Our vacation didn’t start well. We’d barely arrived at our AirBnB apartment when my daughter and I got into an argument.
Only one of us could have a bedroom to herself for the week we were there. My daughter had done the research on where to stay in Chicago and had booked the apartment. At some point, while making the arrangements, she’d told the rest of us where we’d sleep, and though I don’t remember the conversation, those arrangements involved me sharing a bedroom with one of her sisters. (The third sister was going to sleep in the living room.)
When we arrived, though, after two tiring days of driving, I suddenly thought “WHY am I paying for this vacation, doing most of the driving, etc., but not reaping the benefits of a room to myself?” And in that moment, the many years of having made sacrifices for my family bubbled to the surface and I thought “nope, not this time.”
I claimed the space, and she reacted. We argued, and then both stormed into separate bedrooms.
In that moment when I claimed the space, it wasn’t just about selfishness – I was trying to change one of my old patterns. For the twenty-two years I was married and the twenty-three I’ve been a mom, I have given up a lot of things and let a lot of my boundaries be crossed – especially on vacations – in order to keep the peace. (I learned it from my mom.) For whatever reason (ie. being away from home, spending too much time in enclosed spaces together, having to make more collective decisions than usual, etc.) our vacations have often been powder-kegs for conflict, especially between my ex-husband and daughters. Conflict makes me anxious and my typical trauma response, in that situation, is to “tend-and-befriend” – to look for whatever compromise I can make and to calm everyone’s emotions in order to smooth things over and return to what feels more safe.
I’ve given up so many things, in fact, that if you ask me (especially while I’m on vacation) which restaurants I like to eat at and where I like to stay, I get a little flummoxed and sometimes a little anxious because I want to make sure everyone else is satisfied first. (If everyone is satisfied and there is little potential for conflict, the little girl in me can relax and feel secure.)
In recent years, though, I’ve been doing a lot of healing and I’ve been trying to change some of those well-engrained patterns. I do this for myself, and I also do this for my daughters – I don’t want them to assume that, when/if they become mothers, they have to sacrifice themselves for everyone else. And I don’t want them to instinctually run from or rush to fix conflict whenever it surfaces.
The challenging thing about changing patterns, though, is that it can be quite disruptive to those who are used to the existing patterns. Also, the person changing the pattern hasn’t yet learned new skills in communicating this new way of being, and there’s tenderness in the exposed wound that they instinctually want to protect, so they can end up treating those they love rather brusquely and sometimes unfairly.
To put it frankly, I was a bit of a bully parent in the way that I claimed the space.
About half an hour later, my daughter came to me in tears. “Can I just tell you how that felt?” she asked, and I, softened by the time that had passed and the tears in her eyes, said “Yes.”
She told me that she’d felt brushed aside by me – that I hadn’t offered her an explanation, hadn’t honoured the agreement she thought we had, hadn’t considered the effort she’d put into researching and booking the place, and hadn’t shown any concern for her feelings or needs. “You don’t usually do that,” she said. “That triggered me and I pushed back.”
“You’re right. I handled that badly,” I said, and then asked if she’d like to hear the words I’d neglected to say earlier. I told her about how I’d been triggered in that moment too – how I’ve so often given up things to keep the family peace and how I’ve been intentional about trying to change that. I also told her about why having a bedroom to myself feels important right now – how it’s helped me heal some of my past trauma and how it helps me be a better mom when I honour my own need for solitude.
We listened, we soothed our own nervous systems when things were difficult to hear, we gave each other space, we forgave each other, and we figured out a compromise that allowed each of us to get at least some of what we needed. (In the language of Brené Brown, we agreed to “rumble” with what had transpired between us.)
The next morning, I told her “I’m proud of us. We managed to find our way through that without continuing to trigger each other and getting stuck in reactivity.”
I’m especially proud of HER, because she initiated the exchange that healed us, after the necessary pause. She was able to soothe her nervous system first and recognize that our relationship was much bigger than this conflict. And she wasn’t afraid to speak truth to her mother even though, ultimately, I’m the one who holds more power in the relationship and could have shut her down (and have done so in the past).
That exchange with my daughter came at a time when I’ve been especially aware of the impact that wounded parents have on their children when they don’t recognize and work on healing their own woundedness (which, admittedly, has been me in the past). In recent months, my backyard has been a bit of a haven for more than one young person who’s wrestling with how to communicate with reactive parents who shut down their children’s emotions and/or needs or shut down their own emotions and/or needs in the face of whatever triggers them. Listening to these stories and trying to offer support has made it especially clear to me how generational trauma gets passed down through the lineage until someone decides to face it.
