In such a holding environment the (person) is consistently there as an attuned, solid, reliable, trustworthy presence.
Relational Integrative Psychotherapy
During the seven years I spent care-partnering my husband as his heart failure progressed, I noticed some significant differences in the ways that people tried to support me. Some stayed with Derrick so I could do errands or get a break, some sent funny or encouraging notes and letters, some went grocery shopping for me, some accompanied me to waiting rooms while Derrick underwent procedures, some brought meals, some visited and gave me hugs, some helped financially, some gave me advice, some tried to make me happy with their sometimes relentless cheerfulness and some just sat beside me and listened. It's the support of these latter dear people I'd like to explore more deeply today.
One of the most skilled companions to sit with me and listen during those illness years, and during the early years of my bereavement, was my spiritual director, Wendy. Perhaps because her core training and the central mission of her work was to "be" with others as they walked their life journeys, she rarely, if ever, slipped into "doing" or "advising" mode. I never felt pressured to be other than who I was. She had no expectations of changed behaviour or mood (or if she did, she hid them admirably!) She just created a small space of silence, safety and restfulness in the midst of the chaos of my life where I could take the time to breathe and be.
There is enormous healing power in this sort of "relationship of presence" and, judging by the number of blog posts featuring the notion of "holding space" to be found on the internet right now, the idea of creating a safe holding environment for our own and others' developing wholeness is hitting a new tipping point. The notion of holding space is not a new one. It has been a core feature of good psychotherapy, spiritual companioning, bodywork, healthcare, communications, teaching and family caregiving for many years. What is changing, now, I think, is our recognition that we can all learn to "hold space" for ourselves and each other as we go through difficult events, transitions and healing processes.
To hold space is to compassionately companion ourselves or someone else as we walk through a difficult experience - to walk alongside with respect and support but without judgement. It means having clear boundaries between where our experience ends and the other's begins. For active people it can feel uncomfortable, like "doing nothing", but in fact it's doing something very important. It's intentionally creating a safe space within which we or another person can explore and express experience and, through that process, find comfort, healing, learning and growth.
One of the best descriptions of holding space that I know is that of grief specialist, Alan Wolfelt, in his work on companioning:
Companioning is about:
~ honouring the spirit, not focusing on the intellect.
~ curiosity, not expertise.
~ learning from others, not teaching them.
~ walking alongside, not leading.
~ being still, not frantically moving forward.
~ discovering the gifts of sacred silence, not filling every painful moment with words.
~ listening with the heart, not analyzing with the head.
~ bearing witness to the struggles of others, not directing those struggles.
~ being present to another person's pain; not taking away the pain.
~ respecting disorder and confusion, not imposing order and logic.
~ going to the wilderness of the soul with another human being, not thinking you are responsible for finding the way out.
Wouldn't you just love to sit with someone who practiced and honoured these ways of being? In a similar vein, Narrative coach, Heather Plett, offers 8 lessons she has learned about holding space for others:
1. Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom.
2. Give people only as much information as they can handle.
3. Don't take away their power.
4. Keep your own ego out of it.
5. Make them feel safe enough to fail.
6. Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness.
7. Create a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma etc.
8. Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would.
Whatever language we use, the process is about being deeply present, still, quiet and supportive in the face of our own and others' pain so the voice of that pain can be heard, acknowledged and accepted and healing and growth can happen. Is there someone in your life who could use some place holding or companioning today?