I am slowly, and at times painfully, learning what it means to “hold a space” for someone. Because I am also learning that it makes all the difference in the world, I am willing to be terrible at it so I can eventually figure it out. So first–what does “holding a space” mean?
Is it saving a place in the line (queue) for someone who forgot an item at the supermarket? Or perhaps using your superpowers to keep a space from being crushed by Krushauer in Incredibles 2? Is it leaving a gap in your handwritten diary for someone to fill in their version of the story? I know–it’s when you’re that obnoxious spectator who saves seats and disappoints dozens of latecomers who don’t see your neatly sprawled jacket signifying, “This space reserved for a future flesh-and-blood ticket holder who could afford only general seating like you and me.”
For a concise and PG-13 answer, read this guy’s explanation.
If you prefer to read something that keeps your adrenaline low, read this more uplifting version.
You can also listen to Jody Moore succinctly answer that question in her Better Than Happy podcast No. 40 (begin at 8:05).
And if you don’t want to link away from this stellar post, I get it. You want to occupy the space you’re already in, don’t want to spread yourself too thin. Worried you might lose your spot and forget you had a loose thread to tie up in your spaghetti noodle brain. Well, buckle up for the ride of your life.
So. Holding a space. It means that you allow enough room–physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and so on–for individuals to have their own experience. Letting someone feel their feelings, learn what they need to learn, grow and stretch to become who they want to become at their own pace and in their way–something I’ve learned to sum up as their “business.”
Learning what is your own business and what is someone else’s can get tricky, especially when close relationships and cultural norms tell you that blurring the distinction between what is mine and what is yours is expected. It might even sound nice, like you operate as a single entity without any conflict. But blurring those lines creates confusion, and while a healthy dose of confusion is the seedbed for emotional growth, there is such a thing as too much. If blurring of our spaces is too heavy and/or frequent, it erodes self-confidence, mutual respect, and motivation. It can even be termed abuse.
Whoa, did I just say abuse? Sure did. I may sound a bit heavy-handed, but stay with me. Have you heard the term “staying in your lane?” Let’s go with that analogy for a bit. Your individual experience is like a functional vehicle out on the road of life. You are operating the brakes, accelerator, light indicators, and creature comforts. You have some learned and reflexive behaviors to keep you safe, but ultimately you are the sole operator of your vehicle.
That’s right. No one “makes you” think, feel, or do anything. Ultimately, your experience is your own. None of the other vehicles or their drivers climb into your seat and slam on the brakes for you (ignore A.I. and Elon Musk for now) or tell you to tailgate the annoyingly slow vehicle ahead when it is driving perilously close to the speed limit. Your actions are your own.
In order to stick to your own business, you stay in your own lane and allow the vehicles around you to safely accomplish what they need to. Of course you would still find a way to prevent or attend to hazards, and you can offer a lift or a jump or a tow at times. Even calling the authorities when someone won’t stay in their lane is a show of concern.
But it is possible to impose or to “help” or to take too much. Looking twice before changing lanes or turning really can save a life–from years of trauma, a lost sense of self, therapy, relapses, healing, and so on. Crossing into another person’s lane is a vulnerable moment, so take care. Connection may be the goal of our existence, but finding it via collision tends to halt progress for you and all who follow. Even when the incident is “all taken care of,” its ripples are felt for vehicles miles back that never do learn what all the slowdown was for.
[Sometimes I think there would be less road rage (emotional fallout) if cars could pass the message down that traffic is bad for a legitimate reason, or in other words, if families openly and appropriately spoke about the collisions and breakdowns that are still sending shock waves down the generational lines of traffic. But shame and secrecy are the gridlock that block rescue and rehabilitation. Fortunately, holding a space can extend into the past as well.
We live in a world of rubberneckers, so it’s no wonder we would want to hide our mistakes. Creating a strong sense of self by setting boundaries can give you your lane back and make the gawkers’ reactions less painful. And when traffic is bad due to bottle-necking or heavy volume, wouldn’t it be great to be able to create more lanes? It may not be as shocking a discovery as Doc Brown’s time machine no longer needing roads, but ultimately, there are enough lanes for everyone if only these driving skills were taught in schools like Driver’s Ed.
Actually, they are getting taught, and already my kindergartner is chanting “Recognize, Refuse, Report,” much to my wide-eyed relief. Many children are not as fortunate as I was to have parents who taught me personal safety–and fabulous driving–skills from a very early age. Emotional management and self-awareness have been part of my kids’ public education, and I want to find everyone who made that possible and give them a big hug, but only in a safe, professional touch sort of way.]
