It happened repeatedly in my youth. I’d come home from a friend’s house and walk into the house to find nobody there. I’d look in all of the rooms, start to get that panicky feeling and then go out to the farmyard to see if somebody was in the barn or cattle pasture. Suddenly, I was desperate to know that somebody was home – that they hadn’t all abandoned me. I only felt secure when I heard my dad’s voice or spotted my mom in the garden.
It was the end times I was most afraid of – being left behind when the rapture came. Every person I know who’s grown up in an evangelical home has a similar memory. “What if they’ve all gone and we didn’t get taken with them? What if we weren’t Christian enough? What if we haven’t sufficiently confessed our sins and will be denied entry into heaven?”
There’s a certain trauma that gets left in a person’s body when you grow up with that fear. There’s a heightened awareness that threads through your nervous system, reminding you always that you have to be good enough, obedient enough and repentant enough to make the cut when the second coming suddenly separates the saved from the unsaved.
It’s taken me a long time to recognize how much of that early conditioning has left me with an easily triggered fear of being found out to be sinful, wrong, or bad. To be bad is to be separated from God, shunned from your community, and at risk of spending an eternity in the fires of hell. Even long after you stop believing in hell, the trauma stays rooted in your body.
Abandonment. Shame. Shunning. Pain. Death. This is what my amygdala still tries to convince me – in moments when it’s triggered into fight/flight/freeze/fawn – are the consequences of being bad.
I have been wondering, lately, whether this isn’t just a personal experience (the result of being raised in an evangelical home) but a collective one.
How much have we ALL been socialized into this kind of reactivity, even those not raised in evangelicalism? How much of that trauma remains deeply and subconsciously rooted in our culture, here in North America (and elsewhere), given the fact that we are, ostensibly, “Christian” nations, colonized by countries where Christianity was the dominant religion? How much have we internalized the fear of separation and abandonment that a sin-doctrine embeds in a culture, even long after it’s not the central narrative?
There’s a pattern that I’ve witnessed over and over again when I teach the Holding Space Practitioner Program… people show up eager to learn about holding space for others, and somewhere around Module 2 (on holding space for yourself) they come face-to-face with their own biases, trauma, blind spots, and shadow. Suddenly… WHOA! I start getting remarks about how hard the work has become and how they need more time (we’ve lengthened this module for that reason), and the resistance shows up. Some push back, some want to abandon ship, some create conflict. Many end up begrudgingly thanking me for nudging them into work they were avoiding doing, but first they have to fight it.
It’s hard to look into your shadow. It’s painful and shame-inducing to suddenly have to face your biases, blindspots and blunders. It’s also, if my theory is right, trauma-inducing. It triggers a deeply rooted, culturally sanctioned, subconscious fear that we will be abandoned, shunned, and “sent out of the kingdom”. We’ll lose our standing in the community, we’ll risk an eternity of pain and separation, and we might even be put to death. Or at least that’s what the amygdala believes.
It’s why we have things like white fragility (though I appreciate what this writer says about renaming it “white flammability”). People who’ve convinced themselves they are good people, in good standing with their community, are suddenly sent into spasms when their biases and blindspots are revealed. They can’t fathom the fact that they are capable of causing harm. They haven’t been equipped to hold space for their own shame. Subconsciously, they’re terrified that they will be abandoned and, at worst, banished from the kingdom.
It’s also why we’ve developed such a punitive legal system in our culture. We might call it a “justice” system, but it’s really not about justice. It’s about shaming, blaming, and punishing those who do wrong. It’s about creating separation from those of us who are seen to be “upstanding citizens” and those who are criminals. It’s about sending people out of our communities and abandoning them in prisons, so that we can hide the collective shadow in our culture. Out of fear of our own shadow, we call out those with more obvious shadows (or those marginalized by the dominant culture and made to look like they are bad) and project our shame onto them.
Because of this collective fear of being wrong, we’ve not only punished the transgressors, but we’ve also elevated and idolized those with curated lives who look like they’ve managed to transcend the messiness the rest of us get stuck in. We overlook the cracks in those we want to emulate because we want to see the polished life, and we want to believe that it’s possible for us, too, to live untarnished lives. We project our unhealthy aspirations and expectations of ourselves onto those who appear most worthy of our adoration. Social media makes this even more tempting because it allows us unprecedented access into our heroes’ lives and opinions.
