Trying not to trip on my shadow (in which I admit to my weaknesses)

embrace shadow

Last week, after facilitating a retreat for a client in Sedona, I talked about how the shadow shows up in a group, and I promised that I’d also talk about how the shadow shows up in me. Now is that time.

This is going to be personal. It’s also going to be a little hard, because the shadow is all of that stuff that I don’t want you to see in me. That’s why it’s called the shadow – because I’d rather keep all of that uncomfortable stuff tucked away out of the light.

The more I address the shadow, however, and the more I bring my own weaknesses and shame into the light, the less power it has over me and the more I am able to transform it into growth and gift.

Some surprising things came up in the group in Sedona and the experience brought up some old stories about my own ability to hold space well. As is often the case when we introduce circle work to a group of people who are unaccustomed to facing each other and unaccustomed to the deeper conversations circle invites (and perhaps don’t have enough time to do the circle justice), resistance shows up. Sometimes people leave the group, sometimes they sabotage what’s going on, and sometimes they simply don’t engage and cause the space to feel less safe for the other people there.

When this resistance shows up, it can trigger me and bring up old stories of unworthiness. The shadow singers in my head begins to repeat some old choruses of “You’re an imposter and everyone in the room sees through you.” or “You’re not very good at handling conflict.” or “This stuff is silly and not important enough for people to care.”

Early in this work, when these triggers showed up, I would do one of three things: consider walking away and leaving this work to the “real professionals”, get defensive and push back on those who’d resist (and sometimes – I hate to say it – become downright unkind to the resisters), or become overly accommodating to make sure everyone was happy.

It has taken a lot of personal work to address this shadow in me. That work is not finished and it may never be. (Check back with me when I’m 90.)

Even when I’d come home discouraged from a workshop or retreat, though, I knew that I was committed to this work and that there were things I needed to learn from the rough spots. Every one of those resisters served as a teacher for me. Every one of them helped me see something I needed to address in order to rise stronger than I was before. As I reflect back, I try to extend gratitude for each of those people who have helped me learn.

As I’ve written about before, it is essential for anyone holding space for other people – whether it’s our employees, children, friends, clients, parents, or partners – to practice holding space for ourselves first. When we do this, the shadow has less power over us and we are less triggered when the resistance or the old stories show up.

Contemplative practices and rituals help us release anger, frustration, self-doubt, etc., and stay present in the now. Gentle self-care helps us revive our energy and strength and reminds us that we are worthy. Self-inquiry (through journaling, art practice, etc.) helps us detach from what others think of us and learn to tell new stories that re-shape the experience.

Most importantly, we must practice seeing both ourselves and the people who trigger us through the eyes of compassion.

When we see through the eyes of compassion, the resister in the circle or the person who triggers us is no longer “the idiot who’s trying to sabotage our work” but “the person who is dealing with something in his life that is making this hard right now” or “the person whose background/culture/education/trauma has taught her that this is not a place of safety”.

When we see through the eyes of compassion, our own response to the trigger is not “a sign of weakness”, it is “an opportunity to learn something about ourselves”.

While I was in Sedona, I tried to practice what I preach. I did a lot of journaling, I sat by the creek and went for walks as the sun came up over the red rocks, and I was as gentle as I could be with myself and those I was with. When I came home, I continued to hold space for myself by taking naps, going to a movie, and having lots of intentional conversations that helped me unpack the week before.

Unfortunately, though, (or perhaps fortunately, depending on perspective) my learning wasn’t over. When I landed back home, I had to deal with several challenges that continued to trigger me. A conflict arose with a family member, a critique from a friend made me wonder if I was more arrogant than I cared to admit, and some of my parenting methods were called into question. It felt like all of my flaws were being spread out on the kitchen table and I was being forced to look at them one by one. And there came that old voice again “what do you REALLY know about holding space? You’re failing on all counts. You’re a fraud.”

It wasn’t a fun place to be, but I continued to do my best to dive into the learning that was being offered. What I realized was this…

It takes both humility and confidence to do the work of holding space. Humility and confidence may seem like opposites, but, like the yin-yang symbol, they work together to keep us grounded and balanced.

The challenging thing about humility and confidence, though, is that they both have a shadow side that gets in the way when we don’t pay attention. On the shadow side of humility is shame and on the shadow side of confidence is arrogance. Shadow sometimes tries to masquerade as light, and so we can become arrogant or ashamed when we’re trying to be confident or humble. Both arrogance and shame hide our true light and cause us to sabotage relationships rather than grow them.

My work, in the last two weeks, has been to practice being humble enough to admit my failings, apologize where necessary, and accept responsibility for the consequences of my actions. It has also been to practice being confident enough to know that some of what I’m tempted to call failures were actually successes and that the work I do continues to have an impact when I get my own ego out of the way.

It’s been an intense couple of weeks, and now (as is so often the case) I’m getting a chance to teach exactly what I’m learning. This weekend, I’ll be teaching a workshop for a client on the theme of holding space. The participants of the workshop are all people who hold space for family members with operational stress injuries (specifically those who’ve served in military combat). I am humbled that I get the chance to work with these people, because I am sure that many of them have learned much more than I have about what it takes to hold space in difficult circumstances. I hope that I can bring them some encouragement and inspiration.

And I hope that you too will be gentle with yourself as you peer into your own shadow and dare to step forward with confidence and humility.


