What are we talking about when we talk about systems? (A primer on systems theory)

Recently, I created a short video about worthiness and posted it on social media. It was about how it’s hard to develop a sense of self-worth, no matter how many self-help books we read or therapy sessions we attend, if we don’t understand that we are all embedded in systems of worthiness and have been taught, since infancy, how to measure our worth in those systems. I was talking about systems like patriarchy, white supremacy, and colonization.
 
I created that video partly because I was trying to increase the reach for the Centre’s work on social media. We’re starting a new course soon, which means that I have do some marketing, and since my strengths do not lie in the kind of content-creation that gets attention these days, I was trying to stretch myself into a new way of communicating.
 
Ironically, when I tried to boost the post on Facebook so that more people would see it (that’s the way Facebook makes money off of small businesses like ours – it only puts our stuff in front of very limited audiences unless we pay for the post), it got rejected. Apparently, it didn’t comply with their policy about “social issues, elections or politics” (probably because I used the words “white supremacy” in the video).
 
The whole thing really makes me laugh, partly because it feels like a message from the universe saying I should stick with what I do well, and partly because I got rejected by a representative of one of the systems I was naming in the video – namely, capitalism (in the form of social media). Luckily, I know better than to measure my worthiness by their measurement!
 
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The above is a prelude to what I actually want to write about in this post – systems thinking. It occurred to me, after posting the video, that perhaps it would be worthwhile to take a step back and explain what I’m talking about when I talk about the “systems” that measure us. One of the goals of my new course, Know Yourself, Free Yourself is to help people see the systems that they are a part of so that they can learn to live in a more liberated relationship with those systems (particularly those that cause harm). But maybe, before you can see those systems, you have to first have a basic understanding of what you should be looking for?
 
Systems Theory is a vast field of study, with many different tentacles, and it’s a little slippery – kind of like an octopus that keeps slipping out of grasp just when you think you’ve got it – so I won’t do a great job of clarifying it in this short blog post, but I’ll at least give you a primer, as I understand it. While first introduced as a biological concept, it has been expanded as a way to understand families, workplaces, cultures, and beyond.
 
According to Systems Theory, anything that happens within a system must be examined with that system in mind because every part of a system impacts the whole. In other words, you can’t separate an individual from the system they live in, and, at the same time, the system is nothing without the individuals that create and maintain it.
 
Let’s consider the human body as an example of a system. The hand might imagine itself as separate and independent of the feet, but if the hand reaches for a banana, it can only pick it up as long as the feet don’t revolt and move the body to another room. Neither the hand nor the foot can function unless the muscles, heart, skin, and brain cooperate. And then, because they are all interdependent, those things can’t function as long as the hand is being kept away from the banana that will fuel the whole body.
 
You can’t examine the hand without considering what it is attached to (and fed by), and you can’t examine the body without recognizing that the hand is part of what makes it a body.
 
Now extrapolate that out to consider the way that we as individual bodies are connected to the families, cities, cultures, religions, etc. that we are a part of. None of us can be seen entirely separate from these systems, and these systems don’t exist if none of us are willing to contribute to them. Consider a church, for example. A person who’s a member of that church is being influenced by that church and, if you want to truly understand that person, you have to zoom the lens out to see what beliefs, biases, and relationships are part of that person’s life because of the church they’re part of. At the same time, if all of the people who are part of that church walk away from it, the church ceases to exist.
 
Below is a diagram that shows some of the complexity of the various levels of systems that we are all part of. This model emerges out of Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Model of Systems, which focuses primarily on child development, but it can be expanded to all of our social systems.

At the smallest level, you are the individual at the centre (with your own system existing within your body). Then you are part of a number of microsystems (your family, school, peer groups, local church, etc.). Next is the mesosystem (which weaves together the relations between microsystems and exosystem – for example, the relations between your family members and their coworkers). Then the exosystem (your neighbours, friends of family, mass media, government agencies, social welfare systems, social media, etc.). Then the macrosystem (attitudes and ideologies of the culture, ethnicity, geographic location, socioeconomic status, etc.). Finally, the chronosystem holds all of the experiences of a lifetime (environmental events, major life transitions, and historical events).

Let’s expand the analysis of the person who’s a member of a local church. Not only is it insufficient to examine that person separate from the church that they’re a part of, it is also insufficient to examine that church separate from the broader systems that it is part of. That local church is likely part of a denomination that shapes the traditions, historical relevance, ideologies, beliefs, and biases of that church. That denomination may have multiple levels of influence, from the localized grouping of churches, up to the global governance structure. It is also embedded within a religion that informs, among other things, what version of God is worshipped and how members of that religion interact with people of other religions. And then there is the neighbourhood, city, country, and region of the world that the local church is located in – all of these things also have influence, meaning that a local church in one country won’t look the same as a local church in another country even if they’re in the same denomination.

