What it Really Means to Hold Space for Someone
How to be there for the people who need you most
When my Mom was dying, my siblings and I gathered to be with her in her final days. None of us knew anything about supporting someone in her transition out of this life into the next, but we were pretty sure we wanted to keep her at home, so we did.
While we supported Mom, we were, in turn, supported by a gifted palliative care nurse, Ann, who came every few days to care for Mom and to talk to us about what we could expect in the coming days. She taught us how to inject Mom with morphine when she became restless, she offered to do the difficult tasks (like giving Mom a bath), and she gave us only as much information as we needed about what to do with Mom’s body after her spirit had passed.
The author with her mother
“Take your time,” she said. “You don’t need to call the funeral home until you’re ready. Gather the people who will want to say their final farewells. Sit with your mom as long as you need to. When you’re ready, call and they will come to pick her up.”
Ann gave us an incredible gift in those final days. Though it was an excruciating week, we knew that we were being held by someone who was only a phone call away.
In the two years since then, I’ve often thought about Ann and the important role she played in our lives. She was much more than what can fit in the title of “palliative care nurse”. She was facilitator, coach, and guide. By offering gentle, nonjudgmental support and guidance, she helped us walk one of the most difficult journeys of our lives.
The work that Ann did can be defined by a term that’s become common in some of the circles in which I work. She was holding space for us.
Learning to hold space for others
What does it mean to “hold space” for someone else?
It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.
Sometimes we find ourselves holding space for people while they hold space for others. In our situation, for example, Ann was holding space for us while we held space for Mom. Though I know nothing about her support system, I suspect that there are others holding space for Ann as she does this challenging and meaningful work. It’s virtually impossible to be a strong space holder unless we have others who will hold space for us. Even the strongest leaders, coaches, nurses, etc., need to know that there are some people with whom they can be vulnerable and weak without fear of being judged.
Understanding the essence of holding space for others
In my own roles as teacher, facilitator, coach, mother, wife, and friend, etc., I do my best to hold space for other people in the same way that Ann modeled it for me and my siblings. It’s not always easy, because I have a very human tendency to want to fix people, give them advice, or judge them for not being further along the path than they are, but I keep trying because I know that it’s important. At the same time, there are people in my life that I trust to hold space for me.
To truly support people in their own growth, transformation, grief, etc., we can’t do it by taking their power away (ie. trying to fix their problems), shaming them (ie. implying that they should know more than they do), or overwhelming them (ie. giving them more information than they’re ready for). We have to be prepared to step to the side so that they can make their own choices, offer them unconditional love and support, give gentle guidance when it’s needed, and make them feel safe even when they make mistakes.
Holding space is not something that’s exclusive to facilitators, coaches, or palliative care nurses. It is something that ALL of us can do for each other – for our partners, children, friends, neighbours, and even strangers who strike up conversations as we’re riding the bus to work.
Every day is an opportunity to hold space for the people around us
8 Tips to Help You Hold Space for Others
Here are the lessons I’ve learned from Ann and others who have held space for me.
1. Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom. When we were supporting Mom in her final days, we had no experience to rely on, and yet, intuitively, we knew what was needed. We knew how to carry her shrinking body to the washroom, we knew how to sit and sing hymns to her, and we knew how to love her. We even knew when it was time to inject the medication that would help ease her pain. In a very gentle way, Ann let us know that we didn’t need to do things according to some arbitrary health care protocol – we simply needed to trust our intuition and accumulated wisdom from the many years we’d loved Mom.
2. Give people only as much information as they can handle. Ann gave us some simple instructions and left us with a few handouts, but did not overwhelm us with far more than we could process in our tender time of grief. Too much information would have left us feeling incompetent and unworthy.
Knowing how much information to give people in times of grief
3. Don’t take their power away. When we take decision-making power out of people’s hands, we leave them feeling useless and incompetent. There may be some times when we need to step in and make hard decisions for other people (ie. when they’re dealing with an addiction and an intervention feels like the only thing that will save them), but in almost every other case, people need the autonomy to make their own choices (even our children). Ann knew that we needed to feel empowered in making decisions on our Mom’s behalf, and so she offered support but never tried to direct or control us.
4. Keep your own ego out of it. This is a big one. We all get caught in that trap now and then – when we begin to believe that someone else’s success is dependent on our intervention, or when we think that their failure reflects poorly on us, or when we’re convinced that whatever emotions they choose to unload on us are about us instead of them. It’s a trap I’ve occasionally found myself slipping into when I teach. I can become more concerned about my own success (Do the students like me? Do their marks reflect on my ability to teach? Etc.) than about the success of my students. But that doesn’t serve anyone – not even me. To truly support their growth, I need to keep my ego out of it and create the space where they have the opportunity to grow and learn.
Keep your own ego out of it
5. Make them feel safe enough to fail. When people are learning, growing, or going through grief or transition, they are bound to make some mistakes along the way. When we, as their space holders, withhold judgement and shame, we offer them the opportunity to reach inside themselves to find the courage to take risks and the resilience to keep going even when they fail. When we let them know that failure is simply a part of the journey and not the end of the world, they’ll spend less time beating themselves up for it and more time learning from their mistakes.
6. Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness. A wise space holder knows when to withhold guidance (ie. when it makes a person feel foolish and inadequate) and when to offer it gently (ie. when a person asks for it or is too lost to know what to ask for). Though Ann did not take our power or autonomy away, she did offer to come and give Mom baths and do some of the more challenging parts of caregiving. This was a relief to us, as we had no practice at it and didn’t want to place Mom in a position that might make her feel shame (ie. having her children see her naked). This is a careful dance that we all must do when we hold space for other people. Recognizing the areas in which they feel most vulnerable and incapable and offering the right kind of help without shaming them takes practice and humility.
A wise space holder knows when to withhold guidance and when to offer it gently
7. Create a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma, etc. When people feel that they are held in a deeper way than they are used to, they feel safe enough to allow complex emotions to surface that might normally remain hidden. Someone who is practiced at holding space knows that this can happen and will be prepared to hold it in a gentle, supportive, and nonjudgmental way. In The Circle Way, we talk about “holding the rim” for people.
The circle becomes the space where people feel safe enough to fall apart without fearing that this will leave them permanently broken or that they will be shamed by others in the room. Someone is always there to offer strength and courage. This is not easy work, and it is work that I continue to learn about as I host increasingly more challenging conversations. We cannot do it if we are overly emotional ourselves, if we haven’t done the hard work of looking into our own shadow, or if we don’t trust the people we are holding space for. In Ann’s case, she did this by showing up with tenderness, compassion, and confidence. If she had shown up in a way that didn’t offer us assurance that she could handle difficult situations or that she was afraid of death, we wouldn’t have been able to trust her as we did.
The circle becomes the space where people feel safe enough to fall apart
8. Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would. Holding space is about respecting each person’s differences and recognising that those differences may lead to them making choices that we would not make. Sometimes, for example, they make choices based on cultural norms that we can’t understand from within our own experience. When we hold space, we release control and we honour differences. This showed up, for example, in the way that Ann supported us in making decisions about what to do with Mom’s body after her spirit was no longer housed there. If there had been some ritual that we felt we needed to conduct before releasing her body, we were free to do that in the privacy of Mom’s home.
Holding space is not something that we can master overnight, or that can be adequately addressed in a list of tips like the ones I’ve just offered. It’s a complex practice that evolves as we practice it, and it is unique to each person and each situation.
What it Really Means to Hold Space for a Woman
By Kathryn Hogan on Monday January 16th, 2017
Four important ways you can learn to be truly present
‘Be authentic.’ ‘Hold space.’ ‘Be present.’ These phrases may sound vague, but they’re what the women you love really need. And here’s how you can give it.
“I just need you to hold space for me.”
This phrase may strike fear into even the most stoic male heart.
“You can’t hold space!” you may cry. “It’s space!”
But if you want to be with an emotionally intelligent, spiritually inclined, mindful woman, chances are you’ll be hearing this type of phrase. It’s becoming more and more mainstream, and whether or not you consider it New Agey, this phrase describes an active state of being that is extremely powerful in a relationship.
It is an active state of being that is extremely powerful in a relationship.
It may seem like an absurd, haphazard combination of words that doesn’t actually describe anything. It’s actually describing one of the mysteries of life, something that cannot be described. It’s speaking about a more complex—and complete—understanding of human experience. When a woman says something like this to you, she’s inviting you to live in the moment in a full, focused, joyful way, with her. She’s asking for your help, your support. She’s asking you to pay full attention to her, witnessing her experience, without judging her experience as good or bad.
When a woman says this, she is actually asking you to be with her, and to pay attention to her, fully. This is incredibly important and I can’t stress it enough. My upcoming book has a whole chapter about how powerful it is to be truly present with the women you care about. And as Jordan Gray says, another way to say ‘presence’ is ‘paying attention.’
She is actually asking you to be with her, and to pay attention to her, fully.
They say our bodies are 80% water—but we’re really 99% space!
To hold space for another person, you have to first do it for yourself. They say our bodies are 80% water—but we’re really 99% space! So breathe deeply, opening up your body further. Hold space within yourself first, which means allowing yourself to simply be. Whatever arises, don’t judge it as good or bad. Witness it, allow it, accept it.
Holding space for another is to hold space for them, within yourself. This isn’t just foo-foo energy talk: it’s building a connection with this other person, based in part on subconscious physical cues. It’s holding the person you’re with in your awareness, just as he or she is; to witness their emotions with empathy, whatever they are.
Anyone can hold space for anyone else. However, I feel that there’s an added dimension available when a man does this for a woman; namely, he is able to be present in his masculine power, and thus allow her to relax into a more feminine state. My experience is that holding masculine for myself can be very exhausting, and being with a man who is willing to step into the masculine fully so that I can ‘drop my guard’ is a huge relief.
