I’m at the airport, ready to fly from the west coast of Canada to the east coast (where I’ll spend time with some dear friends), and then, next week, I’m heading to Europe for a few months, followed by some time in Costa Rica. I drove to the west coast from my home in the middle of Canada to move my youngest daughter back to university, and then I left my car with my middle daughter. All that I will wear and use for the next six months is packed into carry-on luggage.
If you’ve been following along on social media over the last few months, you will likely know that I sold the house I’ve lived in with my family for twenty-four years (where I raised my children), gave away most of my furniture, and packed my personal belongings into an 8’x10’ storage unit. All three of my children have left home over the last year, and now it’s my turn to leave the nest. In about six months, I expect I’ll be looking for another place to live (in a new city), but for now I’ll be living out of a small suitcase and smaller backpack.
It’s been a year of big transitions for me. Last year, I wrote about letting my daughters go. Now, in the wake of that big change, I have let my house and most of my belongings go. It was hard, but it was time. I knew the house had served its purpose in our lives and the next chapter of my life belongs in a different place – a place I will find when the time is right.
Someday I will write more eloquently about what it’s like to release as much as I have, but right now it’s still difficult to articulate. Some of it was good, some of it was hard, some of it was healing, and some of it was painful. The last four days in the house felt especially gruelling, when I (together with two of my daughters) worked from sun-up to sun-down, sorting and cleaning and carrying and donating and dismantling and packing and releasing. Part of me wants to block the memory of that hard time from my memory, but a wiser part knows it’s important to hold space for it all. It’s the kind of transition that changes a person.
As best I could, I tried (and continue to try) to walk through this time with mindfulness and intention, paying attention to whatever emotions came up, being tender with myself whenever necessary, and making choices that align with my values and needs. I am, as always, intent on living a mindful, liberated, tender, intentional life.
Here are some of the things I’ve been noticing about what it means to hold space for myself during such a time:
Even when you’re choosing something that you really want, there will be periods of grief. It can be surprising when the grief sneaks up on you, but it’s normal. There are losses even in a joyful transition. I was ready to leave my house and had planned for it for several years as I helped my daughters launch into their lives, but there were still moments when I simply needed to sit down on the floor and cry over all of the memories that were held within those walls. I wasn’t just letting go of a house – I was letting go of the last home where I’d live with all of my children, and the last place either of my parents would ever visit me. I was leaving the place I’d built my business, written my book, gotten a divorce, grieved my parents’ and son’s deaths, and loved and been loved abundantly and well. Each room I cleaned and each piece of furniture I moved out held a myriad of stories, and those stories had emotional triggers attached, so I grieved and released.
Fear shows up with many disguises, especially during big life changes. Fear can masquerade as anger, frustration, immobility, impatience and/or difficulty making decisions. “Look over there!” fear says, to distract us away from the truth that’s hidden underneath. I had moments when I’d suddenly be irritated with my real estate agent, belligerent with caring people who were asking questions I didn’t know the answers to, or unable to make a simple decision over what to do with a favourite bookshelf. When I’d get quiet with myself, I’d almost always find that fear was at the root. Whenever I’d give fear a voice, it would settle and release some of its hold, so I’d listen, soothe, make adjustments if necessary, and carry on. I tried not to shame myself for the fear or get too attached to it but to simply let it surface and then let it go. In the quiet space after the fear was finished with its blustering, I could usually make my way back to my original intentions and reasons for making the decisions I had.
The emotional waves will come and sometimes you’ll feel like you’re drowning, but when you treat yourself with tenderness in the midst of it, the tidal waves pass and soon the seas are calm again. I can’t tell you how many emotional roller coasters I’ve been on lately. There have been far too many to count. (The last one was just hours ago when I said good-bye to two of my daughters who I likely won’t see for six months.) Almost every day for the last few months I’d get knocked over by the waves at least once. When I tried to push the emotions away, they’d eventually find a way to resurface, but when I’d meet them with tenderness and mindfulness, soothing myself and not getting overly attached to the feelings, they’d pass and soon I’d be back on solid ground again. “This too shall pass” seems like a trite mantra, but it works. No emotions ever last forever.
