I adopted a new journal practice this Spring, after reading the book Discovering Your Inner Mother. I wanted to nurture all of the parts of me that are connected to old stories, and I wanted to learn to mother myself better.
Each morning, when I sit down with my journal (often sitting on the dock in the local park – my new favourite journal-writing spot), I write, at the top of the page, “Which Heather wants to show up on the page today?” And then I wait a moment to see which voice from my past wants to be heard.
Sometimes it’s the preteen who wants to tell me about how she felt like an outsider at school because she grew up Mennonite and didn’t have a TV and never got to read Teen Beat and didn’t have any entry points into the celebrity-focused conversations the other girls loved to have. Plus she was poor and wore hand-me-down clothes.
Sometimes it’s the young mom who wants to speak about how overwhelmed she felt, with babies and a demanding job, and how she doubted herself and wished she had more of a community to lean on, especially when her husband struggled with mental illness.
Whoever shows up, I hold space for her, as a patient and loving mother would, and when she’s finished speaking, I assure her that she is safe and protected and loved and that I will always listen to her and make choices that hold her best interests at heart.
Recently, during a therapy session, I had a breakthrough in naming and healing one of my traumas. I was able to connect a body sensation that is often present in times of stress and trauma-triggering with a specific moment when harm was done to younger Heather. After doing some work on it, my therapist asked “what are you feeling now, in your body?”
“I still have a bit of the sensation, but it’s weakened, and… there’s something else. I feel a little excitement in me. Almost like there’s a little girl jumping up and down inside my chest. She’s excited because she thinks that if I let go of that trauma, then maybe she can finally come out and play.”
And then I realized that there was something missing from my journal practice. I was allowing the voices of Wounded Heather to show up on the page, at whatever age she was, but I hadn’t yet invited Playful Heather or Passionate Heather or Sensuous Heather. I hadn’t yet considered the voices that Wounded Heather might have silenced because it didn’t feel safe to express those other things. (As I wrote earlier in the Spring, there is a danger in worshipping our wounds.)
Since then, I’ve been listening to the voices that have been silenced by the trauma. I have invited Sensuous Heather to tell me what she most longs for. I’ve asked Playful Heather what her favourite forms of play are. I’ve let Passionate Heather guide me in seeing the world through her eyes. I’ve asked those voices to tell me when they were silenced and what I can do to set them free.
When this post goes out into the world, I will still be on my summer sabbatical. I have taken this sabbatical partly because I want to dedicate more time to listening to those other voices.
Just before my sabbatical started, I told a dear friend “I think I’ve grown tired of my trauma. I’m ready to find out what’s next.” And so… here I am, in that place of discovery, exploring what joy, passion, desire, and sensuousness feel like in a body that’s a little closer to healing and liberation.
If you want to adopt a new writing practice that will help you heal and grow, you might want to try Write for Love and Liberation, which was recently re-launched as a self-study program.
Not long ago, I listened to an interview with someone who’d written a piece for the New York Times on the “empty religions of Instagram”. She was critiquing some self-help social media influencers, and she mentioned that some of them “worship their wounds”. On their Instagram feeds, she said, they make themselves accessible by being wounded people, but then they stay with the wound because it makes them feel special and loved and it gets them more followers.
Because I’ve written a book that includes quite a few of my own vulnerable stories, and because much of my work has its roots in those stories (i.e. the original blog post that catapulted this work into the world was about my mom dying), the words of the writer felt somewhat confronting.
Was I, too, guilty of “worshipping my wounds”? Was I monetizing my woundedness and then staying with the woundedness because it’s become part of my brand and it draws people in?
Whew. That’s a really big question. It stopped me in my tracks and caused me to withdraw even further from the public-facing spaces. I spent hours wrestling with it in my journal and had several good conversations with friends. I dug deep, trying to be as honest with myself as I could.
