How to hold space for yourself first

Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.
– Parker Palmer, Let your Life Speak

When I shared my post about what it means to hold space for people and it went viral, I learned this…

This desire to hold space well for other people is vast and diverse.

I have heard from the most fascinating range of people about how this post is being circulated and used. It’s showing up in home schooling forums, palliative and hospice care circles, art communities, spiritual retreat centres, universities, alcoholics anonymous groups, psychotherapists’ offices, etc. The most interesting place I heard about it being shared was within the US Marines. It is also touching the lives of people supporting their parents, children, spouses and friends through difficult times.

The lesson in this is that no matter who or where you are, you can do the beautiful and important work of holding space for other people. There are so many of us who are making this a priority in our lives that I feel hopeful that this world is finally swinging like a pendulum away from a place of isolation and individualism to a place of deeper connection and love. Isn’t that a beautiful idea?

Recently, I participated in an online course on “Leading from the Future as it Emerges: From Ego-system to Eco-system” and the underlying premise of the course was that we need to find a way to make deeper connections with ourselves, others, and the earth so that we bring about a paradigm shift and stop this crash course we’re on. There were more than 25,000 from around the world participating in the course. That’s a LOT of people who share a common passion for changing the ways in which we interact and make decisions. I walked away feeling increasingly hopeful that I am part of a swelling tide of change. The response to my blog post has further reinforced that hopeful feeling.

We are doing the best we can to live in love and community.

We are not perfect, and sometimes we still make selfish decisions, but we are doing our best. Thank you for being part of the change.

The other thing that struck me as I read through all of the comments, emails, etc., is that, while all of you are all responding from a place of generosity and openheartedness, wanting to learn more about holding space for others, you also need to be given permission and encouragement to hold space for yourselves.

This is really important. If we don’t care for ourselves well in this work, we’ll suffer burnout, and risk becoming cynical and/or ineffective.

PLEASE take the time to hold space for yourself so that you can hold space for others.

It is not selfish to focus on yourself. In fact, it’s an act of generosity and commitment to make sure that you are at your best when you support others. They will get much more effective, meaningful, and openhearted support from you if you are healthy and strong.

In the Art of Hosting work that I do and teach, we talk about “hosting ourselves first”. What does it mean to “host myself first”? It means, simply, that anything I am prepared to encounter once I walk into a room, I need to be prepared to encounter and host in myself first. In order to prepare myself for conflict, frustration, ego, fear, anger, weariness, envy, injustice, etc., I need to sit with myself, look into my own heart, bear witness to what I see there, and address it in whatever way I need to before I can do it for others. I can’t hide any of that stuff in the shadows, because what is hidden there tends to come out in ways I don’t want it to when I am under stress.

AND just as I am prepared to offer compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and resolution to anything that shows up in the room, I need to offer it to myself first. Only when I am present for myself and compassionate with myself will I be prepared to host with strength and courage.

In other words, all of those points that I made about how to hold space for others can and should be applied to yourself first. Give yourself permission to trust your own intuition. Give yourself only as much information as you can handle. Don’t let anyone take your power away. Keep your ego out of it. Make yourself feel safe enough to fail. Give guidance and help to yourself with humility and thoughtfulness. Create your own container for complex emotions, fears, trauma, etc. And allow yourself to make decisions that are different from what other people would make.

This isn’t necessarily easy, when you’re doing the often stressful and time-consuming work of holding space for others, but it is imperative.

Here are some other tips on how to hold space for yourself.

  1. Learn when to walk away. You can’t serve other people well when your energy is depleted. Even if you can only leave the hospital room of your loved one for short periods of time, or you’re a single mom who doesn’t have much of a support system for caring from your kids, it is imperative that you find times when you can walk away from the place where you are needed most to take deep breaths, walk in nature, go for a swim, or simply sit and stare at the sunset. Replenish yourself so that you can return without bitterness. Whenever you can, take a longer break (a week at a retreat does wonders).
  2. Let the tears flow. When the only thing you can do is cry, that’s often the best thing you can do. Let the tears wash away the accumulated ick in your soul. A social worker once told me that “tears are the window-washer of the soul” and she was right. They help to clear your vision so that you can see better and move forward more successfully. When my husband was in the psych ward a few years ago, and I still had to maintain some semblance of normalcy for my children, I spent many, many hours weeping as I drove from the hospital to the soccer field and back again. Releasing those tears when I was alone or with close friends allowed me to be strong for the people who needed me most.
  3. Let others hold space for you. You can’t do this work alone and you’re not meant to. We are all meant to be communal people, showing up for each other in reciprocal ways. As I mentioned in my original post about holding space, we were able to hold space for my mom in her dying because others (like Anne, the palliative care nurse) were holding space for us. Many others were stopping to visit, bringing food, etc. We would have been much less able to walk that path with Mom if we hadn’t known there was a strong container in which we were being held.
  4. Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is simply “paying attention to your attention”. In mindfulness meditation, you are taught that, instead of trying to stop the thoughts, you should simply notice them and let them pass. You don’t need to sit on a meditation cushion to practice mindfulness – simply pay attention to what emotions and thoughts are showing up, and when they come, wish them well and send them on their way. Are you angry? Notice the anger, name it anger, ask yourself whether there is any value in holding onto this anger, and then let it pass. Frustrated? Notice, name, inquire, and then let it pass.
  5. Find sources of inspiration. There are many, many writers, artists, musicians, etc. whose wisdom can help you hold space for yourself. When I was nearing a nervous breakdown earlier this week because of the intensity of my post going viral, I went to a Martyn Joseph concert (my favourite musician), and when he started to sing “I need you brave, I want you brave, I need you strong to sing along, You are so beautiful, and I’m not wrong”, I was sure he was singing directly to me. (Watch it on Youtube.) That evening of music shifted the way I felt about what was going on and I was able to walk back into my work with courage and strength. Later in the week, when my site crashed and I was having trouble bringing it back to life, I went to sit in the poetry section of my favourite bookstore and read Billy Collins.
  6. Let other people live their own stories. You are not in charge of the world. You are only in charge of yourself and your own behaviours, thoughts, emotions, etc. Often when you are a caregiver, you’ll find yourself the target of other people’s frustration, anger, fear, etc. REMEMBER – that’s THEIR story, not yours. Just because they yell at you doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. Take a deep breath, say to yourself “I am not responsible for their emotion, I am only responsible for how I respond”, and then let it go. When you’re feeling wounded by what they’re projecting on you, return to the points above and walk away, practice mindfulness, and let others hold space for you.
  7. Find a creative outlet for processing what you’re experiencing. Write in a journal, paint, dance, bake, play the guitar – do whatever replenishes your soul. Few things are as healing as time spent in creative practice. One of my favourite things to do is something I call Mandala Journailing, where I bring both my words and my wordlessness to the circle. You can learn to do it yourself in Mandala Discovery: 30 days of self-discovery through mandala journaling (which starts April 1st).
I hope that you will find the time this week to hold space for yourself. Your work is important, and the world needs more generous and open hearts who are healthy and strong enough to serve well.

