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.
I was on a fourteen hour train ride between Brisbane and Sydney the day the U.S. election was sealing the fate of the country for the next four years. I’d chosen train travel over flight because, after the intensity of facilitating two sold out retreats and a one-day workshop in a country far from home, I needed many hours of integration, electronic disconnection, solitude, and staring out the window at the vast countryside. Slow travel offers me self-care in times like those.
For those fourteen hours, I had no access to internet, so I didn’t know who won the election until hours after it had been announced.
I say that I didn’t know, but really… I DID know. Hours before an astonished fellow traveler announced to the rest of us in the railcar what she’d read online, a sudden ominous, panicky feeling engulfed me and I knew intuitively what the outcome was. I had a strong sense of the shadow showing itself in the world. I knew that the world was about to change – and not in a good way. I didn’t want to believe it, but when the woman exclaimed “Has the whole world gone mad?!” my fears were confirmed. A man who is openly misogynistic, racist, narcissistic, and emotionally immature is about to become the leader of arguably the most powerful country in the world.
Yes, I’m Canadian, and my life and the lives of my children may not change dramatically because of this election, but what happens in the U.S. affects the world. What hurts my Muslim, Black, GLBTQ+, Indigenous, and Mexican sisters and brothers hurts me. And this is not an isolated incident – it comes too quickly on the heals of Brexit to not be seen as a global pendulum swing toward protectionism and the far right.
There is good reason for the ominous feelings in the pits of so many of our stomachs. White supremacy and the patriarchy have reared their ugly heads and they appear to be winning this round. The shadow is big and ominous and it demands to be seen.
Just a few days before sitting on that train, I had a similar ominous feeling in the pit of my stomach, but this time it was much more personal and close to home. I was facilitating the second retreat at Welcome to the BIG House when things started to go sideways. No, they were not on the “Trump winning the election” global scale of ominous, but not unlike what’s happening in the U.S., group shadow had showed up at the retreat and was threatening to derail everything we’d worked to build.
I’d known from the start of the retreat that something was slightly out-of-balance. It started with a gut feeling when I walked into the room and it continued when the opening sharing round did not invite as much vulnerability and trust as it normally tends to. The next morning, I was even more certain that there was some stuck energy in the group when a simple exercise fell flat. We were simply trying to walk in a circle together, looking down at the words we’d placed on the floor, but, try as we might, we couldn’t get the circle to move. We were stuck.
It was hard to put a finger on what was going on. There were beautiful, openhearted people in the room who came willing to learn and to engage in meaningful conversation. Nobody was openly disruptive or serving as an “energy-vampire”. When we moved into smaller circles, the energy flowed more easily and intimacy and trust seemed more present, but when we were in the large group, there was a flatness and disconnection that didn’t seem to shift.
I questioned everything. Was the group too big? Had the purpose of the retreat been unclear and so people arrived with differing expectations and intentions? Was I trying to mix together the wrong content? Was my ego getting in the way? Was there some underlying conflict I didn’t know about? Was there a cultural disconnect I didn’t understand? I didn’t have the answer.
On the afternoon of the second last day of the retreat, we started to talk about shadow. I explained how shadow is made up of all of the things that we keep out of sight because we’re afraid to bring them into the light. These are not necessarily all bad things – they are simply the things we fear will make us feel unsafe if we reveal them. Beginning with an exploration on personal shadow before we moved on to group shadow, I invited the group into a guided meditation in which each person explored the messages they’d received in childhood about which parts of their personality and identity they’d learned to keep hidden because it wasn’t safe to reveal them. “Perhaps you learned to keep your voice down because you learned it was unsafe to be too loud. Perhaps you hid your body because revealing it wasn’t safe.”
Before we could move into a conversation about group shadow, the shadow showed up and revealed itself to us. A few people in the room spoke about the shadow that was coming up for them within the container of this retreat. (Giving more specific information would betray confidences, so I will simply say that they were honest about their personal shadow and how it might be contributing to what was happening in the group.) As soon as the words were spoken, it felt like a bomb had been tossed into the room. Suddenly there was something staring us in the face that many of us were afraid to speak of. Some were confused and disoriented by it, and all felt some measure of discomfort.
What should we do now? Everyone looked to me, hoping I could magically make the bomb go away. I knew I couldn’t do that alone and I knew we didn’t have enough time or energy left in the day to fully dismantle it.
