1. Safety – my privilege
The atmosphere was rather festive as my daughters and I made banners for the women’s march. They’re not new to political activism, having been raised in a home where political dialogue is as common as mashed potatoes, but this was the first time all four of us were going to a march together and the first time we were all making our own banners. One chose a Star Wars reference and another chose Hamilton – their pop culture of choice. They dressed up and I teased them with “this is the resistance – not a fashion parade.” They retorted with “Feminism has evolved, Mom. Our generation believes we can look cute AND resist at the same time.”
On the way downtown, we picked up Saleha, a Muslim friend who’s lived in Canada for 10 years. She was excited and passionate about the march – her first political action of this kind.
The meeting place quickly filled with thousands of marchers – predominantly white women, some wearing pink pussy hats, some holding signs. As people gathered, one of the organizers announced that an Indigenous elder would be smudging whoever was interested. Saleha was eager for the opportunity, so we got in line. I stood by and watched a beautiful moment unfold – Saleha opening her hijab like a tent to let the smoke touch her face and her ears, while the elder offered gentle guidance. When Saleha turned away, the emotion on her face told me how moving it had been.
Leaning on a rail on the second floor of the meeting space, we watched the speakers and drumming group on stage. A mix of intersectional voices – Indigenous, immigrants, transgender, and women of colour – inspired us to consider ALL human rights, not just those that have been too often centred in marches like these (able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual white women).
Slowly, the crowd made its way onto the street. As soon as we stepped onto the street, I sensed something had changed in Saleha’s demeanour. I turned toward her. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Suddenly I don’t feel safe anymore.”
“Would you like me to hold your hand?” I asked.
“Yes, I think I need you to,” she responded.
Holding hands, we followed the crowd. Looking around, I tried to find at least one other woman on the street in a hijab, but I could see none. Nor were there many women of colour or Indigenous women. It was mostly women who looked like me – a crowd of white feminists, probably mostly unaware of who was missing. Did all of those other, more marginalized women, avoid the march because they sensed the same feeling of insecurity that was coming up for Saleha?
More than once I turned to her and said “If it feels unsafe to be here, we can step out and leave the crowd.”
“No,” she said. “I want to do this. I’ll stay in it as long as I can.” We kept walking and the stories began to spill. “It’s illegal to protest like this where I come from,” she said. “I once witnessed a friend yanked off the street by the authorities. We didn’t see him again after that.”
“The day after the Paris attacks, I was waiting for a train in Amsterdam when a man shoved his face just inches from mine and started verbally attacking me. Nobody stepped in to stop him.”
On and on it went – the many times she had felt unsafe, just because she was a woman on the street wearing a hijab. The airport security checks when customs officers discovered her last name was the same as one of the 9-11 terrorists, the times she’s dropped her children off at school and teachers or other moms ignored her until they realized she spoke English like them, the drunk man on the street who told her to go back home in front of her children.
“I don’t know why these are all coming up right now,” she said. “Each time something happened, I stuffed it away and told myself I was okay. It was the only way I could carry on – to convince myself I was safe. But I’m not safe. Since coming to Canada, I’ve done everything I can to blend in and to convince people that I’m not a threat. I worked so hard to learn English. And now I will probably cancel my post-grad studies in the U.S. because I’ll be even less safe there.”
More than once, as we walked, she apologized for saying things that might make me, a white woman, feel badly for what people like me had done or said to her. “I don’t want to be somebody who blames white people.”
“Stop,” I said. “You don’t need to apologize. If I am your friend, I need to be able to hear the ways that you feel unsafe around people like me. Even if it makes me uncomfortable, I need to listen. You are not responsible for looking after me in this situation.”
“But I’m not used to this kind of conversation,” she said. “I am much more used to doing whatever it takes to make white women like you feel safe.”
As we walked, I glanced ahead to where my daughters walked, and was suddenly hit with these two realizations:
- I and my daughters never once considered that we might be unsafe on the street. My safety to march is just one of the many privileges I take for granted. So is my safety to go grocery shopping, to drop my kids off at school, and to ride the bus without being verbally attacked. Although there are some places I wouldn’t feel safe, especially at night, I have access to enough privilege (ie. my own vehicle, a house in a relatively safe part of town, etc.) that I rarely have to place myself in situations where I am at risk.
- Although I consider myself to be as non-threatening as a person could be, my white skin and my place within the dominant culture make me unsafe for some people. In order to stay safe themselves, others often need to contort themselves in order to make me feel safe. White women like me might present a particular risk because we’re the ones that the police would probably respond to most quickly if we were feeling threatened.
2. Safety – my cage
My friend Desiree is fierce and bold. She says things on her Facebook stream that I don’t have the courage to say and she doesn’t apologize if people take offence to them. Rather than coddling people, she expects them to take responsibility for their own emotional response.