When you find yourself in a position of influence like that, with people projecting their ideals onto you, it becomes surprisingly tempting to give them what they want. If they give you money to teach them how to live a charmed and curated life like yours (or to model it onscreen), it’s even more tempting. The money allows you to put even more polish on your life, so it perpetuates the cycle. Meanwhile, your own trauma and fear of abandonment is at play, so you work extra hard at meeting people’s expectations of you for fear of being found out and suddenly shunned and left behind.
Unfortunately, that charmed place on a pedestal rarely lasts. People find the cracks in your facade and when they start poking around, they find that those cracks are really deep, dark chasms of shadow. And then, because they feel betrayed by you, because you no longer give them hope that a shadow-free life is possible, they tear you down, with a vengeance. That’s what “cancel-culture” is all about.
Sadly, if those influencers had known, early on in their development, that the uncomfortable shadow work that they avoided is what could have saved them from the destructiveness of the tear-down, they might have found themselves on a different trajectory. Sure, they wouldn’t have found the same level of celebrity and status, but they would have found something much better and longer-lasting — authentic community. Relationships rooted in truth-telling and vulnerability are worth a lot more than those shallowly rooted in performance.
In recent months, with Black Lives Matter at the forefront of our consciousness, we’ve seen several people, especially in the coaching and personal development world, with large followings and lots of influence, whose cracks have been revealed. People are pointing out the lack of consciousness around anti-racism and anti-oppression and revealing where harm has been done to the marginalized in their communities. Some of them, in avoidance of the shame of being called out, use gaslighting to shame and reject anyone who might challenge them. Some teach spiritual bypassing as a way of avoiding the darkness and keeping their followers in a state of compliance and fake peace.
Some of these leaders, sadly, have developed cult-like followings where people are shamed by others in the in-group for daring to challenge what their leader says. As Alexandra Stein has pointed out in Terror, Love, and Brainwashing, these leaders manipulate their followers into unhealthy attachment systems, where followers will do anything to stay connected to the leader because of the way that their needs are met in the community. The leaders manipulate the trauma coursing through our culture, reminding people that they will be rejected if they step out of line, if they point out the flaws in the leader or what’s being taught within the community. The trauma bond floods the nervous system and makes it nearly impossible for people to think clearly and notice how messed up the leader, community, and/or belief system is.
The only solution, as I see it, is for us to work to heal the collective trauma and begin to create greater space in our culture for shadow work. We need to make it acceptable to speak of our mistakes, to admit our biases, to own up to the ways in which we cause harm because of our trauma and social conditioning. We also need to build collective systems in which we learn how to co-regulate in those moments when we are triggered so that we don’t cause so much harm as a result.
We also need to change our collective views about leadership. When leaders and influencers can be flawed and vulnerable, when they don’t feel the pressure to meet unrealistic expectations, and when they are embedded into communities that both support them and hold them accountable, then there is less inclination for them to become abusive when their biases and blindspots are pointed out. They don’t have to hide their shadows because they’ve never pretended they didn’t have them.
In just a few weeks, we’ll be launching the Centre for Holding Space. One of the reasons why I’m going into partnership in launching this, instead of building it alone, is that I want to be intentional about building a structure that doesn’t elevate me into an unrealistic position of leadership and influence. I don’t want to be the influencer who cracks under the pressure of meeting people’s expectations. I want to be able to continue to reveal my shadow, and I want to be held accountable for the ways my biases and blindspots get in the way of the work. I don’t want my trauma – my deeply held fear of being found to be bad – to be running the show and separating me from my humanity or the humanity of those in my community. I want to be imperfect and I want to keep striving to welcome imperfect people into the circle with me.
My partner, Krista, is very good at supporting me and helping me stay grounded and honest. We have built a solid relationships of trust in which neither of us has to be performative or defensive of our flaws. We are also growing an incredible team of people that is eager to support this work as it grows, and they’re all equally committed to showing up flawed and vulnerable alongside us.
In building a solid foundation for our business, we recently worked through a Conscious Contract with our lawyer, in which we developed a co-founders agreement that will help us work through conflict and hold space for the shadow when it shows up in ourselves and our business. We’ll hold each other accountable for doing the messy work and for staying in the discomfort long enough for transformation to happen.
