No, it’s not that I ever abandoned love entirely. I didn’t become an angry ogre living in a cabin in the woods and scaring away small children. But… after a period of burnout, overwhelm, conflict, relationship challenges. and endless pandemic disruption last Spring, I was having trouble finding love.
By the end of June, I had lost some love for my work and for the people who come to this work. I tried to dig deep to find the source of the love that had sustained me over the years it’s taken to build this work, but when I tossed my bucket into the well, it kept coming back empty. Instead, the bucket held resentment, irritability, exhaustion, and disdain.
With an empty bucket, I knew that it was time to retreat to try to refill it. I pulled away from social media and narrowed my focus so that I could at least muster enough love for the people who matter most – my family and close friends. I gathered my daughters around me for our last month together (before helping two of them move across the country) and I spent time with only those people who I knew would nourish me.
I protected my heart for awhile so that the tiny seed of battered love that I knew was still there would be able to grow roots and start to flourish again.
In my book and in my workshops, I teach a concept that I call the Spiral of Authenticity, where something happens (an “inciting incident”) which wakes us up and invites us onto a journey. If we choose to step onto that journey, we spiral inward (like a labyrinth journey) until we reach the centre of our own open hearts. From that place of open-heartedness, we return to the world with whatever gift we received at the centre (somewhat like the “heroic journey”). (You can find an explanation of it in this new video.)
I’ve been thinking, though, that maybe I need to create another version of that spiral – perhaps a mirror version – that reflects the way that sometimes, when we’re exhausted, overwhelmed and/or in pain, the spiral actually takes us inward to a protected heart. And that’s not the opposite of the Spiral of Authenticity – in fact, sometimes it might be the pre-requisite.
Because sometimes a protected heart is exactly what we need, at least for a period of time. Sometimes we need to retreat from the world so that we can nurture the tiny bit of love we can still muster. Sometimes we need to put up more firm boundaries and hide from anyone who can’t be tender with our wounded hearts.
It’s happened a few times in my life – most notably after my divorce and after each of my parents died. Each time, I had to retreat, become more selfish about my time and energy, erect boundaries, and protect my tender heart. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that it happened again now, especially during this time of liminal space while I get used to my future as an empty-nester (so soon after being a pandemic-enforced “full-nester”), but I was still caught a little off-guard by it.
The danger, though, is that if you stay at the centre of the spiral of the protected heart for too long, your heart moves from “protected” to “closed” and then you have a hard time re-opening it. A person with a closed heart is someone who’s become convinced of their own victimhood and need to guard themselves against all of those people intent on doing them harm. They become increasingly angry, afraid, resentful, blaming, guarded and isolated. They start making up rules of engagement for how people are allowed to treat them and anyone who doesn’t follow those rules is punished and/or sent away. Their boundaries become high walls that few people can climb. They wallow in self-pity because they believe the whole world is trying to victimize them. It gets harder and harder for them to receive love because they’re afraid to give it away. (For more on this, check out the victim triangle – a helpful framing of the patterns we get stuck in.)
Not long ago, I was out for a walk with a close friend and, after she’d patiently listened to me talk about all of my woes, I stopped and said… “You know what? I’m getting bored of my own self-pity.” We both had a good laugh and that’s the moment I decided that I wasn’t going to let my protected heart become a closed heart. I knew I needed to do something so that I didn’t get trapped in the spiral (or on the triangle).
So I’ve decided that I’m returning to love. I’ve nourished that seed of love in my heart enough that I’m ready to start giving some way. Because love can only grow when we both RECEIVE it and GIVE IT AWAY.
Love is like a river – it needs to keep flowing in order to stay alive. If you try to block it, you cause disruption and chaos.
That’s why, together with my business partner Krista, I’ve created a series of videos we’ve called Love Letters for Those Who Hold Space. Once I started pouring my love and creative energy into this project, my love just kept growing, so what started out as a couple of videos soon became eight. Each of the videos is meant for a different group of people who we think can use some love right now – parents, teachers, health care workers, leaders, managers, coaches, therapists, facilitators, church leaders, and activists.
There’s also one that’s a little different – for those learning uncomfortable things. This one emerged especially in support of those people who are having to face challenging new information right now – like, for example, the people in Canada wrestling with the findings of thousands of unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools.
