At the smallest level, you are the individual at the centre (with your own system existing within your body). Then you are part of a number of microsystems (your family, school, peer groups, local church, etc.). Next is the mesosystem (which weaves together the relations between microsystems and exosystem – for example, the relations between your family members and their coworkers). Then the exosystem (your neighbours, friends of family, mass media, government agencies, social welfare systems, social media, etc.). Then the macrosystem (attitudes and ideologies of the culture, ethnicity, geographic location, socioeconomic status, etc.). Finally, the chronosystem holds all of the experiences of a lifetime (environmental events, major life transitions, and historical events).
Let’s expand the analysis of the person who’s a member of a local church. Not only is it insufficient to examine that person separate from the church that they’re a part of, it is also insufficient to examine that church separate from the broader systems that it is part of. That local church is likely part of a denomination that shapes the traditions, historical relevance, ideologies, beliefs, and biases of that church. That denomination may have multiple levels of influence, from the localized grouping of churches, up to the global governance structure. It is also embedded within a religion that informs, among other things, what version of God is worshipped and how members of that religion interact with people of other religions. And then there is the neighbourhood, city, country, and region of the world that the local church is located in – all of these things also have influence, meaning that a local church in one country won’t look the same as a local church in another country even if they’re in the same denomination.
At an even broader scale, that local church (and, by extension, each member of the church), is being influenced by what’s at the macrosystems level. This is where things like colonization, patriarchy, white supremacy, classism, racism, and capitalism come into play. A church rooted in the patriarchy, for example, will likely still be led by a man, and where white supremacy is an issue, that man will likely be white. And, here in North America in particular, no church is completely free of the colonization that built our countries.
ALL of these systems are at play in that one individual who is a member of that one local church, and so that person cannot be fully witnessed without recognizing what’s at play. Even when that person leaves that church, the systems will still be at play, especially if the person is unconscious of the way that they’ve been influenced while part of that church. (Also at play will be all of the other systems that individual is part of – family systems, community systems, work systems, etc.)
Systems usually evolve as a way to organize us. A system without some form of organization won’t be able to sustain itself or serve the purpose it’s meant for, and so, if we value a system and find meaning in it, we organize it. Imagine, for example, a school that has no sense of order – nobody is responsible for doing the teaching or clean up and students are allowed to do whatever they please. That’s not education, it’s anarchy. (Some would suggest that it would eventually become a self-organizing system, if the desire for education is great enough.)
The problem is that what organizes us often begins to control us. When we become too rigid to allow a system to evolve, when we put the value of the system above the value of the individuals in that system, and when we embed a measurement of worthiness into a system (what Isabel Wilkerson refers to as Caste), then that system is no longer just organizing us, it’s controlling and measuring us. That’s when we end up with the dominance and oppression of systems like colonization.
Then, when a system begins to control people using dominance and oppression, that system begins to cause trauma in its people. A system that causes trauma becomes a system full of traumatized people and (because what happens at the micro level is also what happens at the macro level) it is therefore a traumatized system. Once you have a traumatized system, it becomes particularly destructive and particularly difficult to change. That’s when you see the levels of brokenness that have been showing up in the world – like climate change, and what’s currently happening in the Ukraine.
A traumatized system (just like a traumatized individual) needs people that can hold space for it while it heals. But the challenge is that EVERYBODY in that system has become traumatized and so it’s difficult to step outside of the system enough to help it with its healing. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of trauma.
I am not without hope, though. I have personally witnessed many people, in recent years, who are waking up to this trauma enough so that they can heal it in themselves, and then move themselves far enough outside of the traumatized system so that they can offer healing back to that system and the people in it. These people are learning to work with each other, with the natural world, and with whatever form of spirituality might support them, so that they can work to heal a broken world.
In the Berkana Institute’s Two Loops Model (below), we’re given a hint about what happens when people begin to move away from a traumatized system. The upper loop represents the dominant system, which was once vibrant and alive and served a purpose (the top of the loop). At some point, though, a system’s purpose is fulfilled, and then it needs to complete its cycle so that it can die and make space for a new system. Lots of people resist that system’s death, because it keeps them safe, but some people recognize that the system needs to die and they step away from that system. If those people were traumatized by the dominant system, they must do healing work or they will continue to perpetuate the same trauma that was embedded in the system. As they heal, their imagination becomes reawakened and they become innovators who begin to imagine the birth of something that can replace the dying system. That’s what the bottom loop is for – it represents the evolution of the new system.
In addition to the innovators, there is also a role for hospice workers – those who are willing to support the hospice work of the dying system. Once the old system has been released, the hospice workers join the innovators.
