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.
Last night, after sunset, I lay in my hammock in the growing darkness of my backyard feeling low. I couldn’t shake the growing melancholy that’s been with me this week, but I couldn’t quite name it either. Why, in the middle of all of the excitement of finally launching the Centre for Holding Space after many months of hard work, was I feeling so much sadness?
Perhaps it was launch hangover? Perhaps it was weariness from holding space for some of my daughters’ crises this week, combined with disappointment in myself when I missed a baseball game and let down my nephew, combined with some vicarious sadness for a daughter’s friend who’s been here a lot this week because of family conflict? Perhaps it was worry over my daughter’s health or concerns over my other daughter’s disappointing job prospects?
I gave up on the hammock last night and came inside to let Netflix put a pause on the overthinking.
And then, some time in the middle of a mediocre TV show, it hit me… today is my anniversary. Twenty-seven years ago, I was a hopeful bride entering a new chapter in my life. Twenty-seven years ago, I was oblivious of the hardships that would bring that chapter to an end.
And tomorrow is another kind of anniversary. Seventeen years ago – the day after we celebrated our tenth anniversary – my dad was killed in a farm accident.
Suddenly I knew what my body was holding. It was grief over the many losses that this week represents. It was the loss of dreams, the loss of security, the loss of hope, the loss of belonging, and the loss of lineage. It was also the loss of home (my mom left the farm shortly after) and the loss of a grandfather for my kids.
It was the loss of Plan A.
Earlier this week, my daughter and I watched the movie Interstellar. It’s a too-long sci-fi about a hero who must pass through a worm-hole into another galaxy to find another inhabitable planet on which to relocate humanity (because the earth is dying). Frankly, I’m weary of the hero’s journey trope in movies in which someone (usually a white male) has to make the ultimate sacrifice and abandon his family in order to save the world, but there was at least one thing in the movie’s plot line that I found intriguing.
Finding another planet and relocating humanity is Plan A. It’s what motivates the hero (the only man left who knows how to fly into space) to take the journey because he wants to save his children and create a future for them. Plan B – the fall-back plan if the hero and his crew can’t return to this galaxy and to earth – is to stay in the new galaxy, let the old earth and all her inhabitants die, and colonize another planet with the frozen embryos they’re carrying with them.
At some point in the movie, (spoiler alert), after the hero and his crew have made multiple sacrifices and are somewhere in the other galaxy, we find out that the scientist who was the mastermind behind the journey knew that Plan A would never work. BUT… he also knew that if the hero didn’t BELIEVE that Plan A was possible (that his sacrifice was worth it in order to save his kids), he would never be motivated to make the journey. Plan A was what got him to the place where Plan B could be implemented.
Sometimes Plan B is the only thing that CAN happen, but we only get there because we commit ourselves to a belief in Plan A.
This morning I rode my bike to the park and sat on a bench with my journal. The tears started to flow as I realized that my body was still holding some of the grief over the loss of Plan A.
Plan A was what that blushing bride was carrying down the aisle twenty-seven years ago today. It was the dream of a traditional family unit – a home with a mom and a dad with good jobs and a couple of kids with the white picket fence and the annual vacations to interesting places. It was stability and ease and it was raising kids who’d still have grandparents into their adulthood. It was the kind of Big Love and Romance the fairy tales had held out in front of her.
Plan A didn’t involve divorce and single parenting and a dad killed under a tractor or a mom dying too young of cancer. It didn’t include suicide attempts or psych wards or dead babies. There was no thought of trauma or grief or tear-soaked pillows in the middle of the night. None of that was there, in her thoughts, when she walked down the aisle. They couldn’t be, or she would never have taken those steps into the unknown galaxy.
But maybe Plan A was never anything more than an illusion – the kind of mirage that keeps a person moving forward in a desert even when there is no water to be found. Maybe the belief in Plan A is what motivates us, in the early days when the world seems more black and white and full of clarity and promise and binary belief systems, so that we have the chance to grow and deepen enough to live into an acceptance of Plan B.
Maybe Plan A was never the point, it’s just the path to get us here.
