“I’m trying not to take it personally, but…” Those are the opening words to many stories I hear from my coaching clients. They’re usually sharing something that has been spiralling through their mind – something that caused a wound, brought up fear, or blocked them from doing something they really wanted to do. They’re not only taking it personally, they’re carrying shame that they can’t simply brush it off.
My response to them is always the same.
Go ahead and take it personally.
Allow yourself to feel the hurt. Allow yourself to cry. Allow yourself to be angry, fearful, frustrated, sad, wounded, etc. Don’t shut down the feelings because of some ancient script that’s telling you that you’re weak if you take things personally.
Do not be ashamed of being a big-hearted, big-feeling person.
I’m not suggesting you should get stuck there, but that’s a good place to start. Healing starts in a heart that’s open, a heart that’s not afraid to feel, a heart that doesn’t try to stuff things away.
I often takes things personally. And I am no longer ashamed of that fact.
As my work becomes more and more public, I occasionally (though thankfully not frequently), get emails criticizing something I’ve said or done or not said or not done on my blog, in my courses, etc.. I used to tell myself “brush it off – this comes with the territory”. But that kind of self-talk was never helpful. I realized that, in trying to stuff the wound away, I was short-circuiting my ability to grow and learn from the wound.
When we bury the wound, we deny it the opportunity to teach us something.
Now, when an email or comment wounds me, the first thing I do is step away from the computer and find a cozy place where I can feel what I need to feel. I might make myself a cup of tea, wrap myself in my favourite blanket or prayer shawl, or head out to the woods where the trees don’t judge me for crying.
The second thing I do is to grab my journal. Journal writing (and mandala-journaling) has always been my way of processing the world. I sit down, and start writing all of the feelings – the hurt, the shame, the anger, the unworthiness, etc.. I don’t censor myself. I just let the pain show up on the page. Sometimes that’s all I need. The simple act of releasing it onto the page can be enough to shift how I feel about it.
If I need more work on it, I let my pen expand my heart as I stretch myself beyond the pain into the learning. I ask myself a few questions and try to answer them as honestly as possible:
- Why is this triggering me? What old stories is it bringing up? (ie. Do I have stories of unworthiness, failure, shame, etc.?)
- What is the deeper healing this wound is inviting me to?
- What truth, even though it’s painful, do I need to receive from what’s been said and what do I need to change as a result?
- Which parts of what’s been said do I need to let go of, recognizing that whatever’s been said is rooted in the other person’s stories, fears, etc.?
- What new stories and new courage might this experience help me step into?
If things still feel unresolved after the journaling, walking, tea-drinking, crying, etc., I consult a trusted friend who will hold space for me while I talk my way through it. The right friend will help me gain perspective on it by asking good questions and offering other ways of interpreting it. She/he will never judge me for feeling the way I feel. (The ones who do make us feel judged are not the right friends to trust at that time.)
After I’ve done my personal work and talked with a friend, I do some discernment about what kind of response is required of me. My response usually depends on the relationship.
If it’s someone with whom I have an ongoing relationship that I want to maintain, I will invest time and energy in trying to engage in a meaningful conversation that will help us both move past this wound. I try to be as honest as possible in admitting how it made me feel (and maybe why it made me feel that way), receiving what I think is valuable in the criticism, and then expressing which part I don’t think is mine to carry forward (releasing, not blaming). I might also ask them to further explain their perspective, if I need deeper understanding.
I love what Brene Brown says in Rising Strong about engaging someone in a conversation after you’ve felt wounded by them. Instead of laying blame, she starts with “the story I’m making up is…” In other words, “I admit to interpreting this through the lens of my own past hurts, self-esteem, etc., and I want to give you a chance to offer a different story if I misinterpreted.”
If the email that hurt me is from a stranger with whom I have no relationship, I decide whether it’s worth it or not to invest in a reply. (Some people are simply complainers or trolls who have earned no right to that amount of my energy.) If it’s worth investing in, I usually respond with a much shorter email (remembering that I don’t have to over-explain myself), expressing gratitude for whatever I gained in the exchange and releasing what isn’t mine to carry. I may or may not invite them to engage further, depending on how much it’s worth to me.
