Turning 40 and Grief Recovery: An Exploration of Resilience and Happiness
Emma Johnson is a mother to three young children and the convener of Women’s Circles where is drawn to, and feels really able to connect with, those women who have found motherhood to be like falling off a cliff. Today she shares her personal journey of rediscovering herself after the loss of her sister and the challenges of motherhood. She delves into the concept of holding space for others, and how it can be a powerful tool in the healing process. Emma also talks about the importance of resilience and happiness in the face of grief and adversity. Join us as we explore the theme of turning 40 and the journey of grief recovery with Emma Johnson.
Emma believes deeply in the power of the female voices and stories, and in creating beautiful spaces for women to come together, to find sanctuary and soulful connection as often as they need it. She runs in-person and online circles as The Wild Circle, bringing women together for regular moments of ritual, reflection and connection, with a focus on returning to nature and connecting with our inner wildness. She says: “I believe we all need a space that we can rely on, where we can come as we are, and be met in that place. Women are deeply rooted in nature – the more we connect with our wildness, the more we root ourselves to the earth, the more we can truly connect to ourselves and each other.” She has a Masters in English and Postmodernism, traveled around the world by herself at age 18, has walked on fire, is a mother of three and lives in the Cotswolds in the UK, with her husband, children, three cats and three chickens.
In this episode, Stephanie sits down with Emma Johnson to talk about the challenges of motherhood, loss, and rebuilding oneself. Emma shares her personal experience of going through postnatal depression and anxiety, as well as losing her sister suddenly, and how she found resilience and happiness through the process.
Emma also talks about her work with moms who have gone through similar experiences. She shares her perspective on the grief of motherhood and how it can be a process of refining oneself, letting go of certain parts of one’s identity, and building a new and better life.
The conversation also touches on the concept of “holding space” for others, and how it can be a powerful way to support and protect people as they share their feelings and struggles. Emma explains how it’s not about changing or influencing others, but rather creating a safe and non-judgmental environment for them to share and process their thoughts and emotions.
Throughout the conversation, Emma emphasizes the importance of self-discovery and self-awareness, and how it can lead to greater happiness and resilience as we age. Emma reflects on how she is happier and more fulfilled now than ever before, and encourages listeners to embrace the aging process and all that it has to offer.
- Nearly all mothers feel like they have fallen off a cliff after becoming a mother, but it’s not talked about.
- The process of rebuilding oneself after motherhood and loss is challenging but necessary.
- Acknowledging that one’s life will never come back in the way it was expected and building a new one can lead to a happier and more fulfilled life.
- Taking time to fully grieve and process loss is important for one’s mental and emotional well-being.
- Holding space means creating a safe and solid environment where people can share their feelings, fears and pain without being judged or influenced.
The Forty Drinks Podcast is produced and presented by Savoir Faire Marketing/Communication
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Stephanie: Hi, Emma. It's nice to meet you. Thanks so much for joining me today.
Emma Johnson: Hi Stephanie. It's lovely to be here.
Stephanie: Yeah, I am really interested to dig into your story. As I do with several to many of my guests, I found you as I was wandering through Instagram, searching hashtags around turning 40, and I find that some people share some really amazing stories about turning 40, and you had some beautiful thoughts about 40 that I'm really interested to get into. But let's not jump there just yet. Let's start with a little background. Will you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Emma Johnson: Yeah, sure. I'm 41 now, and I'm, British and I live in the UK with my three children, an eight year old girl and two twin boys, which is nothing short of a baptism by fire, I kid you not, and my husband. In terms of a career background, probably writing is my main sort of the thing. It's not my bread and butter, but it's the one thing that really inspires me. Words and books and reading and writing has always kind of been my, my passion, and that's taken me into lots of different places including, master's degrees journalism, social media and content, and, producing podcasts as well. then now a bit more the sort of work that I'm doing now, with women's circles as well. yeah, that's probably me.
Stephanie: Great. You told me you're in the Cotswolds.
Emma Johnson: That's correct.
Stephanie: Okay. I don't know about anybody else, but I always feel like that's such a romantic part of England. Am I right?
Emma Johnson: It is. I feel, very blessed to live here. I grew up here and then moved to London, which is where I met my husband, and I was there for about 15 years. But when I was pregnant with my daughter, I thought, I don't wanna do this without family around it was about the only wise thing I've ever had about parenting. So we moved back down to kind of where I was from, which was quite a big shift 'cause it meant for two years my husband still had to commute to London, which from where we are is about two and a half hour journey there and a two on a half hour journey back.
Stephanie: Oh my god. How does that even happen? Are there even enough hours in the day?
Emma Johnson: No, not really. I mean, and it was hard. You know, effectively for sort of the first two years of my daughter's life, he said goodnight to her on Sunday night when she went to bed and he saw her again on Saturday morning and that was it. And I think when we actually had the twins, he did say, 'cause he was working from home by that point, he said, "it's just hit me how much I missed." But we moved back down here to be near family, and I have to say that we've been here eight years now and obviously I'd lived here for about 20 years before and every day. I feel so grateful to live here. It is really chocolate boxy. Even when you live here, you drive around, and think, "Oh, this is so beautiful." And we're in a little village in the middle of nowhere, really rural. We just walk up into the fields and, you know, go romping in the woods and stuff. So, no, it's, it's really fantastic.
Stephanie: How very British.
Emma Johnson: I know
Stephanie: Which is actually saying a lot because when you were 18, you did a full world tour.