I know that many of us have been struggling lately, with what I’ve started calling “pandemic languishing syndrome” characterized by lethargy, compassion fatigue, irritability, and an allergic reaction to Zoom calls and social media marketing, and I’m guessing that one of the antidotes might be love. So I’m offering some to you, right now, hoping that your heart is open at least enough to receive it.
There’s a labyrinth on Whidbey Island that is encircled by tall trees that cast shadows across the path. As you walk the labyrinth, you step from light into shadow and back again. It’s a great metaphor for life.
A few weeks ago, I stepped into the shadow.
Just before it happened, I said to a friend “before my business grows to the next level, I have a feeling that I need to look deeper into the fears and shadows that are coming up.” Apparently, the universe heard that as a challenge, because since then, it has offered me non-stop opportunities to wrestle with the very fabric of who I am. I have more shadows than I ever knew!
It’s been one thing after another:
Some of my work has been floating all over the internet unattributed (and/or plagiarized) and one of the major websites responsible for it ignores requests (from me and my readers) that they rectify it. It’s triggered my frustration over the casual theft of writers’/makers’/artists’ work and the related difficulty of making a living with what you create. And it made me look deeper into the discomfort I have in challenging those who do wrong.
The behaviour of someone who’s been a mother-figure for me in the past brought up some of my leftover attachment wounds from my relationship with my mom. I had to wrestle with where my sense of worthiness comes from and why I sometimes feel an impulsive need to protect and soothe those who serve as mother figures.
Despite efforts to communicate them clearly and firmly, my boundaries were ignored by a few people in a few different situations, leaving me feeling unprotected and resentful. I had to lean into those feelings, be intentional about how I responded to the boundary-crossers, and remind myself that I am worthy of having those boundaries and can survive the reactivity of those who feel offended by them.
Conflict bubbled up in multiple circles that I am responsible for and I had to step in to deal with some challenging issues. It brought up some of my “keep the peace at all costs” baggage. I had to summon up the courage to be a conflict transformer and truth-teller rather than a conflict avoider. And I had to invite others to step into the discomfort with me.
An angry man in a parking lot (who’d hit me with his car) triggered some old trauma (and my “tend and befriend” trauma response and made me realize the ways in which I’ve been socially conditioned to be a shock absorber for other people’s pain. And then some of the response to the post I wrote about it triggered an old reaction to critique – second-guessing my interpretation of my own lived experience.
A couple of people who were once important in my life but have dropped out of contact have become friends with each other, triggering some wounding over being abandoned and left out of the loop. I had to energetically release those people, bless them for the roles they’ve played in the past, and remind myself that rejection has never destroyed me in the past.
In the middle of all of this, I was interviewed by a writer for a major publication for an article that has the potential to bring even more readers (and potentially more criticism) to my work, triggering some of the fear of being seen in such a big way. Though the possibility is exciting, it also reminds me of how draining and disruptive it was to have a blog post go viral, and how hard I had to work at maintaining my solid sense of self in the midst of it. (P.S. I’ll share it when it’s published.)
When I put it all down into a list like this, I think “Wow! I really went through all of that in just two weeks! It’s a wonder I’m not lying in my bed quivering!” But I’m really not a mess. At this point (though it doesn’t feel like I’m completely back into the light portion of the path yet) I feel strong and clear and even more solidly committed to this work and how I show up in the world.
It never feels like the fun part of the path when the shadow comes, but I’ve been through enough of the loops of the labyrinth to recognize the value of it. As Mary Oliver said, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
Shadows help us refine our vision and see things we missed in the light. Our pupils dilate and we pick up on nuance and depth we weren’t able to see in the glare of the sunshine.
Shadows invite us to slow down, be alert, and be more intentional about how we walk on the path. We have to look more carefully for the things that might trip us up.
Shadows encourage us to withdraw for awhile and go inward. We have an opportunity to spend time listening to our own voices and seeing our own truths rather than getting lost in the noise of those around us.
Shadows offer us the opportunity to strengthen ourselves and gather our resources for the times when we are invited to step back into the light.
