A few years ago, I had a pretty big a-ha moment when I realized that the concept of holding space (which I’ve spent the last seven years exploring in a deep way as I developed programs and wrote a book about it) is, at its core, about freedom and sovereignty. Here’s a quote from one of the last chapters of my book…
“If I treat you as someone entitled to your own sovereignty, it means that I assume you have the same right to self-govern your life as I. You get to tell me how you want to be treated and I can choose to accept those boundaries or walk away.
“Sovereignty is what we’ve been talking about throughout this discussion on holding space – that we offer love to each other without attachment, manipulation, control, or boundary-crossing. It’s the starting point to developing healthy, strong social contracts between us.”
It’s taken me a lot of hard learning to get to the place where I can embrace a concept like sovereignty. As I’ve written about in the past, I had to let go of a lot of social conditioning, work through some trauma and abuse, and rewrite some old narratives to even begin to believe I have a right to self-govern my life and choose what’s best for me and my body. Similarly, I had to learn how to treat other people as sovereign individuals, and that’s especially tricky when you’re a parent trying to respect your daughters’ boundaries but haven’t often had your own boundaries respected. I still slip up sometimes, and the old scripts still play in my head, especially when I’m tired, confused, or feel beaten up, but I feel clearer and clearer about what it means to own my sovereignty and be in relationships with people who are equally sovereign.
Lately, though, I’ve had some concerns about the ways in which sovereignty gets talked about, especially in the wellness/self-help industry. It’s becoming an increasingly common term among those who talk about things like personal empowerment, self-love, etc.
Here’s what concerns me… Some of what’s being said ignores the way in which sovereignty is a relational concept.
When you talk about sovereignty without also talking about community and the kinds of social contracts that allow people to be in relationships while still maintaining their sovereignty, then you’re probably actually talking about selfishness and willful ignorance of the impact of your choices. And when you’re talking about those things, then your version of sovereignty is rooted in colonization rather than equity.
A sovereign nation becomes a colonizing nation when it takes its sovereignty too far, ignores the sovereignty of others, and lives by its own set of rules. It bulldozes over other nations’ rights (especially weaker and/or more community-oriented nations), exploits whatever resources it wants, enslaves and marginalizes people of other nations, and ignores any treaties that might have been written.
An individual can take their sovereignty too far in much the same way, centering their own right to do what they want over anyone else’s rights.
Sadly, most of us have been socially conditioned by the colonization that’s steeped into our cultures. As a result, when we claim a word like sovereignty (as the self-empowerment influencers have done), the concept can still hold the shadow of the culture within it. What you end up with is self-empowered people who believe in their own rights to self-govern their own bodies and choose what’s best for them, but who don’t recognize that those choices might actually be harming other people.
Let’s say, for example, that your self-care practice involves paying people to care for your children and clean your house while you get a massage. You have a sovereign right to do all of those things (and I’m all for it). But… let’s imagine that the people doing these things for you are exploited labourers who aren’t being fully compensated for their work because they’re undocumented immigrants or they’re marginalized in a way that makes other work hard to find. Is that truly a sovereign self-care practice if it doesn’t uphold the sovereignty and rights of others?
Or let’s say that you believe you have the sovereign right not to wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic and you pass the virus on to the person working at the grocery store who passes it on to their immuno-compromised child or elderly parent who dies as a result. Is that truly a sovereign choice if it ignores the sovereignty and rights of that family?
Sovereignty has a shadow side and that shadow looks like colonization. If your sovereignty does not acknowledge and uphold the sovereignty of others, then it’s individualism, and an excuse to be self-centred in your choices.
The only way for sovereignty to work in the world is for it to be interwoven with community (which comes with morality, responsibility, and justice).
Sovereignty needs guardrails. To avoid the shadow side, we need to hold it in a relationship with community. Social contracts serve as the guardrails, holding the two in balance.
We can think about sovereignty and community as a yin and yang relationship – they function together, balancing each other out and holding each other accountable. Within each is a bit of the other. And in the space in between is a social contract that weaves the relationship together and keeps one from swallowing the other whole.