Let’s be honest – there are few things that reveal our woundedness, our reactivity, our anxiety, or our fears the way that parenting does.There are few people who can trigger us in the way that our children can. There are few responsibilities that leave us feeling more insecure and uncertain than parenting. It’s a minefield for trauma triggers, for conflict, for overwhelm, for self-doubt, and for exhaustion. AND… it’s also the place where we put the most pressure on ourselves to “do it right” because we know we’re impacting someone else’s life. And it’s the area in which the old trope “never let them see you sweat” feels the most appropriate because we feel the pressure to show confidence in order to offer security to our children.
It’s all of that AND it’s the area of our lives in which we were given the least education and preparation and, for many of us, where we had little modelling of heathy parenting from our own wounded parents.
So here – from one wounded parent to another – are some thoughts on how to parent while you’re still working on your own healing. These come from my most recent parenting experience (with teens and young adults), so are geared to that age of parenting, but most of them can be adapted for younger age children as well.
1. Let them in on the story of your wounds. If you have childhood trauma, or you were in an abusive relationship, or you were sexually assaulted, etc., let them know as much about it as you think they can handle (keeping in mind what’s age-appropriate). This is especially important if the trauma left you with triggers that may show up in a way that your children will notice and be impacted. If they know, for example, that you might be triggered by car accidents because a loved one died in an accident, it might surprise them less when they see you having an anxiety attack or running from the scene. And if they have the understanding that your reactivity comes as a result of the trauma, they’ll be less likely to assume that your anger, etc., is targeted at them and less likely to absorb the shame of responsibility for triggering you.
2. Let them know what you’ll try to do to soothe your own nervous system in the moments when you’re triggered so that they can count on you to take responsibility for yourself and not to fall apart entirely.If you only give them the story of your trauma but don’t tell them about the healing work you’re doing, it will likely create insecurity for them and they’ll have their own vicarious trauma, worried about when and how you might fall apart, snap at them, etc.. If, on the other hand, they know that you might fall apart or be reactive momentarily, but then you’ll do what needs to be done to soothe and heal yourself, their security will increase.
3. Apologize when you mess up. You’re going to mess up – that’s a given. And you will likely wound your children when you mess up. We’re all human and flawed and nobody prepares us for this gargantuan task of raising children. You’ll snap at them, you’ll dismiss their feelings, you’ll make them feel invisible – it happens to all of us at some point, when we’re tired, triggered, overwhelmed, grieving, etc.. Start by forgiving yourself, do what you need to do to deal with the shame of the mistake you made (talk to a friend if that helps), and then apologize to your children. Your apology is a message of love to them and it helps them recognize that whatever happened is not their fault. It also lets them know that it’s okay to screw up once in awhile and it won’t mean that they’re a bad person when they do. (A word of caution, though – don’t over-apologize or insist that they forgive you right away. That can place a burden on them to process it too quickly or to look after your feelings instead of their own and that’s not fair.)
4. Help them to become emotionally literate by modelling it for them.Talk to them about your emotional responses to things (ie. what situations make you feel anxious, what might trigger your grief, etc.) so that they recognize (and aren’t afraid of) their own emotions when they show up. There’s good research that reveals that the more clearly we are able to articulate our emotions the more healthy our relationship with those emotions will be and the less they’ll control us. Help them to recognize that there are no “bad” emotions so that they don’t feel shame or try to hide what they’re going through. A child raised in an environment where all emotions are accepted and can be talked about will be more inclined to live authentically and to seek out help for the emotions that are hard to deal with alone. (If you’re not yet emotionally literate yourself, one way to become more so is to develop a mindfulness practice in which you name each emotion when it comes up. You might also want to write about your feelings in a journal.)
5. Don’t put the burden of holding space for your trauma, grief, healing, etc. on their shoulders. While it’s valuable for them to understand something about your wounds and your healing journey, it shouldn’t be their burden to look after you, soothe you, protect you, etc. That’s reversing the natural order of things and creates insecurity and instability, even for an adult child. Let them know that you have your own support system (therapist, friends, siblings, etc.) to whom you can and will turn when you’re struggling. You’ll take the burden off them, offer them more security, and model that it’s okay for them seek out help when they need it just as you do.