With my head spinning in circles like a roulette wheel trying to land on the right number, I reached deep for what my intuition told me was the next right step. “It’s late in the day, we need a meal and a rest, and I don’t believe that we have the space and time to fully address what just happened,” I said. “We need a strong container to hold the shadow that just showed up, and we can’t be strong if we don’t care for ourselves first. I know that, as the circle host, my resources are spent at this point in the day, so I don’t think we’ll serve ourselves well if we stick with this right now. I’m going to suggest that we close with a check-out round, and then we each do what we need to do to care for ourselves throughout the evening. In the morning, when we are refreshed, we will come back into the circle and hold the space for what showed up. I will set aside the teaching exercises I had planned so that we can give as much space for this as we can in the short time we have remaining.”
For the check-out round, I asked the question “what are you curious about?” Most people spoke to their curiosity about what had just happened and how it would be resolved. When everyone had spoken, I read the following poem:
Lost (by David Wagoner)
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree of a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest know
Where you are. You must let it find you.
In closing, I offered this invitation. “Tonight, I invite you to sit with your discomfort. Go sit with the trees, if that helps. Don’t try to resolve it too quickly. Sit with it and ask what it is here to teach you. Because in your discomfort is great opportunity for growth, learning, and transformation.”
By the time I got back to my own room, I could feel the heaviness of what had just happened settling into my body and I could hear the gremlins beginning to offer their displeasure in my head. “Did I do the right thing? Did I fail the group? Should I have been more forceful or decisive? Will I let them down if I don’t teach the parts of the curriculum I’d planned to teach? Will we really be able to resolve this in the morning? What if everyone leaves the retreat dissatisfied? What if I fail?”
I turned to my go-to self-care stress-reducers. First, I climbed into a bathtub full of hot water and epsom salts. I stayed there for nearly two hours – as long as it took to slow my breath, still my brain, ground my body, and give comfort to my heart. Each time the gremlins attacked, I took deep breaths, said a prayer, and repeated a few of my favourite mantras. I also sent out a couple of SOS text messages to dear friends who would hold space for me from afar, and, after my bath, I unpacked what had happened with Georgia, the owner of The BIG House and the guardian of the circle. As we were talking, sitting in darkness in her living room, two creatures showed up in the room – a large frog by the kitchen sink and a bat flying through the open window and fluttering above our heads.
By the time I climbed into bed, I was relaxed and confident that, if I could get my own ego out of the way, the circle would be strong enough to hold the shadow in the morning.
The next morning, I started by asking the group for their permission to clear out the centre of the circle. We’d let it become cluttered with some creative containers we’d made earlier in the retreat as well as other things that didn’t need to be there. “I want to clear out the centre,” I said, “to remind us of the intention that brought us here this weekend. This retreat is called ‘Living with an Open Heart’, and that is what we came here to do. We want to place our intention to be openhearted at the centre of the circle and remind ourselves that, whatever happens in this space, we commit to connecting back to our own open hearts.”
Then I asked the question “How are you arriving?” and passed the talking piece for a check-in round. People were tentative at first, but then there was a gradual opening up and the energy in the room began to shift. It felt like a little light was peeking through a window. Part way through the round, a few people started to open up more than they had before in the large circle.
Once we’d completed a check-in round, I said, “My intuition tells me that we simply need to allow the talking piece to make its way around the circle again and invite people to say whatever they feel needs to be offered into the circle.”
One person asked “aren’t we going to confront the shadow that showed up here yesterday?” I responded with “‘Confront’ isn’t the language I’d like us to use. Instead, let’s do our best to speak with open hearts so that we can reveal and shine light on the shadow that we’ve all brought into the room.”
This time, while the talking piece passed around the room, people cracked open even more, especially those people who’d revealed the shadow the day before. What they offered into the room revealed deep awareness and learning that had happened overnight. Each person was willing to own what she or he had brought into the room.
The energy shift was palpable and people leaned in to the centre in ways they hadn’t before. They were finally beginning to trust the circle to hold their vulnerability and personal shadow. Some profound shifts happened for several people, and one person in particular admitted that this was the very first time she’d ever come to a place where she was safe in a group setting. “When I knew that I was safe to sit with my discomfort and then come back into the room, I felt like I was truly safe with other people for the first time in my life.” She wept and many of us wept with her.
Several people thanked the shadow-bearers. “If you hadn’t spoken what you did into the circle yesterday, we would have walked away with only half of an experience, not knowing what we were missing. This morning was worth every bit of discomfort we felt last night. I am leaving this circle with an open heart.”
We were ending the retreat at noon, so we only had time for a short break and then a check-out round. During check-out, each of us spoke to what we were taking with us from the retreat, and many spoke of life-changing shifts they’d experienced.
