My friend Saleha laughs at me and shakes her head in puzzlement when I bundle up in -30° C weather and go for my daily walks. “It’s not weather that’s fit for humans,” she says, and she’s mostly right. This is the kind of weather that could kill me if I weren’t dressed for it or if I stood in one place for too long.
I do it anyway, because my walks help to keep me grounded and, as I said last week, they help me soothe some of the emotional overload that’s so often present these days. A few days ago, I snapped a picture of myself to send to Saleha just before heading out the door. She sent back a TikTok video and emoji poking fun at me.
I have the right clothes for winter walking – a down-filled parka and down-filled mittens, a pair of good ski pants, warm and sturdy boots, and a woolen hat and scarf. It can be surprisingly pleasant (unless there’s a lot of wind) and I usually come home sweaty and happy.
I was looking at the selfie I’d snapped for Saleha when it suddenly occurred to me what a good metaphor this is for how our bodies protect us when they sense danger in the environment. My layers of clothing protect me against the cold the way my nervous system protects me against the threat of harm. Like putting a coat on, my nervous system becomes activated (i.e. fight/flight/freeze/fawn) so that I can survive the threat and come home alive.
I love my parka for how well it takes care of me when it’s cold. I also love my nervous system for how well it takes care of me when there’s a threat. They both do their jobs beautifully. I am happy, though, when neither of those things need to do their jobs.
Imagine if I somehow convinced myself that I still need to wear those layers of clothing when I go to the beach in the summer and it’s +30° C outside in the blazing sun. You’d not only look at me funny, but you’d worry that I’d die of heat stroke from being overprotected.
That’s what happens when stress or trauma gets stuck in your body. Your normally well-functioning nervous system becomes convinced there is a threat when there is no real threat. It’s just trying to do its job, but it’s become conditioned to misinterpret the situation and can inadvertently cause harm.
Everyone’s over-reactive nervous system looks a little different (and can also be situation-dependent), so we don’t always recognize it in each other. (It’s not as simple to discern as a parka on the beach.) While one person might tend toward dissociation (freeze), someone else might have an easily triggered temper (fight), or they might run from the room as quickly as possible (flight). Others might become overly solicitous to the source of the perceived threat (fawn), or they might look after everyone else in the room and try to mitigate the threat while abandoning their own need for safety (tend-and-befriend).
Right now, with this pandemic entering its third year, it feels like almost all of us have been walking around with our parkas on for two years, trying to protect ourselves from harm even when the harm is invisible and sometimes non-existent. Not only is the virus a threat, but, for many of us, there are relationship landmines to protect ourselves from, especially in families or communities where people have different opinions about vaccines, etc. Add to that the racial injustices and political unrest that seem to be escalating and it’s just… TOO MUCH.
When do we get to take our parkas off? When can we trust that the environment is safe enough to lean into? For many of us, that might take quite some time because our bodies have become so primed for danger. (Here in Canada, when Spring finally arrives, we often still take our parkas along on long road trips because we never know when the weather might take a turn for the worse.)
I am looking forward to Spring! In more ways than one!
This past weekend, in need of some intentional self-care, I went to the float spa. In a way, the float spa experience is the opposite of the walking-outside-in-winter experience. To get the full experience, you have to strip naked, surrender to the salt water, close the pod to block out light and sound, and float. No effort required. For an hour, you simply lay there and try to rest your mind and body in a womb-like space.
According to the website of the spa I visit, “Without the constant noise of analyzing the world around you, your body lowers its levels of cortisol, the main chemical component of stress. Your brain releases elevated levels of dopamine and endorphins. Not having to fight gravity lets your muscles, joints, and bones take a well-deserved break. Your body suddenly has loads of extra resources, which it gets to focus on things like healing and resting.”
A float spa experience is one of trust and good boundaries. It wouldn’t feel safe if the pod were situated in an area exposed to the public, but with the door to the private room locked, I am able to trust that no harm will come to my body. There are times, though, when I just can’t get to that level of trust. I’ve tried the float spa a couple of times when I’ve been in periods of high stress and burnout and I simply wasn’t able to quiet my over-active brain enough to enjoy the experience. Fortunately, this most recent visit was not one of those times.
This post is not meant to be an endorsement for float spas (they’re certainly not for everyone, and there are less expensive ways to get access to a soothing experience), but rather it’s meant to offer the comparison and to suggest that we all need to find and create spaces where enough of the conditions for safety are met so that our over-active nervous systems can rest. We all need to be able to take off our parkas sometimes, or we’re going to pass out from heat exhaustion on the beach.
