How to Hold Space for Others
This past year has been brutal. The pandemic has left few unscathed with some people mourning intangible losses such as shifts in routines and sense of freedom, while others are grieving more tangible losses of loved ones, homes, and all sense of what they once knew. When being tasked as witnesses to so much suffering, how do we make space for the unpleasantries? How do we practice being with others in their feelings rather than attempting to fix them?
Consider this scenario. Imagine you’re spending time with someone you care about deeply and amidst catching each other up on various life happenings, your loved one discloses some unpleasant and self-directed feelings. Perhaps, they feel like a failure or are questioning their worthiness. Maybe they feel shame or regret for some past decisions.
When someone you care about is suffering, you might find yourself being pulled into “helper” mode. For many of us, this means searching high and low for any insightful words of encouragement to “help” the situation — anything to remove the pain and discomfort.
You may find yourself jumping to your friend’s defense against — what you deem to be — their harsh self-judgments. Maybe this looks like challenging their beliefs or reminding them of how smart, capable, and insert any other positive attribute you can hastily offer. You may exclaim, Don’t say that about yourself! or You’re amazing! to help them feel better.
It’s possible that witnessing these painful feelings from someone you love likely activates negative emotion in you.
If you think long enough, you’ll likely find that you’ve been in this exact situation being chastised after sharing emotionally vulnerable feelings. While you intellectually understand that the person doing the chastising and redirection is likely coming from a genuinely loving and compassionate place, you probably don’t feel any better. In fact, you may feel worse.
What might be more helpful than trying to fix or change another’s emotional experience, however, is holding space for them and their emotional reality. When we don’t do this and jump immediately into affirmations and challenges, we implicitly (and often explicitly) tell others that their feelings are wrong.
Next time you find yourself with the urge to affirm or redirect someone when they’re expressing negative feelings about themselves, honor their vulnerability and practice being with their feelings rather than instantly fighting them. You may find that active listening and creating space for these emotions is one of the most “helpful” tools you can offer.