Foundations of Holding Space: The Facilitation of Emotional Healing

Holding space is a highly effective, evidence-based method for providing emotional support for those in need. In essence, holding space is the act of generating a safe, supportive, loving, caring, and non-judgmental environment, as so the individual suffering is free to process emotionally charged events in a healthful way. It means to mindfully walk alongside them without attempting to change or alter their journey. It means to let them say what they need to say and feel what they need to feel. This process allows them to more readily achieve emotionally balanced states of mind, empowering them to walk in the direction they need to go. Holding space can be used in any circumstance by which a person experiences a great deal emotional distress; whether they are living with a major illness, hardship, poverty, grieving loss(es), nearing the end of their life (i.e. palliative care), or experiencing any other difficult event. The general principles of holding space are as follows:

  1. MINDFUL PRESENCE. Be there with them, grounded in the present. Put aside whatever musings are going on inside your head for a moment so you can attend to them fully.
  2. ACTIVE LISTENING. Hear what they have to say and allow them to express their thoughts and emotions without interruption. Validate that they have been heard by giving them gestures such as nods. If you’re not sure if you’re fully understanding what they are saying, ask for clarification.
  3. CONFIDENTIALITY. If they ask for it, grant them confidentiality unless they are in danger of hurting themselves or others. Let them know that you would only seek more help from others in necessary circumstances.
  4. NON-JUDGEMENT. Just like your own, their lived experience is highly complex and no one has the right to criticize it. Provide a space that is free of wrist slapping and finger wagging. This will allow them to more comfortably speak from their authentic experience.
  5. VALIDATE. Let them know that what they are experiencing is valid (because every subjective experience IS valid).
  6. EMPATHY. To the best of your ability, walk a mile in their shoes. Feel with them. Go on this journey with them, because it is probably daunting for them to go it alone.
  7. COMPASSION. Let them know that they are worthy, loved, and cared for. If the situation is appropriate and there is reciprocal consent, hold them or give them hugs.
  8. EMPOWERMENT. Keep the agency in their hands. This means that we must keep our own egos out of the equation and refrain from giving our own biased advice. Granting them their own independence feeds them confidence and strength.

Practicing the art of holding space builds relationships, communities, and broader societies that are more readily equipped to resiliently dance through hardships and trauma (because whether we like it or not, they are just a fact of life). So hold space for others, and allow others to hold space for you.

References:

Davidson, L., Chinman, M., Kloos, B., Weingarten, R., Stayner, D., & Tebes, J. K. (1999). Peer support among individuals with severe mental illness: A review of the evidence. Clinical Psychology: Science and practice, 6(2), 165-187.

Krause, N. (2004). Lifetime trauma, emotional support, and life satisfaction among older adults. The Gerontologist, 44(5), 615-623.

Puchalski, C., Ferrell, B., Virani, R., Otis-Green, S., Baird, P., Bull, J., … & Pugliese, K. (2009). Improving the quality of spiritual care as a dimension of palliative care: the report of the Consensus Conference. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 12(10), 885-904.

Stephens, J. P., Heaphy, E. D., Carmeli, A., Spreitzer, G. M., & Dutton, J. E. (2013). Relationship quality and virtuousness: Emotional carrying capacity as a source of individual and team resilience. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 49(1), 13-41.

Solomon, P. (2004). Peer support/peer provided services underlying processes, benefits, and critical ingredients. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 27(4), 392-401.