Holding space for yourself in a time of social isolation and liminal space

Listen to me read this post at 
https://heatherplett.com/2020/03/learned-time-social-isolation-liminal-space/

The world is settling into an eery quiet in this new age of coronavirus. It’s hard to believe that a thing so small – a virus that is invisible to the human eye – could cause the most significant global disruption any of us has ever seen in our lifetimes.

We have no roadmaps for the future because none of us has ever been here before. Our internal GPS’s are on endless loops of “recalculating” – they’ve run out of maps and nobody has any way of programming them to anticipate the road that’s ahead of us.

The waves of emotion have been flowing through me and around me, sometimes threatening to drown me and sometimes settling into something more manageable that I can float on. 

Last week I found myself in parenting overwhelm, with one daughter having trachea surgery, another daughter losing a friend to suicide, and a third daughter dealing with the loss of an art show she’s worked all year to prepare for. This would be a lot to deal with at the best of times, but in the midst of this new and unfamiliar anxiety and uncertainty of what the future will look like, it felt like too much. It all came to a head when a police officer pulled me over for making an illegal left turn (which I’d done because I was distracted and overtired) and gave me a traffic ticket (while ignoring social distancing). The tears, rage, fear, and frustration spilled over as I drove away, and I didn’t bother trying to stop them.

Though I regret the traffic ticket that got me to breakdown, I don’t regret that moment of release, when I let myself scream and cry in the car (and text my sister for moral support). Like the release valve on a pressure cooker, it helped me settle into a greater sense of calm and acceptance.

This week, I’ve been having flashbacks to another time in my life when I had to live through a form of social isolation – a difficult time that became one of the most meaningful and transformational events of my life. 

Five months into my third pregnancy, I had to shut down my very busy life and confine myself to a hospital room. To try to deal with an incompetent cervix (i.e., it was suddenly 4 centimetres open), doctors attempted a cerclage (i.e., stitching it closed), but they failed and pierced the membrane instead. My unborn child was suddenly exposed and at risk of infection before he was strong enough to fight off that infection. My body – designed to protect a gestating child – was no longer able to do its job.

Medical professionals started pumping my body full of antibiotics and steroids (to speed the baby’s development) and put me on strict bedrest. I was told I wouldn’t be able to leave the hospital until my baby was born. He wasn’t due for another four months, so it felt like an impossibly long time to be confined to an unfamiliar room in an unfamiliar place.

In those early days, panic set in as I watched the whole world suddenly slip out of my control and away from my grasp. In some moments I had full-blown panic attacks – especially the first night when I listened to the screams of another mom down the hall as she realized the baby she’d just given birth to was dead. In other moments, I went into overdrive trying to grab ahold of anything that was still within my grasp to control. I had a full and busy life with a lot of people depending on me – two small children at home and a team of staff at work that needed my leadership during their busiest time of the year – I suddenly felt the urgent need to do EVERYTHING I could to help them survive my absence.

In some of those moments, anger arose alongside the panic, reminding me that I wouldn’t be in this place if it hadn’t been for two different doctors’ errors. The first error had come a week before, when I’d gone to a different hospital because of discomfort and a sense that my hips were shifting and my body was opening before it was meant to. (I’d already had two births, so had some sense of what it should feel like at that stage.) At that time, my GP had made the choice not to do an internal exam (which might have revealed the incompetent cervix at an earlier stage when it would have been easier to address). The second error was when the specialist in charge of my care allowed an intern to do the surgery and the inexperienced intern slipped and pierced my membrane with her sharp needle.

A few days into my hospital stay, the familiar sense of panic threatened to overwhelm me in the middle of the night. In the liminal space between sleep and wake, I found myself wrestling with a mysterious presence that I was sure was in the room with me. (I later said that I felt like it was similar to Jacob wrestling with the angel in the Biblical story.) After much tossing and turning and wrestling with the flood of emotions that passed through me, a question landed on my heart, as though the presence had spoken it out loud.

“Do you choose to stay in this state of fear, anger and resentment, or do you choose peace and forgiveness?”

