When we want others to learn a lesson: Litmus tests for truth telling.

Have you ever been in a situation when you’re hearing something powerful, or learning a lesson, and thought to yourself; “I wish such and such were here to hear this!”

Or likewise, when you observe someone’s poor decision or reactions, and want to nail some truths to their door. Maybe we see relationships friends and loved ones are a part of, and we diagnose their issues quick smart.

Maybe it’s more personal than that. Maybe someone has hurt you, wronged you, judged you, written you off or excluded you, and you rehearse over and over the perfect speech to give them a piece of your mind, serving them home truths about what their actions have cost you.

Whether it is your parent, spouse, sibling, or friend, these situations vary in their context, content, or severity of stakes, but they really are all fuelled by the same goal:

We want other people to learn their lesson.

– me. circa 1983-present day

Perhaps we want them to see the pain they’ve caused us – or others.
Perhaps we want them to see how they are caught up in habits of self sabotage.
Perhaps we want them to extend compassion towards those they are dismissive of.
Perhaps we want them to realise their snobbery is unappealing and shallow.
Perhaps we want them to soften their hearts that have become brittle.
Perhaps we want them to know that there is better for them than the life they are currently leading.

No matter the lesson, we are often left in a state of angst – in frustration that we can’t change other people, in resentment that we need to accept people for who they are, or fear that their continued actions without change will result in significant negative consequences.

Because we’ve all been there. I think we’ve all spent time daydreaming and indulging the fantasy of the ‘speak my truth’ monologue conversation. When we see an ex-partner and tell them the thing that we wanted to say the whole of our relationship – (of course eloquently, accompanied with a stellar outfit). Or we give an awful employer a piece of our mind. Or we indulge the insistent need to tell that one person how we love them and feel about them, no matter the consequence.

“They need to know how I feel!”.

– Us

…But do they?

I was ruminating with my best mate about this topic and she asked me a pertinent question

When we have a hard truth – for someone else, who exactly does this ‘truth’ serve?

If we are honest with ourselves, it’s often us.

Is this truth, this lesson, going to make them feel better? Or you?

OOOF.

I think we are better served if we honestly ask ourselves what we want from the hard truth-conversation. My therapist queried me of this some years ago when I was discussing a prickly relationship in which I wanted to bring up an elephant in the room and offer hard truth.

“What do you want to happen in the conversation?”
I thought about it, and answered “I want them to do x, y and z”
“You’re probably not going to get that”, she replied, and so advised me to not bring up the topic in conversation.

Which is weird advice right? Aren’t all relationships built on total honesty and open communication?

Yes – and perhaps, no. Not in the way we often think about flagrant, raw truth. Relationships are built on trust, honesty, but most importantly, kindness and love in supporting one another. Sometimes, sometimes, we are given the opportunity – and here is the kicker, INVITED, to be brutal, hard truth tellers, but there may be lots of circumstances where it our ‘privilege to hold our tongue – even in service of the truth’ – my wise best mate again. We may serve the relationship by holding our tongue, when we realise that we serve the relationship by first working through our pain in another safer, healthy context or outlet, until it is time to speak the ‘truth’. We need to ask ourselves honestly, soberly, who is the lesson for? Who does the truth serve?

So here’s litmus test 1:

#1: Is the lesson for them – or us?

If the lesson is for us, perhaps we should learn it before we thrust it upon others.


So. we’ve successfully moved through litmus test number one: the lesson is definitely not for us, it’s for another person. We are satisfied that our truth and lesson is for the the recipient.

We then should ask ourselves if the lesson is for the other person to feel bad for what they’ve done to us, or if we are genuinely concerned for that person (which is really litmus test #1 again – is this their stuff, or is it my stuff?). We deflect and project from our own insecurities and rough spots far more than we like to admit.

Bill Johnson gives incredibly sage advice on this:

Don’t speak, just to give people a piece of your mind. Speak because you want to contribute to their well being. If you do that, you’ll know the difference between speaking truth in and of itself, and speaking truth in love.

Bill Johnson

We should speak truth because we want to contribute to their wellbeing.

Thus litmus test 2:

#2: Does the lesson contribute to their wellbeing?

If we want to speak truth to make someone else suffer, I would encourage us to sit with that reality for a bit and process that within a safe space. When we speak hard truths to loved ones, we want the outcome to build them up.


Having passed test 1 & 2, we then should also consider if it’s the right time to speak. Even if it’s true, and even if we genuinely feel like we should be sharing this information for another’s benefit, are they ready to hear it?

“Just because it’s true, are they ready to bear it?” – Best mate Katie. Again.

It can be a minefield.

I’m gonna repeat what I said earlier. Sometimes, sometimes, we are given the opportunity – and here is the kicker, INVITED, to be truth tellers, but there may be lots of circumstances where it our ‘privilege to hold out tongue – even in service of the truth’.

If someone we know is making bad decisions from a state of fear, trauma, pain, or grief, it is rarely helpful to confront someone, guns blazing, with our truth bombs. Compassion should always, always, always be prioritised over truth telling.

The annoying reality is that we don’t have monopoly of wisdom about our loved ones. We have blind spots, bias, prejudice, and a limited perspective about the lives of those around us, even if we are in close relationship to them. We may not (and often don’t) have the full story of their context, so we need to be very S. L. O. W. to tell people what they “NEED” to hear.

We serve ourselves and our loved ones well to ask questions and listen FIRST rather than speak anything from our ‘truth’ reserves. Discernment and reflexivity will always serve us. Thus we arrive at

Litmus test 3:

#3: Does their context shed light on our truth telling?

Building a context can shed light on people’s decisions, logics, responses, that we were previously ignorant of. It may change the truth you’re telling. Or the way you tell it. Or the timing.


So we come to the big leagues now. We’re three tests in. This lesson has proven itself. It’s not not about us, it is a truth that will serve our loved ones and neighbours, and it remains imperative even after understanding their context.

How do then we speak truth? Can we finally get around to teaching people lessons?

Not really. We need to acknowledge the fact that we can’t change people.

BUT

passivity is compliance, right?

surely, we must act, right?

….maybe.

The reality of life is that even if what you speak is true, if it is a correction, it will probably not be received well. I mean, who here easily welcomes a criticism of their spousal choices, or their perspective or values in life?

I remember being 14, and after my well meaning and wise father who was gently trying to teach me some hard-earned life truisms, yelling in his face in classic teenage angst; “LET ME LEARN MY OWN LESSONS!!!!” before slamming the door and barricading myself in my room.

People need to learn their own lessons.

It may not be the right time.

you may not be the right voice.

What I’m learning, is that it is far more common for us – and thus far more important for us not just to be sources of truth telling, but of homes of compassion and hospitality.

It may be heartbreaking, and frustrating, and withering, but when we have a truth for others to learn, they’re not going to want to hear it from us if we don’t offer them hospitality and compassion first.

If we’ve been wronged and hurt by their actions, this approach feels contradictory.

It feels so passive, ineffective, flaccid, weak. 

It is an affront to the anxiety about taking a stand and speaking truth to the moment. 

Compassion feels so quiet. 

Compassion feels like a cop out. 

Holding your space of hospitality feels wasted, like laying out a meal that your kids refuse to eat. But compassion is far more powerful than we give it credit for.

Compassion holds our hearts soft. 

It is painful. And feels isolating.

BUT Compassion is akin to hospitality. creating spaces for people to return to, to feel safe in.

I think about this stance so often when my heart breaks for lessons not learned, for loved ones that I desperately want better for. I think about this stance even when my truth doesn’t pass the litmus tests: when it is about the pain I’ve received and the desire I continue to hold for others to understand that pain. lessons can, and do get learned.

Hard conversations can and do take place. And they can be beautiful. And beneficial. But they are less frequent than we imagine. When they do take place, they are rarely immediate. Lessons usually require time to be truly heard. And most importantly, they need to take place in a [relational] safe space. Which means that you might have to wait. and you might have to hold your ground in integrity, in an openness to relationship, in hospitality – even if they’re closed off to you – because compassion and hospitality is the first step to lessons being learned. Be patient.

The wisest and most experienced people in my life are rarely the ones who offer hard truths – even though they are the ones most qualified to do so. I’ve watched them be accused and wronged by others, sometimes questioning why they don’t lash out and put people in their place. But watching them, the trait that is common to all is the compassion they offer first. The way they hold their ground, and patiently keep offering up opportunities for connection, conversation and hospitality. I want to be like that.

