April 25, 2022

A definition of “Holding Space” that will give you Life.


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Many years ago, I began hearing a fresh term crop up, first infrequently and then more commonly but only in the trauma-informed circles I run and work in.

Holding space” was something I instinctively longed for as a trauma survivor, even when it was still an abstract concept that implied “woo.”

I didn’t need to define it to know I thrived in it, as did anyone around me who I was able to provide it for. Like a long-lost, intangible elixir that had the subtle power to shift the mood of a sleep-deprived teenager or belligerent addict, or even de-escalate my own ominous anxiety.

Whatever the personal problem was, space was never the wrong answer.

The gift of air:

As the years—and my own journey with trauma—has gone on, creating and holding “space” has become as common a coping mechanism for the disquiet of existence as deep breathing, counting, hydrating, or exercising. I’ve read countless articles and quotes on how to perfect the art of generously giving nothingness. In BDSM or yoga, in trauma-informed peer support and reiki, in parenting or solitude, the one thing that is almost always missing is absence.

Carving out space for yourself in your own life, or finding space in your musculoskeletal body or emotional process has to be intentional. Why? Where has all of the space gone?

Did it ever exist? Am I recreating it like a cellular blueprint or creating nothingness from nothingness like a force of nature?

And after 10 years of all of this space making and holding and clearing will I ever reach the apex of clarity and stay unwound? I don’t think so but I am a bit more roomy in my psyche and nervous system than I was a decade ago. I accept that it takes discipline and work to make room for me in me and to help my friends make room for them in themselves—because we are all so congested.

Our bodies have long since become another object of capital—and like the traffic-jammed highways we commute to work on, the long lines we wait in at grocery stores and amusement parks, the neighborhoods in which homes huddle up shoulder to shoulder, and the rectangular urban condominiums with barely a car’s width of space between buildings that hold wall-to-wall neighbors inside, our physical, mental and emotional landscapes have become packed. Busy with constant thoughts and clogged with emotions nobody, not even ourselves, seem to have time for. We are cramped like tender little crustaceans inverting ourselves within defensive shells, rather than a species of the human variety, with the capacity to bound or dance, nap or guffaw, sob or whirl.

We have shrunk and shriveled under the pressure of modern life and what we need now more than ever is space.

Vast emotional plains that buffaloes roam. Noticeable lack of judgment that opens the door to radical authenticity. An honest word in edgewise and to be truly witnessed and received.

Silence is golden. But not the heavy kind of silence that punishes you. The kind that embraces you when you aren’t done finishing your thought and you don’t want advice right now.

Flinging the arms of our energetic body wide into the air for the first time since childhood, shiny pearls of wisdom float to the surface from where they were buried underneath all of the excess content cluttering our unconscious. Our impressionable minds absorbed and adapted to the frenzied pace of the world they were born into and taught our bodies how to act and react. Now, we are looking for a way out of this labyrinth where we scamper like rodents and scurry like insects looking for a reprieve from this deeply internalized and inherently flawed system of superimposing formulaic agendas onto our spontaneous natures. Cutting organic conversations down like trees when they threaten to disrupt the images of completion we desperately cling to.

Going to massage school trained me to notice that the majority of pedestrians are slouching to take up less space in the world, all the while closing in on themselves or otherwise suffering from common postural contortions, shoulders up in their ears in a shrug of ambivalence never concluded, lurching forward in an attempt to go nowhere faster, or bracing themselves for invisible blows that have yet to land or have already landed in a past moment that froze inside of them.

We are gasping for air, longing to let go and grow without dictation. To move without bumping into the painful triggers or stumbling over jumbled thoughts. To stretch out inside, without the looming deadline or our partner’s projections or boss’s expectations. To unfurl emotionally without someone growing impatient with the supposedly counterproductive experience. Without the lingering audience of the internal peanut gallery: social grooming, parents, and friends, and parents of parents, and friends of parents, and that guy on the bus who said that thing.

So….full. So heavy.

I catch myself hunched over as if a cross or maybe the world was randomly dropped onto my shoulders. I try and shrug it off and get stuck shoving my own shoulders in my ears, my words stuck in my mouth, polluted with the residue of toxic relationships and belief systems I’ve been exhuming for years.

The first time someone intentionally “held space” for me, it was like the stale air that I was suffocating on was being let out of the room and out of my lungs. It was like tear and milk ducts being free to let down without fear of vulnerability. Messy, wild, unpredictable, and deeply uncomfortable vulnerability, breaking open the hard ground where patriarchal society had buried me alive under their ideological empires.

And it was infinitely more intimate because it was safe.

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