Stephanie: Tell me just a little bit
Emma Johnson: That was another of those things in hindsight that, was mad. But my mom had done it when she was that age, my mom's family were one of I dunno if you'll know about this, but, um, what were known as the one pound ponds who took a one pound, so the Australians called the Brits Ponds, and there was a point where they were trying to get lots of the British to go over to Australia and and you could get a ticket on the boat for a pound, and land was cheap and whatever. So my mom's family, when she was maybe 16, moved out to Australia from here. She was in Australia for about a couple of years, but then she kind of wanted to come home or back to the UK, but she didn't have enough money. So she effectively did the reverse trip, but she worked her way home. So she went to New Zealand and worked and kinda went all the way around. So, because my mom had sort of at the age of 17, 18, just traveled around the world by herself, it seemed a terribly normal thing when I was sort of 17, 18, to do it. , I think when I look back at it now, it was mad. This was 21 years ago, so this was pre mobile phones, the only internet was dial up. I've got family in the Philippines, so I ended up spending about a month on an island in the Philippines, and to send one email took over an hour because you had to wait to, you know, so, and I mean, I think in hindsight my mom said it was much better because she didn't have that mobile phone thing where she could check on me all the time. She just knew she might not hear from me for five days. But yeah, so that's what I did. And I mean, yeah, I had friends and I, you know, had certain things I did, but mostly I was by myself and I went, from here to Uganda, South Africa, quite a lot of Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and home, and it, it was completely amazing actually. And for a long time, if I was ever scared of doing anything, , I would always be able to sort of say to myself, "you've been around the world by yourself. You can do this." Um, and there were points where I was really aware how deep I was having to dig. Um, so yeah, it's, it was, it was nuts. But it was extraordinary.
Stephanie: I wasn't quite that adventurous, but when I was in college, I did spend about nine months living in Ireland, schooling and doing some other things like that. so, I know what you mean. It was not only pre-internet, I think the school give us email addresses, the second half of the time we were there, but nobody knew how to use them. And, you know, this was in ni 92, 93, 94, I don't remember what right around there. I remember trying to send an email home and nobody knew how to get it, So, yeah, in order to talk to my parents, I knew it was Sunday nights at a certain time, either I was gonna call them or they were gonna call me, and that's when we connected on Sunday nights. And the rest of it was, there was no mobile phones. There was, you know, there was no Google Maps, there was none of that.
Emma Johnson: I dunno if you were the same, but like the letters. My mom's brilliant and she keeps all that sort of stuff. So, oh, I'm looking back at the letters that I sent and the kind of things that I was saying and, I was still just quite naive, 17 year old girl, so some of my letters are full of that stuff, but then some of the other stuff was just really extraordinary stuff about what I'd seen and where I'd gone and, but yeah, that, and faxes. I do remember sending quite a lot of faxes. But also you communicate so differently, you kind of save up stuff to tell people. And then the phone calls we had were always really good.
Stephanie: Yeah. Yeah. I wonder if my parents have any, if my mom saved any of the letters I wrote, that would be an interesting exercise to go back and reread them. But you're right. I wrote letters and postcards, home and to friends and to, boys all that stuff. So yeah, it was a whole different way of communicating. All right. But enough about our nostalgia for the nineties Tell me a little bit about the few years leading up to your 40th birthday. You are a mom of three young kids, including a set of twins, which I can't even imagine.
Emma Johnson: Don't imagine, don't imagine that.
Stephanie: What are you doing professionally at that point in time?
Emma Johnson: What was I doing? It's really difficult 'cause I turned 40 a year after Covid, so it was really weird. So sort of the year before my 39th year was Covid, so, you know, horrific. I So once I had my daughter and moved down here, I was then made redundant when I was on maternity leave by my company, which was really quite a sharp shock because I thought I had a job to go back to and I didn't. So I then started freelancing and working for myself. I was editing a kind of online wellbeing magazine at the time, working on and actually producing podcasts and I was doing quite a lot of other things, so I was enjoying my work, but I dunno how fulfilled I felt. But it's really difficult because my twins were two and a half when Covid hit, I guess. So that was sort of 2020, wasn't it? Um, yeah, they were born in 2017, so yeah, they were two and a half kind of when it all started, and I really struggled after they were born.
Emma Johnson: I do quite a lot of work for a charity that supports women with postnatal mental health challenges. And initially I kind of just thought, this is difficult. This is hard. That's all it is, and then I slowly kind of came to realize that probably I was depressed and I did have postnatal depression. Funnily enough, I'm possibly coming to realize now that I'm not actually not even sure whether I did, I actually think it's a whole much larger cultural societal issue around the pressure of motherhood and the pressure of parenting and the microscope under which women are, and the fact that we're a two income household, like, like most people. So I had to work, I had to have the children, and I think it was just all of that. And I think also, the thing that therapy, for instance, has taught me is, we all have coping mechanisms, the way that we get through the challenges in our life. We have coping mechanisms. Some of them are unhealthy, drinking too much, eating too much, shopping, too much, but some of them are perfectly fine. Some of them are, you know, running or enjoying having a tidy house. And you, those are fine. Those are good coping mechanisms. But when you have children, a lot of your access to those coping mechanisms are taken away. You suddenly can't go for a run and you can't do yoga and you can't get out the house and see your friends really easily. And a lot of the things that kind of ground you and that get you back to yourself just disappear. And so there is a real loss of self, I think.
Emma Johnson: So, in a way, I was unfulfilled in many ways before I turned 40 because I was doing work that I enjoyed but didn't love. I was coming out of the edge of some sort of depression or real sort of lowness. And just when I thought I was about to get my breath back and life was starting to get a tiny bit easier. The twins had finally started nursery and that had gone really well, yeah, Coronavirus hit and, I know it was hard for everyone, um, it was really challenging for me, um, in part, particularly because, One of the ways that my sort of depression or my struggles manifested itself is just this fear of being alone in the house with kids with nothing to do, and that's when you feel the rage and the panic kind of build. Coronavirus made me do that day after day after day after day. I mean, talk about it's not aversion therapy, immersion therapy. And I will say it has got me over that, you know, I don't worry about that now, but it was really difficult. It was really challenging. I love my kids obviously goes without saying, but two boys is a lot, they're very spirited boys. One of them is quite kind of highly sensitive and highly emotional and he absorbs everything going on around him. So you put that into the mix of two people who are trying to do two full-time jobs. Um, well the way my husband and I split it with Coronavirus was I work, he worked in the morning and I had the kids and I worked in the afternoon and he had the kids. But we were both lucky in that we both worked remotely and actually both of our jobs weren't massively affected by it, but that meant we were both trying to do two full-time jobs in two and a half days a week and we were lonely and miserable like everyone else and scared and it was difficult. Particularly, one of my sons, I think really absorbed all of that and it just became more and more and more difficult. So, it was a challenging year and it went up and down and my work kind of ebbed and flowed. Some things came in off the back of Coronavirus. I lost some work like everyone did.