Biggest trick of truth telling: Hold the space. Hold integrity of relationship. And you might be given permission, or invited to speak your truth. It’s a better (and more successful) plan of attack. I promise.

Litmus test 4:

#4 Can you be patient? Hold the space for hospitality and compassion.

Here’s to truth telling – to the discerning, to the well being, to the asking, to the compassion.

xx

On insulation: When compartmentalisation hurts as much as it helps

I was in a moment praying a while ago, asking for wisdom and guidance, and a weirdly specific and innocuous image came to mind:  

Insulation. Styrofoam peanuts. Bubble wrap.  

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

Random, right? Perhaps not. 

For what does insulation do? 

Protects. Surrounds.  

Insulation keeps things safe. It stops breakage. It temperates climate. It is a protective mechanism – and for an incredibly good reason: things can be fragile and require protection.  

Likewise, people can be fragile and require protection. 

As much as I am loathe to admit, at times I can be fragile and require protection.  

I am grateful for the people, rituals and things that have provided protection and safety to me over the years. The styrofoam image reminded me to give thanks again for when I have been given shelter and respite amidst past storms and hard seasons.

But the thought also came to mind: 

What also does insulation do? 

It quietens. Deadens.  

Insulation dilutes and muffles sound, keeping the subject from stuff, as well as away from danger. 

When we build walls up for protection, the walls often keep other aspects of life out too. 

Compartmentalisation & Why it isn’t Always Cosy

If you were to get me to detail my strengths, compartmentalisation would be near the top of my list. It is a weird thing to be proud of, I know. But I am quite adapt – or at least practiced – in the art of compartmentalisation, where things that are unresolved or painful exist, but you put them in one space of occupancy, and you continue on in other areas.  

Maybe it’s a forced skill developed out of circumstance, but it is well practiced, habitual and often automatic now. “Where does this part of life belong?” – Over there. And it does not, shall not, need to invade other areas, as I need to continue working/adulting/parenting/friending. The compartmentalisation acts as an insulation, a styrofoam packing around areas which are painful, stressful or just exhausting, so we can continue ‘lifing’, as it were.

It can look like resilience. It can look like maturity in the way that we are prepared to be ok with the ‘grey of life’ without resolution. It can look a lot like survival and ‘coping’ in the face of the challenges of life’s strains and stress. It can look like tolerance when people disagree with us or come from a different place of value or belief, conviction or worldview. 

The compartmentalisation can look like ‘being ok with the tension’ – but in actual, honest, reality – this process may also be protective mechanisms masquerading as acceptance, manifesting in procrastination and distraction.

Instead of facing – and perhaps risking being made immobilized or emotionally disabled by aspects of reality that are tender, overwhelming or just heavy in their impact, you spend shameful amounts of time in mindless pursuits, so you do not have to engage with real tension, anxiety, or pain – hello scrolling social media, hour-sucking-embarrassing-phone games, online shopping, self-soothing with food, alcohol, exercise, netflix, intimacy, or insert-other-vice-here. This is what compartmentalisation can – and does – look like on a bad day.

Nor should we berate ourselves for needing protection, self-soothing or comfort however: the world is full of stimuli and triggers, both good and bad, that can remind us of current or historical pain and trauma. We need to switch off and zone out at times. Soothing is ok. Self soothing is ok.

But I think it’s ok to name the process for what it actually is. Keeping-on keeping-on is costly.

Furthermore, compartmentalisation can also look a heck of a lot like pride. There is a not-insignificant pride in me in the fact that I have been able to put things aside and ‘keep moving forward’ in my life. “I am strong”, I tell myself. Others have said it too. And as much as I would infinitely prefer having not to be strong ‘all the time,’ the by-product of having to do it is that at least you can take pride in the fact that you have been strong. 

But this pride kinda smells of a shadow side to ‘keep on keeping on’, where we participate in putting things in their own boxes, not allowing different elements in our live to meet or touch each other. Here are reasons why compartmentalisation can stink:

Its impact on other people. 

There have been numerous times when my friends and family have been hurt by my compartmentalisation. It manifests in forgetfulness, or pragmatism that feels dismissive – or judgemental, when people do not, or cannot, behave like I do, and soldier on amidst their sickness/stress/pain/grief/insert-life-trouble-here. The pride I mentioned earlier that I feel in my own success of keeping on is projected as judgement to others who can’t, or are ‘choosing not’, to ‘do better’.

I am further ashamed to admit that my dearly loved ones have often been the unfortunate victims of my anger towards them in this respect. At signs of their (perceived by me) ‘weakness’, I lash out in judgement and frustration, when they are perhaps living more authentically than I am in that moment, whether it is a burden of illness, emotional frailty, or just life-fatigue – much (read: most, all) of which is not their fault.

This isn’t helpful. For anybody.

Its impact on me.

Resilience and and compartmentalisation is always good when it is that, resilience in the face of trial, or the ability to bounce back following impact. 

But it is not good when it is brittleness, rigidity masquerading as resilience. When your protective mechanisms have become so naturally occurring and habit-induced (even if it is out of necessity) that we automatically protect ourselves against something that may even be good for us – something to learn, adjust, grow, benefit from, be graced by – because we’re afraid of it hurting us, because we’re practiced at disappointment, because we don’t have the energy to think of what it will require from us to engage with – that is a bad thing.

In the fear, exhaustion, anger, judgement, we deflect, we disengage, we self-soothe, we distract, we give lip service to, we support efforts of engagement with/for other people, all the while just grateful that we can shift attention away from our own choice not to emotionally engage – that is all bad. 

Like a child hiding a broken figurine from his mother for fear of judgement, we hid broken parts of ourselves from others (and more importantly, from ourselves) in an attempt to deliver us from judgement. But our refusal to embrace and integrate our past is a recipe for greater personal, relational and social pain. Hoping for peace and wholeness in the world while ignoring our own divided and contradictory parts insures that we don’t have peace in the world, in our families, and in our churches (and I would add, our workplaces, our schools, our communities, our societies)

Villodas, 2020 p.104, parenthesis mine.

I love this quote from Rich Villados. He speaks of the need to embrace all the parts of us. To stubbornly refuse to integrate the reality of who we are as people leads to discord in ourselves and in the world.

I had a sense the other day that parts of my life that I longed to be ‘well’ in, aspects of my life that feel stagnated, stale, spiky, stilted (insert any other alliteration here) in – they weren’t going to be well until I acknowledged just how far my compartmentalisation practice has actually shaped me, and perhaps ill-shaped so. I’m grateful for the times that insulation has protected me. But maybe it’s time to practice the art of integration and not necessarily being fine with self soothing, deadening, quietening those parts of me that I am ashamed and even angry about.

For here is the shadow side of compartmentalisation (as a mechanism of resilience). The protective mechanisms that have been so good at keeping bad things out, 

keep good things out as well. 

I don’t want to be so well protected that I dismiss aspects of my life that would be healthier if given space to breathe – even if it feels a little ugly at the time. I don’t want to be so well practiced at compartmentalisation that I dismiss and judge others whose ‘flailing’ inconveniences – or disgusts – me. I’m suspicious that those aspects of my own life so currently well protected will bring fruit – eventually – if I work through them with the support of friends, therapy, and in my own story, God.

Here’s to unpacking that which has become stagnant. Here’s to kindness and grace for others – and ourselves – when we can’t always have a clean compartmentalisation.

xx

Villodas, R. (2020) The Deeply Formed Life. Waterbrook, Random House.

I don’t know what to call this post: Or, on a life of chronic indecisiveness.

My friend Eleanor is one of the most decisive people I know. In the time I’ve had the pleasure of calling her friend, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her doubt herself, once. She knows what she wants in life, in meals, in relationships, in fashion choices, in her faith, and in her tile choice (you can refer back to this post to know just how deeply I respect this particular skill). Not only do I admire her for her steadfast steadfastness, but to be honest it baffles me somewhat, because it is a trait that does not come readily to me. In fact, I would say that my relationship to everyday indecisiveness is one of the longest ones in my life.

What do you want for dinner? I don’t care.

How do you want to spend the day? I don’t mind.

What movie would you like to watch? Whatever you want.

The list goes on.