Note: I hope to offer more workshops like this, so if you know of clients who could use support in this area, please pass my name on to them or send me your suggestions. I will also be creating some offerings (both online and off) that will be available to anyone who’s interested. Stay tuned.

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.

When is helping the wrong thing to do?

“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

“Sometimes helping is an act of violence.” That was one of many thought-provoking things Peter Block said in a talk I heard him give a few years ago.

Really?! Helping as an act of violence? How could that be possible?

The part of me that places a high value in my ability to help others didn’t want to believe it. Surely I hadn’t been conducting acts of violence in my efforts to help people. I’m a good person – how could I have inadvertently been guilty of violence?

But the more I’ve thought about it in the years since I heard it, the more I’ve realized that there is truth to it, and I have been guilty of it.

Sometimes helping is the wrong thing to do. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, helping is destructive rather than constructive.

I witnessed the truth of this when I used to travel in my non-profit work. In some of the poorest communities in the world, good-hearted foreigners have tried to help and have instead done damage. In Kenya, for example, I tried to find some colourful African fabric to bring home and discovered that the market for locally made fabric has been nearly wiped out by well-meaning people who have glutted the market with used clothing from North America and Europe. Thinking they were helping by sending their hand-me-downs, they have instead killed local businesses, put people out of work, and taken away the dignity of people who want to dress in their local attire rather than adopting Western wear.

The same can be said for churches and governments that thought they were serving First Nations children by giving them access to their version of a “good education”. Out of their good intentions, residential schools emerged. Children were ripped out of their homes and harshly disciplined while educators tried to “kill the Indian in the child”. Who can argue that their version of “helping” was the wrong thing to do?

Peter Block is right – sometimes helping is an act of violence. Sometimes it does more harm than good.

“But…” you might be thinking, “I’m not destroying anyone’s culture or violating their dignity. I’m just trying to help a friend who’s in trouble. What can be wrong with that? We all need help now and then.”

Yes, it’s true – we all need help sometimes, and often it’s absolutely the right thing to do. When my Dad was killed in a farm accident, for example, my whole family was grateful beyond words for all of the help we received. It didn’t take long for the neighbours to rally round us, bring us food, look after Dad’s animals, and care for our children. I am so grateful that those people didn’t stop to ask “how can we help” but instead found a gap and stepped in to fill it.

That’s what community does and it’s a beautiful thing to witness. I wish that we could all have access to that kind of support in our darkest times.

But… that kind of unconditional help in times of need doesn’t alter the truth that helping isn’t always the right thing to do.

Imagine you’re in a conversation with a friend and she tells you that her marriage is in trouble. Because you care for this friend and her partner, your immediate response is to try to help, so you interrupt her with what you think is a great solution. “All you need is some time alone with your partner. You should plan a surprise getaway this weekend. I’ll look after the kids and you can go away – just the two of you. It will all be fine by the time you get home on Sunday night. Trust me. I did it last year and we’re more in love than ever.”

How might your friend feel in that instance? She may not know how to articulate it to you, but she will probably feel diminished and even dismissed. Instead of taking the time to really witness her pain, you have brushed it aside as insignificant and easily fixed. She’ll probably assume that you’re better than she is at knowing how to make a marriage work, and so she will question herself and her choices. While you walk away feeling good about yourself because you’re able to help, there’s a very good chance she walks away feeling shame because she’s failing at her marriage and now feels judged by you.

In that instance, what your friend really needs is not your idea of a solution, but your willingness to listen without judgement. It’s possible that she’d also appreciate a childless weekend away, but that should only be offered AFTER there has been unconditional listening, and the offer should be extended as a gift of love rather than as your idea of a solution.

As good-hearted as it may have been, your idea of a solution may very well invalidate her struggle and diminish her sense of self-worth.

What can you do the next time you have the impulse to help and don’t know for sure if it’s the right thing to do? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Did I listen deeply FIRST and let my friend know that I am holding space for her without judgement?
  2. Does my offer to help come out of my own arrogance and assumption that I know better than the person I’m helping?
  3. Will my help in any way diminish the other person’s dignity, power, or self-worth?
  4. Is this the kind of help the other person wants or is it the kind of help I think that person needs?
  5. Do we have a reciprocal relationship and would I be willing to receive the same kind of help from this person?
  6. Am I offering help in humility or judgement/pity/condescension?
  7. Am I making this about me or do I have the best interests of the other person at heart?
  8. Is my advice or offer of help a defense against my own vulnerability? (From the work of Brene Brown)
  9. Am I willing to “look at suffering without turning away” (a quote from my friend Doug Koop, a hospital spiritual health specialist), or is my need to help a way of fixing so that I don’t need to feel uncomfortable?
  10. Am I expecting something in return, or is this an unconditional gift?

If you can answer these questions and know that your help is coming out of a place of humility and unconditional love, then there’s a very good chance it will be well received and will not be an act of violence. If, on the other hand, it creates a power imbalance between you and the person receiving the help, then it may not be the right thing to do.

This is far from an exact science, and each situation will have to be evaluated independently, based on your relationship with that person and your own motives for helping. Sometimes, when there is a crisis, for example, and the person is overwhelmed or incapacitated, you’ll need to make choices that will feel like violation but are still the right thing to do.

We won’t get it right every time. Sometimes we’ll offend people and sometimes our fear of offending will mean that we’ll withhold the kind of help that is really needed and wanted. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show up and keep trying.

When we are genuine in our humility and authentic in our love, we’ll get it right more often than not.

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