Emma Johnson: Actually what was so interesting about my 40th, I turned 40 at the end of June, 2021. So it was almost to the day here, and I dunno what it was like over there in the US but it was almost to the day here that they lifted nearly all the restrictions and you could have big parties and gatherings and you didn't have to be outside and you could hug and kiss. It kind of gave me a reason to have a massive party, so my forties became like this pinnacle of kind of, yeah, just gotta get there, we've just gotta get there. So I didn't approach it at all with dread, not in any way. And whether that is because I suppose when you've got small children and you're struggling, every day that's further away from them being really small is better, 'cause it gets better, 'cause they get bigger. So for me, the moving forward wasn't really a difficult thing, it was a positive thing. Does that, does that make sense?
Stephanie: Oh yeah, that makes a ton of sense. I can just imagine the Coronavirus and the lockdowns and stuff was like a cloud. And so for you, as you're just about to turn 40, it's the sun's coming out from behind the cloud. Yeah, I can see that that would be heartening.
Emma Johnson: Yeah, it was and it was, and I got to throw this absolutely fabulous for 40th birthday party in our garden. We had this huge table that kind of weaved halfway down the garden and flowers everywhere. It was just the most incredible day and it was in incredible to be with people again. So yeah, that was it. I kind of jumped right into 40 with kind of both feet head first, really full of excitement.
Stephanie: This is gonna be interesting as we tie this all together, right? So there's a period of real lowness for a couple of years, and then Coronavirus, and then the sun's coming out and you're feeling good and you're jumping in. And then tell me about your 40th year.
Emma Johnson: Yeah, so that was really interesting. So I turned 40 and felt great. Felt really good about my life and really positive. And I was like, yes, you know, this is it. I'm gonna be good. And then the twins started school that September. So I turned 40 in the June and the twins were starting school. Even before I got to it felt like it was gonna be a landmark moment. If nothing else, for the fact that the cost of childcare for us has been crippling. For anyone who has the twins or triplets, you know, you didn't ask for that many children at once and you get it and there is no support for the fact you have to find extra money, double, double everything. And it's not just the childcare, it's double everything. So, in practical sense, that was amazing, but also, it just felt like sort of suddenly I'd moved out of tiny babies and I was in a kind of different phase. So that was really exciting. And a week before they started school, I agreed to take part in a charity firewalk raising money for the charity that I do look quite a lot of work with for postnatal depression and anxiety. And that itself became, again, a real landmark moment.
Emma Johnson: I recommend it to everyone. For me, it was a real way to kind of step into my forties and also step away from what had been a few really challenging years. I really kind of found the inner resilience and that inner strength and all those things that you come to rely on and kind of stepped onto those hot coals feeling incredibly inspired and empowered and it was really special. The next day, my baby sister is at work, came to see us and we live near polo playing fields, which we can walk up to and it's terribly British and watch the Polo. And we all walked up there with the kids and we sat and shared a bottle of fizz and it was just, it was a really special day. And, you know, we giggled and it was lovely. That was the middle of September. And then bar one other time, that was the last time I ever saw her, because on the 16th of October she died completely suddenly, completely shockingly , of a pulmonary embolism. Um, and it's weird how that moment of kind of stepping into my power and her weirdly being there, and then literally a month later, less than a month later, it all just kind of imploding. It was really difficult and I was the one who found her, my mom and I knew something was wrong because she hadn't answered her phone. She lives about half an hour away from me, so late on a Saturday evening, we drove up to her flat and my mom parked the car and waited in the hall, she was too scared to go in. And even though you of course, tell yourself we're going to do that, was obviously not going to be that. Then I found her in her bedroom, um, on the floor and yeah. It was awful. Um, the weirdest thing was the very first feeling I had actually was relief only because, because it was a Saturday night and we hadn't heard from her. I was also worried that she'd gone out and something had happened to her, and I was sort of really consumed with her not knowing and what would we do? I think looking back on it, my very first instinct was, at least I know where she is. But then of course, the reality of it slowly kind of sinks in. And yeah, you know, those are life changing moments. It's life changing because she died. It's life changing because I found her. It's life changing because of the impact it's had on our whole family. Um, my mom has actually very unwell. She's in hospital at the moment, and I'm sure that a large part of it is linked to the grief of losing her, her youngest child. Um, so it, it was really, really hard and, you know, it, it will never not be hard. It goes on being hard. Um, I don't know if I ever thought. Sort of, this is really annoying, I've just got my life back. But I think there was a sense of kind of, you know, when do I get to take a breath? When do I get to get off the train? When does this, when does life stop exploding? Um, I think that is a bit what I felt. Um, you know, and then with my mom getting ill in the last few months that I said the exact same phrase to someone the other day, I was like, I just, when will the world just stop exploding, or my world stop exploding? So, yeah, it's, um, it was, I mean, yeah, it's, it's difficult. It's hard learning to live without her is impossibly hard. And yeah, I mean, there isn't really, and that kind of, I dunno, I don't know if that kicked off a kind of, I think lots of people, when someone dies, they're kind of like, you know, we're on this earth for such a short time, I must quickly and instantly change my life and quit my job. And, you know, I don't, that wasn't really what happened for me. I think I became really acutely aware that settling wasn't really good enough anymore. And I suppose the work that you do when you are grieving, if you really let yourself into it, you go quite deep and you discover quite a lot about yourself. Um, and that was the interesting thing because again, I'd been in therapy before Coronavirus hit, but then of course that had stopped because of Covid. And then I never sort of went back because sort of, I thought I was, you know, coming out of myself. So I went back after Sophie died and that kind of allowed me to kind of work through the grief in a lot of the things that had happened around it, but kind of continue the work and the self discovery I'd been doing even before all of that. So I think it kind of brought quite a lot of those threads together in a way. Um, and so, and yeah, you know, you'd never, you'd never want to say that you want someone to have died, of course you don't. But that, you know, it is part of life and there is an awful lot of extraordinary learning in walking through that yourself, so. Yeah.