That’s why I’ve created my new course, Know Yourself, Free Yourself. I want to support those people who are waking up – those who are doing their healing so that they can become hospice workers or innovators (or both). I want to help them see the systems more clearly. I want to walk alongside them as they examine their lineage, trauma, beliefs, biases, and relationship patterns. I want to help them imagine themselves as whole people, apart from the systems that measure and control them. I want us to imagine collective liberation and generative love. I want us to know community, connection, and joy. I want us to set our imaginations free so that we can dream our way into new ways of being.
I hope that you will join me in this. It feels really, really important, and perhaps even urgent. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve created three levels for the registration fee – because we want this program to welcome into the circle people from around the world and from across the socioeconomic spectrum.
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.
Recently I wrote a post about worshipping our wounds. In it, I talked about how sometimes we cling to our wounds too long because they become part of our identity or healing them might feel threatening to those who don’t want us to change.
I’ve been thinking about that post since, and I think it might need a few additional words to give it balance.
As much as I think it can be unhealthy to worship our wounds, I also don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that we should rush to heal our wounds, that we should pretend we don’t have wounds, or that we should feel ashamed for having those wounds.
It takes time to heal trauma. And even before the healing begins, it takes time to admit to ourselves that we have trauma and that we need healing. When I think about my divorce, for example, I have to admit that it took me a surprisingly long time to admit to myself the extent of the trauma from my marriage, and then it took even longer to speak about it to others. I’ve always prided myself in being resilient, strong and reliable, and those things felt especially important to me when I needed to be emotionally stable for my daughters and my clients. I was afraid that revealing my woundedness would mean that I was weak and people couldn’t depend on me.
Six years after the marriage ended, I’m still in therapy working to heal not only the wounds from my marriage, but also the wounds that I took into the marriage as a result of my rape as a twenty-two year old.
You have permission to take the time you need to do your healing work. You have permission to take longer than anyone else around you. It doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong if it takes longer than you expect. It just means you’re human.
One of the dangers of not acknowledging the time it takes to heal deep wounds is that we can be tempted to slip into spiritual bypassing, where we grasp onto any spiritual practice or healing methodology that offers us a quick fix but that only masks what’s really going on or tries to “transcend” it instead of going deep enough to heal the roots of the pain. And one of the risks of spiritual bypassing is that it often excuses the perpetrator of the harm that was done to us and doesn’t allow us to feel anger or to seek justice for the wrong as part of our efforts to heal.
Healing is a journey, with lots of detours and rest stops along the way. It’s like a labyrinth that takes you through all kinds of twists and turns that sometimes feel like they’re getting you closer to the centre and sometimes take you further toward the edge. It takes the time it takes. You’re not doing it wrong if you stay on the path, rest when you need to rest, and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
You’ll get to the centre eventually if you stay on the path.
As long as you don’t intentionally get stuck and start clinging to your wounds, worshipping them, or allowing them to define who you are, you’re on the right journey.
p.s. If you’re on a healing journey and want to learn more about holding space for yourself and others, you might want to check out The Spiral Path, a self-study program that takes you through the three stages of a labyrinth journey. Or check out our Holding Space Foundation Program.
I was driving home this morning (bringing home donuts, if you really must know), when a half-ton truck pulled up within inches of my rear bumper, impatient to pass me and trying to find an opening in the next lane to speed by me. I was going the speed limit, but as soon as I saw the truck in my rearview mirror, I second-guessed myself and wondered if I might be doing something wrong to cause his agitation. The light turned yellow in the intersection ahead of me, and I instinctively slowed down, but then my body went into panic mode and I considered rushing through the yellow light just to let Mr. Big Man in the truck get past. The law-following voice in my head battled with the keep-yourself-safe voice in my head, but I did the right thing and stopped. Behind me, I could see Mr. Big Man’s arm flailing in exasperation.
We were both in the right-turn lane. I could see that there was a no-right-turn-on-red sign, so I stayed stopped. But the keep-yourself-safe voice started clambering at me that perhaps Mr. Big Man couldn’t see the sign because my car blocked it from his view. What if he was still convinced I was making stupid driving decisions? Should I move so that he could see it better? Should I turn anyway, since there was no oncoming traffic and it wasn’t much risk? I could feel my nervous system kicking into high gear as my ears began to buzz, my throat tightened, and my brain became consumed with one thing – stay safe and do whatever needs to be done to minimize the threat. Make bad decisions if you have to but KEEP MR. BIG MAN HAPPY! Even after the light turned green and I pulled far enough ahead that he could race past me, I still felt myself in high anxiety over the fact that I had caused him distress. I would sooner find fault with MYSELF and MY actions, in the middle of that kind of crisis when my amygdala has been hijacked and I don’t have much capacity for rational thought, than blame him for impatient driving.