Community that’s left unchecked swallows individual rights and erases sovereignty. Sovereignty that’s left unchecked destroys community and leaves everyone isolated and paranoid of each other.
Social contracts (like treaties between countries) guide us in naming and honouring what our individual rights are, what boundaries we need in order to uphold each person’s sovereignty, what we’re willing to give up in service to the community, how we’ll share and/or distribute assets and resources, how we’ll address conflict, and how we’ll celebrate and cherish the bond between us. Not only do they guide the relationship and protect each person’s freedom within that relationship, they also offer the freedom to leave if the relationship no longer serves or if there is irreparable harm done. Clear and supportive social contracts make a relationship stronger, more resilient, more adaptable, and more supportive of the people in it.
When Krista and I entered into a business partnership, we went through a process called Conscious Contracts (with a lawyer trained in the process) and we developed a Peace Covenant that gives us guardrails for our relationship. This helps us hold both sovereignty and community as values at the core of our business. What Krista has often said throughout this process is “I don’t want to be in a relationship with anyone who feels trapped in that relationship or who clings to it too desperately.” We value the relationship, and we are both free to leave if/when that feels necessary.
There is also a process called Blueprints of We that is a form of social contract that could be helpful for all kinds of relationships (not just business partnerships). I encourage you to check it out for your marriage, your family, your community organization, your church, etc.
P.S.If you want to learn more about how to hold space for people’s sovereignty, while also leaning in to community, we welcome you to join us for the Holding Space Foundation Program. Registration just opened for the session that starts in October 2021.
In the long shadows of early morning, on a recent trip to the Netherlands, I stood at the edge of a pond watching the light and breeze play with the surface of the water. Near where I stood, tall, straight reeds were reflected on the rippling water. It occurred to me, as I stood there, that if I were only able to look at the reflections of those reeds and not see the reeds directly, then I would never know for certain what the reeds looked like. The reflections kept moving and wiggling and reshaping themselves on the ripples, never quite the same from one second to the next.
This, I believe, is what my relationship with the concept of holding space is like. Though I have been staring at it intently for several years, writing many posts and a great deal of course content, and traveling the world to teach it, I am still only looking at a reflection of it and trying to describe it from the place I stand, knowing that you may be on another shore looking at it from a different perspective.
The longer I stare at it, though, the more I learn about this beautiful reed and the more I find myself dancing along with the reflection, open to the flow of what comes with each breeze.
Here are some recent reflections about how to hold space, gathered after a few intense months of teaching, traveling, and holding space.
Stay curious. When judgement creeps in, it’s difficult to hold space for someone (or ourselves) because we’re inclined to want to change them, criticize them, or impose our own expectations on them. Judgement and curiosity don’t coexist well, though, so in order to shift out of judging mind, bring in curiosity. Ask curious questions and listen with openness for the answers. When the other person recognizes that there is curiosity and openness in our questions rather than judgement, they’ll be better able to trust that we have their best interests at heart.
Release attachment to outcome. I’ve said this phrase hundreds of times, at nearly every workshop, retreat, or online course I’ve ever taught, and yet it’s still one that I have to remind myself of on a daily basis. Clinging to a desired outcome – or even a believe that there WILL BE a positive outcome of some sort – is to bring in your own ego, your own desires, and your own expectations. To hold space is to open yourself up to the possibility that what comes (if anything DOES come) is outside of your control and may not be aligned with what you want. When you let go of outcome, you’ll be less inclined to label something as “failure” or “success” and simply accept it as what is. (Sure, there may be times when you’re working toward a specific outcome, but then you’re not really holding space.) As is taught in Open Space, “whatever happens is the only thing that could happen.”
Let go of “perfect” and embrace “good enough”. Holding space is not something we can ever do with precision and perfection, because we’re dealing with humans (ourselves included) who are flawed and fumbling and at some point we’re bound to trigger each other’s old wounds, annoy each other, or let each other down. Accepting that as part of the process rather than beating ourselves up over not knowing exactly what to offer the other person (or ourselves) allows us to lean into it with grace and love and a “heart at peace”. And when the fumble comes, as it inevitably will, forgiveness is the next stop on the journey.
