Shira Klazmer, LPC
"Holding Space" for others: What the **** does that actually mean?
Updated: Aug 31, 2022
This video brings me to tears every time I watch it (3 minutes long): https://fb.watch/5F5EPRcHGP/
The parent in this video is demonstrating a very healthy form of co-regulation with their toddler. The parent sits nearby during the toddler's tantrum, allowing the toddler to gently regulate them self at their own pace without feeling rushed, shamed, or hushed in any way. This parent is also teaching this child that simply because their tantrum may be unpleasant to listen to or frustrating to the parent, the child does not deserve to go through it alone. The parent is teaching this child that no matter the child's emotions they deserve love, attention and support.
Parenting is extremely challenging. You are not a bad parent if you don't sit calmly nearby every time your child has a tantrum waiting for them to regulate (and if you do this every time you must be a superhuman!). Nor is any parent expected to do this every time. However, the more we are sent away or dismissed when we are children when we are having loud or heavy emotions that are disturbing, unpleasant, or irritating to our caregivers, the underlying message we receive is that we are not pleasant to be around unless we are acting pleasant or acting in a way our caretakers prefer. We may then be sent off to our rooms, to timeout, or elsewhere to regulate on our own.
The messages here may be: If we aren't being pleasant then we have to be alone. That if we have unpleasant emotions we are a burden. That if we have unpleasant emotions we have to FIX them as soon as possible. That we cannot depend on others to hold space or us. That we do not deserve to be seen and loved when we are not pleasant.
You may imagine that those who internalized these messages the most during childhood may still operate in a similar fashion today. For example, if you grew up as a male and were constantly taught that it's not socially acceptable to cry as a boy or a man, then you likely created a pattern of holding back your tears or showing that emotion in a more socially acceptable way. This probably still presents in your life as an adult.
If you were sent to your room when you had heavy emotions and were taught to be quiet, calm, and collected when around your caregivers, you may withhold vulnerability or steer clear from conflict as an adult around those close to you.
This inner belief that we are not presentable or worthy of other's attention unless we are at our very best starts from a very young age. This is where "holding space" for others comes in to play. Although we may not have all had the space held for us by our parents like the toddler in this video growing up, there is no reason why we cannot heal that inner child part of us today. This is a reminder that our patterns and behaviors are learned, and can therefore be UNLEARNED.
"Holding space" for someone means sitting with them no matter the emotion or words they express. It means staying fully present with them without distractions and without judgement. It takes a strong sense of connection and trust for anyone to open up at this level. It will appear differently for each person and each scenario. It may involve physical touch, words of encouragement, proper body language, nurture or even silence. If you are unsure what they need or want, you could ask them. Regardless, the message you want to send is "I'm here for you no matter what. You are not too much. You are not too emotional. You are not too sensitive. You are fine as you are. I'm not going anywhere. I'm right here. I will protect the space for you while you allow yourself to let go."
I feel such an honor to be able to hold space for each individual person during my time with clients. Sometimes a session in therapy consists of my client having a "tantrum" or showing heavy emotions that they don't feel they have permission to show to anyone else in their lives while I sit with them in that emotion. They get to experience how it feels to be deeply vulnerable with another human being and not feel shamed or dismissed for it.
It takes time for a client to feel comfortable and safe enough to do this with me, but once it happens I know we have reached a new checkpoint in our therapeutic relationship. It is the deepest honor.
You may be reading this and feeling a deep sense of pain around the fact that you may not have anyone in your life right now that you feel you can show your rawest most vulnerable self to in that way. Maybe you can't even imagine allowing your guard down to this extent with anyone. If that's the case, I urge you to try a few options:
Start with yourself. What are some areas of your life that you know deserve your attention but you have been putting off sitting with and looking at due to fear of vulnerability? I like to break out different areas into pieces. Here are some suggestions: work/career, social life, sense of purpose, self-esteem, trauma, health, future plans, personal areas for growth
Test the waters with some people close to you. Start small. Share something vulnerable with them and see how they receive it. You may even ask for permission first. This may sound like: "Hey, I've been thinking that I really could use a good vent session. Would you be open to hearing a bit about some of my fears at work?" If they aren't available to hold that space for you, trust that they will let you know. And that's okay. Try someone else. Note: If they say yes, let them know that you're really just looking to unload and not looking for any advice or feedback. You may even start and then offer them a turn to unload on you as well.
Seek a therapist. A reminder that this is not an easy task. The example I mentioned above where a client finally feels safe showing themselves to me comes from a state of deep trust and feeling understood. Finding a therapist may take trying a few out before you find the right fit. It's perfectly okay to try a session or two with a few different therapists before making a decision on sticking with one. It's also okay to try one therapist for a while and change your mind. It's most important that you feel understood, heard, seen and connected to your therapist. Research shows the biggest measure of change in the therapeutic space simply comes down to the relationship between the therapist and client. It has nothing to do with the therapist's qualifications, training, or years of experience. Keep that in mind in your search.
You deserve to feel as loved and seen as the toddler in the video above. It's also okay not to feel ready yet. You are the only one who gets to choose when the time is right. Starting internally is the safest first step. I wish you well on your journey to feeling seen and having space held for you. I'll say it again: you deserve it. We all do.