My social media feed is filling up with images of grinning college students settling into dorm rooms. Sometimes the parents who are posting those images are in the photos and grinning too, but beneath the grins and cheery captions… well, there’s a lifetime of stories and a whole host of other stuff. I can see it in their eyes. (Let’s face it, when your child moves away, it’s hard to keep it from showing up in your eyes.)
“Whoa…that’s three sentences… and ten thousand pounds of stuff,” Michael J. Fox said in his documentary, Still, when he was reading a short passage about his relationship with his dad from his autobiography. That’s what I feel when I look at those photos… just a simple photo, a simple smile, a simple caption about how their child is starting university… and ten thousand pounds of STUFF. Yes, when your child moves away, there’s a lot of STUFF – emotional and otherwise.
Did they really grow up so quickly? Don’t I have more time with them? Can we go back to simpler days when they needed me more? Will I become less relevant in their life? Did I teach them all the things they need to become a good adult? Will they make friends here? Will they be lonely? What if they get their heart broken and I’m not around to support them? How will I spend my time when I’m no longer caring for them in my house? What if I enjoy having them out of the house – will that make me a bad parent? What’s my identity now that “parent” is taking up less space?
Oh parent… I feel you. My heart is travelling with you on this wild roller-coaster ride called parenting. Who could have known, when we first became bonded with those little people who entered our lives, just how much our hearts would become tethered to theirs? Who could have known the ways our hearts would swell with pride and devotion, the way those little people could uniquely break our hearts with their cutting words, the way we could feel such intense anger one moment and love the next, the ways we’d feel so completely unprepared, overwhelmed and uncertain about how we were raising them?
Parenting is a series of thresholds, milestones, and heartaches. It’s a gradual, incremental process of letting go, punctuated with these bigger moments when the letting go feels more and more profound (and sometimes earth-shattering) – like when we first leave them with a babysitter, they start attending school, they have their first sleepover, they go away to a week of sleepover camp, they start high school, they learn to drive, and they get their first job. And there’s the other stuff too – less tangible and sometimes more emotional – the first time they keep a secret from us, the first time they lie to cover something up, the first time they choose a friend over us, the first time they slam their bedroom door. Then, before we know it, they’re ready for that BIG threshold – the one that involves them leaving our home, for a university dorm, their own apartment, another city… whatever. It’s all an exercise in learning to let our hearts walk around outside of our bodies… and then realizing those hearts were never ours to begin with.
Sometimes when I teach about what it means to hold space, I joke that I got my PhD in holding space from being a parent. At first, you hold them close and take responsibility for meeting all their needs, and the container you hold for them is small and enclosed, protective and safe – like a bird’s nest. Then gradually, you open your hands and your heart more and more and let them grow into their autonomy and agency and you practice letting them take responsibility for the consequences of their own actions. It’s not easy, this letting go, especially when your child moves away, but it’s necessary. Individuation, according to Jung, is the process a child must undergo to become their own person – a well-functioning adult, with their own beliefs and ideals that might be separate from those of their parents and society. We let go so that they can become themselves.
(An aside… I think there’s a potential individuation process involved in parenting too, especially if there was some arrested development in our early lives and our children’s growing up brings up our own long-buried childhood stuff, but that’s a post for another day.)
What comes up again and again in the work I do, when people begin to learn about what it means to hold space, is that this practice is FAR more about us, the spaceholders, than it is about the people we hold space for. As parents, we have to hold space for OURSELVES during this important milestone so that we don’t project all of our stuff onto our children, so that we don’t pass down the woundedness and trauma we’ve inherited from our lineage, and so that they can be released more fully into their individuation with liberation and without shouldering guilt over abandoning us or fear that they’re severing family ties or letting us down.
Two years ago, my oldest and youngest daughters moved out within two weeks and I drove each of them twenty-four hours in opposite directions to their new homes in faraway cities. Not long afterwards, my middle daughter started traveling and I was mostly an empty-nester. The pandemic had given me bonus time, with all of them staying home longer than expected, but then the world started opening and suddenly they were all leaving in quick succession, and going far away. SO quickly it all happened and suddenly… I was alone. And there I was, reeling from the emotional tailspin of it all, but doing my best to hold space for myself so that my aloneness didn’t become their burden.
This summer, I’ve enjoyed the gift of a few months with two daughters back under the same roof, but next week I have to say good-bye again as one heads back to the west coast and the other heads in the opposite direction. I’m a little more prepared for it now, having survived the initial blow, but I know it will still be hard. I know my emotions will bounce all over the place for a while.
As I prepare for this next period of transition, I thought I’d share some reflections from my own experience and my understanding of what it means to hold space for our growing children and for ourselves. I hope these are supportive for when your child moves away.