Stephanie: Right. You said it shook me into rediscovering who I was and rebuilding the person that motherhood had shattered and loss had shattered. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Emma Johnson: Yeah. As I mentioned, I work with moms who've kind of gone through postnatal depression or anxiety or any kind of, it's not even particular anxiety and depression. I just find that I am really drawn to, and really able to connect with, those women who have found motherhood to be, like sort of falling off a cliff, really. Because I think actually if we're all deeply honest, nearly all of us feel like that, but we don't talk about it and no one lets us talk about it cause we're supposed to be filled with blissful love and feel wonderful about it. So kind of since becoming a mom and even with my daughter, but less so, I think I've been, I've always been a curious person. I'm always interested in the kind of learning and what things bring up and, and kind of who who we are.
Emma Johnson: The loss of self that comes after motherhood is actually quite fascinating to me and fascinating that it isn't talked about more. And I talk a lot to the women that I work with, and I talk a lot in my grief for women's circles that I do about the grief of motherhood. And I really mean that sense of grieving the woman that you were, the person and the life that you had. Um, and I think it's really important to go through that process. I know that for a lot of the last eight years, the underlying theme in my head has been when will I get my life back? And things got much easier when I acknowledged that my life wasn't ever going to come back in the way that I expected it, and that I had to build a new one. And it's a better one. It's one that I'm much more connected, I'm happier, I feel more fulfilled. But that is almost a process that nearly everyone, every mother goes through and it's, and it's enormously challenging. for some mothers it's even more challenging, for some people it kind of happens in a sort of nice, organic way, but I think it happens.
Emma Johnson: So I really do feel that who you are on that moment that baby is born kind of gets smashed on the floor and very slowly you pick those pieces back up and I think you leave some pieces on the floor. I think you're like, you know what, this just doesn't serve me anymore. And I think there's other pieces that might be really tiny that you're like, I need to make that piece a lot bigger, that bit of myself I really need to hold onto. And then of course, you lose someone like I did, and I think it does it again. Um, I suppose it's almost, I suppose it's almost like kind of, a beautiful piece of art. You slowly refine it and then go, no, I don't like that bit. I'm gonna work on this bit. I don't know. That's the sort of vision that comes to me when I think about it. I don't mean having visions, I just mean if I sort of imagine it in that way.
Emma Johnson: So towards the kind of beginning of this year, so I went back into therapy at the beginning of this year and roundabout April time, I'd kind of really done a lot of work with my therapist and I was feeling kind of a lot better in myself. But she was sort of saying, I'm actually quite worried about you and I think that you haven't had the space to really work through any of the stuff that you need to. And we actually went back to thinking about the fact that because I was self-employed when I had the twins, I never actually took any maternity leave. I've got pictures of me doing my tax return whilst breastfeeding one of the kids. Because we have a culture of going, "You've got this, oh, go mama." And actually people should have been saying to me, "Step away, let me hold the baby," but no one says that. So you crack on and you think you are like super human, and of course no one is. And then Coronavirus and then they, and on, on, on it went.
Emma Johnson: And so she said to me, "I think you need a break. I'm really worried that if you don't fully stop working and step away, that you will end up really unwell." That was really hard to hear because you hear people talk about like burnout and things and I was like, "Wow, burnout is something for city bankers. It's not something people like me get." So burnout is ridiculous. Um, and now when it were ages ago, I then looked up what burnout is and I was like, "Oh, I think that might be me." So my amazing husband, I came home from that therapy session in tears and I said to him, "I need to stop working for the whole summer for three months." To his credit, he just went, "Okay, I have no idea how we'll do that, but we will find a way." And I'm incredibly grateful to him because I bring in nearly as much money as he does, so to not have that was really scary.
Emma Johnson: Out of the two of us, he's the kind of financial risk averse, I just sort of pretend it's all not really happening. It was really amazing. And I did, I stopped working at the beginning of June and I didn't work for three months. I mean, half of that was the school holidays, so different kind of work, but I didn't work and I did step back, and in the middle of that I started to find the things that I really wanted to do and women's circles and things like that just kind of started appearing in my life.
Emma Johnson: It just really was an incredible three months of discovery and having the space to find out a bit more about who I was and what I wanted from my life. And to get comfortable with not doing anything, to get comfortable with sitting still. My therapist said, "I don't want you, I can see you doing this already. You are like planning to do this course and that course and to learn this skill and go here and do that." And she said, "Get yourself a clean new diary and I want you to be able to show me a whole week that has nothing on it." And that was really terrifying. It was really, really terrifying. But I did do it, I did manage it and it has made it much easier for me now to be able to sort of step into that place of just stopping for a bit to kind of hear what's going on inside. So, that's probably how I kind of picked all those pieces up and rediscovered.
Stephanie: That's amazing. And what a wonderful opportunity, with whatever challenges it came with, what a wonderful opportunity to take three months and just stop. I can only imagine. I would love that and I don't, I don't have kids and I still can't imagine how that would happen. It's not something that most of us in this modern world are able to do. And you still have twins, you still have three kids, it's not like you were sitting out in the fields or on the beach, you know? Right, right. Don't we all? You still had things going on, but even just to be able to take your brain out of the everyday, what do I have to do next, and work and this and that. That's amazing. During that time you started to really get a sense of what you wanted to do or what things were important to you. What were some of those?
