Creating space (5): Letting people be who they are

We have to acknowledge the pain of the present, the traumas of the past, and the broken dreams of the future – Matt Licata

The day I rang my dad to tell him what the plan was for treating the cancer I had been diagnosed with, he said: You haven’t really got cancer, have you? Not really. I read about it on the Internet.

I was so angry, I could barely speak: Err, yes I have, that is why I am now starting what will be probably a year in total of treatment (it turned out to be two). But, even though I was raging, he just couldn’t stop himself insisting that I hadn’t really got cancer.

I now see that it was just him unable to witness me potentially fall apart, or worse. We had just been through three years of life or death treatment with my daughter and two years of mental and physical illness with my mum and so my news tapped into a hopelessness and grief he hadn’t had space to process and which he could no longer manage which is why he felt the need to talk me out of my experience. He died one year later, his big, kind heart couldn’t take anymore.

Don’t wear your heart on a sleeve

My dad is an extreme example of not being able to recognise or bear witness to another’s fear and pain. But, it is not uncommon. Last week, I went to my uncle’s funeral and one completely lovely relative said to me: Don’t cry, Ruth, – words we say to one another all the time which are comforting, but are really, deep down, a plea asking someone to keep it together, behave better, and stop reminding everyone about the pain and agony in their own hearts.

Anyone who has cancer can tell you how, when you tell someone your news, the person opposite you will chime in – often part way through your story – to tell you about their friend/relative/loved one who has/had cancer too. They launch into a massive tale that you really haven’t got the emotional strength to hear, let alone bear witness to. People can’t stand you. They cannot stand to hear your pain, as it taps into theirs until they just have to share their pain, in the hope of feeling better, which in this scenario doesn’t really work.

After some God-awful-into-the-abyss-experiences when I felt myself freefalling into the fear which has no beginning or end, I took to interrupting people: Has this story got a happy ending?

I know now this is why one wise doctor advised me to be very careful when thinking about telling people I had cancer. After some God-awful-into-the-abyss-experiences when I felt myself freefalling into the fear which has no beginning or end, I took to interrupting people: Has this story got a happy ending? Otherwise, left to their own pain and sadness, people would quite amazingly finish whatever very long, horrific tale with: AND THEN THEY DIED….!!! #ffs. I know more stories about cancer and kidney transplants than anyone in their right mind can bear.

Holding space

It is very hard to watch someone fall apart under the weight of a life experience, to fall into that dreadful emotional agony, without wanting to stop it, to shush it, to shove it all back down to where it is manageable. It takes even greater strength to stand there and share that agony by acknowledging it and being a witness so that you allow someone to express what they must, but I am starting to think that it is the only way to live this life. We have to acknowledge the pain of the present, the traumas of the past, and the broken dreams of the future as psychotherapist Matt Licata puts it in a lovely facebook post, so that you can be of service to yourself and others.

Managing others experiences

When my baby had tubes coming out of her and I had no hair at all, I used to watch all the mums going off on their lovely coffee/play dates, as I made my lonely way home. We were not invited. It seemed that we were not wanted because we looked different. We had scars which demonstrated that life can serve up terrible experiences inexplicably, without rhyme or reason, so it was easier not to have us around. No one wanted to be reminded of the fragility of life.This made me feel ashamed as if there was something wrong with me: why couldn’t I just be normal? Talk normally? And, most of all not cry. The rejection scarred me deeper than any surgeon’s scalpel.

One mum kindly admitted last year that people dreaded seeing us as you never knew what terrible thing might have happened to us since the last terrible thing. In a strange way her admission made me feel better. It wasn’t me, it was them. Just the other day I bumped into one of those mums who breezily asked me how our health was, I ignored her (a new skill I have when I don’t want to answer a question which can undo me, sometimes I just shake my head) but she asked me several times. I think she asked because it looked like she would get a safe answer in the middle of H&M, because even now she wants my experience to be one that she can manage, and she can feel she expressed the appropriate amount of concern without me touching her fear.

But if you do, it is in there that you let them decide what the meaning of it all is and allow them to be exactly what and who they are. You are giving them the greatest gift of all – the gift of love.

It seems to me that when you get breezy, avoid, or interrupt someone, you are forgetting that they are human, and that they are innocent and whole underneath the wounds which frighten you so much. But it is very hard to not interrupt other peoples’ energy – to let them have the space to let off steam and to let the conversation flow. But if you do, it is in there that you let them decide what the meaning of it all is and allow them to be exactly what and who they are. You are giving them the greatest gift of all – the gift of love. None of us get enough love says meditation teacher davidji to which he adds, and none of us breathes deeply enough.