Sometimes joy surprises you in the most unexpected way at the most unexpected moment. One of my favourite moments, in those last few unrelenting days in the house, came in the most unexpected way. We couldn’t decide what to do with all of the food in the pantry or the cleaning products or the random things that we hadn’t found homes for yet and we were running out of time. Two days before we had to be out of the house, I set up a table in front with a sign “FREE – I’m leaving the country – PLEASE take my stuff!” and then we filled the table to overflowing with canned goods, dry pasta, spices, cushions, etc. My daughter posted a photo and invitation on Facebook Marketplace, and within fifteen minutes, people were streaming to the house, happy to take anything we’d give them. While I was bringing out more things, I stopped to chat with some of the people. Many were newcomers to Canada, some having arrived as political refugees from the Ukraine, Algeria, and Chile. Though our conversations were brief, they were all lovely – human lives touching other human lives. Because many of them had, fairly recently, been on their own life-changing journeys, they all wanted to know about mine and they offered encouragement and support. One lovely man who’d sold his home in Chile to give his children a more safe life in Canada offered gracious advice about the grieving process. He and his wife then offered to help clean my house in exchange for the chairs and barbecue I gave them. At one point, when the table was almost empty, my daughters noticed that a family had come by taxi. “Mom!” one said. “We can’t let them waste a taxi ride! We have to find more stuff!” So we rooted through the cupboards and fridge for whatever was left and they took it all. I don’t think my daughters or I will ever forget how much joy it gave us to simply give things away and connect with the people who needed those things. It reminded me of my childhood, growing up poor on a farm, when I got a windfall – a couple of bags of barely used clothes that were just my size, dropped off by a neighbour.
The bigger the transition, the more you need to be intentional about prioritizing time for processing, rest, and tenderness. It’s tempting to keep ourselves overly busy to avoid the feelings that want to come up, but in the end, we’re able to meet the transition with more grace if we give ourselves space. One of the best things I did during the month of August was commit to a morning bike ride to the park with my journal and give myself time to process whatever was coming up. Even though it sometimes felt indulgent, especially on those days when I had the most to do, I knew how much I needed it and how cranky and disoriented I could sometimes be without it. Sitting by the river every day, watching the waves below and the hawks above, helped me to stay grounded and less wobbly when the emotional waves threatened to overtake me. Because I’m introverted, it also helped to resource me for the times when I’d have to face numerous interactions with lawyers, bankers and other service providers.
In the words of Elsa in Frozen, “Let it go, let it go, let it go.” With so many changes going on, not only did I need to let go of a lot of stuff, I also had to let go of expectations, let go of plans, and let go of a vision of the way things “should” turn out. As I’ve already written, the letting go started when I made less money on the house than I’d hoped. It continued from there. When construction workers showed up to tear up the street in front of my house weeks before the move, I had to let go of my plans for a garage sale and a backyard party. Then I let go of most of my expectations that I’d make money off my furniture and gave most of it to an organization that helps support Indigenous families who are trying to get their kids out of foster care. “Let it go” became the theme of my summer as box after box of things left my house to go to local charities, friends’ homes, and then the homes of strangers who responded to our FB Marketplace invitation. I can’t say it was always easy, but I can say that the less I resisted the letting go process, the happier I was for the freedom and lightness that followed and the more I could appreciate the fact that others were making good use of the things they’d received. Sometimes I had to grieve the letting go (and that often happened during my morning times with my journal at the river), but once I acknowledged the feelings, I was able to face the adjusted reality with a measure of courage and grace.