Don’t assume you know what another person needs. When we hold space for others, we have to use discernment and our loving knowledge of the other person to try to do what’s right for them, but sometimes we miss the mark because we can’t fully know what that person needs at that moment. If the context is right, and the question is not too overwhelming for them to answer in the moment, we can ask what they need, but we can also do our best and then not take it personally when they say “that’s not what I need right now”. They might not, in fact, know exactly what they need and only realize it when they’re offered something they DON’T need. (For example, if I reach out to hug someone who’s in pain, they may suddenly know that they don’t want to be touched right now because touch re-triggers the wound they’re trying to heal.) To hold space for someone is to allow them the autonomy of discovering their needs and finding ways of having them met.
When your own reactivity is triggered, calm your nervous system first. Often, a failure to hold space for someone comes from a triggered reaction that results when the nervous system is flooded. If your fight, flight, freeze, or tend-and-befriend reactivity has been activated by a situation, you can’t hold space well until you calm yourself down. For example, if someone lashes out at you in anger when you believe you’re doing your best to be supportive, your first reaction will likely be to defend yourself with an equal amount of anger, or leave the situation as quickly as possible. (Or – as the “tend-and-befriend” reactivity might suggest – fix the situation so that they’re not angry anymore.) When you take a few deep breaths (or find other ways of calming yourself – tapping, for example), you can re-engage the internal systems that help you respond more calmly and you might realize the anger is coming out of that person’s grief or helplessness and is not a reflection of who you are and is not yours to fix.
When the impact is different from the intent, consider your responsibility for repair and course correction. Recently, at a workshop I was facilitating, I lead the group in an activity that I thought might respond to a need that had arisen, but the impact of the activity (for at least a few in the room) was the exact opposite of what I’d intended and I had to face their frustration. My triggered response was to sink into shame over my misjudgement and/or to lash out with a defence of my intentions, but that wouldn’t have served the group well and would have centred me rather than the people I was holding space for. Since I was the teacher and therefore had the most authority/power in the situation, I had to take responsibility for the impact, make repairs, and course correct. Once I did, we were able to regain damaged trust and move forward together.
Just because one person’s needs aren’t being met doesn’t mean nobody’s needs are being met. This applies, in particular, to when you’re holding space for groups. Sometimes I make the incorrect assumption that the voice that speaks the loudest is the voice that speaks for the whole group, but that is rarely the truth. (That person may influence people by speaking loudly, but other people’s dissatisfaction may be because they’re easily influenced by powerful people.) It’s nearly impossible to know what everyone needs unless you ask each person independently, so when you’re holding space for multiple people, know that you’re likely going to let some people down while other people will be satisfied. This is where point #3 (letting go of perfection) is important. Do the best you can and trust that the people you hold space for are sovereign individuals, capable of having their needs met without you needing to contort yourself to meet them.
Walk a balancing act between “I’m responsible for the impact of my actions” and “other people need to take responsibility for their responses”. I recognize, in writing this list, that #2 and #6 might sound contradictory and that it’s confusing to know when we should take responsibility for the impact and when we should let go and trust that each individual will take responsibility for their own reactions. I think we need to hold BOTH in our hearts and use discernment to determine when we need to make repairs, and when we simply let go and allow people to have their own experiences. This is humbling (and sometimes humiliating) work and we have to have enough integrity to repair damage even if it was unintentional, and enough fortitude to not take things personally when people don’t react well to our actions.
Remember that we are all sovereign beings making our own sovereign choices. No matter how well you hold space for someone, they’re still going to act and be the way that THEY choose. If, for example, you hold space for someone who’s been wrestling with their own demons, and afterwards they choose to do something that you think is self-destructive, you can’t beat yourself up over your failure to help them course-correct. To hold space is to recognize their right to make their own choices, even when those choices make no sense to you.
