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Gaining an Understanding of Holding Space and Five Strategies to Put it into Practice

With the growing popularity of mental health topics, many therapeutic terms are becoming more familiar and more commonly used. While some of these terms are more clinical, describing diagnoses or shortcuts related to mental health, others, like the term "holding space," are used more generally and are not limited to therapy sessions. But what does this term mean? What does it mean to provide a safe, non-judgmental environment for someone or yourself?

Holding space for another person is a form of attunement, which is the ability to be aware of one's own state of mind and body, while also connecting to the feelings, thoughts, and emotions of the other person. Attunement is not only about understanding one another on an intellectual level but also on an emotional and intuitive level. It is about being able to stay in sync, not just in a single moment, but over time, even during moments of unpredictability.

Have you ever heard the term "hold space" used in therapy sessions? If so, you may have wondered what it means.

An essential part of the therapeutic environment is that it provides a safe space in which to express oneself. Participating in therapy can create a sense of comfort from knowing that one can say whatever one needs to while their therapist listens and engages. Having a space where it is possible to lean into vulnerability while remaining in control of the process can be an empowering experience. "Holding space" refers to being physically, mentally, and emotionally present to support someone as they process their feelings. It is essential that the person holding space can refrain from judgment and create an atmosphere of kindness, curiosity, and non-judgmental acceptance for the other person to feel comfortable being vulnerable and having space.

What does "holding a space" do?

When you offer someone space, you create a safe and nurturing atmosphere where they can feel heard and understood. Reflect on a time when you felt vulnerable. Did you require someone to provide advice and resolve your problem? Or did you need someone to listen to your concerns without giving input or judging you? Most likely, you needed someone to simply be there for you. Sometimes the most meaningful thing we can do for someone is to be present with them and offer unconditional support. It can also help them feel less alone in a difficult situation, knowing they can turn to you for understanding.

Holding space for someone means being present and available for another person's experience without judgement. As a therapist, one is professionally trained to provide such a space. They are equipped with the skills to be with people in pain and provide empathy, support, and understanding. While many people have learned to avoid, numb, or minimize their emotions, (most) therapists have the superpower of sitting with another person's pain and experiences without judgement. If one were to define what the term "holding space" means, one might describe it as the willingness and ability to be present with someone in their experience of pain. Holding space involves offering support that is free of judgement and involves a conscious and deliberate choice to set aside any agenda, the need for a particular outcome, and the urge to give advice or fix a person's problems or situation.

Does holding space require showing compassion, and if so, how?

Holding space involves having compassion for another person. Compassion is more than just being nice; it is an activated emotional state that allows us to connect with another person's pain and suffering. Compassion overrides the fear responses in our brains, transforming the stressful reactions of fight, flight, or freeze into the courageous action of caring for others. Furthermore, it allows us to believe we can make a difference and improve a situation. Compassion is a powerful emotion that enables us to empathize with and respond to the pain and suffering of others. It gives us the drive to help, to believe in the possibility of transformation, and to create a workable situation. Compassion is an active emotion that enables us to understand and support those in need.

How can we create a supportive environment without allowing judgement to be present?

It's part of our human nature to judge, but we can consciously "frame" our judgement and move it to one side. Holding space for someone means setting aside our agenda and remembering that we always see someone else's experience through our own lens. We need to be aware that we can easily get caught up in our thoughts and feelings and gently bring ourselves back to the person we are with, their current experience, and what they need rather than what we think they need. Holding space is about being other-focused, not self-focused.

How can we improve our listening skills rather than automatically attempting to solve problems?

To become better listeners rather than immediately trying to fix things, it is essential to practice the concept of "holding space." This involves being distressed and uncertain and accepting that we often lack answers. As meaning-making creatures, humans crave certainty, so it can be uncomfortable to simply "be with" versus "do" something when it comes to holding space for someone. We can practice becoming better listeners and learning not to search for solutions or give advice by inquiring about the person. Inquiring involves asking questions and being comfortable with silence or pauses. Responses can be as simple as "I hear you," "Would you like to elaborate?" or "I'm not sure either, and I'm here with you in this uncertainty." Through inquiring and accepting uncertainty, we can learn to be better listeners and not try to fix things.

If we need a loved one to hold space, it's crucial to open up and be clear about what is helpful for us. We may struggle to do this for fear of appearing weak, wanting to handle it alone, or not wanting to burden others. It is important to remember that vulnerability is a gift, inviting deeper connection and allowing others to be vulnerable in return. To communicate our needs lovingly, here are some helpful statements: "What I really need right now is for you to be there for me; no advice or fixing, just listening." "I'm not in the right space to have a long conversation, so if you could just be with me physically or on the other end of the phone without having to say or do anything, it would mean so much to me." We can hold space for others in simple ways. For example, being present and listening without judgement, offering a kind word or gesture, and being compassionate and understanding as they work through their feelings and experiences.

Additionally, we can encourage and validate their feelings, provide emotional support, and be available to talk whenever they need it. However, simply being present and available to listen can often be enough. Our simple presence can provide comfort. To maximize the impact of this experience, tap into your motivation and desire to assist and be with the individual. Affirm to yourself: "I am here to provide aid. How can I be of service?" By connecting to our intention and remaining present, we unlock the ability to accurately read the emotions of those around us and take on their perspectives. We also gain the strength to stay the course and remain hopeful for a positive result. Our presence in each other's lives can be incredibly powerful. When we focus on simply being with each other instead of trying to solve each other's problems, we create a strong connection that benefits both parties.

How to create a holding environment for yourself?

Creating space for yourself requires dedication and commitment. You must be willing to be present with your feelings and thoughts and practice letting go of judgment. To get started, establishing a mindfulness practice can be extremely helpful. Through mindfulness, you can recognize patterns in your thoughts and sit with your feelings without making judgments. Additionally, it's important to remember that you cannot learn about holding space for yourself overnight. It takes Practice and patience to truly let go of judgment and be present with yourself. Finally, don't be afraid to ask for help if needed. Reach out to a friend, a family member, or a therapist if you need additional support.

Tips for Holding Space

  1. Practice Active Listening: Instead of worrying about what you will say next, focus on understanding what the other person is saying. After they finish speaking, repeat what they said to ensure you are both on the same page.

  2. Avoid Problem-Solving: Holding space isn't about fixing the issue; it's about being there for the other person without judgment. If you feel tempted to minimize, reframe, or offer a solution, remember that this isn't the purpose of this interaction and refocus on listening.

  3. Don't Center Yourself: When listening to someone, it may be easier to understand if you relate it to your own experiences. However, it's important to keep your issues separate from the conversation so you can truly focus on the person in front of you.

  4. Reassure You Believe Them: Show the other person you trust and believe in their knowledge and intuition. Let them know that you believe them and are there for them.

  5. Allow Emotions to Come Up: No matter what emotions come up, create a safe space to express them without judgement. Remind them that you are there for them no matter what comes up.

Holding space may seem simple, but it takes practice and self-care. These tips help guide you as you hold space for others and yourself.

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