We are excited to welcome you, our readers, clients, and friends, into this space we’re creating. We want to hold space for your imperfections. We want to create a space of healing where trauma isn’t shamed and nobody is shunned for being wrong.
Whenever I teach my workshops on holding space, I warn people that there will likely be a moment when they have to face their own shadow and their discomfort might make them want to run from the room. “You’re allowed to step out of the room if you need to,” I say, “but know that you are always welcome back. We will hold the space for you to return.”
This is what I want for the Centre for Holding Space to be – a place where people can peer into their shadows, and trust that, even if they run away, they’re still welcome back in the room. Because when people come back to meet themselves in the circle, that’s when the real healing happens.
On an episode of the TV show The Good Place, we’re introduced to Doug Forcett, a former stoner who, during a magic mushroom trip, figured out the formula for the afterlife (ie. how to make enough points to get into the Good Place). Doug is living a “perfect” life, ensuring each choice he makes gains him points. He lives on a farm in Canada where he is kind to a fault, treats every plant and animal with respect, and never fails to recycle.
It doesn’t take long to discover, though, that Doug is living a paralyzed and tortured life. He goes into spasms of guilt and fear every time he makes a misstep (ie. he steps on a snail and kills it), he eats nothing but radishes and lentils and drinks his own filtered urine, and he allows himself to be victimized by the neighbourhood bully who takes advantage of his extreme altruism and forgiveness. In the last scene that we see Doug, he is about to walk hundreds of miles to make a donation in atonement for killing the snail.
Yes, there is a shadow side to trying too hard to be good. That shadow deepens when, in the next episode, it is revealed that every “good” choice has dozens of ripple effects that are “bad” (ie. buying an organic tomato that has to be shipped a long distance from another country where there are no ethical labour practices) and even Doug hasn’t made enough points to get into The Good Place.
The torture suffered by the Mennonites under Stalin was brutal. Because they were identified as ethnic Germans, they were treated as the enemy during the first and second World Wars. Their villages were destroyed, their land and/or harvested crops were taken from them and they were left without food, many women were raped, and in some villages, all of the men over sixteen were killed or put in prison. For twenty-five years, until they eventually fled the country, they were treated to unimaginable horrors. About half of the families that left were female-led because so many men had been killed.
As I read through the accounts of these atrocities, this paragraph landed the most heavily on my heart:
“What complicated these traumatic experiences for Mennonites was the fact that they did not defend themselves against such assault, upholding their 400-year pacifist stance. In many cases, husbands and fathers witnessed the brutal rapes of their wives and daughters and did not retaliate.”
I re-read that paragraph several times, overcome with the horror of what it must have been like to be a woman who was not only brutally raped, but whose husband or father did nothing to stop it. What utter betrayal that must have been to know that someone you loved chose their need to be “good” according to their faith over protecting you, their beloved!
That deep-seated value of pacifism – a core tenet of the Mennonite faith that is, in many ways, quite beautiful – has the ironic potential to create the conditions for the greatest form of betrayal for the most marginalized among the community – the women. Much like the fictional Doug Forcett, they were paralyzed by their belief in what it means to be good, and the result of that paralysis was betrayal of those they loved most.
(Side-note: As I’ve written before, after my own rape in my early twenties, my own pacifist father responded by admitting how he suddenly saw in himself a capacity to kill my rapist. That was both surprising and comforting for me at the time. I don’t know, though, what he would have done had he been given the opportunity to defend me.)
There is a shadow side to pacifism, just as there is a shadow side to trying too hard to be good, and far too often, it’s those with little power who are most impacted by that shadow. An insistence on goodness, in fact, can become a tool of oppression, by which those with power can keep those without power in line and silent.
Here are a few other shadows worth reflecting on:
The Shadow Side of Gratitude: While there has been much written about the values of living a grateful life (ie. having a gratitude practice can build resilience and hope and help us live in greater freedom), the shadow side is that it can be a form of spiritual bypassing. When we force ourselves (or others) to be grateful, we ignore the very real pain and grief that we need to process and hold space for in order to heal and transform it. Those darker emotions that we bury when we turn too quickly to gratitude will find more destructive ways of surfacing later on – as trauma, addictions, physical ailments, emotional breakdowns, etc..