At an even broader scale, that local church (and, by extension, each member of the church), is being influenced by what’s at the macrosystems level. This is where things like colonization, patriarchy, white supremacy, classism, racism, and capitalism come into play. A church rooted in the patriarchy, for example, will likely still be led by a man, and where white supremacy is an issue, that man will likely be white. And, here in North America in particular, no church is completely free of the colonization that built our countries.

ALL of these systems are at play in that one individual who is a member of that one local church, and so that person cannot be fully witnessed without recognizing what’s at play. Even when that person leaves that church, the systems will still be at play, especially if the person is unconscious of the way that they’ve been influenced while part of that church. (Also at play will be all of the other systems that individual is part of – family systems, community systems, work systems, etc.)

Systems usually evolve as a way to organize us. A system without some form of organization won’t be able to sustain itself or serve the purpose it’s meant for, and so, if we value a system and find meaning in it, we organize it. Imagine, for example, a school that has no sense of order – nobody is responsible for doing the teaching or clean up and students are allowed to do whatever they please. That’s not education, it’s anarchy. (Some would suggest that it would eventually become a self-organizing system, if the desire for education is great enough.)

The problem is that what organizes us often begins to control us. When we become too rigid to allow a system to evolve, when we put the value of the system above the value of the individuals in that system, and when we embed a measurement of worthiness into a system (what Isabel Wilkerson refers to as Caste), then that system is no longer just organizing us, it’s controlling and measuring us. That’s when we end up with the dominance and oppression of systems like colonization.

Then, when a system begins to control people using dominance and oppression, that system begins to cause trauma in its people. A system that causes trauma becomes a system full of traumatized people and (because what happens at the micro level is also what happens at the macro level) it is therefore a traumatized system. Once you have a traumatized system, it becomes particularly destructive and particularly difficult to change. That’s when you see the levels of brokenness that have been showing up in the world – like climate change, and what’s currently happening in the Ukraine.

A traumatized system (just like a traumatized individual) needs people that can hold space for it while it heals. But the challenge is that EVERYBODY in that system has become traumatized and so it’s difficult to step outside of the system enough to help it with its healing. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of trauma.

I am not without hope, though. I have personally witnessed many people, in recent years, who are waking up to this trauma enough so that they can heal it in themselves, and then move themselves far enough outside of the traumatized system so that they can offer healing back to that system and the people in it. These people are learning to work with each other, with the natural world, and with whatever form of spirituality might support them, so that they can work to heal a broken world.

In the Berkana Institute’s Two Loops Model (below), we’re given a hint about what happens when people begin to move away from a traumatized system. The upper loop represents the dominant system, which was once vibrant and alive and served a purpose (the top of the loop). At some point, though, a system’s purpose is fulfilled, and then it needs to complete its cycle so that it can die and make space for a new system. Lots of people resist that system’s death, because it keeps them safe, but some people recognize that the system needs to die and they step away from that system. If those people were traumatized by the dominant system, they must do healing work or they will continue to perpetuate the same trauma that was embedded in the system. As they heal, their imagination becomes reawakened and they become innovators who begin to imagine the birth of something that can replace the dying system. That’s what the bottom loop is for – it represents the evolution of the new system.

In addition to the innovators, there is also a role for hospice workers – those who are willing to support the hospice work of the dying system. Once the old system has been released, the hospice workers join the innovators.

That’s why I’ve created my new course, Know Yourself, Free Yourself. I want to support those people who are waking up – those who are doing their healing so that they can become hospice workers or innovators (or both). I want to help them see the systems more clearly. I want to walk alongside them as they examine their lineage, trauma, beliefs, biases, and relationship patterns. I want to help them imagine themselves as whole people, apart from the systems that measure and control them. I want us to imagine collective liberation and generative love. I want us to know community, connection, and joy. I want us to set our imaginations free so that we can dream our way into new ways of being.

I hope that you will join me in this. It feels really, really important, and perhaps even urgent. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve created three levels for the registration fee – because we want this program to welcome into the circle people from around the world and from across the socioeconomic spectrum.

I look forward to being in conversation with you.

Confessions of an Imperfect Mother

I turned off the radio this morning, on the way home from driving my daughter to work. It was making me feel a little rage-y and I didn’t want to be in a bad mood. 

In the lead-up to Mother’s Day, the radio station was holding a contest where people could phone in and nominate a mother for a prize. The people phoning in, mostly nominating their mothers or wives, were saying things like “she sacrifices EVERYTHING for her kids” or “she’s ALWAYS available” or “she’s a mother to the WHOLE NEIGHBOURHOOD” or “she’s the STRONGEST and most GENEROUS person I know”. 

When I got home, I said to one of my other daughters “I want you to phone in, list off all of my imperfections and a few of my failures, and then say ‘our mom stopped being a martyr for everyone in the family, and we appreciate that because it’s teaching us we don’t have to do that when/if we become moms.’” And she said “yeah, I could tell them about the times when you’ve flown to the other side of the world for three weeks and left us behind.” (She’s right – I did. Multiple times.)