In fact, one of my most deeply terrifying annoying and recurring nightmares is simply that I cannot decide what to wear on a given day. It takes me hours. In the dream I have important appointment to go do, and people waiting for me, but I cannot make a choice. The clothing is piled up high on the bed, and I’m trying on outfit #54, desperate to get out of the house, but seemingly unable to.

The problem runs subconsciously deep.

But if I was actually honest with myself, all decision making does not allude me. I don’t have a problem with making big decisions. Marriage? Travel? Jobs? Land purchase? All made without hesitation. Nor do I regret the big decisions made in my life either. So I must have some self assurance lurking in there.

Nor is the problem, I believe, a lack of opinion; I have some deeply passionate stances about many issues (climbing mount everest, collectable spoons, vintage clothing, grace, socialisation, how to spend a weekend in the Adelaide hills, individualism, historic fiction to name a few).

I don’t have a problem with knowing what I want. The opinions are there – under the surface, quiet in the conversation – but they aren’t often given air time when there is someone else in the mix or equation.

When there’s a stake beyond my own, I won’t make the call.

I’m not indecisive – I defer my opinion to others.

So here, now, we come to it.

Looking back over my teenage/young adult relationships, especially with people I wanted to impress (read: popular people, impressive people, or especially people of the opposite sex), I developed the habit of ‘not caring’, ‘not minding’, because far far worse than not getting the pick of choice of eats/movie/destination is the fear of having someone else be disappointed in my choice. “They can’t hate me if I didn’t make the call!”, I would say to myself, and I would let the other person pick the movie. Again.

But surely this is a likeable character trait, right? Being agreeable and amenable at every turn? I’m the perfect companion, right?

Maybe not – not really. A few years into our marriage, my husband, exasperated, shared with me how frustrating it was to be on the receiving end of constant deferral. “Do you realise how exhausting it is having to make all the decisions all the time?”, he lamented. I apologised. And made a decision to try to be better at decisions moving forward.

Because sure, being agreeable is nice – especially when the intent is to be hospitable to someone else’s opinions on a given matter.

But being always agreeable creates its own set of problems, because in giving away your opinion, you are giving the burden of responsibility to someone else to shoulder.

And if i’m being completely honest, that’s what my main MO has been.

I’m not indecisive because I don’t know what I want.

Nor am I indecisive because I am always happy to surrender the choice to provide room for someone else’s.

When I defer choice, I am absolving myself of blame if the situation goes south.

In removing opportunities for people to protest my actions, I am in the very deeply ingrained habit of aiming to be as you-can’t-complain-about-me as possible.

The behaviour is insidious because it forces other people to make calls before I do. And not only that, it creates more opportunities to twist situations or narratives to make me look powerless, or less powerful at minimum, in order to avoid responsibility.

It hurts to admit, but I would say that I have adjusted scripts and retelling of scenarios to make it look like I was less insistent or demanding in a given situation, not because that was necessarily the reality, but in the attempt to absolve myself of blame when someone else is even potentially unhappy with a result.

That’s embarrassing. Because I’m better than that.

The fear of disappointing others runs so deep though, that I will meet that need, even if it is fabricated, even if it is inconvenient or less than ideal, because I would prefer them to be happy (read: with me).

That’s incredibly selfish, hey.

It’s not generous to absolve myself of leadership or responsibility in relationship. Especially, especially, in relationships with your loved ones.

It’s not nice nor helpful not to back myself in the everyday. This doesn’t help me. It doesn’t help my colleagues. My students. My church. My community. My friends. My husband. My children.

If I don’t back myself, I by default make other people do the work for me. And perhaps even more depressing, I deprive myself of the pride of what it feels like when you do carry that responsibility; the gift that failure or disappointment can bring in teaching (even if it sucks at the time); and the joy of success when a decision bring victory and fruit.

I want to own my wins more. I want to own my failures a little more, too.

Maybe there’s a way to back myself without being in danger of arrogance.

Maybe there’s a way to be more helpful to myself – and others – than what complete deferral in an attempt to be likeable does; I have a feeling that people like me because of what I actually bring to the table rather than what I keep it clean from.

Even if the choice goes horribly (or a little bit) wrong – maybe I have to risk that the people in my life will be ok with me despite that. Taking responsibility is what growing up is.

There is a horrendous roundabout in Adelaide called the Britannia roundabout. It’s actually 2 roundabouts in one and brings together about 15 roads. Of course, it’s less than that; We’re no european city roundabout monstrocity. But it sure feels like 15 in rush hour. I know many drivers who will simply refuse to drive down the roads that connect at the roundabout, driving a long route around to avoid it. But I travel it everyday to work. And I kinda like it. Because when I do, I hear my mum’s voice in my head, who took me through the roundabout when I was learning to drive. She loved the roundabout too, and told me the only way to be able to navigate it:

“Assertive, Kirsten. You don’t have to be aggressive when you drive, but you need to be assertive. Take the space that’s there. Indicate your intention and go for it. It won’t lead you astray”.

– Mum.

I think of her every time I drive it.

Maybe my choices could do with a little more assertiveness, too.

Take the space that’s there. Indicate your intention and go for it.
It won’t lead you astray”.

x

“I’m here while you’re in it”: On being accompanied when you’re at your worst.

In a recent session with my genius therapist she encouraged me to speak of what was making me angry.

“Tell me one thing that’s making you angry.”
“Just one thing?” I replied. (I’m funny, friends).
“Start with one. We’ll work our way from there.”

I then shared some aspects of anger (a particularly potent emotion for me). We discussed triggers of that anger, along with fear and frustrations. Then after a while, in a lull of conversation, she announced;

“We’re going to stay in this moment.”
“What do you mean?”, I asked.
“Keep feeling what you’re feeling. Don’t summarise, explain or justify. Just feel it”.

“No thank you”, I replied. Nope. I didn’t want to. I was uncomfortable with the focused attention and lack of permission to move on out of the moment. But she pushed back, told me to ground my feet, to sit up straight in the chair, and then added; “Keep looking at me. Keep making eye contact with me.”
“That’s ridiculous”, I countered. No thank you. Again.
“You have to do it – even if you can’t maintain it. Keep checking in with me.”

Now dear reader, when you read this, the process of getting me to sit in my sadness and fear, my anger and frustration, may seem like a cruel act. Indeed, it was excruciating to experience. In sitting in the feeling, my emotions quite quickly manifested physically: My jaw started clenching. My breaths became shallow. My back began to ache, and my legs began jiggling. And then I started dry heaving.

It was really full on. Instead of diminishing how I was feeling, however, my therapist calmly collected her rubbish bin and placed it at my feet, just in case I needed it. She talked me through some deep(er) breathing. “This is normal”, she said. “Your body is catching up with your heart. Let’s ride this out. Keep checking in with me. Keep making eye contact with me.”

“Why?!” I asked, exasperated. “Why do I need to keep making eye contact?!!”
– If you can believe it, for me this was by far the most painful part in the whole experience.

She smiled, and replied – “Because you need to know that someone is here while you’re in it”

I’m going to write that again.

Because you need to know
that someone is here
while you’re in it.

Genius therapist.

I was floored.
The whole experience was about 15 minutes. It felt like hours.
But I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

What a revelation and gift that presence was.

I was accompanied in the awfulness.
and it made it better.

The Christian heritage tells of a Jesus, who in the hours leading up to his death, prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, desperate for respite, reassurance, and wisdom. In the garden we are presented with a man who was deeply anxious. Who was desperate. Who felt his fear – and felt it deeply. We are told that Jesus’ sweat was like drops of blood – which is actually a confirmed medical condition of hematohidrosis – where severe anxiety activates the sympathetic nervous system, hemorrhaging the sweat glands. We are presented with one who did not deny his humanity amongst the fear.

I’ve always been arrested by this story. It is a central moment of God displaying his humanity in the person of Jesus – and this is the very point. He experienced deep fear, deep pain, and deep anguish.

Thus when we too feel deep fear, deep pain, and deep anguish,
we too can be companioned in it,
because he has experienced it too.

KJ Ramsey has beautifully noted,

Fear doesn’t have to be an enemy to conquer –
it can be a place to be companioned by love.

Accompaniment. What a privilege being soothed – not thrashed – back into strength.

No one ever moves from a space of fear by experiencing more shame.
No one has ever moved from a place of judgement and terror via more judgement.

