I was lying on a table and the practitioner holding my arm with both hands was saying “relax your muscles and let me move your arm for you”. With all of my will, I tried. I wanted to do what she asked, if only to make my inner people-pleaser happy. I wanted to be completely relaxed, trusting her to manoeuvre my arm the way she was trying to do it. But I couldn’t. I just COULD NOT. Every time she tried to move my arm, my muscles would involuntarily tighten, anticipate the movement she was trying to manage, and then help her do it. As much as my head told me she was trustworthy, my body refused to believe it.
I was visiting this Feldenkrais practitioner, hoping to relieve the pain in my shoulder. I’d been for an X-ray a month earlier, when I’d injured myself in a tumble out of my bathtub, and it revealed nothing, so I’d assumed, based on the doctor saying it was probably muscular, that the shoulder would just get better. It didn’t. A friend recommended Feldenkrais.
Not knowing it was a fracture (that would be revealed a month later in an MRI), the treatment left me in more pain than when I’d arrived. I drove home in tears.
The tears weren’t just about the pain though. I was crying because, while lying on the table trying not to move the muscles she didn’t want me to move, I’d been reminded just how hard it was to lean into fully embodied trust in another person.
By then, I knew enough about trauma to recognize what was going on. My muscles held the memories of all of the times my body had been harmed – the rape by a stranger in my twenties and the abuse in my marriage – coupled with the shame and disassociation/disembodiment planted in my body from a childhood in a restrictive “purity culture” religion. Even though I’d done a considerable amount of therapy and healing by then, my body remained hypervigilant, prepared for any harm that might come. The only person I could trust to keep my body safe was ME.
Last week, on a long road trip, I was listening to Billy Porter’s memoir, Unprotected, about how he grew up – a flamboyant queer Black kid in a world that rejected and assaulted him again and again. His family and church community treated him like an abomination, his step dad sexually abused him for five years, he was bullied in school, and there were no places (or people) in his childhood that were truly safe for him. The first place he remembers having an embodied experience of safety and support was on the set of Pose, the TV show he starred in about New York City’s ball culture, an LGBTQ subculture in the African-American and Latino communities (in the 80s and 90s).
Though we come from very different backgrounds, there was still resonance in his story for me. I know what it means to have lifelong shame in my body because I was told it was shameful by the church. I know what it means to not believe people will treat my body with care because my body remembers harm.
I also know how surprising it can be to one day realize that something has changed – that you’ve found yourself in the presence of trustworthy people, that you can trust your own wisdom about what boundaries are needed (and you have more strength and better support structures in place to hold those boundaries), and that maybe, just maybe, you can start to put down the burden of shame that your childhood self learned to carry.
Of course, it’s not enough to know those things in your HEAD, you also need to know them in your BODY – and that’s the tricky part. I thought I’d figured this stuff out years ago, when I had a head full of knowledge and had made some hard choices about much-needed boundaries, but then I kept getting reminders, like when I tried to trust the Feldenkrais practitioner, that my body still didn’t fully trust people.
Often it was more about emotional safety than physical safety, but my nervous system doesn’t know the difference and the muscles in my body prepare for fight/flight/freeze/fawn regardless of the source of the threat. Even in places that are seemingly quite safe, like when I’m at a retreat or in a conversation circle with a group of like-hearted people, I notice the signs in my body that there is something in the room that’s triggering a trauma response.
It’s been a long journey, trying to understand, heal and soothe this in myself. I have deep gratitude for the people who’ve been alongside me in this journey, people like my business partner Krista and my dear friend Saleha, as well as therapists and mentors.
Even in those relationships, though, there were times early on when I struggled to lean into fully embodied trust. A part of me remained wary and vigilant. “Isn’t this too good to be true? Can this person really be trusted? Won’t they withdraw their care at some point? Shouldn’t I keep my guard up and maintain my distance? Will they really stick around when I screw up?”
When I first started teaching about the practice of holding space, years ago, it surprised me to hear a lot of participants in my courses and workshops say “I’m good at holding space for other people, but I’m not very good at allowing other people to hold space for me.” It shouldn’t have surprised me, though – because the very same thing was true for me. I could offer a space that others would experience as safe, but I could rarely trust that what others offered me would be safe. I used to say that it was because “I have high standards for people’s skills in facilitation, coaching, therapy, etc.” but in truth, it was more like “my nervous system is hyper-vigilant about who is worthy of my trust.”
