If you’ve been a parent for a while, or maybe even if you haven’t, you probably saw an article on Holding Space making the rounds of online communities a few years ago. In the article the author, Heather Plett, describes how she and her siblings were able to hold space for their dying mother in her final days because a palliative care nurse held space for them.
The article outlined some principles of holding space, and I think it really resonated with a lot of people – possibly because so many of us wish we had been held in that way, and we find ourselves trying to hold space for others in that way without a lot of guidance or support.
I kept that article in the back of my mind, and last year I took Heather’s 9-month in-depth course on holding space, and she’s just released a book called The art of holding space: A practice of love, liberation, and leadership. In this episode we discuss what it means to hold space for others as parents, and how to raise our children to be able to hold space for others.
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Hi, I’m Jen and I host the Your Parenting Mojo Podcast. We all want our children to lead fulfilling lives, but it can be so hard to keep up with the latest scientific research on child development and figure out whether and how to incorporate it into our own approach to parenting. Here at Your Parenting Mojo, I do the work for you by critically examining strategies and tools related to parenting and child development that are grounded in scientific research and principles of respectful parenting. If you’d like to be notified when new episodes are released and get a FREE Guide to 7 Parenting Myths That We Can Safely Leave Behind, seven fewer things to worry about, subscribe to the show at YourParentingMojo.com. You can also continue the conversation about the show with other listeners in the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group. I do hope you’ll join us.
Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. If you’ve been a parent for a while, or maybe even if you haven’t, you probably saw an article on holding space making the rounds of online communities a few years ago. In the article the author Heather Plett describes the death of her mother and how she and her siblings were able to hold space for her mother, because a palliative care nurse was holding space for them. The article outlines some principles of holding space. And I think it really resonated with a lot of people possibly because so many of us wish that we had been held in the way that in that way. And we find ourselves trying to hold space for others in that way without a lot of guidance and support.
And so, I kept that article in the back of my mind. And then last year, I took Heather’s nine-month in depth course on holding space. And she’s just released a book called The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation and Leadership that she’s here with us to discuss today. Welcome, Heather.
Thank you, Jen. It’s good to be here.
And we should mention we were just chatting beforehand. Heather was mentioning her voice is a little raspy today because she’s in the middle of recording the book for the audio edition. So that should hopefully be available very soon. And I also just want to mention before we get started that we may mentioned today, some topics that might be difficult for some people to listen to. These could include the topics of suicide and stillbirth. And so, we’re not going to delve deeply into them. But if you’re in a place where you would find hearing about these topics, any more than I just mentioned them any disturbing to you in any way, you might want to consider listening at a time when you feel well resourced, or perhaps with a friend.
So that said, Heather, I wonder if you could start by getting us on the same page, and maybe just helping us to understand what does it mean to hold space for someone?
Well, holding space is really what we do when we show up for somebody without trying to control the outcome of whatever they’re going through, without placing our judgement on them or projecting our own narrative on them. It’s really trying to hold them in a way that is fully supportive of the journey that they’re going on and giving them the autonomy to be going through their own journey.
Okay, and so you describe that as structure, kind of three nested bowls, right? Can you help us to picture those bowls and what that’s made of?
Sure. So, I’ve been evolving this concept of being the bowl for people and being the bowl is really about supporting somebody through their liminal space, I talk a lot about liminal space as the journey they’re going through. And they’re in transformation, really, between some old story and a new story. And in the middle of that they need some kind of containment, some support, as they kind of deconstruct their old narrative, and get ready to evolve into the new narrative. And so, the bowl really evolved as the primary metaphor kind of for explaining that. And I’ve developed this three-layered bowl, initially, it was just one layer, but with time, and the more I taught it, I recognize them, some other qualities were needed. So, in the three layers, and the inside is what you’re offering to the person, you’re holding space, and there’s a number of qualities there. And then what guides you your kind of internal guidance system of what’s guiding how you hold space. And then what supports you is the outer layer of the bowl.
Okay, and what are some of the really key characteristics of maybe we’ll start with the internal layer, and then move to the external layers as we continue the conversation. And so, what are some of those key characteristics of that inner layer?
Well, some of those things are compassion and connection is really offering you know, love and compassion to the other person. There’s also selective guidance. And I use the qualifier selective in front of some of these quite intentionally because I want to really help people understand that it’s, it’s not giving them tons of guidance, but it’s being using your discernment to pick only the little pieces of guidance that they need. You mentioned the palliative care nurse, for example. And she came with a little bit of guidance to help us understand the process of mum’s dying really is what we were supporting. And she just gave us you know, one or two handouts kind of and a little bit of information, she didn’t walk in with a whole textbook full of guidance on what to expect when a person’s dying because that would have overwhelmed us.
And then there’s also things like selective nonjudgement. And there’s another one where I added the word selective in front of. Initially, I was talking about nonjudgement but then I realized there are times when we do need to use our judgement, we need some discernment. For example, if someone comes to us and tells us they’ve been breaking the law, well, we need a little bit of judgement to support them and making a wise decision to turn themselves into authorities or make reparations for whatever they’ve done. So, and that’s where we come to kind of the middle layer of the bowl. The middle layer is where we’re discernment lies, making those good decisions, and intuition using our intuition to sense what’s needed in that moment.