6. Teach them about boundaries by having your own and honouring theirs. Teach them about consent in the same way. Let them know what behaviour isn’t acceptable in your home, what kind of self-care you need in order to be a less grumpy parent, how they should treat your personal space, and what consequences might be in place when they cross a boundary. Let them establish their own, age-appropriate boundaries and honour their right to say no, even to you. For example, once my daughters were old enough to do their own laundry and clean their own rooms, I stopped going into their bedrooms without their permission. This was especially important when their dad moved out of the house and they had to grapple with the grief and fear that came from having their parents separated. I’ve always wanted them to know they have a safe place to go, where nobody is allowed to intrude, especially if/when they need solitude for their own self-care, self-soothing, etc.
7. Work to create an environment where it’s safe for them to challenge you, to talk about the ways your reactivity may have wounded them, and/or to admit their own fears, triggers, etc.A child who can trust that they won’t be shut down for expressing their needs or for being honest about how they feel will have a much greater sense of safety and security in their home and in life. A secure environment, with a healthy attachment to at least one parental figure (that isn’t threatened when they challenge you), is the best place for a child to grow up and to explore who they are. When they find themselves in their own trauma experience, they’ll be more likely to develop resilience if they have that secure base.
8. Don’t take everything personally. Especially in their teens, children go through a period in which they need to push the boundaries, break some rules, reject you, etc. to establish their own sense of independence. This is the normal individuation process – it’s NOT ABOUT YOU. You could be the perfect parent and they’d still feel the need to push against you. If you’re insecure and/or easily triggered, you might be inclined to take it all personally and that will activate your reactivity and trigger old abandonment wounds. Over and over again, you need to repeat a mantra… “It’s not personal – it’s just the way they grow up.” Work on communicating clear boundaries and expectations of acceptable behaviour without doing it in an emotional, triggered way. Give them the space and time they need to grow into themselves, and give them love and patience (even when it seems like they don’t return the love), and you’ll likely find that the relationship that’s on the other side is even better than it was before.
After my conflict with my daughter, I felt remarkably good about the way in which it helped us both to grow and to deepen our relationship. I once heard Dr. Dan Siegel say that “triggers can be your friends” and I agree with him. They can point you in the direction of what needs healing. They can reveal unresolved trauma and provide opportunities for growth and integration. And they can help you deepen your relationships with the people you love most.
If you’re reading through this list and it’s feeling overwhelming because you recognize the ways in which you’ve fallen short – take heart – it’s never too late to do repair work with your children and to change the relationship patterns. I’ve been doing a fair bit of that lately and I can see the ways it’s healing my relationships with my daughters and helping to support them in their growth as young adults. A friend of mine recently went to therapy with her adult daughter (who’s lived away from home for many years) and she said it’s been transformational in their relationship – especially the part where she took responsibility for earlier mistakes.
One more thing… if your children are not ready to trust you yet because of the ways in which they’ve been wounded, don’t give up on them – give them time and space to do their own healing work. As hard as it is to accept, you may have been the cause of trauma for them, and they’ll have their own healing journey to go through before they’re ready to trust.
P.S. In case you’re wondering, my daughter has given me permission to share this story. That’s another way in which I teach them about consent – I don’t write about them without giving them the right to say no.
If you want to learn more about holding space for trauma, grief, etc., and you want to expand your capacity to hold space for yourself so that you don’t wound other people, consider signing up for my Holding Space Practitioner Program. The next session starts in October and registration is open.
My three daughters are all very different in how they view the world, how they communicate and how they process emotions. One of the most challenging things I’ve had to learn as their mom is that I have to listen to them differently.
One is introverted and takes a long time to process things, so even when I sense that something might be bothering her, I often have to wait a couple of weeks before I’ll hear about it. One is more extroverted and tends to think and experience the world the most like I do, so I often make the mistake of assuming I know things about her before I’ve taken the time to genuinely listen. A third is very private about her emotions and uses humour as one of her ways of processing the world, so I have to listen extra carefully for the subtle things she’s saying underneath the witticism.
I don’t always get it right. In fact, a lot of times I don’t. There are a surprising number of things that get in the way of good listening. Sometimes there are too many distractions, sometimes I’m tired, sometimes they’ve hurt my feelings and I’m resentful, and sometimes I just want them to be more like me so I don’t have to work so hard to figure them out.
Listening takes a lot of practice. Even though we develop our ability to hear while still in utero (unless we’re hearing impaired), genuine empathic listening is a skill that takes much longer to develop. And even when we’ve worked hard to develop it, we often mess it up.