We are quite different in our communication styles and I’ve often wondered about the many factors that contribute to that difference. I chalk up my more conciliatory, sometimes timid communication style to my pacifist, Mennonite, Canadian roots, but lately I’ve considered that it may be more than that. We may have been intentionally conditioned differently by the patriarchy.
For nearly seven years now, Desiree and I have been having periodic conversations about the ways in which we’ve learned to respond to the world differently. As a Black woman living in the southern U.S., her lived experience is quite different from mine. We’re passionate about many of the same things, but we came to these issues from different directions.
After the women’s march, Desiree and I talked about what the march represented, what happened during the march, whose voices were heard, etc. One of our most profound conversations was about the images on social media that portrayed police officers wearing pink pussy hats at the marches.
“When white women show up to protest,” Desiree said, “police wear pink pussy hats. But when people of colour show up to protest, they wear riot gear.”
We went back and forth about what that meant. Did the police just assume that, because the Women’s March was predominantly white women, there would be no danger involved? Was it a purely race-related difference?
And then, something new emerged in our conversation – the possibility that the police were serving as agents of the patriarchy, keeping white women in line by appeasing them and convincing them they were there to protect THEM from outside forces rather than protecting OTHERS from them. When they show up with riot gear, they’re protecting the community from the protestors. When they put on pussy hats, they’re signalling that they’re protecting the protestors.
And that, we theorized, is one of the reasons that there is fragility among white women (and why someone like me might adopt a more timid, conciliatory communication style) – because we have been conditioned by the hierarchy to believe that our fragility keeps us safe. As long as we are fragile, the patriarchy protects us. When we are no longer fragile, the patriarchy withdraws its protection and we are at risk.
The patriarchy benefits from the fragility of white women.
Women of colour, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of being fragile. They are taught to survive at whatever cost, usually by their own means and without the help of those in authority. They don’t grow up assuming that the police will protect them if they are fragile. They grow up with images of the police protecting the community from them, not the other way around.
This is how the patriarchy keeps us both in line – by keeping us separate and at odds. It’s the same way that apartheid worked in South Africa. The white establishment created fractions between the local tribes, giving some more access to education, jobs, etc. When they were fighting amongst themselves, they did not present a threat to those in power. If you look around at the places where women are gathering to develop political actions such as the Women’s March, you’ll see the same kind of dissension. Groups with differing access to privilege, power, and protection have a hard time hearing each other’s concerns.
(I would add that those police officers in pussy hats and riot gear are also being controlled and wounded by the patriarchy, though they probably don’t recognize it. It’s a flawed system that is doing damage to us all.)
Two more realizations:
- Fragility in white women is real AND it’s tool of the patriarchy in order to keep us silent and weak. If I don’t challenge it in myself, I stay trapped and nothing changes.
- If I place too high a value on my own safety, I won’t risk stepping into conversations that make me uncomfortable and I won’t be able to build better relationships with women of colour and other groups that have been oppressed by the patriarchy.
3. Safety – my right
A few days ago, I was part of a text conversation of another kind. My friend Jo shared that she had been verbally abused in a conversation on social media. She’d been invited into a conversation about whether or not patriarchy is real, and though she intuitively felt unsafe as the only women surrounded by opinionated men, trying to explain something that they had all benefited from, she took the risk because she cared about the person who invited her. She stated her discomfort, but that discomfort was used as a weapon against her to make her feel shame for wanting a “safe space”.
Jo’s story reminded me of the times when I too have felt unsafe, trying to explain sexism or discrimination to those who had more power than me. Several years ago, I wrote a letter addressing some sexist behaviour on the board of an organization I was part of and I sent it to the three men I thought needed to be aware of it. My letter was ignored by one, dismissed by another, and responded to only with a back-handed comment by the third. I was left feeling small and ashamed for “over-reacting” and unsafe to raise any such concerns again in the future.
I know, from listening to my friends who are Indigenous and people of colour, that they feel similarly when white people ask them to explain racism, or when they need to challenge racism in their workplace. It is unfair to expect the people who’ve been oppressed to explain to those who’ve benefited from the oppression. It puts them in a dangerous position where they are often targeted with more abuse for “over-reacting”, “being too sensitive”, etc. Some people even lose their jobs for daring to challenge the system.
Though I have to recognize safety as my privilege and my trap, I also believe that it is a human right. Those who dismiss my safety as irrelevant or who tell me I’m over-reacting and need to calm down are attempting to gaslight me – making me think that I’m crazy or weak for needing safety. That’s how oppressors win.
As I mentioned in my last post, trauma further complicates this issue. Unhealed trauma convinces us that we are unsafe even when we aren’t. And much of that trauma is hard to pinpoint because we may have inherited it or it may have been caused before we were old enough to know what was going on. The fear that comes up when a trauma memory is triggered is as real as the fear we felt when the trauma happened.