For me, an acceptance of Plan B – the realization that my life wasn’t going to be a fulfillment of the hope that the blushing bride carried down the aisle along with her bouquet of white roses – is what brought me to the Centre for Holding Space. It’s what allowed me to make meaning of my mom’s death and write the blog post that catapulted this work into the world. It’s what was awakened in me when my stillborn son Matthew made his brief sojourn into the world and introduced me to grief and pointed me in the direction of the quest I’ve been on since.
No, I wouldn’t have chosen Plan B, but if I hadn’t found my way here, I wouldn’t know the pure joy that this work has brought me. I wouldn’t have found my way into genuine community and the kinds of deep relationships that give life meaning.
I wouldn’t have discovered that life has more purpose and beauty when you let go of the illusion.
Truthfully? Though I let myself grieve Plan A for a moment in the park this morning, because my body needed me to acknowledge it and not brush it aside, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The loss of Plan A is what brought me to this beautiful life, this beautiful community, and this beautiful work. And next month, it’s what will allow my book to be born into the world.
From this side of the Great Loss, Plan B looks pretty amazing and richly textured. In retrospect, Plan A looks rather two-dimensional.
I’m going to celebrate the beautiful complexity that is Plan B. And I won’t be afraid of the grief over losing Plan A, because that’s what gives the beauty its shadow and texture.
It happened repeatedly in my youth. I’d come home from a friend’s house and walk into the house to find nobody there. I’d look in all of the rooms, start to get that panicky feeling and then go out to the farmyard to see if somebody was in the barn or cattle pasture. Suddenly, I was desperate to know that somebody was home – that they hadn’t all abandoned me. I only felt secure when I heard my dad’s voice or spotted my mom in the garden.
It was the end times I was most afraid of – being left behind when the rapture came. Every person I know who’s grown up in an evangelical home has a similar memory. “What if they’ve all gone and we didn’t get taken with them? What if we weren’t Christian enough? What if we haven’t sufficiently confessed our sins and will be denied entry into heaven?”
There’s a certain trauma that gets left in a person’s body when you grow up with that fear. There’s a heightened awareness that threads through your nervous system, reminding you always that you have to be good enough, obedient enough and repentant enough to make the cut when the second coming suddenly separates the saved from the unsaved.
It’s taken me a long time to recognize how much of that early conditioning has left me with an easily triggered fear of being found out to be sinful, wrong, or bad. To be bad is to be separated from God, shunned from your community, and at risk of spending an eternity in the fires of hell. Even long after you stop believing in hell, the trauma stays rooted in your body.
Abandonment. Shame. Shunning. Pain. Death. This is what my amygdala still tries to convince me – in moments when it’s triggered into fight/flight/freeze/fawn – are the consequences of being bad.
I have been wondering, lately, whether this isn’t just a personal experience (the result of being raised in an evangelical home) but a collective one.
How much have we ALL been socialized into this kind of reactivity, even those not raised in evangelicalism? How much of that trauma remains deeply and subconsciously rooted in our culture, here in North America (and elsewhere), given the fact that we are, ostensibly, “Christian” nations, colonized by countries where Christianity was the dominant religion? How much have we internalized the fear of separation and abandonment that a sin-doctrine embeds in a culture, even long after it’s not the central narrative?
There’s a pattern that I’ve witnessed over and over again when I teach the Holding Space Practitioner Program… people show up eager to learn about holding space for others, and somewhere around Module 2 (on holding space for yourself) they come face-to-face with their own biases, trauma, blind spots, and shadow. Suddenly… WHOA! I start getting remarks about how hard the work has become and how they need more time (we’ve lengthened this module for that reason), and the resistance shows up. Some push back, some want to abandon ship, some create conflict. Many end up begrudgingly thanking me for nudging them into work they were avoiding doing, but first they have to fight it.
It’s hard to look into your shadow. It’s painful and shame-inducing to suddenly have to face your biases, blindspots and blunders. It’s also, if my theory is right, trauma-inducing. It triggers a deeply rooted, culturally sanctioned, subconscious fear that we will be abandoned, shunned, and “sent out of the kingdom”. We’ll lose our standing in the community, we’ll risk an eternity of pain and separation, and we might even be put to death. Or at least that’s what the amygdala believes.