Even in recent months, I’ve had a few opportunities to notice when my lack of trust still gets triggered and sometimes gets in the way of growth. It’s been a busy season of working with other people who are helping to advance my work and the work of the Centre for Holding Space – editors and publishers who are working on making my next book the best that it can be and marketing/branding consultants who are helping us expand the reach of the Centre’s work. Every once in a while, I notice my nervous system being activated in this process and a little voice in my head says “Is it safe to trust these people with this work that feels so intertwined with my identity? What if they reject or mislead me? What if I get hurt?” Whenever that stuff gets activated, I have an opportunity to interrogate it and extend tenderness to that scared part of me that still believes that past harm equals future harm. (Fortunately, the people supporting the book and the Centre are wise and caring and have proven trustworthy again and again.)
I’ve said it many times: holding space is FAR more of an internal practice than it is an external practice. It’s about noticing how our own baggage gets in the way of our ability to be present for other people. It’s about healing our own trauma and soothing our reactivity so that we don’t project it onto other people. It’s about leaning into our discomfort and learning to live in liminality so that we don’t get so easily knocked off centre.
AND it’s also about having grace and compassion for the other people we hold space for, knowing that some of them might lack an embodied feeling of trust even when their head says it’s safe (and most of those people won’t know how to articulate it). It’s about not taking it personally when someone has a triggered reaction to something we say or do. It’s about having patience for the other person’s wariness and resistance, and it’s about consistently showing up and working to earn their trust.
I am eternally grateful to those people who, especially in the early days of my healing journey, were willing to stick around and continue to hold space for me even when the trauma showed up in my body and I wanted to (and sometimes did) run away. They dared to love me despite how skittish I sometimes was.
I keep doing this work because I know that it’s important. I want to be in deep, trusting, and secure relationships with people. I want to find the people I can trust with even my most traumatized parts. I want to be as safe as I can be in my own body so that I can offer a safe haven and secure base for other people.
More than anything, I want to make choices rooted in the pursuit of joy, liberation and embodied trust rather than trauma and distrust. That’s what my upcoming book, Where Tenderness Lives: On healing, liberation and holding space for oneself is all about. I’m excited to share it with you in January. You can pre-order your copy here. (And pre-orders are GREATLY appreciated!)
P.S. If you’re still learning about what it means to hold space for yourself (and others), and if you want to explore more about what it takes to create trauma-informed spaces for meaningful conversation, join us in the How to Hold Space Foundation Program. It starts the week of October 23.
There’s an older man I often encounter on the path when I go for my morning walks. We’ve become path-friends, always stopping for a brief interaction when we happen upon each other. Once, he showed me how the inside of his hat was falling apart, but “I just can’t bear to throw it away,” he said, tucking the broken bits in as he pulled the hat back onto his head. Another time he was laughing about the people he’d watched fishing unsuccessfully on the shore. “Just metres away,” he said, “the fish were leaping out of the water as if to taunt those with fishing rods.” The last time I saw him, he showed me a blurry photo he’d captured of a young eagle on a branch. “I’m glad he let me get so close,” he said, delight in his eyes. In turn, I told him about the two turtles I’d watched in a mating dance in the river a few weeks ago. “You’re so lucky!” he said. “You’re right,” I said. “I am lucky.”
At the end of last week, I wasn’t feeling quite as lucky. I’d spent too much time online and had reached that point I often get to with social media – overstimulated with the addictive quality of it, discouraged with how we’ve all become pawns caught in the hamster wheel of the attention economy, dysregulated from all the doom-scrolling, and disembodied from staring at a screen for too many hours. Add to that the self-loathing that creeps in when I recognize the state I’ve allowed myself to get to, and… well, it wasn’t pleasant.
So I did what I know is best for me when I get that way – got offline and went seeking the stillness and nervous system soothing that the natural world offers me. “Eco-regulation” is what some people call it – immersing myself in nature to bring my body and soul back into alignment and a state of calm. More simply put, I let nature remind my body how to love herself again. I drove an hour outside the city so I could walk alone on the shore at sunset with just the seagulls as company.
Monday morning, after a weekend offline, I met my path-friend on my morning walk and we stopped for one of our short chats. I walked away smiling, and suddenly realized that what I receive from every encounter I have with him is exactly why I keep returning to social media and why I haven’t abandoned it entirely. It’s those brief moments of human-to-human encounter. It’s the way we make each other smile. It’s the way we delight in each other’s blurry photos and listen to each other’s slightly boring stories. It’s humanity meeting humanity with openness and little expectation.