But judgment and shame is often what we think we deserve when we have failed, or are doubting, or are tired, angry or resentful. When we judge others, I suspect it is often a misdirected projection of our own perceived inadequacies.

So let’s turn this narrative on its head.

What does it look like when we are accompanied in those moments of frailty?

What does it mean to recognise – as we see in the stories above – our humanity within reality?

What could it mean to be accompanied in those moments of terror, of dread, of brutality, of depression, of hopelessness? What does it mean to accept (with kindness) – or even tolerate – or be in the same room as – the parts of ourselves that are frail or burdened with heavy realities?

From personal experience, it is life changing.

Here’s genius therapist again:

“…you need to know
that someone is here
while you’re in it.”

– genius therapist.

Since when did we believe the lie that we’re supposed to experience life alone? – To be more specific, when life feels like you’re enduring, and surviving rather than thriving – who told you that you’re supposed to work it out on your own? It’s a lie. It’s a load of bollocks. The lie is three fold;

1) That anger/fear/frailty is something that to be ashamed of.
2) That anger/fear/frailty is something that can be squashed, intellectualised or compartmentalised away.
3) That when we do feel these fears, when we are ‘in it’, it is something that should be endured alone.

Lies, Lies and more Lies.

Some friends and I were discussing this confrontational – but also strangely hospitable – vulnerability recently, and one shared a stunning confession with us;

Sometimes I look around and I genuinely feel like I’m the only one who’s thinking, “But this is all still terrifying, right? Are we allowed to say that?”…I am reassured by how the Lord is not particularly impressed by how “fearless” or “strong” I am (and I certainly know he doesn’t need me to be) and how precious and beautiful my brokenness and weakness is to him.

Another dear friend echoed the need to forge language and space for our humanity and frailty.

The need to only show a story or victory, dominion, mastery and perfection is exhausting at its best, and destructive at its worst.

Feeling alone while you’re in it
is one of life’s tragedies.
For many,
it’s one of life’s realities.

But it doesn’t mean that it is how it should be.

Maybe fear can be a place to be companioned by love;

“Sometimes life is particularly hard and the soul suffers and feels eroded or crushed. At times like these we are tender and extraordinarily sensitive. If we can find a soul to accompany us and help us to open these wounds and sores to the light and love it can be a source of great healing and beauty.”

Daughtry & Green, 2020

The next time that you are ‘in’ it, (and let’s be realistic, it’s a when, not if), I would ask that you not berate yourself for feeling what you’re feeling. I would invite you to consider the possibility that you can – and really should – be companioned by those who love you – in that space. I might offer the question of what healing, beauty and sacredness can be discovered in the companioned moment. I might also ask what it could look like to offer that invitation, and hold that space, for your own loved ones when they’re in it.

It might be awkward and weird. It might be painful and clumsy. But that’s where the glory is, friends.

Keep checking in with me.
You need to know that someone is here when you’re in it.

May you be companioned in it, friends.

x

Daughtry, & Green, M. (2020). The art of accompanying. Immortalise.

“But I don’t know how to roller skate!”: On when you have to lead/parent/adult beyond your own experience

My dear daughter got invited to go roller skating a few months back. I was excited for her; it was a chance for her to catch up with school mates during the holiday break, so I readily accepted the invitation on her behalf. Furthermore, I had fond memories of my own childhood, going to parties at the wonderful (and now unfortunately closed) Skateline.

Or…at least they were wonderful memories, at first glance. In any case, we arrived at the rink, and gathered skates for her. As I laced them up, she asked me: “What now?”

“We skate!”

“How do you skate?”

Me: ……I don’t really know, actually. “You put one foot in front of the other, and push!”

So we enter the rink. Arcadia quickly falls over. And over. She holds on to the side rail as I told her to, and we begin shuffling around the room. She looks at me and says “This is HARD!!!”

“Yeah, honey. It is”.

“How do I do it better?”

“……..”

I didn’t know what to say. I had NOTHING. In that moment, absolutely nothing. My dear daughter was clasping onto the side rail, wobbly on her skates, looking for help, for tips, for confidence – for me to say “My dear, THIS is how you roller-skate. This is how you succeed!” But I didn’t know how to.

The reality rushed at me: I was horrible at roller-skating, as a kid and now. I never got better or improved my confidence. I still refuse to put skates on now with the fear of falling on my ass time and again.

I had nothing in my experience that could help her. It was beyond me.

How do you live/lead/parent/pastor/work beyond your own experience? 

We look to our own present and historic experience as a measure of what is true and what is right. In many circumstances, this model is incredibly helpful; this has worked in the past, so it will work in the future. Repeated Experience = truth. But this approach falls flat when we are confronted with a question, or moment that does not sit within our reality or experience.

How can I teach you to roller skate when I’m terrified of skating myself? 

– Me

A character in a book I read recently had his father die when he was just 18. Not only was this a tragic event, with significant consequences of growing up without a father, but his father’s early death at 38 also prompted an assumption and limitation that the protagonist couldn’t and wouldn’t live past the same age. How could he parent beyond his own father? How could he “adult” beyond that which was modelled to him? 

You may have asked yourself questions like

How can I have a good marriage when I wasn’t modelled one as a kid? 

How can I be a good parent when my own childhood was traumatic and less than ideal?

How can I ‘adult’ when I can’t-or haven’t- been trusted with responsibility?

Of course, this is basically the tenant of growing up: you will – we all will come across situations you haven’t dealt with – it is the essence of learning: We incorporate new information into our psyche and make adjustments accordingly.

But the annoying thing about adulting and responsibility, is that you have to do it – with an audience. Unlike the ‘wonderful’* exploration time of adolescence and youth, there are significant consequences or dependent people that will experience the result of your choices. This is the essence of responsibility: other people are in your care.

This is awesome (at times). But it is equally hard (at times). Growing up can be hard.

When I started high school, I remember looking at the year 12s thinking how old and grand they were; they were the leaders of the school and the ones we aspired to be. But 5 short years later, when I was one of those year 12s, I didn’t seem that big, or that old, or anyone to aspire to

“This is it?”

Senior year me, to year 7 me.

Unfortunately, that question still rears its head. When will the promised land of surety, all-encompassing wisdom come? That golden promised land of adulthood where I can eat all the snacks and know exactly what I’m meant to be doing?

Of course, we all have these fears. And of course, we don’t know everything – we never will. It is a fallacy and unhelpful ideal that we will suddenly turn on a dime and be all knowing and all powerful. But the question does remain – when we are those adults, and we are in a place of responsibility, how are we supposed to handle challenging experiences? When people are looking towards us for guidance and wisdom, protection, when our kids look at us and ask: HELP ME? – and we don’t know how? What happens when our personal experience is not a resource – in fact, there is trauma, regret or shame that screams louder than any helpful response?

— What happens when we don’t have an answer?

There is a leadership adage that states you can’t teach what you don’t know. I looked it up and apparently Batman said it. In any case, the thought of only leading where you’ve been – is that helpful? The myth of personal experience would tell you so. You can only be an authority from your own experience. But the reality is that you will constantly be faced with situations – as a leader, and especially as a parent, where you haven’t been, and you have nothing to draw upon for reference.

Back in the roller rink, I had NOTHING. In that moment, like, absolutely nothing. I had nothing in my experience that could help her. It was beyond me.

But I desperately wanted her to learn – despite me. So I did the only thing I could do: I walked with her. Slowly. Around the rink. I helped pick her up as she fell. We slowly made the circuit, watching as her mates got faster and increased confidence. We had rests when she got tired and upset, and I encouraged her that she was getting better and better. (Was she? I hoped so).

I think about that afternoon all the time. Because it speaks to me about the true and human desire to lead well, to parent well, to be people that can role model truth and wisdom and knowledge to the people in our care. But it also speaks to me about the real – and often unhelpful – IDOL that we make of past experience being the core source of authority in our lives.

If I don’t feel it, it mustn’t be true.

if I haven’t known it, it mustn’t exist.

When it is good, personal experience is a beautiful and seductive thing. We ‘feel it’ in our gut, and we make future decisions about relationships, careers, faith, money, based on our past encounters. Why shouldn’t we? It makes sense – I did this in the past, and this good thing happened, or this felt good, and so this is how we should repeat it in the future.