You have to be prepared to drop the balls that bounce. A time of transitions is NOT the time to prove we are a superheroes who can do ALL the things. Instead we have to take on fewer responsibilities, say no to more commitments and set healthy boundaries, prioritizing our own well-being. If you’re anything like me, you will likely need more energy and time than you expect to need, so be meticulous about guarding what you need. I had high hopes, for example, of throwing a big backyard party to say good-bye to my friends. I had to let go of that plan largely because the construction on our street made it too difficult for people to find parking but letting go was for the best because I know I would have exhausted myself trying to host people in the midst of the chaos. I let go of other things too (like responding to email on a timely basis), acknowledging my own limits during a stressful and exhausting time. I’m still letting go of things, even as I set off on my adventure, because I know that I now need rest and restoration to replenish myself after an exhausting few months. (If you’re waiting for an email reply, please bear with me – I’ll get to it.)
Sometimes you need to send out a distress signal to remind yourself that there are people who care for you. On the morning of the last day before the new owners took possession, my daughter convinced me not to try to be a superhero about doing everything ourselves and to hire a cleaner to come after we’d gotten the last of the things out of the house. Once she got the okay from me, she hired someone to come at five o’clock and all day we kept counting down the minutes until we could rest and let someone else finish the work. Just before five, I made a last trip to the storage unit, and when I came home, I expected my daughters would have let the cleaner into the house. That isn’t what happened, though. When I pulled into the driveway, both daughters were sitting on the front step looking dejected. There had been a mix-up and the cleaner wasn’t coming. Now here we were, weary to the bone, and still had hours of cleaning work to do. “It’s time to call in reinforcements!” my other daughter said, reaching for her phone. “Everyone ask at least one friend to come and we’ll have it clean in no time.” So that’s what we did – we sent out a distress signal and within minutes, there were four friends in our house scrubbing our toilets and washing our floors. We were still there for a few more hours, but a surprising amount of energy returned to our bodies when we were surrounded by friends lending their energy to ours. Plus the shared Chinese food feast at the end was a good finale to a hard day.
Trust yourself. Trust your own resilience, your courage, your wisdom, your strength, and your ability to adapt to changes. In the midst of the hardest moments, I found resources I didn’t know I had. I saw the same in my daughters. Even when our bodies were ready to give out, we found inner pools of strength and courage that got us through to the next moment. Whenever I felt overwhelmed, doubtful, depressed, or afraid, I was always able to reach deep down for what I needed for that moment (though sometimes I needed to break down and cry first). Though it’s not really fair to compare what we did with an extreme endurance race by people who seem to have superhuman strength and courage, I sometimes found myself thinking about the show World’s Toughest Race (on Amazon Prime) where teams compete around the clock in some of the most gruelling conditions imaginable. Even when their bodies seem broken, they rally the strength for one more challenge. Though it’s not good to push ourselves in this way on a long-term basis, in critical moments, we find what we need to get through. We are surprisingly adaptable and resourceful human beings.
When transitions feel too big to process all at once, and the feelings are too complicated to articulate, a ritual can help. There were so many layers to this transition that made it feel complex. I wasn’t just selling a house, I was leaving the city where I’ve spent almost all of my adulthood and the province where I’ve spent almost all of my life. I was also removing the safety blanket from my young adult children who won’t have a back-up home to retreat to when their lives feel hard or even a mom in the country for the first six months. (We haven’t figured out Christmas yet.) And I was moving away from my business partner and having to figure out how to transition our business relationship to virtual-only. And I was leaving behind my sister and some close friends who mean a lot to me. One day, I was feeling particularly restless and unsettled, so I decided to make a solitary drive out to the small town where I grew up, where both of my parents are buried. At the last moment, I took along a basket of stones that I had decorated several years ago and wasn’t sure what to do with in the move. On the way to my hometown, I came up with an idea for a ritual to help mark the places that had helped shape me as a child. At each place, I left a small cairn (a pile of stones meant to mark a significant place). It turned out to be one of the most meaningful things I’ve done in a long time. (You can watch a video of it here.) It helped me release some of what had been weighing me down and by my last stop (a beach where I used to attend summer camp), I was ready to let go of all of the remaining stones and walk away with a lighter load. Something changed in me after that ritual and I felt much more at peace with my uncertain future.
