My friend Saleha laughs at me and shakes her head in puzzlement when I bundle up in -30° C weather and go for my daily walks. “It’s not weather that’s fit for humans,” she says, and she’s mostly right. This is the kind of weather that could kill me if I weren’t dressed for it or if I stood in one place for too long.
I do it anyway, because my walks help to keep me grounded and, as I said last week, they help me soothe some of the emotional overload that’s so often present these days. A few days ago, I snapped a picture of myself to send to Saleha just before heading out the door. She sent back a TikTok video and emoji poking fun at me.
I have the right clothes for winter walking – a down-filled parka and down-filled mittens, a pair of good ski pants, warm and sturdy boots, and a woolen hat and scarf. It can be surprisingly pleasant (unless there’s a lot of wind) and I usually come home sweaty and happy.
I was looking at the selfie I’d snapped for Saleha when it suddenly occurred to me what a good metaphor this is for how our bodies protect us when they sense danger in the environment. My layers of clothing protect me against the cold the way my nervous system protects me against the threat of harm. Like putting a coat on, my nervous system becomes activated (i.e. fight/flight/freeze/fawn) so that I can survive the threat and come home alive.
I love my parka for how well it takes care of me when it’s cold. I also love my nervous system for how well it takes care of me when there’s a threat. They both do their jobs beautifully. I am happy, though, when neither of those things need to do their jobs.
Imagine if I somehow convinced myself that I still need to wear those layers of clothing when I go to the beach in the summer and it’s +30° C outside in the blazing sun. You’d not only look at me funny, but you’d worry that I’d die of heat stroke from being overprotected.
That’s what happens when stress or trauma gets stuck in your body. Your normally well-functioning nervous system becomes convinced there is a threat when there is no real threat. It’s just trying to do its job, but it’s become conditioned to misinterpret the situation and can inadvertently cause harm.
Everyone’s over-reactive nervous system looks a little different (and can also be situation-dependent), so we don’t always recognize it in each other. (It’s not as simple to discern as a parka on the beach.) While one person might tend toward dissociation (freeze), someone else might have an easily triggered temper (fight), or they might run from the room as quickly as possible (flight). Others might become overly solicitous to the source of the perceived threat (fawn), or they might look after everyone else in the room and try to mitigate the threat while abandoning their own need for safety (tend-and-befriend).
Right now, with this pandemic entering its third year, it feels like almost all of us have been walking around with our parkas on for two years, trying to protect ourselves from harm even when the harm is invisible and sometimes non-existent. Not only is the virus a threat, but, for many of us, there are relationship landmines to protect ourselves from, especially in families or communities where people have different opinions about vaccines, etc. Add to that the racial injustices and political unrest that seem to be escalating and it’s just… TOO MUCH.
When do we get to take our parkas off? When can we trust that the environment is safe enough to lean into? For many of us, that might take quite some time because our bodies have become so primed for danger. (Here in Canada, when Spring finally arrives, we often still take our parkas along on long road trips because we never know when the weather might take a turn for the worse.)
I am looking forward to Spring! In more ways than one!
This past weekend, in need of some intentional self-care, I went to the float spa. In a way, the float spa experience is the opposite of the walking-outside-in-winter experience. To get the full experience, you have to strip naked, surrender to the salt water, close the pod to block out light and sound, and float. No effort required. For an hour, you simply lay there and try to rest your mind and body in a womb-like space.
According to the website of the spa I visit, “Without the constant noise of analyzing the world around you, your body lowers its levels of cortisol, the main chemical component of stress. Your brain releases elevated levels of dopamine and endorphins. Not having to fight gravity lets your muscles, joints, and bones take a well-deserved break. Your body suddenly has loads of extra resources, which it gets to focus on things like healing and resting.”
A float spa experience is one of trust and good boundaries. It wouldn’t feel safe if the pod were situated in an area exposed to the public, but with the door to the private room locked, I am able to trust that no harm will come to my body. There are times, though, when I just can’t get to that level of trust. I’ve tried the float spa a couple of times when I’ve been in periods of high stress and burnout and I simply wasn’t able to quiet my over-active brain enough to enjoy the experience. Fortunately, this most recent visit was not one of those times.