Shadows reveal who is truly with us on the path. When we are in the shadows, we gain clarity over which friends will truly hold space for us in the darkness and which prefer to be only “friends-in-the-light”.
Shadows reveal truth and help us be truth-tellers. When we can speak the truth that the shadow reveals, we cut through nonsense and spiritual bypassing like a knife through butter.
When we receive the gifts of the shadows, though, we have to be intentional about how we unwrap them. Though the initial reaction may be to reject those “gifts”, protect ourselves from them, and/or project them onto someone else like weapons, we are much better served when we slow down, let our eyes adjust, and then lean into the darkness.
Here are the imperfect things I’ve been doing that help me receive these gifts:
Get quiet. I’ve been intentionally withdrawing into silence, spending long hours with my journal and endless cups of tea. And I’ve been listening to Let Yourself by Martyn Joseph on repeat. (“I need you brave, I want you brave, I need you strong to sing along, You are so beautiful.”)
Block out unnecessary voices. I’ve withdrawn from social media this week, recognizing my tendency to use it as a way to numb out and noticing how I am (especially during a time like this) impacted by the noise of other people’s voices.
Protect yourself. One of the other things I’ve noticed about social media is how much it exposes me and how I sometimes end up being a shock absorber for other people’s pain. Sometimes I’m strong enough to let it bounce off me, but when I’m in a place of deep shadow work, I need to protect myself from unnecessary shock absorption.
Reach out. Though I’ve been off social media, my text messages and Zoom line (and a couple of coffee shops) have been burning up with the deep conversations I’ve been having with those who I trust to hold space for my darkness.
Care for your body. Last weekend, I had my favourite body treatment (hammam spa) and I cried my way all the way through it. I hadn’t known just how much I needed to release from my body.
Walk it off. Unfortunately, we’ve been stuck in a deep freeze this week, and I’m a winter wimp who doesn’t like to have my face bitten off by the cold, but my treadmill has seen a few miles as has my yoga mat.
“Konmari” your work and life. I’ve been doing some cleansing, recognizing where the energy leaks are and what no longer “sparks joy”. I’ve cleared a few things off my website and removed myself from the networks and associations that no longer feel like the right fit. And then I processed the grief that some of that brought up.
Write your truth. My journal has been my best friend these past few weeks, and, as always, some deep truth has shown up on the pages. It’s helped me clear out old stories and claim new truth.
Tend to your psychic membrane. In my teachings on holding space, there’s a fairly new concept I’ve developed about how we each have a psychic membrane that, like a cell membrane, helps us determine what to allow in and what to protect ourselves from. I’ve been working on strengthening mine and paying attention to the signals it sends.
Honour your own hard work. Whenever I do work that I’m especially proud of, I reward myself in some way – buying myself a new piece of jewelry or other treat. I do that for both my external work and my internal work. I haven’t done that yet (because it doesn’t feel quite finished yet), but I plan to.
Laugh. Comedy shows on Netflix have helped me not to take myself too seriously.
Make messy art. I bought a large canvass and have been doing some intuitive art-making, combining elements that represent some of the shadows I’ve been peering into. For example, I added paper dolls that were my mother’s and mine.
I look forward to stepping out of the shadows and back into the light. When I do so, it will be with a strengthened sense of self and a stronger psychic membrane to protect and nurture me.
I cut off someone in traffic recently. It was completely my fault. I wasn’t paying enough attention and drifted into the other lane when mine was suddenly blocked off for construction. The moment I realized what I’d done, though, shame-brain quickly tried to find someone else to blame. “Maybe the other driver was going too fast. Maybe it was the way the construction pylons were placed on the road that made it difficult to know where the lanes were.”
Shame-brain isn’t very good at holding space for mistakes. In fact, shame-brain turns all of those mistakes – even the ones that are very human, relatively harmless, and completely accidental – into monsters that have to be banished from the kingdom. Because those monsters are threats that might topple the foundation that the kingdom was built on.
From shame-brain’s perspective, mistakes are dangerous.
A mistake makes me question my own value, safety, and belonging. If I MAKE a mistake, perhaps it means that I AM a mistake. And if I’m a mistake, people will stop loving me. I will be abandoned. I’ll be lonely and unprotected. I’ll be a failure. I’l lose my place in society and I won’t be able to get a job or find love. Yes, shame-brain can take even the simplest mistakes to extreme consequences in an instant.