1. Trust that you have taught your children as much as they need to know, and that they have the capacity to figure out the rest. This one surprised me when I helped my daughters set up their new homes far from where I’d be living. I worried about whether I’d taught them enough that they’d know how to function as independent adults. Some of it was about simple things (like getting stains out of clothes) and some of it was bigger (like building community in a new city). I cried about it in a hotel room on the long trip home, but then I had to let go and trust that they’d be okay. Two years later, I can see how well they adapted, and I have to admit that those fears were more about my own insecurities (i.e. Had I been a good enough mother?) then they were about them.
2.Give them the advice that matters most, and withhold the stuff they can figure out on their own. This is related to the first one, but it’s also about allowing our children to have their own autonomy and make their own mistakes. They need to know that we trust them and that we don’t assume they’ll be helpless without us nearby. When we try to dump too much advice on them, we run the risk of hijacking space while making them doubt their own capacity to make good choices independently. In those early days for each of my daughters as they set up their apartments and learned to navigate new cities, I had to learn to (mostly) keep my mouth shut when they chose sheets and towels, and then figured out how to navigate public transit. There was some discernment in recognizing when to stay silent and when to step in and let them know I still had their backs and I didn’t always get it right, but I tried.
3. Be mindful of what this separation might be triggering in you, and work to hold and heal it without making it your child’s burden. Are you feeling separation anxiety, or having old abandonment trauma triggered? Are you afraid of becoming irrelevant in your children’s lives? Are you afraid of losing your sense of purpose when you’re not needed as much? Are you letting your mind cycle through irrational fear of what could happen to them while you’re far away? Maybe there’s codependency in your relationship with your child and you’ve been overly enmeshed in their life? These are all very real things, and you don’t need to bury them and pretend you’re not feeling them, but it’s your responsibility to hold these things (and/or find peers or professionals to help you hold and heal them) not your children’s. Breathe deeply, dear parent, and release them with a blessing so that they don’t have to take responsibility for (or inherit) your pain.
4. Recognize that there is grief in this and find healthy ways to process your grief. I know it hurts – that’s natural. You’re grieving the end of a really important era of your life. You’re grieving the loss of that little innocent child you cherished. You’re grieving the way your role in your child’s life is changing. You’re grieving all of those meals you won’t eat together, all those movies you can’t watch, all those car rides, and all that laughter you’ll no longer hear from the living room. It’s not a death, exactly, but it can feel that way. Let yourself cry, let yourself grieve, and find friends who will hold space while you release all of those big feelings. Pour it onto your journal page or go sit by a river and let the natural world hold space for your tears. Grief is a natural part of relationships. Grief is a part of what it means to love. Go ahead and feel it. (This too shall pass.)
5.Recognize that there is also freedom in this (and let go of any guilt you feel over enjoying that freedom). There is never just one emotion involved in a major milestone like this. There might be some relief mixed in with the grief, and maybe even some joy (though those might not be the most immediate emotions to show up). You’ve done the heavy lifting of parenting a child into adulthood and now they’re not going to need you as much. When your child moves away, they’re going to find other people to lean on and your burdens will likely become lighter. You won’t need to cook as many meals or give as many rides or clean up as many stray socks. That can feel like freedom. Your life is about to open up in ways that might not have been possible when your children were more dependent on you. Feeling guilty over enjoying it isn’t going to serve anyone, so why not enjoy it? In the long run, your kids are likely going to enjoy their own freedom more (and feel less guilty about leaving you behind) if they see you enjoying yours. It’s a healthier way of nurturing a secure (and evolving) attachment bond between you.
6. Lean into liminality. There is liminal space involved in any major transition in our lives and this one is no exception. We have to let go of the old story of who we were and how we spent our days and it will take some time for the new story to emerge. There’s an identity shift when you lose some of the duties and expectations that once defined you as a parent and you might even find yourself in a full-fledged identity crisis. Lean into it, dear parent (while getting support if the crisis is significant). Things are going to be different. There’s going to be a new normal. You will eventually adjust to a new way of filling your days, a new way of being in communication with your child, a new way of welcoming them home for the holidays, and perhaps new hobbies, new friendships, and new ways of making meaning of your life. But you don’t have to figure any of that stuff out right away. Let yourself feel wobbly for awhile. Let yourself feel all the complicated back-and-forth emotions. Be tender with yourself when old wounds get triggered, when you feel lonely, when you’re full of self-doubt, or when you’re uncertain what your purpose in life should be. This is liminality, this is normal.