Doing this kind of work when I feel wounded isn’t easy, but it’s necessary if I want to continue to grow and be in healthy relationships with people.
The best thing is that each time I do the work, it heals me a little more and makes me stronger for the next time I face something that has the potential to wound me. Some of the things that wounded me ten years ago no longer have that kind of power over me because I did the work to heal them. And some of the things that wound me now will no longer have power over me in ten years. That’s what doing my personal work healing is all about. It’s never over – it just goes deeper.
“You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability. You can choose comfort or you can choose courage. You can’t choose both. Courage is uncomfortable. That is why it’s rare. Being courageous is more important to me, as a value, than succeeding.” ~ Brené Brown
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“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” – Brené Brown
I like fruity tea. Passionate peach, blueberry bliss, raspberry riot – you name it, I probably like it. But at some point in my life, I picked up the idea that fruit teas aren’t for REAL tea drinkers. In the hierarchy of teas, I imagined them stuck at the bottom, the uncoolest of the hot beverages.
I have no idea where I picked up on that tea story. Perhaps someone made fun of me for my tea choice. Perhaps it was just a vibe I picked up. Perhaps I made it up myself. However I picked it up, I let it affect my tea choices. For years, I was afraid to drink fruity tea in public, afraid that the real tea drinkers might notice and judge me for it.
Silly, isn’t it? But isn’t that how most of our shame stories are – rather foolish, once brought into the light of day?
To be honest, some of my shame stories around food choices are rooted in being raised poor, on a farm, and as part of a small Mennonite subculture that kept itself somewhat apart by not engaging in all of the activities (ie. Fall suppers where I might have been exposed to other kinds of tea) in our community. We didn’t have access to “fancy” foods, and so, when I became an adult and was faced with choices that I wasn’t used to, I was afraid I would choose the wrong thing and people would discover how uncultured I was. I was ashamed of being uncultured – ashamed of being a Mennonite farm kid who wasn’t as sophisticated as I assumed the city kids of more worldly-wise cultures were.
We pick up shame stories for a lot of different reasons. Some of them have clear origins (like parents who made us believe we were shameful) and others can only be understood after years of excavation and personal work. Some are relatively easy to release (I now drink fruity tea in public when I want to) and others have become so imbedded into our identity, they become part of our DNA (like the shame around cultural/racial identity).
We inherit many of our shame stories from the generations that came before us in our lineage. Those are the ones that become particularly imbedded into our identity.
After spending several years working in international development, and then a few years on the board of a feminist organization, and now as part of a team doing race relations conversations, I’ve noticed a pattern about cultural shame. Though shame is common to all cultures, it has a particularly strong hold among oppressed cultures.
One of the greatest weapons of oppression is shame. When oppressors manage to inflict shame on people, they increase their own power and diminish the ability of those they oppress to rise up out of their oppression. Shame diminishes courage and strength.
Ironically, though, many of the shame stories related to oppression are passed down not directly from the oppressors themselves but from those above us in our lineage who have been oppressed before us – not because they want to oppress us, but because they want to protect us.
We pass the stories of oppression down to those we most want to protect. When we inherit them as young children, though, those oppression stories become shame stories.
In the book “The Shadow King: The invisible force that holds women back“, Sidra Stone teaches that we adopt the inner patriarchy (the voice that tells women that they are not worth as much as men) from our mothers. It is primarily our mothers who teach us how to stay small, how to please the men, how to avoid getting hurt, and how to give up our own desires in deference to others in our lives (especially men). They do it to protect us, because that’s the only way they’ve learned to protect themselves. And so it goes, from generation to generation, each mother passing down to her daughters the stories of how they can stay safe.
