Comforting Someone (How to hold space and what the hell is holding space?)
This week week I want to talk about comforting someone and to make that a little clearer I’m talking about comforting someone who is dire need of comfort. So whether that’s because they’re flash bang in the middle of a breakup or because they’ve just lost someone they love, or they’ve lost their job, or they failed at something they’d been working on super hard, or their dog died, or they’ve just had a diagnosis that has shaken them to the core… whatever it is... (I know I am bunching a LOT of stuff together, but everyone handles things differently and what might be a small issue for one person could bring another person undone). What I’m talking about is when they’re struggling with something and you’re struggling because someone you love is struggling hard. That’s what we’re going to look at.
In that moment when someone is looking to you to be there for them because they can’t handle it on their own or don’t want to have to handle it on their own… and let me be clear here, that’s not a sign of weakness. Someone breaking down with you is not a sign that this problem is going to destroy them. It’s a sign of trust and it’s a sign of human connection and vulnerability when someone chooses you to fall apart with. And while you MAY be thinking to yourself ‘Holy shit, they’re losing it and I don’t know what to do’, the very fact that you are there, that you are available to them, and that you are paying attention to their pain and acknowledging it, IS a something. So don’t feel like you’re powerless to relieve their pain. Being there IS doing something and while it cannot take the problem away, it can very much be the something that they need in order to begin to heal, and at the very least, relieve the burden of it being solely their own. WHICH IS SUPER IMPORTANT!
I mentioned the other day that this is not something that has come natural to me. I am naturally good at comforting when things are workable but when shit really hits the fan, I used to just clam up and freeze. I told a story about an ex work colleague who I was close with and close with his family and that his daughter had an accident which left her on life support. I was useless. I had zero tact, zero ability, zero skill to even do something as simple as send a bloody hallmark card. I was paralysed by my fear that she would die, or that I would say the wrong thing, or that I was imposing and so I did NOTHING. I still, over a decade later, wish I had of had the ability or knowledge to handle that better and at least show them that I gave a shit.
Often that is the case; when you care so much that seeing the people you care about in pain is overwhelming, it CAN be paralysing. There’s no judgement here. I get it. It’s awful. But if this is something that you struggle with, keep paying attention because I’ve got some things that may help.
In the middle of pain, in the middle of human suffering, one of our greatest needs is someone to hold space for us. Now what do I mean by that? I mean, that if I am hurting, if I am crying and I am overloaded with emotion and I am coming to you with it - I need something. If you care about me, and you care about my wellbeing, then you will have the desire to try and take my pain away. That’s natural. That is a natural response - to want to take the pain away when someone you love is hurting. BUT. While of course, every situation is different, most of the time there are some things to consider that are the same for most cases:
Someone you love is in pain
You CAN’T take that pain away and it’s very likely that you cannot fix this situation at all, it’s just horrible and it’s going to continue to be painful no matter what you do or don’t do or say or don't say.
That person, if they’re bringing this to you, trusts you, loves you, and needs you right now to do something for them and the main thing that is:
Now before I tell you what exactly that is and why it is important let me first tell you what it isn’t. Holding space for someone isn’t shutting them down mid-sentence to find out what YOU want to know about the situation. Holding space is NOT you letting YOUR emotions about the situation get in the way of what needs to happen for the crying person. That’s not to say that you aren’t allowed to have an emotion, it’s just that for right now, in this moment, you need to postpone as much of your own reaction as you can. You’ll have time for your own processing, and you’ll have time to ask questions, just reserve the need to react right NOW.
Also, holding space is NOT solving their problem for them - right now, in this moment we aren’t fixing, we are holding space. One more thing that holding space is not - and that is that holding space is not doing NOTHING. Often we feel the overwhelming desire to DO SOMETHING! STRAIGHT AWAY! But that’s not what this situation calls for. Holding space seems like doing nothing, but it a very active, and deliberate response and is also one of the most powerful things that you can do. Why do you think that people pay for therapy? Because sometimes that’s the only place they feel they can go to have an emotion that makes everyone else uncomfortable. Half the time a therapist doesn’t even say anything at the end - they just let that person unload! Moving on…
So what is holding space? Holding space for someone means going into that discomfort with them at THEIR PACE. It is biting your tongue while you listen to them cry it all out. It is letting them speak and get to the end of their sentences before you ask any questions. It’s about keeping your own emotions as absolutely neutral as possible in that moment in order for there to BE space for their emotions to flood out of their heart and their body and their mind in whatever way is natural for them. Just by doing that, actively doing that, you are creating the space for their emotions to exist and get outside of them. You shut the door. You turn off your phone. You get present. You get messy with them. Yes, it’s hard sometimes but mostly because you feel like you’re doing nothing to help the situation but if you are able to actively create that space and hold it for them, that is one of the biggest, most caring, most helpful things that you CAN do, and believe me, it’s doing something.