Emma Johnson: I think I've kind of always known what was important to me, but it's about being able to listen to those voices. Like you were just saying, we all kind of would love three months off. And I wish there was a way in our world for everyone to have like scheduled in, in some way these pockets of time to be able to quiet down the external noise and listen to the internal noise or the internal voices and what they're really telling you. And then to take what they've told you and do something intentional with it. That's really what that time gave me. Even though I knew all the things that mattered to me, for instance, working with women, being in kind of groups and gatherings with women, working with women who are in crisis or who are struggling, who have been through some sort of trauma, who need support, holding space for people is really important to me. But also lots of other things like being just really connected to nature and seasons and being outside, and being kind of connected to the earth in that way. Being more sort of mindful and intentional with the way that I live and being able to weave kind of beautiful words and writings and thinkings and theories into what I do.
Emma Johnson: All those kind of things were what really mattered to me, and for so long I have not found a way to bring them all together. When I started working in women's circles, I didn't know that all those threads were gonna come together in such a neat way, but honestly for me it was like you're looking for a lock and you've got the key. Even down to the fact as I mentioned with my birthday party, I love table styling and tablescaping and like arranging flowers for me is something I do as a personal kind of creative outlet. I don't ever go and buy a load of flowers from the market and arrange them for someone else, they're done for me. I could be having the entire weekend home alone and that's what I want to do. That makes me feel really good and women's circles actually does all of those things. It puts me in a room with women. It allows me to hold space for women and particularly often women who are going through something. It allows us to ask and question all those big deep questions about ourselves and to talk about them. But it also helps me to be more mindful and kind of noticing of the seasons and nature. And it allows me to create beautiful kind of centerpieces that are built from nature and made out of flowers and welcome people into my own home in a kind of hosting way that really matters to me. So it was like a light just went on. I was like, "This is everything." And
Emma Johnson: I think I've said this already to you. All the threads of my life that have not gone away, that are clearly really important to me, have suddenly come together in this way. Um, but I have to say, I don't know if they'd have come together any earlier than this. And I don't actually think that if I had tried to do this when I was 25, I'd have walked enough of the earth to do this. We were talking in our circle last week about the the sort of modern female archetypes, the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. And the Crone as this incredible elder, this older woman who has literally kind of walked the path of life and knows a lot. They're the women that now I find so fascinating to be around. And I think you have to have gone through some of the things, that we've all gone through by this time to start to do that sort of work.
Stephanie: Yeah. Can you back up two steps and define what a woman's circle is and how you came upon them?
Emma Johnson: Yeah, of course. So women's circles essentially not new, they're like an ancient concept. Many indigenous tribes still gather in this way, but really it is about bringing women and only women together in a space around a fire or around kind of light if you can't get around a fire, to really share stories, to share who they are, to share their experiences and to communicate. I talk a little bit about a space for ritual reflection and connection.
Emma Johnson: Ritual in terms of those little rituals that we do that just ground us, that kind of give us pause, that focus us. Reflection in that way, like I was saying, to kind of listen to those voices, to listen to those things that are niggling at you and try to tease them out and understand what's going on there. And the connection in terms of connecting both to yourself, to other women in your community particularly, and that's what's lovely about circles, women who are not perhaps in your normal sphere, but women who have come with a kind of common passion for what they want to get out of their life. And connection to a sense of lineage and ancestry and kind of what, the women before us did.
Emma Johnson: Because a lot of our stories from the last sort of three, 400 years, you know, the, the writing down of stories is a really male patriarchal thing. Women's stories were always told, they were always told to their daughters and then to their daughters and on and on and on around a fire, you know, all this sort of thing. And so it really, it's been a movement over the last, I'd say probably only the last couple of decades, probably even last decade, to kind of recreate those spaces for women.
Emma Johnson: when people ask me what they're like, I would say it's a bit like a group therapy session, slightly like yoga with some meditation. Except that it's none of those things, but all of those things. There are some specific things about circles that I think are really special. They're very much what you call a co-created space. So whilst you have someone that holds the space and gathers the women, you are very much all kind of, part of a whole, and you know, you can talk when you want to, but one of the biggest things, and this took a bit of my head getting round it, is that in a circle, you don't ever, it's not really a place for gossip and chitchat. You don't drink. It's not a social space at all. It is a space to listen and to hear. And so that means that you don't interrupt people and you don't offer advice or comment on what they've said. So someone can share something really, really heartbreaking and really your only reaction is, "Thank you, I hear you." You don't say anything else. You can later say, "From my experience of that thing is X, Y, and Z," but, so rarely in our lives do people hear what we've got to say. They jump in to save us. They jump in to fix the problem. They jump in to say, "Oh, I know, but it's not that bad." Like, "Don't worry, you know, you're not that bad a mother, you're not that rubbish at your job." And actually sometimes we want to say, "I just really hate this and I'm not very good at it, and I'm cross." And you want people to go, "Yep, I hear you." And that is really powerful and I am amazed at the power of what happens there and how heard people feel. I think some of the loveliest things that I have heard from the circles I've been in recently is, for instance, one of the women who comes to one of my circles is grieving her mother, and after two sessions she said, "This has done more for me than two years of therapy. I just feel heard in a way I haven't felt before," and those sorts of things are really, really powerful. And I'm really passionate about those spaces being available for women, 'cause there aren't many of them. Well, there really aren't any, so, yeah.
Stephanie: That's beautiful.
Emma Johnson: Thank you.
Stephanie: There's a term that you've used a couple of times and I've heard it in my own world from different people, but I want your definition. When you say you hold space for someone, what does that mean to you? How would you define that? That's one of those terms that is used a lot, but I want you to put some meat on that bone for me.
