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.
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.