When I spoke in Florida last month, I recounted a story of a time when I was getting too many requests from people who wanted me to hold space for them when I was personally depleted and had to start saying to people “I’m at capacity – you’ll have to find someone else to hold space for you, or come back once I have replenished myself.”
I didn’t think, at the time, that I’d said anything particularly profound, until we broke for lunch and several people came up to me to say “Thank you for offering me that phrase, ‘I’m at capacity.’ I’m going to use that one in the future.”
A couple of weeks later, I was still getting emails about it, and almost every one mentioned how grateful they are to now have that phrase to use. For whatever reason, in that crowd of people who work with young people dealing with grief and trauma, that was what people most needed to hear.
When I teach about holding space for people, I talk about how holding space is like “being the bowl”, holding people gently and firmly, offering them containment and support, but not putting a lid on the bowl so that they have freedom and autonomy. Sometimes, though, that bowl gets full and we have no more space to offer people. That’s when we need a way to communicate to people…. “I’m at capacity.”
That phrase can mean many things. It can mean that we have too much grief of our own to hold and we don’t have the strength to offer comfort to others. It can mean that we’re near exhaustion from holding space for too many people and our bowl is starting to show signs of wear and tear. In can mean that we recognize it’s a good time for us to “go dark” and not engage in anything but our own learning and growth for awhile.
When we say “I’m at capacity” we are under no obligation to explain to others what we mean. It often feels like a reflex to give a long explanation or over-apologize, but that’s usually a sign that we don’t feel that we deserve to take time for ourselves or that other people have more value than we do. Just like “no” is a complete answer, “I’m at capacity” is a complete answer.
Imagine if we could all wear some kind of symbol – a lapel pin of a bowl, for example, with the ability to adjust the fullness of the bowl – to let each other know how much capacity we currently have. If I see that your bowl is full, I might ask what I could carry on your behalf. If your bowl is empty, I might ask if you’ve got a moment to listen to a story I just need someone to hold space for.
What we often don’t recognize when we are considering our own capacity is how much energy our emotional labour requires. One of the functions of growing up in an era of industrialization and capitalism is that we value money, productivity, and material goods over less tangible things like emotional labour, so we don’t have any understanding of how to measure the emotional labour that may be exhausting us.
For those dealing with depression, for example, it requires an immense amount of emotional labour just to get out of bed in the morning and smile at your kids over breakfast. You will probably reach capacity far sooner than other people. For those supporting parents with dementia, it can require vast storehouses of emotional labour to show up every day and put up with possible abuse from formerly loving parents. Your capacity beyond that will be limited. For those wrestling with addiction, all of your emotional labour is probably going into resisting the next temptation. For those working in classrooms with children with learning disabilities, you may have reached your emotional labour capacity by 3 p.m. and have nothing left to cook a healthy supper in the evening. For those living in poverty or fighting the oppression of racism, homophobia, or ablism, all of your emotional labour might be spent in simply trying to survive in a world not designed with you in mind.
When someone tells us, in whatever language they choose to use, that they are at capacity, we must simply believe them because we don’t know how much energy it takes to live life in their bodies. And when we need to say “I am at capacity”, we have a right to be believed and not questioned for how weak or selfish we may be.
This summer, I’ll be using that phrase regularly to let people know when I need to step away. If for example, you sent me an email and I haven’t yet gotten back to me, it’s not because I haven’t read it or don’t want to engage with you, it’s because it sometimes takes a lot of emotional labour to get through all of the beautiful and openhearted emails people send me. (Thank you! I always read them!) If you want to hire me as a coach but noticed that my door is closed for the summer, that’s because “I’m at capacity” creating the content and holding space for my coach/facilitator program. If you notice that my response time is slower on social media, it may be because “I’m at capacity” and have gone off on vacation with my daughters.
Try it for yourself. The next time someone asks for something you know will require too much energy or emotional labour on your part, simply say “I’m at capacity.” It’s not unkind to say so – it’s simply a way to care for your own storehouse of energy.
P.S. If your container is full, perhaps you need a retreat to help you hold it all? Consider coming to Nourish in August.
I am slowly, one breath at a time, finding my way back to equilibrium.
Two weeks ago, I was suddenly aware of how wobbly I’d become – spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Like a toddler on new legs, I was stumbling around, bumping into things (and people), and occasionally falling down. Also like a toddler, my emotions had become suddenly unregulated and unpredictable. I cried or got angry at the slightest provocation. And I was making mistakes I don’t normally make.