Emma Johnson: Sure. It means a lot of things and it can mean a lot of things in a lot of different concepts, but I'd say the, I'm going to, I'm gonna nick a description from Heather Platt who has written a whole book on holding space. Her thing about space is being a bowl, a container for something. And she uses this wonderful analogy: Being a container that holds all of the kind of facets of somebody and their story and their pain and what they want to share, but it doesn't try to change those things and it doesn't try to influence them. And it is absolutely rock solid and safe, and its rim is high enough and strong enough to withstand whatever they need to share.
Emma Johnson: Her analogy actually involves Lego, and I think it's really clever. She says, if you have a Lego structure that your kids made and they break it, you scoop the pieces up and you put them back into a bowl and they're safe there, but the bowl doesn't impact what happens to those pieces when they leave the bowl. It doesn't impact what shape those pieces take, but it does keep them safe from people treading on them. It makes sure that they don't get lost, and it has them there in this unchanged space until you are ready to build something else with them. And if I go back to weirdly, my kind of shattered self analogy, it actually is a little bit like that. It is in a way, in something like a circle or therapy. Therapist holds space. Friends hold space. I hold space for my children, it's not a professional thing. It's simply about creating a safe enough environment that people feel that it's not gonna leak, that their feelings aren't gonna kind of be taken the wrong way. That they're not gonna be judged, and that those things that they share are safe, where they've been shared that they're not gonna get run away or gossiped about and that you can share the fears and the silliness that you feel. That's sort of really what I understand it.
Emma Johnson: If I've got a friend who, like I did the other day actually, who knocked my door, she's got really bad anxiety, and she just said, "I need to come over." And I said, "Okay, I'll put the kettle on," and, you know, I'm not a therapist, wasn't anything like that. But she sat at my kitchen table and she talked and she talked for 15 minutes. And I didn't interrupt her once, I just let her talk, and I let her cry and, then slowly I was able to sort of ask her some questions and we were able to kind of create a sense of sort of what was going on with her. That at its very basis is holding space. It's something we all do, but it's holding it in a way where you're not gonna do damage, where you're just gonna really protect those Lego pieces until that person knows what they want to do with them.
Stephanie: That's beautiful
Stephanie: I feel like for myself, I'm always so, well first of all, I am a solver, right? I do like I'm a solution person, but I am able to consciously turn that off But I wanna engage with people, I wanna ask questions, I wanna dig into things. So as you're talking, I'm wondering, "Oh, am I doing enough with friends and other people who would confide in me to sort of create that bowl or am I so engaged in the bowl as well that, you know, so it's interesting when these conversations give me things to think about and things to explore on my own. But I guess I would interpret my, well, it's nice for me to interpret it positively, right? I would interpret my engagement with the other person as being supportive and indicative of the fact that I am fully engaged in their story. I don't know if that's the same thing as what you are talking about.
Emma Johnson: It is the same thing. Whilst I've described particularly a women's circle where you don't tend to particularly give advice and comment, that doesn't mean that all spaces like that are like that. But, to go back to the bowl analogy, what's so interesting is that you could hold the bowl of Lego for someone and say, "We could make a horse or a house, or a pony or a rabbit,"
Emma Johnson: But you are not invested in what they make from that Lego. And if they decide to ignore all of your suggestions and make a car park, that's fine. If they decide to make the rabbit, it's not the rabbit that you would've had them make, also fine. And where you are is then really like, "That's a really cool rabbit, you know, how do you feel about that rabbit?" I'm reducing it a little bit, but the asking of questions is a really powerful way to hold space because you are teasing out what kind of people need to share.
Emma Johnson: We use a phrase in circles a lot saying, "What do you want to give voice to?" And I think sometimes that's really a lot about those things, like I've talked about that are niggling below that we know would be really helpful if we voiced them. Cause you might understand them a bit better, but sometimes you need someone to tease that out of you. It's really important. It's much more about a space where they can say anything. The thing that matters to me is when, when someone phones me with a problem and says, "I just knew, I could tell you that." And that matters to me more than anything else. It's not that they believe and I might have really useful advice for them, but if they feel that I'm a safe enough space to explore that, that's the really important thing, which, I'm sure you are your friends, that's really valuable.
Stephanie: It's interesting you're talking about this and I'm thinking about I have a couple of girlfriends and we have a little group, on Marco Polo and I, I describe Marco Polo as video voicemail. We can leave messages for each other and we don't all have to be there at the same time. We've been doing this for, oh, I don't know, five or six years now, it's been a long time, but this is the place that I feel a lot of the same things that you're talking about. Right. We come and we share our triumphs, we share our low days. I know for myself, last winter, January and February, I was feeling pretty low myself, and I wasn't really participating and for a little while, you know, nobody noticed. Mostly because it's just on such a pace of us sort of sharing. But then after a couple of days, people are like, "Hey, where are you? Where are, you know, where are you?" To the point where one of the girls showed up on my porch and said, "What is going on with you?" which was lovely because to have somebody notice is wonderful.
Stephanie: The four of us are really I don't know, solid, professional, capable women, and yet, like you said, there are times when you don't want to be any of those things. You just want to be a whiny baby. You want to bitch, you want to say awful things about people, and that is truly our safe space to do that. It's been a wonderful connection for us. One of our friends moved to California a few years ago, so we can stay connected with her and she can stay connected with us. So it's interesting, it's not a woman's circle in the same way that you are talking about, but it is a place where we convene almost on a daily basis and share and support each other through the highs and the lows, through the good stuff and the bs. It's interesting to hear you talking about these things and think, "Well, I have a different form of it, but, you know, something that's got some of the same DNA.
