Holding the Space

Holding the space is a term that gets thrown around in circles of coaches, spiritual groups, and other personal growth type arenas. When I first started in this profession I wasn’t totally sure what it “really” meant but I knew it was important. The more time passes the more I realize how important it is in any relationship, period.

Let me explain. What I mean by holding the space is that when you connect with another person/group you allow each person to have their own experience. You don’t project your crap, opinions, judgments, advice, or other personal stuff onto their experience. Instead, you show Holding Spaceup for that person in a loving and compassionate way and allow them to have their experience in its fullest. The good, bad, and ugly emotions as they journey through whatever the situation is. You don’t try to “fix it” or “make it better” you just allow it to be. The only way you can do this effectively is if you are truly comfortable in your own skin. Otherwise, the need to put your $.02 in and control the situation and get absorbed in the drama of the situation is too great. Not to mention if we care about the other person and realize change is afoot we can instantly get sucked into the “how does that impact me? what about me?” cycle. Now I’m not saying you don’t need to look at your own emotions and how other relationships affect you, of course you do! What I’m saying is it requires a little self management to be able to put that aside until you can do it in a healthy way that doesn’t take away from the other person’s experience of the situation. Otherwise you can get stuck in a weird cycle of apology and victim/rescuer role playing as each person feels just a little more affected by the other.

It is not the easiest thing to do at times, but in the long run it is truly the most productive and rewarding for all involved. Allowing other people to have their full experience and interpretation of events is the only way to have a healthy relationship in the first place whether it is business or personal. There is no such thing as “reality” other than each person has their own “reality” based on the interpretation they choose to believe as it relates to external events. Whew! Now doesn’t that sound heavier than a cheap takeout container of egg foo yung. Yet, if you think about it, different people can see the same situation but with entirely different eyes. Let’s take a hot, charged, political situation as an example. Like it or not, George W. Bush is the President of the US. Now, that is a fact. Yet, there exist multiple realities around this fact. There are people who think he is the greatest president ever. That is their reality. There are other people who think he is the worst thing ever. This is their reality. These multiple realities exist simultaneously. There truly isn’t one “right” or “wrong”. You could look at facts of specific situations on which he’s made a decision and assess the impacts, but the multiple realities still remain. I’m sure you have a strong opinion, like I do, but that doesn’t negate the fact that someone else may be having an entirely different interpretation and experience (“reality”).

I got to thinking about the concept of holding the space this weekend when we learned that our two best friends were breaking up after over 14 years together. We were shocked to say the least. Yet, we know we love them both and will allow them to have their experience and be there to support them if or when they want us to. Holding the space for them and for our relationship with each of them is the only thing we can do. That doesn’t mean we don’t have our own emotions on how it affects us or our own questions, but that stuff isn’t baggage we need to throw in their ring. We can just have compassion and love for them and hold whatever space we can allowing what will happen to happen.

It sounds so “hands off” or disconnected, but it doesn’t have to be. You can stay deeply connected to others and interact a great deal while holding the space for them to experience what they are experiencing.

I guarantee you if you give yourself permission to have your own experience fully and allow others you relate to do the same you will not only be happier & more successful but your relationships will deepen and flourish as well.

Is this concept of “holding the space” new to you? What questions do you have? What has been your personal experience?

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Google+ Comments


  1. At a loss... says:

    Dear Paula,

    I am a 32 year old woman who has always been fairly good at holding space for others to experience what ever is going on for them. I am struggling recently though with my partner and everything that is going on for her. I recently chose to end our relationship because I could no longer handle the limitations that I felt were being tabled for my experiences. She came back to me with a commitment to seek counseling and work things out and I chose to look toward a future with her again. My struggle is this… my partner is experiencing a great deal of distrust, anger, resentment, and hurt over many things at present… she has and has always had anger issues, and expresses her anger through yelling, pointing, and at times beratement of herself, and others related to the anger, or simply others in the room. I grew up in a very quiet home, my partner grew up in a home that was filled often with anger and yelling, so yelling is quite a comfortable place for her. For me, not so much. I have begun having panic attacks when this occurs, I can usually remain outwardly calm, but at times have asked that she lower her voice or wait until we are out of the car and in a less confined area. I am seriously struggling with holding space for her, as I feel that I am at doing myself harm by remaining in that environment. I really don't know what to do, and I feel at times like I'm going crazy trying to find the answer.

    Can you offer any insight on how to take care of myself and still provide her with the space she needs to get things out?

  2. Hi At a Loss,

    First thanks for your comments and adding to the dialogue here on the site.

    I hear that you are having quite a difficult and emotional time right now. Since I don't have the full situation to really delve into it and support you fully, what I'll do is offer some general insights that I see from your short description.

    Most importantly holding the space does not mean allowing yourself to be a verbal punching bag. Do whatever you need to to communicate to her (when emotions are neutral) that your intentions are to support her but that you will not allow her to take her struggle and emotions out on you. A heated screaming match is an unproductive and potentially abusive space. Encourage her to find healthy ways to deal with and process her emotions either on her own or with professional support.

    In addition I would invite you to see how you can amp up your own self-care at this difficult time. What do you need? What can you do to support yourself? What might this situation be trying to teach or tell you?

    I hope that helps you out some. If you wish to explore the self-care angle further, shoot me an email [email protected] and we can connect offline.

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