Somewhat ironically, at the same time, I was teaching my course, Write for Love and Liberation, where I was telling people how liberating and healing it can be to write about your wounds and share your stories. I told them how much more liberated I felt when I was honest about past trauma and abuse and how much that honesty and vulnerability had helped me find community and deepen relationships.
My mind wrestled with the cognitive dissonance of those two things and I didn’t know if they could both be true at the same time.
On the one hand, oversharing and crafting your identity out of a narrative of woundedness and trauma can keep you stuck in your wounds. A relationship or community built out of shared woundedness can give everyone in that relationship or community an excuse to stay wounded. It can also hold people back from healing and growth because people need safety and belonging and are afraid of being abandoned by people who don’t want them to change. (Some of us come from families, for example, that don’t encourage growth because that causes a threat to the family system.)
Plus, a leader who uses her wounds to gather people around her can turn those wounds into performance and connecting points for relationships. She is much more likely to grow unhealthy attachments, to project those wounds onto other people, and to start a cult rather than a healthy growing community. A leader who stays wounded is likely to create trauma bonds with people to ensure that they don’t outgrow her and move on because they’ve healed and no longer need the attachment to her. (Consider the many recent stories of abuse in spiritual communities – those are leaders whose own woundedness tries to trap people and hold them back.)
On the other hand, sharing the stories of our trauma and woundedness can be healing and transformational and those stories can offer beautiful connecting points on which to build community. Some of my biggest personal breakthroughs have come when I’ve read or listened to the stories of people who’ve dared to share their struggles and pain. Over the years, I have heard from many, many people who are grateful that I’ve been so honest in the sharing of my hard stories, because it helps them see themselves more clearly. Shared vulnerability connects us and makes us feel less alone. It can also give us hope that there is a way through the pain into a new story.
So… what is a person to do when they’ve built work that’s rooted in their personal stories, and many of those stories include wounds and trauma that help people find connecting points?
I think the key to that question is in the word that is deliberately part of both my book title and my writing course title… liberation. I think that the writing and sharing of our stories, the gathering of our communities, and the ways in which we show up online, should all be centered around the pursuit of liberation – for ourselves and for each other.
Liberation comes when we can see the wound; name the wound; speak honestly about the wound; erect healthy boundaries with anyone who caused, contributed to, or dismissed the wound; heal the wound; make meaning of the wound; and then free ourselves from the wound and move on.
Liberation comes when we share stories not only of the wounds themselves, but of what it takes to heal the wounds, triumph over the wounds, and stand up to the people or systems that cause the wounds.
Liberation comes when we tell the stories of how we developed healthy boundaries, stopped accepting abuse, and stopped giving ourselves away to people who don’t know how to honour and hold space for us.
Liberation comes when we don’t hold each other back, when we release unhealthy attachments, and when we refuse to participate in codependent relationships that rely on our woundedness.
Liberation comes when we make a conscious choice to detach ourselves from our wounds and we form new identities not built solely on those wounds.
After a considerable amount of reflection on this topic, I have come to a renewed commitment in my work and my life… I will continue to share honestly and vulnerably and will continue to let people see the wounds and trauma that have been part of my past (when I can do so out of a spirit of generosity) BUT… I will not stay in that place, nor will I stay in relationships that keep me in that place. I will do my best to continue healing whatever reveals itself in me and I will support other people in their healing. I will trust my own need for boundaries and give myself necessary time away from other people’s wounds and healing work. I will distance myself from situations or relationships that trigger my old woundedness. I will actively pursue peace, love, joy, and liberation. I will seek out relationships and communities that value growth (mine and other people’s) and that don’t need to keep anyone wounded to justify their own lack of growth. I will be gentle with those with trauma and wounds, but I won’t settle for wound-worshipping in the spaces I hold.
I am committed to my own liberation. AND I believe, as Lilla Watson says, that “my liberation is tied up with yours”. I am committed to liberated relationships, where we honour each other’s sovereignty AND we lean into community, where we hold space for each other’s trauma AND we seek healing and growth.