7. Consider planning a “gap year” for yourself. When we think of gap years, we picture high school graduates going off into the world to find themselves before entering college. But what about a gap year for new empty-nesters? When my daughters all moved out, I sold our family home (because none of them planned to move back to Winnipeg and I didn’t intend to stay in the city either) and set off on a year-long adventure. Because my work affords me the privilege of working from anywhere there’s Wi-Fi (plus I teach internationally), I had the privilege of traveling all over Europe and Central America. Now that I’m at the tail end of that year, I am immensely grateful that I had the opportunity! It wasn’t always easy, and sometimes I felt lonely, but it was a profoundly meaningful (and fun) way to explore who I am, where I want to live, and how I want to live in this next phase of my life. I got to spend the year being intentional about making choices rooted in joy, tenderness, and liberation – choices for ME and nobody else – and I feel grounded and have a new sense of confidence and self-love now. Your gap year might look nothing like mine (maybe you can’t leave your home or have no interest in travel), but there might be some way for you to experience a similar period of exploration, expansion, and joy-seeking as you figure out how you want to live, love, and make meaning. (Consider joining our Full-Bodied Life community for this time of exploration.)
8. Explore (and enjoy) your expanding identity and possibilities. Related to the last point, you have an opportunity, in this transition period, to dive into more intentional self-exploration. Maybe there are lifestyle changes you want to make. Maybe there are relationships that need to shift or new boundaries you need to adopt. Maybe it’s time to dive into that therapy you’ve been putting off. Maybe you want to travel more. Maybe you want to take up new hobbies or take a course. Maybe it’s time to sign up for that master’s degree program you always dreamed you’d get but put off when the children came. This is a moment when you get to let go of some of that old programming about what’s selfish or a waste of time or what you’re not worthy of. This is a time when you get to choose YOURSELF. Be playful with your exploration and HAVE FUN!
One day, dear parent, you will wake up in the morning and realize that something has shifted and that you’ve now become accustomed to this new normal. Despite how monumental they feel when they happen, transitions don’t last forever. You can weather this storm, just as you have weathered storms in the past. You’re not finished growing and evolving, and while growth can sometimes hurt, it can also lead us into more expansive lives. Go ahead – live a more expansive life!
P.S. If you want to learn more about how to hold space for yourself, now would be a great time to sign up for our How to Hold Space Foundation Program. It starts in October 2023, and if you sign up before September 1, you can still get last year’s prices.
I’ve been sick this week. Congestion, fever, a nose like a leaky faucet. This morning, I was just going to carry on with my day as though my body wasn’t begging to stay in bed, but then the fever finally convinced me a day under the covers was justified. One of the dangers of working from home, though, is that I can take my computer to bed and the inner drill sergeant still expects me to get stuff done.
I can chalk it up to the work ethic I was raised with. My dad was known to push through every sickness and more than once, he passed out in the barn when he was too sick to stand (and then got up and went back to work). My mom came home from the hospital, where she’d just had a radical hysterectomy, and re-washed the floor that sixteen-year-old me had washed the day before (but had used too much cleaner so it was sticky).
Yes, even after all of these years, there is still a voice in my head that becomes hyper-critical whenever there is evidence of laziness. Perhaps it’s still sixteen-year-old me reminding me that I’m not living up to the expectations of the hard-working folks who raised me.
There are not a lot of things pressing that I must do today, so a rest day is not unreasonable, but here I am writing this blog post because I’d told myself I’d write one today and whenever I try to rest, my brain spins in circles and makes it nearly impossible. Here’s what I’m thinking now… maybe if I get this post out of my brain, it will allow me to nap. (Fingers crossed.)
It’s ironic to be writing this, so soon after I wrote a post about why Krista needed to rest, but isn’t it always easier to tell other people what they need than it is to meet those needs for ourselves? (I’ll let her get revenge when she comes back to work.)
I’ve been thinking, though, about the bigger picture about how we treat our bodies and why we need to be more tender with our own bodies and each others’ bodies. As I mentioned in the earlier post, grind culture is abusive and we shouldn’t contribute to that abuse on capitalism’s behalf. Let’s face it – capitalism is never going to be kind to us, even if we break our bodies on its behalf, so why make such a huge sacrifice?
The other thing I mentioned in that post is that when we rest, we send a message to people that we value them whether or not they make measurable contributions to a capitalist system. When we are cruel to our bodies because they don’t perform as well as we expect them to, we are upholding a values system that places bodies in a hierarchy, with healthy, productive, physically fit bodies above those that are chronically ill or disabled. We contribute to the marginalization of other people by not valuing our own bodies when they are sick, weak, or tired. (And then we succumb to internalized oppression when we’re hard on our own bodies for being sick.)
