What is holding space? It is creating a safe healing environment for people to have, express and process emotions. It requires our presence - physical, mental and emotional. It is a beautiful gift that we* can offer to others, and it is key to deepening relationships and building trust.
Holding space for others means that we are present for them, while simultaneously being conscious of our own state of being. In essence, in order to hold space for others effectively, we must also be holding space for ourselves.
Holding space requires us to hone the art of sitting in our discomfort instead of denying, distracting, disconnecting. This can be very difficult to do if what we are accustomed to doing when we feel discomfort is doing whatever we can do to distance ourselves from it.
Some examples of not effectively holding space:
A child cries, and a caregiver may respond with “You’re ok! No need to cry!” or “There’s nothing to cry about” or “Quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!”
In each situation, the caregiver is seeking to end the interaction, not to allow the child to express and process their emotions. While the responses range from “nice” to threatening/emotionally abusive, there is a common thread here. Speaking from personal experiences as a parent who struggled to hold space for my child’s emotions, I have found myself in similar situations to all of these examples. In each situation, I was triggered by my child’s emotions. In each situation, all I wanted to do was end the interaction. Reflecting back, my goal was not to create space for their emotions but to shut down the discomfort I was feeling, although at times I even thought the dismissive, “nice” comment was comforting. It wasn’t - not when I did it to my child and not when it was done to me as a child.
Someone reveals their mental health struggles and they are met with comments ranging from “All you need to do is run for a half hour every day” to “You know, you had the best childhood out of all the kids” to “At least you don’t have cancer like your aunt.”
In each situation, the response was dismissive. There is a high likelihood that each response was given by a person who was experiencing discomfort and was seeking a way to alleviate that. The primary focus in each response is not to hold space for the person who is struggling but to distance from the discomfort. Perhaps the comment comes from a parent who feels guilty that their child is struggling. Perhaps hearing about someone’s mental health struggles triggers feelings of shame about their own depression that they are trying to hide, or any of a number of other possibilities.
Somebody with less privilege expresses the pain they experience as a result of racism, misogyny, ableism, transphobia or any other system of oppression. Responses range from harsh to nasty, and/ or dismissive. Some appear to have good intentions but center the commenter instead of the person expressing the pain.
It does not feel good to acknowledge our own biases or the ways in which we have contributed to the oppression of others. Living in a system that values some lives over others and recognizing that we have benefitted from that causes discomfort. Bucking family systems and things we have held to be true is uncomfortable. Knowing that oppression is wrong and also recognizing that we have been racist, sexist, ableist, homphobic, transphobic ourselves causes cognitive dissonance because we want to be good people, and/or we want to be seen as good people. Dismissive, centering, and violent responses to the pain of others is another example of the inability to sit with our discomfort.
Someone in your life hurts you. And rather than allowing yourself the chance to feel your rage, grief, sadness, and a myriad of other emotions, you say to yourself, “Ugh, why are you so upset? Get over it! You have things to do.”
This is where we start. Learning to hold space for ourselves. If we cannot allow for our emotions and discomfort how can we possibly do it effectively and authentically for others? Holding space is a practice that starts with self.
Our capacity to hold space for others is directly impacted by our ability to hold space for ourselves. In each situation above, the inability to sit with and dismissal of our own triggers and difficult emotions results in repeating that same behavior to others around us.
Some questions to consider for ourselves:
How do I deal with my own uncomfortable emotions?
Do I allow myself to feel them?
Do I practice sitting with my discomfort?
Do I seek to disconnect, distract, to shove the feelings down under the surface?
When someone hurts me do I let myself sit with those feelings of being hurt or do I immediately judge myself or shame myself for my responses?
Why holding space may be difficult:
Holding space requires maturity and is much easier to do if it has been modeled for us. But if nobody held space for us, we don’t have a model for how that works.
Whether it is because of trauma, abuse, illness, or emotional dismissal like telling us we are “okay” when we weren’t, as children, we often experience caregivers who were unable to hold space for us.
When someone says you’re okay, or acts as though you are okay or should be okay, when you are actually not okay, a few things happen:
We learn something is wrong with our feelings.
We learn something is wrong with having feelings/being sensitive/expressing emotion.
In an attempt to make it make sense, we try to adjust our internal to match the external caregiver. We suppress our feelings, squash them down, dismiss them and pretend they are not there, or pretend to have other feelings instead.
We also do this because we are wired to seek connection. If having emotions appears to cause our caregiver to withdraw from us, we will try to shut off our feelings to maintain the connection.