Back to the idea of connection. You wouldn’t attempt to connect by getting all up in your neighbor’s grill (think Facebook arguments), using nasty gestures [both times I was pregnant with females but I wish I could have called it “keeping up foreign relations,” since that’s where I learned it], by closing the gap they were trying to merge into, by forcing them to exit when they caught their lane error too late, or by passing unexpectedly on the right. All of that assumes you matter more than the other vehicles and that you can control them. But we all matter and you can’t control others, even if you see evidence to the contrary. Crowding others just shows that your aren’t in control of your own vehicle.
Instead, because you hold a space for others, you see that you are on the same road as they are, but you are content knowing that each vehicle has its own journey to make. You accept that the comfortable companion vehicle you followed for hundreds of miles across southern Wyoming may need a pit stop before you do. It isn’t personal. They’ll catch up during your stop at Little America for an ice cream cone. You’ll be passing each other off and on all the way to the state line.
And when you see “Student Driver” printed on the car topper ahead of you, does your perspective change a bit? Do you consider their needs as well as your own and decide to give the novice driver a bit more room either by pulling ahead of them or backing off a little? If you remember your first time driving on a freeway, you will likely make room in a gentle way.
On the other hand, if you think it’s your job to “haze” the nascent driver, you might roar your engine or honk or engage in some other obnoxious behavior to make yourself appear the better driver. If you are that person, read all publications about holding a space until you finally get it. We don’t want you on the road until then. And maybe don’t get married or have kids yet either.
When it comes to family relationships, this car metaphor might lend itself well to an analogy about road trips. But unlike the Hasbro Game of Life, your marriage and children do not simply add passengers to your vehicle. Those people each drive their own vehicles. Even your spouse, with whom you are to “be one” drives their own vehicle. To become synchronized and to drive as one requires drivers to become experts, not to fill in each other’s brokenness (catchy-tune-with-wasted-lyrics bait here).
Even your children have their own wheels, engines, brakes, and so on, that you are teaching them to use. Perhaps you begin by towing the kids or piggy-backing them like a line of unburdened semi-trucks. Some get the royal treatment like they’re in a fleet of brand new cars that everyone admires, and you protect that shiny vehicle like it’s your, well, baby. But then if your kid bumps it or scratches it (meaning, they make choices that scare or bother you), you become that homicidal maniac in the parking lot who never heard of insurance, normal children, or nail polish. Some people just expect their kids to be kids and give them both guidance and room to be their own selves. I hope to be that kind of parent some day.
Have you ever been driving without any awareness, and although nothing went wrong, you momentarily wondered what else you’ve missed? Whatever your autopilot looks like in terms of holding a space, your kids will accept as normal and will adopt it as their own until they learn enough to question it. And if you’re like most parents, you are still learning how to use your own systems with a clear head instead of thinking that you are operating at the mercy of all the traffic around you. It makes for some confusing times, which is why we spend time together as a family practicing our vehicle management skills.
Good etiquette is a start, but the principles of mutual respect and self-awareness need to accompany that instruction or we are no better than idling parade floats whose grinning and waving drivers wonder aloud if we’re done looking and acting nice yet. Freeways and busy surface streets are the “real” world we prepare them for. Our homes and families are the big empty parking lots of life. Lots of room to make mistakes. Get willing to make mistakes because that is how you learn and eventually master a skill. If you hold spaces like a master, you could learn to drive in formation without becoming street racers, like the ones who cost my young patient his hand on a Utah freeway. Don’t worry; it got sewed back on.
Take a minute to listen to or read the lyrics for David Gray’s song, My Oh My with these questions in mind: What does it mean to hold a space for someone? And what causes us to shut down this space? Why do we short-circuit it and sabotage another’s growth at times? Or try to force our beliefs and ways of doing things on the people we love?
Since not everyone is going to be as link-happy as I am, here are the lyrics I want to focus on most (and when you read “definite,” say it in ALL CAPS while grinning, like Jenny the Roommate did):
What on earth is going on in my head?
You know I used to be so sure
You know I used to be so definite
Thought I knew what love was for
I look around these days and I’m not so sure
My oh my, you know it just don’t stop
It’s in my mind I wanna tear it up
I’ve tried to fight it tried to turn it off
But it’s not enough
It takes a lotta love
It takes a lotta love my friend
To keep your heart from freezing
To push on till the end
My oh my, you know I just can’t win
I burn it down it comes right back again
What kinda world is this we’re living in
Where you never win
It takes a lotta love
It takes a lotta love these days
To keep your heart from freezing
To keep your spirit free
My oh my
So when showing and giving love becomes confusing or there is a collision of some kind, fear is a normal reaction. It seems like proof that something has gone wrong. Like, “Wait, I thought love meant that I alleviated all their suffering, so why don’t they want my help?” But what love means changes as developmental needs change, especially as our little ones approach emotional adulthood. When our brand of love is met with resistance, it may be that we swerved into our loved one’s space and we got honked at.
