Feeling helpless? Hold space

It is so hard to see someone we love hurting and to feel like we’re helpless in how to be there for them in the pain and suffering. Trauma expert, Judith Herman, says “Recovery can only take place within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation." What does she mean by this? As people, we are deeply connected to our shared humanity and relationality. We are born into a context; a unique intersection of time, space, family, culture, and worldview. This ultimate reality of “embeddedness”, makes it apparent that relationality (the process of relating to self, other, and the world) is central to both hurting and healing. Our greatest wounds are most often interpersonally inflicted, as well as interpersonally healed.

However, this interpersonal healing process can easily turn into over-helping, compassion fatigue, or burnout. There are risks to the person being helped as well, such as loss of autonomy, sense of self, and choice. Hence the plight that Gabor Maté highlights, “Where do I end, and another person begins?”

The notion of “holding space” is a way to combat helplessness in an incredibly profound way. Holding space for someone means to bring your full self and presence to them. It is walking alongside someone in their journey, without passing judgment or prescribing the destination. You are willing to be a person who accompanies and at times guides, rather than someone who directs, carries, or picks up the pieces for someone else.

Holding space for another person means to create room for a person to trust their own intuition and wisdom, to not make someone feel inadequate or unworthy by jumping ahead of where they are at, empowering them to come to and make their own decisions aligned with who they are and what they value, to keep our own pride and ego out of their failures or successes, to foster self-compassion for making mistakes and learning, to be a safe person able to make space for complex emotions, to know when to help and when to not. True help is only doing for someone what they cannot do for themselves.

A good space holder is someone who recognizes that it cannot be done uni-directionally. Holding space means bringing your own self to the relation; to be present with your experience and emotions as well. That boundary between where I end and you begin is not a wall that separates us, it is a bridge that brings us closer and allows for relationship; for without it there is nothing defining me from you and you from me. There can be no relationship when there is no “other” to relate to. The profound depth of holding space is that I need to be me, you need to be you, uniquely our own persons, so that we can be “us”.

Pain and the Problem of Numbers

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Our society really likes to measure things. How efficient are you? How successful are you? How many likes do you get? How much do you weigh? How many degrees do you have? How much productivity can you squeeze into 24 hours?

Sometimes I wonder if all of these measurements are in place in order to keep us feeling secure. Without these numbers we'd be forced to look inward, to encounter ourselves and ask, "what is worthiness if it cannot be found in a measurement?" 

Chronic and terminal illnesses throw a wrench into our system of numbers, measurements, and estimations. Our "security system" is breached, dismantled, with the alarm bells of anxiety and self-doubt ringing. The pain and illness bearer recognizes the wall of achievement that can no longer be climbed, perhaps due to physical limitations. This wall towers overhead, leaving the onlooker often in despair realizing it cannot be climbed. 

Sometimes this realizing takes a long time. You try to figure out how possibly you could surmount the wall, to get back into the game of life how you used to play it. Maybe you experience an eclipse of your pre-pain self and the first moment your body feels better, you are over-zealous and push yourself, only to come to a halt again as your body says "I cannot". 

A numbers-based time economy isn't the only economy, and your body is switching over. You realize you have a vitality economy now, marked by the energy that you feel. Vitality means: the power of giving continuance of life, which is present in all living things. This new economy begs the question, "how do I find continuance of life when I cannot climb the wall in my path?"

The reality of chronic and terminal illnesses is that the pain and limitations are present, with no foreseeable expiration date. Self-care has surfaced as the means to not push your body and mind to exhaustion. Being in pain is psychologically exhausting; bearers of physical pain often say that this tyranny of the mind is worse than the pain itself. Pain and suffering are related, but different. The pain isn't the suffering, the suffering is the quest to climb a wall that cannot be climbed.

What if we could throw out our measuring sticks, the things that have been lending us security for all these years, and turn inward to encounter ourselves? Perhaps then we can find our values, meaning, and purpose - an existence prescribed by who we are rather than the world around us. We would no longer be borrowing time and security from the numbers economy. We would be encountering and generating our own vitality economy from within. To truly live a life aligned with a deeply known value of personhood, we turn from looking to the wall to tell us who we are, to encountering who we are within. Regardless of if we have 10,000 days left on this earth or 1. 

If you're feeling stuck, or struggling to find your vitality and continuance of life amidst your pain or illness, there are ways that counselling can help you.