Lean into Mystery. In my book, The Art of Holding Space: A practice of love, liberation and leadership, I talk about how holding space is like “being a three-layered bowl” with the outer layer of that bowl being what you lean into. The two elements that make up that outer layer are Mystery and Community. I already talked about leaning into community above, but the other aspect is also important – Mystery. Mystery can be defined however you want to define it – God, Allah, Spirit, Universe, nature, Love, your higher power, Tenderness, etc. Whatever name you use for Mystery, especially in the midst of a big life change, it is helpful to have a sense of something bigger than you, holding you and caring for you. I have a tendency to become quite self-reliant in times like this (some of which is related to trauma and social conditioning), but I have learned that I am stronger when I lean into trust that not everything has to come from my own internal resources. In the hardest moments, I would try to lean into a sense that someone wiser than me was maintaining some sense of order in the universe and all would eventually be well.
Let yourself recuperate and integrate. To be honest, this is the one thing on the list I haven’t yet done. After emptying the house, I drove across the country to move my daughter into her university dorm and then did lots of mom-things like stitching up a duvet cover and making multiple trips to IKEA and Walmart to help her get what she needs for the year. The next stop is a visit with a friend whose health is deteriorating, and then I’ll spend time with my oldest daughter in Toronto (also helping her settle into a new space). In other words, I haven’t gotten to the “recuperate and integrate” phase of this process yet. I’ve barely found a moment to myself in the last two weeks. I’ll get there, though, because I know it matters. My first two weeks in Europe will be all about food, wine, beaches, and relaxation. In October, I’ll start teaching a series of workshops, but first I will rest, play and recuperate. I will give time for my body and soul to recalibrate after an intense summer.
I started this post at the airport on the west coast, but I am finishing it at the home of my friends Randy and Brenda on the east coast. Randy has long been a wise spiritual guide and generous friend to me (and some of you saw an interview I did with him for Know Yourself, Free Yourself) and now he is dying of ALS. Moments ago, in one of the fifteen-minute segments that he has enough energy for conversation, we spoke about how the journey that I am embarking on has some parallels with the one that he is taking. We are both releasing a lot of things so that we can journey forward with more lightness. We are both transitioning out of times in our lives when we were bound by duty and accepting that we’re no longer meant to be filling as many people’s needs. We are both leaning into the unknown and we are both learning to trust that we will find the resources we need and that people will care for us when we need it.
There’s at least one crucial difference, though – while I can at least make tentative plans and book flights and accommodations for the places I’ll be landing, he has to trust that wherever he arrives once his body releases his soul will be a place of peace, ease, and beauty. He’s a person with a strong sense of Mystery and he has told me that he believes that death will be a release into “pure joy” where the worries of this world no longer weigh him down. “Can you send a message back once you arrive?” I said to him just now, before he closed his eyes to rest. “Let me know what the accommodations are like in your new home.” We both laughed about what form that text message might take, when he has to find creative, non-verbal ways of getting me to hear whatever wisdom he has gained in his big transition. Up until now, we’ve always had words as our tools for communication.
I am not dying as Randy is, but I do believe that I am taking steps to invite more joy, liberation and ease into my life, and I know that I will learn many things in this big transition. I will be sure to send messages to you, my dear friends and readers, from wherever I am to let you know the lessons I learn along the way. Unlike Randy’s, mine will come by traditional forms of communication, like this newsletter and my social media feed. Watch for it and join the conversation!
****** On a somewhat related note, Krista (my business partner) and I have been grieving our Monday morning meetings when we’d talk about business but also talk about the state of the world and how we feel called to make a contribution through the Centre for Holding Space. Since we’ll no longer be able to meet in our neighbourhood coffee shop (thanks Little Sister for hosting us for several years), we’ve decided to experiment with our conversations and to share some of them with you. Eventually we will likely start a podcast, but for now we’ll be chatting with each other via short videos on TikTok (search for Centre for Holding Space), Facebook or Instagram. We’d love it if you’d follow along!
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.