The self tends to recognize and respond to infringement at some primitive level, but we’re often taught to be nice at all costs, which stifles that reflex until we save up all our honks for one giant, ridiculous nervous breakdown. How many roadside rescues could have been prevented by recognizing and responding appropriately to signs of danger? Defensive driving might sound sort of negative, like you’re expecting trouble, but it’s a form of self-care.
Self-care. That word that might still sound like a selfish day at the spa. I used to have a stash of bath salts, pretty-smelling lotions, and foot creams that I’d been saving ever since well-meaning women in my life would hand me a gift and say, “Life gets so busy. Be sure to take care of yourself.” I finally spent an hour or two in the tub a couple Mother’s Days ago and used all my fancy “self-care” items. I felt bad for having let massage oils go rancid and handmade soaps crumble. I think I spent about fourteen seconds of that time feeling relaxed and cared for.
But you know what? I wouldn’t have been any better off sitting in my own detritus for shorter, more frequent soaks in the tub over the course of my ten years as a mom. Because my self, my own person, my voice needs to express and to create. Pampering is not self-care. I loved a quote I saw a while back from my friend’s PTSD recovery posts on Instagram:
True self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from.
[I might try this bold text and headings thing next.]
So what if you are feeling reckless with yourself? What if you don’t think you really matter much or that you deserve to get cared for? Because if I let my brain’s autopilot take its course, that is how I feel about myself more than half of each month. If I didn’t perform self care and hold a space for myself where it was acceptable to make mistakes and try again, each month I go through this cycle could be my last. Read up on my struggle with PMDD if you don’t know about it. Sometimes the most difficult person to hold a space for is yourself.
Having learned this troubling perspective about myself, I no longer see my relationship to a “greater power” as some begrudging, defeated offering to an angered god. I don’t think I ever saw it that way, but I understand how easy it is to dismiss religion by making it about fear, as the Calvinists did. What I see now is that my Savior Jesus Christ and our heavenly parents wanted to create a space in which I could grow and learn.
Not simply a physical space in which the earth is some cosmic laboratory. They knew that such a space would require opposition so I could make choices. They knew I would need resources of all kinds so that I could care for my brain and body, the beautiful gifts that allow me to operate my will and find out what it can do. I needed a way to become fully me. So when I don’t think I’m worth holding onto anymore, I look to Jesus. His gift of a perfectly lived life, His suffering that created exact empathy, His death that made up for my mistakes, and His resurrection that means I can overcome what my brain fears most, even death, work together to hold a space wide as eternity and deep as pure love for me.
Somehow he has created this ideal space for each of us, and that is what Christmas is for. When the stress of finding the right gift, preparing the necessary foods, or lighting the world in just the right way causes your chest to tighten and your heart rate to soar, decide to hold space for yourself. Ask how you can learn and grow in this moment. Ask how you can be happy now instead of waiting until everything is perfect (spoiler alert–it never will be). Holding a space for yourself means that perfect happens even when the kids get sick, the cake falls, and the service project turns into your personal nightmare before Christmas because someone used up all the glue on purpose. The space is what matters, not so much what we decorate it with.
And now I remember that it was Jenny the Roommate who taught me that loving life, giving good gifts, saying no, enjoying the moment, believing in true religion, and having a lot of drama surrounding your vehicle can all happen in the same space. Happy birthday month, Jenny. I hope no one steals your car. I hope no one accuses you of a hit-and-run. I hope you have zero car accidents over the winter break. I hope no one borrows your car and then pretends they crashed it. I hope no one borrows your car without actually asking thereby giving you room to wonder if you’re being taken advantage of. I hope you remember to drive on the correct side of the road now that you’re back in the States. And please don’t tell my parents about the time I had no safety belt available to me in that Land Cruiser in Tanzania…
[I have spent much longer than normal on this post. It has many flaws, like wandering between different voices and points of view. It also sounds like pop psychology and fluff to some people, and honestly, I could be getting this all wrong. It’s a synthesis of my own experience mixed with personal study over the past few years. Throw in a brain that loves analogies and random references to the outside world and you get a post like this one. Listening with an ear to hear and reading for depth could give you insight as you’re ready for it. That is where the inspiration comes in.]