I first came across the term "holding space" when I lived on Maui. Everybody was talking about "holding space" for this and that, and thanking others for how well they were "holding space." One day at a parent meeting at my daughter's school, I just raised my hand and asked: "What exactly do you guys mean when you use that phrase?" Ha! It's funny to look back to not knowing these incredibly useful words. Since then, I have come to see them as the center of my personal and professional practices.
Let me explain my understanding then...
When you "hold," rather than mold, manipulate, or master, then you are mindfully giving support and a flexible boundary to something without jumping in and making anything happen.
You can hold space for pretty much anything. When you hold space for a group/ meeting/ class/ project, you are responsible for taking care of it, nurturing its qualities, cultivating boundaries for its deadlines and standards, for seeing the thing through.
It comes down to consciously noticing the quality of energy you're bringing to something, in order to make sure you're safe-guarding while also giving enough spaciousness there to allow whatever needs / wants to unfold to come forward, without trying to control any outcomes.
In what follows, I want to think about holding space for people in everyday life. When you hold space for a person, you are present, available, and committed to listening, reflecting, and not running away from whatever that person is sharing and experiencing. You are present with someone's experience without trying to change it.
Lisa Olivera says that one who holds space - the "space holder" - "creates an atmosphere that invites vulnerability and transparency." It has to do with cultivating a safe space for compassion.
That looks like listening without:
- completing someone's sentences or presuming you know what they mean
- jumping to give advice
- suggesting what someone "should" do / be / feel
- proffering a Kleenex*
- countering with your own similar experience
THIS IS HARD, especially if you've been conditioned by family and culture that you must fix, say, or do something. We are not a culture that applauds sharing our problems or discussing our bad days. We avoid people going through hard times because we worry we won't know how to act or what to say.
* Moving to give someone a Kleenex is a programmed (ie. learned) way of responding to someone's tears. It feels like compassion, right? What I've learned is to rethink this move as actually a demonstration of awareness that someone is bleeding their mascara because of their emotional release and... it's really about stopping the messiness. Handing a Kleenex reminds the person to be aware that they're being looked at in their state, and breaks the natural flow of their feelings. It says: please stop crying.
Practicing holding space teaches us that we don't have to do or say anything actually. We just have to show up and be present.
We don't learn how to hold space elegantly in one attempt. We learn by getting better every day.
You can practice holding space any time you are in conversation with someone and the other person shares a vulnerable feeling or experience. Just be totally present.
When holding space, it's good practice not to presume someone wants your feedback or advice unless they directly solicit it.
Instead of bad-mouthing another person for the situation or wanting to jump in and fix things --> Ask them how the experience makes them feel, and just listen without judging anyone. "I'm so sorry that happened."
If they don't know what to do, instead of offering advice --> Encourage the person through compassionate questions how to figure out what to do on their own, because that actually helps them to recover any lost self-esteem and self-trust. "Please let me know how I can support you."
Instead of jumping in to share your similar story --> Simply say that you are genuinely happy / moved / sad that they are going through what they're going through. "I'm really feeling this for you."
Because the same goes for when someone is sharing their special moment or achievement, or their child's achievement. It is not a request to hear about your similar experience.
If this feels like an *ouch,* I get it! The invitation then is just to be with yourself, noticing and bringing consciousness and curiosity to learned behaviors. We're all learning.
All of the above is incredibly helpful with parenting as well. Kids (and adults children!) do a lot of venting to their parents, and most of the time they just... want... to... vent.
"What happened?" is my standard question (from a former therapist) to a frustrated, steam-blowing child after school. We can hold space for the Big Mood by gently steering the hot feelings towards a cooler explanation of events. Then we can move towards the key questions: How did that make you feel? What would you like to do? What can I do to help? (Answer to the latter is usually nothing.)
And the same goes for all of us when we're wanting to someone to hold space for our felt experience... Do you have someone in your life - a parent, partner, family member, friend, boss - who likes to "tell you” what they think you should do in the name of being "helpful?"
The more I learn about space holding, the more I ask myself the questions:
Are the people who hold space for your vulnerabilities doing their own work? (This includes all healers & therapists.) Are you sure you want to share your intimacies with someone who hasn't studied their heart and isn't actively working to heal their own triggers?
Any folks who think therapy and self-care are indulgent, or not otherwise worth their time and money, are likely not very trustworthy space holders for your fears, insecurities, joys, and evolutions. This is naturally obvious to a lot of people, but it's been a hard won lesson for me, because I've always been naturally trusting.
At the end of the day, the most important space holding that you can do is for yourself. Each trigger - one by one - every single day - is an opportunity to hold space for yourself.
Whoa. I'm triggered. What's happening? How does this make me feel? Where does it hurt? What support do I need? How can I hold space for these feelings and vulnerabilities with more loving compassion?
One by one. Every single day.
One of my favorite IG resources of tips on space holding and self-parenting is Dr. Nicole LePera. Lindsay Mack recently hosted a podcast where she discussed the value of holding space for one's own heart-tending before reacting to the person that hurt us. Such a great episode.
If you'd like me to hold space for you right now with whatever you're in, this is what I do! This is why I work on my OWN triggers, one by one, every single day.