This isn’t just about rest, it’s about all of the ways that we treat our bodies. It’s about the ways we punish our bodies with restrictive diets to try to lose pounds so that we can be seen as acceptable and attractive. It’s about harsh exercise regimes that make us feel like our bodies are more worthy. It’s about supplements and cleanses and… so much more.
You don’t have to spend much time on social media to realize just how much we are inundated with messages about how we should treat our bodies to make them conform to a certain standard. Influencers tout the latest exercise trend or body-enhancing supplement, ads tell us which bathing suit to wear so that we’ll look slimmer, and movies remind us that slim, attractive, fit people will find love before we will.
Wellness is a huge industry and, sadly, much of it promotes healthism. Healthism, defined in the 1980s by Robert Crawford, is “the preoccupation with personal health as a primary focus for the definition and achievement of well-being; a goal which is to be attained primarily through the modification of lifestyles”. When we believe the wellness influencers who tell us that our health is within our own control, then we make health a moral issue and we treat those who have attained good health as superior to those who haven’t. Those who are disabled, fat, chronically ill, immuno-compromised, aging, or simply out of shape can easily be blamed for their status in life because they “just haven’t done enough to take control of their own health”.
Healthism “ignores the impact of poverty, oppression, war, violence, luck, historical atrocities, abuse and the environment from traffic, pollution to clean water and nuclear contamination and so on. It protects the status quo, leads to victim blaming and privilege, increases health inequities and fosters internalized oppression.” (Source: https://newdiscourses.com/tftw-healthism/)
A healthy lifestyle is not a bad thing, but when you begin to define health as only one thing, then it becomes problematic. What is healthy for you might not be healthy for someone else. What is the right size for your body may not be the right size for another body. Many health experts are now revealing, for example, that fatness is not nearly as unhealthy as it was once believed to be. Many of the health risks and diseases once associated with fatness have now been linked to other factors. (Listen to the very informative podcast Maintenance Phase for more on this.)
It turns out, in fact, that our culture’s phobia of fatness is not about the health risks at all, it’s about white supremacy. In the book Fearing The Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, Sabrina Strings does a thorough excavation of history to find out why western culture became so afraid of fatness, and it turns out it’s largely because elevating the status of white bodies meant denigrating Black bodies. According to Strings, “…the current anti-fat bias in the United States and in much of the West was not born in the medical field. Racial scientific literature since at least the eighteenth century has claimed that fatness was ‘savage’ and ‘black’.” She goes on to say that “…racial discourse was deployed by elite Europeans and white Americans to create social distinctions between themselves and fat racial Others. Black people, as well as so-called degraded or hybrid whites (e.g., Celtic Irish, southern Italians, Russians), were primary targets of these arguments.”
Recently, I heard someone on a podcast talk about the rise of “body fascism” and I was intrigued, so I went digging to find out more. Collins Dictionary defines it as “intolerance of those whose bodies do not conform to a particular view of what is desirable.” Taken to an extreme, though, it’s not just about intolerance, it’s about control, oppression, marginalization, and violence. When a culture becomes too consumed with the elevation of a certain body type, as Strings points out was the case within the western world’s obsession with whiteness and thinness, then that culture will naturally vilify any body that does not fit the ideal. It will become harder for those who don’t fit the ideal to access social programs, to be treated fairly, and to be seen as worthy.
It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to see body fascism as the next dangerous step in the progression from healthism. When you assign personal responsibility to each person to reach a certain standard of health, and you devalue those who are unable to attain that standard, then you’ve created the conditions where it’s socially acceptable to marginalize people. Consider, for example, the Aryan race that Hitler was determined to create and uplift, while extinguishing those who didn’t fit his standards – that’s body fascism to the extreme.
When I consider the concerns currently being raised, especially in Hollywood, with the way that Artificial Intelligence can now be used to recreate video images of bodies that don’t even need to be present (or consenting), I can’t help but wonder whether this is another step toward body fascism. For one thing, if they can make movies without having to deal with the fallibility and imperfections of real bodies, what’s to stop movie producers from even more significantly elevating a certain body type while denigrating others? For another thing, why pay real bodies, when they can simply create images of bodies that will do their bidding without the annoyance of contracts or the need for fair treatment?
What does all of this have to do with me being sick? Well, it all comes down to the way that I choose to treat my own body. Do I view it as an unworthy body when it can’t perform the way it’s expected to perform? Do I punish my body for failing? Or do I cherish it, find a way to be tender with it, claim its inherent value, and divest myself of the systems that teach me to abuse it?