However, if you cannot hold the space, ask yourself what it is that makes you so afraid? I know I am still afraid, still anxious, still hurting after all this time, and I don’t always manage conversations well. Meditation makes it better but it is agony, which is funny as that is the topic of the last conversation I had with my dad, which would surprise anyone who knew him. He was a rock, who could sit in the company of the wounded, the dying and make it right, make it better. He had a magnificent compassion that was pure unconditional love. However, that night, on the phone, he got me to read out the side effects of my latest round of painkillers, in case they would be good for him, he was in pain, and then he said he was having trouble sleeping/managing/being and I said that he had to meditate, ‘cos I had just read a book by Deepak Chopra on it. He said: Effing Deepak Chopra… and there was a load of chuntering on and more swearing until he admitted: Meditation is so hard. And so it is.

Be not afraid: Energy exchange for the broken hearted

Lately, I have been practising Tonglen a Buddhist meditation technique for overcoming the fear and suffering my dad was swearing about. Danielle La Porte sums it up in the Firestarter sessions as:

Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Breathe in suffering— yours, others, the world’s. Breathe out compassion— for yourself, for others, for the world.

Basically when you feel brokenhearted, which I currently do, you breathe in the very pain that is undoing you, and you lean into the unbearable agony of it all, and then you breathe out love. You may feel that you are going to shatter into a million little pieces, but then a little magic happens and you exchange one emotion for another. You do it for yourself, and for all the ones who broke your heart, and for those who broke their own hearts, and by doing so broke your heart so badly that you feel nothing good will ever happen again. And, you keep doing it, in and out, in and out, in and out, until the pain is bearable and not so heart breaking and not so frightening and it has become a noble pain of service. Who knew that the simple act of breathing could be so powerful?

The most often repeated words in the Bible are: Be not afraid and yet it is the hardest thing to be, not afraid. And yet, it is the only thing to be, in order to live life with love and to truly connect with others, we have to learn to be not afraid. As my old dad used to always say:

The only thing to fear is fear itself.

Until you can know that, deep down in your broken, tender heart, the only thing to do is breathe.

Creating space (4): Invasion, expansion and girls

I think the world wants girls to be pretty and small and quiet. As long as I was able to stay pretty and small and quiet, everything would be fine. – Glennon Doyle Melton, Love Warrior

At Easter, my husband, our girls and I got the train from Madrid to Valencia with the intention of soaking up the sun on the beach.  On arrival we went outside the station to see  a transfer bus rather like the ones at airports with lots of people getting on.

I got on first and almost immediately the bus driver came down the bus to have a word with me. He was a portly, bald, small man with a sergeant major moustache who only spoke Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish (self-consciously, I now feel obliged to tell you that I speak French and Italian). So, there I was two minutes into my Valencian holiday, already engaged in an exchange in which I had no idea what was happening or why I had to have a conversation no one else on the bus seemed to have to have. The driver hadn’t even noticed that I was with my husband and children.

I felt like this one moment encapsulated my whole life: I was being prevented from going about my business because a little fat man had singled me out to give me a load of incomprehensible advice and attention which I didn’t ask for, didn’t want, and which made me feel uncomfortable.

As I watched him talking non-stop, gesticulating in a way that said I shouldn’t be on his bus, I should get off the bus, and find a different way to complete my journey, I felt like this one moment encapsulated my whole life: I was being prevented from going about my business because a little fat man had singled me out to give me a load of incomprehensible advice and attention which I didn’t ask for, didn’t want, and which made me feel uncomfortable.

I drew myself up to full height (5 ft), stared straight into his tache and told him that I didn’t care what he saying but I wasn’t getting off his bus. I was staying for the duration. We each took several turns to repeat ourselves until we were both in a lather, at which point he looked around for some backup, and my husband came over to ask what on earth was going on. The driver threw his hands up in exasperation, went back down the bus, and drove us to our destination.

As we were getting off the bus, chorusing Gracias, as I do try to behave well even in circumstances when I want to tell people to go forth and multiply, the driver came out of his little booth, followed us off the bus, pressed a note into my hand and then started explaining yet more incomprehensible stuff. He then pointed at the note which had various numbers on it. This man was hell-bent on telling me what I should be doing and I decided there and then enough was enough. I have totally and utterly had enough of having my space invaded.