Social media is far from a perfect space. Like so many of our communal spaces, it gets co-opted by those who want to sell us things or manipulate our beliefs or secure our vote. Plus it’s been designed to keep us addicted because the more it has our attention, the more money can be made off the advertising put in front of us. All of that is true, but I still value the way that it allows us to encounter each other on the paths we travel down.
I am reminded of what Richard Wagamese says in one of his short pieces in Embers:
We approach our lives on different trajectories, each of us spinning in our own separate, shining orbits. What gives this life its resonance is when those trajectories cross and we become engaged with each other, for as long or as fleetingly as we do. There’s a shared energy then, and it can feel as though the whole universe is in the process of coming together. I live for those times. No one is truly ever “just passing through.” Every encounter has within it the power of enchantment, if we’re willing to look for it.
I love my path-friends, whether online or on the path by the river, but life is not complete with only those encounters. While there is meaning and joy in our brief engagement, I’m sure that I would die of connection-deprivation if that was all I ever had.
In a sense, those little moments are like fast food – they taste good, they sustain us in the moment and they give us a quick hit of energy to help us get through the day, but we burn through those empty calories pretty quickly. We need more nourishment and nutrients than that. We need the slow-cooked, lovingly prepared food of deeper conversations and more long-term relationships. We need the belongingness of community and lovingly nurtured friendships.
Perhaps friendship can be best plotted on a spectrum, with one end being the path-friends we encounter occasionally but might never know their names. Somewhere further down the spectrum are the coffee-shop friends – those with whom the relationship has deepened enough that we occasionally sit down together over a meal or a cup of coffee. Sometimes these are friends we only see once every few years, but their presence matters enough that we choose to set aside time for them for an exchange of stories.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had more lunch dates than I’ve had in years, and I feel deeply nourished by these coffee-shop-friendships. There is something special about re-encountering people who’ve witnessed me in different phases of my life and still delight in who I am now. There’s the former boss and mentor I haven’t seen in over twenty years – the person who helped me see I had leadership capacity before I saw it in myself – who wanted to know all about my work now. There’s the couple I traveled with in Ethiopia, India, and Bangladesh when I worked in international development and with them I shared a few good laughs over wine while we reminisced about the horrible nights we spent in a creepy house surrounded by abandoned army barracks, where I ended up with over 500 bedbug bites. There’s the friend I only see every couple of years, who once flew across the country to attend my retreat, who shared with me that she is once again on a journey with cancer. There’s the young friend I met in Costa Rica who delighted with me in traveling down a rabbit hole about what it means to change our belief systems and how queerness offers a frame for expanding our understanding.
I have coffee-shop-friendships all over the world and my life is much richer for these “sometimes playful, sometimes heavy, sometimes back and forth between the two” conversations. While we’re more committed in these friendships than with our path-friends, and we usually have the contact information for these people in our phones, we hold the connection with lightness and minimal expectation, enjoying each other when we see each other but not getting too attached to an expectation of how often we need to connect or how much we meet each others’ needs.
In my work, I get to serve as a catalyst for creating space for the online version of these coffee-shop-friendships in the programs we offer at the Centre for Holding Space (like the Foundation Program or A Full-Bodied Life, where we gather on Zoom every week or two). We all come with an expectation that space will be held for our authenticity and vulnerability and so we offer ourselves wholeheartedly to the conversation. People often tell me, several years after being in my programs, that they still have regular meaningful contact with people they met in the program. Just this morning, somebody told me about the grief she experienced when our eight-month certification program ended because of how important this circle had become in her life.
Further down the spectrum from the coffee-shop friendships are the living-room-friendships. These are the friends we let into our living rooms even if we haven’t dusted and there are stray socks tucked into the couch. These friends settle into the couch, pluck out the socks and toss them in the general direction of the laundry room, and before long, hours have disappeared in meandering, soul-bearing conversations.
Living-room-friends are the ones who show up to babysit our kids, even though we haven’t asked them to, when they know we’re overwhelmed with grief after losing a parent. They’re the ones who bring a bottle of wine when the divorce papers are finally signed, or a big pot of soup when the flu knocks down every member of the household. They show up because they’re attuned to our emotional states and our times of need and we reciprocate by showing up for them.