I took a deep breath and considered the question. I felt justified in all of the big, dark emotions flowing through me, and I felt attached to them because they gave me some sense of power and self-righteousness. But I also knew that those dark emotions would not serve my unborn child. They would cause unhealthiness in my body which would be passed on through the umbilical cord to my child.

“I choose peace,” I whispered. “I choose to forgive the doctors for their errors.”

The moment I made the choice, the anger drained out of my body and the wrestling stopped. I fell asleep soon afterward and in the morning I woke to a new state of serenity and acceptance.

It wasn’t perfect – there were still moments when the fear came back and fed the anger – but that choice changed my whole hospital experience. Nineteen years later, I can now say that it changed my whole life. The seeds for everything I now do – this work of teaching and writing about holding space – were planted in that one moment, that one choice.

For the next few weeks, my hospital room became an unusual kind of spiritual retreat centre. I settled into a time of contemplation and inward reflection. I entertained long and meaningful conversations with friends, family, and the staff at the hospital. I hung artwork from my children on the wall and welcomed plants and flowers from friends. I listened to music on the Fisher Price tape player a friend lent me.

It was in that hospital room that I first became a life coach. There was a new quality to my listening, and again and again I heard from people that sitting with me for a few minutes of their day helped them work through things in their lives where they felt stuck. It wasn’t unusual for nurses, nurses aides, other patients, and even doctors to poke their head into my room and say “I feel drawn to the peacefulness of your space” and then they’d stay awhile or come back during their break. Many of them would remark that they felt different when they left – like something had shifted. Even the young intern who’d pierced my membrane came, weeping, to my room, and I offered forgiveness and told her I hoped that she would go on to become a very good and attentive doctor.

Though I didn’t have the language for it yet, I was learning to hold space. In letting go of the illusion of control and accepting what was, instead of trying to cling to what could have been, I’d found a new practice that would change my life and eventually become my primary purpose in life.

Three weeks into my hospital stay, after I’d fallen asleep with lullabies playing in my ear, I woke up to hear that they wanted me to go down earlier than usual for my morning ultrasound. (They checked in on the baby twice a day to make sure that he was peeing regularly. A functioning bladder meant that he hadn’t developed infection.) I walked downstairs feeling hopeful and content because, just the day before, I’d reached the stage where my baby was considered viable outside the womb.

The ultrasound technician had barely begun when she went completely silent. We were friends by then, so it was unusual for the chatter to stop. “I have to get the doctor,” she said and slipped out of the room. I lay there and began to panic again. When the doctor returned and moved the wand over my belly while looking at the screen, I knew, even before he told me, that my baby had died. Sometime during the night, bacteria had passed through my open cervix and ended his short life.

Later that day, I gave birth to my stillborn son. When I found out, after the ultrasound, that I’d still need to go through the labour and delivery process, I was overwhelmed with the unfairness of it. But a kind social worker told me that many moms of stillborn children had reflected later that the labour process was meaningful for them and that it allowed them to feel more like they’d given birth to a real child. She was right – it was excruciating, but it was meaningful. My son, just like my daughters, was nurtured within me and born through me and his life had meaning and purpose. He wasn’t just a fetus.

The grief in the next few weeks was painful and there were nights when I lay in my bed weeping in anguish (especially when my milk came in and I had no child to nurse), but it’s also true that the sense of peace that I found in the hospital stayed with me and helped me get through the times of darkness.

Nothing was the same after that. Something was awakened in me in that hospital room, and, though it took ten more years for me to find myself to this work, I had a new sense of purpose and calling that wouldn’t leave me alone.

Now, nearly twenty years later, I feel deep gratitude for my time in liminal space and social isolation. I was irrevocably changed by it, and it led me to this remarkable work that fills my life with purpose and joy.

It is likely that, with coronavirus disrupting your world, you are finding yourself in some of the upheaval, panic and loss of control that I experienced at the beginning of my hospital stay. If you are, let me offer a few suggestions, based on my experience.

