Every year during the first week of May in Canada, Mental Health Week is honoured and celebrated. This year, the theme of Mental Health Week is “My Story”. Stories are an important way that we can connect with others and make sense of our experiences, including lived or living experiences with mental health challenges, mental illness, and suicide. While we’ve written on how to share your story safely previously, we haven’t discussed how we can support others and listen to their stories by “holding space”.
If you have heard of the term “holding space” and are wondering what it means, this blog is for you! We’ll discuss what holding space means, how we can hold space for others, and what to do if we are unable to hold space.
What is “holding space”?
Holding space means that you are physically, mentally, and emotionally present for someone. Holding space is often referred to as providing a “container” for someone else’s emotions and experiences. You can hold space for others during the good times, as well as the bad.
If you are physically, mentally, and emotionally present for someone, it means that you are using active listening skills to provide support and empathize with them. When you “hold space” for others, you don’t judge, preach, give advice, or try to problem solve (unless specifically asked to). It often means letting go of how you may expect the other person to feel or to respond. Holding space for someone doesn’t mean you always agree with them, but that you validate them and their emotions.
When you don’t hold space for others well (intentionally or unintentionally), it can result in “hijacking space”. Hijacking a space can look like:
- Jumping in with your own experiences and centering yourself in the conversation
- Trying to fix the problem, offer solutions or provide advice unprompted
- Struggling to manage your own emotions or responses
- Disengaging from the other person and becoming distracted
- Ignoring the other person’s boundaries and/or breaking their trust
While holding space can strengthen your relationships with others, hijacking space can lead to frustration, tension and conflict. Thankfully, holding space for others involves skills that can be learnt and continuously developed.
How can you hold space for others and their stories?
Holding space for others uses skills that can be learnt and developed. To be able to hold space for others though, you should be in a state of relative mental, emotional and spiritual wellness. This helps to create capacity for you to hold space. If you are unwell, it can be challenging to center the other person and you may struggle to manage your emotions or responses to their story.
So, one way that you can hold space for others is by taking care of yourself and practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness helps you to be aware of your own thoughts and emotions, as well as the experiences or topics you might be sensitive to. When you are taking care of yourself and practicing mindfulness, you may be more likely to use your intuition, have good judgment, and have the courage to hold space. You are more likely to be aware of your triggers, and the situations where you may not be the best person to hold space.
You can also hold space for others by developing and practicing humility and curiosity. Humility helps you to recognize and take responsibility for your mistakes, and curiosity challenges you to look beyond your initial judgment and handle life’s complexity. You are not always going to be perfect through the process of holding space (and this is okay) but being accountable for your missteps and mistakes can help to manage harm.
Lastly, you can hold space for others by being intentional about the who, when, and where:
- Who else is present while we are holding space for someone?
- When might be the best time to connect and hold space?
- Where is a safe, appropriate, and comfortable place to hold space?
There may be situations where you are unable to plan ahead and answer the who, when, and where, but you can likely still remain intentional by finding a quiet corner or room to talk, for example.
What if you are unable to “hold space”?
There may be times when you are unable to hold space for others for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you are unwell, and don’t have the mental or emotional capacity. There could also be topics or experiences that are triggering to you, that you are unable to manage your emotion or response to. If you are finding yourself unable to hold space for others, that’s okay. It is not a reflection of your care for, or your love towards that person.
One of the best things you can do when you are unable to hold space is to find another person that is able to or provide professional and community resources. If you are a clinician or therapist, this could look like making a referral for your client to someone you believe is more capable of holding space for them. If you are a family member or friend, it could be connecting with other family members or mutual friends to share the emotional labour of holding space.
We hope that this blog helped to explain the idea of holding space, how you can hold space for others, and what to do if you can’t hold space for someone. For more information, we encourage you to check out the resources for further learning below.
Resources for Further Learning:
Plett, H. (2020). The Art of Holding Space: A practice of love, liberation, and leadership. Page Two Books.
Heather Plett is a Canadian author and leader. Her book discusses how you can hold space for others, while maintaining your own boundaries and sense of self.
This series of blog posts were developed by WRSPC for Mental Health Week 2022 and discuss the role that empathy can play in suicide prevention. This series may be helpful for those who are interested in learning more about how empathy and holding space are connected, and how empathy can be developed.
This 2021 blog post includes perspectives from mental health professionals on the meaning of holding space and how to hold space for others.