time, so there were storage bins in it that still held clothes that haven’t fit my daughters since the early part of the century.
By the end of a weekend of hard work, it was still pretty full, but everything fit on the shelves or under the stairs. I was satisfied that I’d gotten rid of everything I could. At the very least, there were no clothes left that don’t fit someone in the family.
A few days later, I was sitting at my computer trying to prepare material for an upcoming course and becoming increasingly frustrated with how stuck I was. Nothing was flowing and no new ideas were showing up. In exasperation, I pushed away from my computer and paced around the house.
Almost by accident, I found myself back in the laundry room staring at the shelves. I yanked a Christmas wreath off the shelf and realized I hadn’t hung it in ten years and probably never will again. I was tired of it. It spoke of another era when I loved to play with pine cones and hot glue. I stuffed it in a garbage bag. Then I started pulling storage bins from under the stairs. One of them was full of dried flowers. Another held a half-finished knitting project and bags of moccasin-making supplies. A third held a handful of other half-finished craft projects and the leftover supplies from a dozen finished projects that I might want to do again someday.
I’d hung onto them because “you never know when I might want to make another pair of moccasins or a dried flower arrangement”.
The truth is, though, I won’t ever make another pair of moccasins or dried flower arrangement. That’s just not my style. I get really interested in an art form, pour my heart into it, and then abandon it when something else catches my attention. In all of my nearly 50 years on the planet, I have never gone back.
The boxes are still there because I’ve been carrying around a story about myself that that is a weakness. I was convinced that some day I’d fix that part of me and become a better person who finishes every project and doesn’t lose interest in things that bore her. Suddenly, standing there staring at those boxes full of craft supplies and shame, I was ready to release that old story.
Here’s a new story… I like to explore. I like to try new things. I am a scanner who loses interest in what I’ve tried in the past because it no longer challenges me and I crave something new.
Giving up on craft projects because they bore me does not make me a bad person.
Finding delight in new ideas every six months does not mean that I’m fickle or wishy-washy.
It’s just who I am. And I don’t need to have a basement full of reminders of why I should be ashamed of that face, because I am NO LONGER ashamed of that fact.
I packed it all up and gave it all away. And suddenly I felt something physical shift in my body – like something had been blocking my airwaves and suddenly I could breathe again. And, as if I’d planned it, Jann Arden’s song started playing from the music player on the washing machine… “So I’m punching out walls and tearing down paper, cutting my bangs, yeah sooner than later, I’m selling my soul right back to Jesus, taking up hope and giving up weakness, untangling the strings… I’m free, yeah. I’m free.”
Here’s an important part of this story… Just like I didn’t need to be ashamed about those unfinished projects or old stories, I also don’t need to be ashamed of the fact that it took me so long to release them. I wasn’t ready until now. I went only as deep as I was prepared to go at the time, and then, when something coaxed me to take another look, I went deeper.
Go only as deep as you’re prepared to go right now. There will be time for going deeper at another time.
I’ve been inspired by a few of the participants in my Mandala Discovery program who signed up for the program a few years ago and have worked their way through the exercises three or four times since. Each time they do them, they gain something new and take their learning to a new depth. What showed up in the third or fourth pass couldn’t have showed up the first time through. They weren’t ready for it then.
Not long ago I had a conversation with a residential school survivor who testified at the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. “I told them about the physical abuse,” she said, “but I wasn’t ready to talk about the sexual abuse. Those stories will have to wait for another time when I’m ready to share them. They still feel too raw.” I was struck by her wisdom, trusting herself to know what felt safe to share and what needed more time in the tender places of her own heart.
This wisdom is true for personal growth, it’s true for interpersonal conflict, and it’s true for community-building. Whether you’re dealing with your own issues or wrestling through things with others, it’s important to pay attention to what level of depth feels right in each particular moment. Sometimes it doesn’t feel safe to go any deeper, sometimes it’s just not the right timing or you don’t have time for the deep dive, or sometimes you haven’t found the right container that can hold the complexity of the depth you need to dive to.
Recently I was having a conversation with a colleague and we were talking about some upcoming training we want to offer in The Circle Way. We were contemplating whether to offer a two-day session or a deeper dive in five days. One of the questions we were asking ourselves was what depth we felt the potential participants might be ready to go and what depth of conversation they might be ready to hold. The Circle Way is one of those practices and containers that can offer value at a rudimentary level or can hold really complex stories, emotions, conflict, etc. at a much deeper level. Again, it depends of the level you’re prepared to go or the length of time you have for the dive.
It all comes back to the spiral. Again and again, whether it’s in our own personal growth or the growth of our communities, we spiral through the layers of what we need to learn, going deeper and deeper until we reach the core. Just like a path straight up a mountain would rob us of our oxygen, a straight path to the depths of our learning would strangle us.
If you’re ready to go deeper, to find the next level of the spiral, then find the right container that can handle the dive. A “container” can be offered by a trusted friend, a therapist, a coach, or a sharing circle – whatever person or group of people holds space for you and makes you feel safe enough for the dive. Or it can start with a set of tools and creative exercises like Mandala Discovery or The Spiral Path (in both cases you have access to a community of people who are working through the program at the same time).
Consider the container like the oxygen mask and wetsuit of a deep-sea diver – the deeper you go, the stronger your equipment needs to be.
When you’re ready, take the spiral path to your own growth. It will lead you through the layers at the speed that you’re ready to uncover them.