After all of that… I’m going to answer my own questions by turning off this computer, crawling back under the covers, and having a nap. Not because I’ve earned it, but because this body is worthy of it.
p.s. If you’re on a quest for a more tender relationship with your body, join us for A Full-Bodied Life. Sign up to study alone, or join the community for meaningful conversations.
For the last eight months, I’ve been a solo traveler, wandering around Europe and Central America while working as a digital nomad. Sometimes friends joined me for short periods, sometimes I stayed with friends in their homes, and sometimes I was facilitating workshops where I was surrounded by people. Mostly, though, I traveled alone.
“How do you deal with the loneliness?” That’s the question I heard most frequently when people learned I was traveling alone. Some of those people wanted to try solo travel but were afraid they’d be too lonely, some couldn’t imagine ever traveling alone and were incredulous that I had, and some were projecting their own fear of abandonment or isolation onto my story.
I understand the question, and have empathy even for those making projections, because I had some of those same fears when I set out on this journey. There’s also a part of me, though, that believes the question itself is worth interrogating for what’s under the surface.
The subtext I heard under the question was a belief that “together” is always better than “alone” – that “together” is the solution and “alone” is the problem. When we are together, we believe ourselves to have social capital, to be wanted, to be whole; when we are alone we believe ourselves to have less cultural value, to be rejected, to be less-than-whole.
It’s not true though – together and alone each have value, and I, for one, need a balance of both in my life. Though I value my relationships greatly, when I go through long stretches without any solitude, I don’t know how to listen to the deepest parts of myself and that’s when I tend to abandon myself the most.
Also, contrary to the assumption that many people make when they discover I travel alone, “alone” isn’t the same as “lonely”. “Alone” is a state of being. “Lonely” is a feeling that comes from a particular longing and feeling of lack, and that feeling can come whether you’re alone or surrounded by people. I’ve had some of my most lonely feelings when I’m the least alone, and some of my least lonely when I’m enjoying solitude.
As Maya Angelou says, “Many believe that they need company at any cost, and certainly if a thing is desired at any cost, it will be obtained at all costs. We need to remember and to teach our children that solitude can be a much-to-be-desired condition. Not only is it acceptable to be alone, at times it is positively to be wished for. It is in the interludes between being in company that we talk to ourselves. In the silence we listen to ourselves. Then we ask questions of ourselves. We describe ourselves, and in the quietude we may even hear the voice of God”
There was a time when I would have judged myself – based on the hierarchical value our culture places on relationships – to have less value as a single person, especially when I’m traveling alone, and that judgement would have caused me to experience more self-pity and self-criticism and therefore more loneliness. That’s no longer a yardstick on which I measure myself, however, so my trip was full of a lot of joyful, peaceful solitude – just the way I like it. Even when a few people very pointedly asked me where my husband was and why I didn’t have one, I was able to laugh it off and not get weighed down by people’s judgement. I am very fond of my primary relationships, and I was glad when I had companionship on this trip, but I also love myself and I can be quite content spending many days alone. I don’t need anyone else to affirm that that’s okay – I KNOW it is.
With all of that said, there were still, of course, some moments when I was lonely, especially when I would get up in my head with thoughts of unworthiness or self-doubt. Because this trip was partly about learning to know myself on an even deeper level and being tender with the most vulnerable parts of me, I paid attention to those moments to see what I could learn from them. Here are a few things I discovered:
– Almost every time I moved to a new location, the first day felt a little lonely as I learned to navigate my new surroundings. Once I knew how to navigate (i.e. where to buy groceries, where to catch the bus/water-taxi, etc.), the loneliness dissipated. In other words, loneliness was at least partially attached to feelings of incompetence or insecurity.
– I noticed my aloneness most when I was surrounded by other people who had family or friends with them and I was the only solo traveler (like when I’d go on an organized tour and was jealous of the parents who had their kids with them). In other words, loneliness was often about comparison and jealousy.
– I rarely felt lonely when I was in a location with great places to walk. That made me realize that loneliness was at least sometimes connected to boredom and/or restlessness and when I could get out and move my body, it would often go away.
– Similarly, I felt less lonely when I had access to good public transportation and knew that I could easily hop on a bus, train or boat to go exploring. In other words, loneliness was connected to feelings of isolation, restriction and lack of mobility.
– The least lonely locations were those that were near water or other large bodies of water. There’s something about water that soothes my nervous system and helps me feel connected to myself and to the natural world. In other words, loneliness is also about disconnection from nature and disconnection from what makes me feel most alive.
The shortened version of the above reflections is that loneliness is related to: incompetence, insecurity, comparison, jealousy, boredom, restlessness, isolation, restriction, lack of mobility, disconnection from the natural world, and disconnection from what brings me joy.