  1. Remember that no emotional state is ever permanent. The feelings may feel enormous and scary right now, but they will pass. They always pass. Let them pass through you and don’t judge yourself for feeling big feelings. Feel them, label them, and let them pass.
  2. Take a deep breath and let go of whatever you can’t control. Our suffering is often rooted in the fact that we desperately want to feel some control over our lives, but that control is an illusion, especially in a time of such disruption. Clench your hand into a fist and release it – notice how it feels to let go and invite that sensation into your whole body. Do this again and again, as often as you need to.
  3. Notice what overstimulates you and limit your exposure to it. When I was in the hospital, I tried to watch TV one night, but found that it overstimulated my anxious brain, so I stopped and didn’t watch for the rest of the time I was in the hospital. I’m now noticing the same happening with social media occasionally, so I walk away and turn my attention to something more calming.
  4. Focus on the people in front of you. When you let the whole world into your consciousness, it can feel scary and overwhelming, especially right now, but when you focus on those you love, in your small circles, it feels much more grounding and comforting. This is a good time to narrow your focus. Hold space for those who matter most and trust that the others will find their people.
  5. Be still enough to allow your undiscovered gifts to come to the forefront. Sometimes, in times of great upheaval, when we quiet ourselves and tune in to the depths within us, we find resources that we didn’t know we had. Just as I discovered skills in coaching and navigating liminal space, you may discover you have a gift for leadership or baking or problem-solving or virtual hosting or serving your neighbourhood or…. whatever!
  6. Tend the space you’re in. Though I’ve never been the type of person who loves to clean or care for plants, both of those things felt meaningful to me in my small space. Tending the plants I’d gotten from friends gave me a surprising amount of pleasure and helped me feel grounded and peaceful. Right now, with many of us confined to our homes, the small spaces we’re in will need special tending so that we feel supported and held.
  7. Create a space for “cocooning”. As I said in last week’s video about liminal space, this time we’re in can be compared to the transformation of caterpillar to butterfly. Before we get to the new post-coronavirus world, we have to go through a phase of deconstruction and emptiness. In my hospital room, I had a large comfortable chair in the corner that I filled with pillows. That was where I curled up when I needed extra comfort and stillness. Now, during coronavirus, I have a similar spot near my window where I can curl up and feel the sun warm my body.
  8. Allow yourself time and space for processing and meaning-making. In the early days of disruption, your brain will likely be stuck in anxiety overdrive, and you won’t be able to do much higher-functioning processing until you’ve learned how to calm it. But once you’re ready, it can be very helpful to spend time processing your thoughts through journal-writing, art-making, dance, etc. The more you’re able to process it and make meaning out of it, the less it will get stuck in your body as trauma that you’ll have to deal with later.
  9. Connect with the people who matter most to you and let them support you. This is a time when we need each other more than ever. Even if we can’t be in physical contact with each other, we can still support each other and offer love and kindness in all of the ways that we can. It takes a special kind of vulnerability to get through liminal space together, but the deepened relationships that I enjoyed in the hospital tell me that it’s worth it.
  10. Notice what lands on your windowsill. When I was in the hospital, butterflies became special to me after my friend Stephanie gave me an article about a woman who saw butterflies as a representation of her deceased dad. After I read the article, butterflies started showing up in unusual places – including the windowsill of my fifth floor hospital room. In the years since then, they have continued to remind me of my son Matthew, and I receive each one as a special gift from the spirit/natural world. In the time of coronavirus, I wonder what special creatures will show up for each of us.

None of us knows the outcome of this time of disruption in the world. It’s quite possible that many of us will suffer losses and that we’ll have to walk through considerable grief and ongoing disruption. I wish I could promise you otherwise, but I simply can’t – not after grieving the loss of my son.

I don’t even know if it’s hope that I want to leave you with at the end of this article. Perhaps it’s something other than hope that we need right now – perhaps it’s more like courage and strength and resilience and new skills in navigating hard journeys. Perhaps it’s faith that we can survive this and that we have the capacity to weather the storms that this brings to our lives.

Whatever the future looks like, there is one thing that I feel certain of and it is this… we are meant to be connected to each other, and in this moment, I feel deep gratitude that I am connected to you.

Your companion in this liminal space,

Heather Plett

What it means to “hold space” for people, plus eight tips on how to do it well

by Heather Plett

excerpt…“What does it mean to hold space for someone else? It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.”