Okay. And I was just thinking, as you’re talking about the idea of offering some support, but not everything that you know about a subject. I think that’s so critical in so many aspects of relationships, and even teaching that I’ve always remembered one of the most effective lectures I ever attended in my undergrad career was it, it was a guest lecture by someone who was talking about schistosomiasis disease, that’s, I remember the basics of it. But it was, you know, passed on to people through a worm infection. And he kind of gave us just the amount that we needed to know. And then the Q&A at the end, it became clear that the depth of his knowledge on this topic was incredible. And he had so deliberately curated exactly what we needed to know and didn’t attempt to tell us ‘Well, everything I know’ about schistosomiasis. And it seems as though that kind of resonates with your experience with the palliative care nurse, and she knew so much.
And she also knew what you needed.
Yeah, very much so. And this is where really, the practice, I talk a lot of in my book, and in my work about learning to hold space for yourself, because when we’re in that position of holding space for another person, we have to hold ourselves back, sometimes we have to, you know, soothe ourselves so that we won’t project our own stuff on to the other person. And you know, and that requires holding back some of our wisdom, because we may know really, really well we’ve been through the situation they’re in, etc. But that’s not what they need at that moment. Because if I dump all this knowledge on them, there’s a good chance they’ll feel a little bit of shame for not knowing as much as we do, they’ll feel that you’re superior to them or whatever, it’s going to turn into a less helpful situation for that person. So like you say, just offering and even sometimes asking what they need, like telling them I do you know, I have some experience in this, would you like to hear from my experience, or just holding back and letting them have their emotional experience first and then saying, you know, once you’re ready for it, let’s talk a little bit more, I have a few things I’d love to share with you.
So, it’s using that quality of discernment and caution around not coming in with a dump truck full of knowledge and dumping it on.
Right. And so, I want to get back to something that you mentioned very early on in that definition. And that’s the concept of liminal space, which is really central to this. Can you just tease apart a little bit? What is liminal space? And what kinds of situations is that refer to?
Yeah, so liminal space, it comes from anthropology and in anthropology, there’s a term “Limin” which means the space in between. And really what they, the way they started using this term, and defining it was when they were researching cultures, where they would have rituals around some transition points in a person’s life. For example, if somebody was coming of age, a young person was emerging into adulthood, they were researching these rituals at these transition points. And notice the threshold ritual was really important part of the ritual was the space between the old story and the new story. So it wasn’t just a crossing directly to the new story, that the ritual would include them going into the woods for a vision quest, for example, or going away for some silent time or there was something that marks that time, because there really is this space of emptiness in between what once was and what will be. And the metaphor that I’ve really adopted for this is the process of the caterpillar turning into the butterfly, because in between, it doesn’t go directly from caterpillar to butterfly, it has to go through this chrysalis stage, which is a really, it deconstructs into this messy, this gel apparently inside the chrysalis. And that’s kind of reminiscent of what we do when we are transitioning and that it’s very vast what this can imply to. It could be when your children are moving away from home or it could be when you’re giving birth or changing a job or getting a divorce or there’s so many different liminal spaces. I think right now we’re kind of globally in this liminal space that the pandemic has kind of thrust on us. We’re in between, you know, what we used to know as reality and what we don’t yet know and understand.
Yeah. And just the breadth of the kinds of circumstances you just described. I mean, this is something that’s prevalent throughout our lives. And I was really surprised to see that you quoted in the book and surprised and interested, I guess, that you quoted Franciscan friar and author Richard Rohr, and he described liminal space, I’m going to read his quote, “When you’ve left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It’s when you are finally out of the way. It’s when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. It is no fun.” And it’s that last part, it is no fun. I was so struck by that because change is the one constant thing in our lives. It’s the only thing that we can be sure of. And yet we get so hung up on this search for stability in the search for holding things comfortable and stable. And it’s just impossible to do. And I’m wondering, why haven’t we developed better skills for dealing with liminal spaces? And I guess implicit in that is the question, why do so many of us learn about this concept through your viral blog posts? And not because this is something that is just handed down to us as a part of our culture?
That’s a really good question. And I wish I knew a succinct answer for it. I think there’s a lot of layers, I think that there’s this human nature to just want things cleaned up and not messy. And so, we look for the cleaned-up version of our lives we’ve created it’s really cultural, though, too, especially in Western cultures, I find. I’ve travelled a fair bit in more developing countries where they were their messiness upfront. Like they don’t hide it the way that we do. But we’ve developed this cultural value around perfectionism around you know, not showing our messes. We don’t invite people into our homes when they’re messy, we clean up our front yards, I was wrestling this weekend, for example, with my environmentalist daughter wants me to leave the leaves on the grass because it’s more environmentally friendly. But I’m noticing my next two neighbors have both cleaned theirs, raked theirs clean…
Oh, cause the line.
