What does it mean to “hold space?”

I am quite fond of this turn of phrase, “to hold space,” “holding space,” to be a “space holder.” It became my preferred way of describing what I do after learning from and with Shawna Murray-Browne, and leaning away from terms like client or patient if I can.
But I also think that just changing the words doesn’t capture the actual difference between working with someone therapeutically and holding space. Some elements overlap, such as witnessing, attention and care, and containment. There’s something more personal and embodied to holding space. In a recent conversation with a friend we were reflecting on the way that on a non-verbal level you can tell if someone has the capacity to hold what you need to work through. I can’t (or maybe won’t) access certain feelings and experiences if I can’t trust that they can hold it when we get to the bottom.

One of the young people I worked with in my earlier career in children’s mental health was at once wise beyond their years, and so deeply fearful and wounded that it was very difficult to create any experience adjacent to safety. There were many moments where the only thing I could do was just be there and stay in the moment of crisis. Sitting under a table together, or outside the door of a disheveled room until I was invited in. In the course of working together for several years, we came to this challenging dilemma: if you have survived complex (developmental or childhood) trauma, and you’re functioning now, chances are you’re developed a tolerance for emotion that exceeds the average person you’ll meet. Especially when you’re young.

This can easily become “proof” of one of the most common trauma-based beliefs, something like “if anyone knew how I really felt, or what really happened, they wouldn’t be able to handle it. I’m too much to handle.” My best answer, that was rooted in my own lived experience, is that sometimes that’s true but you can learn to sense when they actually can hear it and hold it. And you need to be able to push yourself to connect where you can, so you don’t start to believe that you’re unknowable, unloveable, or unable to be whole in a relationship.  In that moment I felt connected to how these feelings can be so old, and I reflected on how young I was when I first struggled with these questions.  I don’t know if I really did hold space back then or merely witnessed this brave honesty, but it revealed to me the limitations of our relationship as I wanted so badly to alleviate their loneliness.  Frankly, it was advice I needed myself at the time.

There’s a je ne sais quoi to holding space that requires a steadiness, tolerance, and patience to be in the moment without rushing to change it. To demonstrate in your very being that you’re not afraid of what they have to share, that you’re not so focused on containing that you aren’t really present, to feel along with them so they know you hear them (a sometimes tricky balance between not becoming flooded yourself and showing that you do have emotion and care), and to trust that the person knows what they need.
This isn’t always easy to find, and I highly advocate seeking out those practitioners and peers who can hold it with you. But there’s also something fundamentally withholding about needing someone else to really feel and release, because as adults we need to work with the boundaries and capacity of others too. We cannot expect other adults or even communities to fulfill the roles and love we needed from our caregivers as children.  But we can start to soothe those wounds when we learn to hold space for ourselves.  Which in turn expands our capacity to receive support from others.

One of my early reiki teachers told me that you can never really give yourself as deep a session as you could get from someone else, due to their objectivity. My experience in the last couple years is that this is absolutely not true. But it does require a couple extra steps and developing that capacity to hold your own space, and to expand your belief and ability to provide yourself complete, ruthless, unconditional love and acceptance of your whole self. Through this love we more easily find the strength to make needed changes, and to grow and involve into who we are meant to be.  What does that mean?

On the practical, energy-based level: My first solid connection I made was linking together a common practice I did before Breathwork practice, and a suggested exercise with tuning forks from Eileen McKusick’s book about the human biofield.

Before I begin my self-session, I stand next to where I’m going to lie down or sit. I imagine myself there, in the not too distant future, and I do some work on this future self. I clear the space and energy with tuning forks, burn plant matter, send reiki forward and with the intention for it to flow in right timing. I call in my guides and ask them to hold the space, a circle of protection and love and ask them to make themselves known if I’m feeling disconnected. I invite my unconscious to reveal what needs to be worked with, and ask my conscious and subconscious mind to be willing. I prepare the space to give my body what it might need. Plenty of extra pillows, some extra blankets, water, and eye mask. I make a playlist or use one that seems appropriate. I “close the session” (usually 10-15 mins of sending it forward) with gratitude and then I lie down to receive it along with my own present moment use of reiki. I imagine my recent past self is there, and often a future self as well. I feel myself surrounded by a team of support and love. Usually these sessions tend to be quite long (maybe 50-60 mins) as it is typical to fall into a deep trance and go through many waves of experience.

I have been surprised at how deep this process can take me, and especially because it can be in intuitive timing and with the luxury of lingering in the in-between state when I’m done. Having the choice between holding my own space any time I need to, and reaching out to trusted practitioners when I want to be witnessed and have that objective other who can hold the space with me, means that I can drop into unconditional love whenever I need to. And I can also have greater acceptance of the limitations of others and not retreat into abandonment. (Easier in concept than in practice!)

Holding your own space is also really helpful in bringing clearing practices into the every day, whenever you can make the time and anywhere you are.

How do you hold your own space?

What do you experience as the difference between witnessing and holding?

In what ways can you sense someone ability to see and feel along with you?

How do you tolerate those “rejections” when someone you’re close with cannot do this for you?

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