Can we please stop this glorification and objectification of motherhood? Can we stop layering unrealistic standards and expectations onto mothers so that they only think they’re “good enough” when they’ve given everything up for their families, kept a tidy house, stuffed down all of their emotions, AND volunteered for every school opportunity?

And while we’re at it… can we build more supports for mothers into our communities, so that they feel less alone and can stop pressuring themselves to be solitary superheroes?

I am an imperfect mother who wears no cape. There are often dust bunnies in the corners and I have fed my kids far too much processed food. I hardly ever volunteered for school things and I am notoriously bad at making small talk with other moms on the sports field. I have sometimes put my work ahead of my kids, and I’ve made quite a few mistakes when I thought I was doing what was best for them. I sometimes let my old trauma and social conditioning get in the way of honouring their dignity and autonomy. I get angry sometimes and even a little vengeful on occasion. I am forgetful, distractable, selfish, and sometimes insensitive. 

I don’t want my daughters to say otherwise because it wouldn’t be true. I don’t want them to wear rose-coloured glasses about how perfect I’ve been, because then, if they ever become moms, they’ll judge themselves according to an illusion and the same impossible standards. I want them to have permission to be imperfect moms too.

I believe in anti-perfectionism motherhood. I believe in doing the best we can with what we have. I believe in showing our flaws and honouring our efforts. I believe in “good enough” and “I’m too tired to do better”. I believe in apologizing and trying again. I believe in giving ourselves permission to say no. I believe in asking for help. I believe in healthy boundaries. I believe in making motherhood more realistic and manageable by supporting it with community care. I believe that fathers (and other caregivers) should be supported in developing more capacity for emotional labour to take some of the load off mothers. I believe we should reject martyrdom as a motherhood construct. I believe we should celebrate imperfection and honour our limitations. I believe in forgiveness and grace and love and self-care. 

I also believe that there are reasons why this glorification and objectification of motherhood has become so baked into our cultures. The patriarchy has created an environment in which a.) women (and, by extension, “women’s work”) are undervalued, and b.) we have to perform and compete to prove our worthiness. 

Mothers who are fighting to prove their worthiness within a system are women who are exhausted, overwhelmed and more easily dominated, shamed and controlled.

“Historically, patriarchal cultures have not only treated motherhood as a mandate for women, they’ve also made it oppressive, holding mothers to unreasonable standards, such as requiring them to:

  • Relinquish personal ambitions to care for their families.
  • Deplete themselves to support their families and raise children.
  • Be the primary caretakers of the household.
  • Constantly serve others and others’ needs, while not attending to their own. 
  • Handle everything with ease 100 percent of the time; have well-behaved children and maintain a high standard of beauty, a sex drive, a successful career, and a solid marriage.

“Our society’s unspoken messages to mothers include:

  • ‘If motherhood is difficult, then it’s your own fault.’
  • ‘Shame on you if you’re not superhuman.’
  • ‘There are ‘natural mothers’ for whom motherhood is easy. If you are not one of these, there is something deeply wrong with you.’”

From Discovering the Inner Mother: A Guide to Healing the Mother Wound and Claiming Your Personal Power, by Bethany Webster

It’s not going to be easy to disrupt this narrative of the Perfect Mother, given that it’s one of the pillars that’s propping up the patriarchy, but if we want to liberate ourselves from oppressive systems, we have to keep chipping away at the old tropes until they release their grip. This begins, I believe, by telling the truth, healing the wounds, and freeing our children from the baggage we inherited. 

That’s why I’m having different conversations with my daughters. We are wrestling, together, with the mistakes I made in the past that can be traced back to the flawed narrative I’d inherited about what it meant to be a Good Mother. We’re unpacking which parts of our family baggage are systemic and how we can disrupt those patterns in ourselves. And we’re wrestling with how to let go of perfectionism and accept “good enough”, even while we continue to feel the pressure from outside forces. And I’m helping them give themselves permission to be different kinds of mothers (or not be mothers at all) than I was or their grandmothers were.

More than anything, I want to model more self-compassion and less perfectionism for my daughters. 

Perfectionism is deeply rooted in our fears of being deemed unworthy, and motherhood is extra hard when you’re always fighting to prove your own worthiness. Unfortunately, the game is rigged against us and we’re fighting a losing battle because the Perfect Mother doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion. We keep finding ourselves pressured into measuring ourselves against the impossible standards of the Perfect Mother that’s idealized on Mother’s Day, but it’s nothing but a mirage.

We cannot perform ourselves into worthiness. We have to find that in ourselves and we have to support others in finding it in themselves too. 

We’ll only dismantle patriarchy if we create alternative models of community where we don’t have to play by patriarchy’s rules and we can find love and acceptance without having to endlessly strive for it. I’m starting in my home, with my daughters.