Exactly, I’m wrestling with being the messy yard. And this is the cultural value that we have about being, you know, showing our best front. And I think there’s many layers to that, I think some of it is our capitalist culture, we can always buy more comfort, we can always buy more ease, we can buy things to replace the broken things in our lives. And, you know, to some degree, capitalism in the marketing system around it has helped foster that in our culture, because we always need to buy more to replace things and to fill our void, etc. We’re not supposed to have uncomfortable lives, we’re supposed to buy the newest and most comfortable and, you know, etc. thing and so. So, there’s so many layers of complexity. And when I think about even in our classrooms in our school, like, when our kids are in high school, we’re pressuring them, what are they going to be when they grow up?
In high school? My daughter is getting questions and she’s six.
They’re supposed to have their lives planned out for them. Yeah, like, yeah, it’s really kind of ridiculous that we’re not talking to them at that stage, about the complexities of life and about how they’re going to have to learn to be resilient and weather the storms, and it’s not just going to be an easy path to some magical career and this, you know, happy family.
Yeah. And it just a couple of points to pull out further and what you said, I’m just thinking of funerals in other countries where, I mean, people are just exposing the rawness of their soul. And funerals here in western countries. I mean, it’s very buttoned up and I might escape and maybe there would be a little bit of crying, but you got to keep it. You got to keep that locked down, right?
Yeah, no. And we, with my parents have passed, and we tried to do things a little bit counterculturally, actually. And you refer to the palliative care nurse who was there supporting us with mom dying. And one of the things she said, for example, is that you can keep your mom’s body in the home as long as you want. You don’t have to call the funeral home right away. And it’s funny, but that was a surprise to us. Like we just had this assumption that you got to clean up the body right away. And we’ve built those kinds of, and so we didn’t call right away. We kept her body there and let her like her sister and significant family members come and sit with her before we called the funeral home and also with my dad, when he passed, my brother really wanted to be the one to cover the coffin with the dirt shoveled the dirt onto the coffin. And for the rest of us, it felt, oh, that’s not something the family should be doing. You know, there’s this just this weird cultural, and yet we chose to do it and it turned out to be really, really meaningful practice as a family to do this. So, yeah, we have to mess with convention sometimes to be in the mess of the complexity of life.
Yeah. And what you said about your mom and you don’t have to call a funeral home right away reminded me of when my daughter was born. And you know, the accepted way is okay, immediately after she’s born, she gets whisked away and weighed and checks and all the rest of it. And it was the doula that we hired that said, you know what, you don’t have to do that you can request some time before that is done. And so, we did that. And that was such a special memory to me of that period of time when I mean, that’s an incredibly profound liminal space in many women’s lives.
And then just, we’ve talked a little bit about death and I also want to make the point that liminal spaces can happen with changes that we might traditionally think to be positive as well like a new job that you’ve hoped for over a long period of time. And maybe it puts you in a different role related to people in a different way. And that changes how they see you and how you see them and what you’re doing. And it seems as though that’s a really overlooked liminal space, because we’re supposed to project this, oh, yeah, I have a new job, and I get paid more money, and everything’s great. And that’s not always the case.
It’s true, liminal space can be I can remember times when I would go through a significant change, and you know, something I was really looking forward to. And then I’d find myself and some grief over it’s like, well, this isn’t right. I’m not feeling this. But the fact is, there is you’re always leaving something behind. So, you are allowed to grieve something you’re leaving behind. Even if it wasn’t something that you really loved, you still have maximum grief coming up. And that’s why I would offer some reservations even to the Richard Rohr quote, you know, it is no fun. Well, you know what, maybe in some moments that actually is fun. So I think what I really encourage people to do is allow for all the emotions in the liminal space, because there is great complexity in that transformation, and sometimes maybe even some fun and maybe even some joy and delight and helpfulness. And, you know, and then from there, you’ll swing into despair and grief. And it is a time of really allowing all of the emotions to surface as they need to surface.
Hmm, yeah. And I think that is pretty uncomfortable for us Westerners as well.
Yes. We do like our comfort.
We do, yeah. And just not showing other people what’s going on. And even not necessarily knowing ourselves what might be going on with us and not being in touch with that. And the idea that, I mean, something I’ve talked about a number of times on the show is that my body has things to tell me about my experience, that until probably a little over a year ago, I had no idea. I had absolutely no idea. And it seems as though bringing that aspect of the experience in is really necessary to understanding the full range of your experience.
Yes, I can very much agree I was looking for the right word, I can relate to what you’re saying, I come from a tradition too where I was really disconnected from body really disconnected from emotions, really. And even. I’ve shared that in the book that when I was divorced, but five years ago, and after my divorce, I suddenly had this real strong awareness that I didn’t really know how to articulate my own needs. I’d spent the last 22 years paying attention to the needs of my former husband, my children, people around me, I didn’t know how to articulate my needs, I didn’t even really have a strong connection to my own emotions, because I was so attuned to everybody else’s around me, and, and so yeah, some of this work really is about self-exploration and digging down to figure out, who am I and how do I hold space for myself first, so that I have the capacity to hold it for other people.
Yeah, yeah. And you talked about not being able to articulate your needs. I think for some people, it can even go one step further. Like, it’s not even that I can’t articulate my needs. It’s that I don’t know what my needs are. I’m so disconnected from my own experience that I don’t even know what my own needs are. And in some ways, I think this goes back to the patriarchal culture that we live in where understanding yourself understanding your needs is sort of considered this feminine quality. We’ve put these arbitrary distinctions on qualities that are either masculine and valued, or feminine and not valued. And the understanding of your physical experience and your needs is something that is supposed to be very feminine, when we all have needs, and we all need to express them.
