Creating Space

One thing that we have observed consistently with recovery is that for many people it can require a considerable amount of your attention and energy. This may sound obvious, yet it is amazing how many people aren’t truly giving themselves the time and care they need to recover.

For many people, because they aren’t able to be as active as they used to be, they assume that they are resting – but seem somehow not to be getting the results that they would expect. In truth, for many people when we look at how they are actually spending their time and energy, very little of it is focused on what we call ‘real’ healing. Without that, our bodies simply do not get the energy they need to do the healing necessary, and crucially, the activities – or lack thereof – such as resting, meditating, nurturing physical activity, even juicing and following a helpful diet, just don’t happen.

So let’s look at what we mean by creating space, and how we might be getting in our own way:

Physical space:

Creating physical space means carving out the times and places to do what you need to do to recover. This is likely to include two ‘sections’ or types of recovery activity; pure and simple rest – which means sleep or time in bed, meditation or listening to relaxation CDs – and recovery ‘activities’ as appropriate – yoga, juicing, working on your recovery using the tools you have learned….and so on. All of these require committed, defined time, and they also, for the most part, require an appropriate place where you won’t be disturbed.

Creating the time and space for this is a definite commitment to yourself. It means truly prioritising both yourself and these necessary activities, above and beyond anything or anyone else. Here are some typical ways in which patients tend to get ‘tripped up’ in creating physical space:

The ‘Achiever’:

The achiever is used to running their lives according to what will get them to their next goal as quickly as possible. Everything is centred around feeling like they have accomplished something worthwhile – and worthwhile is often defined in terms of external achievement rather than an internal sense of wellbeing.

The achiever who is still working – even if no longer full time – will often still be putting work above everything else. While we understand entirely that work and income are vital, this can often mean that this patient is very stuck, maintaining a level that is allowing them to work but not much else – because there is no time and space to focus on healing or to allow the body to really recover. This can mean some decisions have to be made about priorities – either changing and reducing work schedules, or sometimes just re-thinking how you are going about your day.

The achiever who is not working will often still be acting as if they are. This means focusing on to-do lists and getting everything ‘done’ in the house and/or family environment – or having targets of what activities they need to have achieved each day or week. These lists tend not to include real rest, or real relaxation – if they do, they are often ‘scheduled’ between many other activities and not really given the time and space they need.

The issue with all of this, of course, is that real recovery is not featuring as a priority – they are still living in their achiever mindset, even if they are limited by their physical situation – the goals have just got smaller! Even if there are requirements of you which you have to complete on a daily basis, your mindset has to shift to make health and how you are going about your day, your number one priority. This is often more of a mental shift than anything else – but your behaviour will then sometimes just subtly alter accordingly, and the combination is very powerful in terms of your recovery.

Beyond this, there is a deeper level to creating ‘space’ for recovery. Often in getting sick, what we have done is to create so much ‘stuff’ and so many to do lists that we – who we are, our needs, what we truly feel or want – get lost behind and within them. Our duties, who we should be, what we should do, overwhelm us, to the point where arguably the only way for our ‘selves’ to find a way to communicate is to create the conditions where we are forced to pay attention. ME/CFS does this very effectively. So creating space literally means creating the time, place and the emptiness which will allow us to find ourselves again – this, truly, is what a healing state is.

It is worth noting, of course, that some achievers shift their focus of achievement to recovery activities – achieving at recovery, essentially. Although this can be an improvement, it has its own pitfalls, as usually this approach is not really coming from a very ‘healing’ state at all – and as we will discuss later on, this tends to mean that even supposed healing activities are being done in a state which is not really benefiting your body as much as they should or could.

The ‘Faffer’:

A great term – faffing is essentially procrastinating, avoiding everything you actually need (and often know you need) to be doing – and getting caught up in anything that passes instead. Though this may sound similar to the achiever, the mindset is different – the faffer will often start off with the intention of doing ‘good’ things that day; resting, juicing, doing yoga…..but find themselves getting caught up in often unhelpful activities instead. For the faffer, the day just seems to ‘disappear’ – and at the end of it, not much has been achieved, and certainly not what you intended! One common pitfall is getting caught up in watching TV, or surfing the internet, answering emails……even washing up!

