My three daughters are all very different in how they view the world, how they communicate and how they process emotions. One of the most challenging things I’ve had to learn as their mom is that I have to listen to them differently.
One is introverted and takes a long time to process things, so even when I sense that something might be bothering her, I often have to wait a couple of weeks before I’ll hear about it. One is more extroverted and tends to think and experience the world the most like I do, so I often make the mistake of assuming I know things about her before I’ve taken the time to genuinely listen. A third is very private about her emotions and uses humour as one of her ways of processing the world, so I have to listen extra carefully for the subtle things she’s saying underneath the witticism.
I don’t always get it right. In fact, a lot of times I don’t. There are a surprising number of things that get in the way of good listening. Sometimes there are too many distractions, sometimes I’m tired, sometimes they’ve hurt my feelings and I’m resentful, and sometimes I just want them to be more like me so I don’t have to work so hard to figure them out.
Listening takes a lot of practice. Even though we develop our ability to hear while still in utero (unless we’re hearing impaired), genuine empathic listening is a skill that takes much longer to develop. And even when we’ve worked hard to develop it, we often mess it up.
Not only does listening take a lot of practice, it takes a lot of vigilance and intentionality to stay in it. Sometimes in a coaching session, for example, I’ll be in deep listening mode and suddenly something will distract me or trigger me and I’ll have to work really hard to stay present for the person in front of me. I can’t always identify what it was that pulled me away – it can be a body sensation (ie. my throat suddenly feeling like it’s closing, triggered by something they said), an emotional response (ie. my eyes fill with tears and suddenly I’m in my own story instead of theirs), or my own ego (ie. wanting to insert my own answer to their problem rather than wait for them to find their solution). Each time something like that happens, I have to bring my attention back to the person in front of me.
Over the weekend, I asked my Facebook friends a series of questions about listening.
1. What do you think are the best indicators that someone is genuinely listening to you?
2. What do you think are the indicators that someone is NOT genuinely listening to you?
3. When do you find it most challenging to listen to another person?
4. What personal work, self-care, etc. helps you be a better listener?
There were a lot of great answers to my questions. (Click on each question to see all of the responses.) Here’s a summary of some of the things that struck me in the answers:
- Genuine listening can’t be faked. While there were a lot of responses about outward signals that someone is listening (eye contact, bodily engagement, good questions), there wasn’t agreement about which signals were most valuable and there was lots of indication that people need to have a genuine felt sense that the person listening is fully present.
- Culture and context matter. Some cultures, for example, don’t value eye contact. And some contexts (ie. when the speaker has a lot of shame or trauma) require a more nuanced form of listening that may mean no eye contact and/or no questions.
- “Ultimately, a good listener allows the person they are listening to to hear THEMSELVES.” (Chris Zydel) When we, as listeners, interject too much of ourselves in the act of listening (questions, interruptions, too much body language, etc.) we can pull the person away from the depth and openheartedness of their own story.
- Genuine listening involves stilling your body and mind so that you can be fully present. In response to the question about indicators when someone is not listening, several people mentioned fidgeting, checking devices, not making eye contact, looking past the speaker, nodding too much, etc., indicating that when we are being listened to, we are usually perceptive to the body signals that a person is genuinely engaged with us.
- The behaviour of the person speaking strongly impacts our ability to listen to them. Approximately three quarters of the answers to the question about when people find it most challenging to listen to another person were about the speaker’s behaviour (when they are self-righteous, condescending, not willing to be openminded, basing their opinions on propaganda, performing rather than speaking from the heart, etc.) rather than the listeners. Fewer people identified their own blocks (when I am angry, weary, in disagreement, wrapped up in my own stuff, unwell, traumatized, etc.)
- Both speaker and listener have to be engaged and willing to be openhearted for it to work. Genuine listening is a two-way street and it can’t happen when one or the other is checked out, distracted or not being honest with themselves. If the speaker is closed off or defensive, it shuts down the ability to listen. If the listener is closed off, triggered, etc., it shuts down the speaker’s willingness to be vulnerable.
- Genuine listening requires self-awareness and good self-care. When we have done our own healing work, paid attention to our own triggers, and taken time to listen to ourselves first, we are in a much better position to listen to others.
Much of what I’ve learned about both listening and speaking, I’ve learned by practicing and teaching The Circle Way. The three practices of circle are: 1. To speak with intention: noting what has relevance to the conversation in the moment. 2. To listen with attention: respectful of the learning process for all members of the group. 3. To tend the well-being of the circle: remaining aware of the impact of our contributions.