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P.S. I’ve just created a brand new course on Holding Space in Times of Disruption and Overwhelm. Check it out! It’s “pay what you can” because I want it to be accessible to anyone who needs it in this strange time of so much disruption.

Also… my book, The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership, was recently awarded a silver medal in the Nautilus Book Awards, in the category of Relationships and Communication.

What if we show the mess?

photo credit: Andy Holmes, Unsplash

I didn’t rake the leaves off the lawn this Fall. My climate activist daughter regularly sends me articles about how the dead leaves create biodiversity in the backyard, serving as places for insects (including pollinators) to hibernate, and then, in the Spring, bringing more birds and flowers to the yard. As for the leaves I needed to clean off the patio and walkway – I built a backyard composter where they can rot into food for the soil.

The neighbours on both sides of my yard raked their leaves, so there’s a clear line between their property and mine – crunchy leaves on one side, grass on the other. 

As much as I believe in more healthy symbiosis with the natural world, I will admit I struggled with the decision not to rake. Nobody wants to be THAT neighbour – the one whose cluttered yard is talked about in whispered tones because of the way it brings the property values down. Though I don’t need it to be pristine, I wanted it to be at least as orderly as the neighbours’. (Somebody in our neighbourhood once gave their next-door-neighbour $500 to temporarily clean the clutter from the yard while their house was up for sale.)

I recognize how vain this makes me sound – that I would make decisions that could negatively impact the environment based on what the neighbours think. But it’s the truth, isn’t it? Even when we pretend we’re not paying attention to our neighbours, friends, and family, we’re always at least somewhat aware of the ways that we stand out, the ways we’re seen as odd, and the ways we’re judged for not having our lives together. We do it in our neighbourhoods, at our schools and workplaces, and online. We don’t really grow out of our childhood need to fit in.

But change doesn’t happen until someone is willing to be the outlier, and so I’ll leave my leaves and if they ask about it, I’ll tell them about the insects and the birds. And if my leaves blow onto their lawns, I’ll offer to rake them back onto mine.

This decision, while a minor one in the grand scheme of things, is making me think about the many ways that we choose to hide our messes so that the neighbours don’t see them and so that we conform to the (often unspoken) collective norms and expectations of the places where we live and work. Even if our lives are messy behind closed doors, we want to project the appearance of having shiny, happy, orderly lives. 

It’s a cultural thing (especially in wealthier western countries), it’s a neighbourhood thing (especially in the suburbs), and it’s a capitalist thing (especially among those who want others to see that they have the kind of success that is valued within capitalism). In an era of social media, it’s even more prevalent, because we are always peeking into the virtual windows of other people’s curated lives. (Be honest – how often have you moved things out of the frame before you’ve taken a photo to post on social media? The pressure is real, isn’t it?)

On an interview for a parenting podcast, recently, the interviewer asked me to speculate on why, when change is such a constant in our lives, so few of us are truly equipped to handle change in our lives. My answer was some version of this… “Change comes with disruption and messiness. And we have been led to believe, in our culture, that truly successful lives are those without the messiness. When the mess shows up, and we don’t have control over it, we assume we must be doing something wrong.” 

We are always comparing our own lives to the curated versions of other people’s lives. If they don’t show their messes, we assume that they don’t HAVE messes. But they do. We all do. Life is messy. We break things. We spill things. We hurt people. We get hurt. We get overwhelmed and incapable of the simplest tasks. We get triggered back to the less mature versions of ourselves. We get resentful of our kids who NEVER clean up after themselves. We get angry with ourselves because “WHY didn’t we teach our kids better?!” We get depressed. We get anxious. We fumble. We fail. ALL OF US.

What if we showed more of that messiness? What if we divested ourselves of the toxic values systems of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy and we stopped trying to perform to some ridiculous and unreachable standards of perfection? What if we let our bulges spill out over our jeans, left our leaves on the lawn to make happy homes for the critters, left the dirty dishes in the sink when we’re taking photos to share on Instagram, and let people know when it feels like the world is crushing us? What if we agreed to no longer play by the rules that place value on curated lives? What if we invited people into our homes even when we haven’t dusted the furniture in weeks (and then didn’t apologize)? What if we wrote letters to all of the marketers who try to tell us our lives aren’t good enough and we told them we’ll never buy anything from anyone who markets from that kind of manipulative, scarcity mindset?

Maybe then we’d nap more, play more, eat more, and laugh more. Maybe then we’d crawl around on our hands and knees and stare at the pretty bugs gathering under our scattered leaves.  Maybe then we’d lean into new ways of being in relationship, where value is placed on presence and not perfection. Maybe then we’d be less hard on ourselves and we’d smile at ourselves when we look in the mirror. Maybe then we’d wake up and realize how much we’ve been manipulated into the kind of shame and self-judgement that keeps us from being real. 