Last week, many of us watched the video of a Baltimore mother who beat her son in public when she found him among the protestors. Desperate to protect him, she pulled him away from enemy lines and taught him, by her own raised hand, that he must learn to submit or risk being killed.
The problem is that those of us growing up in environments where we’re learning these stories from our parents do not yet have a reference point to understand generations of oppression. The only way we know how to interpret our parents’ attempts to keep us small and silent is to believe that they will stop loving us if we become too large and vocal. We become convinced that we are worthy of shame and not love. Though that mother in Baltimore may tell her son a thousand times that she did it out of love and a desperate need to protect him, I suspect there will always be a small child inside him who will believe “my mother shamed me in public, therefore I am worthy of shame.”
Remember the experiment with the monkeys, where a beautiful bunch of bananas hung above a ladder, but every time a monkey would climb to get the bananas, all of the monkeys in the cage would be sprayed with water? Not wanting to be sprayed, the monkeys kept pulling down any monkey who attempted to climb the ladder. Even after all of the monkeys were replaced (one by one) and nobody had experienced the spraying, they still kept any new monkey from climbing the ladder, because they themselves had been stopped. Those new monkeys (if they think like humans), not knowing the history, probably believed “I have done something wrong and my tribe is ashamed of me. I must not be worthy of happiness.” And then they passed the story down to the next generation, pulling down anyone who dared to climb the ladder.
Growing up with the shame inflicted by generations and generations of shamed people, we forget that it is not the lack of love they had that caused them to pass this down to us, it is their wounded love that meant they didn’t know how else to protect themselves and us from further wounding.
And, remarkably, it’s not only psychological – it becomes planted in our very DNA. Studies have shown that trauma has changed people’s DNA and that that DNA has been passed down to subsequent generations, showing up as irrational fear and the tendency to be triggered even if they didn’t directly experience that trauma. If trauma can be passed down through DNA, I’m fairly certain that shame can too, since trauma and shame are often closely linked.
How do we heal these generations of wounds? That is something that I’m just beginning to explore and read about (as are many others) and I welcome anyone’s thoughts, ideas, or experience.
I know that it must be a holistic response, involving body, mind, and spirit. In The MindBody Code, Mario Martinez talks about how we have to heal the shame in our bodies as well as our minds. He teaches contemplative embodiment practices that help replace the shame stories with honour stories.
I also believe that healing shame involves dancing, singing, art-making, spiritual practices, and lots of touch. We can’t heal shame with simply left-brain, logical thinking – we have to engage in creative, right-brain spiritual meaning-making. It helps to create rituals (ie. painting the shame monsters and then painting safe places for them to be exposed), embody our healing (ie. dancing our way into courage), and find spiritual practices that teach us to let go and trust (ie. mindfulness meditation).
And, more than anything, I believe that healing happens in community. Ironically, we pick up our shame through our relationships and we heal it through healthier relationships. That’s the nature of community – it comes with both the good and the bad, the wounding and the healing. In order to heal, we have to find safe community in which we can be vulnerable without fear. When we expose our shame stories among those who hold space for us, the shame loosens its power over us. Intentional circle practices are the best practices I know of for this kind of work.
Happily, there have also been studies that demonstrate that those changes to the DNA can be reversed, so there is hope for the generations that come after us if we do our work to heal. Shame is not the end of the story. We can heal it for ourselves and future generations.
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“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor Frankl
After last week’s post about serving as wounded healers
, I received a thought-provoking email from a reader.“I have been wondering a lot about the language surrounding letting go, moving on, and forgiving. The way the phrases come out seem misleading to me. I mean, how does one just simply choose to forgive, or let go when there is a big part that just isn’t willing to do that yet even though we want to? We can intellectually get why and how, but doing so is almost an entirely different thing.”
I have been thinking a lot about his question ever since. Even after I sent a response to his email, I kept wondering what else there might be to say. Is “letting go” a one time decision, or is it a daily commitment? Is it possible to “let go” entirely, or is it more true that we loosen our grip for awhile until something unexpectedly triggers us and returns us to that wound for another (hopefully deeper) healing journey?