The Shadow Side of Forgiveness:Much like gratitude, forgiveness can be a form of spiritual bypassing in which we rush past the complexity of our genuine feelings of rage, pain, betrayal, etc., deny ourselves the right to justice, repair and healing, and let the other person off the hook before they’ve shown genuine remorse. Forgiveness, if there is no remorse and atonement on the part of the person who’s done harm, puts the burden of emotional labour on the shoulders of the victim, and while it may be personally healing for them to forgive, it may also serve to re-victimize them and deny them of their full humanity. In the case of domestic abuse, for example, forgiveness may lead to further abuse. In order to extricate themselves, the victim may, instead, need to hang onto to rage at least long enough to propel themselves out of the situation and establish the boundaries that protect them.
The Shadow Side of Civility: As a recovering conflict-avoider, I’ve long believed that civility was one of the highest goods, but then I started to learn (especially through BIPOC people whose wisdom I value) that an insistence on civility can have harmful consequences. For one thing, it’s almost always those who already have more power who get to decide the rules about what is civil and what is not. For another thing, asking for civility when people have a genuine right to have strong emotions related to their oppression and victimization can be to silence, shame, and further oppress them. And for a third thing, an insistence on civility can often lead to more insidious and underhanded forms of communication (ie. passive aggressiveness, manipulation, tone policing, etc.) rather than more direct and truthful forms.
The Shadow Side of Charity:When I used to work in international development, we used to have long debates about the best ways to support people in need. One of the things that often came up was the way that charity, if it isn’t nuanced and offered with care and respect for people’s dignity and sovereignty, can be destructive and further contribute to an unjust world. For example, much of the charity we saw in international development comes from a place of “white saviorism” where more privileged white people think they know what’s best for less privileged people of colour, and it makes them feel good to impose that charity on them. Misplaced charity can also be disruptive to the local economy (ie. dumping used clothing on Kenyan markets means that much of their local clothing industry has disappeared) and can be disempowering to those who’d be better served by justice.
The Shadow Side of Peace: As I mentioned above, I was raised in a long lineage of pacifism, and so “keeping the peace” was one of the highest goods. But the result of that kind of a belief system was that it took me a long time to leave an abusive situation, I often remained silent in the face of injustice, I let people I loved get hurt, and – to this day – I often have a trauma response when voices are raised and conflict bubbles. When peace is valued too highly, it is largely the most marginalized who suffer. In the book Women Talking, Miriam Toews writes a fictional account of the true story of a Mennonite settlement in which women were being drugged and raped and none of the male leaders were listening to their cries for justice. The male leaders were more intent on keeping the peace (ie. forgiving the men who did it and restoring them to community) than they were in caring for the victims of the rapes. “We are not members,” says one of the women, “. . . we are commodities. . . . When our men have used us up so that we look sixty when we’re thirty and our wombs have literally dropped out of our bodies onto our spotless kitchen floors, finished, they turn to our daughters.”
The Shadow Side of Good Intentions:The problem with good intentions is that we often hide behind them and think that they are enough, even when those good intentions have undesirable outcomes. But what about when the impact is different from the intent? What if, for example, we extend charity (as mentioned above) that results in disempowerment or further injustice? Can we simply say “well, that wasn’t my intention” and go on doing what we’ve always done? No, not if we want to live in a just and ethical world. Especially when we have more agency than the person negatively impacted by our good intentions, we have to be willing to take responsibility for the impact, learn to do better, and make necessary repairs and/or change our future behaviour.
The Shadow Side of Positivity: In the self-help world in recent years, there’s been a lot of talk of the value of positive thinking and the power of attraction (ie. if we think positive thoughts we attract positive things), but there’s a lot of shadow that’s usually not discussed by the self-help gurus. For one thing, insisting that people are responsible for what they attract is a convenient way of overlooking the injustice of the world and blaming a person for the bad that comes their way (ie. if you lose your job, it must be your own fault for your bad attitude rather than the racist behaviour of your boss). For another thing, just as gratitude can be a form of spiritual bypassing, positivity can also deny and shut down the full expression of our humanity in a way that short-circuits healing, growth, and justice.
I write this not to say that we should toss aside our civility, pacifism, forgiveness, gratitude, etc. No – quite the opposite. I think we should embrace them more fully and with more clarity, holding them up to the light so that we can see them for ALL of the shades of complexity contained within. I think we should examine each of these good things and use our discernment to help us see when we’re slipping from the light into the shadows.