People often ask me why it’s so hard to hold space for other people when they’re going through the mess of the liminal space, and I usually say “When you can become more comfortable with your own mess, then you can become more comfortable with other people’s messes. When you stop seeing yourself as someone who needs to be fixed, then you’ll stop trying to fix other people. And when you stop believing that you only have value when you’re DOING something productive and meaningful, then you’ll become better practiced at simply BEING with another person.”

There is a LOT of value in being the kind of friend who is unphased by the mess, who can sit with someone and deeply listen, seeing through to their heart without being distracted by the things that are out of order. There is a LOT of value in being silent when someone simply needs a listening ear and not advice. There is a LOT of value in your presence and your acceptance and your love. And yet… so often we overlook that value and only focus on the value of that which feels more active, productive, and “useful”.

Another question I’ve been asked a few times on interviews recently, and which seems related, is “What about cancel culture? Can we truly have deep and meaningful conversations, and wade into conflict (especially online), when we’re all afraid of saying the wrong thing and being canceled?” Here are my thoughts on cancel culture… It wouldn’t exist if we didn’t live in a culture rooted in capitalism and patriarchy that has placed so much value on perfectionism, ease, order, and power. If we hadn’t developed this skewed belief system that, with the right work ethics, the right thoughts, the right courses, the right purchases, and the right intentions, we can all have perfect, easy lives, we wouldn’t be at risk of being ‘canceled’. 

If we all showed our messes more regularly, then we wouldn’t have these ridiculous and unattainable standards of perfection that lead to inevitable failure. If we were open and honest about our fumbling and failure, took responsibility for the harm we’ve done, made amends, and didn’t have so much fear of having our messes exposed, then we would no longer be at risk of being torn off the hollow pedestals that were never meant to hold our weight in the first place. 

Take J.K. Rowling, for example – I believe that if she had truly listened, early on when she was first challenged about trans rights, and that she’d been willing to fumble in her attempts to understand what she was being challenged with (and make necessary repairs), then I don’t think there would have been so many people ready to tear her down. We tear down those who don’t live up to our expectations of perfection – expectations that have been skewed by our celebrity-worshiping, humanity devaluing culture. We also tear down those who don’t take responsibility for messing up.

We are not meant to be perfect people. None of us are – not even the celebrities our culture elevates to ridiculous heights. We’ve been manipulated into striving for that perfection, believing it’s attainable, idolizing it when we see glimpses of it in others, and spending more and more of our time and money trying to at least create the illusion that we are close to it.

It’s all a lie. It’s a messed-up fairytale that you’ve been taught since childhood so that you’ll spend more of your money on useless things and abdicate your power to those you believe have greater value than you do.

It’s time to divest of those belief systems and the cultural systems that prop them up. It’s time to live more honest and messy lives. It’s time to stop trying to fix ourselves and other people. It’s time to stop spending our money on things that don’t truly bring us joy. It’s time to stop changing our bodies to meet some ridiculous standards of beauty.

It’s time to let our leaves rot so that they can nourish new life.  

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If you’d like to learn more about how to live with the messiness of life and hold space for yourself and others in the midst of it, there is still time to sign up for the Holding Space Foundation Program that starts next week.

What came first – the trauma or the patriarchy?

Sometimes you don’t know that you know something until you hear the words come out of your mouth. That’s how it was when I said these words a few weeks ago, while teaching my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program

“Trauma is the soil in which the patriarchy has grown.”

I’ve thought a lot about trauma and I’ve thought a lot about patriarchy, and I’ve even thought about the links between them, but I hadn’t articulated this thought before. Even as I said it, I realized I was speaking something new into my awareness.

Now that I’ve thought about it more, I realize it’s a bit of a “chicken and egg” situation. Which came first – the trauma or the patriarchy? The patriarchy may also be the soil in which trauma has grown. One nourishes the other, which in turn nourishes the other, and so on, and so on. Did trauma happen to a group of people and so they rose up and began to dominate and create systems of domination to protect themselves? Or did people begin to dominate out of their own selfish ambition and need for power and soon learned that it was easier to dominate traumatized people? I don’t have a sufficient lens on history to analyze this.

Also, you can interchange the word “patriarchy” with any system of dominance (white supremacy, colonization, oppression, heteronormativity, kyriarchy, etc.) and the statement remains applicable. Trauma informs and supports them all.

Consider all of the ways that trauma is used as a tool to help dominant systems uphold their dominance. Indigenous children were ripped out of their families and forced into residential schools where they were stripped of their language and rituals. African people were rounded up, forced onto ships, and brutally enslaved in North and South America. Women are routinely raped in conflict situations. Jewish families were thrust into concentration camps and many were killed in gas chambers.

(Side note: I highly recommend the movie Indian Horse for a gripping story about how the trauma of colonization controls and destroys people.)

