Truly Holding Space
When your friend explains to you how life changing it was when someone truly held space for her, you want her to share what "holding space" with someone means. This is a powerful piece, my friends. Although I am not free to give her name, her words and her story are incredible. I think it will grip your heart like it did mine and hopefully help us better understand what it means to truly hold space.
We hold a lot of things for people- their keys, their purse, their baby, their hands, even their secrets…but I dare say the most important thing you could ever hold for someone - is space.
Holding space doesn’t mean rushing in to fix or save the person from the chaos and pain in their lives. It means sitting without judgment and allowing them to share their heart as fully as they want, in a safe environment. After months of isolation due to a chronic illness, a close friend of mine drove several hours to come and simply hold space for me. Not unusual to my story, everything in my life was falling apart. I couldn’t see a way out of my situation, and the problems I was facing were far beyond the reach of human intervention. I had tried everything to change or bring movement to my plight, and the few friends I allowed to know bits and pieces were heartbroken by their inability to help. I had held it together for as long as I could, smoothing over the desolation by placating “I’m okay’s” to make them feel better. Admitting fully how bad things were felt like too much to share. If there was nothing they could do, why bother? No need to burden them when they were just as powerless as I was. And if I’m honest, I was afraid to stop hiding from my own reality. I thought it would break me if I laid it all out and admitted how hopeless things were. My birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s had all been reminders of how isolated and alone I was. Holidays have a way of driving loneliness home- even in the most crowded of rooms. Watching other people express their joy spending time with loving families and partners cut even deeper as I sat in empty houses having little-to-no-contact with the outside world. I dreaded facing Valentine’s Day, aware of the aching vacancy where love had recently vacated. My counselor was going on maternity leave at the height of my crisis- again. Her prompting me to reach out to my support network felt like more of an assignment than a linking of arms. Not wanting to show up to my next session without my “homework” done, I fulfilled the minimum requirement, expecting to get away with a “Just saying ‘hi’.” The friend I texted asked pointed questions, and in her responses, I found the support I’d needed. If you have a friend who knows you so well that they hear the screams behind your positivity, consider yourself blessed.
Just a few weeks later on Valentine’s Day, she cleared her schedule and showed up at my door. I’d anticipated disappointment- a text saying it was too far of a drive, that she was tired from being up with me til after midnight through my health crisis, or that something had come up. But there she was. I thought we’d discuss logistics of my situation, how to handle it, or that she’d cleverly use reverse psychology to convince me of “another way” to deal with everything. Instead, we went for coffee. We went to dinner. And she let me breathe. The more my soul found safety in bringing the overwhelming pain to light, the more support I found in her presence. There was no attempt to change my mind. There were no forceful reminders to be “thankful” for what I still had, form a positive attitude, or "look at the bright side”. Judgment was absent from the situations I mourned over, that others had condemned me for. There was no religious guilt for the absence of joy in my trials, or my lack of comfort in the God I felt distanced from. She felt the pain of my story, but she never made me feel guilty for allowing her to experience that pain with me. I didn’t have to quickly shut down my emotions to take care of hers. I found freedom in the acceptance to be exactly what I was in that moment, without limitations. And it saved my life.
When she climbed back in her car many hours later, nothing about my situation had changed. I hadn’t promised to take action of any sort. There wasn’t a plan or solution to even one insurmountable problem that I was facing. But I felt heard. Someone had sat with me through the details of my pain and allowed it flow until it had all come out. I was no longer holding everything on my own…and I didn’t have to feel remorse because I’d transferred ownership to someone else. I’d just been allowed to be honest. Holding space gave me more space.
Do you avoid having deep conversations with people who are hurting because you don’t know what to say? Do you feel the need to fix it all for them, but maintain distance because you know you can’t? Do you feel the need to say something? Are your clichés and platitudes causing your friends and loved ones more harm? What if you stopped speaking, and intently listened? What if the most selfless, helpful thing you could do is sit in the ashes with someone without rushing them to get up or put on a smile? What if your undistracted, agenda-less presence is all that they need? Holding space for someone removes the pressure to fix it all for them and frees you to be their friend instead of their savior. It’s a practice of healthy boundaries. You may feel powerless, but it is the most empowering thing you can do- allowing their voice to be heard. Who can you hold space for today? It may just save their life.
What Holding Space Isn’t:
Saving someone or fixing their problems
Reminders to be thankful for what they have
What Holding Space Is:
Affirming that what’s going on is hard
Freedom to say it’s hard
Permission to not be okay