She wasn’t born that way – in the beginning she was just like every other child, expressing herself freely and wanting to be seen and accepted and loved for who she was. Sadly, though, it was her quest for love and acceptance that convinced her that, in order to survive in the world as it presented itself to her, she had to become an Invisible Woman.
First she watched her mother for clues in how to become an Invisible Woman. Her mother had become quite adept at it, so there were lots of things to learn from her. She watched her mother sacrifice nearly everything for her husband, her children, her church, and the people who needed her. She noticed how her mother made herself disappear by rarely expressing an opinion, especially when there were men present whose opinions mattered more. She noticed how, in church, her mother never complained about the fact that she and the other women were only allowed to teach Sunday School (it was okay to be Visible to children) and feed people and that when it came to any forms of leadership or power, they had to stay Invisible.
She also received a lot of clues from her cultural and religious lineage. Historically, her people were known as The Quiet in The Land because of the way they had withdrawn from society due to persecution. (She learned of one woman who’d been burned at the stake with a screw through her tongue to prevent her from speaking to the gathered crowds as she prepared to die. Her fifteen year old son later combed through the ashes to find the tongue screw.) Understandably, there was among her people a suspiciousness of Visibility because of the danger it posed.
When she started to emerge into the world outside of her mother’s kitchen and her Sunday School classroom, she noticed that other women behaved much the same way her mother did, so she thought it must be the Right Way to Behave. She wanted to ask questions about whether she had a right to Visibility, and why some people seemed to have more rights than others, but it didn’t seem like there was anyone around who would be receptive to her questions, so she stayed silent.
Because she was busy learning to be Invisible, she learned to camouflage her skills in Leadership and Communication so as not to threaten the people around her who were used to women like her being Invisible. She had a few chances to become at least partially Visible, and she tested them out occasionally, but mostly she got the message that good girls were comfortable being Invisible and trying too hard would mean she was arrogant.
When she went to university, she decided to study Theatre and Literature, because, secretly, she wanted to write and be on stage, but she didn’t tell too many people about those dreams because she thought they’d laugh at her for her misguided desire for Visibility. She assumed that Visible people must be better than her or smarter than her or they were born with the acceptable gender for Visibility, so she kept convincing herself she was okay with Invisibility.
In her Theatre classes, she tried only half-heartedly to be picked for roles on the stage (even though she secretly wanted them) and instead proved herself to be useful behind the stage where Invisible People could be of service. She started to write plays, and some of them were produced on stage, but mostly she stayed Invisible even when she was the originator of the ideas. When a professor thought that one of her plays was good enough to be submitted to the CBC, she was sure he must be mistaken (because he was allowed to be Visible and couldn’t really understand) so she didn’t follow through.
Her theatre experience revealed to her that she was actually pretty good at helping OTHER people to become Visible (she wrote the words that they said on stage) and that lead to her first career. She became a Communications Professional, which mostly meant that she wrote a lot of words that were either uncredited or credited to other people, and that she advised a lot of people in how to be Visible in a way that served the purpose of the government department or non-profit she was working for.
She wrote speeches for the people on the stage, she arranged for many people to talk to the media, she organized press conferences and tours, and she produced documentaries, but she stayed resolutely behind the curtain. If you were to look at the photos or videos of events she organized for Prime Ministers, Premiers, scientists, and celebrities, you would see little evidence that she was there. She hired photographers who took pictures of the Visible People and then stood beside the photographers with the lenses pointed away from her.
Periodically, she would renew her attempts at seeking Visibility, but, because she was also becoming a mother (which added a whole new layer of Invisibility), she had little time for that pursuit and found little encouragement. When her first two babies were small and she was on her second maternity leave, she wrote a novel during her daughters’ naps, but when that novel was finished and she was trying to get it published, she had to go back to work and no longer had time for it. The novel sat on her shelf and collected dust along with her other dreams.
