A few years ago, I had a pretty big a-ha moment when I realized that the concept of holding space (which I’ve spent the last seven years exploring in a deep way as I developed programs and wrote a book about it) is, at its core, about freedom and sovereignty. Here’s a quote from one of the last chapters of my book…
“If I treat you as someone entitled to your own sovereignty, it means that I assume you have the same right to self-govern your life as I. You get to tell me how you want to be treated and I can choose to accept those boundaries or walk away.
“Sovereignty is what we’ve been talking about throughout this discussion on holding space – that we offer love to each other without attachment, manipulation, control, or boundary-crossing. It’s the starting point to developing healthy, strong social contracts between us.”
It’s taken me a lot of hard learning to get to the place where I can embrace a concept like sovereignty. As I’ve written about in the past, I had to let go of a lot of social conditioning, work through some trauma and abuse, and rewrite some old narratives to even begin to believe I have a right to self-govern my life and choose what’s best for me and my body. Similarly, I had to learn how to treat other people as sovereign individuals, and that’s especially tricky when you’re a parent trying to respect your daughters’ boundaries but haven’t often had your own boundaries respected. I still slip up sometimes, and the old scripts still play in my head, especially when I’m tired, confused, or feel beaten up, but I feel clearer and clearer about what it means to own my sovereignty and be in relationships with people who are equally sovereign.
Lately, though, I’ve had some concerns about the ways in which sovereignty gets talked about, especially in the wellness/self-help industry. It’s becoming an increasingly common term among those who talk about things like personal empowerment, self-love, etc.
Here’s what concerns me… Some of what’s being said ignores the way in which sovereignty is a relational concept.
When you talk about sovereignty without also talking about community and the kinds of social contracts that allow people to be in relationships while still maintaining their sovereignty, then you’re probably actually talking about selfishness and willful ignorance of the impact of your choices. And when you’re talking about those things, then your version of sovereignty is rooted in colonization rather than equity.
A sovereign nation becomes a colonizing nation when it takes its sovereignty too far, ignores the sovereignty of others, and lives by its own set of rules. It bulldozes over other nations’ rights (especially weaker and/or more community-oriented nations), exploits whatever resources it wants, enslaves and marginalizes people of other nations, and ignores any treaties that might have been written.
An individual can take their sovereignty too far in much the same way, centering their own right to do what they want over anyone else’s rights.
Sadly, most of us have been socially conditioned by the colonization that’s steeped into our cultures. As a result, when we claim a word like sovereignty (as the self-empowerment influencers have done), the concept can still hold the shadow of the culture within it. What you end up with is self-empowered people who believe in their own rights to self-govern their own bodies and choose what’s best for them, but who don’t recognize that those choices might actually be harming other people.
Let’s say, for example, that your self-care practice involves paying people to care for your children and clean your house while you get a massage. You have a sovereign right to do all of those things (and I’m all for it). But… let’s imagine that the people doing these things for you are exploited labourers who aren’t being fully compensated for their work because they’re undocumented immigrants or they’re marginalized in a way that makes other work hard to find. Is that truly a sovereign self-care practice if it doesn’t uphold the sovereignty and rights of others?
Or let’s say that you believe you have the sovereign right not to wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic and you pass the virus on to the person working at the grocery store who passes it on to their immuno-compromised child or elderly parent who dies as a result. Is that truly a sovereign choice if it ignores the sovereignty and rights of that family?
Sovereignty has a shadow side and that shadow looks like colonization. If your sovereignty does not acknowledge and uphold the sovereignty of others, then it’s individualism, and an excuse to be self-centred in your choices.
The only way for sovereignty to work in the world is for it to be interwoven with community (which comes with morality, responsibility, and justice).
Sovereignty needs guardrails. To avoid the shadow side, we need to hold it in a relationship with community. Social contracts serve as the guardrails, holding the two in balance.
We can think about sovereignty and community as a yin and yang relationship – they function together, balancing each other out and holding each other accountable. Within each is a bit of the other. And in the space in between is a social contract that weaves the relationship together and keeps one from swallowing the other whole.
Community that’s left unchecked swallows individual rights and erases sovereignty. Sovereignty that’s left unchecked destroys community and leaves everyone isolated and paranoid of each other.
Social contracts (like treaties between countries) guide us in naming and honouring what our individual rights are, what boundaries we need in order to uphold each person’s sovereignty, what we’re willing to give up in service to the community, how we’ll share and/or distribute assets and resources, how we’ll address conflict, and how we’ll celebrate and cherish the bond between us. Not only do they guide the relationship and protect each person’s freedom within that relationship, they also offer the freedom to leave if the relationship no longer serves or if there is irreparable harm done. Clear and supportive social contracts make a relationship stronger, more resilient, more adaptable, and more supportive of the people in it.