So, the other night I was in a pub sat at the bar having a pint and chatting, the place was almost empty, but then a young man came to the bar stood right next to me and started elbowing me in the back. After he got his drinks I thought he would move away, but he didn’t and there he was leaning on me and crowding me. So, I tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he could just move it along. He was slightly puzzled until I pointed out that he was jostling me in a huge, high ceilinged, empty pub with a very long bar. He looked about with amazement and then apologised saying that he just hadn’t noticed that he was stood so close. WTF? How was that possible?

I am amazed and feel like I have just woken up to reality. How have I not noticed this before? Why wasn’t I angry before? Probably, because I am so used to tolerating all manner of nonsense, I haven’t even thought it was anything to get annoyed about, it has been happening to me since the day I was born.

Girls in middle school stop expanding like boys do and become smaller and collapse in on themselves. The main reason is that they become aware of cultural stereotypes which say that small girls are attractive to the opposite sex.

In her book Presence, Amy Cuddy says that girls in middle school stop expanding like boys do and become smaller and collapse in on themselves, and allow themselves to be invaded. The main reason is that they become aware of cultural stereotypes which say that small girls are attractive to the opposite sex.

In her honest, brilliant book Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle Melton describes how she believed this stereotype was the only way society would accept her which led her to live a life of bulimia, alcoholism, and drug abuse. And, we like to think that society is changing but it really hasn’t, not intrinsically.

It is societal, we associate powerful stances with men and powerless poses to women

Cuddy showed artists models dolls in powerful and powerless poses to children 6-years old, 73% of which said that the powerful poses were men, the powerless ones women. In a group of 4-year olds, 85% of them said that the powerful poses had to be men. It is societal, we associate powerful stances with men and powerless poses to women. Nothing has changed.

I have girls and naively assumed that the world would be a better place by now. Since, my epiphany on the bus I have been going about telling everyone how angry I am, and every woman I have met has a story about how they have been jostled or ignored, passed over for promotion, talked over, discriminated against, and a lot worse, purely because of their gender. And, like the young man at the bar demonstrated to me, it is so deeply ingrained, it is often done subconsciously.

In a brilliant ted talk called Raising brave girls, Caroline Paul explains how we encourage girls to be fragile whilst encouraging boys to be adventurous. We need to treat girls in the same way so that they feel at home in their bodies, so that they feel expanded and strong.

And, in another brilliant ted talk Jude Kelly, says how we should have women telling the story of humanity otherwise our stories will never get updated and we will be forever stuck with Joseph Campbell’s monomyth which is not written for women, which then makes it easy for men like the head of the Paris Conservatoire to believe and speak utter nonsense like: It takes great physical strength to conduct a symphony, and women are too weak.

Cuddy recommends that the best way to change this is, each time your daughters, sisters and friends collapse in on themselves, show them examples of girls and women who are not conforming to the images and stereotypes that kids are exposed to. Show them that there are other ways of being in this world.

Women do not need to emulate men but we do need to encourage girls not to be afraid to express their personal power and to ask people to stop invading their space.

For as Doyle Melton asks: How can you be a successful girl if the purpose of being human and growing is … to find your voice? and society’s message to girls is to stay small and quiet: It’s a set up.

Let us tell our girls: Keep expanding, ask for what you want. And, in those times when you don’t get it, and when people behave badly towards intentionally or otherwise, please know absolutely and utterly: It is not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong. 

Creating space (3): Authenticity

I don’t sing because I’m happy, I’m happy because I sing
– William James

In Creating Space (2) I talked about how nine times out of 10 when people say things, it is not intentionally designed to hurt me. The other evening, I got text which fell into the 10th time category. My immediate response was to type a raging text back to vent my hurt and my anger.

I was about to press send and then I remembered these creating space blogs, swore a little under my breath, paused, and then I edited my response so that the texter and I could exchange the information we needed without everything escalating.

I am glad I did. Today as I type this, I have almost forgotten how hurt and angry I was, there is no emotional charge on that memory, whereas if I had gone ahead with my original text response I would have been still talking about who got last word and whose words hurt the most. Whoever said: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me, has clearly never met my family.

Sometimes we need to imagine ourselves a little bit different to how we are in that moment – because there are so many versions of us, but we are aiming for our best – so that we can guide the outcome of a situation. It is almost like creating a space to give ourselves the chance to stay in that different state afterwards. We deserve that nice state.