One day though, several years later, she recognized the growing restlessness in her, and she finally admitted to herself that she’d never fully given up the hope of Visibility. She had to work through a lot of self-doubt and shame over this, because the voices in her head kept telling her it was a sign of her arrogance and lack of gratitude for the great life she had and the great jobs she was getting with her skills in supporting others’ Visibility, but she decided it was time to at least try. She didn’t think it was just selfishness that wouldn’t let her release the longing.
While still working at supporting other people’s Visibility, she started a blog to test out what it would be like to write about her OWN ideas and stories instead of everyone else’s. At first, she was very secretive about her blog because she was afraid that people would judge her for trying to become Visible. She called that blog Fumbling for Words, because she wasn’t sure she trusted her own words yet and she wanted a place to practice.
She grew to love that blog, and it sparked a dream in her that she’d someday be able to make a living as a writer. That dream wouldn’t die, and finally, though it seemed completely preposterous to everyone including herself, she quit her job as a Communications Professional, and started her path toward Visibility.
It wasn’t easy, choosing that path and sticking to it. There were far more bumps than she could have anticipated. She had to make a living to support her family, and so, at the beginning, she still found herself doing lots of work that supported other people’s Visibility more than her own. And she had to keep wrestling with her self-doubt and fear and other people’s judgement and her social conditioning, and some days she wanted to run back to Invisibility because she felt overwhelmed and vulnerable. Some days she convinced herself she wasn’t meant for Visibility.
Sadly, she discovered that some of the people she cared about weren’t very comfortable with her increased Visibility, so some of her relationships changed. She considered the possibility of returning to Invisibility, in order to keep her life more stable and make the people around her more comfortable, but once she’d committed to this path, she knew she could never be happy going back.
The thing that surprised her most, though, was how much she started to notice the expectations and projections that are placed on Visible people. The more she became Visible, the more she exposed herself to other people’s criticism, blame, and expectations that she perform a certain way. Especially when she started to move beyond simply sharing her stories to also sharing the wisdom she’d gained, she noticed that people either wanted to put her on a pedestal as a wise guide or tear her down because she proved to be more flawed than they wanted their heroes to be.
One day, she became more Visible than she could have dreamed possible. A blog post (about her mom dying and a nurse who held space at the deathbed) went viral and suddenly there were millions of people all over the world reading her words. This was very exciting for her, but it was also very stressful. When her inbox filled up with emails from lovely people who wanted to share their stories with her, she suddenly felt overwhelmed by the pressure of wanting to support all of these people who, like her, just wanted to be Seen. She tried to witness them all and send them all love, but it became too much for her to carry alone (especially while she was also struggling with the primary relationship in her life in which she was not feeling Seen), and so she shut down her inbox for awhile and disappeared.
She didn’t disappear for long, though, because she now knew that there was a Purpose to her Visibility. It wasn’t just a longing to be Seen, or a desire to make herself the centre of the narrative – it was a longing to support all of the other people who also wanted to be Seen. She realized she had a special gift for seeing Invisible People and perhaps that was what her quest for Visibility was all about.
Before she could support all of those other people, though, she found that she had work to do in making sure she was strong enough for what Visibility required of her. She removed herself from the relationship that made her feel Invisible and she began a search for the kind of people who would strengthen her and stand by her as she became more and more Visible. She sought therapy and she did lots of other deep work to help her stand more firmly in self-love and courage. She also found a person who could work alongside her in helping her to develop more clear boundaries that kept her more protected from other people’s projections and expectations (and she eventually made that person her business partner).
As she became more and more confident being the Visible Woman, her work continued to grow and the community around it grew with it. She still had moments of crippling self-doubt, and moments when other people’s opinions would sideline her for awhile, but because her Purpose felt so clear and there was now so much Meaning attached it, she was able to return again and again to the work that made her come Alive.
