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4 Ways to ‘Hold Space’ for Others While the World Around Us Hurts

Editor's Note

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There have been times these past few months when I’ve wondered: who am I to be sitting in the therapist chair? When I decided to become a counselor, I honestly never expected to live and work through a global pandemic. The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has left me feeling vulnerable and grateful, with many other emotions pulsing within me at various times throughout my waking hours. As I’ve heard others exclaim quite passionately these past months, “This was not on my vision board!”

As a therapist, I believe the most important aspect of my job is to simply hold space for my clients. Holding space is an eloquent term to imply creating a safe platform between individuals that fosters empathy, compassion and healing. It says that each person welcomed into the dialogue is so incredibly special, and time is invited to stand still while they process life together. Therapeutically, holding space empowers a client with the opportunity to feel all of their feels and process life experience(s) with empowerment and confidence.

Today, both the therapist and the client find themselves collectively sharing the same trauma. A global pandemic impacts each of us on every level of our experience, from our basic needs to existential thoughts of “why are we here” and “how did this happen.” Sometimes, I feel like we’re in this strange paradigm of history and science fiction colliding into our actual experience. Despite our global situation, all of our other traumas continue to exist independently as life continues to flow even during worldwide crises. It takes effort to separate the individual from the collective experiences, as life is truly merging on every level from how we work and go to school, to how we communicate with our peers at our most intimate levels.

While our global situation is collectively shared, each interpretation of the trauma is unique. I bring this perspective with me as I navigate each therapy session, especially now. This time in quarantine has brought many of us back to basics; the same goes for the art of therapy. Truth exists behind every word, all behavior is functional, and thoughts really do matter.

There has never been a time when I have needed to be more present and honest with my own vulnerabilities in relationships with others, both personally and professionally. This requires self-care, rest and awareness. The following principles are helpful as we navigate our relationships every day, but especially as we are more vulnerable during uncertain times:

Listen, think, love, speak: Listen with my whole self; Think with all my smarts; Wrap the situation or individual (or myself) up with kindness and love; and speak my truth while empowering others to do the same.

Active listening asks us to absorb both verbal and nonverbal communication. We often hear more in dialogue by assessing the tones and feels in the space between our physical bodies. As we receive information, we are invited to think with all of our “smarts.” We take information into our sensory system in ways that are unique to each of us. Foster your unique ability to process information in ways native to your own sensory system. Think about how you learn best  (i.e., do you learn better in groups or alone, listening to music or in silence, moving or sedentary, etc.). Regardless of the situation, we can always respond with kindness and love. We may not like a situation or choice, but we can invite compassion into our perspective and offer kindness. Lastly, speaking with our truth is what keeps the dialogue genuine. Speaking our truth does not mean being judgmental, but instead, it invites us to keep healthy boundaries, hold our people accountable and invites each of us to remain in a state of compassionate awareness of our own feels.

In practice, it looks like this: I hear you, all of you. I hear the highs and lows, the words you choose to share and the energy you are holding between us. I allow myself the space to process all of this information with my own sensory capabilities. Regardless of my opinion, I offer you my love and kindness, and I speak with my full self in response to you sharing your story. 

Following these principles, I find myself able to hold space more genuinely as life around us feels chaotic. I use this in my therapeutic practice, but also in my personal relationships especially as I am experiencing higher levels of trauma and stress. If we are able to foster relationships with these principles in mind, we will be able to support one another better through trauma and stress. At its most fundamental level, that is the true gift of therapy.

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Photo by Grzegorz Rakowski on Unsplash

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