Not only does listening take a lot of practice, it takes a lot of vigilance and intentionality to stay in it. Sometimes in a coaching session, for example, I’ll be in deep listening mode and suddenly something will distract me or trigger me and I’ll have to work really hard to stay present for the person in front of me. I can’t always identify what it was that pulled me away – it can be a body sensation (ie. my throat suddenly feeling like it’s closing, triggered by something they said), an emotional response (ie. my eyes fill with tears and suddenly I’m in my own story instead of theirs), or my own ego (ie. wanting to insert my own answer to their problem rather than wait for them to find their solution). Each time something like that happens, I have to bring my attention back to the person in front of me.
There were a lot of great answers to my questions. (Click on each question to see all of the responses.) Here’s a summary of some of the things that struck me in the answers:
Genuine listening can’t be faked. While there were a lot of responses about outward signals that someone is listening (eye contact, bodily engagement, good questions), there wasn’t agreement about which signals were most valuable and there was lots of indication that people need to have a genuine felt sense that the person listening is fully present.
Culture and context matter. Some cultures, for example, don’t value eye contact. And some contexts (ie. when the speaker has a lot of shame or trauma) require a more nuanced form of listening that may mean no eye contact and/or no questions.
“Ultimately, a good listener allows the person they are listening to to hear THEMSELVES.” (Chris Zydel) When we, as listeners, interject too much of ourselves in the act of listening (questions, interruptions, too much body language, etc.) we can pull the person away from the depth and openheartedness of their own story.
Genuine listening involves stilling your body and mind so that you can be fully present. In response to the question about indicators when someone is not listening, several people mentioned fidgeting, checking devices, not making eye contact, looking past the speaker, nodding too much, etc., indicating that when we are being listened to, we are usually perceptive to the body signals that a person is genuinely engaged with us.
The behaviour of the person speaking strongly impacts our ability to listen to them. Approximately three quarters of the answers to the question about when people find it most challenging to listen to another person were about the speaker’s behaviour (when they are self-righteous, condescending, not willing to be openminded, basing their opinions on propaganda, performing rather than speaking from the heart, etc.) rather than the listeners. Fewer people identified their own blocks (when I am angry, weary, in disagreement, wrapped up in my own stuff, unwell, traumatized, etc.)
Both speaker and listener have to be engaged and willing to be openhearted for it to work. Genuine listening is a two-way street and it can’t happen when one or the other is checked out, distracted or not being honest with themselves. If the speaker is closed off or defensive, it shuts down the ability to listen. If the listener is closed off, triggered, etc., it shuts down the speaker’s willingness to be vulnerable.
Genuine listening requires self-awareness and good self-care. When we have done our own healing work, paid attention to our own triggers, and taken time to listen to ourselves first, we are in a much better position to listen to others.
Much of what I’ve learned about both listening and speaking, I’ve learned by practicing and teaching The Circle Way. The three practices of circle are: 1. To speak with intention: noting what has relevance to the conversation in the moment. 2. To listen with attention: respectful of the learning process for all members of the group. 3. To tend the well-being of the circle: remaining aware of the impact of our contributions.
Gathering in The Circle Way means that we slow conversation down and give more intentional space to both speaking and listening. When we use the talking piece, for example, there are no interruptions, cross-talk, etc. Nobody redirects what you’re saying by interjecting their own questions, nobody diminishes your wisdom by interjecting their answers to your problems, and everybody is trusted to own their own story and look after the circle by not taking up too much space or time. It can take a lot of practice (some people are quite resistant to talking piece council because they don’t feel it’s genuine conversation if no questions are allowed), but once you get used to the paradigm shift, it’s quite transformational.
Downloading: the listener hears ideas and these merely reconfirm what the listener already knows.
Factual listening: the listener tries to listen to the facts even if those facts contradict their own theories or ideas.
Empathic listening: the listener is willing to see reality from the perspective of the other and sense the other’s circumstances.
Generative listening: the listener forms a space of deep attention that allows an emerging future to ‘land’ or manifest.
Listening becomes increasingly more difficult as we move down these four levels, because each level invites us into a deeper level of risk, vulnerability and openness. There is no risk in downloading, because it doesn’t require that we change anything. Factual listening is a little more risky because it might require a change of opinion or belief. Empathic listening increases the risk because it requires that we open our hearts, engage our emotions, and risk being changed by another person’s perspective. Generative listening is the most risky of all, because it requires that we be willing to change everything – behaviour, opinions, lifestyle, beliefs, action, etc. in order to allow something new to emerge.
Generative listening not only requires a willingness to change, but a willingness to admit I might be wrong.
For example, when I engage in generative listening around race relations, I have to be willing to admit that I have benefited from the privilege of being white, and that I might be guilty of white fragility. If I am truly willing to listen in a way that generates an “emerging future”, there’s a very good chance I will be challenged in ways I’ve never been challenged before to accept the truth of who I am and how I’ve benefited from and been complicit or actively engaged in an oppressive system.
