Holding and Being Held with personalized LKM phrase

heart_in_hand_2_200.jpgVery often the best innovations are born out of collaborations. That is the case with the exercise we want to share with you this month, which we call “Holding and Being Held.” This exercise evolved from one I used when teaching “Abnormal Psychology” to help with perspective taking. Our friend and colleague, Robyn Walser, Ph.D. took that original exercise and modified it to use in pairs in her training workshops. We loved Robyn’s modification. The version you will see here is modified even further for use first in our AWC trainings and now in our “Big Heart, Open Wide” class. We hope that some of you will also be able to add your own modifications to best suit your purposes. And we’d love to hear from you if you come up with versions that you think work well.

“Holding and Being Held” is an exercise that can be used in trainings, group therapy, or even in individual therapy. The version below is worded for use with groups.  This exercise utilizes the power of perspective taking to help individuals get in contact with their values around how they would want to treat themselves when they suffer, particularly when they suffer with shame and self-criticism. Because we have such a strong emphasis on LovingKindness Meditation (LKM) in our Big Heart, Open Wide class, we have added an optional “Part 2” to the exercise that incorporates some of that LKM work. You can simply leave that part out if it doesn’t seem to fit for your purposes.

Holding and Being Held with personalized LKM phrase

Part 1:

  1. [Get people into pairs and asked them to sit facing each other. Also have them get a piece of paper that they can write on.]

  2. [Give each person a couple minutes to write about an event or aspect of themselves that they feel shame around. Ask them to write about their feelings relating to this event as well as any thoughts or evaluations they have about it. Let them know that they will not be sharing any of the content of what they wrote in the exercise. You can use the following script for instructions:]

    Think about that one thing in your life, it might in your history, it might be something about you or your identity, that you would NOT want others to know. This may be something you feel significant shame about. You may fear that if others found out they would think differently of you. Probably several things come to mind, and what I’d ask of you is that you choose something here that is a bit of a stretch for you, not something that completely overwhelms you or results in you shutting down, but something that is sticky enough that you definitely do not like thinking about it. And I’d like you to take a few minutes to write about that thing on the sheet of paper. No one is going to read what you write. No one will see it or ask you to talk about it. Write about how you feel about this event or aspect of your identity. What thoughts do you have when you think about it? Just take a few minutes to write about this part of your history or identity. [Pause]… I notice some of you are hesitant to write about this thing, notice that, and recognize that hesitation is normal. It’s also OK to shield what you are writing so that you are sure that no one else will see it. It’s a respect to yourself to control who gets to know private things about you. Whatever you do, just write down a few things about what it is that you keep hidden because it feels shameful or that it makes you damaged or bad in some way. [Give them a minute or so to write]…

  3. When you’re done, fold up the piece of paper a few times and hold it in your hand.

  4. [Wait for everyone to be done writing and make sure the pairs are facing one another, each holding their own piece of paper]. Notice what it’s like for you to be in in contact with that thing, this part of yourself or your history. Notice any urges you have… any thoughts or judgements you have. [pause] We’re now going to do an exercise relating to gently holding another person’s shame and also being open to another person’s compassion towards those aspects of yourself that you feel shame around. The first thing I would like you to consider is, would you be willing to hold your partner’s piece of paper? Consider that this piece of paper describes events or aspects of themselves that this person finds disdainful, perhaps even things they would consider as horrible or terrible things about themselves.

  5. Now notice that your partner is thinking about the same thing in relation to holding your piece of paper with what you wrote on it.

  6. Now, if you’re willing, hand your piece of paper to your partner. See whether you can let go of the sense of wanting to do this "right." If you find your mind talking about this, or evaluating it, just notice that your mind is doing that, and then come back into the room and get in touch with the exercise.

  7. Notice what it’s like to hold your partner’s shame…. What kind of feelings are you having? What kind of thoughts? Are there any urges? See if you can notice each of those as they arise and allow them to come and go.

  8. Notice what it’s like to realize that your partner is holding your piece of paper. What kind of feelings are you having? What kind of thoughts? Are there any urges? See if you can notice each of those as they arise and allow them to come and go.

  9. As you return your attention to the fact that you are holding your partner’s piece of paper, consider, how do you want hold your partner’s shame? Knowing that this person can be quite harsh with him or herself related to whatever is on that piece of paper.

  10. Realize that this person is looking back at you wondering about the same thing….

  11. What has to change about the person you are looking at for them to be a whole, complete person? And once you have the answer to that, why would it be different when applied to you and your experience?

  12. Now, offer the piece of paper back to your partner.

  13. Now that you’ve taken back your own piece of paper, notice what it’s like to receive it back. Is it any different now than the first time you held it?

  14. And given how you wanted to be with your partner’s shame, how do you want to hold your own..?

  15. [Give them some time to debrief with their partner.]

    Part 2 (optional):

  16. Take a moment to find a comfortable position in your chair and just get settled into the room. You might put a hand over your heart as a reminder to be present with whatever is happening right now with kindness. You might close your eyes if that brings you more ease. Turn your attention to the wavelike sensation of breath, wherever you can feel that the most easily… chest, belly, nostrils, or the body as a whole, sitting here breathing.

  17. See if you can notice any physical sensations of tension, tightness or discomfort your body may be carrying for you after facing your shame by writing it and allowing it to be held. And notice any difficult emotions that are with you right now. Do you sense any nervousness or apprehension, shame or self-consciousness, fear or frustration? Any other difficult emotions?

  18. See if you can turn toward the tension or the difficult emotions as you would turn toward a beloved friend. See if you can turn toward yourself because of the tension or difficult emotions if they are there.

  19. And now, dropping into the sensations and the emotions and just listening… Experiencing whatever is happening right now in your heart center… ask yourself this question and really listen for an answer… What is one thing I long to hear right now? What is it that I long to hear whispered in my ear every day of my life?

  20. This is a practice of lovingkindness. You are identifying what is it that you might wish for yourself in response to your shame. It can take the form of words or an image. Take a few moments to offer yourself the words you long to hear in the form a wish. If you long to hear, “I love you just as you are,” you can give yourself the words, “May you be loved as you are.” If you long to hear that you are doing a good job, you may give yourself the words, “May you know your worth.” If you long to hear that your shame is acceptable, you might wish for yourself, “May every part of you be loved.” Possible images might be something expansive like the ocean or sky that can hold your difficult emotions, or maybe an image of someone or something warm and compassionate holding you. Experiment for a few moments with letting your own words or image arrive.

  21. And now, take another moment to bring your awareness back to your breath… the sensation of your body sitting in a chair… and take your time to return your attention to the room when you are ready.

  22. [Debrief as a group]


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