When Krista and I entered into a business partnership, we went through a process called Conscious Contracts (with a lawyer trained in the process) and we developed a Peace Covenant that gives us guardrails for our relationship. This helps us hold both sovereignty and community as values at the core of our business. What Krista has often said throughout this process is “I don’t want to be in a relationship with anyone who feels trapped in that relationship or who clings to it too desperately.” We value the relationship, and we are both free to leave if/when that feels necessary.
There is also a process called Blueprints of We that is a form of social contract that could be helpful for all kinds of relationships (not just business partnerships). I encourage you to check it out for your marriage, your family, your community organization, your church, etc.
P.S.If you want to learn more about how to hold space for people’s sovereignty, while also leaning in to community, we welcome you to join us for the Holding Space Foundation Program. Registration just opened for the session that starts in October 2021.
A few weeks ago, when I was teetering on the edge of crawl-under-the-covers-and-don’t-come-out-until-2022 burnout, I was on Zoom with a couple of wise friends. We were checking in about how our lives were going, and I had just unloaded a long list of stressors, fumbles, and mom-worries. I was fighting back tears.
They both looked at me with kindness and one of them said “Nothing is expected of you here.” That’s when the tears spilled out and down my face.
My body wasn’t entirely sure what to do with their offering. Was it REALLY possible that a space was available to me where there were NO expectations? Could I REALLY be fully myself and not have to meet anyone’s needs or worry about letting people down?
While, on the one hand, the tension in me started to ease (because I have a high level of trust in these two friends), on the other hand there was still a little voice whispering “This is too good to be true. Stay on alert because they might change their minds.”
I live in a body that is highly attuned to other people’s expectations and easily triggered if I can’t read those expectations or doubt my capacity to meet them. Raised by a father who was prone to anger and a mother who was prone to insecurity and self-doubt, I learned early how to read the room. If the expectations of one weren’t met, I risked facing anger. If the expectations of the other weren’t met, I risked the parentification of having to soothe the self-deprecation and shame. Add to that the expectations of being the oldest daughter on a farm where poverty was always knocking at the door, who had to take on extra responsibilities when Mom had to find full-time work. Add to that a religion that taught me that if I didn’t make the right choices and meet the expectations laid out in the Bible, I was doomed to hell.
And then I married a man who was prone to both anger AND insecurity (probably because that was what was familiar to me). I spent the next twenty-two years on high alert, trying to read the expectations and anticipate which of those reactions would be triggered if expectations weren’t met. Add to that the expectations of three daughters with their own needs (who were also learning to navigate their dad’s moods and needs). Add to that the expectations of a demanding career and then the financial burden of self-employment. Add to that the residual effect of a religion that told me I had to be a good wife and a culture that idealizes the sacrifice of motherhood.
Anticipating expectations and meeting needs is deeply engrained in the way I live and, quite frankly, it contributed to the success I had in my past career as a Communications Director. It’s part of what has always made me “high-functioning” and “calm under stress” and “a good leader”. (Back when I was sixteen and had to take over for my mom who’d been hospitalized, many people commented on my high capacity to support the family’s needs. That’s been the theme in many, many crises and high-stress situations since. Because we are so reliable under stress, high-functioning people like me tend to overlook our trauma and stress until one day we crumble and it can no longer be ignored.)
That’s why the tend-and-befriend trauma response resonates with me as much as it does. I could never fully see myself in fight, flight, or freeze, so it took a long time for me to recognize that there was trauma in me. When I learned that there was a fourth response, my whole life suddenly made sense. I know what it means to be on high alert and how to discern, in an instant, who has to be protected and who has to be calmed in order to minimize the threat. I know what it means to deprioritize my own needs when there is a threat (real or perceived). I know how to kick into high-functioning-mode when the expectations are high. I know how to scan for possible danger, how to soothe those who are afraid and how to calm those who are angry.
I know how to do all of that at the expense of myself.
When you’ve had a period in your life when you had to spend your days in a psychiatric ward with your husband after his suicide attempt and evenings with your anxious children who don’t understand what happened to their dad, you learn some pretty unique and specific skills in “tending and befriending”. And your body remembers and is easily activated back into that kind of high alert whenever a new threat shows up.
That activation was present a few weeks ago when my friends made that kind offering of space without expectations. And that’s why my body was reluctant to trust it. Because a space without expectations, where people care for me unconditionally, is a space my amygdala tells me is unfamiliar and unpredictable and therefore unsafe.
If you’re a long-time reader, you might be wondering… how does a person with this kind of trauma end up spending her life teaching people how to hold space? Isn’t that counter-intuitive?