One of the other things I do (that’s like a float-spa for my brain) is to stay off social media on the weekends because I know that social media often floods me with too much cortisol. I’ve also limited my activity on social media and limited the amount I express my opinion on hot-button issues so that I don’t get sucked into as many of the cortisol-inducing debates that usually end up leading nowhere (and are engineered by social media to keep us hooked). (That’s been especially challenging recently with our country so divided over the “freedom convoy”.)
I don’t want to “die on the beach”, so I need to regularly take off my metaphorical parka and climb naked into the pod. In other words, I had to make an intentional move away from warrior stance into tenderness.
It’s not that I intend to stay silent on issues of injustice, but if I want to function well enough to do the work that I love, I need better boundaries and more of what makes me feel nurtured and protected. Instead of being a warrior for social justice on social media (where I’m often convinced it makes little difference), I will do my best to continue to bring love, liberation and justice into the spaces I hold. I will protect those spaces with fierce boundaries and help people find what they need so that they can contribute to a world of more love, liberation and justice.
A few people have asked me, lately, why I’ve seemingly turned from my focus on holding space toward tenderness as a theme, and my answer is that those two things are inextricably intertwined. You simply CAN’T hold space without tenderness. And if you never offer tenderness to yourself, then you’ll be much more inclined to hijack space rather than to hold it.
That’s why I wrote the free e-book, The House That Tenderness Built, and why I’m hosting the workshop, Living in the House that Tenderness Built this weekend. I’m doing it because I want to give people their own version of a float spa, where they can take off your metaphorical parkas, let the sun shine on your faces, and let their bodies, minds and hearts rest.
I can’t fix any of the problems people face and I can’t protect them from injustice or a deadly virus, but I can help them find ways to treat themselves when the problems threaten to overwhelm them.
There is far too much evidence of the lack of tenderness in our world these days, and so it’s my mission to help people find it and bring it back. I want it for you and I want it for me. Let’s be tender together. It’s the only way we’ll find the resources we’ll need to step back into the less-than-tender world.
Sometimes emotions get so mixed up and confused, don’t they? And when they get that way, and we get overwhelmed by them, we lose sight of the ways in which they take control of our behaviour and choices.
Saturday was my last day with my youngest daughter, Maddy, before she returned to Vancouver for university. That’s where my emotional roller coaster started this past weekend – with some anticipatory grief and loneliness, mixed in with a little old-fashioned mama-worrying. As I’ve shared before, this particular daughter has been on a complicated health journey the last two years, and it’s taken an emotional toll on our whole family. Having her live far away from me now adds to that complexity.
On Saturday afternoon, Maddy and I went for a “podcast drive”. This has been one of our bonding past-times in recent years, especially during the pandemic when we’ve had few other options. We choose a podcast (usually either a long-form investigative journalism series about an intriguing murder or other crime, or something about cults or cultish leaders) and then head out for a long drive (usually with some tasty beverages). This time we drove to Birds Hill Park and reminisced about the many years we’ve attended the Winnipeg Folk Festival there and lamented the loss of it in the last two years.
On the way home, we drove through downtown Winnipeg and came across the local rally in support of the “Freedom Convoy” that’s recently made its way across Canada to Ottawa (to protest pandemic-related mandates). There were, admittedly, far more vehicles than we expected to see, and that filled us both with some frustration and despair.
I won’t go into all of the reasons why the Freedom Convoy troubles me (because that’s not what this post is about), except that I will mention a very personal one that felt like a heavy weight in the car for both my daughter and for me. She has lived through this pandemic with a disability and an autoimmune disorder that has made her particularly at risk, and our family has lived for nearly two years with uncertainty over whether her body could survive the virus. For us to witness so many people who want to overthrow mandates that may have helped keep her (and others like her) alive for two years, plus keep the healthcare system functioning well enough that she could have access to the many surgeries she’s needed, feels personal.
(When she finally did catch COVID last month, along with her sisters and me, she had, thankfully, already had three doses of the vaccine and – possibly since it was Omicron – her symptoms were not severe. Plus her trachea was more open than it’s been for much of the last two years – because the hospitals didn’t shut down and deny her access to those ten surgeries – so she was able to breathe relatively well.)
There’s a little more to add about what she was feeling at that moment… At the end of the convoy, Maddy (who’s been a climate activist for several years, partly as a way to cope with the climate anxiety so many youth are experiencing) said, with despondence in her voice, “If so many people distrust science, we’re never going to address climate change. We’re fucked.” On multiple levels, she was feeling abandoned and let down by the generations before her.
