You walk along with them without judgment, sharing their journey to an unknown destination. Yet you’re completely willing to end up wherever they need to go. You give your heart, let go of control, and offer unconditional support ~ Lynn Hauka, Huffington Post contributor
One week ago I was sitting in the waiting room, anxiously awaiting my appointment with a foot and ankle specialist. An orthopedic surgeon to be precise. I had no information at that time, other than my foot hurt. A lot. I also knew it was the same foot I had previously broken and that the pain felt alarmingly similar. As I sat there and watched other anxious, potential surgery, patients walk, hobble and limp their way into varying examination rooms, my thoughts, driven by my fears, went to all the worst possible case scenarios. Although I wasn’t sure which case would be the worst: being told I needed surgery and would be sidelined for months; or having no answers, and no clear management plan for the pain and impeded mobility in my foot. As I bounced between all the imaginary outcomes, my phone buzzed in my clenched hands. I looked at the screen, lit up and indicating a text message from my soul sister.
Are you in a waiting room?
I’m holding space for you. What do you need?
Truth be told, I’m not a very emotional person in general, but at that moment, with my fears swirling, my foot resembling a puffer fish and The Sadness engulfing me like a burrito, tears sprang to my eyes. Not only was my soul sister thinking of me, she was right there with me in that waiting room. She was completely there, ready and willing to listen to whatever I had to say, her empathy and care spilling out of my phone and getting in the ring with The Sadness. This was not the first time she has held space for me. And I can say with certainty that it won’t be the last.
Holding space is a term I’ve heard before, but not one that I can say that I fully understood until recently. Holding space is a term used for the skill of authentically and whole heartedly showing up for someone. It’s about truly being there for another person. It’s being present. It’s empathy. It’s creating a safe space for them to fall apart or make decisions or simply have an experience. It’s validating their emotional state while they experience the journey they are on.
It’s the process of witnessing and validating someone else’s emotional state while simultaneously being present to your own ~ Connor Beaton
Being 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 ~ Heather Plett
Holding space is showing up for another person with an open heart and unending support while letting go of judgment or control. This means being simultaneously present, supportive and validating for the other person, while at the same time being aware of our own emotions, judgements, opinions and how we would do things or want them to turn out. To hold space for another, to be truly empathetic, it becomes all about them and we focus solely on their needs. Our own thoughts and emotions, opinions and desire for control, to fix or “help” is put into a container. In doing so, we can establish a space where we can allow the other to make their own decisions and have their own experiences.
I have spent the last few months building a relationship with someone who is a breath of fresh air (BOFA) in my life. Shortly into the relationship, BOFA experienced a family crisis. This family event required that he leave town to return home and to do so quickly. I accompanied him to the airport a few hours later, with a one way ticket in his hand and no idea when he would return, I knew in that moment that I would absolutely hold space for this man. I offered and provided my unconditional support and presence. I wasn’t physically there with him, he knew he was not alone. Even though the details of the event were frightening reminiscent for me, triggering emotions, memories, regrets experienced 12 years ago, this was his experience to have. As much as I wanted to fix it for him, to impart all of what I learned from my experience, this was not about me. Although the details echoed each other, our experiences of those details would not be the same because we are not the same.
As an aside, everything settled and ended well for BOFA and his family.
I held space for him, while he held space for his family. That’s how it works. I can’t be a strong holder unless there is someone who will hold space for me. My soul sister held space for me during this time. All those emotions and memories that were triggered, she held a safe space for me to process them and to remain strong and present for BOFA. These experiences have deepened my connections in each of my relationships.
Despite the piles of literature available on how to hold space, to me it boils down to being present. Listen to hear and understand, not respond. Put yourself aside and take a journey with another human. Connect. Put simply, just be there and actually give a shit.
Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’ ~ Brené Brown