Two more realizations:
- Next to air, water, and food, safety is our most basic need. We will do almost anything to find safety, including contorting ourselves in the presence of those who make us feel unsafe. Those who’ve been oppressed are usually masterful at contortion, and if they’re not, they are at greater risk.
- When we have experienced trauma, our need for safety is easily triggered and our bodies respond with fight, flight, or freeze. Often we don’t recognize that we are being triggered and then it’s easy to feel shame for over-reacting. Those with more power usually don’t recognize (or choose to ignore) that they are triggering our fear and our shame because their lived experience is very different.
Note: All three of the friends mentioned in this post gave permission for their stories to be shared.
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I first noticed it while watching the first presidential debate. When Trump spent the whole time interrupting Hillary Clinton, belittling her, and standing behind her in an intimidating way while she spoke, I was so shaken up that I could barely stand it. This wasn’t just the usual political jostling for space – it was something more. My daughters were surprised when I kept yelling at the TV and by the end of it, I had to go for a long walk to release my outrage rather than take it out on the people I loved.
It was worse when the infamous bus video came out and we heard him unapologetically talking about grabbing women by the pussy. That one took me more than just a long walk to release.
I noticed it again last week during his press conference, when he was gas-lighting reporters by refusing to take their questions, calling their news outlets “fake news”, and treating them like they were stupid for listening to any of the leaked information about Russian interference. This time, though, I knew it was coming so I could witness my reaction more objectively, almost like a scientist watching a subject respond to stimuli.
It took me a while to figure out what was going on. I am, after all, a Canadian who won’t have to live under this administration. Why did I have such strong emotional AND physical reactions to him? Why couldn’t I simply ignore him or dismiss him as full of hot air but not my problem?
I realized that I was being triggered. Like so many other women who have shared similar responses, Trump’s misogyny, gas-lighting, bragging about sexual conduct, intimidation, etc. was triggering my past trauma.
Like every woman, I have been interrupted time and time again by men who think their voice is somehow endued with more wisdom. I have been raped by a man who climbed through my bedroom window and let his lack of control over his own sexual desire shatter my youthful innocence. I have been the victim of gas-lighting by more than one person who couldn’t bear to listen to my concerns and dismissed them as irrelevant, convincing me that I must simply be overreacting. I have been repeatedly grabbed by the pussy by a man who thought he had the right to do so and who ignored my effort to explain why it didn’t feel good.
I have worked hard to find healing for all of these things, but trauma doesn’t go away easily. It hovers under the surface, pretending it’s healed, pretending it’s a thing of the past. But then when it’s triggered by a stimulus that brings back the body memory of the trauma, it erupts in fear and rage and physical pain and all manner of complex emotional and physical reactions. It’s not rational – it just is.
Trauma responses are primal responses – meant to protect us from whatever threatens our safety. They are also deeply rooted in our bodies and cannot be regulated with only a brain response. I couldn’t think my way through my reaction to Trump – I had to seek to understand it on a much deeper level. That’s why some of the “just think positive thoughts” self-help mantras can be so damaging – because they attempt to gloss over the way that trauma, grief, fear, etc., gets rooted in our bodies and has to be healed by a much more holistic approach than simply positive thoughts.
In recent months, especially since Trump won the election, I have been hearing similar responses from many, many people not only in the U.S., but all over the world. It feels like his election has unleashed an epidemic of trauma. We’re vibrating in fear and rage that is deeply rooted in us and we don’t know how to respond. Many dismiss us as over-reacting (because surely our trauma isn’t as bad as people who’ve lived in war zones, for example, so it’s not legitimate), but that feels like a whole other layer of gas-lighting that diminishes our experience and heightens our response.
I’m also hearing another voice – the voice of People of Colour and other marginalized groups saying to white women like me “What took you so long to wake up? We’ve been saying for years that the system is rigged against us. Why did it take Trump getting elected for you to see what’s going on? And why are you being so fragile when we’ve seen much worse?”
The answer to that is complex and multi-layered, and some of it has to do with our privilege and access to power. Some of it also has to do with the fact that it took us longer to be triggered. While People of Colour have been seeing things in the media for a long, long time (probably all of their lives) that has triggered their trauma, we’ve been able to ignore it longer because it didn’t apply to us.
It’s like an abusive family where some are suffering the abuse more than others. The child who’s not getting hit can say “It’s not happening to me, so that means it’s not happening.” She says it out of self-preservation – because the only way she knows how to survive is to live in denial. But then one day she gets whacked across the head by the abuser and suddenly she has to rewrite the narrative of her family. Suddenly she too is unsafe.
The problem is that it’s difficult to forgive someone who ignores your pain until she feels the pain herself. And it’s difficult to feel empathy for the tears and rage of someone who spent much of her life in denial and dismissal of yours. And it’s also difficult to trust and be in relationship with people with trauma when you too have been traumatized. So we end up with situations like the Women’s March on Washington, where they’ve had to work through various levels of conflict trying to find a common voice that gives space for all of the marginalized groups that want to be heard. And this is only scratching the surface – these groups will need to do some deep healing work to learn to speak of their trauma and betrayal and fragility and find ways to heal it and learn to trust each other to hold space for it all in order to move forward with a united voice.