Emma Johnson: And I think what you've described there, the two really important things is that it's a safe space. And I think it's, I suspect it's only been the four of you, and if someone suggested adding someone, you'd be like, Nope, this is, no, this is a sacrosanct space. And that probably you wouldn't feel comfortable, um, taking something that someone shared and playing it for anybody else or, you know, it's, it's a sacred safe. Exactly. And also that you are allowed to, because you can leave voice notes, you can ramble on for as long as you want. No one's interrupting you, no one cares. You can take a while to kind of form what you're trying to say. So it works in that way. And then in the last way it connects you. You may speak daily, you may not speak for a week, but it connects you and it doesn't matter where you are. And that one of the lovely things that actually Coronavirus did do was it made it possible for people that were holding women's circles in person to hold them online. I've been amazed how much you can connect, much like we are now, you know? I think that there's myriad ways to connect. The important thing is that you do.
Stephanie: Right, right. Because when you connect, you can not put down, maybe put down, you can put down some of your burden, you can share your burden, and it doesn't become as heavy on you alone. It's not just your shoulders.
Emma Johnson: Yeah. I think things are always lighter when they're shared and when we know that on some level, our experiences are all so common. There's someone in England who was murdered a few years ago, an an MP, and she had this lovely phrase where she said, "We have more in common than that which divides us." And I think it's so beautiful and it's so true. And, working with women from all different walks of life has shown me that. And particularly with social media, it's such an echo chamber, and I love kind of being able to talk to people who there's a common thread that they want to ask the big questions and go deeper, that really matters to me and it's great to have that. They come into that space to do that, but where they come from really different, really different. And to watch them be able, as you say, to put that down, when I do an opening meditation, I say, "Put down what you have brought in with you, any of the weight that you've been carrying today, you can just put it down. No one's gonna look at it. They don't care what it looks like. Just put it down and just know you don't have to carry it for 90 minutes." And those groups, whether they're friendships or circles or your therapist's office, the place that you can put those burdens down, sort through them a bit, make sense of them, really special.
Emma Johnson: So, yeah.
Stephanie: I wanna circle back to two things. The first thing I wanna understand a little bit more about right before you turned 40, you walked on hot coals. Tell me about that. Tell me why you chose to do that and, and how? When I was a little girl, either my mom or both of my parents did this one time. I like have the very vague memory and I sort of remember my parents saying they did that, and to this day I can't comprehend how you would do that. So tell me a little more.
Emma Johnson: Yeah, it's so funny. Everyone always asks me about this. They're like, "Oh my God, what's the secret?" I'm like, "Well, the thing is there isn't a secret." What I always say is you have to do quite a lot of work before. You walk on fire in the evening, you have to wait till it gets dark, so depending on the time of year you do it, you might, let's say if you walk at seven o'clock, but you'll actually meet at more like two o'clock in the afternoon and if you've got a sort of firewalk instructor, they kind of take you through an enormous journey of self-discovery as well. Part of which of the afternoon also includes walking on broken glass, which for a lot of people is more traumatic than walking on fire. And it's really beautiful because you all get given a piece of glass just before you do this walk, and you write down on it one of the things you don't like about yourself the most or something, and then you throw it on this kind of glass or this pile of just shards of broken glass, and then you walk across it and it's very powerful. But again, you go slowly, you go carefully and with conviction and, and you can do it.
Emma Johnson: What I discovered is that, the people that I've done this fire walk with, they, keep those pieces. So every time you are walking across the broken glass, you're actually walking across all the things that people hate about themselves and that they've given up and thrown down. I just love stuff like that, it's really powerful.
Emma Johnson: But in terms of the fire, so you've done these kind of five hours of, you know, getting yourself really kind of geared up to do it. But the big message in it, is like with everything, that you have, everything you need inside of you, and you have that resilience and you have that strength inside of you. And that if you believe in yourself and you walk forward with kind of courage and conviction and pace, you don't get burnt. You don't get hurt. And the the point really of it is not really to walk on fire, even though it is extraordinary, but the point of it is that you can call on that whenever you want.
Emma Johnson: And if I take you back to really earlier in our conversation where I said, when I first traveled around the world and I was worried about something, I could say, you know, you first travel around the world, you can do this. It was like calling on that kind of young, strong person, and then that kind of fizzled, eventually the power of that became less. Now when I'm scared of things, I say, "You've walked on fire, you can do this." And I did that two years ago, but we did another fire walk this year, which I kind of helped organize and at the very end of it, the organizers, they're allowed another chance to do a firewalk. And I remember sort of saying, "What, I don't have to like do the whole four or five hours getting in the zone thing?" And Chris, he runs it. He's an extraordinary man, said, "No, Emma, the whole point is that you just call on your warrior and you go," and he's completely right. I stood in front of the coals, I felt my whole body know what to do, and I just walked and my feet, didn't get burnt and didn't get hurt. It was like 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit when I walked across it. Absolutely mad. But it's a magical thing to do and it really is one of those things where you just know that you can just call on that whenever you need to.
Stephanie: It is absolutely mad
Emma Johnson: Completely mad.
Stephanie: But I can imagine it's also magical. Let me circle around to the very beginning of our conversation. I found you on Instagram and the sentiments that made me reach out to you and, and ask you to have this conversation, you were talking about um, birthdays and you said you're happier now than when you were younger and happy in a way that runs deep with an undercurrent of resilience that I didn't have before. Will you tell me a little about that?
Emma Johnson: Yeah, I mean, I think we've covered it quite a lot.
Stephanie: We have.
Emma Johnson: I think much like when I was talking about the idea of the elders, these people who have lived a bit of life and I'm only 40, you know, I've got friends who are 60 and 70, and they would be like, "Ugh, you haven't lived anything yet." But the more that you go through the little things, the big things they do, uh, it's such a cliche, but I do often think that what, what doesn't kill you does make you stronger, and I think that you learn more about yourself.
Emma Johnson: I've written quite a lot on things like resilience and happiness, and I remember reading quite a lot of books that like monks had written on, "what is happiness?" and I think happiness and resilience go hand in hand. They all said the problem with the human race is that we think happiness is like a destination, a place to get to, and it isn't actually, it's something inside of us. It's not external, it's totally internal. And then someone asked one of these monks they sort of said, "Yeah, but look really, really, really horrible, hard, shit things happen, you can't be happy through that." And he said, "No, it's not about being happy. It's so much more that happiness is like a core, like an inner resilient core, that makes those things possible to manage." To make you be able to walk through them as hard and painful as they are because you have that in a kind of sense of who you are and happiness and resilience and sort of inner and inner knowing. So that's how I felt. Um, and I, I kind of believe, and I think I said that in that post, um, I believe that just continues.