Gathering in The Circle Way means that we slow conversation down and give more intentional space to both speaking and listening. When we use the talking piece, for example, there are no interruptions, cross-talk, etc. Nobody redirects what you’re saying by interjecting their own questions, nobody diminishes your wisdom by interjecting their answers to your problems, and everybody is trusted to own their own story and look after the circle by not taking up too much space or time. It can take a lot of practice (some people are quite resistant to talking piece council because they don’t feel it’s genuine conversation if no questions are allowed), but once you get used to the paradigm shift, it’s quite transformational.
According to Otto Schamer and Katrin Kaufer in “Leading from the Emerging Future”, there are four levels of listening.
- Downloading: the listener hears ideas and these merely reconfirm what the listener already knows.
- Factual listening: the listener tries to listen to the facts even if those facts contradict their own theories or ideas.
- Empathic listening: the listener is willing to see reality from the perspective of the other and sense the other’s circumstances.
- Generative listening: the listener forms a space of deep attention that allows an emerging future to ‘land’ or manifest.
Listening becomes increasingly more difficult as we move down these four levels, because each level invites us into a deeper level of risk, vulnerability and openness. There is no risk in downloading, because it doesn’t require that we change anything. Factual listening is a little more risky because it might require a change of opinion or belief. Empathic listening increases the risk because it requires that we open our hearts, engage our emotions, and risk being changed by another person’s perspective. Generative listening is the most risky of all, because it requires that we be willing to change everything – behaviour, opinions, lifestyle, beliefs, action, etc. in order to allow something new to emerge.
Generative listening not only requires a willingness to change, but a willingness to admit I might be wrong.
For example, when I engage in generative listening around race relations, I have to be willing to admit that I have benefited from the privilege of being white, and that I might be guilty of white fragility. If I am truly willing to listen in a way that generates an “emerging future”, there’s a very good chance I will be challenged in ways I’ve never been challenged before to accept the truth of who I am and how I’ve benefited from and been complicit or actively engaged in an oppressive system.
On a more personal level, generative listening as a mother means that I have to own my own mistakes and listen for the ways I may have wounded my daughters.
Not long ago, I was speaking with my oldest two daughters about some of the past conflict in our home, and I heard things that were hard to hear about how they felt betrayed by me when I didn’t protect them and didn’t help them maintain healthy boundaries. Everything in me wanted to defend myself and get them to understand my point of view, but I knew I would only do more damage if I did that. If I wanted our relationship to grow deeper and our home to feel more safe for all of us, I had to listen to their pain and not shut it down.
A few years ago, I wouldn’t have been nearly as receptive to my daughters’ words. Some of it, in fact, they tried to tell me then but I didn’t listen. Back then, I was still too wounded and didn’t have enough self-awareness to listen well. I would be much quicker to jump to my own defence or to offer a short-sighted solution.
Through the healing of my own wounds, I am much more able to hold space for theirs.
I’ve learned to listen better to my daughters, but there are still some spaces where I have a very difficult time engaging in generative listening. Some of the spaces I still have difficulty with are when I have to face too many of my own flaws, when the person speaking triggers unhealed trauma memories, or when the other person has more power or influence in a situation than I do. I will continue to heal and build resilience so that I am not shut down in these spaces. Some of that involves listening to myself more deeply and finding spaces where I am genuinely listened to.
This is not easy work, and it doesn’t happen by accident. Learning to listen is a lifelong journey that starts with the healing of the wounds that get in the way.
If you want to be a better listener, start by listening to yourself.
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I am going down to the bone. A deep cleanse, a stripping away – like a diamond cutter chipping away the grit to reveal the sparkle.
This week, there was a large dumpster parked in front of my house. In went the old couches whose springs no longer held their shape. Then the detritus collected in our garage over the eighteen years we’ve lived here. Broken broom handles, kept just in case there might be a use for them some day. Bent tools, old bicycle tires, empty cardboard boxes. Next came the branches I’d trimmed from the shrubs and trees in the Spring, a broken bench, a rusted table from the backyard, and old playground toys long abandoned by grown children.
Finally, I stripped the floors in two-thirds of the house and dragged those out onto the growing heap in the dumpster. Each room took a little more effort than the last and each increased effort caused a little more wear and tear on my body. First I pulled out the stained carpet in the living room and hallway, the padding underneath, and the strips of upside-down nails at the edge that held it in place. Then the warped cork floor came out of the bathroom.