Mistakes are human. In fact, they’re important pieces of information that help us learn and grow. Consider a child who’s learning to ride a bike – when she falls a couple of times, she’ll realize that the action that resulted in the fall shouldn’t be replicated and she’ll adjust accordingly and probably do better the next time. The same is true in school. When a student makes a mistake on a spelling quiz, he will (hopefully) spell that word correctly the next time.
I think, though, that it’s actually in the school system that we begin to be taught that mistakes aren’t just valuable pieces of information that help us learn, they are punishable offences that brand us. When we make a mistake on a test, we rarely get a chance to try again. Instead, that test mark goes into our final grade and we live with the mark of those mistakes forever. Tests don’t teach us how to learn and grow – they teach us that the person who makes the least mistakes wins. (It was a great source of frustration for me, when I taught in a university setting, that so much emphasis was placed on how to get good grades rather than how to learn.)
This is accentuated by our legal system. Mistakes are rarely treated as opportunities for growth – they are offences punishable by law that often go onto your permanent record.Instead of offering opportunities for repair, restitution, and restoration, we pass out judgements and lock people behind bars. Three of my friends have recently navigated (or are currently navigating) the legal system with their sons whose offences occurred in their formative teen years. These young men (some of whose actions did, admittedly, harm other people) are not being taught repair and restitution. They are learning shame. They’re learning just how much they can be “banished from the kingdom” for making mistakes. The same is true for one my friends who has been living under the shadow of an unfair legal conviction that makes it difficult for her to sign a lease or get a job. She has told few people of this part of her story because of what she risks losing as a result. Some mistakes (or appearances of mistakes) are costly.
Shame, the way we in western, colonized cultures, experience and express it, is deeply rooted in a culture of dominance (ie. patriarchy, white supremacy, colonization, etc.). In a culture of dominance, the person who’s seen to be the least flawed (NOT the person who IS the least flawed, but who can rig the system to ensure that they are SEEN TO BE the least flawed), dominates. The person with the greatest amount of shame is oppressed. Shame is heaped on the people on the lower levels of the system – BIPOC, women, LGBTQ+, etc., so that they can be dominated. They’re locked up for minor offences, they’re shamed for wearing the wrong clothes or having sex with the wrong person, they’re blamed for their own poverty, they’re ostracized for contracting AIDS, etc.
“Perhaps the act of ‘psychological colonisation’ is simply the process of shaming another culture.”from this article
In a culture of shame, mistake monsters are easily created. In fact, nobody needs to create them for us. After a lifetime of social conditioning, we can be counted on to create those monsters all by ourselves. Nobody was in the car with me when I cut off the other driver – and yet, the mistake monster showed up quickly to haunt me.
In the Maori culture (according to this article by Anahera Gildea), shame is treated differently. “The root word for shame in English means ‘to cover oneself’. Like with blankets, maybe. Or mud. Or hatred. To be camouflaged in a thicket, on a bank, or in the darkness of the night. Māori do not hide their shame. Nor their grief. It is visible to themselves and others because it means they have become dislodged, disconnected, from their ‘whakapapa’ (loosely translated as ‘lineage’).”
Shame, then, in the Maori understanding, is not associated with punishable offences you can’t recover from, but a reminder of how your actions have disconnected you and how you now have an opportunity to be restored.
I am left wondering, when I consider the damage shame-brain and mistake monsters are doing to all of us in non-Indigenous, colonized cultures… how do we create a mistake culture – where mistakes aren’t monsters but friends? How do we shift attitudes away from “mistake as punishable offence” to “mistake as valuable information for growth”? How do we focus not on the danger of the mistake, but on the possibility for reconnecting ourselves?
What if we treated mistakes as “miss-takes”, the way we do when we’re taking photos?