The stories go on and on throughout history, and these are just the most notable and horrific. There are so many more subtle ways that trauma is used as well. The #metoo movement, for example, is revealing the many ways in which sexual assault has been used to dominate women in the workforce, in the media, and at home.

None of these stories are “once and done” situations either. Every one of them not only traumatizes the generation most directly impacted, it plants the seeds of trauma into the family systems. The generations to come inherit the trauma of their parents and their grandparents, and so on, and so on. The result is often the kind of dysfunction, disempowerment and addiction that makes it difficult for them to rise up and challenge their oppressors. Trauma is so deeply (and invisibly) rooted in our bodies, that it can take generations to heal it, especially where it has not been named and faced.

Once you have implanted the seeds of trauma into a family system, it becomes easier and easier to dominate the people in that system. Traumatized people no longer need the original, horrific event to make them shrink in fear. All you have to do is offer a subtle reminder of the trauma, and they are triggered into their fight, flight or freeze reactivity (also known as “amygdala hijacking”), and in that state, they are easier to control and/or manipulate. An abused child, for example, will continue to flinch at a raised hand or raised voice long after the abuse is over and will continue to go to great measure to find protection against what they see as a dangerous world.

Sometimes it seems that we now have so much trauma running through our systems that there are fewer people WITHOUT trauma than WITH trauma (either direct or generationally inherited). It seems we’re all the walking wounded, trying to function in a world that triggers us on every front.

If you want to understand how trauma is used as a tool of domination, consider the treatment that Black people (particularly in the U.S., but also in Canada) have received from the police. Unlike white people, they can never assume that they are safe in the presence of the police, because they have seen too many people like them killed and/or unfairly arrested or brutalized by the police. In a traumatized system like that, you only have to bring a police officer into the environment to cause a state of panic in many people. That’s a system of dominance which not only traumatizes people, but gives those in power an excuse to continue to dominate. They assume that their experience of traumatized Black people (who might respond with belligerence, anger, resistance, etc., as a result of their fight/flight/freeze activation) is universal and even when Black people are calm and cooperative (as was the case in Starbucks recently), they assume the worst and arrest them needlessly. Dominance continues.

But trauma doesn’t only impact those being dominated. When there’s trauma in a system, in impacts people at all levels of it. I think it’s interesting to note, in fact, that it’s often the people with seemingly the most power in a system who are the most reactionary when they’re triggered. Why, for example, if women have less power than men, is it usually men who commit acts of violence? I suspect it’s partly because they’ve had less reason to develop coping strategies and less encouragement to heal and name the trauma. (I was at a workshop recently, where men were doing some healing work and, in one particularly poignant moment, three men were at the centre of the circle weeping and holding each other. It was one of the most powerful and rare moments of healing I’ve ever witnessed and I wish that more men could find themselves there.)

A new concept came into my awareness lately – that of allostatic load. (Thanks Sam.) According to Wikipedia, “it’s ‘the wear and tear on the body’ that accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress. It represents the physiological consequences of chronic exposure to fluctuating or heightened neural or neuroendocrine response that results from repeated or chronic stress.” Here’s a simple Youtube video that explains it. And Roxanne Gay wrote about it recently in her New York Times column.

While anyone can suffer from allostatic load, I think it’s fair to assume that those who’d be most susceptible to it are those who’ve been most oppressed by systems of dominance. According to Wikipedia, “in environments of chronic or frequent activation of the stress response, such as exposure to violence or trauma, poverty, war, hypoxia, or low rank in a social hierarchy, the stress response constantly disrupts homeostasis resulting in overexertion of physiological systems.” When allostatic load is a factor, people’s bodies can shut down and their brains have less capacity for complex thought and solution-finding. That puts them at a serious disadvantage and makes them easier to dominate.

So… what should we do about this? Should we work at healing the trauma or work at dismantling the systems that created and utilize it? Again, it’s a chicken and egg situation. One informs the other and neither can be entirely isolated from the other. You can’t dismantle a system when all of the people involved in its dismantling have unaddressed trauma. And if you heal trauma without addressing the source of the trauma, you’ve only found a short-term solution – the trauma will rear its head somewhere else.

We need lots of healers and lots of dismantlers. We need people to deepen their understanding of trauma so that they can hold space for it without further contributing to it. We also need warriors who will challenge the systems so that the dominance stops.

As I said in my last article, we should all be in a quest for our own sovereignty, so that we can meet each other as whole and healthy people rather than damaged people who harm each other. But it’s nearly impossible to seek sovereignty when you haven’t worked first to heal trauma that took your sovereignty away. That is, after all, what’s happening when the dominant systems utilize trauma to keep people disempowered – they’re colonizing people and taking their sovereignty away. Because sovereign people are dangerous to those who want to dominate them.

But this is not the end of the story. All of us have the right to reclaim our sovereignty. All of us have the right to live free of trauma and domination.