It’s why we have things like white fragility (though I appreciate what this writer says about renaming it “white flammability”). People who’ve convinced themselves they are good people, in good standing with their community, are suddenly sent into spasms when their biases and blindspots are revealed. They can’t fathom the fact that they are capable of causing harm. They haven’t been equipped to hold space for their own shame. Subconsciously, they’re terrified that they will be abandoned and, at worst, banished from the kingdom.
It’s also why we’ve developed such a punitive legal system in our culture. We might call it a “justice” system, but it’s really not about justice. It’s about shaming, blaming, and punishing those who do wrong. It’s about creating separation from those of us who are seen to be “upstanding citizens” and those who are criminals. It’s about sending people out of our communities and abandoning them in prisons, so that we can hide the collective shadow in our culture. Out of fear of our own shadow, we call out those with more obvious shadows (or those marginalized by the dominant culture and made to look like they are bad) and project our shame onto them.
Because of this collective fear of being wrong, we’ve not only punished the transgressors, but we’ve also elevated and idolized those with curated lives who look like they’ve managed to transcend the messiness the rest of us get stuck in. We overlook the cracks in those we want to emulate because we want to see the polished life, and we want to believe that it’s possible for us, too, to live untarnished lives. We project our unhealthy aspirations and expectations of ourselves onto those who appear most worthy of our adoration. Social media makes this even more tempting because it allows us unprecedented access into our heroes’ lives and opinions.
When you find yourself in a position of influence like that, with people projecting their ideals onto you, it becomes surprisingly tempting to give them what they want. If they give you money to teach them how to live a charmed and curated life like yours (or to model it onscreen), it’s even more tempting. The money allows you to put even more polish on your life, so it perpetuates the cycle. Meanwhile, your own trauma and fear of abandonment is at play, so you work extra hard at meeting people’s expectations of you for fear of being found out and suddenly shunned and left behind.
Unfortunately, that charmed place on a pedestal rarely lasts. People find the cracks in your facade and when they start poking around, they find that those cracks are really deep, dark chasms of shadow. And then, because they feel betrayed by you, because you no longer give them hope that a shadow-free life is possible, they tear you down, with a vengeance. That’s what “cancel-culture” is all about.
Sadly, if those influencers had known, early on in their development, that the uncomfortable shadow work that they avoided is what could have saved them from the destructiveness of the tear-down, they might have found themselves on a different trajectory. Sure, they wouldn’t have found the same level of celebrity and status, but they would have found something much better and longer-lasting — authentic community. Relationships rooted in truth-telling and vulnerability are worth a lot more than those shallowly rooted in performance.
In recent months, with Black Lives Matter at the forefront of our consciousness, we’ve seen several people, especially in the coaching and personal development world, with large followings and lots of influence, whose cracks have been revealed. People are pointing out the lack of consciousness around anti-racism and anti-oppression and revealing where harm has been done to the marginalized in their communities. Some of them, in avoidance of the shame of being called out, use gaslighting to shame and reject anyone who might challenge them. Some teach spiritual bypassing as a way of avoiding the darkness and keeping their followers in a state of compliance and fake peace.
Some of these leaders, sadly, have developed cult-like followings where people are shamed by others in the in-group for daring to challenge what their leader says. As Alexandra Stein has pointed out in Terror, Love, and Brainwashing, these leaders manipulate their followers into unhealthy attachment systems, where followers will do anything to stay connected to the leader because of the way that their needs are met in the community. The leaders manipulate the trauma coursing through our culture, reminding people that they will be rejected if they step out of line, if they point out the flaws in the leader or what’s being taught within the community. The trauma bond floods the nervous system and makes it nearly impossible for people to think clearly and notice how messed up the leader, community, and/or belief system is.
The only solution, as I see it, is for us to work to heal the collective trauma and begin to create greater space in our culture for shadow work. We need to make it acceptable to speak of our mistakes, to admit our biases, to own up to the ways in which we cause harm because of our trauma and social conditioning. We also need to build collective systems in which we learn how to co-regulate in those moments when we are triggered so that we don’t cause so much harm as a result.