There are other complicating factors as well. Some of our trauma didn’t start with us. Some of it was passed down through the generations, and when we are being triggered by a stimulus we don’t understand, it might actually be related to a trauma experienced by a grandmother or great-grandfather. There is scientific research that has found evidence that we can pass trauma down through our DNA. They’ve found descendants of holocaust survivors who have the genetics of trauma, even though they haven’t personally experienced the trauma themselves. There is also research that says it can be passed through our lineage in ways that aren’t related to DNA.
So, in trying to work together toward a common voice, we also witness the effects of generational trauma. People of Colour who are the descendants of slaves and Indigenous people whose ancestors were the victims of genocide, for example, are carrying centuries of trauma with them. Their ancestors are crying out to be heard through their descendants.
I am the descendants of settlers and colonizers who have not (as far as I know) been subjected to slavery, but I am also aware that my Mennonite ancestors were tortured for their faith and run out of more than one country because of their stance on non-resistance. I suspect some of that trauma was passed down through my DNA and then got all mixed up with my settler guilt to create a stew of complex personal narratives and healing work.
And then there are the witch burnings. Women are carrying this in our DNA as well. At one time, any woman who would have dared to speak about the Feminine Divine or even who was courageous enough to own her own business was called a witch and burned at the stake. We carry with us that body memory as well, and when we consider marching or raising our voices or making a scene in any way, we might be triggered by the ancient voices in us, passed down through the generations, that say “it’s not safe. We were burned for this.”
The other complicating factor is that “hurt people hurt people”. Those who’ve suffered trauma and have not addressed or healed it in themselves are more likely to inflict it on others. Gabor Maté, a world-renowned expert on trauma, surmises, in fact, that Donald Trump’s behaviour is evidence that he was a victim of trauma. “What we perceive as the adult personality often reflects compensations a helpless child unwittingly adopted in order to survive. Such adaptations can become wired into the brain, persisting into adulthood. Underneath all psychiatric categories Trump manifests childhood trauma.”
Maté also says “The flaws of our leaders perfectly mirror the emotional underdevelopment of the society that elevates them to power.” That suggests that we have a whole lot of people walking around with unhealed trauma and those people are capable of causing a great deal of harm as a result. That’s a frightening thought.
Today, Trump is being inaugurated, and I fear that we have only begun to see the wide-ranging effects of the trauma being triggered by his actions and by those he’s placing in positions of leadership. I fear that trauma specialists will be overwhelmed with the people coming to them for support. I also suspect that physical health will suffer – that emergency rooms will see more and more mysterious illnesses that people haven’t connected to their trauma. And we may see an increase in violence, with traumatized people not knowing how to manage their unexpected response to stimuli. I hope that I’m wrong on all counts.
What do we do about it? A trauma therapist would tell us to remove the stimulus from our lives first so that we can heal, but we can’t hide from it when the person triggering us is possibly the most influential leader in the world. So we must do our best to heal ourselves, to equip ourselves with coping skills, and to become trauma-informed so that we can support each other through this.
If you want to become more trauma-informed, here are some resources that I have found useful:
- Trauma: The Injury Where the Blood Doesn’t Flow. In this podcast (that is part of an entire series of podcasts on trauma) is an interview with Eduardo Duran who works with Native and Indigenous cultures in the healing of trauma. He shares how Indigenous spirituality is woven into the generational healing work that he does. I found it to be really eye-opening about how spirituality needs to be a part of the conversation.
- TRE – Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises. Based in the belief that trauma becomes rooted in our bodies, Dr. David Berceli developed a series of exercises that assist the body in releasing deep muscular patterns of stress, tension and trauma. My friends Petra and Leckey are specialists in TRE if you’re looking for someone to help you.
- When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection, by Dr. Gabor Mate. Dr. Mate has done extensive research in the mind-body connection where stress and trauma are concerned. He links many forms of physical illness (ie. arthritis, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, multiple sclerosis) to the ways in which our bodies have been trying to protect us from emotional harm.
- It Didn’t Start With You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle, by Mark Wolynn. This is a fascinating and eye-opening book about the ways that we inherit trauma. One of the stories that stuck with me most was about a young man who had been a successful student and athlete and suddenly he couldn’t sleep at night and was suffering from terrifying cold in the middle of the night. After some work with Wolynn, he discovered that an uncle he hadn’t even known had frozen to death in a hunting camp at the exact age this young man was at the time when the cold and sleeplessness started.
- In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, by Peter A. Levine. Like Gabor Mate, Levine is a leading voice in the field of trauma. He draws on his research and observation of the naturalistic animal world to explain the nature and transformation of trauma in the body, brain, and psyche.
