Inside: What it means to hold space, how to know if you’re the right person to hold space for another, and 5 ways to hold space without losing yourself in the process. I include details about holding space for my son as he fought for life. This post includes referral links.
As I advocated for and walked alongside my son as he struggled hard through severe depression and persistent suicidal ideation, the practice of holding space moved from theory or head knowledge into a deep, embodied practice for me. And since Jairus left this world, I’ve continued learning and consciously choosing to hold space for my daughters, husband, and for myself as we learn to live with and around our grief.
Through the practice of holding space, you serve as a container for which the healing and transformation can take place. It’s a powerful gift of presence that you can give to others through the quality of your attention.Adam Brady at Chopra.com
Because I write honestly and openly about losing my child, other people navigating the wilds of grief choose to work with me or be in community with me. This is both a tender experience and an incredible privilege.
To witness another brave and hurting human process incredible pain (what feels like impossible pain) and learn how to continue showing up fully to life helps make meaning out of my own loss. I continue healing forward as I create brave spaces for others to do their own healing work.
When we’re hurting due to grief, trauma, or more common yet challenging life struggles, the greatest gift we can receive or offer another person is that of an empathetic or compassionate witness. A safe space to be seen and heard without judgment, shame, or “fixing.”
As Dr. Peter Levine, Dr. Gabor Maté, and other trauma-specialists I’ve learned from teach, an empathetic witness is often the deciding factor between whether a difficult life experience imprints as trauma or is integrated in a healthy way.
we are a people disembodied from Joy and grief
When someone is grieving or walking through trauma, we may be able to offer practical love and support (ask first and follow through) but we can’t “fix” their pain. What we can do is sit with them in their pain without turning away.
Some forms of trauma and loss, suicide loss for instance, are extremely isolating. Western culture is a disembodied culture – we tend to be disembodied or disconnected from joy, from pleasure, and from grief. We don’t know how to be with our own emotions, to sit with discomfort, and we don’t know what to say or how to behave when someone in our circle is navigating grief or loss.
Some people say ridiculous things to make themselves feel better, to alleviate their own discomfort, but in turn harm the grieving person. Some become pushy and refuse to honour the boundaries of the hurting person; they make the loss all about them.
Some friends and family disappear altogether as though suicide loss or child loss might be contagious; they want to distance themselves from the thought that they might not be immune to this type of suffering.
Still other people, thankfully, refuse to turn away; they show up messily but open and willing to listen and learn.
Certainly, depending on the nature of our relationship, our responsibilities and the ways in which we engage with people or hold space for them will be different. Yet what remains consistent is that whether we’re holding space for our child or parent, if we’re working as a coach or listening as a friend, or if we’re a therapist or medical doctor, an empathetic or compassionate presence improves outcomes.
It’s not honourable to pour out until you are completely depleted. It isn’t wise or kind to ignore your own emotional capacity in trying to care for others, or to neglect healthy boundaries and then drown trying to save someone else.Krista O’Reilly-Davi-Digui
am I the right person to hold space for my loved one?
Holding space means creating a safe container (we can think of the container as providing gentle boundaries) in which another person can truth-tell and express their most vulnerable, scary, darkest thoughts, feelings, physical experience without fear of rejection, shame, or judgment.
It means letting them tell their story, process, or grieve aloud without us speaking over them or their experience. In some cases you may be the only place the hurting person feels safe to share.
To hold space for someone requires us to enter into the deepest form of communication or relationship. Professor of Psychiatry Edward Brodkin, describes it as a ‘state of attunement’ to the other person at both the thought level and the gut or emotional level.
This kind of deep listening or attunement is not possible if we’ve never practiced before, if we are not attuned to our own needs and mind-emotion-body experience, or if we are not in a resourced enough state to be able to show up for another person without drowning ourselves.
The best thing we can do in this situation is to take action to help our loved one access appropriate resources and, in so far as we are able, help remove shame and judgment from what they are walking through. We’re all simply human doing our best to navigate a messy world.
It’s also important to mention that those closest to us are not necessarily the right people to hold space for us, regardless of skill level and willingness. There are times we need a neutral party to hear us, someone who will not be terrified by our thoughts and feelings or who will not hold it against us later on. And we may at times need experienced, grief/medical/trauma-trained professionals to create the safe container for us. Holding space as a practice is not a replacement for medical care or therapy.
