I’m back from sabbatical and I’m feeling so many things…

(selfie taken on the ferry, just after leaving my daughter at university)

Friends, can I level with you for a moment? I’m feeling sad this week… and tender, with my emotions very near the surface. If you dare to ask me, when I’m having a tender moment, how I’m doing with my nearly-empty house, I might just drench your shoulder with tears.

Last week I got home from the second of two long trips to move daughters to opposite ends of this vast country that I live at the centre of. To suddenly, after twenty-five years of parenting my daughters in my home and holding them close (six of those years as a single parent), have the oldest and youngest simultaneously move so far away from me, especially eighteen months into a pandemic when we’ve spent SO much time together… well… it’s a LOT.

I’m okay with the sadness, though. I know how to hold it and welcome it like a gentle friend. I know how to let it pass through me and remind me of all of the ways I have loved and been loved. It’s all a part of this liminal space that I am now in, learning how to be a different kind of mom, and I know that it’s better to feel what I need to feel than to try to numb or bypass those feelings.

What’s harder to hold right now, though, is what is being added on top of the sadness this week on my return to work… discouragement… and that’s what this post is largely about. (Truthfully, I long to write more about this transition I’m in… and I will… but there are other things I need to speak of first.) 

This week when I came back to work, I discovered that registration for our programs is slower than it’s ever been and that has me feeling discouraged and sad and… well, weary. Instead of doing the writing that I long to do, I have to try to cram my brain into marketing mode. Few things drain my energy more than marketing mode. I don’t really have any clue how to switch from “processing a big transition” into “selling seats in programs”, so instead, I’m going to do what I’m good at – be honest with you about what’s going on.

I suspect that part of the reason for our low numbers is this general malaise we’re all feeling after so many months of this pandemic (it was referred to as “pandemic flux syndrome” in a recent Washington Post article), plus a weariness from having to do so much of our connecting on Zoom. But I think there are also other things going on and those are the things I’m ruminating about this week as I contemplate what’s the “next right thing” in getting the word out.

There are some things that I want to keep stubbornly believing but that keep getting tested in moments like these when the work of running a meaningful small business feels burdensome. 

1.  I want to keep believing that a leader can rest and not suffer any consequences from that rest. (I want to believe we ALL can rest, for that matter.)
I took two months of sabbatical this summer, knowing how badly I needed a rest after the grind of launching a book, building a new business, creating and running multiple programs, parenting three daughters, supporting one of those daughters through complex and scary health challenges – all in the middle of a pandemic. It wasn’t a great time to be away from work, given the fact that it’s when we most need to be selling seats in our programs, but I knew I’d crash and burn if I didn’t tend to myself. (And then what good would I be to the people who sign up for those programs?) I created a lot of content before I left and uploaded it so that it would still get to people’s inboxes and social media feeds while I was away. I hoped that that was enough to still attract people to the programs, but… sales went down… possibly because I wasn’t visible and accessible and “in the grind” of making sales (and because social media algorithms don’t put unpaid content in front of many eyes unless it generates a lot of activity). That’s discouraging, because I don’t believe anybody should be forced to be available ALL the time just to make enough money to pay the bills. That’s capitalism at its cruelest and most exhausting.

2. I want to keep believing that collaborative leadership is better than the cult of personality.
Last year, I very intentionally took on a business partner, created the Centre for Holding Space, and hired an excellent team of co-teachers, because I believe in collaborative leadership and I believe that the best way for this work to be held is in community. Krista and our team members bring wisdom, ideas, energy, gifts and capacity to this work that enrich it and make it much more beautiful than what comes from me alone. However… we’ve had a harder time selling our programs than I did when I sold from my own platform and was the solitary teacher. On one hand, I get that – I’m a known personality and most people came to this work through me and my writing and teaching, so they trust it more when I am at the helm. But… it also feels like there is a misplaced desire to make me into the guru and for me to have all of the wisdom that people need (which feels like a cultural thing, especially in our western culture with its celebrity-worship). There’s a lot of projection and individualism and disempowerment (i.e. people giving their power over to a leader) baked into that and it saddens and troubles me. (I wrote about that in this post about why people start cults.) I am better when my work is rooted in community than when it’s rooted in ego, and I want to keep believing that’s the right way to go. (Note: I am still very present in the programs and you’ll get lots of opportunities to be in conversation with me.)