Yeah, and I don’t it’s interesting that you say that it’s a feminine quality because in truth, I’ve found a lot of women on the feminine spectrum, they do have great capacity for identifying it in others but not necessarily in themselves. So, I think maybe it’s a feminine quality in terms of recognizing the needs of everybody else. But maybe what’s really happening is we’re burying our own and that’s losing touch with our own identities, our own sense of purpose and what we need.
Yeah, yeah, I have an interview coming up on the topic of maternal ambivalence. And we’ll be delving into that a little bit more there. So I do want to go into a little bit more about what it means for parents to hold space because one way that I see that phrase used in parenting circles most often is when children are having big feelings, which would might traditionally be called a tantrum and the parent is trying to hold space as it were, for the child’s feelings. And it seems as though that’s getting to part of the definition of holding space, but it’s not really all the way there. Do you see it in the same way?
Yes, I think you’re right, I think that’s part of it. And I think we have to be really, that’s a learning practice for all of us as parents to hold space for the big feelings, but then also holding space for their transformation their day to day learning and growth. And we talked earlier about the selective guidance and not giving them too much information. And like your professor that only gave, you know a little snippet of what he thought you needed. This is the holding space for our children every day is letting them learn at their own speed, letting them figure out the world and choosing sometimes to withhold our own wisdom and our stories so that they have the experience of uncovering for themselves. You know, when you think about help supporting your child, when they learn to walk, that’s an act of holding space, because you’re supporting them and stepping back and not doing it for them. And you’re allowing them to have that experience of learning on their own in a supportive environment, of courts. And you know, when they’re toddlers are learning to walk, you keep the sharp edges a little further away. So, you do create that sense of containment, but you’re not controlling it.
Hmm. Okay, so it seems as though me, I’m just thinking, Okay, how can I make it so that my daughter doesn’t learn about this concept from a viral blogpost.
And it seems as though a lot of the practices that were already engaging in as respectful parents who were sort of trying to work with their children to set boundaries and know to say what my boundaries are, and just say, okay, you child have a right to have boundaries, as well. and a variety of other practices like that is kind of setting the stage for a relationship where we will be holding space for them some of the time, and they will be not when they’re very young, but they will eventually be holding space for us and for other people as well. Are we doing that? Are we approaching that in kind of the right way? Even if we’re not using this language of holding space?
Absolutely. I think it’s mostly about the modelling. And you’re respecting their right to consent, for example, their right to say no, and you’re really communicating with them that I’m going to support you. And if you don’t want this support, you have a right to ask me not to support you. So, communicating that allowing them to have healthy boundaries, and helping them to understand what those boundaries are. And they’re going to pick it up, you know, and I even though I’ve written all this about holding space, I don’t talk about it that much with my children. And then all of a sudden, I discovered they’re using the language without me really, you know, offering it to them. I’ve heard them talk using the language. Not that long ago, my 18-year-old was talking about how she was really trying to hold space for her best friend who was in the process of losing a job and was really anxious about that. And, and it came very naturally out of her mouth to talk about that. And you might think it’s because I intentionally taught them about holding space, I really didn’t, it was just more in the modelling about what they’ve witnessed and the, you know, the regular conversations we have.
Okay. And there was one particular aspect of it that I wanted to spend a little more time on, which is the idea of allyship. And it seemed as though that could be especially useful when we’re talking about relationship with young children. How can parents be allies for their children?
Yes, allyship was one of the later additions to that list, actually, because I felt like something was missing. I added allyship because I think we need to be in this practice of using our power and privilege in support of other people, but using it effectively so that it’s not that we’re bowling over them and doing it for them again, like, for example, if a child has a struggle with one of their teachers, you can be an effective ally, hold space for them to unpack what’s going on with it to talk through the issue, etc. And then you can stand by them as they go to the teacher and communicated, and if they need support, you may go with them to a meeting or now these days on Zoom. But if not, you know or just helping them to have the language so that they can communicate effectively to the teacher. It’s different than taking over and fixing the problem for them. It’s walking alongside them and supporting them in finding their own solutions.
Hmm. Yeah, I think that’s such a powerful idea when it comes to interacting with children, because the tendency is to, we just want to make it easier for our children, right? We don’t want them to have to struggle when actually, this part of struggle is, it’s not just normal, it’s desirable that there be some kind of struggle, because if we make it so they don’t struggle through their whole life, then will they learn how to struggle later on?
Exactly. And I suspect that right now, with this pandemic going on, a lot of people are discovering that their children are not very well equipped for times of disruption and struggle, because we have, again, a cultural thing is to create safety for our kids. We’ve made safety, especially in North America, I think I sometimes I travel in Europe, and they kind of make fun of the North American parenting style of really, you know, focusing so much on our children’s safety, keep making overly safe environments, and their playgrounds, and their classrooms etc. And, and it is a little bit out of balance. Because if the child is in too safe environment, they start to take that for granted, and they assume their life is always going to be safe and easy. Well, we all know that that’s not going to be the case. And so they need to have some access and we need to be able to talk about those things early on and not just fix their problems for them so that they have some resilience and capacity to handle the really difficult things that will inevitably come to all of us.