Having said that, we can all learn the skill and practice of holding space. We can choose to educate ourselves and become more empowered so that we’re able to hold space for others. We can explore our personal relationship to grief, mental health, and the stories we believe about what it means to be a wise, whole, brave person in a messy world so that our bias and conditioning don’t cause harm.
We can grow into the strength (and skill) we need, do the work to expand our capacity so that we feel safe in our bodies and lives, and otherwise equip ourselves so that we’re rooted, resilient and resourced-enough to support others without losing ourselves in the process.
how to hold space for someone you care about without losing yourself in the process
Holding space is a concept and practice that can support us in learning how to show up for a hurting person in a restorative way. Above all, we do not want to cause harm and it’s helpful to have some guidelines to follow.
Many highly sensitive and empathic people are drawn to helping professions or to serving community. We care deeply for others and want to alleviate suffering in the world or make the world a safer, kinder place. But if we’re not honest about our limitations, or scope of practice in a work setting, we put ourselves and others at risk and may pick up what isn’t ours to carry.
We must learn to honour our capacity, to care for ourselves well, to set and guard healthy boundaries, and to remember, even though this may be excruciating to hear, that it isn’t our responsibility to fix or save another person, no matter how much we love them. We can come alongside, advocate for, affirm and support, but we cannot choose for them.
1. Hold space for yourself first and honour your emotional capacity
A key part of being able to hold space for someone else is first, holding space for yourself. Are there things in your life that need tending to? Are there difficult emotions that you’d rather numb or run from? Practice sitting with them and feeling them, slowly stretching (not stressing) your window of resilience or capacity.
Notice your discomfort, how you are feeling activated (my free feel more empowered workshop will help!), build your support system, ensure that your basic needs for wholeness are met (think rest, nutrition, hydration, sleep, movement). Give honestly according to your emotional capacity.
There are times that, ready or not, we must rise to the challenge. When my son was dying he had wonderful friends but he only told the full truth of his experience to me. I was the one to hold space for him as I tried to keep him alive and help him access the supports he needed. It was rough – nightmarish to be honest.
I witnessed the harm perpetuated by many people in positions of power (doctors, therapists, law enforcement) whose job it is to help people in distress. In most of these situations I do not believe these people intended harm. There’s a significant distrust for many families of the mental health care system with good reason and often the resources in place are underfunded, undertrained, and hard to access.
I couldn’t just walk away and didn’t want to. I would fight for my son, his dignity, and his life with everything I had. What I could do as I supported him was to ensure that I had good health-care practices and routines in place, build my own support system, and practice self-compassion like my life depended on it.
2. honour healthy boundaries for your benefit and theirs
A healthy relationship is a boundaried one. This is true for friendship, family relationships, or professional relationships. Holding space does not mean allowing the other person to emotionally, verbally, or physically attack or harm you. They might need a safe space to pour out rage, pain, and despair but this is different from blaming, shaming, or raging at you. And again, sometimes life is a lot more complex than this. When we’re supporting a child who is suffering and at risk, it can be incredibly hard to determine the boundary line with them when we know they don’t have anywhere else to turn.
We may also need to examine and tighten up our boundaries, not only with the person we’re holding space for, but with our friends, family, and broader community. Not everyone deserves to have a voice in your life and it’s not uncommon to end some relationships as we navigate grief or traumatic experiences.
As I was walking my son home, for example, the wife of my ex-pastor kept suggesting that I would need to forgive my son; it’s attitudes like this that perpetuate the stigma around mental health struggles. (I also recognize ways in which I’ve been complicit in perpetuating ableist or otherwise harmful ideas that don’t make this world kind or safe for people who don’t “fit into the box.”)
You wouldn’t feel a need to forgive a child dying of cancer or one injured in a hiking accident. Yet when someone suffers from emotional or mental pain we judge and shame them. As though they chose this for themselves. As though they wouldn’t, in a heart beat, choose a gentler, easier life for themselves if they knew how. Sometimes holding space means protecting our loved one from harmful ideas and beliefs.