To embrace these good things blindly rather than examining them is to choose to stay in an immature, binary spirituality and worldview.
Sometimes, when we witness the shadow side of the good, we’ll need to make choices that make us feel like we’re deviating from our values, and, especially when those values are attached to our sense of safety and belonging (ie. part of our religious upbringing, social conditioning, and/or community values) that can feel like self-betrayal and can result in a trauma response. But perhaps what it really means, when we pause to reflect on it, is that we have developed a more nuanced and robust values system that’s indicative of our growth.
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.
I was on a fourteen hour train ride between Brisbane and Sydney the day the U.S. election was sealing the fate of the country for the next four years. I’d chosen train travel over flight because, after the intensity of facilitating two sold out retreats and a one-day workshop in a country far from home, I needed many hours of integration, electronic disconnection, solitude, and staring out the window at the vast countryside. Slow travel offers me self-care in times like those.
For those fourteen hours, I had no access to internet, so I didn’t know who won the election until hours after it had been announced.
I say that I didn’t know, but really… I DID know. Hours before an astonished fellow traveler announced to the rest of us in the railcar what she’d read online, a sudden ominous, panicky feeling engulfed me and I knew intuitively what the outcome was. I had a strong sense of the shadow showing itself in the world. I knew that the world was about to change – and not in a good way. I didn’t want to believe it, but when the woman exclaimed “Has the whole world gone mad?!” my fears were confirmed. A man who is openly misogynistic, racist, narcissistic, and emotionally immature is about to become the leader of arguably the most powerful country in the world.
Yes, I’m Canadian, and my life and the lives of my children may not change dramatically because of this election, but what happens in the U.S. affects the world. What hurts my Muslim, Black, GLBTQ+, Indigenous, and Mexican sisters and brothers hurts me. And this is not an isolated incident – it comes too quickly on the heals of Brexit to not be seen as a global pendulum swing toward protectionism and the far right.
There is good reason for the ominous feelings in the pits of so many of our stomachs. White supremacy and the patriarchy have reared their ugly heads and they appear to be winning this round. The shadow is big and ominous and it demands to be seen.
Just a few days before sitting on that train, I had a similar ominous feeling in the pit of my stomach, but this time it was much more personal and close to home. I was facilitating the second retreat at Welcome to the BIG House when things started to go sideways. No, they were not on the “Trump winning the election” global scale of ominous, but not unlike what’s happening in the U.S., group shadow had showed up at the retreat and was threatening to derail everything we’d worked to build.
I’d known from the start of the retreat that something was slightly out-of-balance. It started with a gut feeling when I walked into the room and it continued when the opening sharing round did not invite as much vulnerability and trust as it normally tends to. The next morning, I was even more certain that there was some stuck energy in the group when a simple exercise fell flat. We were simply trying to walk in a circle together, looking down at the words we’d placed on the floor, but, try as we might, we couldn’t get the circle to move. We were stuck.
It was hard to put a finger on what was going on. There were beautiful, openhearted people in the room who came willing to learn and to engage in meaningful conversation. Nobody was openly disruptive or serving as an “energy-vampire”. When we moved into smaller circles, the energy flowed more easily and intimacy and trust seemed more present, but when we were in the large group, there was a flatness and disconnection that didn’t seem to shift.
I questioned everything. Was the group too big? Had the purpose of the retreat been unclear and so people arrived with differing expectations and intentions? Was I trying to mix together the wrong content? Was my ego getting in the way? Was there some underlying conflict I didn’t know about? Was there a cultural disconnect I didn’t understand? I didn’t have the answer.
On the afternoon of the second last day of the retreat, we started to talk about shadow. I explained how shadow is made up of all of the things that we keep out of sight because we’re afraid to bring them into the light. These are not necessarily all bad things – they are simply the things we fear will make us feel unsafe if we reveal them. Beginning with an exploration on personal shadow before we moved on to group shadow, I invited the group into a guided meditation in which each person explored the messages they’d received in childhood about which parts of their personality and identity they’d learned to keep hidden because it wasn’t safe to reveal them. “Perhaps you learned to keep your voice down because you learned it was unsafe to be too loud. Perhaps you hid your body because revealing it wasn’t safe.”