Don’t try to retain this list – instead, lean into your intuition and the wisdom in your body/heart/mind. If, the next time you hold space, you try to live up to this list (or any of the other teachings I’ve offered), you’re likely trying too hard to make this an academic exercise and it will fall flat. Choose authenticity over perfection. While reading this may be helpful to you, don’t cling to it too tightly – simply let it land on your heart and then, when the moment to hold space for someone comes, trust that you have enough wisdom for that moment. If you fail, forgive yourself (and come back for a re-read of this list, if that’s helpful) and try again the next time.
Those are my reflections for now, after staring for a long time into the rippling water. Though I thought, four years ago when I wrote the blog post that went viral, that I knew what holding space was and little more needed to be said, I’ve since discovered that there is so much more that was left to discover and I’ll keep staring at the reflection for as long as I can.
Soon, these reflections (and many more) will emerge in the form of a book that is near completion and about to undergo editing and publication. It’s humbling to write a book and to commit ideas to print when you’re fairly certain that those ideas will continue to evolve and change, but I’ve committed to a belief that it’s “good enough for now”. Stay tuned for publication date, and, in the meantime, consider signing up for the upcoming offering of the Holding Space Practitioner Program (formerly “Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program) that begins in October, with registration opening in July.
Up until a dozen years ago, I’d only encountered the word “sovereign” in reference to God and I assumed it had something to do with being all-powerful, all-knowing, in control, and holy. I later encountered it in relation to nations, but, because I’d been raised with a highly tuned blasphemy-detector, I wondered whether that meant those nations were trying to be as powerful as God and whether governments had become “false idols”.
A dozen years ago, I came across the word again when I worked in international development and my colleagues were talking about “food sovereignty”. That’s when I became curious about what I’d missed in my earlier understanding of the word.
There are three categories often used for food-related support: food aid, food security, and food sovereignty. If you give a man a fish (food aid), he’ll eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish (food security), he’ll have food for a lifetime. But what if you put a fence around the pond and only allow him to fish on certain days and he has to go hungry in between? Ensuring he has agency over his food choices and accessibility to the sources of that food is food sovereignty. (In the non-profit world, we supported food sovereignty by funding projects where people were advocating for their right to adequate food and agricultural resources.)
According to Wikipedia, sovereignty is “the full right and power of a governing body over itself, without any interference from outside sources or bodies”.With full sovereignty, the man can fish at the pond when/if he wants, make decisions about that pond, and choose whether or not to share the pond with his neighbours.
Largely, the term is associated with nations and their governments, but what if we bring that definition down to land in our own lives? How does it change your relationship with yourself and with others if you consider yourself to be sovereign and you consider those you’re in relationship with to also be sovereign?
To claim sovereignty means that I get to decide what happens to my body, heart, and mind. It means that I have agency and autonomy and am not controlled or manipulated by anyone. I get to make my own decisions and live with the consequences. I get to choose who I am in relationship with and how much space to give them in my life. I can choose to end relationships that cause me harm and walk away from situations and communities that don’t honour my sovereignty.
If I treat you as someone who has your own sovereignty, it means that I assume you have the same right to self-govern your life as I do. You get to tell me how you want to be treated and I can choose to accept those boundaries or walk away. It’s what I teach in my work around holding space – that we offer love to each other without attachment, manipulation, control, or boundary-crossing.
For me, and I suspect for many others, it feels quite foreign to think of myself as sovereign. I’ve got all kinds of old scripts running in my head telling me that it’s selfish to claim the “full right and power” of my own “governing body” without “any interference from outside sources or bodies”. Shouldn’t I be more agreeable than that? Should I be nicer? Shouldn’t I accommodate other people’s needs before my own? Shouldn’t I extend grace to those who interfere? Shouldn’t I overlook the boundary-crossers if they are offering me safety, protection, resources, or employment? Aren’t they entitled to certain rights if I need what they have to offer?
Recently, I had an opportunity to claim my sovereignty in a relationship with someone who hasn’t always respected it in the past. This person was going to be in my house and I was nervous about it because of past experiences when they would fix things without being asked to do so, judge my choices about how my house is arranged and maintained, etc. As the time approached for the visit, I realized that I could make a choice – say nothing and risk further violations, or claim my sovereignty and communicate what kind of behaviour I found unacceptable in my space. I chose the latter. With a simple text, I let the person know what the ground rules would be for the visit. If they wished to comply, they were welcome, but if they didn’t, they could choose not to come. (They chose to comply.)