This post is not meant to be an endorsement for float spas (they’re certainly not for everyone, and there are less expensive ways to get access to a soothing experience), but rather it’s meant to offer the comparison and to suggest that we all need to find and create spaces where enough of the conditions for safety are met so that our over-active nervous systems can rest. We all need to be able to take off our parkas sometimes, or we’re going to pass out from heat exhaustion on the beach.
One of the other things I do (that’s like a float-spa for my brain) is to stay off social media on the weekends because I know that social media often floods me with too much cortisol. I’ve also limited my activity on social media and limited the amount I express my opinion on hot-button issues so that I don’t get sucked into as many of the cortisol-inducing debates that usually end up leading nowhere (and are engineered by social media to keep us hooked). (That’s been especially challenging recently with our country so divided over the “freedom convoy”.)
I don’t want to “die on the beach”, so I need to regularly take off my metaphorical parka and climb naked into the pod. In other words, I had to make an intentional move away from warrior stance into tenderness.
It’s not that I intend to stay silent on issues of injustice, but if I want to function well enough to do the work that I love, I need better boundaries and more of what makes me feel nurtured and protected. Instead of being a warrior for social justice on social media (where I’m often convinced it makes little difference), I will do my best to continue to bring love, liberation and justice into the spaces I hold. I will protect those spaces with fierce boundaries and help people find what they need so that they can contribute to a world of more love, liberation and justice.
A few people have asked me, lately, why I’ve seemingly turned from my focus on holding space toward tenderness as a theme, and my answer is that those two things are inextricably intertwined. You simply CAN’T hold space without tenderness. And if you never offer tenderness to yourself, then you’ll be much more inclined to hijack space rather than to hold it.
That’s why I wrote the free e-book, The House That Tenderness Built, and why I’m hosting the workshop, Living in the House that Tenderness Built this weekend. I’m doing it because I want to give people their own version of a float spa, where they can take off your metaphorical parkas, let the sun shine on your faces, and let their bodies, minds and hearts rest.
I can’t fix any of the problems people face and I can’t protect them from injustice or a deadly virus, but I can help them find ways to treat themselves when the problems threaten to overwhelm them.
There is far too much evidence of the lack of tenderness in our world these days, and so it’s my mission to help people find it and bring it back. I want it for you and I want it for me. Let’s be tender together. It’s the only way we’ll find the resources we’ll need to step back into the less-than-tender world.
I was once sharing a room at a retreat with a high-functioning businesswoman who was holding a lot on her shoulders. Each evening, after our sessions ended, I’d hear her on the phone talking with her husband about their clients and business operations. Though she was on retreat, she couldn’t stop working because so many clients (and her husband) depended on her.
When she got off the phone one evening, I commented about how much capacity she had, and then I asked, “Do you ever get to fall apart? Do you ever get to just be weak and not be the capable one in the room? And do you have anyone in your life capable of holding you when you fall apart?”
She paused a moment, and I could see by the look on her face that the question had touched a deep and well-guarded place in her heart. In a voice that was quieter and more tender than I’d heard before, she admitted that she didn’t ever let herself fall apart and that she trusted nobody to be able to hold her if she did. When we dug a little deeper, she talked about how losing her mom at a young age had forced her to grow up too quickly and become “the competent one”. Now she didn’t know how to step out of that persona and was afraid of what would happen if she did.
I encounter a lot of people just like her in this work. People who hold space for others are very often “the competent ones” who hold other people but don’t let themselves fall apart. And, I admit, I have those same tendencies myself. I knew to ask her the question partly because I saw myself in her – I know what it feels like to try to hold the whole world together for the people who matter most to us.
Unfortunately, most people are uncomfortable with human frailty, and seeing other people fall apart makes them feel disoriented and uncertain about how to respond. That’s especially true when the person falling apart is a person they rely on to provide stability and strength so that they feel safe in the world. Those of us who are “the competent ones” know that it will cause discomfort and fear in other people if we falter, so we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to hold ourselves together. As a marriage counsellor once defined my role in my former marriage, we go a step beyond competent into the unhealthy zone of “the over-functioning ones”.
To live balanced and emotionally healthy lives, though, even strong ones need to be able to give themselves permission to be weak without needing to protect the people around them. But in order to do so, we need to find the right containers where we won’t have to worry about other people’s reactions to our weakness. (It’s when we take too much responsibility for other people’s reactivity that we begin to over-function.)
This past week, I’ve been revisiting the manuscript of a memoir that I had nearly ready for publication three years ago (but put on hold in order to write The Art of Holding Space). In the memoir, I share a story of a time when I had a fairly spectacular falling apart and it scared a lot of people, including myself.