Not long after that, we got a text message from my other daughter, who works at a liquor store. She was in tears from the many belligerent customers at the store who, emboldened by the protests, refused to wear masks properly and were taking out their frustrations (and likely releasing some of the adrenaline from participating in the protest) on low-paid retail staff.
(Note: I know that there will be readers of this who may want to respond with other opinions about the convoy, and you have a right to your opinion, but I urge you simply to do your best to hold space for the story of what my daughters and I were feeling at the moment. If you care to stick with me, read to the end of this without rushing to defend your position.)
When we arrived home from our drive, Maddy disappeared into her room for a nap and I… well… at first I simply wandered around the house feeling lost and in despair and unsure of what to do with myself. My emotions felt all jumbled up and confused and there didn’t seem to be any clear way through them, nor was there any clear action that might help alleviate them. I considered going on social media, partly to distract and numb myself, and partly to feed my righteousness with the opinions of like-minded people, but I made a commitment near the beginning of the pandemic to give myself an intentional break from the siren call of social media on the weekends, and I knew that this wasn’t the right time to break that commitment.
I knew that social media would likely add to the messiness and dysregulation of my emotional state. Or it might over-simplify the emotions by making me believe only one emotion was relevant. Or it might numb the most overt emotions so that I’d miss the gifts of the more quiet ones. Or it might tempt me into reactive activism and then I’d get dragged into one of the many pointless debates that social media engenders that would only serve to activate my already-taxed nervous system.
Nope – social media would not serve any valuable purpose in that moment, so I stayed away from it. Instead, I bundled up (it’s been a cold winter around here) and headed out for a walk. Walking has long been a critical part of my self-care, and it’s been especially critical during the many months of this pandemic.
There’s something about putting one foot in front of another again and again, especially in natural spaces, that helps me work my way through many emotional states that threaten to overwhelm me. It’s a soothing repetitive action that draws me into a mindful state and out of nervous system activation. It slows me down, regulates my breath, and refocuses me so that I am able to witness and experience the emotions more individually and less as a jumbled mess. As I pass through each emotional state, the walking also helps me to release the emotion instead of getting attached to it.
Recently (on an audiobook that I thoroughly enjoyed), I heard Nick Offerman talk about how each step is actually a process of temporarily falling and then catching yourself just before you fall. Plant your foot, lift your other foot, fall forward, plant, lift, fall, plant. That temporary falling between steps, it occurred to me, is a form of liminal space – where we are in the in-between place of what used to feel sturdy and secure and what we hope will feel sturdy and secure in the future. In the in-between place, we have to trust the process and lean into the falling.
At the beginning of my walk, I was feeling unfocused and my mind raced from thought to thought, trying to make sense of the mixed-up emotions going on. It’s the mind’s job to try to make meaning out of emotions, and it stubbornly tries to do that on its own, forgetting that the body might actually be of support in the endeavour. Thankfully, though, I know enough not to leave the sense-making and regulation entirely up to my mind, so I just kept putting one foot in front of another, heading toward where I knew nature could also do its part.
A few blocks from my house, I stopped short. Right in front of me, lifting its head from the snow where it had been rooting around for food, was a deer. I’d been so distracted that I’d almost missed it. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a special connection with deer and, to borrow a sentiment from The Colour Purple, I think it “pisses God off if you walk by a deer in a field somewhere and you don’t notice it.” Even though I see deer on almost every walk, I still always pause to notice.
This deer sighting, and the awareness of the distraction that almost made me miss it, was exactly what I needed to bring me up short and remind me to be more fully present. I stood there and the deer and I stared at each other for several moments. Winter deer are particularly fluffy and this one had just had its nose in the snow, so it had a white snout that made me smile.
As I stood there, grief rose to the top of the emotion heap, found its way through the swirling clutter of my mind, and landed in my eyes. I stood there crying on the road and the deer watched me and I let it hold space for me in its unique deer-way.
Once the deer had turned and disappeared behind a house, I carried on. That’s when the other emotions started to line up behind grief and I tried to be mindful as each one came up, witnessing them and letting them pass. There was multi-layered grief, over my daughter leaving and over damaged relationships from the divisions this pandemic has fostered. There was helplessness, because I can do so little to protect any of my daughters or to change policies that might protect their future. There was anxiety over my daughter’s health, and over the state of the world in general. There was anticipatory loneliness, because my daughters are moving away and I am increasingly alone. There was frustration over this endless pandemic. There was sadness over our country’s lack of willingness and/or ability to support vulnerable people during a pandemic (and all of us in the face of climate change).