“Some of you were uncomfortable giving up the teachings that I had prepared for this morning,” I said, “but if I had pushed through with my curriculum, it would have come from a place of ego and not openheartedness and it would not have served the good of the group. Also, all of the things I had planned would have kept you in your heads, but what happened here this morning brought us all back to our hearts. You have taught each other much more valuable lessons than I could have taught you.”
A few days later, when I was on the train and had received the news of Trump’s election, I thought back to our experience at the retreat and wondered what it had to teach us about the state of the world right now.
Just like at the retreat, there is an underlying shadow in the world that we haven’t always known how to talk about. There have been some brave souls who’ve spoken about it throughout history, but many have been killed, tortured, or ostracized for their efforts and the rest of us have been scared off by what they’ve endured. If I were to give it a name, I would use words like “patriarchy” and “white supremacy”. There are other related words… “consumerism, greed, environmental destruction, protectionism, etc.”
It’s been under the surface for a very long time and, collectively, we’ve tried to ignore it because it brings up shame and fear and makes us feel unsafe to speak of it. But in recent years, it’s been surfacing more and more and there are more and more brave souls willing to speak of it. Many of those brave ones – like those in the Black Lives Matter movement, or those protecting the waters from the Dakota Access Pipeline, or any feminist who dares to face the trolls online – continue to suffer the consequences. The courageous ones continue to do it anyway, because they are called to be the light-bearers.
When you dare to speak of the shadow, it can show up in the room like a bomb that’s been dropped, surprising and disorienting us all. Trump’s presidency is one such bomb dropped into our world, revealing to us the shadow that exists in ALL OF US. We can’t simply blame a few scapegoats – we have to take ownership of this shadow if any real change is to happen.
Just like at the retreat, we need a strong container that can hold space for the shadow. We need people who aren’t afraid to speak of what they hide inside themselves. We need people who will come to the circle with open hearts. We need strong leaders who do not back down in the face of conflict or their own fear. We need people who are willing to sit with their discomfort so that the learning and wisdom can emerge. We need those who will turn to the trees and to the creatures for wisdom and guidance. We need prayer warriors and caregivers. We need those who offer sustenance and shelter. We need warriors and lovers.
We need commitment, courage, compassion, and curiosity.
If there had not been strong and committed people in the room with me at the retreat, there is no way I could have held it alone. The circle would have crumbled and we all would have taken our fear, discomfort, and shadow with us, probably stuffing it further down so that it would emerge in much more destructive ways later on. The shadow doesn’t go away – it just goes underground for awhile until it finds another crack through which to crawl.
This is my challenge to you – can we gather together the people we need to create a container strong enough to hold this shadow? Can we rally our co-leaders, our allies, our prophets, our teachers, our guardians, our disruptors, our light-bearers, our disenfranchised, our marginalized, our priests, our caregivers, our helpers, our prayer warriors – anyone who is willing to hold the rim while we wrestle with the shadow in our midst? Can we sit with our discomfort long enough to let the learning and wisdom sink deep into our hearts? Can we stand firm in the face of those who continue to hide the light?
Can we commit to real change rather than surface platitudes? Can we dare to face our own shadow so that the collective shadow loses strength?
I believe we can. Let us begin.
Waking up is hard to do.
First, you wake up to your own oppression,
to the ways you’ve been silenced,
to the many little stories you carry about why
your words are worth less than those who
benefit most from the old story.
You wake up to the truth that
your view of yourself wasn’t only constructed by you.
It was shaped for a purpose – to keep you small,
to keep you silent.
Then you wake up to your own anger,
to the fierce determination not to obey,
not to listen to the stories,
not to stay small.
But then, one day later on,
after you’ve learned to speak,
there’s another awakening.
You wake up to the fact that
your frustration taught you to adapt rather than to rise above.
You shape-shifted to be more like them,
to work in their hallways of power,
to survive in a world that didn’t want your voice.
You became one of them to be heard by them.
Then your anger wakes up once again,
and you have a new determination.
This time, you speak with your true voice
whether or not it is heard.
You begin to live in the centre of your true life
whether or not it is acceptable to them.
You risk dismissal and disdain
because you are no longer willing to go back to sleep.
But then, one day later on,
you realize that there is something else going on,
and this will require yet another awakening.
This will require that you look with more clear eyes
and speak with an even more clear voice.
You begin to wake up to other people’s narrative,
other people’s oppression, other people’s silence.