In last week’s post, I made reference to the time a man climbed through my window and raped me in my bed. After years of seeking healing for that wound, I’d like to think that I’ve let go, moved on, and forgiven that man, but in truth, I am still occasionally triggered and the old wounds come back to haunt me. Last Fall, for example, when Tina Fontaine’s body was found in the river near where I’d lived at the time, and then, a few months later, Rinelle Harper survived a similar attack, I found myself triggered once again. Around the same time, it was revealed that Jian Gomeshi, a celebrity in Canada, had been sexually assaulting women for years and getting away with it. I found myself angry, shaken, and some days nearly unable to get out of bed.
Have I let go? Have I healed? Have I forgiven? Yes… and no. I have worked through much of the pain, I have grown immensely from the experience, I have learned to trust people again, and I have used the experience to help me serve as a more compassionate wounded healer. And yet… I can still get angry, I can still fear intimacy, and I can still allow some of the emotional wounds to change how I treat my own body. Last Fall’s triggering taught me that I still have more layers to heal in this story.
So… does that mean that we can never be fully functioning members of society because we are all always carrying around old wounds? No, that’s not it at all. Our wounds change us and become part of our stories, but they do not define us nor do they own us. Though healing may be a lifelong journey, we are still responsible to do the work and to offer the gifts of what we’ve learned to others.
Here are some of my thoughts on the healing journey…
1.) Life is more like a labyrinth than a linear path. A labyrinth journey takes you toward centre, but it never takes you directly there. First you wind in and out, sometimes close to centre and sometimes far away. Life is the same way. Sometimes you feel like you’ve reached your goal and that your wounds are healed, and then suddenly the path turns and you are once again wandering in a wasteland of doubt and despair. That doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong, it simply means that you have more to learn from the place at the edge of the circle.
2.) Pain can be our greatest teacher, but we have to allow ourselves to feel it in order to learn its lessons. We can’t short-circuit the learning that grief and struggle bring to our lives. When we try to ignore it by staying busy or dull it by turning to substance abuse or avoid it by pretending we can simply return to life as usual, we simply put it on hold and can expect that it will surface again later in life in an more urgent and unhealthy way.
3.) When we are mindful, our wounds have less ability to control us. In mindfulness meditation (my limited training comes mostly from the Shambhala Buddhist tradition), we are taught not to try to stop the thoughts, but to witness them and simply let them pass. The same is true for how we should treat our anger, judgement, fear, etc. We shouldn’t try to shut it down or deny ourselves the experience of it. Instead, we have an opportunity to witness it, inquire into it (What is this moment teaching me? What do I still have to learn from this emotional experience? What is the fear hidden beneath my anger?) and then allow it to pass. (I intentionally say “allow” it to pass rather than “let it go” because allowing is less about our control and more about acceptance.) That doesn’t mean it won’t come back again, but when it does come back, it has less ability to debilitate and control us.
4.) Those who search for meaning in any situation are better able to heal from it. Is there a reason for the suffering in the world? I don’t know. It’s hard to justify the suffering caused by the earthquake in Nepal, for example. There may not be a cosmic reason for it, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t meaning for each of us as we live through the suffering. As Viktor Frankl reminds us, in Man’s Search for Meaning, those people who were best able to survive the atrocities of the concentration camps during the Second World War were those people who found meaning in their suffering. “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
5.) As wounded healers, we can offer healing even if we’re still on the healing journey ourselves. Although it’s important to work on our own wounds first (so that we don’t use those wounds as an excuse to inflict more wounds on others), we can’t wait until we are “completely healed” to serve the world around us. There is no such thing as “completely healed”. Instead, there are those who are further along the healing journey than others who reach back and offer compassion and guidance to those behind them. When I started teaching, I adopted as my mantra George Bernard Shaw’s quote… “I’m not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead – ahead of myself as well as you.” Change the word “teacher” to “healer” and it still applies.