I walked and walked and, as I did, I breathed through each of my emotions. Drawing on my tenderness practice, I held space for all that I needed to feel and release. I didn’t judge the emotions or try to stifle them. I just walked and breathed. Plant, lift, fall, plant, lift, fall. Breathe, step, feel, breathe, step, feel.
By the end of the walk, my heart was, once again, at peace and my emotions were much more regulated. Though nothing had changed in my circumstances, everything had changed in my heart, mind and body. I had regained enough equilibrium to hold what I needed to hold, including the next morning when it was time to say good-bye to my daughter.
In his work on Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg talks about how important it is in a conflict to name (and allow others to name) what we’re feeling and what we need. There’s a step (or two) before the naming, though, and that involves developing the skills and personal practices that help us get in touch with what we’re feeling. Unless I have developed some emotional intelligence and have some practices (like walking, breathwork, mindfulness, creative practice, meaningful conversations, journal practice, etc.) to help me hold space for my emotions, I won’t be able to tell you what I’m feeling, especially when there’s stress and anxiety flooding my nervous system.
We are nearly two years into a pandemic, and even those with high emotional intelligence are getting taxed in our ability to stay mindful and present and maintain (and/or return to) some sense of emotional regulation. Sadly, many of us have had no training or modeling in what it takes to hold space for our own emotions, so we often end up projecting those emotions onto other people and making decisions from our amygdalas (i.e. fight/flight/freeze/fawn) rather than settling ourselves enough to access our prefrontal cortexes so that we can make more thoughtful decisions.
When we are functioning largely in high activation and stress, especially for a prolonged period of time, we are also much more inclined toward confirmation bias and self-righteousness. We find evidence that will help support and strengthen our opinions and activation and we surround ourselves with people who help justify and affirm our positions. (For a helpful book on this, read Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).) We also more easily find ourselves on the victim triangle, looking for people to blame for our victimhood (and/or people to rescue us) instead of accepting that nobody is to blame and there are simply some circumstances that are beyond anyone’s control.
Then social media adds fuel to that fire. Not accidentally, social media feeds the activation and victimhood and gathers similarly activated people around us because that keeps us hooked on our screens longer. We get sucked in, and the cycle continues.
Sadly, an emotionally dysregulated person, fed by other emotionally dysregulated people, is not going to be able to process rational information that doesn’t prop up their belief system no matter how convincing that information is.
I know it’s hard right now, when we’re all exhausted and activated and there are too many people pushing our buttons, but if we want to get off this roller coaster and not get trapped in the powder kegs of conflict swirling around us all the time, we need to find our equilibrium and help others find theirs. That means finding practices that help us hold space for our emotions and then learning to regulate those emotions. It also means taking a break from social media and not giving in to the temptation to express (and/or validate) every opinion that feels really important in those activated moments. And it probably means setting boundaries and limiting how much we hear the voices and opinions that most contribute to the dysregulation of our nervous systems.
I’m not talking about sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring what’s going on – I’m talking about learning how to be with ourselves first so that we have greater capacity to be with others and engage in the kinds of meaningful conversations that might actually help to move the markers. Otherwise we’re just screaming into the void.
Tenderness and fierceness. They seem to be opposites, and yet, surprisingly, they often go hand-in-hand. I first learned that lesson years ago, growing up on the farm, whenever a new mom – a cow, pig, sheep, chicken or goose – would suddenly become aggressive in their efforts to protect their young. One moment they’d be charging at any intruders and the next moment they’d be tenderly caring for their newborn. Their fierceness created a safe space for their tenderness.
I’ve been writing about (and experimenting with) tenderness lately (watch for a new e-book and day retreat early in the new year), and I’m being reminded, once again, that in order to be tender, we must also be fierce; in order to be soft, we must also be strong; and in order to be vulnerable, we must also have boundaries.
As the mother goose teaches, fierceness serves as a guardian for tenderness, boundaries create a safe container for vulnerability.
In recent years, I have become both softer and stronger than I ever was before. Age, maturity, self-love, and a healthy dose of therapy have brought with them increased clarity about what I want and need, where my boundaries need to be, what triggers me, what wounds are still tender and need protection, what I value, what I will or will not put up with, and where and when I need to be fierce. I am more intentional about guarding my energy, more protective of and tender with myself when I feel deep emotions, less tolerant of abusive behaviour, and more willing to say no to what doesn’t feel good and/or align with my values.