You begin to see that those whose skin
is different from yours,
whose gender and love is different from yours,
are waking up too,
and their waking up is asking you to be uncomfortable.
Their waking up
is asking you to look more clearly and unblinkingly
at your own life.
Then you begin to wake up to your own privilege,
to the ways that you have benefitted from their oppression.
You begin to wake up to the pain in them,
and you begin to hear the cries of the silenced,
“we want to be heard too!”
This waking up is the hardest,
and you want to ignore it,
to resist it, to deny what you now see.
You want to return to your own narrative,
to your own uprising,
because in that you can feel victorious and liberated.
In that, you don’t have to face the truth
that maybe you, even you, are holding the keys
to someone else’s chains.
But finally, you can deny it no longer.
Your awakened eyes see that you are only truly free
if they are free too.
And so you wake up,
and you face the hard truths.
And you feel the hurt
when your micro-aggressions,
and white fragility are pointed out.
And you do the hard work to peer with unwavering eyes
and to see both the shadow and the light,
and the space in between.
And when you are awake,
you begin to see it all,
and you can’t look away.
And finally you see,
that when you are truly awake
and truly honest about your place in the world,
it is no longer threatening to stand by those
who are also waking up.
And your anger burns anew.
And your fierce determination rises up once again.
And this time, your love is big enough,
to hold their hurt along with your own.
And this time, your voice is strong enough,
to speak their truth along with your own.
And this time, your courage is deep enough,
to let them speak a truth that is
different from your own.
image credit: Sydney Sims, Unsplash
During an interview for a podcast recently, I was asked “what’s the opposite of holding space?” Though I’ve done many interviews on the subject of holding space since the original post went viral, that’s the first time I’ve been asked that question. As is typically the case for me, the right question can crack open months worth of thought, and this one did just that.
As I contemplated, I searched for a term or word that might describe the opposite of holding space, but I didn’t find one that fully satisfied me. Finally, I came up with this:
The opposite of holding space is hijacking space.
When you hijack a vehicle (a plane, train, ship, etc.), you illegally seize it for your own purposes and force it to a different destination.
While holding space involves supporting without judging, fixing, or controlling the outcome, hijacking space involves manipulating, disempowering, and imposing various forms of judgment and control.
When we hold space, we liberate. We give someone the freedom to be who they are, to make sovereign choices, and to control their own outcome. When we hold space, we leave the person feeling supported and empowered.
When we hijack space, we violate. We take away a person’s freedom, limit their ability to make choices, and take control of the outcome. When we hijack space, we leave the person disenfranchised and weakened.
While holding space offers people an open bowl for their journey through liminal space, hijacking space puts a lid on that bowl.
Some forms of hijacking space are obvious and intentional (such as violence, abuse, overpowering, or bullying), but other forms are much more subtle and inadvertent. Many of these more subtle forms of hijacking space include the kinds of behaviour of which we are all guilty—and usually more frequently than we care to admit.
Here are some of the ways that we hijack space:
- expecting them to experience or interpret situations the same way we do
- acting as the “tone police” when their emotions are stronger than we’re comfortable with (ie. insisting that they calm down before we’ll talk to them)
- gaslighting them and making them believe that they are going crazy and/or are no longer in control of their own emotions
- one-upping their story with a better one of our own (and thereby dismissing the value of theirs)
- implying that our emotional response to something is more important than theirs
- dismissing the value of their work and/or taking credit for it ourselves
- not allowing them to trust their intuition and insisting they do things our way
- interrupting them
- acting dismissively when they share a personal story
- not hearing them when they ask us to change our behaviour toward them
- ignoring and/or dismissing their emotional state
- fixing their problems for them and taking away their power to fix them themselves
- taking over their emotions and feeling those emotions deeper than they do
- apologizing too much so that they become responsible for making us feel better
- expecting them to feed our egos
- passive-aggressively trying to manipulate their behaviour
- shaming them for feeling too much, speaking too much, eating too much, etc.
- over-explaining things (with an assumption that they can’t understand otherwise)
- expecting them to educate us about how we should be in relationships with them instead of doing the hard work ourselves
- worrying about them in a way that implies we don’t trust them enough to look after themselves
Hijacking space, at its worst, is a tool of oppression. Those who uphold the patriarchy or white supremacy, for example, are usually masterful at hijacking, whether or not they know they’re doing it. We have all seen it happen – the person in power dismissing, fixing, shaming, interrupting in ways that keeps the other person disempowered and fearful. Even in race relations work, where people are conscious and intentional about being in conversation and reconciliation, I have seen people’s ideas being dismissed, emotions being shamed, and/or problems being fixed. (I have even, admittedly, caught myself doing it.) It can feel surprisingly threatening to see an oppressed person claim agency over their own bodies, emotions, etc., and, in response, those who are used to holding the power fall back on the tools of hijacking space that have been passed down through the generations.