6.) Our wounds make us beautiful. Mark Nepo shares the story of a brokenhearted young woman who finds an old man in the woods. When she shares her story of heartbreak with the man, he tells her the story of how each of us is like a flute and each time we are wounded, a new hole is carved into us. ‘It is a simple fact that a flute can make no music…if it has no holes,” says the wise old man. “Each being on earth is such a flute, and each of us releases our songs when our Spirit passes through the holes carved by our life experiences.’” No two flutes have the same holes and therefore no two flutes make the same music.
If you’ve been wounded and are on the path to healing, remember that you are beautiful, right now, exactly as you are. This healing journey will bring you many gifts that are needed for the healing of this world. Be mindful, search for meaning, and let yourself be changed.
Note: I’d like to dedicate one post a month to wrestling with readers’ questions, so if you have been contemplating something that you’d like me to talk about, simply add a comment with your question. I don’t promise “answers” or “solutions”, I’ll simply offer my thoughts from my place on the journey.
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection. I send out weekly newsletters and updates on my work.
“In a futile attempt to erase our past, we deprive the community of our healing gift. If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others.” – Brennan Manning
On Sunday I sat in a circle of wounded healers. These were the openhearted people who had gathered for our second Race to Peace
It started with Rosanna Deerchild, the first to offer healing out of her own wounds. In the Maclean’s article that named our city the most racist in Canada, Rosanna shared how she has faced racism on a weekly basis. “Someone honks at me, or yells out ‘How much’ from a car window, or calls me a stupid squaw, or tells me to go back to the rez. Every time, it still feels like getting punched in the face.”
When Rosanna’s face appeared, without her blessing, on the front cover of Maclean’s, and she was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as the “face of racism”, she made a courageous choice. Instead of responding with outrage, she decided to reach out with healing. She offered to host dinner and a conversation with people in the city about race relations, and out of that willingness, Race to Peace was born.
Rosanna’s choice inspired others to make similar choices. In the circle that gathered on Sunday, there were many who had been wounded and are now willing to extend healing.
There was the man who’d gotten a girl pregnant at 13, joined a gang, landed in jail, and was now studying to be a social worker so that he could help other young men stay out of gangs and jail and make a positive impact on the world.
There was the woman who’d immigrated from the Philippines and had experienced racism in trying to find a job in Canada and wanted to support other job-seekers with similar stories.
There was the man who’d experienced conflict in El Salvador who is now passionate about peace in his adopted country.
There was my husband, who dropped out of school in junior high because of his own anxiety and insecurity, found the courage to go to university as a 40 year old father, and now teaches in a jail.
And there was me… once raped by an indigenous man and determined not to let that make me bitter toward people of his race or gender.
The term “wounded healer” comes out of the work of psychologist Carl Jung, who believed that analysts are compelled to treat patients because the analysts themselves are wounded. My friend Jo, who is also a psychologist, says that most of the people she studied with ended up in psychology for that very reason. According to some research by Alison Barr, “73.9% of counselors and psychotherapists have experienced one or more wounding experiences leading to their career choice.”
This is not unique to psychologists. Caregivers of all kinds (nurses, hospice workers, coaches, social workers, grief counselors, etc.) are often in the line of work they’re in because they first experienced their own wounds. (Of note: Henri Nouwen has written a book related to the topic, called Wounded Healer.)
“As soon as healing takes place, go out and heal somebody else.” – Maya Angelou
We are always given a choice what to do with our wounds. We can use them as an excuse to go out and wound other people (which is at the root of most of the pain in the world), or we can do the hard work of healing and then use that healing as a gift to help in other’s healing. The wounded healer emerges in all of us who make the right choice.
I first stepped into my coaching vocation in a hospital room.
I’d landed there in the middle of my third pregnancy after my cervix had suddenly become incompetent and medical intervention had failed to correct the situation. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have been in that situation if it hadn’t been for a series of doctors’ errors.