When my mom was dying, my siblings and I gathered to be with her in her final days. None of us knew anything about supporting someone in her transition out of this life into the next, but we were pretty sure we wanted to keep her at home, so we did.

While we supported mom, we were, in turn, supported by a gifted palliative care nurse, Ann, who came every few days to care for mom and to talk to us about what we could expect in the coming days. She taught us how to inject Mom with morphine when she became restless, she offered to do the difficult tasks (like giving Mom a bath), and she gave us only as much information as we needed about what to do with Mom’s body after her spirit had passed.

“Take your time,” she said. “You don’t need to call the funeral home until you’re ready. Gather the people who will want to say their final farewells. Sit with your mom as long as you need to. When you’re ready, call and they will come to pick her up.”

Ann gave us an incredible gift in those final days. Though it was an excruciating week, we knew that we were being held by someone who was only a phone call away.

In the two years since then, I’ve often thought about Ann and the important role she played in our lives. She was much more than what can fit in the title of “palliative care nurse”. She was facilitator, coach, and guide. By offering gentle, nonjudgmental support and guidance, she helped us walk one of the most difficult journeys of our lives.

The work that Ann did can be defined by a term that’s become common in some of the circles in which I work. She was holding space for us.

What does it mean to hold space for someone else? It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.

Sometimes we find ourselves holding space for people while they hold space for others. In our situation, for example, Ann was holding space for us while we held space for Mom. Though I know nothing about her support system, I suspect that there are others holding space for Ann as she does this challenging and meaningful work. It’s virtually impossible to be a strong space holder unless we have others who will hold space for us. Even the strongest leaders, coaches, nurses, etc., need to know that there are some people with whom they can be vulnerable and weak without fear of being judged.

In my own roles as teacher, facilitator, coach, mother, wife, and friend, etc., I do my best to hold space for other people in the same way that Ann modeled it for me and my siblings. It’s not always easy, because I have a very human tendency to want to fix people, give them advice, or judge them for not being further along the path than they are, but I keep trying because I know that it’s important. At the same time, there are people in my life that I trust to hold space for me.

To truly support people in their own growth, transformation, grief, etc., we can’t do it by taking their power away (ie. trying to fix their problems), shaming them (ie. implying that they should know more than they do), or overwhelming them (ie. giving them more information than they’re ready for). We have to be prepared to step to the side so that they can make their own choices, offer them unconditional love and support, give gentle guidance when it’s needed, and make them feel safe even when they make mistakes.

Holding space is not something that’s exclusive to facilitators, coaches, or palliative care nurses. It is something that ALL of us can do for each other – for our partners, children, friends, neighbours, and even strangers who strike up conversations as we’re riding the bus to work.

Here are the lessons I’ve learned from Ann and others who have held space for me.