Here’s my even shorter conclusion: Loneliness isn’t about aloneness, it’s about disconnection.
Loneliness is a signpost, pointing toward the road ahead, and the words on it are “Make Deeper Connections”. Those connections don’t necessarily need to be with other people – often a deeper connection with myself (body, mind and spirit) or with the natural world will make the loneliness dissipate just as quickly as a connection with another person.
With this new awareness, I started to be more intentional about how I responded to loneliness when it appeared. First, I received it with tenderness, not judging myself for feeling it and not trying to chase it away. Sometimes that involved putting my hand on my heart, and sometimes it involved some tears (a good release is often the best “cure”). Then, when I was ready to make a move in the direction of connection, I tried one of the following:
– I pushed myself to have a conversation with a stranger. As an introvert, conversations with strangers don’t often happen naturally, so I had to push myself out of my comfort zone. It was always worth it though. I made quite a few short-term friendships, and some of them went surprisingly deep, nourishing my need for intimacy.
– I texted a daughter/sister/friend and sometimes asked for a Zoom chat.
– I did something that helped me feel connected to the natural world. Swimming, walking, bird watching, taking pictures of beautiful things – those almost always help to shift the ache.
– I did something that helped me feel more connected with myself. Journal writing, a massage, tenderness practice, a nap, listening to a podcast, reading a book, mindfulness, “hammocking”, etc.
– I went on social media to connect with my community. Of course, social media can have the opposite effect and make a person feel more lonely instead of less, but I try to pay attention to that and stay off when it’s not feeling healthy.
There might have been a time in my life when I thought I’d fix or transcend these human conditions like loneliness, self-doubt, and lack of self-worth, or that they’d at least shrink in size and no longer be a problem I’d have to face, but that day is long past. Now I realize that life isn’t about fixing ourselves or evolving into beings who don’t feel these emotions – it’s about acceptance, tenderness, self-love, forgiveness and grace. It’s about learning to hold space for ourselves and then turning around to offer that to other people as well. It’s also about rejecting the measuring sticks that our cultures impose and learning to love ourselves unconditionally.
“She was always selfless, sacrificing everything for other people.”
How often have you heard something like that said at a funeral? I know I’ve heard some version of it at the funerals of many people in my lineage – aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents. It’s often the kind of thing we say to praise people once they’ve passed. “How wonderful these people were in caring for other people so well!”
In Gabor Maté’s new book, The Myth of Normal, he talks about regularly reading the obituaries in the newspapers and noticing that what’s said about people in their obituary is often one of the clearest clues about the maladaptive patterns that they developed to survive the trauma in their early lives. Those who sacrificed everything, for example, were taught by their trauma that they didn’t have a right to boundaries and their access to safety and belonging was directly correlated to their acts of service for other people. Those who abandoned their own needs for the needs of their families weren’t given the kind of unconditional love needed to develop healthy attachment systems.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot since I read it, recognizing the truth of what he’s saying. I can see it most clearly in my mom and in what she passed down to her children. She was one of those people who was praised for how much she did for other people and for how selfless she was. We grew up quite used to her always feeding people, bringing wounded people into our home to stay, and giving up her own time for anyone who needed it. On her deathbed, one of her greatest regrets was that she never figured out how to rescue the foster child we’d once had, who was believed to have disappeared into homelessness and drug addiction.
I spent much of my early-adult life feeling at least somewhat guilty that I’d never live up to the selflessness of my mom. When I became a mom, I struggled with a fair amount of self-criticism, thinking I wasn’t doing it right because I wasn’t giving everything up for my kids.
It took me a long time to recognize what Gabor Maté was talking about – that my mom’s selflessness was not necessarily a personality trait that I’d failed to inherit, it was a response to the trauma in her early life. Her own mom died when she was just six years old, leaving her with a gaping abandonment wound – it’s not hard to understand why she spent so much of her life trying to compensate for it and trying to prove, through self-sacrifice, that she was worthy of love.
Sadly, there are deeply embedded beliefs in our cultures around the value of self-sacrifice, which is why it shows up in so many obituaries. We revere those people (especially women) who are the best models of it, and, partly because we all benefit from it and it helps our systems and families to function, we rarely ask the question that Oprah asked in the title of her book on trauma… “What happened to you?” Those of us who see it in our parents and grandparents mostly assume it’s a personality trait and we don’t think to dig more deeply to see it as a maladaptive response to trauma. Many, like me, end up dealing with self-criticism because we feel the pressure to live up to that kind of example.