If you are a traumatized individual, start with your own healing so that you don’t pass the trauma on to others. But don’t stop there. Look for ways of healing at a collective, systemic level. This is something I’m learning more and more about as I dive into healing methodology like family systems constellations (which I had the pleasure of studying with Francesca Mason Boring recently). If we don’t address the trauma rooted in our ancestral lineage and family systems, we fall short of what we need to do to change the future.

If we heal our traumatized systems (and ourselves) and claim our sovereignty, I believe we can become healthy and whole together.

p.s. This is a subject we cover in the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. Registration is now open for the session that starts in July. 

On border guards, claustrophobia, and the right to breathe

The border appeared too quickly. On a small highway with little traffic, nobody had bothered to post a “5 km to the U.S. border” sign, so I was suddenly there with no time to prepare. With some trepidation, I pulled up next to the border guard’s window, took off my sunglasses, smiled my best “I’m not a danger to your country” smile, handed him my passport, and tried not to look nervous.

I could feel my heartbeat increase as he scanned his computer. Would he see the alleged “note on my file” that the last border guard had said he was putting there when I’d been told I didn’t have the right visa and wouldn’t be allowed back into the country without it? Would he turn me around and send me back home, even though I was visiting for pleasure this time and nobody would be paying me to work in the country? Would he, like the last border guard, wave a binder full of visa information in front of me and say “I’m not sure which visa you need, but I know you don’t have it.” I wasn’t sure… all I could do was smile, nod, and cooperate when he peered through my car windows at the camping equipment in the back.

Minutes later, he’d let me through without incident. My body reacted with relief, taking deep gulps of air to fill the lungs I’d apparently been depriving. How long had I been holding my breath waiting for this moment? Perhaps for months already.

I didn’t realize, until that moment, just how claustrophobic I’d been feeling, worried that I might no longer have easy access into the United States where so many of my friends, colleagues, and clients live. Many people live rich and full lives without ever owning a passport or crossing an international border, but I am not one of those people. I was born for expansiveness, for global wandering, for deep connections with people and places all over the world. A smaller life than that leaves me feeling trapped, with less air to breathe. (Yes, I am aware of what a privilege this life is, and how my normal privilege, as a white woman, is to easily cross the border into any country I’ve visited.)

After my breath slowed and I continued my long drive to the Boundary Waters for my canoe trip, I had a sudden flash of insight…

I have been performing for border guards all of my life, waiting anxiously with a smile on my face as they decide my fate, hoping I haven’t done or said anything that might offend them or turn them against me. 

Every woman knows this story. So does every person of colour, LGBTQ+, disabled person, and member of other oppressed groups without access to power. We all know that we can choose to stay in our own “countries” (the spaces, jobs, neighbourhoods, etc., where those with power consider to be our rightful place). But if we dare to venture forth into more expansive “countries”, we have to face the border guards who have the power to create or dig up arbitrary rules about why we don’t belong there.

There were the border guards who told me which sports a girl was allowed to play. And some who told me what clothing was acceptable and wouldn’t create too much temptation for the occupants of the more powerful “country”. Others who said that I was pretty smart “for a girl”, letting me know that there was a limit on how far I could go with my intellect. And there were those who didn’t allow me into certain boardrooms or didn’t invite me to attend political events because I didn’t play “the (male) game” well enough. And some who told me I couldn’t be a good leader if I didn’t learn to keep my emotions out of it. And some who said that women weren’t as valuable in the workplace because they’d end up going off on maternity leave at some point. And others who implied that the business I longed to build was too “soft” to be taken seriously.

Most of those border guards didn’t think of themselves as border guards and were probably never fully aware of the fact that they were keeping me or anyone else out of their country. They simply saw it as their birthright to live in a more expansive country than I did, and when they saw me or anyone else trying to cross the border, they got nervous that there wouldn’t be enough space for all of us, so they pushed back, made up arbitrary rules, and protected their territory. Some were probably very uncomfortable enforcing these arbitrary rules, but they feared they’d be kicked out of their own country if they didn’t uphold them. (I think of my father, for example, who admired strong women and often told me so, but, as the leader of our small church, couldn’t let me do Bible reading or speaking from the pulpit because it would make other church members uncomfortable.)

Just like I could choose to stay in Canada, I could choose to build a relatively full and happy life within the confines of this country called womanhood, but that’s not the life I was born for. I was born with natural gifts in leadership and communication – both things I’ve often been told I’d need to suppress in myself because of my gender. The claustrophobia that had me holding my breath at the border had me holding my breath on a regular basis when I feared I’d reached the limits of what’s acceptable for my gender.

There’s another claustrophobia that I’ve wrestled with in my past and that is the claustrophobia of the faith I was raised with. There are many things I love about my Mennonite roots, but the “evangelical” part is one that my expansive heart wouldn’t let me hang onto.