Surprisingly, this pandemic period, with its social isolation and slower pace, has increased that clarity even further. Many hours of solitude (especially as my daughters move out) have helped me become more discerning about what I want and need in my life. It turns out, for example, that I really enjoy my own company and I’m not very willing to give up my solitude unless the alternative enriches my life in some way. It’s not that I don’t like other people’s company – I do, but I’m trusting myself more to choose those relationships and opportunities that honour my tenderness and to say a firm (and sometimes fierce) no to those that don’t.
Like a mother goose hissing at intruders while she tucks her goslings under her wings, I am using my strength to protect my tenderness. I am learning to be my own mother.
Because healing and growth are never linear and the healing of a wound sometimes reveals something deeper that needs attention, I’ve discovered that there’s an interesting side-effect of this increased clarity and self-love. The more I learn to clarify my wants, needs, and boundaries, and the more tender and fierce I become, the more it brings out the voices (mostly internal but sometimes external) that want to convince me that I’m becoming “high maintenance, selfish, self-absorbed, demanding, needy, full of myself, hard to please, overly emotional, picky, difficult, and/or overly particular”.
I have a LOT of scripts in my head about why this isn’t the kind of person I should become. There is a lot of disdain in my family of origin and my culture about people who demand too much and focus too much on their own needs (especially if those people are women). I spent many years of my life believing that the best kind of person was the one who accepted their circumstances without complaint, didn’t raise a fuss when other people were unkind to them, didn’t ask for much, didn’t waste time in self-pity, wasn’t overly emotional, and was self-sacrificial in service to other people. In short, the ideal was always to be nice, calm and agreeable. It wasn’t acceptable to be either too tender or too fierce.
As a result of those internalized standards of goodness, I put up with abuse for far longer than I should have, I spent far too much time trying to keep other people happy, and I tried to prove how tough I was by stuffing down a lot of emotions and needs. Because I didn’t think I was allowed to make a fuss, my boundaries were crossed again and again and I tolerated it because I thought that’s what it meant to be a good person. In essence, I abandoned myself in service to other people.
It’s hard to change those scripts when they’re so deeply engrained in one’s psyche. In my case, and maybe in yours, they’re particularly related to gender and religion, but they’re also present in the broader culture. Think about all of the times we’ve joked about celebrities who expect special things in their backstage dressing rooms (like a bowl full of M&Ms with all the brown ones removed), or about those who get mad when media cameras invade their privacy. Every time we hear jokes like that, we internalize the message that to ask for too much or to ask people to respect our boundaries is to become self-absorbed and a “diva”.
But who are those scripts about what it means to be nice, agreeable, and calm really in service to? They are not in service to me or to you. They are not in service to my children, the people I work with or the people who benefit from my work. They are not in service to anyone I love and am in community with.
Those scripts are ONLY in service to those who have something to gain from our silence, our compliance, and our willingness to put up with abuse. They are in service to those who want to maintain power over us, who benefit from our disempowerment and who make money off our lack of self-worth. They are in service to oppressors, abusers and manipulators.
To be of service to our children, our beloveds, our community members and ourselves, we are much better off when we know ourselves well, when we have clear boundaries, when we refuse to put up with abuse, when we commit to our own healing, and when we learn to articulate our needs and desires. To be of service, we need full access to both our fierceness and our tenderness.
Despite the voices that want me to believe I am becoming high maintenance, I have found that this increased clarity about myself gives me increased clarity about my work, helps me be a better mother to my daughters, protects my energy for the things (and people) that are important to me, and makes me stronger and more well-resourced. My increased fierceness and my increased tenderness benefit both me AND my community.
To be in strong, healthy, and loving relationships is NOT to abandon yourself for other people. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve learned a surprising thing from raising daughters into adulthood: If I abandon myself, I am less trustworthy to other people. If I abandon myself, they can’t be certain I won’t abandon them. Those who witness me allowing abuse to happen to myself will have reason to believe that I will allow abuse to happen to them too. (I know this because I have been in some hard healing conversations about this very thing.)
My people need me to be both fierce and tender on THEIR behalf and on MY behalf. They need to know that I’ll show up like the mother goose who won’t let harm come to herself or her little goslings.
Ultimately, those relationships with strong social contracts, rooted in deep respect and care for each other’s needs, boundaries, and wounds are much more beneficial for all involved than those relationships where people abandon themselves for each other. I don’t call that “high maintenance” – I call it “holding space”. It’s a practice that is both fierce and tender.
Want to deepen your practice of holding space for yourself, so that you can be both tender and fierce? Join us for the self-study program 52 Weeks of Holding Space.