The commitment level and risks are much greater in these friendships. Friends at this level witness our shadows but they also get a bigger dose of our light. We let ourselves be more needy with these friends, because we know that their presence in our lives is what helps us be more human and more emotionally regulated. We work out some of our insecurity and we might even heal some of our attachment wounds in friendships like this, because they’re dependable, secure, generous, and reciprocal.
Today’s lunch date is with one such friend, and I can hardly wait for her to show up. She’s been on vacation with her family, and I’m slightly annoyed that she abandoned me for so long, just as she was rightfully annoyed when I left the city last year and abandoned her. We laugh about that, though, because there is enough trust in the solidness of our relationship that neither of us ever feels truly abandoned. Even though I value therapy, I think it’s safe to say that more of my trauma healing has happened in this friendship than in any therapy relationship. We have such deep conversations that we’ve sometimes had baristas in coffee shops reveal their curiosity about what we talk about for so long.
I am a big fan of friendship and I want it to be more honoured in our culture. I wish that we would turn some of the attention that’s placed on romantic relationships onto friendships instead. I want more songs about friendships and more movies and novels. I want a section at the bookstore to be dedicated to friendship the way there’s so often one dedicated to marriages. I want us to celebrate friendships the same way we celebrate people’s engagements or weddings. Maybe we even need friendship apps to become as ubiquitous as dating apps.
ALOK talks a lot about the value of friendship and their words often stir something for me. “i want a world where friendship is appreciated as a form of romance,” they say. “i want a world where when people ask if we are seeing anyone we can list the names of all of our best friends and no one will bat an eyelid. i want monuments and holidays and certificates and ceremonies to commemorate friendship.”
We layer far too much expectation on our romantic relationships when we assume that one person will complete us and fill our needs for belonging, safety and identity. That’s far too much of a burden on one person and one relationship and it often results in codependence instead of healthy love. It’s much more realistic to get our needs met from a range of relationships, especially our friendships.
When we have a range of friendships, from path-friends to living-room-friends, our cup is filled in many ways by many people and nobody has to carry the burden of helping us be whole.
P.S. People often ask me how to find friends, and one of the suggestions I make is that they seek out spaces where like-minded and like-hearted people will show up. If you’re looking for such a place, you might find it in our Full-Bodied Life community.
When I talk about holding space for ourselves, I often introduce the concept of psychic membranes – the container in which we can protect, nourish, and support ourselves. The cell membrane serves as a metaphor for what it means to have healthy boundaries that allow nourishment in, keep harm out, connect us with others, and maintain homeostasis (similar pressure inside and outside the cell). In my book, I go on to imagine how our psychic membranes interact with each other and how we can stretch them into bowls in order to hold space for people. With intact and healthy membranes, we can do this without threatening anyone’s sovereignty.
A new element of this metaphor has emerged for me lately and that’s the idea of Velcro membranes.
When a healthy membrane interacts with another healthy membrane, those two “cells” can support each other without becoming enmeshed or codependent. They are autonomous beings who have a supportive social contract between them that allows them to choose when and how they wish to be in contact with each other. Healthy membranes allow us to form consent-based environments.
Unfortunately, that kind of healthy interaction doesn’t always happen, and many of us have scars (emotional and physical) from the times it didn’t work that way. Sometimes we do harm to each other and sometimes we develop unhealthy attachment systems.
Unhealthy attachments can look like membranes that have Velcro on their surfaces. Now, instead of coming into contact and maintaining the freedom to choose how and when to interact, the two cells become hooked in a way that doesn’t support the growth and sovereignty of either. The relationship is now codependent and enmeshed and the membranes can’t move independently of each other.
Let’s imagine that the trauma in our lives turns into Velcro on the surface of our membranes. Some of us develop loops and some of us develop hooks (or some combination of the two), and both are attempts to get our needs met. Those of us with loops can easily be hooked in and abused or manipulated by someone, because our traumatized brains convince us that hook-people will help us get our needs met. Those of us with hooks become abusers and manipulators and we hook other people in to try to coerce them into meeting our needs. Those of us with a combination can be both abusers and abused.
The only way to stop hooking or being hooked is to work on healing the trauma that created the Velcro. As trauma heals it’s like cutting the loops and hooks so that the membrane surface is now covered with nothing more than short threads that are difficult to attach to.
A healed membrane allows you to begin to enter relationships in a new way. It allows you to explore what a generative social contract might look like, where the best interests of each party are prioritized.