The kitchen, with its subfloor and multiple layers of linoleum increased the challenge, but I was up for it. After watching DIY Youtube videos, I set the circular saw at the right depth, put on safety goggles, and cut it into pieces. Then came the prying, the jockeying of appliances, and the endless nail removal.
The entrance, with parquet wood glued solidly to the floor, is challenging me most and it’s the only room that remained uncompleted when they picked up the full dumpster yesterday.
Why have I done this all alone? Multiple reasons, I suppose. Cost is probably the first factor, but there are more. I wanted to prove to myself that I could – that I was strong enough and capable enough and stubborn enough and fierce enough. And I knew that it would be cathartic – to work out through my body some of the stuff that gets stuck in my mind. I was right on both counts – today, though my body aches, I feel strong and fierce and a little more healthy.
And there were other reasons – deeper reasons… Like the fact that I had some shame about the state of my house and didn’t want anyone to see the stains on the carpet, the layers of grit under the carpet, or the dried bits of food stuck to the floor under the fridge. Or the fact that I felt like this was my work to do – to cleanse this space of the brokenness of the past so that my daughters and I have a new foundation under our feet for the next part of our lives.
Eighteen years ago this month, we moved into this house with two toddlers. Since then, the floors have taken a lot of wear and tear – spilled milk, spilled wine, spilled tears, spilled blood, spilled lives. We sprayed and scrubbed and sprayed and scrubbed again, but carpets can only take so much, and eventually the stains were so deep it was hard to know the original colour of the carpet.
We didn’t change the carpet, though, because we had hopes for bigger changes. Fourteen years ago, we drew up plans to add a big new kitchen onto the side of the house. There was no point in replacing floors, we told ourselves – we might as well do it all at once. So we put it off until we had the money.
But then we started making choices that pushed the renovation plans further and further into the future. First, Marcel quit his job to go to university and be a stay-at-home dad. Then I took a pay-cut to work in non-profit instead of government. And then I took an even bigger leap (and pay-cut) and became self-employed. The money was just never abundant enough to justify a big expense like a new kitchen.
Instead, we lived with ugly floors and a cramped kitchen. Sadly, though, that changed the way we felt about our house. We put in less and less effort to keep it clean and we invited fewer and fewer people over because the house never looked the way we wanted it to look.
But the floors weren’t the real problem. Perhaps, in fact, they were simply a reflection of the deeper problem. There were stains in our marriage too, and no matter how many times we tried to scrub them out, they kept popping back up again, revealing themselves to us when the light shone through at the right angle. The stains were harder and harder to ignore, and we finally knew that, just like the floors, we had to tear apart our marriage to see whether the foundation beneath it was strong enough to warrant salvaging.
We tried to renovate – visited multiple counsellors over the course of a few years – but finally it was time to make a hard decision. The marriage was too broken to fix. It was better to release ourselves from it so that we each could find our way to growth and healing. Last October, he moved out, and I started decluttering and painting. The flooring, though, had to wait until we’d signed a separation agreement and the house belonged to me.
Now, as I wait for a contractor to install the new flooring (my DIY abilities only take me so far – it’s good to know when to call in the professionals), we walk on bare wooden floors in empty rooms. Our voices echo against the walls in all of this hard space.
It’s all been stripped to the bone – myself, my house, and my marriage.
Unlike the marriage, the foundation of the house is still sturdy and strong. Only a few places need attention – where it squeaks, new screws will be applied. Soon it will be built upon to create a safe and comfortable home for the family that lives here now – my daughters and me. We’ll begin to fill it with laughter again, and when there are couches with sturdy springs, we’ll welcome friends to sit with us and hear our stories. And when we spill, we’ll mop up the spills and carry on.
We had to let go of dreams along the way – the new kitchen never materialized and the family isn’t the shape we thought it would always be – but we are sturdy enough to survive and resilient enough to adjust and grow new dreams. Despite the dismantling of the marriage, our family still has a solid enough foundation to hold us.
My own foundation is strong too. In fact, it feels stronger than ever. All of this chipping away is bringing me closer and closer to my essence, to the diamond under the grit. I’ve cleared out what didn’t serve me anymore, I’ve put some new screws in place to fix whatever squeaked, and I’ve called in professionals when that seemed wise. I feel fresh and alive and ready to hold space for whatever wants to unfold next in my life.
The liminal space has been hard and painful and I still ache from the effort it’s taken. Some of the tearing away revealed grit and shadow I didn’t want anyone to see, not even myself. But in the end, there is grace and the light is shining through and it is all worth it.