Yeah, yeah. Oh, gosh, what you said about the pandemic showing us, this reminded me of something I think it was a New York Times article that was describing teenagers who were not able to attend their traditional high school graduation, because the schools were closed down and, and they were just absolutely heartbroken over this, they felt they’d been cheated out of this experience that was due to them. And there was very little sense of resilience of being able to put this in perspective. And it really struck me that they I mean, yes, it’s an important rite of passage. But there was no sense of “Okay, well, what else can we do to help us through this transitional period? How else can we celebrate ourselves? What other resources do we have here?” It was a real lamenting of this one thing that I’ve set my mind on that I was going to have, and I’m not allowed to have it?
Yes, yes, I actually had my youngest daughter graduated in June and during the height of the pandemic, and so I was in the midst of that exactly what you’re talking about. And I noticed there was this pattern that there were a number of parents that were trying really hard to recreate what a normal graduation would be. They were gathering all the students in their fancy gowns for photo opportunities. There was some one of them rented out a golf club to host a big party. They were really trying to build and recreate what a normal grad would be in. And while I appreciated their efforts, there was also that oh, you know, that typical parenting thing of I’ve got to make this easy and good for the child instead of how can I support my child and actually adapting to what’s going on?
Yeah, yeah. And so, I think that this concept of holding space is even more flexible. We’ve talked about the parent-child relationships. But it can be even more applicable in relationships between parents, both parents who are in coupled relationships, as well as parents who are friends who are supporting each other in a non-romantic relationship. And we did an episode on parental burnout recently. And my guess is that holding space would be a massively useful concept in helping someone to get through something like that, as well as potentially even preventing it in the first place. And so, I’m wondering, what are some tools that we can use when we see a parent who is clearly struggling in some way? And maybe we are the spouse of that parent. Maybe we’re the friend of that parent. What kinds of tools can we bring to bear in a situation like that?
Sometimes I think the best tool is to help them name it. Sometimes, if we can articulate what’s going on, sometimes that’s the first step in resolving it. And so sometimes it’s just a matter of can offering to have a conversation, I recognize something’s going on for you. And I wonder if you’d like to talk about it and giving them opportunity to just talk themselves through it and articulate, oh, I’m really overwhelmed. I’m burnt out, I have this resentment of my other parents or whatever it is, that that gives them the space for just processing and working through it. And if we can listen and be present in a way that’s supportive of them, that may be the first step in them helping rebuild their structures so that they feel better supported. I think that’s Yeah, that’s one of the most important things I would advise
The other thing that comes up in this work a lot as I often say that the closer you are to a person, the harder it is to hold space for them often. Because when we are in an intimate relationship with somebody, you know, in, in holding space, we really talk about, can I let go of the outcome on the other person’s behalf, whatever their outcome is, can I let go, let them have their own outcome. But if I’m in an intimate relationship with someone, I suddenly really am attached to their outcome, because it’s going to directly impact me. Whatever, you know, if we’re co-parenting, that person makes a decision, it’s going to have an impact on me, Well, now, there’s a great deal more risk involved for me holding space for this person. So, I’m going to want to control the outcome, give them advice, etc. So one of the things that I say to suggest is, if you find yourself too close to the situation, that may be a time when you have to suggest to them, I really want to support you, and I see you’re going through something. And I recognize that I’m a little too close and you know, may just muddy the waters. So maybe there’s somebody else you can talk to help them find a therapist or coach or another parent they can talk to, sometimes it’s you know, recognizing that and just showing the support, but recognizing you’re not the right person for it.
Mm hmm. Yeah. And one of the most powerful things that I think I’ve experienced having been in such a liminal space over the last year or so I have a friend who’s been incredibly supportive of me through this process, and she’s probably listening and she knows who she is. And she almost never suggests something that I can do, the thing that she spends the most time doing is asking questions. And at the end, at the end of the call, she’ll sometimes say, Well, I don’t feel like I really did anything. Do you see that paradox a lot, where the person who is doing the holding space is doing something that to them doesn’t feel as though it’s actually doing very much into the person on the receiving end? It’s just the thing that helps them to process what they’re going through.
Absolutely, all the time. In fact, early on in this work, I wrote a blog post that said, that was called, sometimes holding space feels like doing nothing. And that’s really because holding space often is about withholding ourselves from the situation so the other person can have their experience. So, if I’ve got to, you know, bite my tongue regularly in a conversation in order to hold space for you, it may feel like I’m offering you nothing. But what I am offering you is a space where you’re not feeling judged, and where you’re feeling like you can process things and you’re receiving good questions that help you unpack like you say about your friend. That’s exactly it. Can I ask a question that you maybe haven’t thought to ask yourself? One of the best ways to hold space for that person? And I think we all need to get more and more practice that at that act of doing nothing as we show up for other people.
Yeah. It’s very tempting to want to walk in and share everything we know isn’t it? As we talked about. And then it seems as though that we’ve talked a lot about the middle section of the bowl that you describe as your sort of visual analogy. And then there’s the next section is what guides you section, right? And for reasons, I think that we’ve already discussed a little bit that that one, I think, is the hardest one, it was at least for me to grasp, just because it does rely on these traits that are sort of more associated with feminine energy, which is less important in our culture. And I think intuition and humility, whether those things that came to mind, do you see it the same way? And how can we help people to get more comfortable with that middle section of the bowl?