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel Van Der Kolk. This is the third book on a similar subject (ie. the body and trauma) in this list, so it might seem redundant, but I find that each of these offers something slightly different that adds to body of wisdom. Van Der Kolk uses recent scientific advances to show how trauma literally reshapes both body and brain, compromising sufferers’ capacities for pleasure, engagement, self-control, and trust.
- Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment: A Developmental Strategy to Liberate Everyone, by Leticia Nieto with Margo F. Boyer. This isn’t specifically about trauma, but it’s a useful resource about working with marginalized populations.
- Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. While I don’t recall Frankl actually using the language of trauma, this profound book about his experience in surviving concentration camp talks about how our quest for meaning creates resilience. I believe it will be an important book to return to in the next four years.
- The Shadow King: The Invisible Force That Holds Women Back, by Sidra Stone. Again, not specifically about trauma, but a really useful read about how the Inner Patriarch (which, I believe, is rooted in trauma) has held women back and how we can reclaim our power.
- The Burning Times: A documentary about the witch hunts in Europe. The film questions whether the widespread violence against women and the neglect of our environment today can be traced back to those times.
Note: I realize that my resource list is rather limited and includes mostly the voices of men (especially for those resources directly related to trauma). I would like to expand this list with more voices of women and marginalized people working in the field of trauma. If you know of any, please offer them in the comments.
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As a coach and facilitator, I have the honour and privilege of walking alongside people on the journey to healing and transformation. As I hold space for them, they teach me many things.
One of the most important things I’ve learned in this work is that the journey takes time – sometimes many years – and cannot be rushed. I’ve also learned that each person’s journey is unique and what works for one person may not work for another.
This week, during the Open Heart, Moving Pen online writing course, one of my clients (who prefers to remain anonymous) shared a story she’d written that moved me (and other course participants) deeply. Not only is it a powerful story, but it marks a profound transformation for this particular client. She started working with me a year ago (as a coaching client and workshop participant), and the work she has done since then has been awe-inspiring and exciting to witness.
BUT… none of this happened overnight. According to her, “it’s actually been 7 years of really deep work with 15 years of healing work before that.”
She is ready to do beautiful healing work in the world because she focused on her own healing work first. Like a butterfly emerging from a long time in the chrysalis, She is bursting forth with strength and beauty as a writer, leader, and healer.
She asked me to share what she wrote because “it wants to be out in the world, and is not letting me do anything else until I send this off.” It’s a very personal story and she’s not quite ready to attach her name to it, but if it moves something in you, I welcome you to send me a note and I will pass it on to her.
Here it is. I offer a trigger warning as some of the content may be hard to read.
The complicated stories of my past
Why am I not more enraged by this talk about grabbing pussy? Why does it seem normal for a man to take what he wants from a woman?
I know the answer, but don’t want to admit I was taught that’s the way men are.
My dad, the one person in my life who liked spending time with me, enjoyed my company, talked to me like I was an adult. My dad, who taught me how the world works, at least what he’d figured out so far. His one cardinal rule: men cannot help themselves when they see a beautiful woman (or young girl). If they’ve got an urge, they WILL satisfy themselves with whoever’s available. If it doesn’t hurt, if it’s not penetration, it’s OK, it won’t cause any problems, and besides, she LIKES it….
I don’t know which was worse, the fact that he had me caress and lick and suck him, or the fact that he stroked me and my young body responded with pleasure. Just like when he tickled me ruthlessly and insisted that I must like it because I was laughing. He could see my body reacting to his stroking and it confirmed his belief that since I was enjoying the intimate contact, it was harmless.
Equally harmless, in his opinion, was his dalliance with other women. What’s a quick tumble with his secretary on her desk to a preschooler who’s already been a participant? “Don’t worry about her” he said when the secretary looked at me with concern, “She won’t care. She’s seen it before.”
Here’s the thing, this man was the one person in my life who treated me like a person (when he wasn’t treating me like a sex object, of course). Everyone liked him. He was a favorite professor of many students, always making time to help them get through their coursework. He was proud of the diversity of his small department. He annoyed his antsy daughter and anxious wife by starting up conversations with workmen, secretaries, garbage men, everyone he met. In addition to being his precious daughter and best friend, he treated me as the son he never had, teaching me woodworking, basic car repair, how to throw a ball.
After his death several women told me how he was the one adult in their lives who listened to them when they were young, asked questions about their lives, made them feel important. None of them mentioned any sexual behavior on his part; either it didn’t happen with them or their memories of the contact were overshadowed by being seen and validated by an adult. Given my memories, I’m suspicious that it was the latter; when there is no closeness in a young person’s life, the touching is simply a price to be paid for closeness.