Over the weekend, I went with my sister to visit the town where we grew up. Because they are such fleeting flowers and are so connected to our youth, we took dozens of photos of crocuses. Some of those photos were miss-takes – they came out blurry, the angle was wrong, or they were over-exposed. Those photos could later be deleted from our cameras. But they weren’t just miss-takes – they provided us with valuable information about how to change the angle, the light, or the focus. Those miss-takes helped us eventually take a few photos we were proud of. They helped us find greater connection with the crocuses and with the land on which we’ve wandered since we first learned to walk
In the Stó:lō Nation (Indigenous to Canada), their restorative justice practices are built on an understanding of mistakes as “miss-takes”. As in the Maori culture, they see the mistakes as signposts that indicate disconnection, and that point toward an opportunity for restoration and reconnection. They don’t, in fact, have a word for justice. Instead, Stó:lō Elders created the word Qwi:qwelstóm kwelam t’ ey (qwi:qwelstóm) – roughly translated as, “they are teaching you, moving you toward the good”. “It is a concept of ‘justice’ centered upon the family and reflects a way of life that focuses on relationships and the interconnectedness of all life. It has four key elements: ‘the role of Elders; the role of family, family ties, and community connections; teachings; and spirituality.’” Justice, in a culture like this, is not a system of punishment, it is a way of re-connecting those in conflict with their higher selves and their spiritual guides. (Source: Indigenous Centered Conflict Resolution Processes in Canada, by Nisha Sikka, George Wong, and Catherine Bell)
What if we decolonized our culture and we let the Stó:lō Nation and the Maori Nation teach us about justice systems that restore right relationships and bring people back to themselves? What if we recognized the flaws in the colonial system of “justice”, humbled ourselves, and became learners instead of colonizers? And what if we extended that learning beyond justice to our education systems? How would it change the learning environment if we changed our testing practices and treated mistakes as valuable pieces of information that helped a student come into the fullness of who they are and what they are capable of? What if we removed the sting of shame and accepted, instead, a collective responsibility for restoring the community?
Recently, I have witnessed some mistakes made by white spiritual/self-help teachers who lack an awareness of their social conditioning and unconscious bias. They are causing harm to people of colour (by images and words that they use and actions that they take), and when they do so, their first instinct is often to defend themselves and/or to hide their shame. They don’t yet understand that the impact of their mis-steps is more important than the intent, so they try to convince their followers that they are good people, worthy of continued admiration. They are afraid the mistakes will destroy them – banish them from the kingdom and leave them penniless.
I get it, I’ve been there too. I made a mistake once, while doing race relations work, and my shame reared up (just as it did when I cut off that person in traffic) and made me want to use every means possible to protect myself from the mistake monster. Luckily, I was working with people who were less interested in my mistake than in my continued efforts to seek reconciliation and restitution. The mistake did not kill me or banish me from the kingdom – it taught me and further shaped my work. Now, three years later, I am grateful for that mistake and the opportunities for growth it presented.
One of the most important things I learned (or re-learned) from that experience, is that mistakes are most valuable when they are brought into the light, discussed, apologized for, and learned from. A mistake that’s hidden turns into shame. A mistake that’s owned and repaired and/or apologized for turns into learning.
We are going to make mistakes. Accept that as a given. Especially if you’re doing work that challenges you, holding space for people in places where there may be power imbalances, deep wounds, trauma, racial injustice, grief, fear, etc., occasionally you’ll offend people, you’ll let your own triggered wounds take over your rational mind, and you’ll be blind to your social conditioning. Even when your best intentions are to be kind, your impact may be very different.
Go into this work expecting mistakes to happen. And sometimes those mistakes will mean that you have to bear someone’s anger or face rejection. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news – that’s simply part of this work. That’s why we all need lots of self-care and community-care – so that we won’t be destroyed when the winds threaten to blow us over.
Those mistakes don’t need to destroy us. They can become our teachable moments.
Instead of battling the mistake monster, we need to befriend him – take him under our wing and hold space for him until he’s brave enough to take off his monster mask and reveal that, underneath, he is “miss-take”, not monster. Once we do that, we can learn from the mistake, make reparations where we need to, and keep trying until we get it right. Eventually, the picture will emerge in focus and with the right amount of light.
The next time a mistake monster shows up, take a lesson from art therapy and draw a picture of him. Make him as ugly as you need him to be, but then give him soft eyes. Talk to that monster and let him know you’re willing to learn the lessons he has brought you. You will likely find that he will soften in the space that you hold for him.