In championing personal experience as our sole litmus test, when we encounter new information, we make judgements accordingly. We dismiss what sits outside of that experience and put boundaries on that truth or reality.

Now this works – until it doesn’t.

Not only can it predispose you from dismissing truth outside your own scope or story (and consequently reduce the opportunity to change your mind despite new – and possibly correct- information), but what if your personal experience or history was terrible? What if, in many moments, “I’ve got nothing”.

Does this mean that you are unable to make good choices or be in a position of responsibility?
Of course not.

Truth as only experience is unhelpful – or dare I say it, even destructive, when we are vulnerable, depressed, exhausted, in pain, or hopeless. It accuses us and ‘others’ people who ‘have it better’ – or worse than us. It is not always a helpful litmus test.

My dear father grew up in a home that was far from rosy. There was significant depression, anger, resentment, and alcoholism. My dear mother grew up feeling misunderstood and ignored by her parents. And so they both determined that the family they built would be the opposite; they would tell their kids they loved them. They would feel appreciated and cherished every day. And so, largely, that is what they did. I am grateful for growing up in a home that was the result of people endeavouring to choose the opposite of the own personal experience.

Many of you have successfully done the same.

But I look to my daughter now growing up, and there will be increasingly more moments where I don’t know the answer. With both parents gone by the time I was thirty, I don’t have an example of being parented as an adult for when my own children become adults. How do I parent beyond my own parenting experience?

How do we live – and lead – beyond the limits we experience?

The most helpful thing to do first is recognise that we often don’t know. If appropriate, we can share this fact and look for the answers with those looking to you for guidance. Or we draw upon our village to stand in the gap for you where your own knowledge/wisdom/skill doesn’t speak. That’s the beauty of growing up and living in relationship and community – indeed – that is the point.

The point of community is that we all have stuff,
and we all don’t have other stuff.
Our stuff supports the stuff that other people don’t have.

Macaitis, 2022. Feel free to quote me on this.

The second harder – but equally important task, is to say that it’s ok that you feel anger, frustration, jealousy, or shame about your own experience, and how you wish it was different (at times). It doesn’t make you a bad person. And it doesn’t make you unworthy of that responsibility. The championing of personal experience above all else is a cultural trend of individualism which is awesome – until it isn’t. And hear me – it is not the only way to see the world.

We can learn from others. We can borrow the strength, knowledge and experience of our culture, faith, family, history and community. We embrace our vulnerability, and then we act in GOOD FAITH for the future. That’s the best – and only – thing that we can do.

Your own ‘lack’ of experience in that specific context does not disqualify you from being a person of guidance, peace, support and safety for others.

Experience as King may in fact be a really big lie.

Maybe we can lead and adult past our experience. It just requires humility, presence, community, and maybe a little bit of faith.

Back to the roller skating: While I was wallowing in my own perceived inadequacies, trying to comfort both of my young and adult selves, my dear girl delighted me that day. Because –

She kept getting up, and tried again. And after our third excruciatingly slow circuit, she said to me: “It’s ok mum, you go sit down. I’ve got this.”

I was stunned. Her confidence, and her fortitude was glorious to see. I cheered her on and never felt prouder of her.

We went roller skating again a couple weeks later, and her persistence continues. She’s currently working to earn roller skates of her own.

Maybe her experience can teach me too. x

*please note: this is not to say that choices in youth don’t have consequences. but you get the point i’m trying to make here.

“Why haven’t I learned this lesson by now!?” On when we seemingly struggle with the same things again – and again – and again.

One of the best things that I’ve done in my life is see a therapist. She has been instrumental in helping me navigate significant trauma and unhelpful – even destructive – learned responses in my life, giving me tools of reflection, honesty and growth to navigate conflict and challenges.

Nevertheless, as much as this process has been helpful for me, I’ve been putting off making a renewed appointment with her for over two years now, largely because of the shame of what I would be seeking wisdom in – or to be more specific, because of what I would bring to the sessions – once more.

“Aren’t you done with this yet?” I taunt myself in my therapist’s voice.

“Haven’t you learned that lesson by now?”

Fake, Mean Therapist

The shame is real, friends. Surely at nearly 40 I am not struggling with the same things that I was when I was 15, 20, or 30?

In so many ways, of course, I am not. I have grown, I have matured. The challenges, dilemmas and anxieties at 15 are not those of 38, nor will they be of 45 or 60. But what is real, are common threads of how I respond to those evolving challenges.

What may be common, and same, is the specific triggers that bring anger, shame, jealousy, bitterness, resentment and shut down.

For example, I have written before of my wonderful excruciating journey of wanting to be capable. I don’t like trying new things because failing them would be the worst possible experience of life. So I don’t “put myself out there”, initiate, or assume responsibility because “If I don’t try, I can’t fail”.

It’s annoying. and painful. And I wish I was better. But here I am at almost 40 and I apparently haven’t solved the ‘problems’ of me yet!

Indeed, I have kept journals off and on most of my life. Looking back on them, many entries and prayers contain the frustration;

“Why, God, haven’t I learned this by now? WHY am I praying this same prayer? Why aren’t I ‘better’?”

My historical read of these entries is one of embarrassment and shame, tallying the lack of progress, the proof of my failure, the justification of critique of my personal, professional, and spiritual growth.

A weird thought occurred to me today though.

Instead of being embarrassed, what would a kind response to my repeated ‘failings’ look like?

What if I often struggle with these things not because I’m broken, but because I’m wired a certain way?

What if those failings – and identical failings are simply aspects of my humanity?

Please hear me, this is not a justification for ‘staying the same’. This is not me saying that my failings/errors/mistakes are “just me”. It is not your “boys will be boys-esq”, Kirsten will be Kirsten” excuse for ‘bad’ behaviour or for the absence of growth or effort.

Nor is it the denial that people can change and grow, that we can conquer certain traits that are destructive or unhelpful.

Rather, the truth is that I am human, and I will probably definitely need help navigating challenges in my life.

For example, in my own life, the truth is that I need help navigating fears of inadequacy and comparison.

The truth is that I need support to step back from anger and brittleness in the face of unfair responsibility.

The very sobering truth is that I may always need help to do so.

And the surprising question is – is that a bad thing?

Maybe the need to need help is just the reality of being a human.

I’ll say that again.

Maybe the need to need help is just the reality of being a human.

The way that I am wired, what I have experienced, and the various contexts that feed into my life have resulted in certain responses, triggers, failings and faults. And for the first time in my life I am considering the possibility that not only do I probably need help to counteract and breathe life into those spaces,

but maybe it is ok that I will need help – and continual, life-long help, to do so.

I can be empowered if I have a sober and measured understanding of myself. Because I can see what I am triggered by. I can see what my learned responses have been. I can notice if those responses are life giving or destructive. And amazingly, I can recognise when I need help – and I can seek it. That help may look and be different in different seasons of life. But I shouldn’t be ashamed to seek it.

I’ve been thinking of how people who live with alcoholism view their sobriety. Rather than being ‘cured’, alcoholism is seen as a condition that sufferers will negotiate their whole lives. In a journey of sobriety, an individual recognises situations that are more dangerous for them. They recognise what steps they need to protect themselves. The victors in this space aren’t ones who do it ‘on their own’, but are those who receive support to do so – usually for the rest of their lives.

Likewise, the process of naming or personifying a problem is used as a tool within narrative therapy to externalise and create some space between the person and the problem, which enables the person to begin to revise their relationship with the problem (Russell & Carey, 2004). Having the opportunity to revise the relationship we have with ourselves and our ‘issues’ may be one of the most powerful tools we can access.

If we take this journey of a sober understanding of ourselves into the world of spirituality, one of the fundamental premises of the Christian framework is that:

  1. We are human – and fallible.
  2. God is God.
  3. We need God.
  4. God is happy to help. And does so.

Those who profess faith are encouraged and exhorted to bring yourself to God. Expose yourself to him and he will bring it to light. There will be welcome. And shelter. And hospitality. And nourishment. And respite. And comfort. And courage. So we/I/many do.

The prodigal son is welcomed. The prostitute is given mercy. The weak are healed. The tax collector is forgiven. The annoying persistent appellant is granted justice. The denier is given a new name. The laughing and disbelieving – and old – father of none is given innumerous descendants. The prophet who runs away from responsibility – and is swallowed by a fish – is spat out and given grace.