On a more personal level, generative listening as a mother means that I have to own my own mistakes and listen for the ways I may have wounded my daughters.
Not long ago, I was speaking with my oldest two daughters about some of the past conflict in our home, and I heard things that were hard to hear about how they felt betrayed by me when I didn’t protect them and didn’t help them maintain healthy boundaries. Everything in me wanted to defend myself and get them to understand my point of view, but I knew I would only do more damage if I did that. If I wanted our relationship to grow deeper and our home to feel more safe for all of us, I had to listen to their pain and not shut it down.
A few years ago, I wouldn’t have been nearly as receptive to my daughters’ words. Some of it, in fact, they tried to tell me then but I didn’t listen. Back then, I was still too wounded and didn’t have enough self-awareness to listen well. I would be much quicker to jump to my own defence or to offer a short-sighted solution.
Through the healing of my own wounds, I am much more able to hold space for theirs.
I’ve learned to listen better to my daughters, but there are still some spaces where I have a very difficult time engaging in generative listening. Some of the spaces I still have difficulty with are when I have to face too many of my own flaws, when the person speaking triggers unhealed trauma memories, or when the other person has more power or influence in a situation than I do. I will continue to heal and build resilience so that I am not shut down in these spaces. Some of that involves listening to myself more deeply and finding spaces where I am genuinely listened to.
This is not easy work, and it doesn’t happen by accident. Learning to listen is a lifelong journey that starts with the healing of the wounds that get in the way.
If you want to be a better listener, start by listening to yourself.
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“I’m trying not to take it personally, but…” Those are the opening words to many stories I hear from my coaching clients. They’re usually sharing something that has been spiralling through their mind – something that caused a wound, brought up fear, or blocked them from doing something they really wanted to do. They’re not only taking it personally, they’re carrying shame that they can’t simply brush it off.
My response to them is always the same.
Go ahead and take it personally.
Allow yourself to feel the hurt. Allow yourself to cry. Allow yourself to be angry, fearful, frustrated, sad, wounded, etc. Don’t shut down the feelings because of some ancient script that’s telling you that you’re weak if you take things personally.
Do not be ashamed of being a big-hearted, big-feeling person.
I’m not suggesting you should get stuck there, but that’s a good place to start. Healing starts in a heart that’s open, a heart that’s not afraid to feel, a heart that doesn’t try to stuff things away.
I often takes things personally. And I am no longer ashamed of that fact.
As my work becomes more and more public, I occasionally (though thankfully not frequently), get emails criticizing something I’ve said or done or not said or not done on my blog, in my courses, etc.. I used to tell myself “brush it off – this comes with the territory”. But that kind of self-talk was never helpful. I realized that, in trying to stuff the wound away, I was short-circuiting my ability to grow and learn from the wound.
When we bury the wound, we deny it the opportunity to teach us something.
Now, when an email or comment wounds me, the first thing I do is step away from the computer and find a cozy place where I can feel what I need to feel. I might make myself a cup of tea, wrap myself in my favourite blanket or prayer shawl, or head out to the woods where the trees don’t judge me for crying.
The second thing I do is to grab my journal. Journal writing (and mandala-journaling) has always been my way of processing the world. I sit down, and start writing all of the feelings – the hurt, the shame, the anger, the unworthiness, etc.. I don’t censor myself. I just let the pain show up on the page. Sometimes that’s all I need. The simple act of releasing it onto the page can be enough to shift how I feel about it.
If I need more work on it, I let my pen expand my heart as I stretch myself beyond the pain into the learning. I ask myself a few questions and try to answer them as honestly as possible:
Why is this triggering me? What old stories is it bringing up? (ie. Do I have stories of unworthiness, failure, shame, etc.?)
What is the deeper healing this wound is inviting me to?
What truth, even though it’s painful, do I need to receive from what’s been said and what do I need to change as a result?
Which parts of what’s been said do I need to let go of, recognizing that whatever’s been said is rooted in the other person’s stories, fears, etc.?
What new stories and new courage might this experience help me step into?
If things still feel unresolved after the journaling, walking, tea-drinking, crying, etc., I consult a trusted friend who will hold space for me while I talk my way through it. The right friend will help me gain perspective on it by asking good questions and offering other ways of interpreting it. She/he will never judge me for feeling the way I feel. (The ones who do make us feel judged are not the right friends to trust at that time.)
