I moved to the south almost 30 years ago now, but I’m a mid-westerner by birth and raising. Southern charm has been a mystery to me, as I carry that stubborn farm-country love of the day-to-day ordinariness of life. Even so, exploring new territory is always enriching, and helps me appreciate and deepen my awareness of the gifts my roots offer. When [in the Right Use of Power Workshop and Facilitator's Training with Cedar] we began exploring leadership styles in terms of the directions, it felt immediately apparent that the south was the most mysterious place for me, and was going to be rich to explore.
I know the west deeply, as I am a harmony-seeker by nature and started developing my empathy skills almost from birth. I don’t even have to talk most times to bring a little more safety and acceptance to a group or a conversation. And when I started getting bullied and ostracized in school around 4th grade, I turned to learning and understanding information as a safe haven and a way to relate, at least to my teachers. During my school years the east became a place of power and joy for me.
It took longer for me to feel comfortable in the north, but through years of practicing of mindfulness and compassion, I have gotten comfortable flying up to the higher places to get a sense of perspective and vision. I know the comfort of seeing even suffering within the larger context of evolution and interconnectedness. I so appreciate the way that integrating whatever my present experience might be into the field of the north deepens my connection to my most central and core values.
But the south, well, that’s been a more complex mix for me. I played the role of the “family star” as well as the lost child in my family, the fifth of five children, born when my closest sibling was getting ready to start school. She was the scapegoat, the one who tended to tell the truth and stir things up when the rest of us seemed able to act as if everything was just fine. So my mom needed a little relief and reassurance when I came along. When I showed up as a warm and relational child, she made that into something extraordinary and special. I got put on the proverbial pedestal, proof that our family was good and maybe even special, and that she as our mother was dedicated and had done her work. This was confusing for me, because I could feel that this identity of mine was more about my mother than about me, and I also saw how much pain it caused my sister. She adored me, and she needed and longed for the positive attention that I got from mom.
To add another layer to the confusion around bringing my self into groups, around 4th or 5th grade, the bullying started at school. Over the course of the next several years, I came to feel like an outsider, despised and rejected. Any attention on me turned scary and dangerous, so I developed an invisibility cloak and hid myself whenever it felt as if I might get singled out. My siblings had all left home by this time, but my mother was still treating me as if I was destined to be a saint. That’s an exaggeration, but only a slight one. I had a lot of martyr fantasies during those years—wouldn’t it be great to save the world and die in the process so I didn’t have to endure any more rejection?
I have often felt that I survived this time through experiencing a deep and powerful sense of belonging in the natural world. I would go to the woods, which were abundant and beautiful where we lived in central Indiana, to feel comforted and loved exactly as I was, an ordinary and yet integral part of the whole. There I felt “in right relationship” with All That Is. That allowed me to keep some balance in my sense of myself, at least when I was alone.
I was also reading voraciously, exploring other cultures and worlds in my imagination. In my inner world, I was able to shine and own my gifts and still have an integral place in society. In day-to-day reality, my sense of self was confused and chaotic. I couldn’t figure out how to both be my own unique self and also fit it and be “normal.”
This all got easier when I got into adulthood, and when I became a therapist; I found a place where I fit perfectly. When I took my third job, teaching and presenting professionally was expected, and I started on a journey which brought me richly into contact with my history and with the south. I found that as long as I was teaching material that I loved and felt passionately about, I could show up in a fully alive way and use my relational skills to get my audience excited and involved. If I tried to teach the same thing the same way more than once or twice, it would start to feel wooden and dead. When I had to present things that I had taught before, I had to really work to keep it alive.
A number of years ago, I was walking in the woods debriefing myself after a workshop I had just given. It had gone well, but I wasn’t feeling good. I knew that I had gotten the participants “on board,” and I suddenly realized that it felt as if I had gotten them all on the train of my energy and then pulled them along with me. I was exhausted. I had spent all of my energy pulling that train. I also had a clear felt sense that if they thought about my workshop later they would remember how much they enjoyed my presentation, but they might not remember anything specific about the actual content I had presented. That didn’t feel good. I wanted them to love the material as much as I did. I decided then that I couldn’t expend that much energy trying to pull people into the workshop, and that I could only teach material that I knew was rich enough to stand for itself even if I was less magnetic. I would have to learn to relax more when teaching.
Then at the RUP training this weekend, I realized that part of my difficulty with the south is my inner restraints around showing up relaxed, as just myself, because it felt so unsafe to do that as a child. My work now is to stay in that edge, not moving into making it safe by being so magnetic that people will like me, and not making it safe by disappearing. I can practice showing up and sharing myself from a more gentle, easy way.
I have a feeling that’s going to be a lot more fun, and that there will also be more rich learning to gain along the way. I love the image of the spiral, that we keep going around the same central themes, deepening our sense of meaning and raising our level of awareness and enjoyment of the complexities of life. So, here’s to my journey around the themes of the South!