There are countless stories of a God who meets our humanity with Grace, and is generous with it.

Likewise, there is a strong narrative in our culture that those who seek help can find it. Those who want better for themselves can receive it.

This is awesome. Until it’s not.

At its best, the narrative here is that when you seek help, you will receive it. We can claim victory over our past and engage in a new future.

At its worst, however, the narrative is that when you seek help, you can receive it – and “you WILL be better“. Translation: progress always [should] occur.

At its worst, this narrative argues that not only will you be “better”, but we tell ourselves – or judge others, that there is a limit to the help that we can ask for, and a minimum expectation of progress to be met when we do so.

We wonder if the prodigal son will still be accepted if he went out and spent the inheritance all over again. We wonder if the prostitute continued to ‘sin’, would she still find acceptance? We wonder if we are met with an eye roll and a sigh of exasperation when work up the courage to ask for support.

Here we suffer from a pathologising linear way of seeing the world. Regardless of a faith or secular framework, a danger of the western mindset is to assume a very strong relationship between Experience and Wisdom, between lessons learned and progress. 1 of X = 1 of Y:

…But what if it’s not?

What if 1 of experience does not equal 1 of ‘progress’?

We do not have much grace for others – or ourselves – when we ‘haven’t learned the lesson yet’ – or more important, not yet – again.

I have to say, I don’t really like that model anymore. Again – I’m not rejecting the premise of growth or learning in and of itself. We cannot justify bad behaviour or selfishness with a shallow dismissal of our faults. Nor am I arguing that people cannot change or transform for the better.

But maybe there’s a more helpful – and healthier – way of engaging with our supposed failings. It is a circular model of growth, a circular model of seeking help.

Returning to a premise of seeking help from a faith perspective, let us revisit & add to our steps:

  1. We are human – and thus fallible.
  2. God is God.
  3. We need God.
  4. God is happy to help. And does so.
    Here, however are the often-forgotten aspects:
  5. We will always need God – because we are human.
  6. God is always happy to help. And does so.

We read in the scriptures a God who is not only happy to help, but does not tire of doing so.

read that again.

We read in the scriptures a God who is not only happy to help, but does not tire of doing so.

We read in the scriptures the invitation to expose ourselves to God -and find welcome and grace and mercy in that moment. Part of that welcome may also include an invitation to choose better and be wise – but the help will always be there to do so.

Never is that invitation rescinded. Not if you ask once, twice, or 1000 times.

The glorious picture of a feast that is told and offered in scripture is one of welcome, hospitality and sustenance; “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost”…

When I read this verse I like to picture the table that is set at the end of the world in C.S Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader – a sumptuous table, renewed daily, covered in dishes a plenty. There is welcome and respite for all.

May I suggest a caveat here. Perhaps not only is there a spot at the table for everyone, but the sustenance/respite/grace may look or manifest a little differently for those of us around the table. The help we need – the ‘food’ that is required’ may differ from person to person. If you’re old enough to know Sizzler, have that smorgasbord in mind. All the food’s good – but some people need a heck of a lot of steak, others, need those veggies, but others are filled by the parmesan bread alone.

I’ll stop with the analogies here.

But the truth remains.

Some people need to hear more reassurance at times. Others need to hear more forgiveness. Others need courage. Others need to hear approval. Still others need to feel respite. Some might need all of it.

And that’s ok.

It is unhelpful to berate ourselves for being human.

It is unhelpful to pile guilt and shame on ourselves for having tendencies or triggers.

We may and do always require help with our limitations and humanity. And that may actually be ok.

Whatever stops us from seeking help is a bad thing. Even if it is ourselves.

I had a wonderful conversation with a friend about this issue and the journey we have of healing and growth; she had this to say:

Like anyone I’m a weird mix of personality traits, life experience, & frankly, the luck of the draw in terms of the era I was born into & the opportunities I have. I’ll always have big emotions that one could attach labels to. But why?? Why pathologise me? I’ll always have some things which are, to speak the language, trauma triggers. And that’s ok. That’s just part of my humanity.
And frankly, it’s part of my redemption too.

There is a great deal of power we receive in a sober recognition of what we often need help in. As much as it is painful, I can be proactive in those moments and reach for help early. I can offer grace to myself that these responses are deeply ingrained and they sometimes require lots of unpicking. I can remind myself of the help that is available, of the promises of welcome and acceptance on offer; and I can model that hospitality to others so that other people can experience that welcome too.

Maybe my humanity can be part of my redemption, too. x

better with pockets: A welcome or 10 year kind of celebration

It’s been over 10 years since I began this blog, this little space where I write a bit and some of you are gracious to read a bit too.

Many times over the past years I have cringed at the title, and contemplated changing its name simply to Kirsten Macaitis – pockets being a juvenile, unimportant aspect of life, right? But rather than embarrassment, I’ve now come around to a re-love of the title and concept. My first post ever featured pockets and how things are so much better with them. But I’m even more convinced that we as people are all better for having them. Indulge me here:

We find refuge & respite in pockets: pockets are places to hide, places to put our hands when we feel awkward and unsure; pockets of shade from the harsh sun, or pockets of sunshine that break out from clouds or grey, all provide spaces where we can rest a little while.

We can put and find resource in pockets: tools, aid and skills that assist us in our journeys.

Bilbo Baggins would vouch for the power of something put in his pocket (Tolkien Reference alert). Don’t even get me started on the long history of patriarchal prejudice that is demonstrated through the deliberate lack of pockets in women’s clothing – that might be for another blog.

So let me say again -or even for the first time- this space is to provide pockets of refuge, respite, and reflection – where we can find safety in the collective acknowledgement that
“It’s not just me – maybe it’s you too!”,
where we can see parts of ourselves that we are proud of, that we need to work on, aspects which have been hard won, reluctantly inherited, or much earned.

Here are opportunities for us to acknowledge pain and fear – and the most important part – to learn what it is to be kind with ourselves and each other in that confession.

me. feat coat. feat pockets.

Thanks for coming along the ride with me, friends. I’m grateful that you stopped by.

Fake it till you make it: How do we stop feeling like imposters in our own lives?

In 2012 I received my doctorate in Sociology. In the 10 years since, when people discover the Dr. part of my name, I quickly establish that “I’m not a real Doctor mind you, I can’t help you or anything”. Even though no one accused me of being a fake one.

Although I’ve been working in academia for over 15 years now; as a tutor, lecturer, researcher, director and program coordinator, despite being employed consistently over that time, despite being published, presenting, and finding success in my work, I’m still find myself terrified of the fact that ‘they’re going to find me out’ – that I’m an imposter.

Sound familiar? “Fake it till you make it?” While you flounder in self doubt, the other people around you are the winners, the successful ones, the more sure, the more established, the clearer voice, the sharper image. These, my friends, are the hallmarks of imposter syndrome. You may have met this beast on your travels.

I have read many articles and participated in many PD sessions in my time on how to counteract imposter syndrome. It’s a disease that we definitely need to rid ourselves of. We don’t need people not backing themselves, wondering when the facade will crumble. Indeed, I’ve pondered [and dreamed of] that day when I’ll feel like a ‘real boy’ instead of someone pretending to be an Academic:

“Someday, I’m going to be a real boy!” – Pinocchio

But here’s the thing we should also be critical of. Even as we know it today, imposter syndrome usually puts the blame on individuals – and labels those with imposter syndrome as sufferers – without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests in particular populations.

The answer is not – and cannot – be merely to tell people to “BE MORE CONFIDENT!”

It doesn’t work that way.

If we are to apply a sociological lens on this space, we aim to make private troubles into public issues. At first glance, we are tempted to pathologise ourselves into ‘low self esteem’ and inferiority complexes – but why is it that so many people feel like we’re going to be discovered at any second to be a fake? Indeed, research studies have found that up to 82% of individuals experience this phenomenon (Bravata et al, 2020). This reminds us that we’re not the only ones – most everyone feels it at some point in their lives. But more importantly, It is useful to ask ourselves, what is it about the system of work across so many labour markets and fields, that creates contexts in which it is common, usual, and expected for people to feel this way? We need to move from fixing people into fixing places and contexts that people occupy.

In other words,

If we’re all feeling it, it can’t all just be us who are the problem.

