11 Things That Will Help You Hold Space for Someone

Two people sitting on park bench, one comforts other who has face in shoulder hidingHolding space for someone in emotional pain is a concept many people are not familiar with but have nonetheless felt it, on some level, at some point. Holding space, or creating a container, can be especially helpful when someone is in deep grief, struggling with unresolved trauma, or in the throes of depression. We’ve all had the opportunity to feel the clear and pure attention of unconditional positive regard or the emptiness of its absence in a time of profound need.

So, what does it mean to “hold space” for someone? If needed, how does a person actually do this? The answers to these questions are quite simple in theory but complex in practice.

At one time or another, someone in our lives will need a space held that is loving, nonjudgmental, and empathetic. When that time comes, the relationship you already have will provide a foundation for building this so-called “container” in which you hold space for the other person. If you accept the challenge, your desire to be of service to the other person will be the first building block for holding that sacred space.

Here are the essential elements you must bring to hold space for someone:

1. Practice Loving-Kindness

Loving-kindness is a term rooted in Buddhist tradition, though it appears in other religious and secular traditions as well. It describes the reverent present-moment cultivation of compassion and love for another living being, the earth, or the self.

2. Use Deep Listening

When practicing deep listening, we listen not just to hear but to understand. This practice goes beyond any kind of hearing that can be done with the ears. It is listening with the heart.

3. Have Unconditional Positive Regard

Similar to loving-kindness, unconditional positive regard is the practice explained by Carl Rogers in which a person holds another with absolute regard. This is the foundation of all healing therapeutic relationships. This practice rests on the knowledge that no matter what the person has done or who the person is, the listener holds them with deep respect, compassion, and positive regard.

Sitting with what is means simply being with the person for whom you’re holding space.

4. Sit with What Is

This is arguably the most difficult of the essential elements for those in Western culture. Sitting with what is means simply being with the person for whom you’re holding space. Do not try to change anything, and resist the urge to do anything. You are only creating a safe space for the other person to express and feel their feelings. Sit with them in the hard stuff.

5. Allow

Allow the other person to feel whatever they are feeling. Hold them if they need you to when they cry.

6. Breathe

Remember to breathe. Checking in with your breath is an effective way to make sure you remain grounded. It will also help you stay connected to your own body, which is the most powerful tool you have in assessing your connection to the other person and to yourself.

7. Ground

If you become un-grounded while holding space for someone who needs it, they may find it difficult to trust the space and you. Whatever you do to ground yourself, solidify it when you’re holding space for others.

8. Be Present with Yourself

In order to do any of the things listed above, you must be able and willing to be present with and for yourself. If you’re unable to be present for yourself, you will be hard-pressed to be open and honestly present with another.

9. Don’t Usurp Their Pain

Holding space for someone in deep pain can bring up your own pain. Holding space for another requires that you have a clear intention that although you’re in the trenches with them, you are only holding their hand—you are not stealing their hardship and making it your own.

10. Practice Non-Judgment

This goes for yourself and the one for whom you’re holding the safe container: Do not judge.

11. Don’t Try to Fix It

Often, when someone is in pain, we try to fix it for them. While that might make us feel better, the other person may feel even more isolated in their pain. So above all, be there for and with the other person. Do not try to fix them or their feelings. They do not need fixing. The only way over their pain is through it.

Practicing these essential elements will help make sure you are holding a useful and kind space for the other person. We so rarely hold space for each other nowadays that the mere fact you are trying may absolve you of any unintentional mistakes you make.

If you find yourself in need of the pure and clear attention of unconditional positive regard and it’s not available in your support system, it may be time to consider finding a therapist.

References:

  1. Rogers, C. R. (1951). Client-centered therapy: Its current practice, implications, and theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
  2. Zeng Xianglong, Chiu Cleo, P. K., Wang Rong, Oei Tian, P. S., & Leung Freedom, Y. K. (2015). The effect of loving-kindness meditation on positive emotions: A meta-analytic review. Frontiers in Psychology, V6, pp. 16-93.

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  • Carla

    Carla

    May 23rd, 2017 at 9:19 AM

    From time to time what I need most of all is simply to have someone there to be there for me. Don’t turn it into how so and so affected them or how much they have hurt from the same thing. No this needs to be my time to feel that pain and to grieve and for someone to just be there to be an emotional help for me. The people who try to take what you are personally going through and change it into what they have experienced, this is not what you need at this time. You need someone who can out their own feelings to the side and focus on you in that moment.

  • Rich

    Rich

    May 23rd, 2017 at 12:51 PM

    It is important to know that you can be there for support but not as a fix it all

  • Emogene

    Emogene

    May 24th, 2017 at 11:57 AM

    Think of the strength and kindness that you could appreciate from another
    and in turn remember
    that this is likely what this person needs from you at this moment

  • Theresa M

    Theresa M

    May 26th, 2017 at 12:29 AM

    Beautiful article – Thank you – in my work with bereaved people – the non verbal holding of the space is essential.
    Rosalind Pearman’s “The Heart of Listening” is an excellent reference for using attentions qualities in the therapeutic relationship.

  • Reaca Pearl

    Reaca Pearl

    May 26th, 2017 at 7:33 AM

    Thank you, Theresa. I work mostly with sexual trauma survivors and with gender diversity. Holding the space is also essential. And I find, as it sounds like you do, too, that holding the space is actually *the* most important therapeutic tool in my toolbox. I will definitely check Rosalind’s book out. Thank you!

  • Tia

    Tia

    May 29th, 2017 at 3:56 PM

    Most of the time if you are genuinely a kind and compassionate person then you can do this for another person in the same way that you would hope that they could do the same thing one day for you if needed. You don’t do it just to expect to get that reciprocated, but it is more likely that when you have reached out and helped others that they too will reach out and help you when you may one day need that.

  • Micka

    Micka

    March 18th, 2018 at 7:46 PM

    I had a close friendship for thirty years. I moved interstate. Months later, after many messages/emails etc she told me her mother had died MONTHS AGO! She asked my special support, to be her confidante and there for her to help her in her grief. Dealing with my own son’s recent serious mental illness (he was hospitalised for weeks) and looking after myself and my family had to come first. I felt shocked and hurt … how could she have not let me know her mother (whom I knew) had died until many months later and then ask for my deep support? She had no explanation and reacted strongly negatively to my expression of condolence but limited ability to provide what she said she needed from my. A person has only so much they can give to others without cracking. My son has needed intensive support and a team of professionals and is on the mend but my friendship with this dear friend seems lost.

  • amd

    amd

    April 1st, 2018 at 7:55 PM

    Perfect list. Thank you.

  • Nicole

    Nicole

    July 4th, 2018 at 4:28 PM

    Thank you for sharing this article….Holding space is a primary therapeutic tool I use with my people and I feel it is essential, especially for those struggling with deep pain and/or trauma. But I feel that we could all use this from someone in our lives at times. Being able to sit with someone through the pain is life changing for them. There is no other way but through…too many want to get over. I have seen what this does and I am humbled by it each and every time. I wish more people understood what “holding space” really means and how to practice it effectively. I know how crucial it is for healing and most of all for hope.

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