Holding 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.
Allow the other person to feel whatever they are feeling. Hold them if they need you to when they cry.
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.
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.
- Rogers, C. R. (1951). Client-centered therapy: Its current practice, implications, and theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
- 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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