What with the scale and scope of change to our daily lives, the worries about ours and others’ health and livelihoods, there is understandably a lot of heightened emotion in the air right now. Whilst supporting and caring for our families, friends, neighbours (and patients, service users and clients depending on who we are) is absolutely the right thing to do, we also need to think about our own personal resilience. How much of other peoples’ stuff can we absorb before it affects our ability to offer the support we want to give? Until it impacts on our own mental health?

Back in 2018 I wrote a blog post about ’80s movies, specifically the lessons we can learn from them, because back then a coaching client said I should get the question ‘what do you want in your dance space?’ emblazoned on a tote bag. The movie I was referring to was, of course, Dirty Dancing,

There are some amazing lessons in ’80s teen movies: not just ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ (Breakfast Club) or  ‘be true to yourself – don’t try to be something you’re not ‘(Some Kind of Wonderful).

Honestly, the scope for future blog posts is endless, but Dirty Dancing is the one that is jam-packed full of lessons for me.  Picture the scene where Johnny is coaching Baby on her posture:

This is my dance space. This is your dance space. I don’t go into your dance space and you don’t go into mine. You gotta hold the frame’

And there it is. There’s something very powerful in keeping the integrity of your personal dance space, the stuff you allow in, which boosts your resilience, helps you stay focused, and ensures there is space for you to fill your tank so you have more to give to yourself and others in the long run. I’ll explain:

Imagine you are going about your day and a colleague, family member, friend is not having such a good one. Fairly common just now, right? They, unconsciously or consciously, send their emotional ‘stuff’ to you, maybe they just have a bit of a rant. No problem. But maybe they vent their emotions by being aggressive, defensive, passive aggressive, or simply just exuding negativity, which by the way is all very understandable right now – no judgement here. But projecting their own emotion onto you, into your experience or dance space, feels different to them simply offloading into the atmosphere.

Often, we take on this ‘stuff’ from other people without questioning it, whether that’s absorbing the negative vibes, or fully taking on board feedback fuelled by emotion, rather than level-headedness. We do it all the time.

But, and this is the important bit, we have a choice about whether we accept that stuff, whether we welcome it into our metaphorical dance space, or whether we say quite firmly, (and to ourselves preferably), ‘No. That’s your stuff, it stays in your dance space.’ Which means, ‘I hear you, this stuff is hard right now and your emotions are understandable, but your emotions are not about me, or what I’ve done or not done, they are about how you are feeling, and remain owned by you.’

We can respond sincerely and in a very empathetic and supportive way: ‘It sounds like you’re having a nightmare, can I get you a cup of tea?’ , ‘what do you need from me right now?’ or ‘I’m sorry you’re having a difficult time’. Notice how in none of these are you taking responsibility for the ‘stuff’ but you’re being your usual lovely, helpful self. You can help others deal with their stuff without internally letting it encroach even one inch into your dance space.

Holding your dancing frame also helpfully avoids the situation a friend used to call ‘pass the cr*p’ which is when you take on board someone else’s emotional load, then unfortunately have to discharge it somewhere, so unwittingly pass it onto someone else by being emotional, upset, aggressive, and so on. (Any parent who has emerged from the bedroom after a hard day of back to back Zoom calls full of crisis management and has ended up shouting at the kids will relate to this!)

Do any of the following sound familiar?

  • Your partner injures themselves on a household object and blames you for not tidying away the Laptop plug/Lego/offending object, even though you weren’t aware you’d had anything to do with leaving it there.

Pause. Hold your frame. That’s their ‘stuff’ – it should stay in their dance space unless they have something specific they want to feedback to you, in which case, listen and decide how to respond.

  • Your boss said they would check in with you about how you’re coping today but all you’ve received is short, curt emails asking you to provide information for them, OMG I’ve done something wrong, am I about to be laid off?

Pause.  Your boss’s mood is her stuff, until she tells you otherwise, she’s probably up to her ears in challenges, give her the benefit of the doubt and let her emotion stay in her dance space (whilst also being supportive and delivering what she needs, this dance space is about the emotional stuff remember.)

  • One of your relatives makes disapproving noises about your decision to carry on trying to juggle work whilst you home school, suggesting you might use the opportunity to have a lovely sabbatical and maybe write a book. Do you a) obsess about their advice, and worry that by not taking it you are somehow disrespecting them and that you have a terrible values system, or do you b) hold your frame, acknowledge their kind contribution but let their own values and opinions stay firmly in their dance space?

Just visualising your frame and the dance space around you when you’re in meetings with colleagues you find challenging, or in conversations you think might be hard, can help you not take on any more of the emotional baggage than you need to. Your head will be clearer, your confidence will retain its integrity and the days will be smoother.

Here are some exercises which might help:

  • Check in (daily, but more if possible), with how you are feeling in the moment. Name the emotions, be okay with them because all emotions are valid and understandable right now. Naming your emotions will help you process them and you’ll be less likely to pass them to others.
  • Notice what happens when you are on the receiving end of emotional stuff? What happens in your body? Where do you feel it? Get in touch with that place and learn to recognise when one of your buttons has been pressed. You can choose to act on that or not.
  • Practice the narrative you want to play in your head when someone passes the cr*p to you, for example ‘I hear you, and I’m sorry you feel this way, but this is your stuff which you can keep in your space. I’m keeping my space as full of positive energy as I can right now’  or whatever feels good to you.

Hold your frame, picture Baby and Johnny dancing to  (I’ve had) The Time of My Life and, though it might not feel quite like the time of your life right now,  visualise your dance space and stay resilient, with your humour intact, ready to be useful in whatever way you can. Let me know how you get on!

I hope you find this helpful, you might like my round up of resources to boost your resilience from January 2020, here.

Jennifer McCanna is a leadership and team coach who works with individuals to help them perform better and feel more fulfilled.  She provides 1-1 coaching, workshops and webinars and has spent the last month delivering resilience webinars introducing tools to help clients feel more effective, calm and in control in a life changing situation. Twitter @Jenthecoach www.mccannacoaching.co.uk