That last part is what always surprises me after my nervous system has recovered from an incident like that. That’s why it took me a long time to see myself in the trauma literature that talks primarily about a fight/flight/freeze response. Sure, I wanted to flee in that moment of distress, but this feels different from just fleeing. In order to calm myself down, my first reaction is to calm the abuser (or source of threat) down. And calming that person down often means completely shutting down my own needs, rights and opinions, to the point of assuming I must be at fault and am insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
When I found the research that identified a fourth trauma response (tend-and-befriend), I finally felt seen and could finally begin to name my reactivity as trauma-related and not just something that made me weak. (I could also learn to soothe myself, and to experience my heightened reactivity with more mindfulness and less self-judgment.) Tend-and-befriend is most often seen in women, according to the research. It’s the instinct that causes us to gather the vulnerable around us and to befriend those who will help us survive the threat. The “befriend” part can be a really healthy community-support piece (i.e. gathering other family members to help us protect our children), but the dark side of it is that we also tend to befriend the perpetrator of the threat in order to mitigate the harm. (Some also talk about a “fawn” reaction, but I like the added element of “tend-and-befriend”.)
Sometimes, when that threat continues because you are in a relationship with the person causing the harm, you find yourself in a trauma bond that is very hard to break away from. In a trauma bond, a person develops an attachment system with the person causing harm because that person is also a source of security (i.e. abusers convince victims that they are protecting them from even greater harm, and then gaslight them into believing they’re over-reacting to the harm and can’t survive on their own). Their nervous system is always on high alert because they never know where the threat is coming from or where/when they will be safe, and they lose capacity for rational thought. They cling to the abuser because the world outside of that relationship seems even more terrifying and unpredictable.
There’s another thing that is going on in the mind of someone who has an attachment bond to an abusive person and it has to do with cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort that you feel when you try to hold two opposing views at the same time (especially when one of those views is tied to your identity). When, for example, you have to hold both the belief that “I am a good person and I make smart decisions” with “I’m choosing to stay in a relationship with an abuser”, the contradiction causes a great deal of stress because it might mean you have to change your view of yourself. In an effort to get rid of the discomfort, your mind begins to rationalize your choice by convincing you that the harm being done is minor and the good far outweighs the harm and maybe you’re just perceiving harm when it’s not really there and… isn’t the abuser a victim too and wouldn’t you be a horrible person if you abandoned a victim?
The longer you stay with a particular choice (even a self-destructive one), the harder your mind has to work to rationalize that choice in order to maintain the view you have of yourself and the harder it is for anyone else to convince you that it’s the wrong choice. To finally come to a conclusion that a choice you made a number of years ago may have caused harm to people (including yourself) is a massive disruption in your sense of self and many of us simply don’t have the emotional and psychological maturity and resources to handle that kind of uncomfortable identity crisis. It’s easier to dig in and heap more and more rationale (and additional bad decisions) on top of the reasons why you made that decision in the first place.
But at some point, you have to be held accountable for being complicit in harm. At some point, you have to come face-to-face with your own shadow. At some point, you have to take that difficult journey into your own psyche to see that you, too, may have become an abuser in your efforts to justify your choices and banish the cognitive dissonance. Or, if you simply can’t take that journey yourself and you escalate the harm you cause to avoid the dissonance, a moral culture may need to dole out consequences for your actions.
I wasn’t sure this was where I was going when I first started to write about Mr. Big Man at the intersection, but it seems to be what’s on my heart. Sometimes we make bad choices because bullies are breathing down our necks and we’re in distress. And sometimes those bad choices lead to even worse choices because we can’t handle thinking of ourselves as people who cause harm and who align ourselves with abusers and we have to justify what we did in the first place. And sometimes that means that we, too, become like Mr. Big Man, sufficiently disconnected from ourselves that we terrorize other people.
A few weeks ago, my shoulder started to ache. My right shoulder has become a bit of a barometer for my emotional state. Specifically, it tends to ache when there are trauma memories being triggered by a particular season or event.
Three years ago, I broke this shoulder on a day when my body was trying to process a couple of traumatic events at once. On the afternoon of that day, I’d had a hard conversation with a couple of dear friends with whom some conflict had arisen. I came off a Zoom call feeling tense and anxious, knowing that the conflict hadn’t been fully resolved. Then, only minutes after the call, my former husband, who’d dropped in to pick up my daughter for a quick errand, brought up some abusive behaviour he’d been guilty of during our marriage and – out of the blue – he wanted absolution for it. I wasn’t ready to process the weight of what he suddenly dropped in my lap, or the casualness with which he brought it up, and my body tensed up even more as my fight/flight/freeze reactivity kicked in.
