Holding Space: How to Be with People in Difficult Times


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Most of us grow up without really learning how to be with uncomfortable feelings

- whether that is our own or sitting with someone who is experiencing tough emotions. So it's understandable that when someone is struggling, we often don't know how to just be with them.

In fact, you might be familiar with not wanting to cry in front of others, or like me, when you are angry you want to run away so that you don't embarrass yourself with a crazy reaction. This makes complete sense -- especially if you've been with someone who wasn't able to 'hold space' for you when you were struggling with difficult emotions. There's a trust that is broken and we can begin to feel like it's not safe to share our feelings.

Today, I want to talk about the dos and don'ts of holding space for others so you'll feel good knowing you are witnessing their emotion so they can release it without feeling like you are taking it all on or wanting to run.

The no-nos: what we think helps and really doesn't

Losing ourselves in their emotion.

Whatever they are going through may be very emotional, but following them down the path and getting stuck in their emotion is not holding space. This has happened to me before where a friend becomes more upset than I and then I feel like I have to hold space for them. Now not only I am going through something, but I feel like I am responsible for your feelings and have to take care of you. Holding space isn't about taking on the problem yourself - it's offering it space so we can see it, not take it on.

Fixing the logistical.

I know we all have good intentions and often, because we aren't in the emotion of it, we can see a clear solution. Of course, we want to offer it, and right in the middle of heavy emotion may not be the time. Many times, the person just needs to be heard about how hard it is to be human. They see options, they just haven't surrendered to them yet. Allow them to release the emotion first. Then ask if they want to chat solutions or just want to continue to be heard. Let them lead.

Positivity has a place. This may not be it.

I don't know about you, but when I am feeling the discomfort of anger or grief, someone telling me to look on the bright side makes me want to throw them right into the sun. How's that for bright?

Toxic positivity prevents us from feeling all that it means to be human. It tells us to just focus on the silver lining rather than feel the reality. It doesn't change the difficult emotions, it just stuffs them down with all the gifts they have to offer. If we don't sort through the emotion at some time, we lose all the gifts we were offered -- like opportunities for more inner wisdom, courage, resilience, deeper self-love.

What to do instead:


Really the list could end here. Holding space is about listening. It's so simple and we make it so challenging by imagining there is something magical we could say to make the emotion stop.

The most reverent way we can love someone is to allow them their own process without interfering for our own comfort's safe.

We don't know better than them when it comes to their journey. We have to trust they know what they need.


What can I do to best support you?

They know better than you what they need or want. Just ask. Even if they don't know what they need, asking can help them get clear for themselves AND it also lets them know that you are ready and willing to support them.


When people are in deep emotion, their breathing can get short and add anxiousness to the pot of emotions. As humans, we are made to mimic. So take some deep breaths and model staying grounded without any words at all. It will help you too.

Protect yourself from taking it all on.

Some people use an imaginary shield or a globe of light around them to imagine that you are there to witness the emotion without allowing all the energy to attach to you. We can be with people in pain without taking on that pain. In fact, it's more helpful when we don't. In those sacred moments, we are guardians of that space. We ensure the space is safe for this vulnerable emotion. If we take it all on, we aren't able to protect the safety of the space.

Paraphrasing is the best answer to any question.

I know personally how hard it is to not give advice. Of course, my ego thinks I have all the solutions you need. But that's me thinking that my journey and experiences will fit what you've been through. It's very assumptive.

Rather than advice, simply repeat what you heard - as much as you can and focus on the areas that brought a lot of emotion. Then end with "is that right? Have I gotten it all?"

And then listen some more.

Ask questions.

This is not always necessary! However, if someone keeps asking for advice, ask them questions instead. Let them get to their own inner wisdom. Questions like:

How do you feel about that?
What do you think you should do?
What's the next step that feels right?
How do you want to approach this?
What are your options?

Holding space means trusting that people have their own answers. You don't have to do anything but be present and listen. It's really much simpler than we make it out to be.


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