I knew it was time for a pause. I knew I needed to step away from my adult-sized obligations and simply let my wobbly toddler nature stumble along until she’d figured out how to walk again without harming herself.
As I mentioned in my last post, it’s been a big year, full of significant shifts in both my business and personal life. Mix all of the ingredients of my year – rapid (and unexpected) business growth and increased demand on my time and energy, the ending of a 22 year marriage, solo-parenting to three daughters navigating the path from adolescence to early adulthood, and a few fairly significant volunteer commitments (sponsoring Syrian refugees, hosting race relations conversations, and starting a women’s circle) – and you get a recipe for stress. The wobble is not unexpected.
Though I’m fairly consistent about incorporating self-care practices into my week, it was clear that I had reached a place where I needed to take more radical action.
I knew that if I didn’t put myself first for awhile, I would not be able to be of service to anyone else.
Here’s what I’ve been doing for the last two weeks:
- I reduced my screen time to almost nothing, stepping away from social media and emails in particular. I’d noticed that my wobbliness got worse when I spent too much time online, so I got off that treadmill. This was one of the healthiest things I could have done. It relieved a lot of the pressures of having to live up to other people’s expectations, meet other people’s needs, etc. It freed up a lot of space to focus on the healing and soul care I needed to do.
- I spent a lot of time outside. Nature heals me. It helps me feel grounded and connected again. I wandered in the woods, played at the beach, and sat for hours in my backyard around the fire. I hugged trees and talked to pelicans and frogs. Mother Earth revealed her Spring splendour to me and, when I paused to pay attention, she helped to heal my hurt and reminded me of my place in the nature of things.
- I got physical and sweaty. I rode my bike, went for long walks, and dug in my garden. With each footstep, each revolution of the bike pedals, and each handful of dirt, I worked through my anxiety, my stress, and my hurt. I let my body take over where my mind had gotten stuck. I alchemized some of the ache in my heart by letting my muscles take on the aching for awhile.
- I went to see a therapist. I’d become aware that some of my stress was related to some old patterns that I’d developed over years of dysfunctional communication in my marriage. I needed help letting go of those old patterns so that they wouldn’t have control over me anymore. After listening to my story, she gave me wise, holistic advice that I’m still processing and will probably write more about another time.
- I let people help me. So many of you helped me – with your kindness, your cards, your financial support, etc. – and there are not enough words to express my gratitude. Accepting help is a humbling and healthy thing, but it’s not something my ego let’s me do very often. When I accept help, though, I am reminded that I am not in this alone and I begin to see the world through a less self-absorbed lens.
- I played, slept, and did some deep relaxation. For the first few days, after I’d canceled my client sessions and gotten offline, I slept much more than usual. Then, when I felt rested, I found ways to play. Being barefoot in the sand at the beach helped a lot. I needed lightheartedness to remind me not to take the world quite so seriously. Thanks to a birthday gift from my daughters, I spent a whole day relaxing with a friend at Thermeaoutdoor spa.
- I prayed. When I get wobbly, as I did, it’s often a reminder to me that I am trying too hard to carry the world on my shoulders and not living from a place of trust. Reaching out to a Higher Power reminds me that I don’t have to do this all with my own strength. I have a powerful God/dess on my side, so why walk alone? Like a toddler who knows her parent is close by to catch her when she stumbles, I reached out my hand and let Her hold me. “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. S/he will not let your foot be moved; s/he who keeps you will not slumber.”
- I meditated. I’m not a very faithful meditator, but when I lose my equilibrium and my mind starts spinning in a hundred directions at once, I know that one of the only ways to find balance again is to plant my seat on my cushion, be still, and take deep breaths. It takes a lot of practice to still the racing mind, but slowly I’m getting back into the habit.
- I paid attention. The wobbliness was there to teach me what changes I needed to make in my life, so the first thing I did was slow down enough to pay attention. I paid attention to my body’s ache for more time away from the computer. I paid attention to what the persistent cough might be telling me about what was being stifled in my life. I paid attention to what triggered the tears and anger. I paid attention to how my breathing gets more shallow when I’m under stress and how I sometimes hold my breath. And I paid attention to how my needs were or were not being met. And then I responded accordingly.
- I cleared a lot of clutter. After years of neglect, our backyard had begun to resemble the wild kingdom. I began to tend it again, the same way I have been tending my heart – tearing out the seedlings that had grown in the wrong place, trimming back the hedges that were blocking the light, and pulling a lot of weeds that were smothering the beauty. At the end of hours of back-breaking labour, I put a circle of chairs around a small fire pit in the middle of the yard, under the canopy of ancient trees, and my daughters and I have enjoyed many hours of easy conversation around the fire.
