Holding space is a term we bandy about all the time. But what do we actually mean? It has strong components of other things we know to do as as medics and compassionate people, – staying patient-centered, Situational Awareness, being present, self monitoring, Agency.
We keep saying that we’re not “Guiding”. Guiding can assume the person *can’t* find their way out of their situation. With Holding Space, we try to sit in the calm faith that they certainly can. It’s holding the calm, the confidence, the patience, that things will work out fine, that you are solid enough to hear whatever they have to speak, or sit for hours without speaking.
Over the course of living a life, we each get tangled up in our brains sometimes. It can be wonderfully helpful to sit peacefully as they figure it out; unbothered by their messiness, their imperfection. You’re not going to be pulled down by their attempts to pull themselves up, and you radiate quiet confidence that they can, in fact do it (whatever ‘it’ is)
They can relax into their own process, safe in the space created, where it is ok to express pain and sadness and anger (in ways that do not harm themselves or others), any rude turn of phrase is understood to be venting. They can explore free from having to worry about being judged or changed. (They might still worry you’re judging. If this seems to be the case, you can say something like, ‘We all have stuff to process. You’re safe here, now. Go for it.’ The words likely don’t matter as much as the way in which they are conveyed.)
You don’t join them in the emotions they’re feeling. Some people have rarely experienced this, and might mistake it for lack of interest or lack of empathy. They might have gotten used to ‘level of upsetness in a partner correlates with level of caring’. This is a nasty fallacy.
While it’s not about you, it is wise to set yourself up some safeties when holding space. Perhaps visualize the worst of it rolling off, or passing through you, perhaps give yourself little pep talks along the way, and remember, you might need to clear yourself of it after.
Decompress by talking to a supervisor or friend, write it out and burn it, or whatever works for you. You’re a guide rail, not a safe deposit box. Also remember, this is a practice. If you find yourself unable to hold down this safe ground after a while, maybe because of the subjects that have come up, maybe because this person is altered, and you’ve been going for 9 hours now with no end in sight, whatever. It is ok to hand them off. Of course, not by drop kicking them sideways, but by gently transferring them to another medic or harm reduction worker. If you realize you need to do that, and you do it well, you haven’t let them down, you’ve held them safe.