3. I want to keep believing that meaningful content is more valuable than gimmicky marketing.
I am deeply committed to putting meaningful content into the world, and I keep believing THAT is what will draw the right people to this work (and so far, it mostly has). I refuse to use manipulative marketing language and I will not inundate people with endless emails or try to convince them to buy things they can’t afford. I stand by those values and anyone who’s come to me for coaching or advice on building a business will hear me say what I used to tell my students when I taught public relations courses at university… “The two most important things are to tell good stories and build good relationships.” And yet… sometimes I watch the gimmicky, manipulative marketing tactics fill programs that cost far more than ours and… well, I get discouraged and sad. (For example, marketers would tell me that instead of this post, I should be sending out posts that signal scarcity and trigger your desire to not be left behind – to let you know there are only limited spots available for a limited time and your life will be meaningless if you don’t join, blah, blah, blah. Sadly, much of that plays on our abandonment trauma, and I just won’t do it.)

4. I want to keep believing that work can be meaningful and life-giving AND sustain people financially. And I want to believe in a shared, equitable economy, not one built on greed.
I have never had an interest in being wealthy or being an empire-builder. If I did, I’d still be selling programs on my own and pouring my energy into making a name for myself instead of trying to build the Centre for Holding Space. I do, however, believe that meaningful work CAN provide well for the people who create it and contribute to it so that they don’t have to work so hard in our soul-crushing economic systems. I believe it so much that I’ve been working hard to build something beautiful that will not only sustain me and my family, but also sustain Krista and her family and give meaningful well-paid work to our team. This past year has been a struggle, however, as Krista and I have had to pay for a lot of outside support to build the business and it’s meant that Krista has made almost no money from the Centre and I have made less than I have in several years. That saddens me, a lot (especially the part about Krista, because I love her so much and want her to be well-paid). 

5.  I want to keep believing that people are ready for depth and not just “self-help pablum”. 
On one of our long driving days last week, my daughter and I listened to an audiobook that we thought was a memoir and it turned out to be “self-help pablum”. In other words, it was easily digestible and provided enough nutrients for someone who’s in their infancy in personal development, but lacked depth, nuance and sustenance for anyone further along in their development. I don’t want to denigrate it, because I think it might be the right kind of thing for someone who’s just awakening to a longing for a different kind of life, but I get discouraged about how much of what is available still fits into that category and how often people think that’s enough. This particular influencer has ten times as many followers on social media as I do, and there are many, many others just like her, because that’s what sells and gets attention. It’s a low-risk kind of personal development path because it doesn’t ask you to disrupt anything or see the ways our systems are flawed. It doesn’t expect you to witness your own privilege, challenge your biases, or stand up to oppressive systems. But…I want to keep believing that people are ready for more, and I’ll stay devoted to that belief because I see that readiness in all of the people who show up for our programs. 

6.  I want to keep believing that holding space is one of the most important skills people need right now. 
Like it or not, we are in a time of disruption, unrest and change and we need new skills to meet the challenges we face. In this collective liminal space when so much of our lives are being unsettled by the pandemic, climate change, racism (and all of the “-isms”), political upheaval, etc., we need to learn how to practice sitting with discomfort, how to hold space for ourselves when there is disruption, how to witness our own biases without being buried in shame, how to support each other in times of grief and trauma, and how to be in community even in the darkest of times. When things get hard and complicated, we need less individualism and more community, less reactivity and more co-regulation, less grind and more rest, less hero-leadership and more host-leadership, less competition and more collaboration. We need to know how to hold grief and how to process fear. We need to know how to walk alongside people who are in liminal space. We need to know how to conscientiously disrupt the patterns that no longer serve us. These are all things that we focus on in our programs, and, more than ever, I believe this is what we need to learn, together.  

Despite my discouragement in this moment, I have not lost hope or passion for this work. This too, shall pass. (If I gave up easily, I wouldn’t have made it through my first year of self-employment.) I will keep showing up for it, because I believe in it wholeheartedly, and I know that many of you will keep showing up for it too. I am deeply grateful for all of you who join me in this quest for a better way to be in deep connection with ourselves, with each other, and with Mystery. 

Let us carry on, because it is the right thing to do. 

P.S. If you’re not yet ready to join us in the Holding Space Foundation Program, or you can’t afford it, but you want to deepen your understanding of what it means to hold space, here are a few inexpensive and accessible options:
1. Buy my book, The Art of Holding: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership. You can also add a deck of cards and/or journal if you want to dig deeper into the practice.
2. Sign up for one of our self-study programs, Holding Space in Times of Disruption and Overwhelm (this one’s “pay-what-you-can”), 52 Weeks of Holding SpaceThe Spiral Path, or Write for Love and Liberation

Healing money-related trauma

Yesterday I did something BIG. It was so big that it left me trembling and in tears.

Finally, after nearly nine years of being in business, I passed all of the bookkeeping duties for my business over to an accountant. I opened my books and showed EVERYTHING to another person and then I entrusted her with it. And then I went to the bank and opened a business account to finally separate my business accounting more formally from my personal accounting.