- I let myself grieve. I reflected often on what David Whyte says in this short video clip… “One of the difficulties of leaving a relationship is not so much leaving the person themselves – because by that time, you’re ready to go. What’s difficult is leaving the dreams that you shared together. And you know that somehow, no matter who you meet in your life in the future, and no matter what species of happiness you will share with them, you will never ever share those particular dreams again, with that particular tonality and coloration. And so there’s a lovely and powerful form of grief there that is the ultimate in giving away, but making space for another form of re-imagination.” One night by the fire, after my daughters had made their way back into the house, I sat for a long time by the dying embers, grieving the flame that had died, grieving the shared dreams and the hopes that things would turn out differently. When the fire was gone, I got up and crawled into bed, alone and content.
- I dared to disappoint people in order to care for myself. This is a big one for me, as I have always struggled with a fear of letting people down. But I knew that I could not continue the way I was – trying to ensure everyone around me was happy so that my world would feel safe – and still be healthy and do good work. The words of Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s poem, The Invitation, kept going through my mind… “I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.”
Now, as I make my way back to my work and begin to consider what work calls me next, I am being more intentional about how I step back in. I am working on a deeper understanding of what it means for me to be “openhearted with boundaries”. I am trying to do a better job of managing people’s expectations (ie. if you don’t get a response from an email, please wait a few days). I’m looking after what my body tells me I need. I’m shifting the way I show up in relationships. I am being more careful to protect my energy, my health, and my heart.
I believe that, when I “put on my own oxygen mask first”, I’ll be better able to care for the people around me, and my work will come from a place of abundance rather than depletion.
I also believe that, once in awhile, it’s valuable to return to the legs and heart of a toddler, stumbling around trying to find balance, giggling at things that surprise us, crying whenever our emotions overwhelm us, reaching out to a benevolent grown-up for support when we need it, and exploring the delights of the world with unguarded eyes.
I turned fifty in the middle of my time away. Fifty is a good age to become a toddler again. It’s good to be standing on new legs as I enter the second half of my life.
In honour of my new toddler view of the world, I am currently perched about six feet above the ground in a tree in my backyard. There’s a great spot, in a tree that must be at least a hundred years old, where three massive limbs separate and create a natural nook, that I always thought would be a perfect place for a treehouse. I haven’t built anything permanent yet, but today, on a whim, I carried a ladder and some old couch cushions to the backyard to make myself a makeshift little nest where I can sit and hide and get close to the birds and the squirrels.
How about you? Are you wobbling around on toddler legs? Is it time for you to pause for radical self-care and perspective shift? Is it time to say no for awhile so that you can say a bigger YES to the world that awaits?
If you’re telling yourself that “it sure would be nice, but there’s no way I could do that”, you might want to take a look at your excuses and see if they are true or if they are wrapped up in a story about how the world simply can’t function without you at the helm. You may not be able to step away in the way that I did (I understand the demands of small children and full-time jobs), but you can find your own version that works within your current reality.
p.s. If you need some help finding your balance again, or working through the stories that keep you stuck in old patterns, perhaps I can help. I’m taking on a few new coaching clients.
I was walking home from the grocery store one day, about five years ago, when I saw the most unusual birds in the sky. They looked like mystical creatures straight out of Avatar and they were floating in large spirals across the sky. I didn’t realize they were pelicans until weeks later when I saw them again, close enough to identify.
I became captivated by pelicans. The more I watched them, the more I realized that they were teaching me something. When I watched them float in their giant spirals, moving slowly from one side of the sky to the other, I realized that their path represents the journey that we are all on – a spiral path instead of a straight line.
I used to believe that life was lived on a straight path. We take one step after another, always moving forward, learning, growing, getting married, having children, growing our careers, etc. I hung onto that belief for the first thirty-four years of my life until suddenly I knew it wasn’t true anymore.
A medical condition and failed surgery landed me in the hospital in the middle of my third pregnancy. For the next three weeks, in that hospital room, everything I’d ever believed was called into question and the world began to look very different.
At the end of those three weeks, I gave birth to my stillborn son. That event was the catalyst that changed me forever. From that point on, I let go of my hope for the straight path and learned to trust the spiral.
On the spiral path, sometimes we move in a forward motion, and sometimes we move back. Each time we spiral backward, though, we learn something new and we don’t go quite as far back as we did the last time. The net result is a slow but steady movement in the direction of our purpose.