Lying on my back in a hospital room, fearing for my son’s life, I realized I had a choice to make. I could be bitter and resentful and blame the doctors for what had happened, or I could accept the situation and forgive the doctors. I chose the second.
Once I made that choice, I was at peace. Though it was stressful not knowing what would happen to the baby and not being in control of my own life while I waited, I was surprisingly calm. Since I could do nothing else, I began to turn my hospital room into a little spiritual retreat centre, with gentle music playing, cards and pictures from my kids on the wall, and fresh fruit and flowers on the windowsill.
People began to notice how peaceful my room was, and unexpected visitors started showing up. Other patients, cleaning staff, doctors, friends, and even other people’s visitors – all of them showed up there at one time or another and all remarked at the peacefulness of the room. Some of the nurses on the floor started dropping in during their breaks because my room was more relaxing than their coffee room. A cancer patient from across the hall became a regular visitor because her visits made her feel less anxious.
While they were there, people began to share things with me – personal things that they were working through in their own lives. There was the nurse who was struggling with parenting decisions, another nurse who’d moved from Africa and was finding it difficult to adjust to a new culture, the cancer patient who was afraid to die, and a friend who was trying to make a difficult decision about whether to step into leadership.
Without intending to, I became confidante and coach to those people. Long before I knew the term “holding space” I was doing it in that hospital room for anyone who needed it. I had plenty of time on my hands and I was willing to be of service and that willingness drew people to me. It was both humbling and eye-opening.
There I was, confined to my hospital room, serving as a wounded healer to friends and strangers alike. Because of my own fear, I could hold theirs without judgement. Because I’d walked through injustice and anger and came through to forgiveness, they saw something in me that they could trust. Because I made the effort to create a peaceful space in a tumultuous situation and environment, they sought me out as friend and healer.
That experience changed my life and led me to the work that I now do. None of it could have happened, though, if I hadn’t first been wounded. If that pregnancy had been easy and had resulted in a living child (instead of my stillborn son, Matthew), I might have carried on in my relatively successful corporate job. I might never have discovered my ability to hold space for other people and might never have contributed to the healing of their wounds.
The same can be said for that long ago rape. If I hadn’t been changed by that circumstance, healed the wound the rapist left me with, and come through determined not to perpetuate a cycle of oppression and wounding, I might never have stepped forward when Rosanna spoke of her desire to hold conversations about race relations.
Each of us has a choice – stay wounded and let the wounds fester, or seek healing and offer that healing to others.
“We are not going in circles, we are going upwards. The path is a spiral; we have already climbed many steps.” — Hermann Hesse (Siddhartha)
**Trigger warning. What is shared in this post may be disturbing to some.**
I hardly know where to begin. I want to write a blog post about the complexity and beauty and challenge that this Fall has been for me, but some of the things going on in my heart and my mind are too big, too complicated, and too unresolved for words.
On the one hand, it has been beautiful beyond words. My work is growing and I am being stretched and challenged and invited into a deeper and deeper understanding of the core of what I teach. I’ve hosted a storytelling circle in a corporate environment, I’ve led women into the hills for a lament ritual, I’ve taught a workshop on women’s power at a gentle retreat for women, I’ve gathered people in a virtual openhearted writing circle, I’ve taught The Circle Way to church leaders, I’ve delivered a keynote speech on the labyrinth, the mandala, and The Circle Way as creative practices for self care at a women’s wellness workshop, I’ve hosted an online seminar on Lessons from the Labyrinth, and I’ve launched a course called The Spiral Path: A Woman’s Journey to Herself.
Wow. All of that in only 2 months. No wonder I’m waking up slowly this morning, with my head spinning full of the goodness of the people I’ve met, the joy of doing the work I love, the excitement of what is still to come, and the humble astonishment that people are trusting me to have enough wisdom to teach them these big and sometimes hard things.
But there’s been something else going on under the surface that is also worth talking about. Something that challenges all of this work I’ve been doing and, in the hardest moments, makes me want to throw up my hands in despair.
