What does it mean to hold space?

In the circles I frequent, the term “holding space” gets thrown around a lot. Well-meaning hippie and New Age-y folk use it a lot to mean something like “witnessing someone in a highly-charged emotional state without trying to fix or change.” It’s really an amazing skill in vulnerability and acceptance to allow another person feel whatever they may be feeling. I am not sure where the actual phrase “holding space” came from; I mean, what does that mean anyway? Sometimes, an image pops up in my head of someone holding up their hands as if actually holding space. With this silly picture in mind, I tend to resist using the phrase.

What it really means is to maintain a space of open-minded quietness and open-hearted compassion. Tonight, on my train ride home, an entire car of tired New Yorkers “held space” for a young woman screaming at her demons. It was surely not the first time this has happened, though I believe I personally have never witnessed such a piercing volume. Remarkably, not one person moved away from the girl. I saw a few heads turn, but mostly, I felt a sense of gentle pity connecting us all. The girl’s despair was palpable; a sort of sick feeling settled in my stomach as she raged against a being who was quite obviously tormenting her. No one tried to shush her or calm her. Everyone simply sat and let her be.

I once heard a lecture on schizophrenia at a Nerd Night in San Francisco. I seem to recall some statistic about how the one variable that outweighs all other variables in terms of the chance of developing schizophrenia is living in a city. Now, I am certainly no scientist or psychologist, but I am a city girl and I have experienced firsthand how the constant action and energetic flow can greatly overexert you if you’re not careful. I have definitely let myself become overstimulated and overwhelmed by the millions of people and the noise and the smells and the lights and found myself starting to check out. I have buried myself in Netflix, gotten drunk, or even started talking to the visions that I knew were just visions in my head. I have a feeling that the last one is just as much of a coping mechanism as self-medication (pick your poison: booze, drugs, shopping, TV, social media, etc.). Maybe this accounts for higher instances of schizophrenia in urban areas. Imagine not only living in a city with millions of other humans vying for love and food and shelter, but you are also already a disadvantaged soul in terms of education, a history of abuse or trauma, or lack of resources. With all of these stressors pulling and pushing at your tender heart, why wouldn’t you start living in an internal fantasy world? It may feel a whole heck of a lot better than the harsh outer world!

Of course, this is a just a theory, but it makes me stop and feel just a bit more empathy to the many, many mentally ill homeless people I encounter on the streets of New York. We’re all navigating this crazy, life-filled city. The differences between them and me are resources. Thank Goddess I have money enough for warm shelter and nourishing food, meaningful work and studies, and friends available at a moment’s notice. Not only am I far beyond worrying about basic external needs, but I actually have an astoundingly beautiful inner life. I am being supported by the Universe.


2 thoughts on “What does it mean to hold space?

  1. Jerry Sweeten says:

    Holding space has to do with presence. Perhaps others would define it differently. In the healing work we were trained how to deftly step aside and allow Spirit to direct the healing. A compassionate healing presence is a state of being then where the mind is actively engaged allowing a flow of love and light from the Divine. A portal to awareness is opened up. Tapping into the vastness of unconditionaly love. The self, the little I, steps aside for a time allowing a space to be created. Holding space then is about being able to hold another with love and compassion without the need for personal gain. Being this conduit requires focus, but it is empowering and healing. That is my take on holding space.


  2. Linda says:

    and check Starhawk, Spiral Dance…very formal honoring of the four directions and the center marks a ‘sacred space’–intentional, dedicated to engaging higher reason, compassion and place in the universe. Aho. Ashe.


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