One day, the Visible Woman finally made her long-held dream come true… she published a book. It wasn’t the book she’d written years earlier when her children were small, or even the book she wrote near the beginning of her quest for Visibility, it was the book that grew out of the blog post that millions of people had read. It was her response to the hundreds of people in her inbox who wanted to feel Seen and wanted to know how to support other people in being Seen.
In realizing this dream, the Visible Woman discovered that everything from her past had value – even the parts where she was mostly Invisible and supporting other people in becoming Visible – because it turned out that her quest was not just about her own Visibility. It was about learning how to share that Visibility, how to help people step into their own Visibility, how to teach people to hold the space for Visibility for all, and how to help people heal from the pain of their own Invisibility.
Now that her book is published, the Visible Woman gets to speak with lots of media people about that book (and she laughed quite a lot when her publisher assigned a Communications Professional to help HER to be Visible), and she gets to spend her days supporting a lot of beautiful people who are Becoming Visible and who are learning The Art of Holding Space (which could also be called The Art of Helping People Feel Seen).
We can’t really say that the Visible Woman lived happily ever after, because there is a lot of responsibility that comes with being Visible and sometimes there is still some pain and discomfort, but we CAN say that she found meaning, purpose, contentment and community in her quest for Visibility. And she continues to delight in making Visibility feel like more than just a dream for the people in her circles.
Starting October 1st, I’ll be teaching a new online writing course called Open Heart, Moving Pen. Here’s a little of my own openhearted writing from this past weekend…
Sometimes you come undone in the heating vent aisle at the hardware store.
It’s a simple decision you have to make. White vent covers or brown ones? Plastic or metal? It’s simple, but this is that one decision, after thousands of decisions stretching over an intense year of solo-decision-making that tips the scales for you, and suddenly you’re weeping alone in the heating vent aisle. You can’t even muster the strength to ask a store employee to help you with the decision, because you’ve been faced with too many professionals who held your fate in their hands these many months and you. just. can’t. anymore.
You feel like you’re under one of those buckets at the splash park that’s got lots of capacity to hold water, drip by drip, but suddenly there’s that one drip that is too much and it tips, drowning you beneath it. This one decision about vent covers is that final drop and you’re drowning and now you just want some kind adult to pick you up, dry you off, take you out into the sun, and feed you cotton candy and soda pop.
But there are no kind adults coming to rescue you, so you brush off your tears, leave the store, and step into the rain. The heating vent covers will have to wait for a day with more courage. Right now you have to muster every last ounce of courage you have to make it through the grocery store, where a hundred more decisions await. You are, after all, a grown-up and grown-ups don’t go home to their children and say “we have no food to eat for supper because I came undone in the heating vent aisle at the hardware store.”
On autopilot, you make it back home, and you make it through the evening without coming undone in front of your children, but then when the darkness comes and your bedroom door is closed, the tears come again and you realize the bucket didn’t entirely empty itself – it just stayed unbalanced long enough for you to shut the door. This time, you don’t have to worry about any strangers looking at you funny, so you let the bucket flow until your body is week from the weeping and you are empty.
You may have been the one who chose the ending of your marriage, and you may still be convinced it was the right decision, but that doesn’t mean you won’t sometimes need to grieve what you lost and what you’ve been through. And your bucket may have lots of capacity and you may be able to handle a lot of decision making, but that doesn’t mean you won’t feel like you’re drowning sometimes. You may even like sleeping alone and you may have a life that’s full of contentment, but that doesn’t mean you won’t occasionally long for someone to crawl in beside you and hold you at the end of a hard day.
The next morning you wake up and you’re still tender, but the tenderness has shifted. Now the tenderness invites you to pack your daughter’s lunch, even though it’s not your job, and to drive your other daughter to work, even though she can catch the bus. Because the hard days may come, and the buckets may overflow sometimes, but you can still wake up grateful that you have this life and this family and that your home is still filled with this kind of love. And you may get splinters from your unfinished floors and there may be no furniture in your living room and the heating vents may not have covers on them, but you can still look around you and marvel that you’re lucky enough to own this home.