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In recent weeks, I’ve had a few people whose work is growing and who want to be prepared for more growth ask me what advice I’d give them from my experience of having a blog post go viral. A year and a half ago, my blog post about holding space went viral. So many people visited that my website crashed once and threatened to crash another time. There continue to be viral spikes now and then when someone with a large following discovers and shares it. By now, I would estimate that around 3 million people have seen that post either on my site or on other sites where it’s been shared (especially Uplift Connect). It’s been quoted in books and journals, it’s inspired videos and other articles, and it’s been plagiarized more than once.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that experience and what I learned from it. It really was life-changing and it’s taken my work into a deeper and more focused place. It has opened remarkable doorways for me, brought in lots of new clients and speaking engagements, and allowed me to travel to some interesting places to do interesting work. Now, a year and a half later, I’m working with an agent to grow the ideas that started in that blog post into a full-length book.
Yes, that post has been a great blessing and a dream come true, but it has required great sacrifice of me as well. The fall-out from that post has brought me to the brink of burnout more than once. It has exhausted and overwhelmed me. It has changed relationships and has sent me into therapy. It has placed a burden on my shoulders that I wasn’t always prepared to carry. Sometimes hundreds of emails fill my in-box, each one of them a request for some energetic output on my part.
At first I was going to write a “what I wish I’d known before it happened” kind of post, but truthfully, I don’t know if I would have done much differently. Even in the really hard spots, there were lessons to learn that couldn’t have been learned without some struggle. So instead, I will give you some of my stories and lessons and you can make of them what you will. Some of these are related to business growth and some are related to personal growth – I really can’t separate the two because they are so blended in what I do.
- There are few things more vital than good support. Because my business hadn’t grown enough, I was running a one-woman show before my post went viral, doing everything on a shoestring budget. I didn’t have a good hosting plan for my website and I didn’t have anyone with the technical capacity to support website challenges. I was self-taught and relied on the inexpensive hosting package of a big and impersonal business. That was a nearly fatal flaw. When the traffic increased exponentially, the big and impersonal business kept threatening me with menacing emails about the fact that I didn’t have enough capacity in my hosting package, but weren’t responding to any of my requests for support. When my website crashed, they completely ignored my repeated requests for urgent support for more than 24 hours. Finally, a website super girl stepped forward, stayed up all night, and rescued my site from disaster. It was running again (now hosted by her) by the time I woke up in the morning. I now pay a fair bit more for web hosting, but that’s a monthly bill I pay quite happily for the peace of mind it’s brought me.
- Having a lot of good content and programs already available helped immensely. I’ve been blogging for more than a dozen years and had several reasonably-priced programs available on my site (ie. Mandala Discovery, The Spiral Path, and Lead with Your Wild Heart) which meant that new visitors could engage with my work and invest in it right away. I know I could have done better if I’d had a savvy marketer working with me, but I did alright, given the circumstances. I am grateful that the viral spike happened far enough into my business development that I could support it and it wasn’t just a flash-in-the-pan success. That meant that, in the early days when not many people were showing up, I had to be faithful to the work and believe that it had meaning, continuously creating whether or not people were paying attention.
- The internet has created a market where people feel they are entitled to free content and advice. While I am grateful for the income that this post brought in, it is also true that far more people came looking for free support. This is not a critique of those people (I’ve done the same thing myself on occasion, though I try not to anymore), but it was amazing to me how many people reached out for free advice on everything from parenting to palliative care to marriage to business development. Because I love to engage with people and have built many beautiful relationships online, my first instinct was to respond to every one of the emails I received and often that meant giving out free advice. That is exhausting and unsustainable. I had to learn how to create better boundaries for myself and I had to practice letting people down for the sake of my own health and well-being. Now, a year and a half later, I have finally hired an assistant who is managing that flow and helping me to protect my energy.
- I can’t over-state how important good self-care and healthy boundaries are. I’ve always considered myself to be fairly good at self-care (I take lots of hot baths, go on lots of long walks, step away from my work regularly, journal and make art often, have some really supportive relationships, etc.) but I realized with this experience that the bigger my work and audience gets, the more intentional I need to be about self-care and boundaries. In working with a therapist, for example, I realized that I still have a long way to go in terms of honouring my body and protecting my energy while I make myself available to more and more people. I’ve been working on that this summer.