Before we could move into a conversation about group shadow, the shadow showed up and revealed itself to us. A few people in the room spoke about the shadow that was coming up for them within the container of this retreat. (Giving more specific information would betray confidences, so I will simply say that they were honest about their personal shadow and how it might be contributing to what was happening in the group.) As soon as the words were spoken, it felt like a bomb had been tossed into the room. Suddenly there was something staring us in the face that many of us were afraid to speak of. Some were confused and disoriented by it, and all felt some measure of discomfort.
What should we do now? Everyone looked to me, hoping I could magically make the bomb go away. I knew I couldn’t do that alone and I knew we didn’t have enough time or energy left in the day to fully dismantle it.
With my head spinning in circles like a roulette wheel trying to land on the right number, I reached deep for what my intuition told me was the next right step. “It’s late in the day, we need a meal and a rest, and I don’t believe that we have the space and time to fully address what just happened,” I said. “We need a strong container to hold the shadow that just showed up, and we can’t be strong if we don’t care for ourselves first. I know that, as the circle host, my resources are spent at this point in the day, so I don’t think we’ll serve ourselves well if we stick with this right now. I’m going to suggest that we close with a check-out round, and then we each do what we need to do to care for ourselves throughout the evening. In the morning, when we are refreshed, we will come back into the circle and hold the space for what showed up. I will set aside the teaching exercises I had planned so that we can give as much space for this as we can in the short time we have remaining.”
For the check-out round, I asked the question “what are you curious about?” Most people spoke to their curiosity about what had just happened and how it would be resolved. When everyone had spoken, I read the following poem:
Lost (by David Wagoner)
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree of a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest know
Where you are. You must let it find you.
In closing, I offered this invitation. “Tonight, I invite you to sit with your discomfort. Go sit with the trees, if that helps. Don’t try to resolve it too quickly. Sit with it and ask what it is here to teach you. Because in your discomfort is great opportunity for growth, learning, and transformation.”
By the time I got back to my own room, I could feel the heaviness of what had just happened settling into my body and I could hear the gremlins beginning to offer their displeasure in my head. “Did I do the right thing? Did I fail the group? Should I have been more forceful or decisive? Will I let them down if I don’t teach the parts of the curriculum I’d planned to teach? Will we really be able to resolve this in the morning? What if everyone leaves the retreat dissatisfied? What if I fail?”
I turned to my go-to self-care stress-reducers. First, I climbed into a bathtub full of hot water and epsom salts. I stayed there for nearly two hours – as long as it took to slow my breath, still my brain, ground my body, and give comfort to my heart. Each time the gremlins attacked, I took deep breaths, said a prayer, and repeated a few of my favourite mantras. I also sent out a couple of SOS text messages to dear friends who would hold space for me from afar, and, after my bath, I unpacked what had happened with Georgia, the owner of The BIG House and the guardian of the circle. As we were talking, sitting in darkness in her living room, two creatures showed up in the room – a large frog by the kitchen sink and a bat flying through the open window and fluttering above our heads.
By the time I climbed into bed, I was relaxed and confident that, if I could get my own ego out of the way, the circle would be strong enough to hold the shadow in the morning.
The next morning, I started by asking the group for their permission to clear out the centre of the circle. We’d let it become cluttered with some creative containers we’d made earlier in the retreat as well as other things that didn’t need to be there. “I want to clear out the centre,” I said, “to remind us of the intention that brought us here this weekend. This retreat is called ‘Living with an Open Heart’, and that is what we came here to do. We want to place our intention to be openhearted at the centre of the circle and remind ourselves that, whatever happens in this space, we commit to connecting back to our own open hearts.”
Then I asked the question “How are you arriving?” and passed the talking piece for a check-in round. People were tentative at first, but then there was a gradual opening up and the energy in the room began to shift. It felt like a little light was peeking through a window. Part way through the round, a few people started to open up more than they had before in the large circle.
Once we’d completed a check-in round, I said, “My intuition tells me that we simply need to allow the talking piece to make its way around the circle again and invite people to say whatever they feel needs to be offered into the circle.”
One person asked “aren’t we going to confront the shadow that showed up here yesterday?” I responded with “‘Confront’ isn’t the language I’d like us to use. Instead, let’s do our best to speak with open hearts so that we can reveal and shine light on the shadow that we’ve all brought into the room.”
