What it means to 'hold space' for someone...
In last week’s blog I very briefly mentioned the term ‘holding space’, this topic is so important in the birth space and is personally significant to me so I wanted to give it its own blog post.
First, what is holding space? Loosely, it is the act of ‘being there’ for another. Vague right? Never heard of it before? Once you understand what it is and how important it can be, you might be surprised that you have probably, on occasion, held space for others unconsciously. Without intent. This, to me, is what makes holding space so beautiful. Whilst innocent and unintentional the act can be sometimes, the effect it can have on the other party is profound.
How beautiful that something you can and maybe even already do, can have such an impact on another’s journey. Not just in birth, but in life and in death. Especially in death.
Holding space means that you are giving your entire self to another and that you are present 100% and without judgment. You make the other person feel safe, heard and accepted.
Holding space, not to be confused with sympathy, is not feeling sorrow or pity for the other, it is being present for them and giving them the space to feel how they feel without input or judgment.
My most vivid memory of someone holding space for me, came when I wound up in hospital staring down the deep dark tunnel of pregnancy loss with our second child (you can read about my experience here). I was positive that things were going to turn out right, my baby was alive and kicking and every ultrasound I had showed a happy healthy baby – but in between I was losing blood clots the size of dinner plates, every day, several times a day.
But not even that could shake my positive outlook, because I had been assured that bleeding during pregnancy was just a variation of normal for some…and it is…but sometimes it is not. As it turned out for me, it was not.
My waters broke and with them went my positivity. Not because I knew that my waters breaking was a bad thing, but because of the vibes I had gotten from the hospital staff that it was a bad thing. I didn’t know left or right from it and some googling of my own later proved that babies can indeed survive without amniotic fluid (not without risk) but obviously continuing with the pregnancy was not the preferred choice of my care providers at the time as they were all alluding to the impending doom of what was to come after your waters break prematurely.
It was at this point in my journey that I learnt what it meant to hold space for someone. I was tossing and turning between following the doctor’s suggestion to terminate the pregnancy (as surely I would go into labour spontaneously and lose my 19week gestation baby regardless) or to continue with the pregnancy and see what may come (and potentially lose the baby to one of a multitude of different scenarios later down the track).
When vocalising my inner dialogue on what options lay ahead of me there were few key people in my lives that were just there. They were present for me. They offered no advice and no sympathy, they just were. I felt safe. Safe enough to voice my thoughts on the fact that I was leaning towards terminating the pregnancy, words such as ‘abortion’ and ‘termination’ flowed from my mouth and received no judgment. No one flinched.
No words of advice were given on ‘how hard this must be’ and ‘I really feel for you’ because, do those words really need to be spoken? I know this is hard, we all know this is hard – those words mean nothing to me. These words are merely space fillers, silence replacers and provide only comfort to the person speaking them.
Those words and phrases impose your energy on the other person, your personal experience offers no insight in these situations and need not be spoken.
How my journey could have benefited from less judgment and sympathy from my care providers at this time. All I felt from them was pity, before I even knew that the outlook was so dim I was receiving pity by the bucket load. This served only to confuse and upset me and it was my family and friends who then had to hold space for me and allow me to work through these feelings and deal with the aftermath of the lack of compassion and presence I had received from the medical staff.
Holding space is so important because pity is so damaging. In what situation can you think of that pity would actually do someone well? Pity only digs that person’s hole deeper and makes their load heavier. Not only now are they feeling terrible about their situation, but they have also been made aware that everyone else is feeling terrible for them.
I recently read a story about a hospital midwife who earned herself a reputation for the way in which she supported women in labour. It was said that she would sit in the corner of the room and knit.
Whilst this may seem distant and too blasé to be a form of labour support, the women whom she supported have reported to the contrary. They have said that when they opened their eyes to see this midwife sitting in the corner, knitting away, that they were comforted and knew that everything was fine – they were reassured that she was merely there and the clicking of her knitting needles served to ground them and remind them of her presence. This. This is holding space. How simple an act!
Too often I see birth partners and support workers offering pity to labouring women; ‘how I wish I could take your place’ or ‘it hurts me to see you in so much pain’ – this brings the focus away from the woman’s journey and over to the birth partner, the experience is not about you and your wishes to remove their pain, it is not about how much it hurts you to see them in pain – that does nothing for the mother and only brings attention in the wrong direction.
When you hold space for someone you don’t try to fix what can’t be fixed. You don’t try to explain the unexplainable. You don’t try to control the uncontrollable.
Holding space is not only tied in with birth and death; I have encountered friends hold space for me in much less sensitive times throughout my life. One significant and common one for me has been body image. I love to feel fit and strong and mostly, I work hard to maintain a physique that I myself can be proud of. I compare myself only to myself when it comes to body image and I strive to better myself in this domain, constantly.
Recently, I have slacked off in this area of my life – I make no excuses and this has been a fully conscious decision of mine. I have gone from working out 6 days a week and eating healthily 80% of the time to struggling to make 1 workout a week. My priorities have changed, I am focusing on my business and devote all of my free time to that. It’s not a decision I am ashamed of, but do I wish for better balance in my life? Yes, of course I do. And I will get there.
When voicing my upset that I haven’t been able to manage as many workouts as I once could, and that I felt my body wasn’t as lean as it once was I am often met with comments like ‘oh please, you are still a size 8’ and “and you look amazing anyway, don’t complain about that!”.
This forces me into a place where I don’t feel safe voicing my feelings to the vast majority of people in my life for fear of being made to feel ‘stupid’ for feeling that way. I know these things are said in jest and it’s a common Australian way to ‘dust off’ an uncomfortable conversation and try to turn the topic into a light-hearted exchange but, it can be damaging to some and if I weren’t as tuned into my own mental state as I am, it really could contribute to some body image issues I could be battling on the inside. You never know.
My close friends however, are able to hold space for me on this topic. They know how much of a toll this lack of exercise takes on my mental health and they don’t belittle me for feeling ‘fat’ or lazy because they know that this is important to me. They don’t compare their bodies with mine and try to tell me that I’m still leaner than the next person – they are merely there for me and give me a space to be able to voice my concerns without judgment.
So next time someone is vulnerable with you, be it on the topic of death, birth or even body image – try not to offer a personal connection by way of shared experience and instead, actively think about how you can simply hold space for them in that moment.
With holding space, less is definitely more. It is said that inaction can be the most powerful gesture of love and service and this, for me, perfectly defines what it means to hold space.
I will leave you with some beautiful words by famed feminist and wordsmith Tanya Markul on holding space:
I’m holding space for you, Sister
I’m not the kind of woman who will look away when you talk about rape, abuse, or addiction. I won’t flinch when you walk in covered in dirt, muck and inner shit. I won’t judge your story of neglect, betrayal, or trauma. I won’t try to re-write your suicidal thoughts or self-hatred. I won’t ignore your cry. I won’t back away from your drool, vomit or blood. I won’t deny the relationship you have with your womb, work, or the unseen. I won’t belittle your body-image or self-wisdom. I won’t pretend I have an answer for you. I won’t compare your divorce, break-up or loss to another. Because I believe in you. I believe you when you say what you’ve been through, what you’re in, and all that you carry. I believe it when you say that you’ve tried, you want to, and that you will. I believe you now, and I will continue believing in you. Because I am the kind of woman who holds space. For you, sister.”