In essence, what I did was establish a “treaty” with this person – claiming my sovereignty in the relationship and laying out the expectations for what was acceptable. “A treaty is an agreement under international law entered into by actors in international law, namely sovereign states and international organizations.” (Wikipedia) If we can bring the definition of sovereignty down to our own lives, perhaps we can also consider how that sovereignty is negotiated via treaty between sovereign individuals in a relationship?
The problem, as I see it, is that few of us have an embodied understanding of sovereignty because we have been socially conditioned by colonial systems. “Colonization is a process by which a central system of power dominates the surrounding land and its components.” (Wikipedia)
Colonizers are not respecters of treaties. They may create them, but they either use their power to manipulate what the treaties contain, or they bull-doze over them to take the resources they want.
In a colonial system, everyone is impacted. Both the colonizers and the colonized become shaped by the imbalance of power and the lack of respect for boundaries and sovereignty. Some learn to take what’s not theirs and others learn that their rights are easily violated and their resources easily taken. Most of us find ourselves somewhere at the intersections – having power in some relationships and no power in others.
In a colonial system, nobody walks away unscathed. Nobody ends up with a well-balanced understanding of what it means to hold sovereignty as a core value in a relationship.
As a result, we have a lot of people the world over who’ve grown up with a warped sense of how to be in relationships with each other, both on a small scale and a large scale, both in one-on-one relationships and in country-to-country or community-to-community relationships. We cross boundaries, we downplay our own rights to boundaries, we fail to communicate our expectations of how we want to be treated, we emotionally colonize, we manipulate, we are victimized, and we run away from conflict because we haven’t been adequately prepared for it. We wound each other and we suffer from the wounds inflicted on us.
Consequently, we face the kind of actions being challenged by the #metoo movement, Idle No More, and Black Lives Matter. And we face the resulting backlash. When colonized people rise up to claim their sovereignty, it makes those in power nervous.
How do we change this? How do we decolonize ourselves and reclaim and honour sovereignty in our relationships and communities?
Well, it is both a small-scale and a large scale problem (and every scale in between), so there is no one-size-fits all solution. We have to do the hard work of claiming our own sovereignty (and that needs to be accompanied with a lot of self-care and community care) and we have to do the hard work of dismantling our imbalanced systems of power. We have to practice negotiating and communicating better treaties/agreements in our personal relationships and we have to address the ways in which the colonizers in our countries have ignored and/or failed to negotiate or ratify treaties with other sovereign nations or people groups. We have to learn how to enter into conflict in more generative ways that help all parties emerge with their sovereignty intact. We have to practice having harder conversations and not running away whenever we feel attacked for violating another person’s sovereignty. We have to learn how to communicate expectations and boundaries and not be offended when other people communicate theirs. And we have to evolve the way we raise our children so that they will grow up with a better sense of their own sovereignty.
I’ve begun the slow (and sometimes painful) work of decolonizing my relationships and I know that I still have a long way to go. Sometimes I feel the way I did when I first started dancing (after being raised in a no-dancing-allowed Mennonite home) – like I’m stumbling across the room stomping on people’s toes while I try to find a rhythm that fits with the person I’m dancing with. Just like dancing isn’t a natural act for someone raised with Mennonite roots, claiming sovereignty doesn’t feel like a natural act for someone raised with colonial roots.
But when we learn to dance together well – like a highly-skilled pair of tango dancers – we learn to respect each other’s space, honour each other’s bodies, and not get in the way of each other’s brilliance. We find intimacy not by violating each other’s space, but by spending many hours in practice, learning to negotiate the space between us. We might step on each other’s toes now and then, but we commit to staying on the dance floor and trying again. When one person violates the agreements we’ve made, they take responsibility and we figure out how to move on.
The better we become at dancing together, the closer we are to being truly free.