And maybe tomorrow your courage will return and this time you’ll take your daughters along to help you pick out heating vent covers. And maybe they have buckets that can hold a little of the overflow from yours.
People show up in those places hopeful and longing for openness, yet wounded and weary and unsure they have what it takes to follow through. They want to pour their hearts onto the page, to share their stories with openness and not fear, to live vulnerably and not guarded, and yet… they’re afraid. They’re afraid to be judged, to be shamed, to be told they’re not worthy, to be told they’re too big for their britches. They’ve been hurt before and they’re not sure they can face it again.
And every time, I tell them some variation of the following…
An open heart is not an unprotected heart.
You have a right, and even a responsibility, to protect yourself from being wounded. You have a right to heal your own wounds before you share them with anyone. You have a right to guard yourself from people who don’t have your best interests at heart. You have a right to keep what’s tender close to your heart.
Only you can choose how exposed you want to make your tender, open heart. Just because other people are doing it, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for you.
Yes, I advocate openhearted living, because I believe that when we let ourselves be cracked open – when we risk being wounded – our lives will be bigger and more beautiful than when we remain forever guarded. As Brene Brown says, our vulnerability creates resilience.
HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean that we throw caution to the wind and expose ourselves unnecessarily to wounding.
Our open hearts need protection.
Our vulnerability needs to be paired with intentionality.
We, and we alone, can decide who is worthy of our vulnerability.
We choose to live with an open heart only in those relationships that help us keep our hearts open. Some people – coming from a place of their own fear, weakness, jealousy, insecurity, projection, woundedness, etc. – cannot handle our vulnerability and so they will take it upon themselves to close our hearts or wound them or hide from them. They are not the right people. They are the people we choose to protect ourselves from.
Each of us needs to choose our own circles of trust. Here’s what that looks like:
In the inner circle, closest to our tender hearts, are those people who are worthy of high intimacy and trust. These are the select few – those who have proven themselves to be supportive enough, emotionally mature enough, and strong enough to hold our most intimate secrets. They do not back down from woundedness. They do not judge us or try to fix us. They understand what it means to hold space for us.
In the second circle, a little further from our tender hearts, are those people who are only worthy of moderate intimacy and trust. These are the people who are important to us, but who haven’t fully proven themselves worthy of our deepest vulnerability. Sometimes these are our family members – we love them and want to share our lives with them, but they may be afraid of how we’re changing or how we’ve been wounded and so they try to fix us or they judge us. We trust them with some things, but not that which is most tender.
In the third circle are those who have earned only low levels of intimacy and trust. These are our acquaintances, the people we work with or rub shoulders with regularly and who we have reasonably good relationships with, but who haven’t earned a place closer to our hearts. We can choose to be friendly with these people, but we don’t let them into the inner circles.
On the outside are those people who have earned no intimacy or trust. They may be there because we just don’t know them yet, or they may be there because we don’t feel safe with them. These are the people we protect ourselves from, particularly when we’re feeling raw and wounded.
People can move in and out of these circles of trust, but it is US and ONLY us who can choose where they belong. WE decide what boundaries to erect and who to protect ourselves from. WE decide when to allow them a little closer in or when to move them further out.
How do we make these decisions? We learn to trust our own intuition. If someone doesn’t feel safe, we ask ourselves why and we trust that gut feeling. Sometimes we’ll get it wrong, and sometimes people will let us down, but with time and experience, we get better at discerning who is safe and who is not.
We also have to decide what to share in each level of the circle, but that’s a longer discussion for another blog post. For now I’ll simply say…
Trust your intuition. Don’t share what is vulnerable in a situation that feels unsafe. Erect the boundaries you need to erect to keep your tender heart safe. Let people in who have your best interest at heart.
This article has been voluntarily translated into Farsi.