There isn’t a magic switch that changes this behavior once we hit adulthood. We continue to suppress our feelings until we heal these wounds.
What does effectively holding space look like?
Being willing to sit with discomfort. We have been socialized to dismiss discomfort in ourselves. So we will do this to others unless we recognize the discomfort and learn how to sit with it.
Being willing to sit with discomfort does not negate our boundaries. This is why it is important to get really clear about boundaries - because we can assess if we truly have the capacity to hold space. When we try to hold space when we don’t have the capacity, we devolve into behaviors like dismissal, denial, criticism, defensiveness - all things that are not holding space.
Listening without judgment. Judgment can look like criticism, denial of their reality, tone policing, interrupting, comparison, or other responses.
Judgment free. We are human, so judgments come up. If we are effective at holding space we are able to set them aside and simply listen.
No pointing out inadequacies or how they could have avoided this situation. Most of us have experienced someone in our lives who we don't turn to specifically because they do this and we continually walk away feeling worse. We don’t necessarily want to do this to others but when we are well practiced in this because we do it to ourselves, it will come out in our interactions with others. Stop shoulding on yourself and you’ll stop shoulding on others.
No agenda. We are not there to fix them or to force an outcome. A big clue here - if you hold space for someone and you give guidance and counsel that they do not follow - how do you react? If you take it personally, if you are resentful that they didn’t listen to you, you weren’t holding space - you were projecting.
We are physically, emotionally, and spiritually present. We are not distracted by our phones or anything else. Our body language is comforting and welcoming. We use compassionate caring language that is authentic to us.
We trust and allow people to trust themselves. We check our prejudgments about them. We are most effective at holding space when we recognize that everyone has the ability to intuit what is best for them. Everyone can deepen their self trust. Let people learn to trust themselves. Don't disempower by making decisions for them, or taking over - let them decide. However, sometimes people will seek your thoughts, opinions, or guidance and it is okay to give that with thoughtfulness and consideration - just be mindful of having an agenda. I like the phrase “consider the possibility” - it allows you to speak your truth while simultaneously respecting their autonomy.
While it is fine to give feedback when requested, be wary of overwhelming people with information. Be conscious of your own discomfort that may cause you to talk too much in an attempt to fill the space and/or prevent the person from saying more things that are uncomfortable for you to hear.
Prioritize emotional safety. People need space where it is safe to fail, safe to be themselves. We need love and acceptance. If we don’t love and accept ourselves, it greatly limits our capacity to do this for others. Be a safe container/vault and keep confidences barring dangerous or unethical situations.
If you agree to keep a confidence but then realize that agreeing to keep quiet (for example, about something that impacts someone else) does not align with your values, practice speaking up and acknowledging your error. As we live our values, self trust increases. Self trust allows us to learn how to stop it in the moment, avoiding these situations to begin with. Until we get there, we can acknowledge our mistakes. Honesty is a crucial aspect of holding space.
Validate what someone is saying. Repeat and reflect back. Practice being a good listener. Make sure you are understanding them, asking questions as needed. Validation doesn't mean agreement - it means you see and hear them.
Often we need to hold space for someone that we have hurt. This requires all of the above, and can be really difficult to do because the discomfort we feel may be debilitating shame. We are even more tempted to dismiss, to justify, to criticize, or to blame. This is, again, because we are unable or unwilling to sit with discomfort. This may also cause us to emphasize intention over impact. This is not holding space. Responding to someone’s pain with how your intention was something different, instead of acknowledging the impact of your actions is not holding space. This doesn’t negate your need to be heard. It just means that you need to hold space for yourself and/or find someone to hold space for you that is not the person you hurt.
How do we develop the capacity to hold space for ourselves and others?
A continually developing self care practice is key. We cannot hold space for others in a meaningful, consistent, impactful way if we are not taking care of ourselves. Holding space requires a considerable amount of energy. We cannot pour from an empty cup.
Self care that is negotiable results in a vicious cycle. We feel someone needs us and abandon our self care in an attempt to be there - to hold space - for someone else. But since we are low on self care we are unable to do it effectively anyway. Non negotiable self care is key to learning how to prioritize and hold space for ourselves and then others.
Clear boundaries are a must to effectively hold space for others. It is impossible to deepen our healing journey without them.
We need boundaries around who we hold space for, how long, when, and to what degree. You get to decide all of these things. Not someone else.
We may feel like our compassion needs to be endless. You are not limitless. Be selective.
One way I love to encourage boundaries around this is to be an example. When you could use someone holding space for you, ask if others have space. Normalize naming this and asking permission for it in relationships. Learn to interrupt someone who starts emotionally dumping on you without permission and assert your boundaries.