I was in the hospital at the time (twenty-one years ago), trying to prolong my third pregnancy after a botched surgery put it into jeopardy. Because my doctor was afraid I’d go into labour too soon, I was given steroids to speed up the baby’s development. What I didn’t expect was the way that steroids can mess with a person’s mind.
For the first two weeks of my hospital stay, I was doing remarkably well and people were amazed at how calm and strong I was. I was so calm and strong, in fact, that people started coming to sit with me when they needed someone to talk to. Friends, nurses, other patients, nurses’ aides, even doctors – a surprising number of people dropped in to visit my room for no reason other than to sit and chat with me because they found me to be a peaceful and supportive presence. Many of them opened up to me about their fears and struggles. I believe it’s when I first learned I had the capacity to hold space for people (though I didn’t yet have the language).
But then one day, I fell apart – quite spectacularly. Nobody was certain whether it was caused by stress, steroids, or a combination of the two, but I had an unexpected psychotic break (that started with a panic attack) and for twenty-four hours, I was not in my right mind. To anyone watching, I was speaking complete gibberish (though it made sense to me and much of it still does – but that’s a story for the memoir). I was acting irrationally and completely out of character for the calm and strong person they’d come to assume I was.
Witnessing me that way was scary and baffling for the staff who had gotten to know me quite well during those two weeks. After the psychosis was over, they treated me very differently from how they had before. I felt like I’d become a pariah. None of the staff dropped in for casual conversations anymore and when they had to enter my room, they completed their tasks quickly, with little conversation, and left just as quickly. After a few days, a few began to trust me again and came back for conversations, but many never did.
It’s experiences like that that remind me how much discomfort we have with human frailty. Even health care workers, who see people under all kinds of stress, come unmoored in the presence of a psychotic break, especially in someone they deem to be competent and reliable. It’s a scary thing to witness and you desperately want to fix it so that the world feels safe again. But you don’t know what to do in response, so you get a little frozen and, more often than not, avoid it entirely. Just ask anyone who’s been through a tragedy and they will tell you that some of their friends and family had no idea how to show up, so they disappeared. It’s quite common, sadly, to lose friends when you are at your most broken.
The experience was shame-inducing, and even now, when I talk about it, I sometimes feel the grip of shame closing my throat. Despite the shame, though, I believe that it was good for me. It’s good to be reminded of our own human frailty now and then, to be brought face-to-face with our weakness. As a person who has built an identity around competence, I needed the reminder that even I can fall apart under the right set of circumstances – and that doesn’t mean that I stay broken or that the brokenness defines me. It helps me to stay humble and to get out of my ego, to accept the ebb and flow of life and to have more compassion for my own and other people’s brokenness. I’ve had a few broken-open moments since then (on a less spectacular scale) and know that I can survive them.
So… what do we do with human frailty? How do we let ourselves be frail when we’re feeling broken? And when we see brokenness in other people, how do we keep ourselves from running away?
For one thing, as I said to my roommate at that retreat, we need to find the right people who can hold us when we break. Not just anyone has the courage, and fortitude to stick around in the face of frailty, so we need to seek out those people who do. They need to be self-reflective, emotionally mature and compassionate people who don’t let their own fears and baggage get in the way. Many of us only ever find one or two people who have that kind of capacity and sometimes we have to hire someone (a therapist or coach, for example).
For another thing, we have to learn to hold ourselves in our own brokenness first so that we can hold other people in their brokenness. If we are afraid to be broken, if we shame ourselves when we are most frail, then we’ll treat other people the same way. In fact, if you want to know how well a person will be able to hold space for you, pay attention to the way they treat themselves when they fail or make a mistake. Do they take responsibility for it and treat themselves with kindness and forgiveness, or do they deflect blame and/or treat themselves harshly?
For a third thing, we have to let go of delusions and perfectionism. We can’t expect ourselves (or others) to be strong all of the time and we can’t expect the world to be safe and stable all of the time. That’s the kind of fantasy that’s sold to us by a capitalist system that wants us to believe if we just invest in the right botox or fancy car or training program or self-help book, we can create bubbles of protection and happiness around ourselves and we can always “be our best selves”. That’s all just smoke and mirrors though, and we deserve better.