Yeah, so those are things like intuition, discernment, humility, courage; I can’t remember if there’s any I’m missing. I need to attack those in front of me, because of interviews. And really, I think they’re a little bit hard to grasp, because it’s not something that you can learn in ten easy steps. Those are all things that have complexity to them. They’re all things where you really have to learn to trust yourself, when you’re using your own discernment, for example, and humility. Well, who wants to sign up for a course on being more humble? None of us are rushing to sign up for that course.
So, there’s this, yeah, there are qualities there that are challenging for all of us. And they’re all qualities that have increasing depth as we get older. And as we learn more, and none of them are simple. You know, if I take this course, I’m going to master this quality. No, it’s something that we’re getting better and better at the more we pay attention and learn.
Hmm, yeah. So, it’s more of more of a continued practice than a thing to learn.
Yes, exactly. That’s why I’ve as I’ve been developing the coursework around this, and you’ve mentioned taking the course with us and we’ve just this year launched our certification program in holding space. And it took me quite some time to really develop learning curriculum and practice for this because it is so much about practice. It’s about showing up and doing it. It’s not something that you can learn in ten easy steps or be tested on at the end of the year, etc. It’s just it’s really deepening practice,
Okay. And then the outer of the three sections of the bowl and the things that support you as you hold space for somebody else, what are some of those things?
So, there’s only two things in that outer circle. And I call that mystery and community. And mystery is just this quality of whatever is bigger than us. And whether spiritual language works for you, you may call it god or goddess or Allah or Buddha, whatever concepts work for you. Or if you don’t use spiritual language, it may be the universe, the earth, the natural world, you know. Whatever is outside of us that’s bigger than us is involved in that mystery of just recognizing that we’re being held by something beyond us. And that’s where humility comes in to recognize that greater force in the world. Call it love if that works for you.
And the other one is community and I think those are really closely intertwined. Community is, whatever the greater community you have in support of you. Your own family, you know, when you hold, let’s say, I show up, in my job, as a coach, I’m holding space for someone and then I need to be able to come home and unwind with my beloveds – with my friends with my community. And to some degree, that’s also I include our ancestors in there who got us to this place, or it might be your animal, you know, your pets, or if you’re a farmer, it might be your sheep, or whatever that are holding space. The bigger community that you’re part of that supports you and helps you be resilient.
Hmm. And you also had mentioned in the book about slow journeys as being a recuperating mechanism for you as well, right?
Yes, this is something I’ve really come to practice more and more is, how do I slow things down so that I have time to process especially after I’ve done a big retreat or workshop, I almost always will book an extra day, somewhere in a quiet place. I will even take trains home instead of planes. Sometimes when I used to travel, of course, right now, everything is closer to home. But I do that intentionally really to just give my mind time to unwind from this work, because we do a lot of emotional labor when we’re holding space, especially if we’re teachers or retreat hosts. And we need to release that. It’s kind of this gradual releasing process of whatever energy you’ve taken on in that process.
Yeah, yeah. Okay, I’m wondering if we can shift gears a little bit and talk a little bit about boundaries. And you write about the importance of holding space for ourselves. And I think a big part of that is related to boundaries. And by the time this episode is published, we will have released an episode which is an interview with Xavier Dagba, where we talk about boundaries and what they are and why it’s so hard for us to create and hold them, in many cases, because our own parents didn’t model having boundaries at all. And so, I’m wondering if you can tell us how you see the practice of boundaries of creating them and having them and holding them relates to this work of holding space? And how can we get better at doing that?
Yes, boundaries are so important to this work, because, A, we need to understand the other person’s boundaries so that we can offer them the autonomy that we talked about earlier on. And we also need to honor and respect our own boundaries so that we know when we’re at capacity when we’ve done too much work, and we need to step back, or when someone is doing us harm and we need to put up a boundary to protect ourselves from that. So what I’ve developed in the second section of this book, really, as I was working on this concept of boundaries; I didn’t love the term boundaries [it] felt a little rigid for me, and I love the concept, but there was something in it, that didn’t quite work. And so I was really kind of looking for some other way other language of defining this and what’s emerged for me, and what I write about quite a lot in that section is this concept of membranes, and I call it the psychic membrane. And where this came from, I was having a conversation with my friend, Beth, and we were talking about our cellular membranes, how the cells in our body really teach us how to have healthy boundaries. And there’s a lot of fascinating qualities to a cell membrane. You know, it’s semi permeable, so it’s letting in some of the nutrients it needs. It’s keeping other things out that are not viruses or, you know, different things that are not healthy for a cell. It’s maintaining homeostasis, which is really an equilibrium like if the pressure builds within a cell, it’s going to release some things so that it builds equilibrium with what’s outside the cell. And it has sensors on it, telling it what’s the approaching things, whether those are safe or not. And a cell membrane has the capacity to become more rigid when it needs to keep things out. If your body develops a fever, for example, the heat tells the body that it’s time to become more rigid because there’s viruses travelling around out there, we got to keep those out.