We also need to change our collective views about leadership. When leaders and influencers can be flawed and vulnerable, when they don’t feel the pressure to meet unrealistic expectations, and when they are embedded into communities that both support them and hold them accountable, then there is less inclination for them to become abusive when their biases and blindspots are pointed out. They don’t have to hide their shadows because they’ve never pretended they didn’t have them.
In just a few weeks, we’ll be launching the Centre for Holding Space. One of the reasons why I’m going into partnership in launching this, instead of building it alone, is that I want to be intentional about building a structure that doesn’t elevate me into an unrealistic position of leadership and influence. I don’t want to be the influencer who cracks under the pressure of meeting people’s expectations. I want to be able to continue to reveal my shadow, and I want to be held accountable for the ways my biases and blindspots get in the way of the work. I don’t want my trauma – my deeply held fear of being found to be bad – to be running the show and separating me from my humanity or the humanity of those in my community. I want to be imperfect and I want to keep striving to welcome imperfect people into the circle with me.
My partner, Krista, is very good at supporting me and helping me stay grounded and honest. We have built a solid relationships of trust in which neither of us has to be performative or defensive of our flaws. We are also growing an incredible team of people that is eager to support this work as it grows, and they’re all equally committed to showing up flawed and vulnerable alongside us.
In building a solid foundation for our business, we recently worked through a Conscious Contract with our lawyer, in which we developed a co-founders agreement that will help us work through conflict and hold space for the shadow when it shows up in ourselves and our business. We’ll hold each other accountable for doing the messy work and for staying in the discomfort long enough for transformation to happen.
We are excited to welcome you, our readers, clients, and friends, into this space we’re creating. We want to hold space for your imperfections. We want to create a space of healing where trauma isn’t shamed and nobody is shunned for being wrong.
Whenever I teach my workshops on holding space, I warn people that there will likely be a moment when they have to face their own shadow and their discomfort might make them want to run from the room. “You’re allowed to step out of the room if you need to,” I say, “but know that you are always welcome back. We will hold the space for you to return.”
This is what I want for the Centre for Holding Space to be – a place where people can peer into their shadows, and trust that, even if they run away, they’re still welcome back in the room. Because when people come back to meet themselves in the circle, that’s when the real healing happens.
A couple of days ago, I cried in the carwash. It seemed a fitting place for waterworks, and a little screaming, if necessary. I was on my way home with the groceries that were needed to cook supper for my family, but I wasn’t ready to be home yet, so I used the excuse that the car needed washing to buy myself some crying time.
I’d hit overwhelm. My daughter had had surgery earlier in the day, after many months of repeated attempts to address her breathing problems, and the surgery wasn’t entirely successful. Plus we found out new information about her prognosis that’s been discouraging for both of us. In addition to the worry about her, I found myself hitting some nervous system overload due to some things that happened at the hospital that triggered some of my past trauma. This came at the tail end of a month of traveling and teaching, so my resources were already depleted.
Overwhelm happens, and I’ve come to accept it as simple reality in this life I’ve chosen (or any life, for that matter).Sometimes one simply must cry in a carwash to release all of the emotions one is holding, especially when some of that holding is on other people’s behalf. Sometimes a single good cry is enough and sometimes it isn’t.
I have a lot of capacity for holding space, but sometimes I max out on that capacity. It happens to the best of us, and I share this with you to encourage you to give yourself permission to admit when you’re maxed out too.
In this post, though, I want to go a little further and talk about some of the deeper layers of why we get maxed out in this work of holding space and what we can do about it.
What I’ve encountered, again and again, as I travel the world and meet with people who hold space, is that this work especially calls wounded people. My workshops are full of wounded, healing people. (I considered calling them “wounded healers”, but holding space is more about “being with” than it is about “healing”. Perhaps “wounded witnesses” is better.) We become good at holding space for the brokenness and pain in the world partly because we already intimately know the brokenness and pain in ourselves. We learn to bear witness to grief and fear and trauma and all of the other complex emotions in others because we know those things in ourselves.
The challenge is that, even when we do a lot of healing, we continue to carry those wounds with us for life. We never become perfectly healed, saintly people – we just become people who learn to carry those wounds with grace, integrate them into our lives, and use them to help us better understand other people who are wounded.