(For a powerful example of how People of Colour have had space hijacked, watch this video of Maya Angelou.)
But we can’t simply dismiss it as something “they” do. Each of us finds ways of hijacking space. We do it to our children, to our friends, to our spouses, to our employees, and even to our parents. We even do it to ourselves when we police our own emotions in order to make other people feel better (ie. the inner patriarch that Sidra Stone talks about in The Shadow King: The Invisible Force that Holds Women Back).
Just this week, my teenage daughter came home from film camp complaining about a girl in her group who annoyed her, and I was tempted to jump in and assure her that it wasn’t really as bad as she said it was and that she needed to be kind to people no matter what, etc. If I’d done that, I would have immediately disempowered and shamed her. Instead I tried to listen without judgement and speak with compassionate guidance. The next day, she figured out how to deal with this person on her own without me needing to intervene.
We also do it in situations where we’re trying to increase our power in a relationship. Consider a time, for example, when you felt intimidated by someone, and, consequently you interrupted them, dismissed their emotions and/or tried to control the outcome of the conversation. Though it might have felt good, in the moment, to be doing it to someone with seemingly more power than you, it doesn’t serve either of you well in the end. Change doesn’t happen when space is hijacked.
In the talk I gave at a conference a few months ago, I talked about holding space as “being the bowl” for someone else. After a Lego house falls apart, I explained in my analogy, a bowl serves to contain all of the broken pieces before they can become what they’re meant to transform into after that. The bowl doesn’t intervene – it just holds, protects, and creates safe space for the brokenness and emergence.
As hijackers, instead of serving as the bowl that holds, we become the mold that shapes. Instead of creating safe space for the emergence, we break the house and we force it into the shape of our choosing. We manipulate, direct, and judge.
Consider, in your own life, how often you have made choices that weren’t authentic to you, simply because you didn’t want to stir someone’s anger or because that person was shaming you for your choices? Sometimes it’s the subtlest of behaviours that have the most power.
It takes a lot of emotional maturity to be the bowl instead of the mold. We have to do our own work to dismantle our inner patriarch and to look deeply into our shadow. We have to address our shame and our fear, and we have to practice releasing control and sharing power. We have to find the spiritual practices that allow us to detach from other people’s emotions and their outcomes and to allow them their autonomy. We have to practice trust in ourselves and in each other.
“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” – Brené Brown
I like fruity tea. Passionate peach, blueberry bliss, raspberry riot – you name it, I probably like it. But at some point in my life, I picked up the idea that fruit teas aren’t for REAL tea drinkers. In the hierarchy of teas, I imagined them stuck at the bottom, the uncoolest of the hot beverages.
I have no idea where I picked up on that tea story. Perhaps someone made fun of me for my tea choice. Perhaps it was just a vibe I picked up. Perhaps I made it up myself. However I picked it up, I let it affect my tea choices. For years, I was afraid to drink fruity tea in public, afraid that the real tea drinkers might notice and judge me for it.
Silly, isn’t it? But isn’t that how most of our shame stories are – rather foolish, once brought into the light of day?
To be honest, some of my shame stories around food choices are rooted in being raised poor, on a farm, and as part of a small Mennonite subculture that kept itself somewhat apart by not engaging in all of the activities (ie. Fall suppers where I might have been exposed to other kinds of tea) in our community. We didn’t have access to “fancy” foods, and so, when I became an adult and was faced with choices that I wasn’t used to, I was afraid I would choose the wrong thing and people would discover how uncultured I was. I was ashamed of being uncultured – ashamed of being a Mennonite farm kid who wasn’t as sophisticated as I assumed the city kids of more worldly-wise cultures were.
We pick up shame stories for a lot of different reasons. Some of them have clear origins (like parents who made us believe we were shameful) and others can only be understood after years of excavation and personal work. Some are relatively easy to release (I now drink fruity tea in public when I want to) and others have become so imbedded into our identity, they become part of our DNA (like the shame around cultural/racial identity).
We inherit many of our shame stories from the generations that came before us in our lineage. Those are the ones that become particularly imbedded into our identity.