We have to let go of the delusion and learn to practice radical acceptance of imperfection, flaws, weakness, and fumbling – in ourselves and in each other. When we see brokenness, we need to replace judgement with lovingkindness. When we do, we discover that acceptance is a much more peaceful, contented way of living. We put less pressure on ourselves and we offer forgiveness more easily.
Because every single one of us is going to fall apart sometimes – even the competent ones. And if we can hold that brokenness in ourselves, then we can hold it in each other.
Want to learn more about how to hold space for yourself and others in times of brokenness? Join us for the Holding Space Foundation Program, starting the week of October 25th.
When you go white-water rafting, if you’re a novice, your guide will spend some time teaching you how to sit in the boat, how to hold your paddle, how to adjust your centre of gravity, and where to plant your feet so that there’s less chance that you’ll get tossed out of the boat when you hit the rapids. Then, once you’re floating down the river, your guide will watch the river and warn you when the rapids are coming so that you have time to adjust your posture accordingly. An experienced guide will have been down that river many, many times, so they know how to navigate whatever’s coming.
Once you’re through the rapids and you get to a smooth spot on the river, your guide will let you know that you can relax your posture and enjoy the view.
A skilled leader has the same set of skills as that guide. They’re out front watching for rough water, and they’ve prepared their people so that they know how to adjust their posture to meet the needs of the moment. They warn people when necessary and then they help create the conditions for people to feel safe when the rapids subside.
This past year, there’s been a lot of metaphoric white-water rafting for all of us as we’ve had to adapt to the rough water of a pandemic without any guides to tell us when and how to adjust our posture so we don’t get tossed out of the boat. It’s hard to know what’s coming when nobody has been down this river before. Most of our leaders have felt just as confused as the people in the boat, and some of them have given us false information so we’re not always sure who to trust.
When you don’t have a guide you can trust, and your boat is floating down a river you’re unfamiliar with, it’s likely that your body will stay in the posture of hyper-vigilance. You want to be prepared for the rapids because you don’t know when they’re coming. After one set of rapids has passed, you don’t know if you can trust the stretch of smooth water enough to relax and enjoy the view.
As we near what we hope is the end of this pandemic, many of us will find it hard for our bodies to fully relax. We might be a little more edgy and anxious than usual. We might not be sure who we can trust or what circumstances are safe.
Recently, I was lying in my hammock trying to read a book and I noticed that, although there was no imminent threat and I couldn’t possibly be in a safer situation (in my own backyard on a beautiful day in a hammock with the gate closed and nobody else around), there was still tension in my body as though I were preparing for rapids. I scanned the things in my brain to try to figure out if there was something I was forgetting to do or some situation I was worried about, and I couldn’t find anything that should result in the posture of readiness in my body. I concluded that it was just the residual effect of a year and a half of hypervigilance without a guide to tell me when the smooth waters could be trusted. (I went through a similar thing the year before and the year after my divorce, to the point where I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue because there’d been so much adrenaline pumping through my system for so long, trying to keep me prepared for fight/flight/freeze.)
This summer, I’m taking time away from my work and from social media and it’s my hope that it will be what my body needs in order to more fully relax. I know from past experience that for this kind of long-term hypervigilance to leave my body it takes a considerable amount of time and intentional release. I’m giving my body and heart what they need – rest, companionship, fun, and nature.
I hope that you can find the time to let your body relax fully as well. Let’s be gentle with ourselves and let’s acknowledge how hard it is to go white-water rafting without a guide. We’ve done well just to survive without getting tossed out of the boat. Hopefully we’ve hit some smooth water that we can trust.
I adopted a new journal practice this Spring, after reading the book Discovering Your Inner Mother. I wanted to nurture all of the parts of me that are connected to old stories, and I wanted to learn to mother myself better.
Each morning, when I sit down with my journal (often sitting on the dock in the local park – my new favourite journal-writing spot), I write, at the top of the page, “Which Heather wants to show up on the page today?” And then I wait a moment to see which voice from my past wants to be heard.
Sometimes it’s the preteen who wants to tell me about how she felt like an outsider at school because she grew up Mennonite and didn’t have a TV and never got to read Teen Beat and didn’t have any entry points into the celebrity-focused conversations the other girls loved to have. Plus she was poor and wore hand-me-down clothes.
Sometimes it’s the young mom who wants to speak about how overwhelmed she felt, with babies and a demanding job, and how she doubted herself and wished she had more of a community to lean on, especially when her husband struggled with mental illness.