To this day, and he’s been dead several years now, I sense that his spirit still doesn’t understand that what he did was wrong. He knew to tell me to keep it a secret, he knew my mom wouldn’t approve, but he was convinced that it was OK, at least until I neared puberty. At some point before puberty he did stop the incest (and that was in some ways agony, because I suddenly lost the only intimacy in my life and I felt deserted), but he continued to teach me. When we watched TV he would repeatedly point out how the women were dressed and acting, and that they deserved whatever attention they got from men. He also taught me that men are weak and easily wounded, that they need women to take treat them gently so they don’t fall apart.
So I learned that being feminine is dangerous: that high heals, makeup, clothing that shows any skin or cleavage, are come-on signals and will get full attention from men. And that if I talked back or resisted they would be devastated and it would be my fault.
The surprising thing? That this story is less painful than the humiliation and shame I encountered at school for being quiet, klutzy, smart, weird. It’s less painful than the teasing and tormenting from my cousin and the neighborhood kids. Less painful than the years of avoiding looking people in the eye because they would see my secrets.
I cannot hate this confused man who raised me and confided in me. Though I did hate him when the memories first started surfacing, I now pity him, and love him, and thank him for helping me understand the mentality of confused patriarchal men trying to make sense of the world. And I wonder… If my dad could do this, how many other girls (and boys) had similar experiences with otherwise kind men?
Fear. It shows up in nearly every coaching conversation I have. Sometimes it’s bold and in-your-face and can’t be denied, and sometimes it’s sneaky and disguised as anger or laziness and has to be coaxed out into the light.
Fear fills a lot of pages in self-help books. Everyone’s trying to master it. Some tell you to befriend it, others tell you ignore it, and still others tell you to stare it in the face. Do an image search of fear quotes (see above image) and you’ll find endless memes about how you can conquer, befriend, embrace, or ignore fear. Or, if you’d rather, you can dance with it, kick it to the curb, or pray it out of existence.
The problem with much of what is written about fear in self-help books is that it is oversimplified. Diminish fear into only one dimension and it’s easier to give you a meme-worthy quote about it.
But fear is a multi-dimensional creature that requires a multi-dimensional response. It can’t be contained to a simple meme or a singular response.
Diminishing the complexity of fear can have devastating results for those who read self-help books. Sometimes clients come to me even more beaten down than they were before they read the books. Now, not only do they still have the fear, they have accompanying shame that they weren’t able to address their fears the way the self-help books told them to.
There are at least four kinds of fear that I have encountered in many conversations and much research. (I suspect it’s even more complex, but this is at least a start in understanding it.)
- Warning fear. This is the legitimate fear that shows up to tell us that a course correction is necessary in order to avoid injury or harm. It’s the kind of fear that makes sure we don’t climb into the lion’s cage at the zoo, and it’s the quick-reaction fear that tells us to swerve out of the way when a car is headed straight at us. It’s also the fear that nudges us out of bad relationships or bad business deals. This fear serves as a valuable protector and shouldn’t just be “kicked to the curb.”
- Ego fear. This is the kind of fear whose job is to keep our fragile egos safe at all costs. It’s the fear that tells us to stay small, to not ask for too much, to avoid shaming ourselves. It’s also the fear that tells us to protect ourselves from people who don’t look like us or who don’t share our belief systems. (Sadly, it’s the kind of fear that seems to be making far too many political decisions these days.) This is the most slippery of the fears. It’s hard to pin down and it’s got a million ways to lie to us. It’s the kind of fear that many of the self-help books are talking about when they tell us to befriend our fear or let it take the passenger seat in the car. This fear needs to be examined and deconstructed so that it doesn’t control us.
- Invitational fear. Sometimes, what feels like fear, is actually a message from our bodies that we are on the right track, that we are about to step into something important and life-changing. It’s an invitation rather than a warning. I often refer to this kind of fear as “the trembling” because, for me, it’s often accompanied by a physical vibration in my body. This is the kind of fear we befriend, because it leads us into our right work, art, relationships, etc..
- Trauma fear. Trauma has a way of embedding fear so deeply into our bodies that we can barely understand it or control it, let alone conquer it with a few tips from a self-help book. Trauma changes us so fundamentally, that it’s been known to alter not only our DNA, but the DNA we pass down to our children. Some of our trauma fear has, unbeknownst to us, been inherited from generations before us. Trauma fears are often irrational and can flare up at the slightest trigger, causing a fight, flight, or freeze reaction that nobody who’s witnessing it can understand. To treat this kind of fear with a simple self-help book approach is to do an egregious disservice to the person who’s suffered from the trauma. That’s like giving an aspirin to a cancer patient and telling them to go home and think good thoughts. Instead, you need to seek out the right expert who can provide support, tools, body exercises, etc. to help you understand and cope with the long-term impact of the trauma.
So… how can you tell which kind of fear is showing up for you? There is no simple answer to that. Instead, there’s a life-long practice of mindfulness, discernment, and experimentation.