One of the ways that this Liberation and Tenderness Tour that I’m on is serving me is that I’m spending intentional time looking more deeply at my own patterns, examining which ones might be trauma responses and social conditioning rather than personality traits, letting go of those that I inherited and don’t want to continue carrying, and choosing the way that I want to live instead. Although I wish I’d done more of this work years ago, to avoid unintentionally passing this baggage on through the lineage to my daughters, I am grateful for the years that I’ve been doing it and grateful that I can talk openly with my daughters about it and let them know that I wish for something different for them.
For the last three weeks, I’ve been in Costa Rica staying at my friend Mary’s farm. It’s a beautiful place in the jungle, with a workspace overlooking the river and a magical swimming hole not far away. There is currently a sloth in a tree about 50 feet from where I work, and about an hour ago, half a dozen red-tailed macaws flew over. Yesterday, we spent most of the day in an unbelievably beautiful natural hot springs in the jungle. It feels decadent to be here, enjoying this peaceful time, not having to look after anyone else’s needs but mine, enjoying deep rest, only doing the work that’s necessary and not overextending myself in any way.
Sometimes, the old stories in my head start to replay, and I feel guilty about not doing more, or I compare myself unfavourably to those people who spend more of their energy looking after other people. “Perhaps you’ve enjoyed more than your fair share of pleasure and rest this year already?” the voices in my head ask. “Do you really deserve to be in so many beautiful places this year without making a greater contribution to those who are suffering in the world?”
When those voices come, I pause for a moment to offer tenderness to the wounded parts of me that still think I have to prove my worthiness so that I can protect myself from abandonment or abuse. I know that there are many reasons why the worried parts of me have been so well-trained for martyrdom and selflessness. Not only did it come through my mother’s trauma wound, it’s also part of the way that systems like capitalism and patriarchy have helped to shape me and keep me in line. That’s a lot of baggage to try to unload – no wonder it’s taken me so many years to unload it.
I am determined that, when I die, a different story will be told about me. I don’t want to model self-sacrifice to my daughters. I want them to witness me loving myself and believing in my right to boundaries, rest, and pleasure. I want them to live rich and beautiful lives and to believe they have the right to those lives because they saw their mom claiming hers.
Next week, I’ll be in retreat, here in Costa Rica, in a circle of people who are gathering to explore these concepts of liberation and tenderness. While I haven’t done the resting and pleasure-seeking that I’ve done in order to be of better service to them (because that would still mean I’m putting their needs ahead of mine and only doing it because THEY are worthy), I know that I do my best work when I am well-rested, grounded in my own self-love, and in touch with my internal sources of joy and wisdom. That’s when I offer it from a place of generosity and love, not from a place of duty or sacrifice.
This I now know to be true: when I care for myself, I am caring for the collective. When I love myself, I am loving the collective. When I liberate myself, I am liberating the collective. When I honour my own boundaries, I am also honouring the boundaries of the collective.
My friend Saleha laughs at me and shakes her head in puzzlement when I bundle up in -30° C weather and go for my daily walks. “It’s not weather that’s fit for humans,” she says, and she’s mostly right. This is the kind of weather that could kill me if I weren’t dressed for it or if I stood in one place for too long.
I do it anyway, because my walks help to keep me grounded and, as I said last week, they help me soothe some of the emotional overload that’s so often present these days. A few days ago, I snapped a picture of myself to send to Saleha just before heading out the door. She sent back a TikTok video and emoji poking fun at me.
I have the right clothes for winter walking – a down-filled parka and down-filled mittens, a pair of good ski pants, warm and sturdy boots, and a woolen hat and scarf. It can be surprisingly pleasant (unless there’s a lot of wind) and I usually come home sweaty and happy.
I was looking at the selfie I’d snapped for Saleha when it suddenly occurred to me what a good metaphor this is for how our bodies protect us when they sense danger in the environment. My layers of clothing protect me against the cold the way my nervous system protects me against the threat of harm. Like putting a coat on, my nervous system becomes activated (i.e. fight/flight/freeze/fawn) so that I can survive the threat and come home alive.
I love my parka for how well it takes care of me when it’s cold. I also love my nervous system for how well it takes care of me when there’s a threat. They both do their jobs beautifully. I am happy, though, when neither of those things need to do their jobs.
Imagine if I somehow convinced myself that I still need to wear those layers of clothing when I go to the beach in the summer and it’s +30° C outside in the blazing sun. You’d not only look at me funny, but you’d worry that I’d die of heat stroke from being overprotected.
That’s what happens when stress or trauma gets stuck in your body. Your normally well-functioning nervous system becomes convinced there is a threat when there is no real threat. It’s just trying to do its job, but it’s become conditioned to misinterpret the situation and can inadvertently cause harm.