When scar tissue grows over a flesh wound, that scar tissue may be thicker than the original skin, but it’s also usually more tender and vulnerable and may need special care. Similarly, when we have emotional wounds, we might grow emotional scar tissue over it that protects us, but we remain tender and vulnerable because of it. We’ll likely need to be extra tender with ourselves whenever that emotional wound is bumped.
These wounds that we carry are both blessings and curses. They help us to see the world through more compassionate eyes and they help grow our ability to sit with messiness and discomfort, but they also make us more vulnerable and more in need of healthy boundaries and robust self-care.
Let me share a little about that woundedness in me…
I mentioned above that my nervous system was flooded while I was at the hospital, and that’s because of the multiple traumas that were being triggered while I was there.
A.) I once spent three weeks in another part of that same hospital trying to prolong my third pregnancy, and that pregnancy ended with the stillbirth of my son. During that three week period, I had a significant psychotic break that was probably brought on by the steroids the medical team was pumping into my body to try to speed the development of my son. It was one of the scariest and most confusing 24 hours of my life.
B.) During the course of my marriage, my former husband attempted suicide twice and had to spend a week in the hospital each time. During those times, I served as his advocate and primary caregiver, and (during the second attempt) also had to be a supportive mom to our three young daughters.
That second trauma is the one that’s left the most complex mark on my life. Both times he went into the kind of intense emotional tailspin that resulted in a suicide attempt were times when I’d turned my attention away from him. The first time, I was five months pregnant with our first child. The second time, I was about to launch my own business.
My trauma brain became conditioned to believe that “when I turn my attention away from suffering, people die”. (Or at least they attempt to die – trauma brain doesn’t know the difference.)
That’s just the tip of the iceberg of that particular trauma. It’s hard to go into the details, because the story is not mine alone (and I don’t want to blame or slander anyone), but there were many, many ways, in my marriage, that my trauma brain was conditioned to believe that I (and others) would suffer whenever I was inattentive to another’s suffering, whenever I didn’t sacrifice myself to fill another’s needs, whenever I tried to erect or hold boundaries, and whenever I tried to protect my children from the instability created by the mental illness.
When it comes to stress and trauma, I am well acquainted with all of the typical amygdala reactivity – fight, flight, and freeze – but I am most intimately familiar with one identified more recently as “tend and befriend”. Researchers who named the tend and befriend response found that some people (especially women) react to stressful situations by tending to those most vulnerable to harm and by befriending the perpetrator in order to reduce the harm. Again and again, we put our bodies on the line to try to mitigate harm, until it becomes so much a part of who we are that we no longer notice ourselves doing it. (This has also become a culturally expected role of women – especially mothers – so the complexity of it runs deep. Our trauma often becomes part of the way we are controlled by the dominant culture.)
I spent much of my marriage tending and befriending, in many, many stressful situations, so that pattern is deeply ingrained in me and is easily triggered whenever anything reminds me (usually subconsciously) of the original trauma. Triggers can appear out of nowhere, and I never know what will trigger me, but some of the common sources are: when someone exhibits the behavioural patterns of my former husband’s mental illness, when I am critiqued for not caring enough or being inattentive to suffering, when I feel manipulated by passive-aggressiveness, when conflict makes a situation feel unstable, or when someone ignores or makes fun of one of my boundaries. This can happen in the middle of a workshop I’m facilitating, while I’m interacting with friends or family, or even when someone responds critically to a Facebook post of mine. Each time it happens, my body responds the same way – as though the threat is always just as serious as a person potentially dying.
A flooded nervous system can feel different for each person, but here’s what happens to me, usually instantly and simultaneously: Adrenaline pumps through my body (the physiological preparation for fight or flight) and my heart begins to race, my muscles tense, and I become hyper-alert to any perceived threat. My throat tightens and if I try to speak it might come out sounding choked or emotional. My brain gets buzzy (amygdala hijacking) and I can’t focus, think clearly, or access my capacity for logic and reason. I become hyper-focused on the source of the triggering and my brain keeps looping back to it even when I try to redirect it elsewhere (sometimes long into the night, when I’m trying to sleep). I have an overwhelming compulsion to respond to the perceived threat – usually in a tend and befriend manner, but often also in a fight/flight/freeze fashion – even when I try to convince myself that it doesn’t logically make sense to. Sometimes I dissociate (freeze) and feel numb and checked out, going through the motions of relationships and life but not fully present.