I have been triggered. Again and again. In sometimes familiar and sometimes surprising ways. And I have gotten angry. And I’ve wept. And I’ve curled up in a ball in my room not wanting to face the world.
It started with the vigil for Tina Fontaine, the young woman whose body was found in the Red River in my city. I wept for her innocence, wept for girls like her who continue to be exploited by sexual predators, and wept for the many murdered and missing Indigenous women in our country whose lives don’t matter to those in positions of political power in our country.
I took that weeping to the hills of South Dakota. I invited other women to walk the hills with me, weeping and holding ceremony for the grief we carry from centuries of wounded, exploited, abused, and silenced women. We resolved nothing, but we gave ourselves permission to feel the weight of the sadness. We clung to the belief that releasing our tears opens a doorway to our collective healing.
But then, not many weeks later, our country was rocked by a story of another kind – a story that was both dramatically different and yet eerily connected to the Tina Fontaine story.
One of the most famous media personalities in our country, a man we all wanted to trust because he was smart and savvy and asked intelligent questions and had even taken women’s studies in university, was fired from our public broadcaster. We were in collective shock and many of us rushed to defend his right to make choices in the bedroom that we ourselves wouldn’t make. But then the truth exploded in our faces. He had a long history of being a sexual predator, of perpetrating violent acts toward women (and some men) without their consent, of harassing young female employees and getting away with it, and of using his celebrity status to walk away from everything despicable act like the Teflon Don.
Suddenly the world erupted with hundreds, maybe thousands of stories of women who’d been subjected to the kind of treatment that this man was being accused of and had never reported it. (Check the hashtag #beenrapedneverreported on social media) Every time I checked my Facebook stream and nearly every time I turned on the radio there were stories of sexual harassment, date rape, abuse of power, etc.
Two things happened to me in the middle of all of this. Firstly, I became rather obsessed with reading everything that appeared, wanting to understand this horrible story of how someone so popular and well-loved had gotten away with such heinous behaviour, and wanting to hold space for all of the women who’d been treated horribly by this man and others.
Secondly, I was triggered.
A flood of memories came back to me and I was in the middle of my own stories. I remembered the times when, as a young woman, I worked in male-dominated environments (a trucking company and a construction company) where it was almost a daily occurrence to have a man lean over me at my desk, ostensibly to talk to me about what I was working on but obviously to look down my blouse. I remember how it felt to put up with this behaviour because I needed the money and because sometimes the bosses were the perpetrators and there was nowhere to turn to and nobody who would take me seriously.
And I remembered how it felt to be part of a sexual harassment investigation against one of the senior managers in the government department I worked in early in my career, how it seemed strange to be talking honestly about how he treated women to investigators when I’d looked up to him as my boss just weeks before, and then how it felt a little like we needed to carry some guilt when he died just months after being removed from his job.
And then came the worst memory of all.
I remembered how it felt to lay on my bed after a man had climbed through my window and was brandishing a pair of scissors over my head threatening to kill me if I didn’t have sex with him. And I remembered the violation of his hands and penis on my naked body and the smell of him stuck to my skin.
And then the accompanying memory of how it felt to have my body poked and prodded by a doctor and nurse looking for clues that might have been left behind by the perpetrator. And how they shamed me for having taken a bath to wash the stink of him off my skin before coming to the hospital, because I’d probably washed off all the evidence.
And how it felt to have the two male police officers tell me that I should think long and hard about whether I wanted to formally report this as a crime, because I would be dragged through the courts and probably be made to feel shame for sleeping with my window open on a stiflingly hot day and for living in a neighbourhood that decent girls shouldn’t live in. And then how it felt to sit in the back seat of their police cruiser and listen to them tell racist jokes while they drove me back to my apartment to gather my bedsheet and the scissors he’d brandished above my head as evidence.
And how it felt the next day, to have to give up the triathlon I’d been training for, because I was shaking from trauma and my neck was stiff from when he’d tried to choke me to death.
