Everyone gets overwhelmed from time to time, and learning to express that openly isn't an easy thing to do for most folks. It requires feeling fully safe to be seen and heard—an incredibly vulnerable position to be in—by the people around you. The concept of this is called "holding space,” which Divya Robin, a psychotherapist and mental health educator based in New York City, defines as "the ability to create a safe, supportive, and non-judgmental space where another can be fully emotionally, physically, and mentally vulnerable."
Without others holding space for us, it’s difficult to process hard feelings fully. “People's openness and willingness to explore their emotions are influenced by how comfortable and safe they feel in the space they are expressing themselves," Robin explains. So if you feel judged, questioned, or belittled among certain people, then you're less likely to share with them authentically.
On the other hand, Robin says that when someone holds space for another person, they feel safe to be vulnerable, imperfect, and express their raw emotions. Building this type of trust with your nearest and dearest is beneficial for so many reasons, which we’ll get into below, as well as some pro tips for holding space for yourself and others.
The benefits of holding space
Whether it’s a therapist, mental health professional, or a loved one, having someone hold space for you has many positive impacts. The biggest benefit is being able to express yourself openly and authentically in order to process emotions. "Everything we do is built on how we are feeling— our thoughts and behaviors are all influenced by our emotions," Robin says. "Emotions can be complex and confusing, especially big emotions like anxiety, anger, grief, sadness, jealousy, and fear." She adds that understanding and effectively regulating emotions requires an open and safe space to explore and acknowledge the impact they have on you.
Moreover, Robin says having someone hold space for you can also foster self-exploration and growth, increase connection and emotional intimacy, improve mental and emotional health, elevate self-esteem and self-worth, and support mindfulness.
How to hold space for someone else
Whether it's for a friend, family member, significant other, or someone else, there will be many opportunities to hold space for another person who is going through something such as a significant life transition (marriage, divorce, new job, new child, etc.), an unexpected hardship, any type of loss—same goes for someone who is feeling emotionally triggered or under a lot of stress. Here’s how Robin recommends holding space for them.
Step 1: Ask if they would like to talk
Everyone’s emotional needs are different, so Robin says it's best to gently ask the person first if they would like to talk about what they're going through. "Tell them that you are there to solely listen and provide a space for them to express themselves if they choose to do that," she says. "You can't assume someone wants to talk about their feelings, so respect their emotional space."
Step 2: Listen without judgement
If the person does want space to talk, Robin says the most important thing is to allow them to openly share their innermost thoughts and feelings without judging them. This requires the skill of active listening, which Robin says involves immersing yourself in their emotional experience, empathizing with them, and allowing space for whatever thoughts and feelings may come up.
Step 3: Validate their emotions and experience
Often when someone is speaking, your instinct may be to formulate the perfect response or try to come up with solutions to the person's problems. When you're holding space for someone, however, Robin recommends avoiding this and instead focusing on being fully present with them and validating their emotions and experience, even if you wouldn't feel the same way in a similar situation.
How to hold space for yourself
Holding space for yourself is also possible. "This looks like being open, accepting, and non-judgmental about your own thoughts, feelings, and experience," Robin says. "Acknowledging that you are human, and with that comes flaws, imperfections, and not always knowing the answer. It's being real with yourself about what your experience is instead of being defensive or avoiding the tough stuff."
To put this into practice, Robin recommends setting aside 15 minutes a day of uninterrupted time to check in with yourself. "Check-in with how you are feeling, where do you feel it in your body, and what do you need in that moment?" she says. For instance, if your body feels exhausted, that signals that you may need rest.
Holding space for yourself, she adds, also involves tuning into your thoughts and feelings and letting them be rather than trying to push them away. You can do this via meditation or journaling. "Write whatever comes to mind and do not judge your thoughts," Robin says. "People often try to journal 'perfectly,' but to hold space doesn't mean saying the 'right' thing but sitting with where you currently are—the raw and unedited version."
And lastly, one of the best ways to hold space for yourself is through therapy, which Robin says is the space where you are encouraged to be honest and reflect on your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in order to better understand and become aware of how they impact your life.
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