Whoever shows up, I hold space for her, as a patient and loving mother would, and when she’s finished speaking, I assure her that she is safe and protected and loved and that I will always listen to her and make choices that hold her best interests at heart.
Recently, during a therapy session, I had a breakthrough in naming and healing one of my traumas. I was able to connect a body sensation that is often present in times of stress and trauma-triggering with a specific moment when harm was done to younger Heather. After doing some work on it, my therapist asked “what are you feeling now, in your body?”
“I still have a bit of the sensation, but it’s weakened, and… there’s something else. I feel a little excitement in me. Almost like there’s a little girl jumping up and down inside my chest. She’s excited because she thinks that if I let go of that trauma, then maybe she can finally come out and play.”
And then I realized that there was something missing from my journal practice. I was allowing the voices of Wounded Heather to show up on the page, at whatever age she was, but I hadn’t yet invited Playful Heather or Passionate Heather or Sensuous Heather. I hadn’t yet considered the voices that Wounded Heather might have silenced because it didn’t feel safe to express those other things. (As I wrote earlier in the Spring, there is a danger in worshipping our wounds.)
Since then, I’ve been listening to the voices that have been silenced by the trauma. I have invited Sensuous Heather to tell me what she most longs for. I’ve asked Playful Heather what her favourite forms of play are. I’ve let Passionate Heather guide me in seeing the world through her eyes. I’ve asked those voices to tell me when they were silenced and what I can do to set them free.
When this post goes out into the world, I will still be on my summer sabbatical. I have taken this sabbatical partly because I want to dedicate more time to listening to those other voices.
Just before my sabbatical started, I told a dear friend “I think I’ve grown tired of my trauma. I’m ready to find out what’s next.” And so… here I am, in that place of discovery, exploring what joy, passion, desire, and sensuousness feel like in a body that’s a little closer to healing and liberation.
If you want to adopt a new writing practice that will help you heal and grow, you might want to try Write for Love and Liberation, which was recently re-launched as a self-study program.
When I talk about holding space for ourselves, I often introduce the concept of psychic membranes – the container in which we can protect, nourish, and support ourselves. The cell membrane serves as a metaphor for what it means to have healthy boundaries that allow nourishment in, keep harm out, connect us with others, and maintain homeostasis (similar pressure inside and outside the cell). In my book, I go on to imagine how our psychic membranes interact with each other and how we can stretch them into bowls in order to hold space for people. With intact and healthy membranes, we can do this without threatening anyone’s sovereignty.
A new element of this metaphor has emerged for me lately and that’s the idea of Velcro membranes.
When a healthy membrane interacts with another healthy membrane, those two “cells” can support each other without becoming enmeshed or codependent. They are autonomous beings who have a supportive social contract between them that allows them to choose when and how they wish to be in contact with each other. Healthy membranes allow us to form consent-based environments.
Unfortunately, that kind of healthy interaction doesn’t always happen, and many of us have scars (emotional and physical) from the times it didn’t work that way. Sometimes we do harm to each other and sometimes we develop unhealthy attachment systems.
Unhealthy attachments can look like membranes that have Velcro on their surfaces. Now, instead of coming into contact and maintaining the freedom to choose how and when to interact, the two cells become hooked in a way that doesn’t support the growth and sovereignty of either. The relationship is now codependent and enmeshed and the membranes can’t move independently of each other.
Let’s imagine that the trauma in our lives turns into Velcro on the surface of our membranes. Some of us develop loops and some of us develop hooks (or some combination of the two), and both are attempts to get our needs met. Those of us with loops can easily be hooked in and abused or manipulated by someone, because our traumatized brains convince us that hook-people will help us get our needs met. Those of us with hooks become abusers and manipulators and we hook other people in to try to coerce them into meeting our needs. Those of us with a combination can be both abusers and abused.
The only way to stop hooking or being hooked is to work on healing the trauma that created the Velcro. As trauma heals it’s like cutting the loops and hooks so that the membrane surface is now covered with nothing more than short threads that are difficult to attach to.
A healed membrane allows you to begin to enter relationships in a new way. It allows you to explore what a generative social contract might look like, where the best interests of each party are prioritized.
What will you do to start cutting the loops and hooks on the surface of your membrane? And what might need to be done in order to disentangle yourself from those people with whom you’re enmeshed?