Yes, I was triggered. And I was angry.
I was angry that there are still so many sexual predators who prey on young women in their beds, in their workplaces, and in the universities they attend. I was angry that so many of them get away with it because the victims recognize that it will be harder to report it and live through what the justice system puts them through than to go away quietly and focus instead on their own healing.
I was angry at the abuse women were taking in social media because they dared to step forward and call out a sexual predator who happened to be a well-loved celebrity.
And then another story emerged and I got even more angry. Two politicians were suspended for harassment toward women.
And suddenly I felt overwhelmed with how much women still have to put up with, with how much my daughters are still at risk, and with the ways that harassment and sexual misconduct of all kinds is swept under the rug not only in trucking companies, but in the halls of power in our country.
That’s when I began to feel despair. Is anything really changing? Is there really any reason for hope?
We want to believe that women have more rights and protection than they once did, but is the patriarchy just going underground and becoming more insidious in its way of undermining women’s power?
Just a few weeks ago, I taught a workshop on women’s power, and now suddenly I found myself wondering whether any of that was really going to make any difference. Sure it’s good to help women step into their power, but will they really be able to access it if the patriarchy beats them down again and again and weakens them by making fun of them when they stand up for what they believe in and ignoring them when they’ve been violated?
Is all of my work just a bandaid solution when the real disease is so very big and insidious and powerfully abusive?
I don’t know the answer to this huge problem. I don’t know the remedy to my despair. I don’t know if all of the teaching I’ll ever do in my life will ever make one iota of difference in a world that seems to be getting worse every day.
I don’t know how to ensure that the world will be more gentle to my daughters than it was to me.
And that’s when I returned to the teachings of Margaret Wheatley. Four and a half years ago, I participated in a workshop she was teaching and at the time she was grappling with her own despair. She kept asking herself what her efforts were worth when the world seemed to be getting worse day after day. In the time since then, she’s written a book about just that, and she’s come to the conclusion that it is best to give up hope of making change, and simply commit to the work because it is the right thing to do.
“My great teachers these days are people who no longer need hope in order to do their work, even though their projects and organizations began with bright, hope-filled dreams. As ‘the blood-dimmed tide’ of greed, fear, and oppression drowns out their voices and washes away their good work, they become more committed to their work, not because it will succeed, but just because it is right for them to be doing it.”
I re-read that, and once again, I lift my head out of my despair and I turn toward the work that is calling me. Because it’s all I know how to do and it’s all that I have to cling to.
Because I believe that gathering people into circles is the best way to shift the imbalance of power in the world and to bring women and men into spaces where they can speak about hard things and find healing together.
Because I believe the labyrinth teaches us that the whole journey is important – the hard parts that bring us far from centre and the gentle parts that circle closer to Source.
Because I believe that storytelling has the capacity to shift us away from blame and shame into deeper listening and more openhearted understanding.
Because I believe that we each have to do our inner work of healing and growth so that we can show up as warriors in a world that needs us to be courageous.
Because I believe that even if none of this causes the world to shift, it will at least shift the world for me and the people I sit in circle with and that is what matters right now.
Because I know that I couldn’t have healed from the wounds that man inflicted on me in my bedroom if I hadn’t found the kind of personal practices (journal-writing, mandala-making, mindful wandering, etc.) that I now teach others to embrace.
“Let us walk away from that mountain of despair-inducing failures and focus instead on the people in front of us, our colleagues, communities, and families. Let us work together to embody the values that we treasure, and not worry about creating successful models that will transform other people. Let us focus on transforming ourselves to be little islands of good caring people, doing right work, assisting where we can, maintaining peace and sanity, people who have learned how to be gentle, decent, and brave as the dark ocean that has emerged continues to storm around us.” – Margaret Wheatley
And so I invite you, once again, to commit with me, to gather in circle for storytelling and tears and healing, to have real conversations about hard things without shame, and to heal from all of these wounds one tiny bit at a time.
Because it’s the right thing to do.