- People are looking for more depth than we sometimes expect – don’t dumb it down. I work in some pretty deep and sometimes dark places. I talk about grief, shadow, conflict, race relations, vulnerability, etc. That’s not the kind of work that one would normally associate with “going viral”. And yet, I’ve found that my audience shows up when I take the most risks in going to those deep places. My blog post started with the death of my mother and it included a definition of holding space that is fairly intense and doesn’t fit with some of the more New-Agey or Law-of-Attraction type understanding of holding space. And yet, that is clearly what people are hungry for, because they keep coming. Far too many coaches and writers write from a more shallow place (“do these ten steps and you’ll have a rich and happy life”) and they might get rich from it, but I don’t think it’s feeding the real hunger in the world.
- Fame is shallow. It’s the real work that matters. Sure it’s flattering that three million people have seen my post, but I can’t dwell in abstract numbers or I risk getting lost in ego. To me, the real work is in the circles that gather in my workshops, the individuals who sit across from me in my coaching sessions, or the people who engage with me when I speak at conferences. Last week, I held space for a powerful and intense ceremony for two people who are launching a beautiful new movement into the world. Sitting there in the grass, bearing witness as they took a metaphorical journey into the work that calls them was as good as my work gets and it is a great privilege that I get to do it. I don’t ever want to forget that.
- Not every audience is worth spending my energy on. At the beginning, it was flattering to be invited to do radio interviews, etc., but I learned fairly quickly that if my gut was telling me it wasn’t the right audience, I should pay attention. More than one interview fell flat because the interviewer really didn’t understand my work and didn’t know how to ask good questions. I walked away from those interviews feeling drained and frustrated. Since then, I’ve been more selective in what speaking engagements or interviews I’ll agree to. I’ve also become somewhat suspect of online summits where a lot of speakers are doing free webinars, especially when there has been little thought to the diversity of the speakers. I would only agree to one of those if it was just the right invitation and just the right intention around what it’s offering. It’s not true that “all PR is good PR” – sometimes it drains your valuable energy and/or links you to products and organizations that don’t fit with your values and integrity.
- There are great risks involved in taking your work to a deeper place. There’s a Bible verse that says “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” That rings true for me in this work. I feel that I have been given a great gift and great responsibility in doing this work, but it is also requiring much of me and I can’t take that lightly. In order for me to be doing this work with integrity, I have to be willing to peer into my shadow and address my own shame and discomfort. Some of the emails I get, for example, are negative and attacking. Sometimes I need to ignore them and stand in my strength, but sometimes I need to accept what is truthful in them. And always I need to be resilient enough to return to the work and remember that it’s not about me.
- It is, ironically, harder to build real relationships when lots of people know who you are. This was rather unexpected for me, but I’ve noticed that people respond to me differently once they know that I had a blog post that went viral. When I’m at conferences or other public gatherings where people know my work, they assume I’m the expert or teacher and they approach me that way, assuming I know something that they don’t know. Some have read a fair bit of my work already, so I am automatically at a disadvantage, not knowing anything about them. It’s new territory to navigate, and it hasn’t kept me from some beautiful experiences of deep connection, but it definitely shifts the initial connection in a relationship. Sometimes this is okay (it allows me to maintain some boundaries), but sometimes it leaves me feeling a little lonely when everyone else is connecting on more equal playing field. I remember a similar thing happening when I first stepped into management – I was no longer privy to much of the office chit-chat that helped build relationships among staff.
- Only do this work if you’re prepared to have your life shaken up. One of the most significant results of this deeper personal work that cracked open for me when I started writing about holding space was that my 22 year marriage unraveled only months after my post first went viral. That wasn’t accidental timing. The post, and my resulting work, caused me to see that I wasn’t living in integrity. While I was busy teaching people to hold space, I was in a marriage where neither I nor my husband knew how to hold space for each other. We were pretending we did, but we really didn’t, even after years of trying. The viral blog post made that even more apparent, when I started looking for deeper emotional support than he knew how to give. I knew that, in order for this work to grow, I had to be honest with myself and step away and also release him to what would support him better.
- The outcome is not my responsibility. This has been my mantra since the early days of my business when I was stressing out about whether anyone would read my blog or pay for my offerings. After the discouragement of canceled workshops (due to low registrations) and ignored blog posts, I had to remind myself that I am called to this work and will continue to do it whether three people show up or three million. I am responsible for showing up and doing this work with integrity and commitment, but I am not responsible for the numbers or what people take from it. When I get caught up in numbers or people’s responses, it messes with my ego, my work suffers and my voice gets weak. When I stay in the work and write and teach what I’m most passionate about, the right people show up and I get to do beautiful, meaningful work.