There are insights – and things of importance – in the fact that people of colour, of diverse ability, of an (often non-male) gender are far more likely to experience imposter syndrome than people who reflect characteristics and identities of a normative, hegemonic, successful person (Yue, 2021).

Discrimination and systematic bias towards women, towards race, towards [dis]abilities are responsible for implicitly championing one way of ‘being’ in a professional, public space over others. The further you are from that normative understanding of what it means to be a professional, a ‘grown’ up in your field of practice, the greater is your chance of feeling like a fraud. And this is despite your intelligence, despite your capability, despite your often proven track record of achievement. Indeed, even if you are successful, wins are often interpreted as further signs that you need to keep up the pretence and persona of [insert successful person here], working even harder to sure-up your reputation. As Breeze (2018) writes, “imposter syndrome implies underlying feelings of inadequacy and deficiency, but also conveys a particular felt-as inauthentic or fraudulent relationship to indicators of belonging and achievement”.

Even when you’re good, you don’t let yourself believe it.

So we must ask, we must challenge, we must unpack harmful, normative narratives that dictate what a ‘successful’ employee, professional, creator or worker – heck, even human, looks in particular contexts.

Here’s Breeze again:

We cannot understand feelings of imposterism as an individual problem or private issue, isolated from the social contexts in which they are felt

Breeze, 2018

A sociological response to imposter syndrome involves a collective and cultural shift away from stories and discourse that create fear in response to difference. Many people have begun the work here – I encourage you to engage in Maddie Breeze’s excellent work as one example. Breeze points not only to the sociological forces that shape contexts – and create environments that necessitate the need to ‘fake it till you make it’, but goes further to suggest that these points of friction can act as a resource for response, for collective change – that success might look like:

“Failing to meet (some of the) established – and patriarchal, colonial, classed – definitions of [academic – but insert your own vocational pursuit here] excellence. Failing (inevitability) to live up to standards that are impossible to meet and doing so strategically, collectively, and publicly, offers one way of critiquing, and rejecting, institutional conditions of competitive audit cultures and compulsory self-promotion.

Breeze, 2018

There is an alternative to keeping up with the Jones’, or the Kardashians, or [insert the person in your field that you are envious of look up to]*. The social context we operate in has a significant impact on the story of success – that you weave.

But again – perhaps there is an additional help or framing we can add to the mix.

Howard Sercombe’s article “Ethical foundations of youth work as an international profession” (2018), spends time exploring what the definition of a professional actually is. In doing so, he offers an incredible tool to help free those of us ‘sufferers’ of the imposter syndrome – without a single hint of “being more confident” as a solution.

Sercombe asks the reader what are the identifying characteristics of a profession: Is it training, a professional association, or recognition in law? He proposes that this question is problematic because we are defining it by an attribute or external factor, rather than the central core or internal logic of a profession. Sercombe then argues the answer is in the name:

A professional is someone who professes
who makes a profession of some kind

Sercombe, 2018

In other words, professionals are those who profess a vow, a pledge, a commitment to serve some sort of constituency, typically people in some state of vulnerability. Professionals have a particular focus on service. Thus a profession is essentially a moral position, with an ethical commitment to serve.

What is the ramification of this vow?

A profession is defined not be a set of practices, but by a relationship.

“A professional is not a state or a status. It is a relational term, like a parent or partner. As a parent must have a child, so there must also be, for a professional, a client” (Sercombe 2018).

So. An alternative is to define success as a professional – success in our chosen vocation – as the healthy relationship between us and those that we serve; our students, our clients, our patients, our children.

If we continue to view success – or our own status – as a static, fixed entity – this is where we feel like inadequate imposters. We can idolise and pedastolise – not a word but i’m going with it – our job – and ourselves in that job/status/role- when we’re missing the whole point.

Let me draw upon Matthew Jacoby’s work here on the integral aspect of relationships to help make sense of this.

I have said that desire was made for relationship. It is therefore of such a nature as to never be satisfied with any static goal…If, however, we detach ourselves from our relationships, if we disconnect from God and begin to objectify other people, we will lack this sense of renewal and will inevitably try to create this sense of newness by renewing the externals of our lives.

Jacoby, 2013

Jacoby here is referring to the superstition of materialism, how we look to external factors and objects to fulfil what is in essence, a relational lack in our lives. His point about the failing of a relationship remains relevant here; the dangers of detaching ourselves from relationships, and here is the kicker, the danger of objectifying other people [and ourselves], has significant consequences.

So my question is, when we feel like imposters, perhaps what we’re actually doing is objectifying ourselves in the roles that we occupy.

Perhaps most of our problems lie in the way that we objectify – that is, make into an object – or in other words,
Box in, stagnate, sign off, fix into place,

things that are ONLY life giving in a relational, living, breathing framework.

One that contains growth, nuance, grace, joy, pain and hospitably.

for example –

our job
our friends
our wealth worth
our children
our bodies
our faith
our “place in the world”.

In our need to feel like a ‘real boy’, amongst the pain and fear of imposter syndrome, perhaps what we are doing is assuming that success is a fixed entity, separate from the actual reality – which is that we all work in (and can’t escape from) a relationship to those that we serve.

So. What would it look like to recognise – and champion

a relationship with and in these things rather than reduce them to outcomes achieved – or perhaps more importantly, not achieved?

A relational framework takes the focus off whether i’m measuring up to a ‘real’ [insert role here], but then asks better questions about the quality of relationship that you have with those you foster while in that context. Is there meaning? Is there appreciation? Is there shared ideas? Creativity? Generosity? Grace? Peace? Time? Forgiveness? Growth? Joy?

A relational framework of my work/contribution reminds me that a relationship [with my own role/self] is dynamic and imperfect- allowing space for doubt, hesitation and vulnerability, residing alongside all the shiny parts of our identity.

A relational framework also gives us freedom to ask – and change – the sociological forces and contexts where those relationship qualities are lacking or indeed, squashed.

You’re not weak if you feel like an imposter.
It’s a cry for authenticity and relationship.
Lean in. Question. Be curious. Let me know what you find out.


*or in my case, Roger Federer. I’m the farthest thing away from a tennis player, but I’ve always been intimidated by the fact that someone my age is so successful, so seemingly nice, and somehow has two sets of girl and boy twins? I mean, come on. But I digress.

  • Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., Nelson, R. S., Cokley, K. O., & Hagg, H. K. (2020). Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. Journal of general internal medicine35(4), 1252–1275. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1
  • Breeze, E. (2018). Imposter Syndrome as a Public Feeling. In Yvette Taylor & Kinneret Lahad (eds) Feeling Academic in the Neoliberal UniversityFeminist Flights, Fights and Failures (pp.191-219). Palgrave, Switzerland.
  • Jacoby, M. (2013). Deeper Places: Experiencing God in the Psalms. Grand Rapids, Baker Books.
  • Sercombe, H. (2018). The Ethical Foundations of Youth Work as an International Profession. In Pam Alldred, Fin Cullen, Kathy Edwards, Dana Fusco (eds) The SAGE Handbook of Youth Work Practice (pp. 470-483). SAGE Publications Ltd. https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781526416438
  • Yue, Zhang (2021). A Sociological Take on Imposter Syndrome. NUS Sociology Society. Retrieved November 8 from https://www.nussocisoc.org/post/a-sociological-take-on-imposter-syndrome

the want for a want for righteousness

What a comforting thought, God.

That the want for righteousness is seen – is recognised – and is granted sustenance.

I say this because we can look at the righteous – the ‘good’ people in this world, the ones who have ‘arrived’ at a state of righteousness – and think they are the [only] ones who are recognised.

But it says those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled – which is wonderful. Because it means that “those who are pursuing righteousness” – those that have a cause or active path of righteousness – “we’re not there yet, but we’re on our way” are seen here.

You are seen in your attempt and pursuit of the righteous things in this life.

Imperfect offerings are the things of God

But what if you don’t have a “cause”?

I would argue that you’re still part of the team.

The want for righteousness is seen here – but more so, maybe the want for a want for righteousness is seen too. If you’re overwhelmed, exhausted, intimidated, hurt, fearful, lacking in confidence or energy to do anything but survive- the hunger and thirst for things to be righteous – are still the things of God. Likewise, then, so is the compassion and recognition that we receive in the want – and in the want for a want.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Indeed. Cheers, Jesus.