After spending several years working in international development, and then a few years on the board of a feminist organization, and now as part of a team doing race relations conversations, I’ve noticed a pattern about cultural shame. Though shame is common to all cultures, it has a particularly strong hold among oppressed cultures.
One of the greatest weapons of oppression is shame. When oppressors manage to inflict shame on people, they increase their own power and diminish the ability of those they oppress to rise up out of their oppression. Shame diminishes courage and strength.
Ironically, though, many of the shame stories related to oppression are passed down not directly from the oppressors themselves but from those above us in our lineage who have been oppressed before us – not because they want to oppress us, but because they want to protect us.
We pass the stories of oppression down to those we most want to protect. When we inherit them as young children, though, those oppression stories become shame stories.
In the book “The Shadow King: The invisible force that holds women back“, Sidra Stone teaches that we adopt the inner patriarchy (the voice that tells women that they are not worth as much as men) from our mothers. It is primarily our mothers who teach us how to stay small, how to please the men, how to avoid getting hurt, and how to give up our own desires in deference to others in our lives (especially men). They do it to protect us, because that’s the only way they’ve learned to protect themselves. And so it goes, from generation to generation, each mother passing down to her daughters the stories of how they can stay safe.
Last week, many of us watched the video of a Baltimore mother who beat her son in public when she found him among the protestors. Desperate to protect him, she pulled him away from enemy lines and taught him, by her own raised hand, that he must learn to submit or risk being killed.
The problem is that those of us growing up in environments where we’re learning these stories from our parents do not yet have a reference point to understand generations of oppression. The only way we know how to interpret our parents’ attempts to keep us small and silent is to believe that they will stop loving us if we become too large and vocal. We become convinced that we are worthy of shame and not love. Though that mother in Baltimore may tell her son a thousand times that she did it out of love and a desperate need to protect him, I suspect there will always be a small child inside him who will believe “my mother shamed me in public, therefore I am worthy of shame.”
Remember the experiment with the monkeys, where a beautiful bunch of bananas hung above a ladder, but every time a monkey would climb to get the bananas, all of the monkeys in the cage would be sprayed with water? Not wanting to be sprayed, the monkeys kept pulling down any monkey who attempted to climb the ladder. Even after all of the monkeys were replaced (one by one) and nobody had experienced the spraying, they still kept any new monkey from climbing the ladder, because they themselves had been stopped. Those new monkeys (if they think like humans), not knowing the history, probably believed “I have done something wrong and my tribe is ashamed of me. I must not be worthy of happiness.” And then they passed the story down to the next generation, pulling down anyone who dared to climb the ladder.
Growing up with the shame inflicted by generations and generations of shamed people, we forget that it is not the lack of love they had that caused them to pass this down to us, it is their wounded love that meant they didn’t know how else to protect themselves and us from further wounding.
And, remarkably, it’s not only psychological – it becomes planted in our very DNA. Studies have shown that trauma has changed people’s DNA and that that DNA has been passed down to subsequent generations, showing up as irrational fear and the tendency to be triggered even if they didn’t directly experience that trauma. If trauma can be passed down through DNA, I’m fairly certain that shame can too, since trauma and shame are often closely linked.
How do we heal these generations of wounds? That is something that I’m just beginning to explore and read about (as are many others) and I welcome anyone’s thoughts, ideas, or experience.
I know that it must be a holistic response, involving body, mind, and spirit. In The MindBody Code, Mario Martinez talks about how we have to heal the shame in our bodies as well as our minds. He teaches contemplative embodiment practices that help replace the shame stories with honour stories.
I also believe that healing shame involves dancing, singing, art-making, spiritual practices, and lots of touch. We can’t heal shame with simply left-brain, logical thinking – we have to engage in creative, right-brain spiritual meaning-making. It helps to create rituals (ie. painting the shame monsters and then painting safe places for them to be exposed), embody our healing (ie. dancing our way into courage), and find spiritual practices that teach us to let go and trust (ie. mindfulness meditation).
And, more than anything, I believe that healing happens in community. Ironically, we pick up our shame through our relationships and we heal it through healthier relationships. That’s the nature of community – it comes with both the good and the bad, the wounding and the healing. In order to heal, we have to find safe community in which we can be vulnerable without fear. When we expose our shame stories among those who hold space for us, the shame loosens its power over us. Intentional circle practices are the best practices I know of for this kind of work.
Happily, there have also been studies that demonstrate that those changes to the DNA can be reversed, so there is hope for the generations that come after us if we do our work to heal. Shame is not the end of the story. We can heal it for ourselves and future generations.
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