Here’s a place to start…
- Be quiet. Unless the fear demands an instantaneous response (ie. swerving out of the path of a car), give yourself a time-out when fear shows up and be quiet with it. Go out into nature or sit on a meditation cushion and let your fear know that you are willing to listen. Noise and/or the wrong person’s advice can intensify the fears, so find a place to be quiet and honest with yourself. Be alone or with someone who knows how to hold space for you.
- Pay attention to your body. Where are you feeling the fear in your body? What is your body asking of you? What do you need to do to be kind to your body in that moment of intensity? When I feel fear in the pit of my stomach, for example, I like to place my hands gently over my belly and hold the fear like I would a frightened child. Your body often understands things your brain doesn’t know how to process, so you need to learn to pay attention. (You may want to explore body-related practices such as yoga, reiki, or something more specifically related to trauma, such as TRE.)
- Ask what the fear is trying to protect you from. An honest inquiry can help you discern whether the fear is rational or irrational, a warning or an invitation. This is something I often do in my journal, by starting with a few prompts such as “I feel fear about… This fear is trying to protect me from…” Keep writing until the fears beneath the surface start to tell you their truth.
- Ask whether you can and/or should survive whatever your fear is trying to protect you from. If it’s a warning fear, then just because you CAN survive it doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Act accordingly. If it’s an ego fear, then what it’s trying to protect you from is probably worth surviving because it will mean you’ll move into greater freedom and/or authenticity. Again, act accordingly.
- Consider whether you need outside help addressing the fear. If you can’t understand or address the fear by doing the above-mentioned practices, it may be time to seek professional help. If the fear seems irrational and easily triggered, look for a therapist with expertise in trauma. (I would especially recommend someone who takes a wholistic, body-centred approach and who understands that trauma can’t simply be treated with talk-therapy.) If it doesn’t seem to be trauma-related but is instead connected to some old stories you’ve been telling yourself, coaching might help, but be discerning about who you choose for a coach. Someone who glosses over the complexity of fear will not be the right person.
There is nothing wrong with turning to self-help books (I’ve read quite a few myself), but if you find that those books make you feel worse about yourself instead of better, they might not be the right books for you. You have the right to toss them in the recycling bin, even if everyone else in your social media feed seems to be eating them up.
Seek out what’s best for you and do the work that heals you and makes you stronger.
Note: If you’re looking for a coach, perhaps I can help. Check out my coaching page and book an informal conversation (for free) if you’d like to explore what our relationship might look like. I will be happy to work with you AND I promise that if your fears are beyond my capacity to support (ie. trauma fears), I will help you seek out the right kind of therapeutic support.
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There are many reasons to be silent.
Violence (or the threat of violence) is one reason for silence. When cartoonists are murdered for satire and young school girls are kidnapped or murdered for daring to go to school, the risk of speaking up becomes too great for many people.
Sometimes the violence backfires and the voices become stronger – as in the case of Charlie Hebdo, now publishing three million copies when their normal print run was 60,000. Why? Because those with power and influence stepped in to show support for those whose voices were temporarily silenced. If the world had ignored that violence and millions of people – including many world leaders – hadn’t marched in the streets, would there have been the same outcome? If these twelve dead worked for a small publication in Somalia or Myanmar would we have paid as much attention? I doubt it.
Far too many times (especially when the world mostly ignores their plight, as in Nigeria) violence succeeds and fewer people speak up, fewer people are educated, and the perpetrators of the violence have control.
Violence has long been a tool for the silencing of the dissenting voice. Slaves were tortured or murdered for daring to speak up against their owners. Women were burned at the stake for daring to challenge the dominant culture. Even my own ancestors – the Mennonites – were tortured and murdered for their faith and pacifism.
Most likely every single one of us could look back through our lineage and find at least one period in time when our ancestors were subjected to violence. Some of us still live with that reality day to day.
There is no question that the fear of violence is a powerful force for keeping people silent. It still happens in families where there is abuse and in countries where they flog bloggers for speaking out.
Few of the people who read this article will be subjected to flogging or torture for what we say or write online, and yet… there are many of us who remain silent even when we feel strongly that we should speak out.
Why? Why do we remain silent when we see injustice in our workplaces? Why do we turn the other way when we see someone being bullied? Why do we hesitate to speak when we know there’s a better way to do things?
- Because we have a memory of violence in our bones. The more I learn about trauma the more I realize that it affects us in much more subtle and insidious ways than we understand. Some of us have experienced trauma and are easily triggered, but even if we never experienced trauma in our own lifetimes, it can be passed down to us through our DNA. Your ancestors’ trauma may still be causing fear in your own life. Witnessing the trauma of other people subjected to violence may be triggering ancient fear in all of us, causing us to remain silent.