So, this really helped me develop this understanding, if we are all held within the container of a psychic membrane, then we’re paying attention to those senses. That is really the intuition that’s telling us, you know, this person causes you harm, you need to be more rigid in your boundaries, so you’re not going to share as much with them, you’re going to say no to them, if they ask for things that don’t feel healthy for you, etc. And so, it’s learning to pay attention to those signals. And you talked about being disconnected from your body earlier. And that’s one of them, our body sends us a lot of signals about where we feel safe, and where we don’t. When we learn, and when we really lean into practicing an understanding of that, then we get better at being healthy and maintaining what we need to keep us healthy.
Yeah, so it’s a lot of again, about understanding yourself then right? And then using that understanding to inform your interactions with other people.
Yes, absolutely. Because if I don’t understand myself, then I’m going to be inclined to project my own stuff onto other people, or I’m going to misunderstand them, because I’m going to make assumptions that they’re the same as I am, etc. But so yes, a lot of this work is really, and this is why in the course, that I teach the eight-month program, the second module is on holding space for yourself. And people are often quite surprised by that module, because they don’t expect such deep work is necessary to do…
I remember that moment.
And yet, it’s inevitable, we have to go into our own stuff, unpack some of our own baggage in order to be better at holding space for other people.
Yeah. And I think another area where this comes up is boundaries, that I mean, you talked about the viruses, and the boundary becomes less permeable, when there are viruses around and I know I have a number of listeners who have difficult relationships with various family members and aren’t really sure how to navigate that process. They want their children to have interactions with these family members, because they’re family, but at the same time, maybe the parent is finding it very difficult to have these ongoing interactions. And even the interactions with between the family member and the child are continuing to be very difficult. And so just knowing where to have a boundary and that kind of really multifaceted relationship can it seems like it’s really hard.
It is yes, that can be really complicated. And I understand that challenge. And I’ve had to work through it with my daughters in some regards, as well. And one of the things I’ll say about it is there are no perfect ways to do this. Everybody is complicated. The people we’re in relationship with are complicated. And so, cut yourself some slack, because you’re not going to find the perfect solution for the problem. You’re going to navigate it the best way that you can. And learning how to be a more effective communicator is one of the ways that I suggest that people navigate these things. There’s a I just quoted very briefly in the book, but there’s, I think his name is Bill Eddy, he has a book called, oh, it’s about dealing with high conflict individuals. The advice that he gives for communicating with people who tend to be high conflict, and those are the people who are quite reactive, or coercive or manipulative or passive aggressive, whatever those situations are, he says, adopt a communication style that uses the acronym B.I.F.F., B-I-F-F, Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. And it’s just such a clear way of, Yes, I don’t need to give them too much information. I don’t owe them that. And yet, I can still be friendly, I can be firm and state what I need to state and not get into that messiness of always being in a debate with them, or whatever it is.
Yeah. And that kind of leads us nicely to the idea of hijacking space, which is something that you’ve added more recently to your thinking on this into the model. And I think it’s something we probably all do at times. And I was actually wondering if I did too, you already know. Before we started, we were just you were explaining how your voice is raspy because you’ve been recording and I wanted to kind of empathize and yeah, there are periods of time when I’ve done days of recording for courses. And I just thought, Oh, my goodness, did I just hijack Heather’s space by telling her that? And so, I think we all have this tendency to do it all the time, and especially with our children, because we kind of feel we know what’s the right way to do something. And we’re going to support them in that way, when actually, their need for support is very different. And they don’t want to be supported in the way that we think they should want to be supported, or that we would want to be supported. And so, I’m wondering, I get you… feel free to tell me if I did hijack your space. In the parent child relationships, specifically, since there is that additional dynamic there, how can we know if we’re hijacking space from our child?
Oh, such a complicated question and I’ll tell you right off the bat, I do didn’t experience it as hijacking.
I let you off the hook there. Because I don’t think there are clear lines of what is and what isn’t. And this term hijacking this really evolved. Somebody asked me quite some time ago, what’s the opposite of holding space. And I really wrestled with it and had a few different terms I played with and landed on this one of hijacking space. Because when we hold space, we’re offering the bowl, we’re holding the bowl for them. When we’re hijacking. We’re really putting the lid on the bowl; we’re controlling the space. And now we’re directing what’s going on in the space. And so hijacking, I mean, how do we know when we’re doing it with our children? I’ll be honest, right up front and say that two weeks ago, I totally hijacked space on my daughter. And she didn’t tell me. And two weeks later, I sense that there was some resentment going on. And she finally admitted it a few days ago. And I totally screwed up in the conversation. And she was right, I’d messed up. And so you know, I’ll say that even though I’ve written the book on it, I’m still regularly finding myself in situations where I’m inadvertently hijacking space, especially with my daughters, because we do want them to have good lives, we want to give them good advice, we want to, you know, ease their pain sometimes. And that’s what this was a situation where she was really struggling with something, and I offered the solution far too quickly and didn’t hear the actual pain that she was going through. And it’s usually out of some good intention. We have, especially as parents, and so it’s just practicing and one of the important things is allowing your kids to have the language helping them adopt the language that they can tell you how they feel about it, giving them permission to say, Mom, in this moment, I don’t feel you’re listening to me. That’s a powerful tool in a child’s hands. And how much did any of us have permission to say that to our parents? No, I can’t imagine articulating that. But I’ve tried to create an environment where with my kids, where they’re allowed to challenge me, they’re allowed. And I share some examples in the book where one of my daughters called me out for being passive aggressive, for example, and my first reactivity was to deny it, and then I had to agree, okay, I actually, I understand how you receive that as passive aggressive. And here, let me try to express it in a new way. So that can be one of the best tools is just allowing them, you know, the space to communicate what they need, and how they’re being impacted by what we say.