Everyone’s over-reactive nervous system looks a little different (and can also be situation-dependent), so we don’t always recognize it in each other. (It’s not as simple to discern as a parka on the beach.) While one person might tend toward dissociation (freeze), someone else might have an easily triggered temper (fight), or they might run from the room as quickly as possible (flight). Others might become overly solicitous to the source of the perceived threat (fawn), or they might look after everyone else in the room and try to mitigate the threat while abandoning their own need for safety (tend-and-befriend).
Right now, with this pandemic entering its third year, it feels like almost all of us have been walking around with our parkas on for two years, trying to protect ourselves from harm even when the harm is invisible and sometimes non-existent. Not only is the virus a threat, but, for many of us, there are relationship landmines to protect ourselves from, especially in families or communities where people have different opinions about vaccines, etc. Add to that the racial injustices and political unrest that seem to be escalating and it’s just… TOO MUCH.
When do we get to take our parkas off? When can we trust that the environment is safe enough to lean into? For many of us, that might take quite some time because our bodies have become so primed for danger. (Here in Canada, when Spring finally arrives, we often still take our parkas along on long road trips because we never know when the weather might take a turn for the worse.)
I am looking forward to Spring! In more ways than one!
This past weekend, in need of some intentional self-care, I went to the float spa. In a way, the float spa experience is the opposite of the walking-outside-in-winter experience. To get the full experience, you have to strip naked, surrender to the salt water, close the pod to block out light and sound, and float. No effort required. For an hour, you simply lay there and try to rest your mind and body in a womb-like space.
According to the website of the spa I visit, “Without the constant noise of analyzing the world around you, your body lowers its levels of cortisol, the main chemical component of stress. Your brain releases elevated levels of dopamine and endorphins. Not having to fight gravity lets your muscles, joints, and bones take a well-deserved break. Your body suddenly has loads of extra resources, which it gets to focus on things like healing and resting.”
A float spa experience is one of trust and good boundaries. It wouldn’t feel safe if the pod were situated in an area exposed to the public, but with the door to the private room locked, I am able to trust that no harm will come to my body. There are times, though, when I just can’t get to that level of trust. I’ve tried the float spa a couple of times when I’ve been in periods of high stress and burnout and I simply wasn’t able to quiet my over-active brain enough to enjoy the experience. Fortunately, this most recent visit was not one of those times.
This post is not meant to be an endorsement for float spas (they’re certainly not for everyone, and there are less expensive ways to get access to a soothing experience), but rather it’s meant to offer the comparison and to suggest that we all need to find and create spaces where enough of the conditions for safety are met so that our over-active nervous systems can rest. We all need to be able to take off our parkas sometimes, or we’re going to pass out from heat exhaustion on the beach.
One of the other things I do (that’s like a float-spa for my brain) is to stay off social media on the weekends because I know that social media often floods me with too much cortisol. I’ve also limited my activity on social media and limited the amount I express my opinion on hot-button issues so that I don’t get sucked into as many of the cortisol-inducing debates that usually end up leading nowhere (and are engineered by social media to keep us hooked). (That’s been especially challenging recently with our country so divided over the “freedom convoy”.)
I don’t want to “die on the beach”, so I need to regularly take off my metaphorical parka and climb naked into the pod. In other words, I had to make an intentional move away from warrior stance into tenderness.
It’s not that I intend to stay silent on issues of injustice, but if I want to function well enough to do the work that I love, I need better boundaries and more of what makes me feel nurtured and protected. Instead of being a warrior for social justice on social media (where I’m often convinced it makes little difference), I will do my best to continue to bring love, liberation and justice into the spaces I hold. I will protect those spaces with fierce boundaries and help people find what they need so that they can contribute to a world of more love, liberation and justice.
A few people have asked me, lately, why I’ve seemingly turned from my focus on holding space toward tenderness as a theme, and my answer is that those two things are inextricably intertwined. You simply CAN’T hold space without tenderness. And if you never offer tenderness to yourself, then you’ll be much more inclined to hijack space rather than to hold it.
That’s why I wrote the free e-book, The House That Tenderness Built, and why I’m hosting the workshop, Living in the House that Tenderness Built this weekend. I’m doing it because I want to give people their own version of a float spa, where they can take off your metaphorical parkas, let the sun shine on your faces, and let their bodies, minds and hearts rest.
I can’t fix any of the problems people face and I can’t protect them from injustice or a deadly virus, but I can help them find ways to treat themselves when the problems threaten to overwhelm them.
There is far too much evidence of the lack of tenderness in our world these days, and so it’s my mission to help people find it and bring it back. I want it for you and I want it for me. Let’s be tender together. It’s the only way we’ll find the resources we’ll need to step back into the less-than-tender world.