A 29-year-old male client who started therapy sessions to support his partner, who is struggling with depression, tells me: “The internet and social media continually tell you that it’s important to hold space for loved ones who are struggling with a mood or mental health concern. While I get it, I am not sure what exactly it means. Sometimes I wonder If I am doing it all wrong, it’s complex isn’t it, how does one know when to hold space and what does it really mean? I can’t have this conversation with my friends because I am not sure if they will understand or get what I am asking, and if they pass a stupid remark I will be hurt.”
The idea of holding space for others and for our own self has gained popularity over the last few years. I often ask clients to describe what holding space means for them and it’s always fascinating to see what unfolds. While the term has been used mostly in relation to therapists, facilitators, caregivers, all of us need people who can hold space for us.
As facilitator and author Heather Plett says: “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.” Holding space is the cornerstone of all relationships where we feel heard, seen, and safe. It’s the secret sauce that allows relationships to deepen, and provides a safety net for people to be vulnerable.
It may sound simple enough but in a world where we are constantly distracted by devices, finding people—at school, workplaces, even our own homes—who can hold space for us seems to be a struggle. At the same time, each of us, across age groups, is capable of cultivating skills that allow us to hold space.
Our capacity to hold space for others has the potential to impact societies, communities, workplaces and, in turn, allow for psychological safety and trust where people can flourish. The act of holding space for someone requires one’s attentive presence, an intention to listen deeply, curiosity to know their perspective, patience and, most importantly, an ability to be non-judgemental about the other person’s experience.
Learning to cultivate these skills is a good space to begin with—and it’s possible to do that. If you have a family member or colleague going through a difficult time, the act of holding space can begin with a simple question or comment, “I am here, if you need to speak.” When people do reach out, it is our responsibility to be receptive and fully present. This would mean putting away the phone, listening with the intention of doing just that and not giving advice; being empathetic and asking them how they would like to be supported. We often assume how people want to be supported and that can come in the way of offering help that is useful. Sometimes, being present and listening is the best help you can offer—there are few people who do that.
The pillars of respect, trust, confidentiality and consistency are important when it comes to holding space for others.
At the same time, we need to be able to hold space for ourselves too when we find ourselves overwhelmed, in distress, in moments of grief and even anger. When we choose to hold space for our own selves, it’s an act of compassion. It can look like choosing to take a pause, telling loved ones that you are feeling overwhelmed and will reach out when you can speak, even engaging in activities that allow you to self-soothe in a healthy way, like journaling, meditation or going for a walk.
The act of holding space is a reminder once again that some of our actions that have the most consequences on our well-being can seem the simplest—yet we need to mindfully work towards them.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health With Sonali.