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The Power of Holding Tension



“My sister is furious with me!” my client had yet to reach the couch in my office before blurting out her frustration. “I swear! Sometimes? It’s like we grew up in two completely different households.”


I nodded in recognition and understanding, then measured my next words carefully. “Well… in a way, you did.” Though she didn’t respond verbally, the look on my client’s face told me she knew exactly what I meant.


It isn’t uncommon to hear similar laments from my clients whenever we explore the family system in which they were raised. I feel a sense of sadness when my clients describe, out loud, and often for the first time in their life, the painful environment of their childhood.

Though understandable, it is disappointing to hear how they felt completely dismissed and invalidated by their siblings when as adults, they attempt to share their experience.


Sometimes, even in the healthiest of families, this can be the case. A friend shared with me how vastly different it was for her than it was for her younger sister in the home of their childhood. In healthier homes like my friend’s, the differences can be a bit easier to reconcile, like the fact that each sibling is simply a different person. Or in the case of families who have multiple siblings spread out over many years, the differences might be the result of parents learning and growing in their ideas of parenthood, or the cultural shifts and time influencing the family’s dynamics.


But in cases of abuse or trauma, the differences can be much harder to recognize- and even more difficult to reconcile. Sometimes the differences are less about different experiences and more about denial.


Why We Deny

There is no shortage of reasons why we choose denial over acknowledgement. Sometimes we believe that accepting the good minimizes or invalidates the painful things we endured. Shame can push us into denial as well, believing our abuse was somehow our fault. Or perhaps, even as adults, we fear that admitting what happened in our family will cause the family to shut us out. And in cases of a deceased or ill parent, the need to “protect their good name” can cause us to choose denial over speaking the truth.


In cases of addiction, personality disorders or generational abuse, the function found within the dysfunction is so strong we can’t imagine upsetting the status quo. Not to mention, if we acknowledge what harmed us or others in our family, what do we do with the good things we remember in light of the bad? The most common reasons I see when it comes to denial is that acknowledging our wounds and what/who caused them is just too painful.


But the reality is that neither embracing only the bad nor embracing only the good are helpful. Forcing ourselves to pick what we will and will not accept is a terribly unkind thing to do. Not to mention that denial can create a whole host of problems like anxiety and depression. One of the healthiest things we can do is to learn how to accept all that is true at the same time. A concept I call holding in tension.

Accepting All That is True

For me, it took a long time for this idea to sink in. The idea of holding opposing emotions in tension. Allowing them to be equally true seemed like a ridiculous concept. Initially, it felt like I was negating my own painful experiences by acknowledging the good that was mixed in. With the help of a trained therapist, I cautiously tested the waters and was surprised at how freeing the practice was.


For example, if I only accepted that my mom did the best she could, but stopped short of acknowledging her actions that had a profoundly negative impact on my life, I deepened my wounds by not allowing myself to be seen or heard in my pain. Not to mention the further damage caused by not working through that pain.


In contrast, if I only focused on the pain, first and foremost I ran the risk of deepening my wounds by rehearsing them, thereby giving them more power. But I also risked wounding myself by not giving myself permission to remember the good times; the times she tried and was emotionally healthier and sober enough to be a fun and loving mom.


Holding emotions (and even ideas!) in tension makes space for the unknown things as well. Like my client who struggled with wounds left by a mother who was emotionally unavailable most of the time. When she allowed herself to remember the fun crafting days and outings with mom that made her feel loved, it freed her to become curious about what was behind mom’s lack of emotional flexibility. Consequently, she began to ask questions about her mom’s childhood and mom revealed that the emotional distance was due to do a hard-fought battle with what we would now call Bipolar Disorder. Sadly, it went untreated and undiagnosed for years.


While this information didn’t negate my client’s painful experiences growing up, it did afford her the opportunity for understanding, for compassion and grace toward her mother. And a new level of healing emerged. The most beautiful thing it freed her to experience was the connection between those arts and crafts days with mom and her own blossoming business as a creative.


A Word of Caution

While I am a huge proponent of the practice of holding in tension, it does come with some cautions. If you are attempting to reconcile the actions of an abuser with the times when they seemed to be kind or loving toward you, I am going to ask you to stop. Those of us who have suffered abuse can have a hard-enough time with blaming ourselves, or feeling shame over what happened to us. Sometimes, we deny our abuse because the abuser seemed like “such a nice person” or “everyone loves so and so…” When the people around us can see only the good in an abuser, it can shame us into silence.


But here’s the thing…

Abusers don’t abuse everyone they meet. No one gets to say that your experience of abuse can’t be true because it wasn’t their experience. Do not let their experience force you into silence. Here’s how you might want to frame it in light of our conversation here: Other people have not experienced abuse at the hands of this person and this person abused me.

If you are reading this and trying to figure out how holding in tension works in relation to your experiences of abuse, please stop putting that kind of pressure on yourself. Instead, try using the technique this way…

· Working through my abuse is painful and I am going to get through it.

· I struggle to trust people because of my experiences and I am learning healthy boundaries and can have healthy relationships.

· My trauma is a very real part of my story and my trauma does not define who I am.


Emotional Muscle

No matter how you decide to use the practice of holding in tension, it can help you exercise your emotional muscles while simultaneously freeing you to embrace all that is true; without the pressure to choose. We can honor all the parts of ourselves and our story, helping us to build the whole and healed life we want.


Now, what about you? Are there things you would like to try holding in tension? Can you see how this practice would benefit your life? Would it help to enlist the services of a trained therapist to work through this with you? Take some time to ponder this today. Even pray on it.

There is always a deeper level of health and healing waiting for us. I pray you find yours today and I know that these things can take time. So I will hold that in tension as I cheer you on.

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