- Nothing is worth more than my own family and health. This work is gratifying and humbling and I breathe a prayer of thanksgiving every day that I get to do it. But no matter how many people visit my blog or come to my workshops, I would walk away from it all if that sacrifice were ever required of me for the sake of my daughters or myself. There are only so many balls that a person can juggle, and I know which ones are glass. I love this work, but I am not a slave to it.
If this resonates with you, please share it with anyone whose work may be growing. I often wondered, while I was in the middle of it, where to turn for help and support from someone who’d been there before me. I found some of that support along the way and I want to offer it to others. If you’re growing your work and need coaching to help you stay grounded, check out my coaching page. If you’re just beginning to dream of what your work is in the world, you may benefit from Pathfinder: A Creative Journal for Finding Your Way or The Spiral Path: A Woman’s Journey to Herself.
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection and my bi-weekly reflections.
I am slowly, one breath at a time, finding my way back to equilibrium.
Two weeks ago, I was suddenly aware of how wobbly I’d become – spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Like a toddler on new legs, I was stumbling around, bumping into things (and people), and occasionally falling down. Also like a toddler, my emotions had become suddenly unregulated and unpredictable. I cried or got angry at the slightest provocation. And I was making mistakes I don’t normally make.
I knew it was time for a pause. I knew I needed to step away from my adult-sized obligations and simply let my wobbly toddler nature stumble along until she’d figured out how to walk again without harming herself.
As I mentioned in my last post, it’s been a big year, full of significant shifts in both my business and personal life. Mix all of the ingredients of my year – rapid (and unexpected) business growth and increased demand on my time and energy, the ending of a 22 year marriage, solo-parenting to three daughters navigating the path from adolescence to early adulthood, and a few fairly significant volunteer commitments (sponsoring Syrian refugees, hosting race relations conversations, and starting a women’s circle) – and you get a recipe for stress. The wobble is not unexpected.
Though I’m fairly consistent about incorporating self-care practices into my week, it was clear that I had reached a place where I needed to take more radical action.
I knew that if I didn’t put myself first for awhile, I would not be able to be of service to anyone else.
Here’s what I’ve been doing for the last two weeks:
- I reduced my screen time to almost nothing, stepping away from social media and emails in particular. I’d noticed that my wobbliness got worse when I spent too much time online, so I got off that treadmill. This was one of the healthiest things I could have done. It relieved a lot of the pressures of having to live up to other people’s expectations, meet other people’s needs, etc. It freed up a lot of space to focus on the healing and soul care I needed to do.
- I spent a lot of time outside. Nature heals me. It helps me feel grounded and connected again. I wandered in the woods, played at the beach, and sat for hours in my backyard around the fire. I hugged trees and talked to pelicans and frogs. Mother Earth revealed her Spring splendour to me and, when I paused to pay attention, she helped to heal my hurt and reminded me of my place in the nature of things.
- I got physical and sweaty. I rode my bike, went for long walks, and dug in my garden. With each footstep, each revolution of the bike pedals, and each handful of dirt, I worked through my anxiety, my stress, and my hurt. I let my body take over where my mind had gotten stuck. I alchemized some of the ache in my heart by letting my muscles take on the aching for awhile.
- I went to see a therapist. I’d become aware that some of my stress was related to some old patterns that I’d developed over years of dysfunctional communication in my marriage. I needed help letting go of those old patterns so that they wouldn’t have control over me anymore. After listening to my story, she gave me wise, holistic advice that I’m still processing and will probably write more about another time.
- I let people help me. So many of you helped me – with your kindness, your cards, your financial support, etc. – and there are not enough words to express my gratitude. Accepting help is a humbling and healthy thing, but it’s not something my ego let’s me do very often. When I accept help, though, I am reminded that I am not in this alone and I begin to see the world through a less self-absorbed lens.
- I played, slept, and did some deep relaxation. For the first few days, after I’d canceled my client sessions and gotten offline, I slept much more than usual. Then, when I felt rested, I found ways to play. Being barefoot in the sand at the beach helped a lot. I needed lightheartedness to remind me not to take the world quite so seriously. Thanks to a birthday gift from my daughters, I spent a whole day relaxing with a friend at Thermeaoutdoor spa.
- I prayed. When I get wobbly, as I did, it’s often a reminder to me that I am trying too hard to carry the world on my shoulders and not living from a place of trust. Reaching out to a Higher Power reminds me that I don’t have to do this all with my own strength. I have a powerful God/dess on my side, so why walk alone? Like a toddler who knows her parent is close by to catch her when she stumbles, I reached out my hand and let Her hold me. “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. S/he will not let your foot be moved; s/he who keeps you will not slumber.”