Blessings to you.

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A dozen acts of kindness for a dozen murder victims

A few weeks ago, my husband’s wallet was stolen from our van. Within the following week, about a dozen people stopped by our house, bringing with them pieces of Marcel’s identification that they’d found strewn around the neighbourhood. It was a strong reminder to me that for every one person in the world who will steal something, there are at least a dozen people who will go out of their way to make it right.

This week, a dozen people were killed and many more injured in a horrific shooting in Aurora, Colorado. In the days that followed, many stories came out about the acts of heroism that took place in that theatre – people helping strangers and/or loved ones get to safety. Some people risked their own lives for people they’d never met. Once again I am reminded that there are more people doing good than evil.

As a response this tragedy, I have decided to do at least a dozen acts of kindness – one for each murder victim.  These won’t necessarily be monumental acts like saving someone’s life, but I will make a concerted effort to go out of my way to spread kindness rather than hatred. I may plug someone’s parking meter, buy a gift for a stranger, or leave love notes on the mirrors of public washrooms. I believe that most of my acts will be anonymous, but I’m not sure what they’ll all be yet.

I’d love to have you join me in spreading this kindness. If at least a dozen people do a dozen kind acts, we’ll have far outnumbered that one act of evil.

The people killed were Veronica Moser-Sullivan, Jessica Ghawi, Alex Sullivan, Jonathan Blunk, John Larimer, Matt McQuinn, Micayla Medek, Jesse Childress, Jesse Childress, Alex Teves, Rebecca Ann Wingo, and Gordon W. Cowden. You may wish to attach their names to each act of kindness so that their legacy spreads in a kind way.

I’ve created a Facebook page for this cause. Please join me here.

Let’s spread love instead of hate, kindness instead of evil, hope instead of fear.

It’s pretty simple – just be kind.

“Be kind,” my dad used to say, almost every time we left the house.

In high school, I mostly ignored his words. It’s what high schoolers do. When I left home and the parting was more significant, I paid a bit more attention, but still barely noticed what words he chose to use in parting.

It was always the same, though. “Be kind.” Not “be spectacular”, “be successful”, or “be brilliant”. Just “be kind”.

Last week, as I was preparing notes for the last class of the first session of the course I’m teaching, I invited my Facebook friends to inspire me with stories of inspirational teachers. In the comments I learned of a teacher who’d helped students study for a test in a different subject than he was teaching; a high school teacher who went the extra mile and invited students to visit a university class; a teacher who made a point of knowing every student by name and greeting them in the hallway accordingly; a teacher who told the students with honesty and warmth that they would learn more outside his classroom than in it; a teacher who would lead students through a guided imagery meditation to help them relax before tests; and a teacher who sent an amazing email as a send off to the students just before Christmas.

What struck me as I read these comments and prepared for my class was this: every one of these teachers was remembered for one simple thing – kindness. It wasn’t their brilliance, their creativity, or their talent. It was their simple effort to extend humanity and kindness.

Yesterday, after our last class was completed and we’d wished each other a happy Christmas break, several of the students came to thank me for what they said was “one of the best classes they’d taken”. I heard words like “it was a pleasure being in your class every Wednesday – you made it a fun, relaxed environment”, “thank you for helping us build community in our classroom”, “I feel like you’ve become a friend and not just a teacher”, and “thank you for giving so much of yourself to us.”

I think I was floating when I left the class. Even without their words I knew that this teaching thing is part of what I’ve been called to do. And I could walk away from my first attempt knowing I had done well.

On the bus ride home, my dad’s words came back to me. “Be kind.”

I don’t know if I was an exceptional teacher, or if I’ll be the one these students will remember ten years from now when they’re asked to name an inspirational teacher, but I do know that I did my best to live up to my dad’s parting words. And the kindness I gave to my students was given back to me.

When my dad died a sudden accidental death seven years ago, many, many people stopped at the farmyard to share stories with our family. We heard stories of when he’d gone the extra mile to help a neighbour during tough times, when he’d stopped to fix a stranger’s tire, and when he’d helped families work through conflict. None of these were remarkable stories that would go down in the history books labeling my dad as a great success. But I do know one thing – he was remembered for kindness. Those parting words he always left us with weren’t simply a catch phrase, they were a lifestyle.

When I die, Dad, I too want to be remembered for kindness. Thank you for serving as a model.

It’s simple. Just be kind.

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