What It Really Means To Hold Space For Someone

Disclosure: this page may contain affiliate links to select partners. We receive a commission should you choose to make a purchase after clicking on them. Read our affiliate disclosure.

There are times in life when you really want to be there for a friend or family member who is going through a hard time.

Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t always go well. You may find yourself interjecting your own opinions, imposing your own life experiences, or not necessarily trusting what your loved one has to say.

You want to help, but you don’t feel like you are helping, or you may have actually made the situation worse by giving bad advice.

The solution is “holding space.”

To hold space for another person (or yourself) is to be present with them in the moment without imposing yourself on their experience.

You stand with them in a small bubble for the two of you, while still being in your own respective spaces within that bubble. That may be physical, mental, emotional, some combination of the three, or all three.

Holding space provides the freedom and safety for someone to experience the emotions that they are having without fear of judgment or anyone trying to meddle with their affairs.

Sometimes, a person who is struggling doesn’t need advice; they just need the ability to articulate their problem so they can find a solution to it themselves.

They may already know the solution but need to emotionally process it because the solution is difficult or painful, like quitting a job or leaving an unhealthy relationship.

Furthermore, holding space is beneficial because it is empowering. By holding space for your loved one, you are empowering them to process their emotions and make decisions for themselves.

This includes the added benefit of them not coming back to blame you if things go wrong or becoming their emotional dumping ground.

How do I hold space for someone?

Holding space is about being in the present moment and not imposing yourself on the other person’s situation.

By doing this, you are helping to create a safe space where they can experience their emotions, find solutions, and work through their problem.

To do that, you need to quiet the urge to comfort. You are not there to comfort or tell the person that everything is going to be okay. It may not be okay. It may not be okay for a long time. You don’t know when it’s going to be okay or if it ever will be. It might not.

You will watch your loved one suffer with their load, but know that you can’t pick it up and carry it for them. It’s for them to carry, not you.

Actively listen to what your loved one has to say. Active listening is focused around suspending your own thought processes to make sure you are giving the other person your full attention.

A lot of people don’t really listen. They busy themselves with their smartphone, or they think about what they are going to say next. Avoid all of these. Put your phone away and ignore it. Those notifications can wait.

It’s okay to ask clarifying questions, but try to wait until natural breaks in the flow of conversation, so you don’t disrupt the other person’s thought process. They may be trying to work out how to express what they are currently feeling, and that can sometimes take a few minutes.

Do be prepared for any and all kinds of emotions to come at you. They may have anger or express ugly thoughts that you may not be expecting. That is common if they are trying to work through hurt caused by another person. Their expression of hurt and anger will likely be something that passes through them as they work to process their emotions.

Don’t be afraid of silence in the conversation. They may need time to collect themselves and try to find their words, process something that you said, or consider something that they are thinking about but haven’t told you.

Don’t give in to the feeling that you need to fill the silence when it’s there. And don’t let your mind wander if that’s the case.

Do ask if they think they have any solutions to their problem. That way, you can get a better idea of what they are already thinking, and it can help them spur their own ideas. There’s a pretty good chance that they already know what the solution to their problem is; they just need to act on it.

Holding space and listening to someone talk about their feelings or a problem usually has a natural cadence to it where there’s a start, climax, and tapering off to an end. Don’t rush the process if you feel compelled to hurry the person along or try to get to the point faster. Let the flow of conversation happen naturally and come to its conclusion.

After holding space…

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Holding space is one of those things that’s simple, but not easy.

It’s not easy to set aside your own emotions, reserve your judgments, and radically accept what your loved one has to say. It can be ugly and painful. You may hear things that you don’t want to hear or that hurt if you were the one involved in it.

You also need to ensure that your own mental and emotional health is in balance. If you take on their emotions, that can really disrupt your stability and well-being.

You need to have a reliable way of dealing with your own emotions and venting off any of those that you choose to take on by holding space for another.

It’s also okay for you to have boundaries. Some people just ruminate on their problems and go around in circles because they refuse to make a decision or move. It’s okay to choose to not hold space for another person.

Maybe you don’t feel like you are mentally or emotionally healthy enough to do that for someone else. That’s okay. Just make yourself clear that you really can’t handle anyone else’s problems right now. Suggest that they may want to talk to someone else or seek professional help.

And when it comes to matters of trauma, self-harm, suicide, or mental illness, it’s best to encourage them to seek professional help. Stepping into that space is not safe if you’re not trained on how to do it.

You may also like:

About The Author

Jack Nollan is a person who has lived with Bipolar Disorder and Bipolar-depression for almost 30 years now. Jack is a mental health writer of 10 years who pairs lived experience with evidence-based information to provide perspective from the side of the mental health consumer. With hands-on experience as the facilitator of a mental health support group, Jack has a firm grasp of the wide range of struggles people face when their mind is not in the healthiest of places. Jack is an activist who is passionate about helping disadvantaged people find a better path.