No, quite the opposite. It is precisely BECAUSE I am so highly attuned to what’s in the room that I learned early how to listen to people, how to tune in to the complexity, how to set aside my own baggage in the face of other people’s needs, and how to ask good questions that help people articulate their needs, desires, and fears. And because I was so accustomed to being in spaces and relationships where expectations were high (and the consequences of unmet expectations were equally high), I was uniquely able to identify and articulate what it means to release oneself of those expectations and to hold space without attachment to outcome. (It’s worth noting that the section of my book on “holding space for yourself” was the hardest section for me to write – I needed to dig a little deeper for that.)
Because I know, so intimately, what it means to have space hijacked, I also know what it means to have space held. Sometimes the deepest clarity comes when you’ve spent a lot of time examining the flipside of something.
It was partly my own longing that led me to this work. I could see it and name it and dream it, and then, because my trauma also made me high-functioning, I could begin to build it and invite people into it… and fiercely protect it and work doggedly on it until it grew.
My trauma has alchemized into a gift.
But… it isn’t always a gift. It’s a two-sided coin. It holds both shadow and light.
The shadow side of it means that sometimes I still over-function. Sometimes I get burned out from the over-functioning. Sometimes I try to control situations that are outside of my control. Sometimes I slip into performance mode because I’m trying to meet expectations. Sometimes I spiral into over-thinking and over-doing and over-tending and over-befriending. And sometimes I go into a tailspin if I can’t read the expectations or there are too many of them or I lack the capacity to meet them and I fear the consequences. Sometimes the simple act of opening my in-box can be paralyzing because I fear it will be full of people’s expectations and/or disappointments over unmet expectations.
I am working hard to witness and heal these patterns in myself, and to catch myself before I go into a tailspin. I am spending more and more time in conversations and relationships like the one I mentioned above where the expectations are low (or at least clearly articulated and not projected). I am carving out more and more intentional time for myself where there are no expectations (including being off social media, where I sometimes take on too much of the expectations that I be “The Good Author/Influencer/Ally/Friend”). I am letting go of some of my perfectionism and learning (and relearning) that sometimes I need to let people down in order to be true to myself. I am, once again, in therapy, working to loosen the grip of the trauma that’s been re-activated this year. I have a strong business partner who manages a lot of the expectations and reminds me to rest and have healthy boundaries. I am dating someone who has high capacity for naming and claiming her own expectations, for witnessing me fully and authentically, and for taking responsibility for her own baggage (which has been rather revolutionary). And, as my daughters grow into their adulthood, I am taking on less and less responsibility and trusting them to be self-aware and self-lead (and they are stepping up to the challenge).
This summer, I am going on sabbatical and, other than helping my daughters move to faraway cities on opposite sides of the country (yikes!), my time will be blessedly free of responsibilities or expectations. After a year of so much intensity, where my body has been on high alert not only to the danger posed by the virus (especially for my immuno-compromised daughter), but also the additional pressure of launching a book, a new business, and several new programs, I need to claim spaciousness for rest and restoration and nourishment and fun and laughter and love.
I am becoming more and more curious about this next phase of my life, when my daughters move out, when the Centre is in its second year and on more solid ground, and the responsibilities and expectations are reduced. Will I know how to adapt to this new way of being? Will my body truly be able to relax into it? Will it heal me or scare me or a bit of both? Will I set healthy boundaries and claim space for rest? Or will I take on more responsibilities than is necessary just because that’s what I’m familiar with? Time will tell. Check back in a year or two.
P.S. If you’re nearing burnout from trying to meet people’s expectations, you might find meaning and support in my new self-study program, Holding Space in Times of Disruption and Overwhelm. It’s offered on a pay-what-you-can because we want it to be accessible to anyone who needs it.
During an interview for a podcast recently, I was asked “what’s the opposite of holding space?” Though I’ve done many interviews on the subject of holding space since the original post went viral, that’s the first time I’ve been asked that question. As is typically the case for me, the right question can crack open months worth of thought, and this one did just that.
As I contemplated, I searched for a term or word that might describe the opposite of holding space, but I didn’t find one that fully satisfied me. Finally, I came up with this:
The opposite of holding space is hijacking space.
When you hijack a vehicle (a plane, train, ship, etc.), you illegally seize it for your own purposes and force it to a different destination.
While holding space involves supporting without judging, fixing, or controlling the outcome, hijacking space involves manipulating, disempowering, and imposing various forms of judgment and control.
When we hold space, we liberate. We give someone the freedom to be who they are, to make sovereign choices, and to control their own outcome. When we hold space, we leave the person feeling supported and empowered.