On controlling a narrative vs living a legacy: Maybe there are times to tell the full story

Travers: “Mary Poppins is the very enemy of whimsy and sentiment. She’s truthful. She doesn’t sugarcoat the darkness in the world that these children will eventually, inevitably, come to know – she prepares them for it. She deals in honesty. One must clean one’s room. It won’t magically do it by itself. This entire script is flim-flam!…Where is its heart? Where is its reality? Where is the gravitas?

Disney: “‘No whimsy or sentiment’; says the woman who sent a flying nanny with a talking umbrella to save the children!”

Travers: “You think Mary Poppins has come to save the children, Mr Disney? Oh Dear.”

Disney: “It’s not the children she comes to save. It’s their father – it’s your father.”

Conversations between P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins, and Walt Disney, during the making of said film, in the movie Saving Mr Banks, 2013.

The movie Saving Mr Banks slayed me when I first saw it. It still does. P.L. Travers was a woman haunted by her past, but also deeply attached to her father, despite his significant struggles and failings as a parent. The movie depicted her desperate drive to protect the story of her father, often times to her own detriment. He was her hero, as parents often are, and in most cases, should be. Seeing her story, I couldn’t help but think of my own. It was hard to watch.

Protecting others’ stories

For those of us who have been unfortunate to lose someone that is dear to us, an interesting task is often bequeathed as a side affect of the loss: you are now the bearers of their legacy. Your (often self-appointed) job is to guard the story and narrative of those dear in your life – whether they are members of your family, friends, or simply people that we look up to. It is a gift to know them and carry their legacies forward.

This can be a beautiful and wonderful thing. We get to recall and relate stories of their antics in our own lives; we can teach our children who never-know-who-they-miss of the quirks and strengths of their relations; for example, of my own deceased parents – the way he pioneered water saving techniques, to the way he ate jam and cream sandwiches, from the way she, without fail, over catered every meal like we were a herd of 15, the way she mispronounced seemingly un-mispronouncable words, or the love and care she invested into her students. One of the glorious ways to grieve is to tell these stories; it keeps memories alive and releases a little bit of the grief-pressure valve.

For me, the task of narrative-keeper has been particularly strong for my Dad; he took his own life in 2000 after a long relationship with bi-polar disorder, and from the day he died I felt like it’s been my responsibility to dispel interpretations of suicide being a shameful, sinful act: this was particularly pertinent in a church context. This post isn’t about debunking myths of depression, however*. My point is that because dad died – and particularly how he died, I’ve felt a consistent pressure to tell ‘that’ story of him, even if it is to me. I felt like it’s my responsibility to defend him because he’s not here to. I have the responsibility to carry Dad’s legacy – and not his illness – in a love of education, the Adelaide hills, a love of wine – you name it.

This is mostly a joyful task –

except when it’s not.

Or perhaps, put another way, the legacy is a little more complex than one story arc.

Even if the person we speak of hasn’t died but is influential or dear to us, we can feel the pressure to curate a particular narrative of their lives and role, especially in a public context.

But what if the narrative under your charge isn’t straight forward? What if you had – or have – a complicated relationship with your loved one? What if you are grieving for them – but also because of them?

I say this only because sometimes it hard to navigate the both/and space.

A while back I was sitting in my therapist’s rooms, spending the session speaking of my parents, and she had the gall wisdom to interrupt my monologue with a simple question –

You know it’s ok to be angry at your Dad, right?

stupid wise therapist

The question took me back, and I dismissed it quickly, before she pressed again

“You can be sad that they’re gone, but also angry at them for failing you as a parent.”

Man, that was hard to hear, especially since dad died when I was 16, I’ve built a ‘career’ on defending him and his mental illness. I was also brought up to ‘honour our parents’ – so this admission flies in the face of that, right?

I ask you – how do you tell the story that is complicated? – of our loved ones – but even, maybe of ourselves?

In my own case, I ask, how do I speak out to garner a greater understanding of mental illness – when my story is also coloured by disappointments that he decided to leave when I wasn’t done with being a kid yet?

Because it has been traumatic. It has been a lot to deal with. Dad’s depression and subsequent death – it coloured my relationship with my mum; it nearly ruined her. It coloured my relationship with myself, and it set in motion many patterns of behaviour that I’ve had to unpack and work through into a healthy space.

I think it’s ok to acknowledge that.

This doesn’t change who he is as a man. It doesn’t make him any less worthy to be loved or remembered. but giving myself permission to “be angry at him – while still loving him” – what it does do, is place my relationship with him, and my remembrance of him, in a healthier space – because it is a more honest space. I have the freedom of remembering all of him, rather than being limited to aspects that are shiny or impressive.

Living a legacy does not mean protecting a particular narrative. There are more stories to tell.

Protecting our story

I’ve noticed that the more we try and control a story, the more we feel we have to lose. The very notion of a narrative is a version of events, steering the audience to a particular conclusion. So when we feel we need to protect and maintain one particular (and therefore limited) version of a person or time, it is often a little bit about fear and a lot about control. Thus it may be helpful to consider what that control costs us, in energy, in honesty, and in the freedom for us to see the whole of these people – as people, and not one-dimensional narratives that look a little cleaner, but are a whole lot less real.

What would it look like to have a culture that had spaces to acknowledge the whole of a person, or story – even the parts that are shameful, cancelable, and hard to swallow – and have them acknowledged in tandem with the parts that are beautiful, digestible, and shiny? This isn’t about justifying or condoning ‘bad’ behaviour – far from it – but it is a comment on how we don’t really know how to do this in our society. We aren’t practiced in dealing with failings, especially when one has a public platform or comes from a place of privilege. We have done great work in our world in identifying historically (and often systematically) silenced abuse, neglect and shameful behaviour and bringing it to light- but we don’t really know what to do with that person afterwards.

It is a dehumanising process when we reduce others – and ourselves – to one story, one season, one act. I wonder where is the role of restoration? Where is the role of redemption? Where is the role of confession? Where is the role of grace? I ask these questions not to open a can of worms but because I believe it’s important – the implications run true both from an individual level to a societal movement. What narratives do we curate, to convey and maintain a particular idea, view, or value? What are we silencing to retain a semblance of control?

Expanding the narrative

I’ve been working hard on giving myself permission to see all, or previously quieted, aspects of my parents. Some of this has been joyful and releasing – like seeing myself in my mum, when previously I have allowed my 25-year old frustration to dominate the memory. Other times it has been painful – like voicing the disappointment that in many ways I’ve had to parent myself since I was a young teenager. The distinction between narrative and legacy has been beneficial – and somehow lessens the burden of the story. Often times we need distance and time for this to be possible or even helpful.

But where I am most heartened is the permission it can give in my current relationships. I can be honest in what narrative I shape in the different roles that I hold in my life. Am I pouring inordinate energy into a particular connection, to be the ‘helpful’ one or the ‘fun’ one or the ‘smart’ one or the ‘leader’ one or the ‘low maintenance’ or ‘together’ one? Maybe there is scope – where appropriate – to shift the focus and expand the narrative.

A good friend shared with me some parenting advice she had once encountered: A mother confessed to her daughter;

There are going to be times in my life when I’m not going to be the parent that you need me to be – just because of who I am as a person, and because of who you are as a person.

I’m sorry that it will.

But when it does, I want you to come and talk to me about it.

– Smart Parent

That thought is an invitation and comfort to me, two fold.

Firstly – as a daughter – as a child – I have permission to see all of who my parents (or insert other loved one) are. It serves them – and me – to know that I don’t have to preserve a narrative that tells one story (and silences others).

Secondly – as a mother – (or one in power/privilege) – I have permission to show a realistic story of who I am. Sometimes vulnerable, sometimes mastering, sometimes learning, sometimes failing. What a gift – not using all that energy to maintain a particular reach to perfection, or a censored version of events.

If it is freeing, know that you don’t have to bear the burden of a narrative, telling only one story (and silencing others).

If it is freeing, know that as a parent, as the ‘responsible’ person, don’t feel that you need to perfect a narrative to your loved ones that you care for…

Expand the story. There’s more to tell. Fill in the detail. It makes for a beautiful-even if hard won-view.

x

*So many of us are impacted by the force of depression and mental illness. If this is you, I’m so sorry you’re navigating this space, whether it is yourself or a loved one. There are people to reach out if you need help such as Beyond Blue