After I’ve done my personal work and talked with a friend, I do some discernment about what kind of response is required of me. My response usually depends on the relationship.
If it’s someone with whom I have an ongoing relationship that I want to maintain, I will invest time and energy in trying to engage in a meaningful conversation that will help us both move past this wound. I try to be as honest as possible in admitting how it made me feel (and maybe why it made me feel that way), receiving what I think is valuable in the criticism, and then expressing which part I don’t think is mine to carry forward (releasing, not blaming). I might also ask them to further explain their perspective, if I need deeper understanding.
I love what Brene Brown says in Rising Strong about engaging someone in a conversation after you’ve felt wounded by them. Instead of laying blame, she starts with “the story I’m making up is…” In other words, “I admit to interpreting this through the lens of my own past hurts, self-esteem, etc., and I want to give you a chance to offer a different story if I misinterpreted.”
If the email that hurt me is from a stranger with whom I have no relationship, I decide whether it’s worth it or not to invest in a reply. (Some people are simply complainers or trolls who have earned no right to that amount of my energy.) If it’s worth investing in, I usually respond with a much shorter email (remembering that I don’t have to over-explain myself), expressing gratitude for whatever I gained in the exchange and releasing what isn’t mine to carry. I may or may not invite them to engage further, depending on how much it’s worth to me.
Doing this kind of work when I feel wounded isn’t easy, but it’s necessary if I want to continue to grow and be in healthy relationships with people.
The best thing is that each time I do the work, it heals me a little more and makes me stronger for the next time I face something that has the potential to wound me. Some of the things that wounded me ten years ago no longer have that kind of power over me because I did the work to heal them. And some of the things that wound me now will no longer have power over me in ten years. That’s what doing my personal work healing is all about. It’s never over – it just goes deeper.
“You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability. You can choose comfort or you can choose courage. You can’t choose both. Courage is uncomfortable. That is why it’s rare. Being courageous is more important to me, as a value, than succeeding.” ~ Brené Brown
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“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” – Brené Brown
I like fruity tea. Passionate peach, blueberry bliss, raspberry riot – you name it, I probably like it. But at some point in my life, I picked up the idea that fruit teas aren’t for REAL tea drinkers. In the hierarchy of teas, I imagined them stuck at the bottom, the uncoolest of the hot beverages.
I have no idea where I picked up on that tea story. Perhaps someone made fun of me for my tea choice. Perhaps it was just a vibe I picked up. Perhaps I made it up myself. However I picked it up, I let it affect my tea choices. For years, I was afraid to drink fruity tea in public, afraid that the real tea drinkers might notice and judge me for it.
Silly, isn’t it? But isn’t that how most of our shame stories are – rather foolish, once brought into the light of day?
To be honest, some of my shame stories around food choices are rooted in being raised poor, on a farm, and as part of a small Mennonite subculture that kept itself somewhat apart by not engaging in all of the activities (ie. Fall suppers where I might have been exposed to other kinds of tea) in our community. We didn’t have access to “fancy” foods, and so, when I became an adult and was faced with choices that I wasn’t used to, I was afraid I would choose the wrong thing and people would discover how uncultured I was. I was ashamed of being uncultured – ashamed of being a Mennonite farm kid who wasn’t as sophisticated as I assumed the city kids of more worldly-wise cultures were.
We pick up shame stories for a lot of different reasons. Some of them have clear origins (like parents who made us believe we were shameful) and others can only be understood after years of excavation and personal work. Some are relatively easy to release (I now drink fruity tea in public when I want to) and others have become so imbedded into our identity, they become part of our DNA (like the shame around cultural/racial identity).
We inherit many of our shame stories from the generations that came before us in our lineage. Those are the ones that become particularly imbedded into our identity.
After spending several years working in international development, and then a few years on the board of a feminist organization, and now as part of a team doing race relations conversations, I’ve noticed a pattern about cultural shame. Though shame is common to all cultures, it has a particularly strong hold among oppressed cultures.
One of the greatest weapons of oppression is shame. When oppressors manage to inflict shame on people, they increase their own power and diminish the ability of those they oppress to rise up out of their oppression. Shame diminishes courage and strength.
Ironically, though, many of the shame stories related to oppression are passed down not directly from the oppressors themselves but from those above us in our lineage who have been oppressed before us – not because they want to oppress us, but because they want to protect us.
We pass the stories of oppression down to those we most want to protect. When we inherit them as young children, though, those oppression stories become shame stories.