What will you do to start cutting the loops and hooks on the surface of your membrane? And what might need to be done in order to disentangle yourself from those people with whom you’re enmeshed?
I was driving home this morning (bringing home donuts, if you really must know), when a half-ton truck pulled up within inches of my rear bumper, impatient to pass me and trying to find an opening in the next lane to speed by me. I was going the speed limit, but as soon as I saw the truck in my rearview mirror, I second-guessed myself and wondered if I might be doing something wrong to cause his agitation. The light turned yellow in the intersection ahead of me, and I instinctively slowed down, but then my body went into panic mode and I considered rushing through the yellow light just to let Mr. Big Man in the truck get past. The law-following voice in my head battled with the keep-yourself-safe voice in my head, but I did the right thing and stopped. Behind me, I could see Mr. Big Man’s arm flailing in exasperation.
We were both in the right-turn lane. I could see that there was a no-right-turn-on-red sign, so I stayed stopped. But the keep-yourself-safe voice started clambering at me that perhaps Mr. Big Man couldn’t see the sign because my car blocked it from his view. What if he was still convinced I was making stupid driving decisions? Should I move so that he could see it better? Should I turn anyway, since there was no oncoming traffic and it wasn’t much risk? I could feel my nervous system kicking into high gear as my ears began to buzz, my throat tightened, and my brain became consumed with one thing – stay safe and do whatever needs to be done to minimize the threat. Make bad decisions if you have to but KEEP MR. BIG MAN HAPPY! Even after the light turned green and I pulled far enough ahead that he could race past me, I still felt myself in high anxiety over the fact that I had caused him distress. I would sooner find fault with MYSELF and MY actions, in the middle of that kind of crisis when my amygdala has been hijacked and I don’t have much capacity for rational thought, than blame him for impatient driving.
That last part is what always surprises me after my nervous system has recovered from an incident like that. That’s why it took me a long time to see myself in the trauma literature that talks primarily about a fight/flight/freeze response. Sure, I wanted to flee in that moment of distress, but this feels different from just fleeing. In order to calm myself down, my first reaction is to calm the abuser (or source of threat) down. And calming that person down often means completely shutting down my own needs, rights and opinions, to the point of assuming I must be at fault and am insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
When I found the research that identified a fourth trauma response (tend-and-befriend), I finally felt seen and could finally begin to name my reactivity as trauma-related and not just something that made me weak. (I could also learn to soothe myself, and to experience my heightened reactivity with more mindfulness and less self-judgment.) Tend-and-befriend is most often seen in women, according to the research. It’s the instinct that causes us to gather the vulnerable around us and to befriend those who will help us survive the threat. The “befriend” part can be a really healthy community-support piece (i.e. gathering other family members to help us protect our children), but the dark side of it is that we also tend to befriend the perpetrator of the threat in order to mitigate the harm. (Some also talk about a “fawn” reaction, but I like the added element of “tend-and-befriend”.)
Sometimes, when that threat continues because you are in a relationship with the person causing the harm, you find yourself in a trauma bond that is very hard to break away from. In a trauma bond, a person develops an attachment system with the person causing harm because that person is also a source of security (i.e. abusers convince victims that they are protecting them from even greater harm, and then gaslight them into believing they’re over-reacting to the harm and can’t survive on their own). Their nervous system is always on high alert because they never know where the threat is coming from or where/when they will be safe, and they lose capacity for rational thought. They cling to the abuser because the world outside of that relationship seems even more terrifying and unpredictable.
There’s another thing that is going on in the mind of someone who has an attachment bond to an abusive person and it has to do with cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort that you feel when you try to hold two opposing views at the same time (especially when one of those views is tied to your identity). When, for example, you have to hold both the belief that “I am a good person and I make smart decisions” with “I’m choosing to stay in a relationship with an abuser”, the contradiction causes a great deal of stress because it might mean you have to change your view of yourself. In an effort to get rid of the discomfort, your mind begins to rationalize your choice by convincing you that the harm being done is minor and the good far outweighs the harm and maybe you’re just perceiving harm when it’s not really there and… isn’t the abuser a victim too and wouldn’t you be a horrible person if you abandoned a victim?
The longer you stay with a particular choice (even a self-destructive one), the harder your mind has to work to rationalize that choice in order to maintain the view you have of yourself and the harder it is for anyone else to convince you that it’s the wrong choice. To finally come to a conclusion that a choice you made a number of years ago may have caused harm to people (including yourself) is a massive disruption in your sense of self and many of us simply don’t have the emotional and psychological maturity and resources to handle that kind of uncomfortable identity crisis. It’s easier to dig in and heap more and more rationale (and additional bad decisions) on top of the reasons why you made that decision in the first place.
