How Holding Space Calms upset feelings

How to Ease Someone’s Troubles by Holding Space

“I need space.” You’ve probably heard this or said it. What does that even mean? It’s about holding space for emotions. To understand each other and ourselves, we need to make room for thoughts and feelings.

Holding space is essential to wellbeing and relationships. It’s like giving a gift of gentle attention to yourself or someone else. To make sense of what we think and feel, we need each other’s input. We learn about the world and ourselves through relationships. 

Holding space is about being present and emotionally available. Noticing your emotions makes them more manageable. Tuning into emotions is vital to connecting with others who are important to you.

What Does It Mean to Hold Space?

A definition of holding space is: To notice thoughts and feelings within you and between you and another person, to acknowledge them.

Another good definition is from Connor Beaton’s guide for men about holding space:

Holding space is the process of witnessing and validating someone else’s emotional state while simultaneously being present to your own.

Holding space is a powerful relationship skill for many reasons:

  • Emotional space enables you to be emotionally present.
  • It makes all the difference between reacting and responding.
  • It makes self-compassion possible.
  • It makes intimate connection with another possible.

What Happens If You Can’t Create Emotional Space?

People differ widely in how well they can create a safe emotional space.  This has a huge impact on self-awareness and relationships. Here are some differences you might notice:

Holding Space Is Not Holding Space Is
Getting your point across Reflecting what you hear
Judging Accepting
Interrupting Listening
Turning away Turning toward
Dismissing Allowing
Discounting Validating
Assuming Being curious
Saying “Don’t talk like that” Saying “Tell me more”
Reacting Responding
Running on auto-pilot Being mindful

Fortunately, holding space is an ability you can learn. It gets better with practice.

How Holding Space Builds Healthy Relationships

Knowing your thoughts and feelings helps you make sense of them and decide how to live your life. Seeing another’s thoughts and feelings enables that person to feel more self-aware and validated, too. Holding space helps you co-create a relationship that promotes wellbeing for you both.

By witnessing, you can create an emotional map of each other — something Gottman found happily married couples do. Showing up, or “being there” allows secure attachment to grow, found Dr. Susan Johnson. You help each other feel seen and cared about. You can be vulnerable in ways you need to feel and stay close.

You can comfort a great deal of emotional distress just by recognizing what’s real for you and for someone else (a form of radical acceptance).

How Holding Space Helps Heal Relationship Trouble

When you offer permission to share emotions as-is, you may not like what you hear.

  • You might find emotions you don’t like feeling. 
  • You may want to push back, criticize, advise, judge, or try to change the point of view you see.
  • You may want certain thoughts and feelings to go away.
  • You might wish the person feeling and thinking this way could be different.
  • You might struggle to make sense of the experiences you’re noticing.  

When you’re holding space, you’re making room for all of this to come into your awareness without trying to change it.

Healing relationship trouble requires a safe space where both partners feel heard and understood. That’s why couples therapy is so important to couples who are struggling. They often need help creating a safe space together. After they can do it in session, they can do it for themselves.

Some thoughts and feelings can trigger shame, rejection, or judgment. You may want to reject feelings or experiences you don’t want to think about. If you can hold the discomfort aside, you can open space in your mind to explore the inner reality that’s true for you.

Seeing that some awfully negative feelings exist doesn’t mean you have to act on them. Validating what you feel is calming, even if you don’t like the feelings you see.

How Do You Hold Space Emotionally?

By sitting with uncomfortable, awkward or difficult ideas you normally push out of mind, you can find new ways to respond.

True, it’s not easy to sit with uncomfortable thoughts. Some helpful techniques include:

A personal practice to hold space might be a reminder you create to help you try a new way of thinking.

How Holding Space Can Help Logic-Minded Men and Women

For people who prefer logic, holding space for emotions can be especially frustrating. It may seem hard to understand others who relate mainly through feelings. This can lead to a history of many painful experiences.

A logical question is: Why is this happening? A self-judgmental reason may be better than no reason at all: “If I have to deal with other people’s emotions, I may get confused. I won’t respond as they want. They won’t like me.” In short: Me + emotional confusion = Unlikeable Me.

How could the practice of holding space allow a different train of thought? It makes other meanings possible. Admitting that you don’t know something may be hard to accept. Yet finding new ways to make sense of your experience by allowing uncertainty may serve you better: “Others may not like my confusion. But I can’t directly know what they think.” The equation becomes: Me + emotional confusion = Me allowing curiosity.

How to Feel Better and More Connected by Holding Space

One of the worst feelings in the world is a sense of being alone with unsolvable problems. It’s agonizing to think the state of your inner world makes you unlovable and unwanted. When you hold space for an inner world, you can begin to accept it, speak for it and share it. Then you no longer have to struggle alone.

Holding space takes great courage. It can be hard work. When you become more conscious of your thoughts and emotions, you can know yourself better. This can help you better connect with others.

Witnessing another person’s reality can help you both make sense of your world, and feel more deeply appreciated. If you find yourself stuck in a negative pattern with your partner or yourself, we’re here to help.  Call us in Alexandria Virginia at 703-768-6240.

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