My therapist has helped me to accept that, though I’ve made huge progress in healing the trauma, there will always be a part of it that I will carry with me, like emotional scar tissue. I’ve stopped hoping that I’ll eventually never be triggered and instead I’m learning to integrate this wound into my life and respond with self-compassion when the triggering happens.
The added complexity of this kind of trauma is that it’s not only rooted in my marriage, it’s generational, cultural, and religious. I inherited it from my mom, who had much of the same trauma running through her body and likely inherited it from her mom (and so on). I also inherited it from my patriarchal culture and pacifist religion (i.e., “turn the other cheek” is a deeply held belief in my Mennonite upbringing). With something so deeply rooted in my cells, it’s unrealistic to hope that I can transform it over the course of only a few years. It’s likely something that my children will continue to heal for many years too, because they’ve inherited it from me (though we’re doing our best to heal it together).
Here are some of the things that I do when I am dysregulated (another name for nervous system flooding):
1.) Practice self-soothing in the moment that it happens. Take deep breaths, go for a walk, drink a glass of water, let myself cry, listen to soothing music, lay my hands on my throat and/or heart to soothe the places where I feel my body respond, etc. (For more suggestions, I recommend Gwynn Raimondi’s Nervous System Soothing card deck.) When it happened in the hospital, I walked to the cafeteria for a cup of tea and sat in a hidden corner taking deep breaths while sipping the tea slowly.
2.) Strengthen my boundaries and become fierce about enforcing them. I can, admittedly, come across as rather abrupt and sometimes even a little cruel when I’ve been triggered and need to erect boundaries, but I’ve learned to give myself permission to protect myself in the way that I need to. Sometimes I simply don’t have the spoons to finesse my boundary-enforcement, so occasionally I find myself apologizing after the fact (though I’m careful not to over-apologize or take responsibility for other people’s reactions, because that can be part of my tend and befriend tendency as well). In the hospital, for example, when I became overwhelmed, I gave myself permission to not sit in the same waiting room as my former husband (who I wasn’t expecting to be there) and not explain myself either, because I knew that if I did so, my body would be on high alert and I would have to work extra hard to fight the compulsion to tend and befriend.
3.) Reach out to people who help me co-regulate. I have a few close friends who respond to my texts, in my moments of dysregulation, with just the right compassion, understanding, and protectiveness that help to calm and centre me (i.e., holding space). They were my lifeline in the hospital. Some even offered to drive across town to sit with me, but I decided it wasn’t necessary. They continued to check in on me after the worst of the perceived crisis was over, and I am grateful for the way they supported me through it. The added benefit in admitting to close friends when I’m dysregulated is that the vulnerability helps to normalize it, to mitigate shame, and to build resilience (as Brené Brown teaches).
4.) Continue to look after my body after the flooding has subsided. In a particularly overwhelming incident, it can take quite awhile to return to a sense of calm. Sometimes I still feel shaky and edgy a day or two later. That’s when I immerse myself in epson salt baths, get a massage if necessary, and do some movement practice (sometimes it’s as simple as dancing around my house to the song Brave).
5.) Give myself some intentional time for processing/healing after it’s over. To continue to integrate this trauma wound into my life, I give it a chance to speak to me. After my nervous system has returned to calm, I usually take out my journal and write about the experience and what it revealed. As part of that practice, I always try to find ways to congratulate myself for the ways I’ve made progress, or simply for the way that I survived. This week I had to reschedule a couple of meetings so that I could spend a morning in a coffee shop with my journal, but it was worth it. Sometimes the processing also includes a visit to my therapist or other support-worker.
6.) Treat myself for adrenal fatigue, if necessary. After my marriage ended, I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue, a condition caused by being in a prolonged state of nervous system and adrenaline overload. I took adrenal health supplements for some time and, though I don’t need them regularly anymore, I still take them occasionally when I go through a period of overload and fatigue.