Last year, when I was finally able to dive back into the memoir that had been put on hold when my mom died, I decided to call it The Path of the Pelican: Lessons from a short life. It’s the story of how my stillborn son, Matthew, changed my life. It’s the story of how I learned to lean into the spiral.
This week, I’m turning fifty (on Friday, May 20th), and it seemed like the perfect time to launch a crowdfunding campaign to finance the self-publishing of my book. But then some things started shifting for me in recent weeks, and I realized I couldn’t do it.
It took me a long time to admit it, but I can’t deny it anymore.
I am at the back of the spiral.
I am exhausted. I simply do not have the energy to launch a campaign.
I have lived the past year pushing into the forward spiral and making significant progress in my path across the sky. It’s been an incredible year of growth for my work, especially after my blog post went viral (and continues to have viral bumps). I’ve had more opportunities for public speaking, teaching, radio interviews, writing, etc., then I did in the first four years of my self-employment combined. I could hardly have dreamed of what this year would bring me.
But with all of those opportunities comes a great deal of expectation. On many days, my inbox feels like a tsunami wave of people’s stories, questions, and requests for support or advice. It feels wonderful and I appreciate it, but it also feels overwhelming, and some days, I lie awake at night trembling with the fear that I will let all of these wonderful people down.
If all of this came with a financial exchange, I would hire someone to provide administrative support and the workload would be more manageable. But much of it does not come with any money attached, and so I stumble through, trying to hold back the tsunami wave on my own.
Please do not read this as a complaint, and please do not feel guilty if you contributed to that wave. I am humbled and deeply grateful for all of it – every story that is shared, every request, and every connection made.
But these past few weeks, I’ve hit a wall and I need to be honest. I am making mistakes I don’t normally make. I am letting people down. I am finding myself, some days, standing in front of grocery store shelves in tears, unable to make the simplest decision. And many days, it takes every bit of my strength just to open my inbox.
Added to that mix is the stress of the dismantling of my marriage. These past few weeks, my husband and I have been trying to come to an amicable separation agreement, and most days, we’re managing to be kind to each other. But some days, there are old stories that are triggered. And some days, I lie awake at night wondering if I can count on my still fledgling business to pay for the mortgage on the house I’m choosing to stay in with my daughters.
And then there have been the other projects I’ve taken on this year that have nothing to do with my business or my family… like co-hosting race relations conversations and sponsoring a Syrian refugee family.
I am doing the best I can to juggle all of this, but right now, I need to let go of some of the balls that will bounce and do my best to keep the glass balls in the air.
One of those glass balls is my health, and it has begun to suffer. I have had a persistent cough since the beginning of March. A rather scary x-ray result showed a spot on my lungs. That was followed with heavy-duty antibiotics, but the cough has not gone away. My body is sending me a message that I need to listen to.
It’s time for radical self-care. It’s time to do what I so often tell my coaching clients to do, and what I wrote about in the follow-up to that viral blog post…hold space for myself first. I simply can’t be of service to anyone if I don’t replenish my own stores first.
For at least this week, I’ll be taking time off, canceling coaching sessions, putting an auto-responder on my email, staying off social media, and taking care of myself. I will sleep as much as I need to sleep, go for long walks in the woods, have lunches with supportive friends, and then celebrate my fiftieth birthday with an afternoon at the spa and a quiet meal out with my family instead of the big celebration I’d hoped for.
I have been on this spiral path long enough to know that when I trust the wind underneath me and let myself float backwards for awhile, I will eventually gain the strength to once again return to the front of the spiral. Some day soon, I will have what it takes to get my book published. Some day soon, I will finish the Mandala Discovery facilitators’ kit I have been promising people all year. Some day soon, I will launch the new product I had planned to launch in honour of my fiftieth birthday.
But for now, I will rest and replenish. And I will pause from holding space for so many people and let some of them hold space for me instead.
Thank you for your patience while I hit the pause button.
p.s. Because I know people will ask what kind of support I need right now, I will be honest and say that the best kind of support would be some greater financial stability so that I am able to take time off without worry. If you want to invest in my business so that I can return to the front of the spiral and continue to share my work, consider purchasing one of my offerings that takes the least effort for me to support… like Mandala Discovery, The Spiral Path, or Lead with Your Wild Heart. Or… (this takes some humility to include)… make a donation via Paypal.
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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection. I send out weekly newsletters and updates on my work.