Holding space is a way to make your masculine power available for the women around you, for the good of all. We need your presence, your masculinity, and your power. When women realize that this is what you’re doing (and yes, you’re allowed to tell them!) they will relax. Unwind, release tension, melt. They might cry, they might simply smile, they might snuggle up. However they express it, what they will really do is show you a part of themselves that few people ever get to see. It’s beautiful, and it feels great for both of you.
Here’s a primer on how you can integrate holding space into your daily life, to improve your relationships with women, other men, and yourself.
They will show you a part of themselves that few people ever get to see.
Pay Attention to Your Experience
You don’t have to be a yogic master to experience the benefits of mindfulness in your life—and your relationships with women. You don’t even have to meditate! All you have to do is be aware of what is actually happening right now, within you and all around you, while trying not to judge it as good or bad.
It’s the simplest thing in the world. And the hardest.
Being mindful of the people around you means witnessing their experiences, their emotions, their words…without becoming reactive. Mindfulness is an inner space of stillness, of being, which manifests outwardly as focused attention.
Witnessing their experiences, their emotions, their words…without becoming reactive.
Pay Special Attention to the Women Around You
You have an incredible power when it comes to women. The power to hold masculine space, so that they can relax into their feminine selves. A very simplistic description of the sacred masculine is that of a container. The feminine is the fluid within, able to flow because she doesn’t have to contain herself. If you’re craving feminine presence—softness, receptivity, playfulness, authentic adorable womaniness of an indescribable quality—holding space for the women around you is how to get it. This doesn’t just benefit you: it is a huge relief to be able to just be feminine. It’s a huge relief for anyone of either gender to know that they are being truly seen, and that they are not judged. Holding space makes life easier for the people around you.
The next time you’re in a fight and don’t know how to move forward, or find yourself getting frustrated, feeling that you aren’t helping, it’s time to take a deep breath, and hold space for this woman.
This can be especially powerful when the woman you’re with is feeling sensitive, upset, hurting, or needs your emotional support and listening. The next time you’re in a fight and don’t know how to move forward, or find yourself getting frustrated, feeling that you aren’t helping, it’s time to take a deep breath, and hold space for this woman.
Turn your focus towards her fully. Really notice this woman, the details of her appearance, her posture, and how she has chosen to present herself; what she is doing, how she’s doing it, the things she’s saying and the things she is leaving unsaid; anything and everything. If a reaction starts to arise in you, accept it within yourself, and try to provide a non-reaction externally. You don’t have to give any compliments in order to hold space. You don’t have to provide advice to be providing your masculine presence.
You don’t have to say anything at all.
Really notice this woman and how she has chosen to present herself.
This is really about holding space within yourself. Be aware of how you feel, place the nexus of yourself, your consciousness, fully in your body. This has the effect of holding space for the other person, within yourself. Doing that creates a connection between you, an exchange of energy, with subconscious cues. The same way yawns are contagious, if you tense up in response to another person’s emotional charge (to protect yourself from it, which is understandable and we all do it!) the other person will do the exact same thing: tense up. But if you realize that you are tensing up, and instead breathe deeply and release the tension, perhaps by being aware and breathing into it, you are giving that gift of relaxation and space to the other person.
It’s therefore important to use your body to show that you are really there, really present. If you’re not sure how to do that, try turning your body towards her, squaring your shoulders so that she lines up with the middle of your chest, and turning your head to face her fully. Watch her eyes. This may seem obvious or insignificant, but it is profoundly meaningful, and often we change our body language without realizing it, accidentally sending cues to our partner that we don’t want to send. Being aware of your body language is powerful. Practice being aware and trying to open.
Being aware of your body language is powerful.
Holding Space Means Support in Healing.
Everyone has trauma.
The only way through trauma is to feel it. If a person doesn’t feel their pain, their anger, their fear—if they instead repress it—it grows and festers, like a sliver that doesn’t get pulled out. But feelings like pain, anger and fear are, well, painful! And scary! And upsetting! Feeling them isn’t fun. It takes a great amount of courage and strength to do so.
Holding space means lending your courage, your strength. It means creating a safe environment for someone you care about to exorcise the hurt within them.
Holding space means lending your courage, your strength. It means creating a safe environment for someone you care for to exorcise the hurt within them. Allowing that person to cry, to scream, to shudder; witnessing their authentic experience and reacting with love and acceptance to the extent that you are able, is a powerful way of supporting them in this most important spiritual and emotional work.
Don’t worry—it isn’t always going to be tears and screaming! In fact, the more you practice holding space, the more you integrate it into your daily life, the more relaxation and fun and silliness will follow you, from everyone around you. As you learn to do this with women, the results will be especially profound and lovely.
It means creating a safe environment for someone you care about.
When a man is holding space for me, I light up. I let down my guard. I feel more energetic, more free, less worried.
When a man turns the power of his attention to a woman, and holds space in this way, magic happens. When you truly see her, hear her, know her, you can become aware of her beauty and power. Because of your awareness, she’s able to relax into the moment, be more feminine, be more herself.
Love is a verb, like eat, or sleep. You don’t just do it once. Being present with a woman is itself an act of profound love. So practice it, and watch as magic happens around you!