What It Means to Hold Space for Someone

by | Feb 11, 2018

So the phrase “holding space” has been gaining popularity in podcasts and blog articles out there in self-help land and I just wanted to share some thoughts about what it means and a few tips on how this can help your relationships.

Holding space is the phrase we might use to describe unconditional support for someone. Holding space means giving the person exactly what they need from us without being overwhelming, judgmental, or forceful about it. It is a gentle type of support focused on emotions and practical aspects of a problem. Holding space is very important for anyone but can be especially significant in difficult situations like an illness or a loss. However, it can also be applied in therapy, education, or relationships. The concept of holding space means that you are creating a safe and comfortable environment where the person can feel and express their negative emotions. Here are a few tips for how you might hold space for someone.

Avoid judgment and criticism
Holding space means that you are giving the person your unconditional support rather than the conditional support associated with judgment and criticism. You will not expect the person to act differently or follow your guidance. You will not shame them for the choices they make or their past mistakes. You will instead reserve judgments, whether these are verbal or non-verbal. This is a key aspect of holding space: helping the individual feel safe.

Avoid overwhelming them
Sometimes, information can be overwhelming. For example, when we first receive a diagnosis, we might not be ready to hear everything, all the problems and solutions associated with our condition. Instead, we might require just the basics, just a little guidance until we are ready to assimilate the rest of the information. Do not focus on educating. You need to identify the basics and offer them in terms of information, handouts, advice, but avoid overwhelming the individual with data. The same is true for emotions. Avoid excessive emotions to make sure the person can focus on their own rather than on the emotions of the people supposed to give support.

Respect the differences
When we hold space, we need to be aware that the person will have their own culture, their own ideas, beliefs, and opinions. We cannot force our own even if we feel we know better. We have to respect the person and their autonomy, which is associated with the idea that they will make different choices, even choices we might not approve of. For example, when people grieve, they do this differently. Some choose to cry while others cannot. An absence of tears should be respected as much as an expression of sadness.

Allow complex emotions
The emotions people deal with are not easy and, often, they are not pretty. Many cultures might punish emotional displays of anger, especially for women, or sadness, especially for men. It is important to let the person feel what they are feeling and express those emotions. When you hold space, you might need to provide containment for these emotions but containment is not the same thing as denial or judgment. Let the person express their feelings within the safe space you create, even if it is messy.

What does this look like in real life? A client of mine recently explained how he and his wife have had major problems with their sexual relationship because his recently-admitted use of pornography hurt the wife so much, she felt she could not trust him. It turns out, she had all kinds of previous trauma, including sexual assaults, which surfaced after it was discovered that he was acting out with pornography. The client chose to hold space for his wife, and even though he had done all kinds of recovery tasks, attended meetings for his severe addiction, and maintained an entire year of sobriety, he allowed his wife to work through her own issues however she needed to. Although in some ways he felt he deserved to be trusted again with intimacy, he allowed her whatever time it took for her to feel okay again.

Holding space for others means we let them be wherever they are. We don’t impose unrealistic expectations or selfish demands on them.

The hardest part for us who are doing the holding of such “space” is that we are often doing so when it is least comfortable. We may be getting yelled at, rejected, criticized, belittled, pushed away and even emotionally abused. The point is not to support others while continually allowing ourselves to be victimized by them, but not to do any accidental victimizing of them, ESPECIALLY when they are down and out.

I have seen some of this lately, even in relationships of my own sphere. And what I have become intimately aware of (once again) is that it’s really the only way to be. Anger won’t do it. Lecturing won’t do it. Ridicule and complaints won’t do it. The only thing we can do to change behavior is love, and holding space is one of the most difficult and yet truest forms of that.

You’re reading this because you’re looking for some help with your situation. I can do that, I promise. Make an appointment with me and let’s get started.

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