So what YOU physically do in that moment, is hold them if they want to be held. Give them physical space if they need physical space. Take your cue from them. Listen. Listen and listen. Be silent while their tears flood their eyes. Show them that in this moment their pain has validity and is allowed to exist. Like I said, shut your phone off. Ignore the world. Be present. Truly present. After a while, you can pause and reflect and ask them questions if you’re confused about something but make sure your language and tone are gentle and understanding, and for the most part you just listen. No judging. No ‘I told you so’s’. No hating on the person or thing that hurt them, no ranting about the injustice, no storming off to go punch someone, no trying to fix the situation or problem. Don’t minimise their pain, or give them cliche advice or point out how it could be worse (I am so guilty of this by the way).
I can give you a long list of reasons why NOT to do these things but the biggest and most important one is, that almost any of those responses will cause the person who is sharing with you to shut down. If they feel that their emotions are too much for you to handle, they will clam up, shut down and may not choose to share this stuff with you again. That can be a really devastating consequence if they feel like you were the only person they were willing to come to with this. So work with them, not against them. This is not solely your responsibility to carry the burden of this, but in this moment, the best thing you can do is make sure that they know that the burden of this is not solely theirs either. Let them know you really hear them. That you get it. That even though you might not fully understand how they feel as you’re not them and you're not in their shoes, but you understand that they are seriously hurting right now. That it sucks and that you love them and you are right there with them. In this moment, you’re creating space and holding it for them so that person can get it all out. So that everything - the emotion, the tension, the fear, the devastation, the everything, that is building up inside of them and threatening to overwhelm them can come out and be released. Like letting a little air out of a balloon that's about to explode. Believe me, it’s like what they say about farts… ‘It’s better out than in’... Yes, yes I did just use a fart analogy.
Once they’ve said everything they need to say, which you will know by the silence (and please do yourself a favour and allow the silence to be for a moment so you can really tell that they’ve said all they need to say), you can again take their cues on whether or not they need a hug, but then and only then do you ask questions about the situation and you do it gently, without judgement on them, or anyone else involved, and you watch their face for permission to keep asking. If what they need from you is just to be held while they continue to sob, that’s what you do.
I think one of the biggest issues we have in doing that for someone is we want things to be fixed immediately. We want it sorted right now. We want to rip off the bandaid and get it over with. For the most part in today’s society we bandaid our pain away. We drink it away, we eat it away, we do all sorts of things to actively avoid pain - ours or others. The problem is, when we don’t have the space in our life to feel it, when someone doesn’t create or allow that safe space for us to fall apart, we internalise. We push it down. We don’t acknowledge it and that is when things can get dangerous. If someone doesn’t feel safe to crumble with you because you don’t let them, that’s when you can be doing more damage than good. If there is nowhere for someone to come undone, that’s when they feel truly alone. And the most important thing we need as humans is connection and to know that we’re not alone when we feel like we can’t do this on our own.
It’s funny isn’t it… these days with so many different forms of communication… we are both more connected and less connected to each other in so many ways. But this is becoming more and more important. As much as we feel like we have more ‘friends’ on the internet, our suicide rates are climbing. We do not share our darkness because we are afraid. We are afraid that it is too much. Too much for us, and too much for the people we love. But it’s bringing it out, into the light that creates the healing and for that to happen, we need the space for it to happen safely. Sharing our grief on public forums might gain us some support from strangers, but it’s then that we truly need human connection in its purest form. Sharing on social media also carries the danger of inviting ‘advice’ from keyboard warriors when we are at our most vulnerable so it’s important that we do this in a safe place, with people who love us.
So if someone is crying to you or in front of you or trying to come to you with their ‘stuff’, take it as a sign that they trust you, and take it as an opportunity to really make a difference for them. BECAUSE… when we can fall apart with someone, be heard, be understood, and have someone holding space for us to be messy and to be not OK… it’s then when we get to the end of ourselves and after the pouring out of our hurt, we can be held, we can feel heard and understood, and then there, in that space we feel like things will be OK again soon simply because we aren’t alone and because someone cares that much for us that they were willing to be there when we could no longer hold it together.
That’s love right there.
The greatest healing power in the world. So while you think you might not be doing something by doing holding space (which can definitely feel similar to doing nothing), you’re actually doing the most generous, helpful, powerful thing that you can do in that situation.
It’s ok to let someone fall apart. In fact, it is MUCH safer to let them do that with you, then to have them push all that shit down and carry it around on their own and not let anyone else see it. Let it be seen. Acknowledge it. Be part of it with them. Journey that crap with them. As uncomfortable as it is. Whether they make the decisions you think they should or not. And when it’s crushing YOU because someone you love is hurting so badly, remember this will pass, the space you are holding is not forever and in fact, by being there in this way, you are actually helping them to speed up their own healing process in a really healthy, connected and supported way.