7.) Practice self-compassion, forgiveness, and grace. This week, I dropped multiple balls, and in some cases, let people down. That’s the kind of thing I tend to beat myself up over, but I’m getting better at acknowledging my imperfections and forgiving myself for the ways I fumble when my brain’s not focusing clearly and/or I’m distracted or overwhelmed and/or I don’t have as much time or energy for things as I expect.
This trauma wound often feels like a burden that I’m stuck carrying for the rest of my life, but I’ve also come to see it as a gift. I likely wouldn’t be doing the work that I do in the way that I do it without such an intimate understanding of trauma. It allows me to be more compassionate with other trauma-impacted people, it helps me to be more attentive to what’s going on beneath the surface with people I’m teaching or coaching, and it’s taught me a lot about boundaries and the value and importance of holding space for yourself.
When I teach, I do it not only from my strengths, but from my weaknesses. I believe that people can benefit from the authentic sharing of the ways that I still get triggered and overwhelmed and the ways that I fail people that I’m trying to help, especially when I’m dysregulated. Sometimes I’ve even admitted to having a flooded nervous system in the middle of a workshop. The response to that kind of sharing is almost always relief and understanding – they’re glad to know that we don’t have to be perfect to do this work of holding space and that their wounds are as welcome as mine.
To be wounded is not to be broken or useless – it is simply to be human and real. It is also to be tender and openhearted. When we learn to treat our own woundedness with compassion and understanding, we can treat other people’s woundedness the same way.
If you find yourself overwhelmed, be as tender as you can with yourself and recognize that you are doing the best that you can with the skills that you have. Your body is uniquely designed to have the kinds of responses that you have, so don’t beat yourself up for the ways that those responses have become maladaptive. Instead, learn to hold space for them, integrate them, find the gifts beneath the pain, and do your best to heal and transform them as much as you can.
We are not meant to be superheroes. We are meant to be imperfect humans fumbling through this life together. We are meant to be wounded witnesses.
“When I get my grad pictures taken,” my daughter Maddy said yesterday, “I want to have one taken where I’m holding a megaphone.” She graduates from high school in June. She’s hoping to buy her own megaphone before then, just because it’s something she feels that she should own.
Last week, while I was away in B.C. leading back-to-back retreats, Maddy was at home using her voice and learning to use a megaphone. As one of the leaders of Manitoba Youth for Climate Action, she’d helped to organize two major events – a die-in for climate action (with hundreds of youth pretending to die on the steps of the Human Rights Museum, to represent those lives being lost to climate change), and a climate strike (with 12,000 people participating in our city). Each day I’d get text messages from her with videos, photos, and multiple links to media interviews she’d done. In one of those news clips, she can be seen leading the marchers in a chant, megaphone in hand (video at the bottom of this link).
It was that short clip – my daughter shouting into a megaphone in front of thousands of marchers – that moved me to tears. The fact that she not only had the courage to USE her voice at seventeen (to speak on behalf of a planet that has suffered because of the greed and carelessness of many generations before her) but to AMPLIFY it was remarkable.
Not long before that, at a retreat on Holding Space for Yourself, I’d spoken about the ways that we, especially as women, keep ourselves small and hold back our voices. This wasn’t a “shame on you for being silent” conversation – it was an acknowledgement of the trauma, shame, and silencing we face and that generations before us have faced – all of those stories we carry in our bones, our hearts, and our bodies that tell us we are not worthy of having our voices heard and that we are in danger if we speak too loudly.
When I was Maddy’s age, I was still tangled in the grip of those influences in my life that told me that my voice had little value and should never be amplified. I remember, for example, simply wanting to read the scripture from the pulpit in the tiny rural church I grew up in (not even sharing my OWN words, but reading GOD’S out loud) and being told (by my father, who was the leader of the church at the time) that women weren’t allowed to do that. I KNEW I had leadership capacity and I KNEW I had something to say, but again and again I heard that that was a space reserved only for men.