  1. Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom. When we were supporting Mom in her final days, we had no experience to rely on, and yet, intuitively, we knew what was needed. We knew how to carry her shrinking body to the washroom, we knew how to sit and sing hymns to her, and we knew how to love her. We even knew when it was time to inject the medication that would help ease her pain. In a very gentle way, Ann let us know that we didn’t need to do things according to some arbitrary health care protocol – we simply needed to trust our intuition and accumulated wisdom from the many years we’d loved Mom.
  2. Give people only as much information as they can handle. Ann gave us some simple instructions and left us with a few handouts, but did not overwhelm us with far more than we could process in our tender time of grief. Too much information would have left us feeling incompetent and unworthy.
  3. Don’t take their power away. When we take decision-making power out of people’s hands, we leave them feeling useless and incompetent. There may be some times when we need to step in and make hard decisions for other people (ie. when they’re dealing with an addiction and an intervention feels like the only thing that will save them), but in almost every other case, people need the autonomy to make their own choices (even our children). Ann knew that we needed to feel empowered in making decisions on our Mom’s behalf, and so she offered support but never tried to direct or control us.
  4. Keep your own ego out of it. This is a big one. We all get caught in that trap now and then – when we begin to believe that someone else’s success is dependent on our intervention, or when we think that their failure reflects poorly on us, or when we’re convinced that whatever emotions they choose to unload on us are about us instead of them. It’s a trap I’ve occasionally found myself slipping into when I teach. I can become more concerned about my own success (Do the students like me? Do their marks reflect on my ability to teach? Etc.) than about the success of my students. But that doesn’t serve anyone – not even me. To truly support their growth, I need to keep my ego out of it and create the space where they have the opportunity to grow and learn.
  5. Make them feel safe enough to fail. When people are learning, growing, or going through grief or transition, they are bound to make some mistakes along the way. When we, as their space holders, withhold judgement and shame, we offer them the opportunity to reach inside themselves to find the courage to take risks and the resilience to keep going even when they fail. When we let them know that failure is simply a part of the journey and not the end of the world, they’ll spend less time beating themselves up for it and more time learning from their mistakes.
  6. Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness. A wise space holder knows when to withhold guidance (ie. when it makes a person feel foolish and inadequate) and when to offer it gently (ie. when a person asks for it or is too lost to know what to ask for). Though Ann did not take our power or autonomy away, she did offer to come and give Mom baths and do some of the more challenging parts of caregiving. This was a relief to us, as we had no practice at it and didn’t want to place Mom in a position that might make her feel shame (ie. having her children see her naked). This is a careful dance that we all must do when we hold space for other people. Recognizing the areas in which they feel most vulnerable and incapable and offering the right kind of help without shaming them takes practice and humility.
  7. Create a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma, etc. When people feel that they are held in a deeper way than they are used to, they feel safe enough to allow complex emotions to surface that might normally remain hidden. Someone who is practiced at holding spaceknows that this can happen and will be prepared to hold it in a gentle, supportive, and nonjudgmental way. In The Circle Way, we talk about “holding the rim” for people. The circle becomes the space where people feel safe enough to fall apart without fearing that this will leave them permanently broken or that they will be shamed by others in the room. Someone is always there to offer strength and courage. This is not easy work, and it is work that I continue to learn about as I host increasingly more challenging conversations. We cannot do it if we are overly emotional ourselves, if we haven’t done the hard work of looking into our own shadow, or if we don’t trust the people we are holding space for. In Ann’s case, she did this by showing up with tenderness, compassion, and confidence. If she had shown up in a way that didn’t offer us assurance that she could handle difficult situations or that she was afraid of death, we wouldn’t have been able to trust her as we did.
  8. Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would. Holding space is about respecting each person’s differences and recognizing that those differences may lead to them making choices that we would not make. Sometimes, for example, they make choices based on cultural norms that we can’t understand from within our own experience. When we hold space, we release control and we honour differences. This showed up, for example, in the way that Ann supported us in making decisions about what to do with Mom’s body after her spirit was no longer housed there. If there had been some ritual that we felt we needed to conduct before releasing her body, we were free to do that in the privacy of Mom’s home.

Holding space is not something that we can master overnight, or that can be adequately addressed in a list of tips like the ones I’ve just given. It’s a complex practice that evolves as we practice it, and it is unique to each person and each situation.

It is my intention to be a life-long learning in what it means to hold space for other people, so if you have experience that’s different than mine and want to add anything to this post, please add that in the comments or send me a message.

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This post continues to travel around the world and has been shared in many interesting places, including a Harvard Business Review article, Beyond Automation, and a Grist Magazine article, 48 hours that changed the future of the rainforest. I have done a number of radio interviews, developed workshops, and spoke at conferences on the subject. If you are interested in having me speak at your event, check out my speaking page. If you are interested in a retreat or workshop, check out the one coming up in Australia, or contact me about creating a workshop tailored to your organization’s or event’s needs.  

This article has been translated into a number of languages (by volunteers):
Portuguese
Turkish
German
Russian
Farsi
Spanish
Italian
Chinese

Follow-up pieces about holding space:
How to hold space for yourself first
What’s the opposite of holding space?
Sometimes holding space feels like doing nothing
Sometimes you have to write on the walls: Some thoughts on holding space for other people’s personal growth
On holding space when there is an imbalance of power and privilege
Leave space for others to fill your needs
What the circle holds
An unresolved story that I don’t know how to tell
Holding liminal space (moving beyond the cliché into deeper space)