The key is that energy that needs to be going to recovery, to rest and to helpful and supportive activities is instead being wasted elsewhere…..there is nothing wrong with watching TV, or answering emails or washing up – but they aren’t the priority. The key is to do whatever we are doing mindfully and consciously. If you choose to use your energy to wash or clear up, great – do it deliberately and feel good about it. If you want to watch something that will uplift you, or connect to a friend online, do it consciously and enjoy it. This is very different to getting ‘lost’ in mindless activity which saps your energy and at the end of which you feel numb and exhausted.

Essentially this is actually an avoidance technique – just as much as lists and goals are for the achiever. Usually there is a level of fear or resistance to doing what we know will help us, and it is helpful to look at this in more detail, perhaps by examining your beliefs, as discussed in our previous A-Z, or by speaking to someone who can help you to see what is underlying your pattern of behaviour and how to change it.

The ‘Helper’:

The helper’s main issue is creating boundaries around their time and space. They may well mark out the space for themselves, but if someone else needs it or needs them, then all their best intentions are abandoned in favour of helping that person. This is especially tricky when you are living with people who need you – where you are a carer in some way, or a mum or dad. The family’s demands are immediate and obvious, and hard to ignore. However, as we always say, you must put your own oxygen mask on first – in other words you are no use to anyone unless you are looking after yourself.

It is a tough truth that no-one will really be able to put your needs first unless you do; you cannot count on your friends and family to automatically know or understand that you need rest – you will often have to be the one educating them, at least initially. The good news is, that when you do create boundaries, and look after yourself first, people who love you will (in general) come to both respect them and work within them – and even help you keep them in place.

One patient was rigorous about having her time in bed every day, but never ever closed the door. Consequently, her children assumed they could run in, ask mum for what they wanted, or just chat to her – even though they had other carers with them when she was in bed. So her ‘time out’ was never really time out at all! It took her explaining and closing her door, and within days, her children had happily learned that this was time when mum was being quiet, and they would play downstairs……

The key with all of these ‘avoidance’ techniques is learning to prioritise and value your space and time to heal above everything else…which leads us neatly to the next kind of ‘space’ that we need to heal……

Mental/Emotional space:

Even when the above mum closed her door, she had another obstacle to overcome – and that was releasing her sense of guilt and responsibility for her children in those hours. Even though she had the physical space to rest, her mind was going over what the children were doing, did they need her, were they missing out, was she a bad mother………Essentially, then she was nowhere near the healing state she needed to be in to recover.

We can create all the physical space in the world, but if our minds are constantly busy and worrying, or if we are allowing ourselves to be constantly emotionally drained by those around us, then the physical space alone will not create healing.

How do you know if you need to create ‘mental/emotional’ space? Here are a few pointers:

  • You find yourself constantly thinking/worrying/writing to do lists when you are meant to be resting, meditating, listening to relaxation CDs
  • You find it impossible to ‘turn off’ your head throughout the day and never feel rested even when you have had a ‘rest’ day
  • You feel guilty or stressed when you take time out for the healing activities we have mentioned – like you should be doing something ‘useful’, or like you are being selfish in some way
  • You are constantly thinking about or worrying about your family, friends, kids, and find it hard to focus on yourself, even when you have the supposed ‘space’ to – you might be re-running conversations with them, worrying about how to deal with a situation, thinking about how you could help them, or just feeling inadequate or stressed about your relationship with them
  • You have people in your life who seem to drain you consistently – even if you are not necessarily seeing them or spending much time with them regularly, and a conversation or visit will set you back and exhaust you

All of these, or variations of them, are indicators that you need an emotional and mental ‘clearout’ to create the space you need for you. There will be pointers in each of these ‘A-Zs’ as to how you might achieve this, but it is also worth noting that for many people having some support and techniques to do this can be invaluable, which is where working with an experienced practitioner can come in. Recognising what is getting in the way of you having space to heal, though, is a very good first step!

So, creating space is about putting yourself first, in every way – truly valuing yourself and your need for time and space to heal, and recognising the vital importance of healing activities in your recovery. Getting caught in the patterns that get in the way of this space is very normal, but seeing them and finding new mindsets and approaches to support yourself to heal is essential to getting where you really want to be.

Time and again when we work with patients and help them to see what they are making more important than recovery – be it other people, the washing up, that TV soap or even work – and ask them to weigh that up against their recovery and health, the choice becomes obvious. So check in with yourself, see what your priorities truly are, and whether your use of time and space reflects that. If not, have a think about how you could create changes so that you are really on track. Because when it comes to it, recovery is an equation – the more time you give to healing (REAL healing rather than horizontal worrying!) the better and more efficiently you will heal.