But at some point, you have to be held accountable for being complicit in harm. At some point, you have to come face-to-face with your own shadow. At some point, you have to take that difficult journey into your own psyche to see that you, too, may have become an abuser in your efforts to justify your choices and banish the cognitive dissonance. Or, if you simply can’t take that journey yourself and you escalate the harm you cause to avoid the dissonance, a moral culture may need to dole out consequences for your actions.
I wasn’t sure this was where I was going when I first started to write about Mr. Big Man at the intersection, but it seems to be what’s on my heart. Sometimes we make bad choices because bullies are breathing down our necks and we’re in distress. And sometimes those bad choices lead to even worse choices because we can’t handle thinking of ourselves as people who cause harm and who align ourselves with abusers and we have to justify what we did in the first place. And sometimes that means that we, too, become like Mr. Big Man, sufficiently disconnected from ourselves that we terrorize other people.
In the long shadows of early morning, on a recent trip to the Netherlands, I stood at the edge of a pond watching the light and breeze play with the surface of the water. Near where I stood, tall, straight reeds were reflected on the rippling water. It occurred to me, as I stood there, that if I were only able to look at the reflections of those reeds and not see the reeds directly, then I would never know for certain what the reeds looked like. The reflections kept moving and wiggling and reshaping themselves on the ripples, never quite the same from one second to the next.
This, I believe, is what my relationship with the concept of holding space is like. Though I have been staring at it intently for several years, writing many posts and a great deal of course content, and traveling the world to teach it, I am still only looking at a reflection of it and trying to describe it from the place I stand, knowing that you may be on another shore looking at it from a different perspective.
The longer I stare at it, though, the more I learn about this beautiful reed and the more I find myself dancing along with the reflection, open to the flow of what comes with each breeze.
Here are some recent reflections about how to hold space, gathered after a few intense months of teaching, traveling, and holding space.
Stay curious. When judgement creeps in, it’s difficult to hold space for someone (or ourselves) because we’re inclined to want to change them, criticize them, or impose our own expectations on them. Judgement and curiosity don’t coexist well, though, so in order to shift out of judging mind, bring in curiosity. Ask curious questions and listen with openness for the answers. When the other person recognizes that there is curiosity and openness in our questions rather than judgement, they’ll be better able to trust that we have their best interests at heart.
Release attachment to outcome. I’ve said this phrase hundreds of times, at nearly every workshop, retreat, or online course I’ve ever taught, and yet it’s still one that I have to remind myself of on a daily basis. Clinging to a desired outcome – or even a believe that there WILL BE a positive outcome of some sort – is to bring in your own ego, your own desires, and your own expectations. To hold space is to open yourself up to the possibility that what comes (if anything DOES come) is outside of your control and may not be aligned with what you want. When you let go of outcome, you’ll be less inclined to label something as “failure” or “success” and simply accept it as what is. (Sure, there may be times when you’re working toward a specific outcome, but then you’re not really holding space.) As is taught in Open Space, “whatever happens is the only thing that could happen.”
Let go of “perfect” and embrace “good enough”. Holding space is not something we can ever do with precision and perfection, because we’re dealing with humans (ourselves included) who are flawed and fumbling and at some point we’re bound to trigger each other’s old wounds, annoy each other, or let each other down. Accepting that as part of the process rather than beating ourselves up over not knowing exactly what to offer the other person (or ourselves) allows us to lean into it with grace and love and a “heart at peace”. And when the fumble comes, as it inevitably will, forgiveness is the next stop on the journey.
Don’t assume you know what another person needs. When we hold space for others, we have to use discernment and our loving knowledge of the other person to try to do what’s right for them, but sometimes we miss the mark because we can’t fully know what that person needs at that moment. If the context is right, and the question is not too overwhelming for them to answer in the moment, we can ask what they need, but we can also do our best and then not take it personally when they say “that’s not what I need right now”. They might not, in fact, know exactly what they need and only realize it when they’re offered something they DON’T need. (For example, if I reach out to hug someone who’s in pain, they may suddenly know that they don’t want to be touched right now because touch re-triggers the wound they’re trying to heal.) To hold space for someone is to allow them the autonomy of discovering their needs and finding ways of having them met.