Recognize your limitations: you need to ensure that you stay healthy and strong. If you fall apart then you won’t be able to help anyone else! It’s horrible witnessing someone we love suffer but we cannot pour out what we don’t own.
3. Don’t Try to fix and don’t Pick UP what isn’t Yours to Carry
A powerful question that can help us stay mindful and present and stay out of “fixing” is “Is this mine or is this theirs?” This is equally helpful for Enneagram 2 personalities or “helpers” in general. When we notice that we’ve picked up an emotional weight or responsibility that isn’t ours to carry, we can envision laying it down or handing it back.
When we assume responsibility that isn’t ours, we might unintentionally communicate a lack of trust in the other person or that we believe they don’t have what it takes or we may push them into hiding or isolation. A sense of agency (“I have choice, I am capable”) is a critical part of resilience and healing forward from trauma and grief. Remember, we all want to be seen and heard, above all.
At my monthly grief circle for moms who have lost children, the host, Leith, often reminds us to take off our backpacks at the end of each call. Our job is to be with each other, to listen and love, but not to walk away with the weight of everyone else’s pain or grief on our shoulders.
4. practice active and deep listening (for Them and you)
Pull your mind and heart back from yesterday and tomorrow and be fully present with the other person in each moment. Deep listening means just listening, rather than thinking about what we are going to say next while listening or how to convince the other person to follow our advice. Learn how to practice active listening: this post and this one will help you get started. Avoid interjecting your own stories or examples or one-upping their struggle.
Notice what comes up for you mind-emotion-body and acknowledge if something from your own life needs processing or if you need a break because you’re becoming too activated. When you move into a place of being motivated by fear or a strong need to “fix” it’s healthy to acknowledge this and step away for a time.
Listening well doesn’t mean we don’t want the suffering person to take action or that we agree with everything they say. It means we want to understand their point of view and experience. To acknowledge their pain and story and give them space to open up about what it’s truly like to be them in their life.
You may have noticed that sometimes you figure out what you think/believe in conversation with a trusted person – the same can happen when we hold space for another. As they speak they may unearth or articulate details they hadn’t recognized before, deeply held beliefs or stories that aren’t serving them, or the fuller truth of their pain and fear.
5. practice self-compassion as you offer compassion to the other person
Practicing unconditional positive regard – a therapeutic term akin to unconditional love – means that we hold them in positive regard no matter what it is that they are sharing, or what they might have done. It is being able to be compassionate and loving towards them regardless of the situation (which does not mean we share their values or don’t wish things were easier or different from how they are).
It isn’t enough to offer compassion to the other person; we must stay grounded in self-compassion as we hold space. Being with and walking alongside a person who is suffering is incredibly hard and understanding the three components of self-compassion will serve both of you. In addition, recognizing the benefits of both gentle self-compassion and fierce self-compassion will empower you to care for others well and to befriend yourself and your own experience.
Guilt, blame, and even shame are common emotional experiences for those of us who have lost children or people we love to suicide. Self-compassion sooths shame and guilt and offers us healthier perspective. We’re not magic, we don’t have all the knowledge, tools, or resources to fix or make life better for others. We’re imperfect and learning as we go, doing our best in any given moment. We’re simply human.
Learn how to hold space: Further learning
If you want to learn more about holding space and how to hold space effectively, I recommend the following resources.
- The Art of Holding Space by Heather Plett
- Interview with Heather & Krista on Holding Space
- What does it mean to hold space for someone? at shondaland.com
- Missing Each Other: How to Cultivate Meaningful Connections by psychiatrist Edward Brodkin and therapist Ashley Pallathra
- 11 Things that will help you hold space for someone at goodtherapy.com
- Holding Space: The Art of Being Present with Others at chopra.com
- Join me in my Brave + Beautiful Community or learn how to work privately with me.
Cultivating the ability to hold space for another takes practice. It is not at all a passive choice but an active form of meaningful, much-needed, life-giving support. When we are walking in freedom we are able to extend our hand in support to lift others up without falling apart.
One of the most powerful gifts we can receive or offer another person is a safe and compassionate space to be heard, or an empathetic witness. Holding space for someone who is suffering does not guarantee healing or any other outcome. But it does create an environment in which healing or restoration are possible and it reminds the person we care about that they matter and are loved and worthy of being seen and known exactly who and how they are.