- I meditated. I’m not a very faithful meditator, but when I lose my equilibrium and my mind starts spinning in a hundred directions at once, I know that one of the only ways to find balance again is to plant my seat on my cushion, be still, and take deep breaths. It takes a lot of practice to still the racing mind, but slowly I’m getting back into the habit.
- I paid attention. The wobbliness was there to teach me what changes I needed to make in my life, so the first thing I did was slow down enough to pay attention. I paid attention to my body’s ache for more time away from the computer. I paid attention to what the persistent cough might be telling me about what was being stifled in my life. I paid attention to what triggered the tears and anger. I paid attention to how my breathing gets more shallow when I’m under stress and how I sometimes hold my breath. And I paid attention to how my needs were or were not being met. And then I responded accordingly.
- I cleared a lot of clutter. After years of neglect, our backyard had begun to resemble the wild kingdom. I began to tend it again, the same way I have been tending my heart – tearing out the seedlings that had grown in the wrong place, trimming back the hedges that were blocking the light, and pulling a lot of weeds that were smothering the beauty. At the end of hours of back-breaking labour, I put a circle of chairs around a small fire pit in the middle of the yard, under the canopy of ancient trees, and my daughters and I have enjoyed many hours of easy conversation around the fire.
- I let myself grieve. I reflected often on what David Whyte says in this short video clip… “One of the difficulties of leaving a relationship is not so much leaving the person themselves – because by that time, you’re ready to go. What’s difficult is leaving the dreams that you shared together. And you know that somehow, no matter who you meet in your life in the future, and no matter what species of happiness you will share with them, you will never ever share those particular dreams again, with that particular tonality and coloration. And so there’s a lovely and powerful form of grief there that is the ultimate in giving away, but making space for another form of re-imagination.” One night by the fire, after my daughters had made their way back into the house, I sat for a long time by the dying embers, grieving the flame that had died, grieving the shared dreams and the hopes that things would turn out differently. When the fire was gone, I got up and crawled into bed, alone and content.
- I dared to disappoint people in order to care for myself. This is a big one for me, as I have always struggled with a fear of letting people down. But I knew that I could not continue the way I was – trying to ensure everyone around me was happy so that my world would feel safe – and still be healthy and do good work. The words of Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s poem, The Invitation, kept going through my mind… “I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.”
Now, as I make my way back to my work and begin to consider what work calls me next, I am being more intentional about how I step back in. I am working on a deeper understanding of what it means for me to be “openhearted with boundaries”. I am trying to do a better job of managing people’s expectations (ie. if you don’t get a response from an email, please wait a few days). I’m looking after what my body tells me I need. I’m shifting the way I show up in relationships. I am being more careful to protect my energy, my health, and my heart.
I believe that, when I “put on my own oxygen mask first”, I’ll be better able to care for the people around me, and my work will come from a place of abundance rather than depletion.
I also believe that, once in awhile, it’s valuable to return to the legs and heart of a toddler, stumbling around trying to find balance, giggling at things that surprise us, crying whenever our emotions overwhelm us, reaching out to a benevolent grown-up for support when we need it, and exploring the delights of the world with unguarded eyes.
I turned fifty in the middle of my time away. Fifty is a good age to become a toddler again. It’s good to be standing on new legs as I enter the second half of my life.
In honour of my new toddler view of the world, I am currently perched about six feet above the ground in a tree in my backyard. There’s a great spot, in a tree that must be at least a hundred years old, where three massive limbs separate and create a natural nook, that I always thought would be a perfect place for a treehouse. I haven’t built anything permanent yet, but today, on a whim, I carried a ladder and some old couch cushions to the backyard to make myself a makeshift little nest where I can sit and hide and get close to the birds and the squirrels.
How about you? Are you wobbling around on toddler legs? Is it time for you to pause for radical self-care and perspective shift? Is it time to say no for awhile so that you can say a bigger YES to the world that awaits?
If you’re telling yourself that “it sure would be nice, but there’s no way I could do that”, you might want to take a look at your excuses and see if they are true or if they are wrapped up in a story about how the world simply can’t function without you at the helm. You may not be able to step away in the way that I did (I understand the demands of small children and full-time jobs), but you can find your own version that works within your current reality.
p.s. If you need some help finding your balance again, or working through the stories that keep you stuck in old patterns, perhaps I can help. I’m taking on a few new coaching clients.