When your own reactivity is triggered, calm your nervous system first. Often, a failure to hold space for someone comes from a triggered reaction that results when the nervous system is flooded. If your fight, flight, freeze, or tend-and-befriend reactivity has been activated by a situation, you can’t hold space well until you calm yourself down. For example, if someone lashes out at you in anger when you believe you’re doing your best to be supportive, your first reaction will likely be to defend yourself with an equal amount of anger, or leave the situation as quickly as possible. (Or – as the “tend-and-befriend” reactivity might suggest – fix the situation so that they’re not angry anymore.) When you take a few deep breaths (or find other ways of calming yourself – tapping, for example), you can re-engage the internal systems that help you respond more calmly and you might realize the anger is coming out of that person’s grief or helplessness and is not a reflection of who you are and is not yours to fix.
When the impact is different from the intent, consider your responsibility for repair and course correction. Recently, at a workshop I was facilitating, I lead the group in an activity that I thought might respond to a need that had arisen, but the impact of the activity (for at least a few in the room) was the exact opposite of what I’d intended and I had to face their frustration. My triggered response was to sink into shame over my misjudgement and/or to lash out with a defence of my intentions, but that wouldn’t have served the group well and would have centred me rather than the people I was holding space for. Since I was the teacher and therefore had the most authority/power in the situation, I had to take responsibility for the impact, make repairs, and course correct. Once I did, we were able to regain damaged trust and move forward together.
Just because one person’s needs aren’t being met doesn’t mean nobody’s needs are being met. This applies, in particular, to when you’re holding space for groups. Sometimes I make the incorrect assumption that the voice that speaks the loudest is the voice that speaks for the whole group, but that is rarely the truth. (That person may influence people by speaking loudly, but other people’s dissatisfaction may be because they’re easily influenced by powerful people.) It’s nearly impossible to know what everyone needs unless you ask each person independently, so when you’re holding space for multiple people, know that you’re likely going to let some people down while other people will be satisfied. This is where point #3 (letting go of perfection) is important. Do the best you can and trust that the people you hold space for are sovereign individuals, capable of having their needs met without you needing to contort yourself to meet them.
Walk a balancing act between “I’m responsible for the impact of my actions” and “other people need to take responsibility for their responses”. I recognize, in writing this list, that #2 and #6 might sound contradictory and that it’s confusing to know when we should take responsibility for the impact and when we should let go and trust that each individual will take responsibility for their own reactions. I think we need to hold BOTH in our hearts and use discernment to determine when we need to make repairs, and when we simply let go and allow people to have their own experiences. This is humbling (and sometimes humiliating) work and we have to have enough integrity to repair damage even if it was unintentional, and enough fortitude to not take things personally when people don’t react well to our actions.
Remember that we are all sovereign beings making our own sovereign choices. No matter how well you hold space for someone, they’re still going to act and be the way that THEY choose. If, for example, you hold space for someone who’s been wrestling with their own demons, and afterwards they choose to do something that you think is self-destructive, you can’t beat yourself up over your failure to help them course-correct. To hold space is to recognize their right to make their own choices, even when those choices make no sense to you.
Don’t try to retain this list – instead, lean into your intuition and the wisdom in your body/heart/mind. If, the next time you hold space, you try to live up to this list (or any of the other teachings I’ve offered), you’re likely trying too hard to make this an academic exercise and it will fall flat. Choose authenticity over perfection. While reading this may be helpful to you, don’t cling to it too tightly – simply let it land on your heart and then, when the moment to hold space for someone comes, trust that you have enough wisdom for that moment. If you fail, forgive yourself (and come back for a re-read of this list, if that’s helpful) and try again the next time.
Those are my reflections for now, after staring for a long time into the rippling water. Though I thought, four years ago when I wrote the blog post that went viral, that I knew what holding space was and little more needed to be said, I’ve since discovered that there is so much more that was left to discover and I’ll keep staring at the reflection for as long as I can.
Soon, these reflections (and many more) will emerge in the form of a book that is near completion and about to undergo editing and publication. It’s humbling to write a book and to commit ideas to print when you’re fairly certain that those ideas will continue to evolve and change, but I’ve committed to a belief that it’s “good enough for now”. Stay tuned for publication date, and, in the meantime, consider signing up for the upcoming offering of the Holding Space Practitioner Program (formerly “Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program) that begins in October, with registration opening in July.