I’ve had support in nearly every area of my business (hiring an assistant, hiring assistant teachers, etc.), but up until now, I’ve always managed all of the bookkeeping (except for tax time).

Why is this such a big deal and why did it take me so long? This feels big to say, and I’ve been taking several big breaths in order to say it out loud…

I have money-related trauma.

Money brings up all kinds of anxiety for me, and I regularly find myself in some version of fight/flight/freeze because of it. Usually, to be honest, I’m in flight or freeze mode, avoiding thinking about it, avoiding receiving advice about it, and avoiding doing my bookkeeping until it’s an absolute necessity. As a result, my “books” are rather chaotic and cobbled together (with blurry lines between personal and business) and it just felt like too much of a hurdle to bring someone else into that mess.

Whenever something has caused consistent and unpredictable insecurity in childhood, there’s a good chance that it’s left behind some of the markings of trauma. For me (and my siblings), money was one of those things. We grew up never knowing whether we’d lose the farm to bankruptcy, whether my parents would be able to fix the series of beat-up old cars and trucks that were always breaking down at inopportune times, whether the answer to “can I have the $2 I need for a field trip?” would be yes or no, whether our phone or hydro would be cut off, or whether we could fix the hole in the ceiling where the shingles had leaked. 

These constant worries, especially when they happen to powerless children, have a way of priming the nervous system to always be in hyper-vigilance about when their security will be taken away. It’s evident in all of my siblings, though the way it’s manifest itself is fairly different (some tend toward “fight”, needing to control every penny, while others tend toward “flight” and freeze”).

Also, as I’ve learned in working with family constellations, when a parent does not resolve an issue in their lifetime, the offspring will unconsciously take on that story and feel like they’re betraying the parent if they abandon it. In my case, I’ve been living my father’s “failure in business” story, believing that I wasn’t entitled to this business success that has come my way, and therefore avoiding too much attachment to the success (and even sabotaging it by not being too strategic about it).

The other piece of this is that trauma and shame are intricately intertwined and so it’s hard to heal it because it’s hard to reveal it. The trauma causes reactive behaviour and we fear being judged because of it but we feel powerless to change it. Instead of reaching out for help, we bury it beneath shame. So becomes a spiral of triggering, reactive behaviour, and cover-ups to hide that reactive behaviour. 

Unless we find the courage to break that pattern and speak that shame out loud to someone who will hold space for us to find healing, we stay stuck in the spiral. No money-management course in the world can help us out of that spiral unless we heal the trauma that it’s rooted in.

In the past few months, I’ve been working to break that pattern, culminating in yesterday’s BIG step to trust an accountant with all of it. Fortunately, a friend referred me to someone who was gracious and supportive (and only once slightly raised an eyebrow at some weird manual system I’d built in that over-complicated what could be very simple.)

And today I’m talking about it, because (as Brene Brown says) vulnerability is our defence against shame. AND, as I keep learning again and again, there is always someone out there waiting for someone else to speak it out loud so that we can find the courage too.

On the way home from my accountant’s office, yesterday, I found myself weeping and trembling. It wasn’t shame that was making me weep – it was great relief and release. It was also profound love and compassion for the scared little girl in me who did the best she could with the resources she had – who made it through a scary childhood and who grew up to be an adult who built a successful business despite the trauma buried at the heart of it.

(Note: I am asking for no advice or judgement in response to this, as that will potentially re-trigger my shame. Any comments like that will be deleted without discussion. I already have the support I need.)

This is my life, and it’s sometimes good

windy hillLet’s see… what have I done this week? Well, I taught my regular writing class at university, I welcomed a professional storyteller into my class to do a short workshop (and took her to lunch because she fascinates me), I made arrangements for an upcoming retreat I’m hosting, I visited the retreat centre where the retreat will be held (photo above), I wrote a lesson for Lead with your Wild Heart, I did a coaching session with a new client and accepted her invitation to do a workshop with the staff of her yoga studio,  I promoted my upcoming Creative Writing for Self Discovery class, and tomorrow I’m heading out of town for a couple of days with my daughters.

Wow. When I break it down like that, I suddenly realize that this… THIS is the life I dreamed of two and a half years ago when I started self-employment.

I suppose you could say I manifested my dreams.

But there’s another part to this story that I refuse to ignore.

On the way to my dreams… I had a LOT of moments when I worried whether I’d have enough money at the end of the month to pay the bills, I went through a really rocky period in my marriage, my father-in-law died, my mom was diagnosed with cancer,  she went through the horrors of chemo, and then I watched her die, I had some significant business failures, and my husband had a heart attack. (There’s more, but I don’t want to overwhelm you with the details.)