- Because our brains don’t understand fear. The most ancient part of our brains – the “reptilian brain”, which hasn’t evolved since we were living in caves and discovering fire – is adapted for fight or flight. That part of our brain sees all threats as predators, and so it triggers our instinct to survive. Our lives are much different from our ancestors, and yet there’s a part of our brains that still seeks to protect us from woolly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers. When our fear of being rejected by a family member for speaking out feels the same as the fear of a sabre-toothed tiger, our reaction is often much stronger than it needs to be.
- Because those who want to keep us silent have learned more subtle ways to do so. In most of the countries where we live, it is no longer acceptable to flog bloggers, but that doesn’t mean we’re not being silenced. Women have been silenced, for example, by being taught that their ideas are silly and irrelevant. Marginalized people have been silenced by being given less access to education. Those with unconventional ideas have been “gaslighted” – gradually convinced that they are crazy for what they believe.
- Because we have created an “every man for himself” culture where those who speak out are often not supported for their courage. We’re all trying to thrive in this competitive environment, and so we feel threatened by other people’s success or courage. When I asked on Facebook what keeps people silent, one of the responses (from a blogger) was about the kinds of haters that show up even in what should be supportive environments. In motherhood forums, for example, people get so caught in internal battles (like whether it is better to be a working-away-from-home parent or a stay-at-home parent) that they forget that they would be much stronger in advocating for positive change in the world if they found a way to work together and support each other. It is much more difficult to speak out when we know we’ll be standing alone.
- Because we don’t understand power and privilege. Those who have access to both power and privilege are often surprised when others remain silent. “Why wouldn’t they just speak up?” they say, as though that were the simplest thing in the world to do. It may be a simple thing, if you have never been oppressed or silenced, but if you’ve been taught that your voice has no value because you are “a woman, an Indian, a person of colour, a lesbian, a Muslim, etc.”, then the courage it takes to speak is exponentially greater. Years and years of conditioning that convinces a person of their inherent lack of value cannot be easily undone.
Several years ago, I visited a village in the poorest part of India. Though I’d traveled in several poor regions in Bangladesh, India, and a few African countries before that, this was the most depressing place I’d ever visited. This was a makeshift village populated by the Musahar people who lived at the edges of fields where they sometimes were hired by the landowners as day labourers but otherwise had to scrounge for their food (sometimes stealing grain from rats – which was why they’d come to be known as “rat eaters”).
There was a look of deadness in the eyes of the people there – a hopelessness and sense of fatalism. Our local hosts told us that these were the most marginalized people in the whole country. They were the lowest tribe of the lowest caste and so everyone in the village had been raised to believe that they had no more value than the rats that ran through their village.
There was a school not far from the village, but we could find only one boy who attended that school. Though everyone had access to the school, none of the parents were convinced their children were worthy of it.
It was a powerful lesson in what oppression and marginalization can do to people. In other equally poor villages (in Ethiopia, for example) I’d still noticed a sense of pride in the people. The Musahar people showed no sense of pride or self-worth. Essentially, they had been “gaslighted” to believe they were worthless and could ask for no more than what they had.
The next day, my traveling companions and I took a rest day instead of visiting another village. We had enough footage for the documentary we were working on and we needed a break from what was an emotionally exhausting trip.
My colleague, however, opted to visit the second village. He came back to the hotel with a fascinating story. In the second village, a local NGO had been working with the people to educate them about their rights as citizens of India. It hadn’t taken long and these people had a very different outlook on their lives and their values. They were beginning to rally, challenging their local government representatives to give them access to the welfare programs that should have been everyone’s rights (but that people in the first village had never been told about by the corrupt politicians who took what should have been given to the villagers). On the way back to the hotel, in fact, he’d been stopped by a demonstration where the body of a man who’d died of starvation had been laid out on the street to block traffic and call attention to the plight of the Musahar people.
The people in the second village were slowly beginning to understand that they were human and had a right to dignity and survival.
In the coaching and personal growth world that I now find myself in, there is much said about “finding our voices”, “stepping into our power”, and “claiming our sovereignty”. Those are all important ideas, and I speak of them in my work, but I believe that there is work that we need to do before any of those things are possible. Like the Musahar people, those who have been silenced need to be taught of their own value and their own capacity for change before they can be expected to impact positive change.
First we need to take a close look at the root causes of the fear that keeps us silent before we’ll be able to change the future.
When we begin to understand power and privilege, when we find practices that help us heal our ancient trauma, when we retrain our brains so that they don’t revert to their most primal conditioning, and when we find supportive communities that will encourage us in our attempts at courage, then we are ready to step into our power and speak with our strongest voices.
Like the Musahar, we need to work on understanding our own value and then we need to work together to have our voices heard.
These are some of the thoughts on my mind as I consider offering another coaching circle based on Pathfinder and/or Lead with Your Wild Heart. If you are interested in joining such a circle, please contact me.
Also, if you are longing to understand your own fear so that you can step forward with courage, consider joining me and Desiree Adaway at Engage!