… I first heard these words many years ago from John Savage, a wise teacher of mine. They still echo in my ears – especially when I hear myself or others rehearsing a story from our past.
And it happened to me this week. I was on a call with my own coach Lissa Boles. One of the things she said to me was “you coach mainly women, right?” I paused, before answering, “yes I do, but for years I’ve had a sense that I’d also be coaching men. In fact it’s always been a puzzle to me that there aren’t more men in our community. We ALL face challenges in our lives, and I know the difference this work makes ISN’T limited to those who show up in one particular place on the gender continuum!”
In that moment, a memory of an experience I’d had as a five year old came to me. It’s a familiar and significant memory. A story I’ve recounted many times over the years, and here it was showing up to be told again.
You may remember I was born and grew up in Barbados in the 1950s. My paternal grandparents (also Barbadian born and raised) lived next door. One of the things my younger sister and I loved doing was helping Papa raise the flag which, on special occasions, he flew on the flagpole between our houses.
Helping our Papa raise the flag – clearly not ‘the’ day.
Only the single flag was being raised!
The morning our new baby brother arrived in our world was certainly a day to fly the flag. My heart was filled with excitement as we went out to help Papa. We immediately realized this was an extra special day. Not only was there the usual flag at the top, but a whole stream of flags all the way down the flagpole! In that moment I was filled with the pride of being the big sister to our new brother – in the next moment, everything changed.
Once the flags were up, I heard Papa talking about why this was such a special day for him. After having 4 girl grandchildren (we had 2 older girl cousins) he finally had a boy to carry on the family name. Instantly I could feel the contraction in my heart and gut. My body knew something was ‘off’ about this, but here was our beloved Grandfather speaking with such joy, pride and relief about the presence of our brother in the world. I felt confused – what did that mean about us girls? I knew we were loved, I’d always thought we were special, but now it seemed we weren’t – at least not as important as our new baby brother!
In that swirl of shock and confusion I had no way of articulating what I was feeling. Even if I’d had language, I wouldn’t have wanted to speak out against Papa. The combination of not wanting to spoil his delight, and not wanting to risk upsetting him was potent. So I was left doing what kids often do, trying in my five year old mind to make sense of my world which had been rocked in a way I couldn’t really understand, and yet was irrevocably changed.
John Savage was right – I’ve told this story many times over the years! In the grand scheme of things, compared to the trauma many kids experience, this was pretty mild, so I’ve not paid a lot of attention to it. I’ve mostly just recounted the story. There’ve been times I’ve felt incensed at the injustice of the ‘unconscious masculine’ that has so pervasively impacted our world. I’ve certainly appreciated the efforts of those (women and men) who in their unique ways, have advocated for and enacted changes in this. But, in hearing myself recounting the story again this week – this time in the context of my work – I recognized there was important information embedded here I hadn’t yet noticed.
As the swirl and ache of the sensations of energy and emotions in my body continued after my coaching call ended, I knew it was time. This wasn’t about blaming or making anyone wrong. Instead I was curious about connecting more deeply with that five year old part of me. I wanted to both witness her painful experience, and help her (and me) understand more clearly what she’d known, felt and needed in that moment, but not been able to express.
I could feel the bigness of it, and even as an adult, I didn’t want to be alone in this exploration. That evening I asked Bruce if he’d support me.
I intentionally choose to connect deeply with my wise adult self and feel into those sensations still living in my body. With Bruce’s support I lovingly attended to the waves of fear that washed over me. After they subsided, I felt the enormous unexpressed anger energy stored in my body all these years. As I let my attention rest on it, I wasn’t trying to make it go away or ‘do’ anything other than acknowledge and allow its presence to be expressed. After a while, it, too, moved through me, giving way to waves of tears and deep sadness.
When this felt complete, the ache I’d been feeling in my gut was gone but my thoughts were still swirling. While there was clearly more to be done, I was too tired that night. As I went to bed I was deeply appreciative of Bruce for his support, my teachers whose wisdom and practices I’d learned, and my own courage and commitment to turn toward and embrace whatever was there.
Next morning, I awoke feeling refreshed and grounded in my wise adult self – ready to explore more directly this powerful memory. Using another practice I love, I began to capture what was emerging in my awareness.