This time, while the talking piece passed around the room, people cracked open even more, especially those people who’d revealed the shadow the day before. What they offered into the room revealed deep awareness and learning that had happened overnight. Each person was willing to own what she or he had brought into the room.
The energy shift was palpable and people leaned in to the centre in ways they hadn’t before. They were finally beginning to trust the circle to hold their vulnerability and personal shadow. Some profound shifts happened for several people, and one person in particular admitted that this was the very first time she’d ever come to a place where she was safe in a group setting. “When I knew that I was safe to sit with my discomfort and then come back into the room, I felt like I was truly safe with other people for the first time in my life.” She wept and many of us wept with her.
Several people thanked the shadow-bearers. “If you hadn’t spoken what you did into the circle yesterday, we would have walked away with only half of an experience, not knowing what we were missing. This morning was worth every bit of discomfort we felt last night. I am leaving this circle with an open heart.”
We were ending the retreat at noon, so we only had time for a short break and then a check-out round. During check-out, each of us spoke to what we were taking with us from the retreat, and many spoke of life-changing shifts they’d experienced.
“Some of you were uncomfortable giving up the teachings that I had prepared for this morning,” I said, “but if I had pushed through with my curriculum, it would have come from a place of ego and not openheartedness and it would not have served the good of the group. Also, all of the things I had planned would have kept you in your heads, but what happened here this morning brought us all back to our hearts. You have taught each other much more valuable lessons than I could have taught you.”
A few days later, when I was on the train and had received the news of Trump’s election, I thought back to our experience at the retreat and wondered what it had to teach us about the state of the world right now.
Just like at the retreat, there is an underlying shadow in the world that we haven’t always known how to talk about. There have been some brave souls who’ve spoken about it throughout history, but many have been killed, tortured, or ostracized for their efforts and the rest of us have been scared off by what they’ve endured. If I were to give it a name, I would use words like “patriarchy” and “white supremacy”. There are other related words… “consumerism, greed, environmental destruction, protectionism, etc.”
It’s been under the surface for a very long time and, collectively, we’ve tried to ignore it because it brings up shame and fear and makes us feel unsafe to speak of it. But in recent years, it’s been surfacing more and more and there are more and more brave souls willing to speak of it. Many of those brave ones – like those in the Black Lives Matter movement, or those protecting the waters from the Dakota Access Pipeline, or any feminist who dares to face the trolls online – continue to suffer the consequences. The courageous ones continue to do it anyway, because they are called to be the light-bearers.
When you dare to speak of the shadow, it can show up in the room like a bomb that’s been dropped, surprising and disorienting us all. Trump’s presidency is one such bomb dropped into our world, revealing to us the shadow that exists in ALL OF US. We can’t simply blame a few scapegoats – we have to take ownership of this shadow if any real change is to happen.
Just like at the retreat, we need a strong container that can hold space for the shadow. We need people who aren’t afraid to speak of what they hide inside themselves. We need people who will come to the circle with open hearts. We need strong leaders who do not back down in the face of conflict or their own fear. We need people who are willing to sit with their discomfort so that the learning and wisdom can emerge. We need those who will turn to the trees and to the creatures for wisdom and guidance. We need prayer warriors and caregivers. We need those who offer sustenance and shelter. We need warriors and lovers.
We need commitment, courage, compassion, and curiosity.
If there had not been strong and committed people in the room with me at the retreat, there is no way I could have held it alone. The circle would have crumbled and we all would have taken our fear, discomfort, and shadow with us, probably stuffing it further down so that it would emerge in much more destructive ways later on. The shadow doesn’t go away – it just goes underground for awhile until it finds another crack through which to crawl.
This is my challenge to you – can we gather together the people we need to create a container strong enough to hold this shadow? Can we rally our co-leaders, our allies, our prophets, our teachers, our guardians, our disruptors, our light-bearers, our disenfranchised, our marginalized, our priests, our caregivers, our helpers, our prayer warriors – anyone who is willing to hold the rim while we wrestle with the shadow in our midst? Can we sit with our discomfort long enough to let the learning and wisdom sink deep into our hearts? Can we stand firm in the face of those who continue to hide the light?
Can we commit to real change rather than surface platitudes? Can we dare to face our own shadow so that the collective shadow loses strength?