When I spoke in Florida last month, I recounted a story of a time when I was getting too many requests from people who wanted me to hold space for them when I was personally depleted and had to start saying to people “I’m at capacity – you’ll have to find someone else to hold space for you, or come back once I have replenished myself.”
I didn’t think, at the time, that I’d said anything particularly profound, until we broke for lunch and several people came up to me to say “Thank you for offering me that phrase, ‘I’m at capacity.’ I’m going to use that one in the future.”
A couple of weeks later, I was still getting emails about it, and almost every one mentioned how grateful they are to now have that phrase to use. For whatever reason, in that crowd of people who work with young people dealing with grief and trauma, that was what people most needed to hear.
When I teach about holding space for people, I talk about how holding space is like “being the bowl”, holding people gently and firmly, offering them containment and support, but not putting a lid on the bowl so that they have freedom and autonomy. Sometimes, though, that bowl gets full and we have no more space to offer people. That’s when we need a way to communicate to people…. “I’m at capacity.”
That phrase can mean many things. It can mean that we have too much grief of our own to hold and we don’t have the strength to offer comfort to others. It can mean that we’re near exhaustion from holding space for too many people and our bowl is starting to show signs of wear and tear. In can mean that we recognize it’s a good time for us to “go dark” and not engage in anything but our own learning and growth for awhile.
When we say “I’m at capacity” we are under no obligation to explain to others what we mean. It often feels like a reflex to give a long explanation or over-apologize, but that’s usually a sign that we don’t feel that we deserve to take time for ourselves or that other people have more value than we do. Just like “no” is a complete answer, “I’m at capacity” is a complete answer.
Imagine if we could all wear some kind of symbol – a lapel pin of a bowl, for example, with the ability to adjust the fullness of the bowl – to let each other know how much capacity we currently have. If I see that your bowl is full, I might ask what I could carry on your behalf. If your bowl is empty, I might ask if you’ve got a moment to listen to a story I just need someone to hold space for.
What we often don’t recognize when we are considering our own capacity is how much energy our emotional labour requires. One of the functions of growing up in an era of industrialization and capitalism is that we value money, productivity, and material goods over less tangible things like emotional labour, so we don’t have any understanding of how to measure the emotional labour that may be exhausting us.
For those dealing with depression, for example, it requires an immense amount of emotional labour just to get out of bed in the morning and smile at your kids over breakfast. You will probably reach capacity far sooner than other people. For those supporting parents with dementia, it can require vast storehouses of emotional labour to show up every day and put up with possible abuse from formerly loving parents. Your capacity beyond that will be limited. For those wrestling with addiction, all of your emotional labour is probably going into resisting the next temptation. For those working in classrooms with children with learning disabilities, you may have reached your emotional labour capacity by 3 p.m. and have nothing left to cook a healthy supper in the evening. For those living in poverty or fighting the oppression of racism, homophobia, or ablism, all of your emotional labour might be spent in simply trying to survive in a world not designed with you in mind.
When someone tells us, in whatever language they choose to use, that they are at capacity, we must simply believe them because we don’t know how much energy it takes to live life in their bodies. And when we need to say “I am at capacity”, we have a right to be believed and not questioned for how weak or selfish we may be.
This summer, I’ll be using that phrase regularly to let people know when I need to step away. If for example, you sent me an email and I haven’t yet gotten back to me, it’s not because I haven’t read it or don’t want to engage with you, it’s because it sometimes takes a lot of emotional labour to get through all of the beautiful and openhearted emails people send me. (Thank you! I always read them!) If you want to hire me as a coach but noticed that my door is closed for the summer, that’s because “I’m at capacity” creating the content and holding space for my coach/facilitator program. If you notice that my response time is slower on social media, it may be because “I’m at capacity” and have gone off on vacation with my daughters.
Try it for yourself. The next time someone asks for something you know will require too much energy or emotional labour on your part, simply say “I’m at capacity.” It’s not unkind to say so – it’s simply a way to care for your own storehouse of energy.
P.S. If your container is full, perhaps you need a retreat to help you hold it all? Consider coming to Nourish in August.
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.