Also, keep in mind that if someone asks for space and you can’t offer what they are requesting, you can counter offer with what you are able to do. An example might be a friend who wants space held for her so she can vent about her toxic relationship - something you definitely do not have space to do. You can tell her you are unable to do that, and offer to babysit for her so she can go to therapy, or tell her you will pray for her or send her good vibes.
.As we heal emotionally, sometimes we find ourselves in a season where we have very limited space for anyone else - especially if we are recovering from a lifetime of not holding space for ourselves. That is okay. Healing is cyclical and seasons will come where you are able to serve others in bigger ways.
We need to develop a keen awareness of ourselves because we are human, and as we interact with others, our thoughts, opinions, and unhealed traumas will come to the surface. Holding space is not about projecting. If we aren’t aware of this, we will project. Holding space for others is in essence two simultaneous tasks - holding space for them and for ourselves.
Consciousness IS in a sense holding space for ourselves. Becoming aware of our own limiting beliefs, judgments, and traumas is only possible if we allow time and space for observation and understanding.
A few additional things to consider:
These principles can be used even for very small children. Consider listening to children’s emotions (even a toddler’s tantrum) without an agenda, without dismissing or distracting. Consider simply sitting nearby and telling them you are there for them, that you are there for a hug or a talk or to play when they are ready. As a mother of 5, I did not know to do this with my oldest children. I dismissed and distracted on the regular. But as I learned to hold space, I was able to do this for my younger children, and I see a significant positive difference in the way they experience their emotions.
I have found it really helpful to be really clear about who I hold space for - both for my own clarity and because it affords me opportunities to hold space and really show up and serve. An example - I do not hold space for white friends doing their anti-racism work. I encourage them to find other white people. Seeing white people “discovering” racism in real time is highly triggering to me and I don’t have space for it. However, I am willing to hold space for non Black friends of color who are doing their own antiracism work, and I am definitely willing to hold space for Black friends unpacking the trauma of racism. By being really clear around this, I am able to quickly and decisively respond to people and devote my energy to where I choose and where I believe I can make a difference. And that clarity also means that people are brought into my life that I can serve and love. Before I had that clarity, my energy was far more scattered and much less impactful.
Trauma can make it very difficult to hold space. Sometimes it has the impact of hardening our hearts, making it feel near impossible to feel genuine compassion. There was purpose to building that fortress around our hearts, and we can heal that.
I have already mentioned boundaries but it is worth saying again. It is okay not to hold space for others all the time! Boundaries!!! Figure out your needs. It is also okay to pull back from holding space for others while you are focused on learning how to do it for yourself.
It is normal to really struggle to hold space for our children. If it wasn’t safe for us to have emotions as a child, it will feel unsafe when a child around you has big emotions. I tried really hard to do it but would often end up doing all the things I’ve described - being dismissive, offering justification, focusing on my own agenda. Give yourself a lot of grace around this and focus deeply on holding space for yourself. The capacity to do it for our kids comes directly from our own self work. I promise.
Essential oils** have been extraordinarily helpful on my journey - in particular in being able to hold space for my children. While I firmly believe our own self work is the most important key to increasing our capacity to hold space for our children, I also didn’t want my quickly growing children to sit around and “wait” for me to heal. Using oils in the moment greatly increased my capacity to hold space and using them consistently over time accelerated my own healing journey.
Use oils over your heart and wrists and anywhere else you feel drawn to using them. Use them daily as part of a self care/ affirmation practice, and use them in the moment when you are struggling to hold space for yourself or someone you have committed to hold space for, like your child.
Magnolia, the oil of compassion. Use if you are hard on yourself, bullying yourself for having feelings, telling yourself to toughen up or get over it
Bergamot, the oil of self acceptance. Use if you struggle with low self worth, feeling not good enough or undeserving, or are self critical and harsh.
Arborvitae, the oil of divine grace. Use if you are excessively independent, feeling that you’ll deal with it all yourself and you don’t need anyone to hold space for you ever.
Rose, the oil of divine love. Use when nursing a broken heart, recovering from conditional love relationships, recovering from trauma, and to feel the unconditional love of the Divine.
Learning how to hold space for myself and for others has been so rewarding and brought so much genuine connection and inner peace into my life. I believe it will for you too!
Comment here or message me with your thoughts. I would love to hear from you!
*As with everything I share, I am not an expert. I am simply a woman on her own healing journey sharing my ever deepening and expanding Truth.
**My suggestions and recommendations are based on doTERRA essential oils. Here's why.