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During an interview for a podcast recently, I was asked “what’s the opposite of holding space?”  Though I’ve done many interviews on the subject of holding space since the original post went viral, that’s the first time I’ve been asked that question. As is typically the case for me, the right question can crack open months worth of thought, and this one did just that.

As I contemplated, I searched for a term or word that might describe the opposite of holding space, but I didn’t find one that fully satisfied me. Finally, I came up with this:

The opposite of holding space is emotional colonization.

Wikipedia describes colonization as “an ongoing process by which a central system of power dominates the surrounding land and its components (people).” Colonization involves overpowering, dominating, and taking away the autonomy and sovereignty of other people. Normally we think of colonization as the controlling and exploiting of physical resources (land, bodies, natural resources, etc.). When I worked in international non-profit several years ago, I also witnessed the emergence of the term intellectual colonization, which is what happens when those in power control and exploit intellectual resources.

Emotional colonization is the act of controlling and exploiting someone’s emotional resources. 

While holding space involves supporting without judging, fixing, or controlling the outcome, emotional colonization involves manipulating, disempowering, and judging.

When we hold space, we liberate. When we emotionally colonize, we violate. When we hold space, we leave the person feeling supported and empowered. When we emotionally colonize, we leave the person disenfranchised and weakened.

Emotional colonization can appear in obvious ways (violence, abuse, overpowering, bullying, etc.), but there are also much more subtle ways it can play out. Many of these more subtle forms of emotional colonization are the kinds of behaviours we are all guilty of more frequently than we care to admit.

Here are some of the ways that we emotionally colonize other people:

  • expecting them to experience or interpret situations the same way we do
  • acting as the “tone police” when their emotions are stronger than we’re comfortable with (ie. insisting that they calm down before we’ll talk to them)
  • gaslighting them and making them believe that they are going crazy and/or are no longer in control of their own emotions
  • one-upping their story with a better one of our own (and thereby dismissing the value of theirs)
  • implying that our emotional response to something is more important than theirs
  • dismissing the value of their work and/or taking credit for it ourselves
  • not allowing them to trust their intuition and insisting they do things our way
  • interrupting them
  • acting dismissively when they share a personal story
  • not hearing them when they ask us to change our behaviour toward them
  • ignoring and/or dismissing their emotional state
  • fixing their problems for them and taking away their power to fix them themselves
  • taking over their emotions and feeling those emotions deeper than they do
  • apologizing too much so that they become responsible for making us feel better
  • expecting them to feed our egos
  • passive-aggressively trying to manipulate their behaviour
  • shaming them for feeling too much, speaking too much, eating too much, etc.
  • over-explaining things (with an assumption that they can’t understand otherwise)
  • expecting them to educate us about how we should be in relationships with them instead of doing the hard work ourselves
  • worrying about them in a way that implies we don’t trust them enough to look after themselves

Emotional colonization, at its worst, is a tool of oppression. Those who uphold the patriarchy or white supremacy, for example, are usually masterful at emotional colonization, whether or not they know they’re doing it. We have all seen it happen – the person in power dismissing, fixing, shaming, interrupting in ways that keeps the other person disempowered and fearful. Even in race relations work, where people are conscious and intentional about being in conversation and reconciliation, I have seen people’s ideas being dismissed, emotions being shamed, and/or problems being fixed. (I have even, admittedly, caught myself doing it.) It can feel surprisingly threatening to see an oppressed person claim agency over their own bodies, emotions, etc., and, in response, those who are used to holding the power fall back on the tools of emotional colonization that have been passed down through the generations.

(For a powerful example of how People of Colour have had their emotions colonized, watch this video of Maya Angelou.)

But we can’t simply dismiss it as something “they” do. Each of us finds ways of emotionally colonizing other people. We do it to our children, to our friends, to our spouses, to our employees, and even to our parents. We even do it to ourselves when we police our own emotions in order to make other people feel better (ie. the inner patriarch that Sidra Stone talks about in The Shadow King: The Invisible Force that Holds Women Back).

Just this week, my teenage daughter came home from film camp complaining about a girl in her group who annoyed her, and I was tempted to jump in and assure her that it wasn’t really as bad as she said it was and that she needed to be kind to people no matter what, etc. If I’d done that, I would have immediately disempowered and shamed her. Instead I tried to listen without judgement and speak with compassionate guidance. The next day, she figured out how to deal with this person on her own without me needing to intervene.

We also do it in situations where we’re trying to increase our power in a relationship. Consider a time, for example, when you felt intimidated by someone, and, consequently you interrupted them, dismissed their emotions and/or tried to control the outcome of the conversation. Though it might have felt good, in the moment, to be doing it to someone with seemingly more power than you, it doesn’t serve either of you well in the end. Emotional colonization will never impact positive change.

In the talk I gave at a conference a few months ago, I talked about holding space as “being the bowl” for someone else. After a Lego house falls apart, I explained in my analogy, a bowl serves to contain all of the broken pieces before they can become what they’re meant to transform into after that. The bowl doesn’t intervene – it just holds, protects, and creates safe space for the brokenness and emergence.

As emotional colonizers, instead of serving as the bowl that holds, we become the mold that shapes. Instead of creating safe space for the emergence, we do both the breaking of the house and the forcing into the shape of our choosing. We manipulate, direct, and judge.

Those may seem like overly strong words for some of the behaviour I mentioned in the above list, but consider, in your own life, how often you have made choices that weren’t authentic to you, simply because you didn’t want to stir someone’s anger or because that person was shaming you for your choices? Sometimes it’s the subtlest of behaviours that have the most power.

It takes a lot of emotional maturity to be the bowl instead of the mold. We have to do our own work to dismantle our inner patriarch and to look deeply into our shadow. We have to address our shame and our fear, and we have to practice releasing control and sharing power. We have to find the spiritual practices that allow us to detach from other people’s emotions and their outcomes and to allow them their autonomy. We have to practice trust in ourselves and in each other.

If you are doing that kind of intentional work, then you may benefit from 50 Questions That Could Change Your LifeOne of the questions you’ll receive is “How have you been colonized and what will you do about it?” The companion question is “How are you helping to decolonize others?”

Perhaps those questions will sit with you for a few months as my question sat with me.

A future blog post may revolve around the follow-up question… “How do we free ourselves from emotional colonization?”

Note: I must thank my friend and colleague Lianne Raymond who first inspired me with the language of colonization in her talk on Love with Wild Abandon. It’s worth watching.

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