When we hijack space, we violate. We take away a person’s freedom, limit their ability to make choices, and take control of the outcome. When we hijack space, we leave the person disenfranchised and weakened.
While holding space offers people an open bowl for their journey through liminal space, hijacking space puts a lid on that bowl.
Some forms of hijacking space are obvious and intentional (such as violence, abuse, overpowering, or bullying), but other forms are much more subtle and inadvertent. Many of these more subtle forms of hijacking space include the kinds of behaviour of which we are all guilty—and usually more frequently than we care to admit.
Here are some of the ways that we hijack space:
expecting them to experience or interpret situations the same way we do
acting as the “tone police” when their emotions are stronger than we’re comfortable with (ie. insisting that they calm down before we’ll talk to them)
gaslighting them and making them believe that they are going crazy and/or are no longer in control of their own emotions
one-upping their story with a better one of our own (and thereby dismissing the value of theirs)
implying that our emotional response to something is more important than theirs
dismissing the value of their work and/or taking credit for it ourselves
not allowing them to trust their intuition and insisting they do things our way
acting dismissively when they share a personal story
not hearing them when they ask us to change our behaviour toward them
ignoring and/or dismissing their emotional state
fixing their problems for them and taking away their power to fix them themselves
taking over their emotions and feeling those emotions deeper than they do
apologizing too much so that they become responsible for making us feel better
expecting them to feed our egos
passive-aggressively trying to manipulate their behaviour
shaming them for feeling too much, speaking too much, eating too much, etc.
over-explaining things (with an assumption that they can’t understand otherwise)
expecting them to educate us about how we should be in relationships with them instead of doing the hard work ourselves
worrying about them in a way that implies we don’t trust them enough to look after themselves
Hijacking space, at its worst, is a tool of oppression. Those who uphold the patriarchy or white supremacy, for example, are usually masterful at hijacking, whether or not they know they’re doing it. We have all seen it happen – the person in power dismissing, fixing, shaming, interrupting in ways that keeps the other person disempowered and fearful. Even in race relations work, where people are conscious and intentional about being in conversation and reconciliation, I have seen people’s ideas being dismissed, emotions being shamed, and/or problems being fixed. (I have even, admittedly, caught myself doing it.) It can feel surprisingly threatening to see an oppressed person claim agency over their own bodies, emotions, etc., and, in response, those who are used to holding the power fall back on the tools of hijacking space that have been passed down through the generations.
But we can’t simply dismiss it as something “they” do.Each of us finds ways of hijacking space. We do it to our children, to our friends, to our spouses, to our employees, and even to our parents. We even do it to ourselves when we police our own emotions in order to make other people feel better (ie. the inner patriarch that Sidra Stone talks about in The Shadow King: The Invisible Force that Holds Women Back).
Just this week, my teenage daughter came home from film camp complaining about a girl in her group who annoyed her, and I was tempted to jump in and assure her that it wasn’t really as bad as she said it was and that she needed to be kind to people no matter what, etc. If I’d done that, I would have immediately disempowered and shamed her. Instead I tried to listen without judgement and speak with compassionate guidance. The next day, she figured out how to deal with this person on her own without me needing to intervene.
We also do it in situations where we’re trying to increase our power in a relationship. Consider a time, for example, when you felt intimidated by someone, and, consequently you interrupted them, dismissed their emotions and/or tried to control the outcome of the conversation. Though it might have felt good, in the moment, to be doing it to someone with seemingly more power than you, it doesn’t serve either of you well in the end. Change doesn’t happen when space is hijacked.
In the talk I gave at a conference a few months ago, I talked about holding space as “being the bowl” for someone else. After a Lego house falls apart, I explained in my analogy, a bowl serves to contain all of the broken pieces before they can become what they’re meant to transform into after that. The bowl doesn’t intervene – it just holds, protects, and creates safe space for the brokenness and emergence.
As hijackers, instead of serving as the bowl that holds, we become the mold that shapes. Instead of creating safe space for the emergence, we break the house and we force it into the shape of our choosing. We manipulate, direct, and judge.
Consider, in your own life, how often you have made choices that weren’t authentic to you, simply because you didn’t want to stir someone’s anger or because that person was shaming you for your choices? Sometimes it’s the subtlest of behaviours that have the most power.
It takes a lot of emotional maturity to be the bowl instead of the mold. We have to do our own work to dismantle our inner patriarch and to look deeply into our shadow. We have to address our shame and our fear, and we have to practice releasing control and sharing power. We have to find the spiritual practices that allow us to detach from other people’s emotions and their outcomes and to allow them their autonomy. We have to practice trust in ourselves and in each other.