Getting into a state

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), first invented by John Grinder and Richard Bandler, and extensively promoted by Tony Robbins and Paul McKenna has long promoted the belief that we can make changes in our lives to become more successful/thinner/richer by changing our states which changes our behaviour and thoughts, and then we can go on and also influence other people too.

Like most self-help books, I have always found NLP tiring, all that need to change myself suggests that I am not enough the way that I am and that I have to be something else.

Feelings, nothing more than feelings

Whatever it is, it is not the goal, it’s the way we believe we will feel when we have that goal. We don’t have to be different to achieve a goal, we just have to recognise what we want to feel, and then achieve that feeling.  

So it has been such a relief to read Danielle La Porte’s  The Desire Map Book, because she says that we want to be more successful/thinner/richer because we want the feeling of whatever comes with that goal: the feeling of power, sexiness or security. Whatever it is, it is not the goal, it’s the way we believe we will feel when we have that goal. We don’t have to be different to achieve a goal, we just have to recognise what we want to feel, and then achieve that feeling.

Rather like my text exchange, I had to identify what I wanted to feel after it was over and then act in that way.  Too often, we immediately respond to the world around us rather than pausing to see how we feel, and more importantly how we want to feel during a moment. This is so much easier for me than having to rewire my brain to be a different person.

Confidence, comfort, passion, enthusiasm

davidji says that we must absolutely get clear on what we want because we make too many decisions out of fear and desperation, or in my text case anger and hurt. He quotes the Bhagavad Gita: Yogastha kuru karmani and tells us that we must establish ourselves in the present moment, i.e., create space to pause in and decide on an outcome, before we act, if we want a better outcome in a given situation.

And, this advice is demonstrated by Amy Cuddy in her book Presence. She says that the people who were most likely to be awarded venture capitalist money were the ones who presented their ideas with confidence, comfort, passion and enthusiasm. These people did not spend their time in the spotlight looking fearful or desperate. Their belief in what they wanted sponsorship for came through in their voices, gestures and facial expressions. They were completely present in the moment and demonstrated authenticity. Cuddy says we can all do this. We can learn to tap into that state where we feel confident and passionate, when we need to, to rise to the occasion.

The authentic self

Semiotics teaches us that our only measurement of truth is if it feels right, that is to say: Does it ring true and fit with what we already feel? We live our own stories everyday and have our own knowledge and experience of storytelling so that when we listen to someone else’s story, if it doesn’t ring true then we don’t believe that person. This might be because that person is a bit off, a bit inauthentic, which could be that they or we don’t quite trust ourselves in a given situation.

We do this by learning that our authentic self is a state or space we can get into whilst honestly expressing our values.

Cuddy’s book and TED talk tell us that we can learn to trust ourselves by believing in our own stories. We do this by learning that our authentic self is a state or space we can get into whilst honestly expressing our values. So, Cuddy recommends faking it until we make it, or become it. Because, we are not really faking it, we are remembering ourselves in our self-affirming story.

The more powerless people feel, the more anxiety they experience, and the smaller they become. We need to create a space in order to become present, you have presence and you take up the space you deserve and require in any situation to give and receive the very things that the meeting, the text, the conversation came about for, in the first place.

Sometimes we get so lost in a moment, and we feel so desperate and afraid, we forget, why we decided to have that conversation, presentation, text.

Intimacy not intimidation

Taking up space and expanding in the animal kingdom is a way of demonstrating power and Cuddy says that this is not intimidation, for, if someone is too big we will avoid them, instead expanding and being expressive in a given space is a form of intimacy.

For me, the NLP approach which Robbins and McKenna use seems to have a very masculine flavour which needs us emulate the alpha male. Simon Sinek, takes a similar stance, he advises leaders to speak last, eat last – basically have the last word – a total demonstration of intimidation not intimacy. Again, it is an old-fashioned alpha male approach of domination, which makes me cringe, though Sinek says he wants to change the way industries function in order to take better care of their employees. You can’t do that if your leaders pull all the tricks to have the last word.

It is not about winning

It is not about winning! 

So, it is refreshing to have Amy Cuddy explain similar advice but in a different way. The reason we may want to slow down, speak slowly, and take a pause is, that it helps us expand and occupy the space we need in order to choose the correct and appropriate response without anxiety and without anger. We want to know that when we act and speak we have done so as our most authentic selves, the nicest selves we can muster, and that we take the time to think so we don’t do or say anything that we would later on regret. 

Whatever we say or do in any of these spaces, we want to leave them warmer and brighter than they were before we entered them. As we all learnt at school: 

It is not about winning! It really is about the taking part.