Last week, I bought a new journal. I am mostly a rush-in-buy-rush-out kind of shopper, but with journals it’s different. I take journal shopping very seriously, because a journal isn’t just a blank book – it’s an intimate partner that will see me through a lot of joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure. I need to like how it feels in my hands, like the texture of the paper, and like how it lies open in front of me. And I prefer a little variety – I never buy the same journal twice. This time I went with soft vintage leather that wraps around and keeps its contents cozy.
The first thing I entrusted my new journal with is this:
Today I resolve that I will only take responsibility for the baggage that belongs to me. I will work on whatever is mine to work on. I will not take responsibility for anyone else’s anger, fear, grief, joy, success, etc.
I wrote that because by the end of my last journal, it had become more and more clear to me that I needed to address my pattern of taking on what is not mine to take on.
Even though I’ve learned so much about what it means to hold space for people, and I spend quite a bit of time talking about listening without judging, walking alongside without trying to fix, empowering without trying to control, and guiding without inserting our own egos, I still get stuck in a decades-old pattern of taking responsibility for baggage that is not my own.
Not sure what I’m talking about? Consider the following scenarios and ask yourself whether any of these reflect your own patterns:
- Your teenage daughter doesn’t hand in an assignment and instead of recognizing that she is old enough to take responsibility for her own mistakes, you fret about how you have failed to teach her good organization skills. Or maybe you defend her to the teacher, giving an excuse for why it couldn’t be finished in time.
- You apologized for forgetting to pick up something for your partner, but he/she won’t let go of the anger, so you apologize several times, rush out to pick it up (even though it’s late and you’re tired), or over-compensate by making his/her favourite meal for dinner – anything to try to fix the anger.
- Your friend is passive aggressive and unhappy and she always makes you feel guilty for not having enough time for her, so you regularly give up your rare free time to go for coffee with her and listen to her long list of complaints.
- You’ve written something online that somebody responds to negatively and even though you really believe it to be true, you delete it because you don’t want to offend anyone.
- An impatient driver keeps honking at you, and even though there’s a lot of traffic and you don’t feel safe, you rush to make the turn to avoid annoying the other driver.
These are just a few examples of the many ways that we take on other people’s baggage. We often do it at the risk of our own safety, our own happiness, and our own health. Instead of letting them carry what is theirs, we take responsibility for fixing their anger, making sure they’re happy, and avoiding offending them.
Most of us have such ingrained patterns that we don’t know why we do it or where it came from – we barely even know we do it until our growing self-awareness makes us see it. Perhaps we picked it up from our parents’ patterns, perhaps we’ve always just assumed that that was the role of a person of our gender, or perhaps we’ve been lead to believe that that’s the only way we have value in the world.
At the heart of it is always our own discomfort, fear, and lack of self-worth. We are afraid that if we don’t fix someone’s anger, then they will reject us. Or we’re afraid that if we offend someone or say no to them, it will mean they won’t like us anymore. Or we’re sure that if we don’t help other people succeed then it will make us look bad.
When we take responsibility for other people’s baggage, we make it about us rather than about them. It’s now about OUR discomfort, OUR fear, and OUR lack of self-worth. In a strangely paradoxical way, it’s a self-centred act, even though it usually appears to be a self-sacrificial act.
We try to fix other people because we want our own lives to be easy and free of fear.
But we’re not doing anybody any favours when we do this. We’re not doing them any favours because we’re denying them the opportunity to take responsibility for their own issues. We’re taking their power away by taking their responsibility away. And we’re not doing ourselves any favours because the stress of trying to control the way the world around us functions will kill us.
What can we do about it? We can choose to detach. We can choose to return the responsibility for the baggage to the person who owns it.
That doesn’t mean that we are no longer compassionate or supportive of other people. We can support without taking on the burden. We can hold space for people. We can hold them accountable for their own choices and their own emotional growth.
And in doing so, we take back the responsibility for our own fear, discomfort and lack of self-worth that got us into trouble in the first place. Because just like it’s not our job to fix them, it’s not their job to resolve whatever’s going on for us.
I’m working on that in my own life by writing about it in my journal, talking to people who get it, and practicing it daily with baby steps. If you need help processing your own intentions to take responsibility for your own baggage and nobody else’s, perhaps you need a new journal too. Or maybe you need a coach who understands because she’s on that journey too.
I encourage you to consider how you need to let go of other people’s baggage, because the more we learn to do it, the more freedom we have and the more freedom we give them.
Note: If journal-writing is of interest to you, you might find some support for it in the upcoming Openhearted Writing Circles.