Yeah, I think that’s such an incredibly important idea. And it’s something it’s so difficult for us because yeah, we grew up in a world a lot of us were, we were not allowed to challenge our parent in any way. I mean, it didn’t matter what our feelings were, or what our parents said, right? It didn’t even matter if we had any feelings, that whatever they said was the thing that was going to happen and there was no space for any other interpretation. And that’s not to say, I mean, the other idea is, well, if we don’t do that, then oh, we’re going to swing over to permissive parenting, and oh, my child says they’re upset about this thing that I did, well, then they say they need ice cream, they’ll have ice cream, whatever is the thing that they say they want. We’re not talking about that. We’re just talking about allowing this space for it to be okay for them to express how they’re feeling. And even if that’s related to how we communicate to them. I have a listener who has a four-year-old who will say something like, you know, “Mama, I don’t appreciate it. She didn’t say I don’t appreciate I don’t like it when you speak to me in that raised voice. And it scared me when you said it in that way.” And then her mom says, “Oh, I’m so sorry that that happened. I didn’t mean to scare you. And how can I express that I was worried that you were going to fall in a way that would help you more next time.” And I mean, the first time hearing that I’m guessing a lot of parents have a feeling that feels like an enormous climb down for a parent. But what it opens up in the relationship is profound.
Well, I mean, you and I both said that what took us a long time as adults to recognize our needs and our emotions and to really express ourselves. Well, that’s because we didn’t get permission when we were children. I can only be hopeful that our children, we’re giving them these opportunities to be more articulate and to honor how they feel and what they need. And you know, they’ll have more capacity as adults and won’t need to discover this when they’re in their 40s or 50s. Whatever stage.
Yes, that will be a nice world. So as we sort of head towards a conclusion, I want to talk about something you called the spiral of authenticity, which you say came out of a realization that you had when your son Matthew was stillborn. And you said, I’m going to quote, you found yourself wondering, “Where did I go wrong? How did I end up making so many choices that don’t align with my real interest, values, and desires? How did I end up a 34-year-old who doesn’t know who she is?” And I think that again, goes back to the conversation I had with Xavier Dagba, where we discussed the same idea that you described. The safety and belonging take precedence over this expression of unique identity. And I think that the implications for how we raise our children if we want them to have a different kind of experience than the one we had, is so deep. So I wonder if we can just kind of draw a conclusion here for parents who are listening to this and thinking, Okay, what are the most important ways that I can ensure that my child is having a different experience from the one that I had, and that they understand this concept of holding space, they know that I am here to hold space for them, and they will have the capacity to hold space for others as they move forward in life?
I think one of the answers to that is in the one of the bowl qualities, which is bearing witness is really about seeing and witnessing the other person as a whole and unique individual. And that’s what we can do for our children, if we allow their identity to be expressed early on, and not shame them for it and not try to hide who they are, that can go a long way to helping them live more authentic lives. Because as I express in this concept, you’re talking about this spiral of authenticity. We early on, like we have those three primary needs safety and belonging and identity. And early on, many of us learn that in order to maintain our safety and belonging, we have to give up pieces of our identity and live in ways that aren’t authentic to us because we got to follow the rules of our home, we got to do certain things to keep our parents happy, our teachers happy, etc., etc.
Well, if we can create environments where that child’s identity can be expressed early on, where we don’t shame them for the emotion of the big emotions, you said earlier, those kinds of things where we allow the expression of the emotional experience to be held, well, if we’re doing our best, and we’re going to mess up occasionally, but if we do our best to not squash that early on, I hope that they will have an easier time later in life and won’t find themselves as disconnected from themselves as I expressed in that story.
Yeah. Well, the book is called The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation and Leadership. And I wonder if you can tell us what’s the best way to find you want that once people have read the book, how do they keep in touch with you? What’s social media are you most active on? Or does it all flow through the Centre for Holding Space these days?
Yeah, so I’m most active on Facebook. I tend to be in Instagram I’m also on everywhere you can find me as Heather Plett, but we’re also evolving Centre for Holding Space. And so, a lot of like the book, for example, is housed at CentreForHoldingSpace.com. Our programs are all housed there. The training that we do. I still have my own website, HeatherPlett.com is kind of my author website. But if you’re looking for the content, a lot of it is moving is navigating over to Centre for Holding Space.
Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming and sharing that with us. Going through the course was really a pretty profound experience for me. And I’m so glad that you’ve written the book to share it more broadly with the world as well. So, thank you so much.
Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
And so, you can find a link to Heather’s book as well as to the Centre for Holding Space at YourParentingMojo.com/HoldingSpace.
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About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.