We've all heard the term 'hold space' and I think most of understand the concept... but when it comes down to it most of us just suck at it... including myself. In light of Liptember and R U OK? Day, mental awareness campaigns this September, I felt it was so important to understand how to hold space for someone properly.
When someone comes to us with a problem or situation that they are struggling with we feel it's our responsibility to fix their problem or to make them feel better. No one likes to see someone they love or care about struggle... it's only natural for us to want to help them but that's where we're all going wrong. Holding space isn't about fixing their problem or making them feel better. It's simply about being there for someone.
Around this time last year I remember speaking with my mum, who is one of few I go to to hold space for me, about something I was struggling with. And usually parents are the worst offenders for not holding space properly as fear takes over they just want to help you by telling you what to do to fix the problem or that 'you'll be fine'. However on this occasion my mum helped me more than she knew... she said to me 'it's okay that your struggling'. That comment meant so much more to me than any wise advice could ever have. This is why...
When someone comes to you with a problem or issue that they aren't coping with all they are seeking are two things:
1. To feel that they're not alone and/or that someone understands and 'gets' them.
2. Permission that it is okay to feel the way they do.
What we need to understand is that we all know what is best for ourselves. The person simply needs a safe environment (aka space held for them) with someone they know has their back and know that they aren't being judged for feeling the way they do. Once they have this space they can then start to be curious about the way they feel and come to their own clarity about how to best move forward.
The hard truth about holding space we need to know is that firstly it's uncomfortable and awkward and secondly if you hold space properly you'll feel like you are doing nothing, you'll feel helpless! Unfortunately for most of us when we have the opportunity to hold space for someone we panic. We opt in to these three most common panic go-to responses that (even though we think we're helping) makes the person feel alienated and judged:
- Responses like: "You poor thing...", "I'm so sorry, sounds terrible., "I could never be as strong as you".
- What it translates to: "Wow, what you are going through is really terrible and I'm glad I'm not you. Good luck with getting out of this."
- Responses like: "You should try this...", "Last time I told you do to x, how is that going?".
- What it translates to: "If you just did X, Y and Z you wouldn't be feeling this way. It's your fault because your not taking the necessary action"
- Responses like: "At least you have X, Y & Z", "Don't worry, you have so many other things to be grateful for".
- What it translates to: "Why are you be being so negative and ungrateful? There are so many other people that are worse off than you and you're just being selfish".
You may have resonated with one or a couple of these or perhaps you've discovered your own panic go-to response. I know I've used all of them but as we can see each response makes the person feel even worse about their situation, pressure to 'get over it as soon as possible' and also shame for simple feeling the way they do.
When we respond like this they simply lose trust. Firstly they lose trust in you and feel like "if they don't understand by now then who ever will" and secondly they lose trust in the process. This is a very dangerous combination. Why? Next time this person has a problem or the same feeling comes up again (and probably worse than last time) they will think to themselves "last time I shared my feelings with that person and it actually made me feel a lot worse... maybe I'm just overreacting or being overly sensitive... I'll just keep it to myself and it will probably go away". They internalise the feeling and let it fester inside themselves. They beat themselves up for not only because they are struggling but also because they can't 'get over it' (vicious mental cycle). The feeling will come up again and again, worse each time and over time it can start manifesting in to their lives; skin outbreaks, moodiness, anger outbursts, overeating, under eating, sickness, depression, etc. The scary thing is when we get symptoms like this we usually put a bandaid solution to get rid of it but it will only gets worse until the core problem is taken care of... that feeling that is festering inside.
I can't tell you the 'best' way to hold space as it varies for each person and for each situation but here are some helpful hints so you don't feel completely helpless when you trying holding space...
It's okay to admit that you don't know what to say
... but let them know you will be there to help them every step of the way through their struggle.
give them a heartfelt hug
... this depends on your relationship with that person but a hug can do wonders. I say 'heartfelt' because I don't mean that 'pat, pat' little hug you give to someone you've met a couple of times... but that hug where you hold someone and when they start to pull away because they're feeling uncomfortable... hold them a little longer until they relax in your arms. It's an amazing gesture to make them feel that they are not alone and you'll be there with them.
empathise with them
... again, this is dependant on the situation but if you can empathise with someone it allows you be able to share your struggle and make them feel that 'there is a way out'.
don't listen WITH THE INTENTION TO respond
... remember it's not your responsibility to fix their problem by offering advice or solutions. You are there to just be there, (simply) listen and make them feel like they don't need to go through it alone.
holding space feelS uncomfortable
.... the sooner you realise this the better you able to sit with it. And remember it's uncomfortable for both sides. Not only do you feel helpless but the person coming to you has built up the courage to admit they are struggling - and as we all know that is really hard to admit.
It's okay to mess up
... if we do go to panic mode and respond with our 'go-to' unhelpful responses, that is okay. We can only practice awareness so over time we can start to catch ourselves in the moment.
Holding space is one of the greatest gifts we can give someone. But remember to share that gift... don't be afraid to seek help when you are struggling. We all need space held for us from time to time. It's okay to struggle. Just don't do it alone. Reach out to someone and give someone the opportunity to hold space for you.
Do you have any helpful hints on how to hold space? Perhaps when you've held space or when someone has held space for you? Please share in the comments below.
Founder + Director of Cork Leaf. Introvert who loves to practice yin yoga and is chocolate obsessed. Lives life with her heart, strives to live a more sustainable life and dreams of moving to the countryside with her family.
Here at Cork Leaf we're passionate about intuitive living, minimalism and sustainability. We hope to inspire, educate and hold space for people to reconnect and live a wholehearted life....check out our other blogs to help you live the life you really love.