In the book “The Shadow King: The invisible force that holds women back“, Sidra Stone teaches that we adopt the inner patriarchy (the voice that tells women that they are not worth as much as men) from our mothers. It is primarily our mothers who teach us how to stay small, how to please the men, how to avoid getting hurt, and how to give up our own desires in deference to others in our lives (especially men). They do it to protect us, because that’s the only way they’ve learned to protect themselves. And so it goes, from generation to generation, each mother passing down to her daughters the stories of how they can stay safe.
Last week, many of us watched the video of a Baltimore mother who beat her son in public when she found him among the protestors. Desperate to protect him, she pulled him away from enemy lines and taught him, by her own raised hand, that he must learn to submit or risk being killed.
The problem is that those of us growing up in environments where we’re learning these stories from our parents do not yet have a reference point to understand generations of oppression. The only way we know how to interpret our parents’ attempts to keep us small and silent is to believe that they will stop loving us if we become too large and vocal. We become convinced that we are worthy of shame and not love. Though that mother in Baltimore may tell her son a thousand times that she did it out of love and a desperate need to protect him, I suspect there will always be a small child inside him who will believe “my mother shamed me in public, therefore I am worthy of shame.”
Remember the experiment with the monkeys, where a beautiful bunch of bananas hung above a ladder, but every time a monkey would climb to get the bananas, all of the monkeys in the cage would be sprayed with water? Not wanting to be sprayed, the monkeys kept pulling down any monkey who attempted to climb the ladder. Even after all of the monkeys were replaced (one by one) and nobody had experienced the spraying, they still kept any new monkey from climbing the ladder, because they themselves had been stopped. Those new monkeys (if they think like humans), not knowing the history, probably believed “I have done something wrong and my tribe is ashamed of me. I must not be worthy of happiness.” And then they passed the story down to the next generation, pulling down anyone who dared to climb the ladder.
Growing up with the shame inflicted by generations and generations of shamed people, we forget that it is not the lack of love they had that caused them to pass this down to us, it is their wounded love that meant they didn’t know how else to protect themselves and us from further wounding.
And, remarkably, it’s not only psychological – it becomes planted in our very DNA. Studies have shown that trauma has changed people’s DNA and that that DNA has been passed down to subsequent generations, showing up as irrational fear and the tendency to be triggered even if they didn’t directly experience that trauma. If trauma can be passed down through DNA, I’m fairly certain that shame can too, since trauma and shame are often closely linked.
How do we heal these generations of wounds? That is something that I’m just beginning to explore and read about (as are many others) and I welcome anyone’s thoughts, ideas, or experience.
I know that it must be a holistic response, involving body, mind, and spirit. In The MindBody Code, Mario Martinez talks about how we have to heal the shame in our bodies as well as our minds. He teaches contemplative embodiment practices that help replace the shame stories with honour stories.
I also believe that healing shame involves dancing, singing, art-making, spiritual practices, and lots of touch. We can’t heal shame with simply left-brain, logical thinking – we have to engage in creative, right-brain spiritual meaning-making. It helps to create rituals (ie. painting the shame monsters and then painting safe places for them to be exposed), embody our healing (ie. dancing our way into courage), and find spiritual practices that teach us to let go and trust (ie. mindfulness meditation).
And, more than anything, I believe that healing happens in community. Ironically, we pick up our shame through our relationships and we heal it through healthier relationships. That’s the nature of community – it comes with both the good and the bad, the wounding and the healing. In order to heal, we have to find safe community in which we can be vulnerable without fear. When we expose our shame stories among those who hold space for us, the shame loosens its power over us. Intentional circle practices are the best practices I know of for this kind of work.
Happily, there have also been studies that demonstrate that those changes to the DNA can be reversed, so there is hope for the generations that come after us if we do our work to heal. Shame is not the end of the story. We can heal it for ourselves and future generations.
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“In a futile attempt to erase our past, we deprive the community of our healing gift. If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others.” – Brennan Manning
On Sunday I sat in a circle of wounded healers. These were the openhearted people who had gathered for our second Race to Peace conversation.
It started with Rosanna Deerchild, the first to offer healing out of her own wounds. In the Maclean’s article that named our city the most racist in Canada, Rosanna shared how she has faced racism on a weekly basis. “Someone honks at me, or yells out ‘How much’ from a car window, or calls me a stupid squaw, or tells me to go back to the rez. Every time, it still feels like getting punched in the face.”
When Rosanna’s face appeared, without her blessing, on the front cover of Maclean’s, and she was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as the “face of racism”, she made a courageous choice. Instead of responding with outrage, she decided to reach out with healing. She offered to host dinner and a conversation with people in the city about race relations, and out of that willingness, Race to Peace was born.