That belief, seeded deep into my psyche, stayed with me for a long, long time, and even now, at fifty-three, I still have moments of sell-doubt when I know the old messages need to be rejected all over again. I spent most of my career, in fact, in service to that deep-seeded belief. Though I knew I had things to say, I spent the first half of my career working as a communications professional, teaching OTHER people how to communicate, helping OTHER people perform well in media interviews, putting words in OTHER people’s mouths by writing their speeches for them. I was the expert in communications, but rarely did I get to speak.
My job was to pass the megaphone to everyone else and to make sure they sounded good when they used it. Just as I’d been taught so many years before… “a woman’s role is to serve quietly in the background, letting the men have the shining roles.”
A few weeks after my mom died, I wrote a post about women’s voices. In it, I talked about how it was challenging to find my own voice, given the messaging I’d received (a lot of which, sadly, came from my mother) about the lack of value of that voice.
From that post: In recent years, while I’ve been growing my body of work, I’ve had a hard time sharing what I do with my Mom. Some things – like the teaching I do at the university – was fairly easy for her to grasp, but other things just didn’t make sense to her. For one thing, she remained committed to a Christian tradition that frowned upon women in leadership, so when I started teaching women how to lead with more courage, creativity and wild-heartedness, it didn’t really fit with her paradigms.
There was a time when it made me angry that my mom, who should have been my greatest advocate and ally, contributed to my silencing and the shame and fear I had to wrestle with in order to speak, but I don’t blame her any more. Years of healing work have helped me to understand how much she herself had been silenced and shamed and how much she felt responsible (though it was largely unconscious responsibility) for protecting me from the harm that comes to women who speak.
In the seven years since that post, I’ve learned a lot more about internalized oppression and trauma and how we adopt the language and behaviour of the systems that oppress us to silence, gaslight, and shame ourselves. It’s what keeps us submissive, silent, and in service to those who have more power. And then, because we’ve been well trained in it, we do the same to our offspring – passing down the oppression from generation to generation to generation.
I’ve also been learning more and more about trauma and how it’s intricately intertwined with oppression. I recognize it in myself every time I begin to speak of things that threaten to disrupt the status quo – my throat begins to close up, my body trembles, and I know that my flooded nervous system is trying to convince me to RUN! PROTECT YOURSELF! YOU ARE NOT SAFE HERE! It’s trauma from my own youthful attempts to speak and it’s trauma inherited from generations and generations of women – some of whom were branded as witches and burned at the stake for the very things I now speak of.
No, my mom is not to blame. Her silence, insecurity, and shame were all deeply embedded in the training that she, too, had received. That was all she knew how to pass down to her daughters.
My dad is also not to blame. He, too, was playing the role he’d been taught to play and held his own fear of how deviating from that role might bring harm to him and his family. (I remember the way he agonized about saying no to me when I wanted to speak – I’m certain he WANTED to let me.)
My parents were doing the best that they knew how and I love them for it. I love them for the many ways that they DID support me – the curiosity that my dad helped to foster in me, the way my mom modelled how to hold space long before I knew the term, the way they both encouraged me to read and learn and be open to other people’s views.
Despite their best efforts, though, I acknowledge the pain that was passed down to me. I acknowledge the trauma of being a woman with a voice who was taught that voice was worthless. I acknowledge the wounds I had to heal in order to get to this place where I now trust that I have something to say. I acknowledge the fear I still feel sometimes when my voice causes too much disruption and I face rejection and punishment from a system that doesn’t want to be disrupted. I acknowledge all of that AND I acknowledge the painstaking work that is required for ALL of us to heal what other generations have bequeathed us with.
This post started with my daughter Maddy and I want to end there. I was moved to tears by the video clip of my daughter with a megaphone partly because of the pride I feel for her and partly because the healing work I’ve done has disrupted what’s being passed from generation to generation. THAT is something to celebrate.
She can claim her space and use her voice at an early age partly because she has inherited less of the baggage that prevented me from doing the same. Her voice now rings loud and clear with all of the other youth around the planet calling on us to disrupt the systems that are destroying our planet. (It’s not lost on me that the disruption of patriarchal oppression allows youth to rise up to call for further disruption.)
It still takes courage for her to do what she does (and I take credit for none of that – SHE did this, not me), but at least she started out on more sturdy ground.