After that, while trying not to reveal the chaos spinning around in my brain, I took my daughters out for a promised restaurant meal. Though I tried to put on a brave front, my body simply couldn’t fully relax. When I got home, I did the only thing I could think to do in the state I was in – I ran the bathtub full of hot water and added Epson salt. Then – because I was fairly certain I’d need to cry in the bathtub – I locked the door and climbed in.
Unfortunately, one of my daughters was going out that evening and needed her makeup from the bathroom. Somewhat resentfully, I stood up and reached for the bathroom door. Suddenly, because the doorknob was really too far to safely reach from the bathtub, my feet slipped out from under me and I slammed to the floor, twisting my outstretched arm in a manner it wasn’t meant to twist. It was broken, in a way and place that’s tricky to heal, and I had to live with pain for about a year after that.
And that’s how trauma and my aching shoulder became so closely intertwined. It was trauma that put my body into a tense state, which I’m certain resulted in the fall. And now it’s trauma that brings the ache back. When it aches, I’m learning to pay attention to what my body might be needing.
At first, I wasn’t sure why it started aching a few weeks ago. I was feeling relaxed and happy after taking some much-needed time for self-care and family-care during the month of August, and I was excited about my upcoming book launch. Trauma was far from my mind.
But then the memories started to flood back. First, it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of my former husband’s first suicide attempt (which I wrote about in a recent blog post on the Centre for Holding Space website). Then, just a few days later, it was the twentieth anniversary of the day my son Matthew died and was born (in that order).
Just two days later was my book launch. While I was processing all of those memories, I also had to prepare to share my book with the world and do several media interviews about the book.
I chose that book launch date a long time ago, not remembering, at the time, that it would be happening in one of the most difficult weeks of the year for me. Now, when it was about to happen, I was beginning to regret not paying more careful attention to the calendar.
And yet… even as I was struggling to keep my head up when my body wanted to shut down… I started to consider that perhaps this was the PERFECT week to launch a book about holding space. What better time to talk about trauma and grief and overwhelm and boundaries and relationships than in the middle of a week that represents SO MUCH of my learning in those areas?
In fact, those two narratives – the death of my son and the suicide attempts of my former husband – are two of the primary narratives in the book because they shaped me in ways that few other events ever could. They taught me how to survive disruption and chaos. They taught me what it’s like to go through the depths of liminal space. They taught me how to strengthen my boundaries and how to be more clear about my own needs and limitations. They taught me about spiritual bypassing, and about all of the ways that we tend to hijack space instead of hold it. They also taught me about the importance of community.
This book would not exist without those two narratives. It would not exist without the trauma that still holds a place in my body. It would not exist if I hadn’t learned what those two events taught me about resilience and grace and strength and mindfulness.
As I prepared for my book launch, I realized that possibly one of the subconscious reasons why I’d picked that date was because I wanted to write a new memory for my body to hold when next September rolls around. No, my body might never let go of the memory of those traumas, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t hold joy and pride and gratitude simultaneously.
This is one of the greatest survival skills I have learned from the traumas I’ve experienced: After the trauma settles and you have the space to work on healing it, make meaning of the trauma so that you can practice holding it differently. Tell the story of it, again and again, as much as you are able, so that the story takes a new shape in your life and it becomes less and less destructive. Turn it into paintings and dances and songs and blog posts. Mold it into shapes with clay or play doh. Play with it and move with it and teach your body that it can hold it with more lightness and ease. Talk about it in sharing circles and coffee dates with friends. Release it out into the world so that it doesn’t take the shape of shame or resentment in your life.
Your trauma is not the end of the story. In fact, it can be a new beginning. You have the capacity, like an alchemist, to turn it from pain into triumph. You have the capacity to transform it into a gift that you can offer other people who, some day in the future, might experience a similar trauma. You have the capacity to make it into music.
For me, this book marks a milestone in the relationship with my trauma. Like a potter with my hands in the clay, I have worked with those stories again and again, kneading and re-shaping them until they were ready to be offered to the world as gifts. No, that doesn’t mean that my body will forget or that I can stamp “healed” on all of my past wounds, but it means that I can hold it all more lightly than I ever could before, and I can trust that the meaning I’ve found in it all will make its way to those who need it.
This is the beauty and complexity and messiness of being human. We are molded by our trauma, but then we get to turn around and mold that trauma into meaning and gift so that it doesn’t control or imprison us.
Want to learn to reshape your trauma and to hold space for yourself and others in a deeper way? Join us in a few weeks when we begin the next session of the Holding Space Foundation Program.