In recalling my experience I could feel the huge emotional impact of having the value of my existence so unthinkingly dismissed. I’m also clear that as Papa celebrated finally having a boy to carry on the family name, he had no idea the impact his words were having on me. This way of seeing the world was so much the water in which the culture swam his spontaneous delight was totally understandable.
As I reflected, I realized in that culture the differences and distinctions between women and men were many, and deeply embedded. One of these was the either/or-ness of gender. Either you were a man, or you were a woman. The idea of fluidity in gender expression wasn’t even considered, far less accepted, and as a result, it was simpler to have pretty clearly proscribed roles for each gender. The notion of responding to deep desires or personal calling wasn’t encouraged.
Both my heart as proud big sis to my little brother, and my uncertainty and checking in with others, seem obvious to me here.
While I loved my little brother, his presence had highlighted in my five year old mind the way the system seemed stacked against us girls – somehow our existence had less value. This didn’t make any sense to me, and there didn’t seem to be any way of challenging or changing this.
Yet despite this sense of the immutability of the system, and recognition of my impotence to make a difference at that time, I still knew there was something ‘wrong’ here. It’s clear my commitment to honouring the value of each one of us – just because we exist – was present and active in me.
But even though in that moment I knew in my bones something was wrong, this week I also saw the way, as a little girl living in that environment, my conditioning by the system continued. The pain of holding what seemed like an impossible desire for change was too great, and I understandably let go of it.
Also, since in my five year old mind, my value as a girl now seemed in question, I felt more uncertain about my sense of being safe and secure in the world. In an attempt to safeguard my security, the imperative to be a good girl, and not be ‘too much trouble’ became even more deeply embedded.
As I grew up I not only accepted, but bought into the many expectations that existed unquestioned – both for girls and boys. This was particularly confusing and painful for me because (for all kinds of reasons) I wasn’t interested in the things most of the little girls around me seemed to enjoy, so I didn’t feel I fit in there either. Having lost confidence in my own knowing and impulses, I learned to watch and adapt to what I saw others doing, and I became very adept at this.
The upside of this need to create a sense of safety for myself by being attuned to what others were feeling and needing, was that my capacity to really be present to what was happening in others was exquisitely honed. On the other hand, there was a real downside to navigating through life by being hyper-focused on others and not paying attention to me. It wasn’t until my mid-thirties that the pain of being so disconnected from myself pushed me onto my path of personal growth. Only then did I begin to reconnect with what was deeply true for me, and start to discover what I liked, wanted and needed.
So it’s no wonder I now have such a passion for becoming more deeply related to my myself, and supporting others also on this path. Together we discover, legitimize, and stand for our big ‘yesses’ – those deep desires that can only be expressed uniquely through us. We also attend to the needs and feelings we experience that point us to next steps in becoming fuller expressions of the people we came here to be.
But the biggest ‘yes’ this week’s reflections highlighted for me was the importance for each of us to have the freedom to choose our responses to life. Of course as humans we all have our instinctive reactions to what happens to us. There’s no make wrong, and (as far as I know!) no avoiding this – that’s the swirl and ache I found myself in earlier this week.
But it seems crucial to me that we, particularly those of us drawn to this journey of the evolution of consciousness in our world, expand our capacity to quickly NOTICE what’s happening when we have these instinctive reactions. As we develop our awareness of this, and hone our skills in the practice of NURTURING ourselves and others in these often painful moments, we’ll experience greater FREEDOM. Freedom to truly choose those next steps in responding to the call of our lives.
The natural outcome of all this is Realizing RICH-er Relationships with ourselves and with others! That’s clearly been my experience this week, and the experience of those I partner with in this work.
After taking time this week to reflect on this old memory, when I think back on it now it no longer seems painful. The reactions of everyone involved seem so understandable, and even though I couldn’t do anything to make a difference back then, I loved seeing how clear my big ‘yesses’ were. The deep desires of my heart present there continue to inspire and embolden me in my work today.
Is there a story you’ve been telling forever that might have some clues in it as to some of your big ‘yesses’? Might exploring this support you in becoming a more full expression of the person you came here to be?
I often say, this is a practice, and that means we often don’t ‘do it perfectly’! In those imperfect moments, the invitation is to go right back to noticing and accepting where we’re at, and nurturing ourselves there.
And as I always say, we’re not created to do this alone. If and as it feels true, I’d love to hear what’s moving in you as you consider all this.