Rosanna’s choice inspired others to make similar choices. In the circle that gathered on Sunday, there were many who had been wounded and are now willing to extend healing.
There was the man who’d gotten a girl pregnant at 13, joined a gang, landed in jail, and was now studying to be a social worker so that he could help other young men stay out of gangs and jail and make a positive impact on the world.
There was the woman who’d immigrated from the Philippines and had experienced racism in trying to find a job in Canada and wanted to support other job-seekers with similar stories.
There was the man who’d experienced conflict in El Salvador who is now passionate about peace in his adopted country.
There was my husband, who dropped out of school in junior high because of his own anxiety and insecurity, found the courage to go to university as a 40 year old father, and now teaches in a jail.
And there was me… once raped by an indigenous man and determined not to let that make me bitter toward people of his race or gender.
The term “wounded healer” comes out of the work of psychologist Carl Jung, who believed that analysts are compelled to treat patients because the analysts themselves are wounded. My friend Jo, who is also a psychologist, says that most of the people she studied with ended up in psychology for that very reason. According to some research by Alison Barr, “73.9% of counselors and psychotherapists have experienced one or more wounding experiences leading to their career choice.”
This is not unique to psychologists. Caregivers of all kinds (nurses, hospice workers, coaches, social workers, grief counselors, etc.) are often in the line of work they’re in because they first experienced their own wounds. (Of note: Henri Nouwen has written a book related to the topic, called Wounded Healer.)
“As soon as healing takes place, go out and heal somebody else.” – Maya Angelou
We are always given a choice what to do with our wounds. We can use them as an excuse to go out and wound other people (which is at the root of most of the pain in the world), or we can do the hard work of healing and then use that healing as a gift to help in other’s healing. The wounded healer emerges in all of us who make the right choice.
I first stepped into my coaching vocation in a hospital room.
I’d landed there in the middle of my third pregnancy after my cervix had suddenly become incompetent and medical intervention had failed to correct the situation. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have been in that situation if it hadn’t been for a series of doctors’ errors.
Lying on my back in a hospital room, fearing for my son’s life, I realized I had a choice to make. I could be bitter and resentful and blame the doctors for what had happened, or I could accept the situation and forgive the doctors. I chose the second.
Once I made that choice, I was at peace. Though it was stressful not knowing what would happen to the baby and not being in control of my own life while I waited, I was surprisingly calm. Since I could do nothing else, I began to turn my hospital room into a little spiritual retreat centre, with gentle music playing, cards and pictures from my kids on the wall, and fresh fruit and flowers on the windowsill.
People began to notice how peaceful my room was, and unexpected visitors started showing up. Other patients, cleaning staff, doctors, friends, and even other people’s visitors – all of them showed up there at one time or another and all remarked at the peacefulness of the room. Some of the nurses on the floor started dropping in during their breaks because my room was more relaxing than their coffee room. A cancer patient from across the hall became a regular visitor because her visits made her feel less anxious.
While they were there, people began to share things with me – personal things that they were working through in their own lives. There was the nurse who was struggling with parenting decisions, another nurse who’d moved from Africa and was finding it difficult to adjust to a new culture, the cancer patient who was afraid to die, and a friend who was trying to make a difficult decision about whether to step into leadership.
Without intending to, I became confidante and coach to those people. Long before I knew the term “holding space” I was doing it in that hospital room for anyone who needed it. I had plenty of time on my hands and I was willing to be of service and that willingness drew people to me. It was both humbling and eye-opening.
There I was, confined to my hospital room, serving as a wounded healer to friends and strangers alike. Because of my own fear, I could hold theirs without judgement. Because I’d walked through injustice and anger and came through to forgiveness, they saw something in me that they could trust. Because I made the effort to create a peaceful space in a tumultuous situation and environment, they sought me out as friend and healer.
That experience changed my life and led me to the work that I now do. None of it could have happened, though, if I hadn’t first been wounded. If that pregnancy had been easy and had resulted in a living child (instead of my stillborn son, Matthew), I might have carried on in my relatively successful corporate job. I might never have discovered my ability to hold space for other people and might never have contributed to the healing of their wounds.
The same can be said for that long ago rape. If I hadn’t been changed by that circumstance, healed the wound the rapist left me with, and come through determined not to perpetuate a cycle of oppression and wounding, I might never have stepped forward when Rosanna spoke of her desire to hold conversations about race relations.
Each of us has a choice – stay wounded and let the wounds fester, or seek healing and offer that healing to others.