Emma Johnson: I hope and believe that that life just gets better, and I wouldn't want to be 20 or 25 or even 35 again. What is happening now is great and, but I've always felt like that in my life. I don't think I've ever thought, I don't wanna be this age, and I'm, I'm grateful because that's a really great way, to be. In fact, probably the only time I've ever really thought it is when I was really struggling after my kids were born and I wanted to go back to the way my life was before. And that has been, you know, a massive watershed moment for me. So that's the only time. And like I said in that post and that was before my sister died, getting old is a privilege denied to to many and you won't ever, ever get me complaining with seriousness about being old, not once. You know, I think that line in Titanic, I want to die an old lady, warm in my bed. And, you know, lots of people don't get that. So I think we should be grateful for every day.
Stephanie: Yeah. Yeah. And the older you get the cooler you realize old age is.
Emma Johnson: Oh my God, it's so cool. You know, one of my friends in my circles just gone through the menopause and she's like, "It's awesome." She said she wanted to go running around the village and she's like, "I'm amazing!" And she, and she says, "There is a real knowing, like a quietness that settled over me where I just know myself so much more."
Emma Johnson: That's probably what I mean that, if you are prepared to ask those questions and lean into that every single day, you know yourself better and you learn more and it therefore gets better because your ability to manage what comes in life gets better. Your ability to make the things that you want to happen, happen
Emma Johnson: gets easier. And if those things don't happen, your ability to manage that disappointment is better. So yeah, it's great . I think it's wonderful.
Stephanie: Yeah. That's amazing. One last question, and this is something I'm just exploring, this is the first time I've done this. I'm wondering if you have any advice for somebody who's facing 40 and feeling any of the number of unsettled, dread, stuckness. From your vantage point now, what kind of advice would you give to someone who's facing 40 with some discomfort?
Emma Johnson: I think you just need to know why. You need to ask why. I'm a big lover of books and finding a book. Find a story. Find a book that speaks to you. Find a therapist that you like. Find a group of friends or a group of, I don't know, but ask why. Because as we were saying, I kind of think we don't need to step into each day, to each milestone birthday, each normal birthday with trepidation, and if we are, there's a reason why.
Emma Johnson: What unmet need has not been fulfilled, what regrets have you got? Because the minute you are honest with them, much like a burden, you, you will put it down. It's out there, and you can either let go of it or do something about it. But that will be why you feel like that. Not because you are, we are not scared of getting old. Because before, before we were this bef when we, when our lives were simpler, we just, we, we thought of being old was extraordinary and we revered them and they, these people were extraordinary wives, elders who guided our lives and made all of our decisions. So we are not scared of getting old, but our society has made us not listen to the things that we really want and need. So we arrive at these places fearful because we're not, we, we don't know really what's going on inside. So I would, yeah, that would be my advice. Just ask for why and keep asking that. There's a brilliant exercise you can do called the eight Why's, and you just say, you know, like, why am I scared? Well, because of this, but why, because of this. And the, if you keep doing eight why's, it's extraordinary what comes out at the end. Cause it won't be anything to do with what you first talked about. It's a really good journaling exercise.
Stephanie: It's so funny that you say that. I had a coach once and this was a business coach, a sales coach who talked about three why's. When you ask somebody, well, why? I have three questions for you. Why? I was like, okay, I'm not being cool. You know, why ? Right? And once you get past three why's, again, the answer is very different than it is before. I can't imagine where you'd end up if it was eight.
Emma Johnson: I know, I know. I did it when I was sort of setting up my new work. It's quite a good exercise if you feel really sure about something because the likelihood is it will circle back round. And mine did. It was like, why, why, why, why? And it came the whole way back round. But I think I use it quite a lot sometimes. And again, when you talk about holding space with your friends, sometimes just, well why? Well, why do you think that? I mean, there's a reason children keep saying why, because if, because the bottom line is if you say, you know, why can't I have that chocolate bar? Which is because you can't. But why can't I? Because we are not being honest, there's a real deep reason. And once they get the reason and like, because I don't want you to have any more and the sugar will make you really hyperactive and I don't want you to be like that 'cause I'll get cross, they're happy with that. Or because we don't have any money and we can't afford to buy any more chocolate bars until the weekend. They, they'll go away because they've got the proper answer. They've got to the bottom of that. There's no more why out of that. So yeah.
Stephanie: That's beautiful. I love that. I have something in my life right now that I'm rolling around with, and I'm gonna try to do that exercise. I don't know how many why's I'll get. I'll aim for eight and see how far I get.
Emma Johnson: See how far you go. Well, I hope it helps.
Stephanie: Thank you. Thank you, Emma. This has been just a beautiful conversation. I so love your point of view and it's just beautiful. Are you accepting women from all around for your online women's circles, or are you really just keeping it close to home with your local community?
Emma Johnson: No, I do them. I do in-person ones, but I also do online ones, once a month. And I do have a couple of lovely women from America who check in, but you know, anywhere far and wide. In fact the more the better. I love that. Different viewpoints always good. So yeah.
Stephanie: And if that's the case, tell me how people would find your circle.
Emma Johnson: So I'm on The Wild Circle dot Space. And all the information is on there and I'm on at The Wild Circle Space on Instagram. That's the quickest way to find me.
Stephanie: Fabulous. Emma, thanks so much for joining me today. This has just been spectacular and, I look forward to speaking again sometime.
Emma Johnson: Yeah. Thank you Stephanie. It's been a real honor to be to speak to you and for me, it's been a wonderful chance to reflect. So thank you very much.