I could no longer live within the confines of a “country” where we were taught that there was only one way to get across the border – to have access to the “true God” and to get the golden ticket to heaven. I could no longer live in a country where my Muslim friends, my Hindu friends, and my LGBTQ+ friends needed to be converted. I couldn’t be part of a faith that wanted me to become one of those border guards, letting people know how to gain access.

Once again, I don’t think anyone within the evangelical faith tradition thinks of themselves as border guards and some will be offended that I offer this analogy. The people I know well are loving and kind people who want to share the faith that sustains them and I don’t blame them for that – faith is a good thing to have and to share. But I know that my own personal claustrophobia only ended when I chose, instead of an evangelical church, to sit in circles with other seekers who choose not to believe that one way is the only way, that one “country” is the only good country.

In both of the situations I’ve mentioned, I learned, to one degree or another, both to live with my claustrophobia and to begin to serve as a border guard myself, conveying the rules to those who didn’t yet know them, letting some people know that they weren’t behaving in a way that warranted access, and protecting the privilege and power that I, too, have benefited from. When it comes to being white, for example, it served me well to work with the border guards in making sure we didn’t have to share the country of power and privilege with too many others. Sometimes, serving as a border guard is as simple as turning a blind eye to the plight of those who’ve been denied access.

I kept myself small too, serving as my own border guard and limiting myself with my own self-doubt, fears, and internalized oppression. It was easier to learn to live with the claustrophobia than to risk the judgement of the border guards I was taught to fear.

This week, I looked at the photos of the white supremacists marching with torches in Charlottesville and I saw border guards. These young white men desperately want to protect the “country” that they believe is their birthright. The world is changing around them and they feel threatened and backed into the corner by those people demanding access to what they’ve always assumed belonged exclusively to them. They watch the rise of Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, the election of a black president, increased immigration, and the legalization of same sex marriage, and they’re incensed with the fact that too many people are crowding into their “country”.

But the thing about being a border guard is that it’s a fear-based position. If you are tasked with protecting something that everyone else wants access to, you have to be ever vigilant and watchful and you can’t help but be somewhat paranoid. You can’t really trust anyone because you never know when they might threaten what you want. And you have to be willing to sell your soul for the cause of the country you’ve pledged allegiance to. When the rules change, you have to keep enforcing them even if you don’t understand or agree with them. One false move and you could lose your precarious position, so you learn to obey the masters that control your fate and dole out the power you’ve become addicted to.

Just like there is claustrophobia in being confined to a country that feels too small for you, there is claustrophobia in being a border guard protecting a space that outsiders are trying to get access to. I could see that claustrophobia on the faces of those young white supremacists. Their coveted space is getting smaller and they’re panicking over the fear that sharing it means less for them. Their wide open spaces don’t feel so wide open anymore.

I don’t only suffer from claustrophobia in a metaphorical sense – I face it in a very real sense in closed, crowded spaces. When it happens, I have a minor panic attack and have to find a quick exit to an open space where I can take deep gulps of air, just as I did when I crossed the border last week.

I’m sure some of those young white supremacists were feeling a similar desperate need for the fresh air they’ve convinced themselves they no longer have access to, and they’re willing to step on people in their desperation to get to it. If they only knew that the only way to breathe truly fresh air without feeling like you’re being closed in on is to allow everyone to breathe that air.

I don’t know for certain if this was the origin of my claustrophobia, but this is the first of it I remember…  My older brothers and their friends had constructed an elaborate maze out of hay bales. As kids on the farm, we often built forts in the hay bales, but this was the first time I remember them building a maze, where you enter a dark, narrow doorway on your hands and knees and have to find your way to the exit, feeling your way along in the pitch black. Since you’re in a space only big enough for your body on hands and knees, there is no turning back.

I was always eager to hang out with my brothers, so I accepted their invitation to be the inaugural visitor to the maze. Once inside, I panicked. No matter where I turned, I couldn’t find the light at the end of the tunnel. The walls started closing in on me. I called to my brothers to let me out, but, at first, they laughed and said I’d have to keep trying. Then I started to panic, shrieking and flailing, desperate for light and fresh air, convinced I was going to die inside that dark tunnel. Finally, my brothers, who cared too much for me to leave me trapped, began dismantling the maze until they found me and could release me into the fresh air.

This isn’t just a story from my childhood – it’s a metaphor for what we need to consider in our culture right now. There are people trapped inside the maze of patriarchy and white supremacy, trying to get access to the same air that those outside the maze have access to. (Think, for a moment, of Eric Garner, who died telling the police “I can’t breathe!”) There are people who’ve reached the height of their claustrophobia and they’re flailing around and screaming, trying to get the attention of the people on the outside. Those who stand outside can choose to hang onto their fear that there is not enough air for all of us and continue to serve as border guards, serving the system they created and benefit from, or they can start to dismantle the system, one hay bale at a time.

I choose to be one of the dismantlers.

Because the air I breathe is only fresh if you have access to it too.

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