Would you say that I manifested that too?

The truth is, life is full of the yin and yang of happiness and sadness, darkness and light, dreams coming true and dreams crashing at our feet, love and betrayal, life and death, success and failure, grief and joy. It’s all part of the package and it all matters. You don’t get to choose one or the other – the yin or the yang.

No matter how hard you pray or meditate or think happy thoughts, you won’t be spared the heartache that is part of the package of your life. You don’t get the happiness without the sadness. And it you try to push past the sadness in favour of the happiness, you’ll miss one of the best teachers of your life.

I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t dream because it might not come true – not at all! I’m a BIG dreamer and I’ll keep dreaming until the day I die! I’m just saying that there are no guarantees, and sometimes your dreams will shift with your evolving life. It’s all part of the journey, and you need to develop your flexibility and resilience skills along with your dreaming skills.

The best you can do is to learn to ride the waves and be present in the journey rather than focusing only on the destination. Hold your seat lightly, reach for the tools that keep you from crashing too hard on the rocks, trust the other people in your boat, relax when the water is calm, prepare yourself for when the water is rough, and be present in the flow. And when you find yourself capsizing, poke your head above the water and swim for your life.

Whether you’re in the rapids or the calm waters, remember this – everything that comes your way is meant to be your teacher. If you forget that, and try to live only in the calm waters, your growth will be stunted and you won’t get anywhere. Just like the water needs to flow in order to stay fresh, you need to move through the rapids in order to thrive.

This week was good, but last week was hard. I don’t know what I’ll get next week, but I’m here, present, trusting that I have the courage and resilience to handle it. Through the ups and the downs, many of the things I’ve longed for are coming to me, but many of them have also been discarded along the journey.  The best I can do is to keep my paddle in the water and keep rowing.

What’s your story?

Growing up on the farm, a brand was a mark that was put on a cow to let outsiders know whose farm the animal came from.

In high school, a brand was what the richer kids wore to prove that they were important, while I wore hand-me-downs or whatever my mom could get with her cheap-clothing-store-that-shall-remain-nameless employee discount.

When I worked in public relations, a brand was what we talked a lot about when we needed to make our product or service stand out in crowded spaces or the evening news.

Now that I’m self-employed, people who tout themselves as self-employment experts are trying to tell me I have to brand MYSELF.

Really? Like a cow who runs the risk of wandering away from the herd? Like a teenager who’s afraid she won’t fit in? Like a product that gets lost on a crowded supermarket shelf?

I’ll be honest… I don’t want to be a brand. I don’t want to be a cow, I don’t want to be a product, and I certainly don’t want to be something an insecure teenager wraps around her shoulders to try to impress her peers.

I’m tired of consumer and industrial language that compares us to products and our brains to well-oiled machines. Let’s move on, shall we? We’ve already established that our consumer-driven mentality is getting the world into a whole lot of trouble with over-consumption and the destruction of our natural resources. That language is not serving us anymore. Let’s stop diminishing our capacity and our imagination by using it.

We are much too complex to be machines or brands or products. Let’s shift the paradigm by shifting the language.

Let’s not be consumers. Let’s be citizens and community members instead.

Let’s not brand ourselves. Let’s tell stories instead.

The next time you’re considering what it is you and/or your business is offering the world, ask yourself “What’s my story?” instead of “What’s my brand?”

Your story has complex nuances that can’t fit into a simple brand.

Your story is shifting and changing as you grow.

Your story has potential for much greater impact than any product could ever have.

Your story is a tapestry made up of all of the beautiful threads you’ve picked up along the journey of your life. It’s the grade 3 teacher who gave you a special prize when you won the spelling bee. It’s your best friend who picked you up off the ground when you fell off a horse. It’s your brother who sacrificed the income from his first job so that you could go on a school trip. It’s the times your dad smiled that special “I’m proud of you” smile. It’s the university instructor who told you one of your plays was good enough to be on the radio. It’s the boss who promoted you to your first leadership position. It’s the first time you spoke in public. It’s those times when you know you are doing your best work.

Those things don’t fit into a brand. They’re not products you can box and put on a shelf. They are your threads and they make you more beautiful than any product on a supermarket shelf.

Don’t diminish yourself to a brand. You’re worth so much more.

You might make more money if you brand yourself (and this is why I’m not a self-employment guru), but you’ll have a greater impact if you share your story.

What’s your story? 

Stop trying to box it or brand it and just get busy sharing it.

To bring about a paradigm shift in the culture that will change assumptions and attitudes, a critical number of us have to tell the stories of our personal revelations and transformations.” – Jean Shinoda Bolen

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