How to hold space for someone the right way

Holding space for someone isn’t about giving them free rein in your life. Set boundaries and hold space the right way.

E.B. Johnson, NLP-MP
Oct 25 · 9 min read
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by: E.B. Johnson

In this life, there are a lot of hardships and challenges which change us and shape us in a number of ways. We miss out on important opportunities and lose things that mean a lot to us and our happiness. When we’re pushed up against adversity it can be helpful to have someone to lean on, but what do we do when it is our loved ones in need?

When it comes to supporting the people we love, we have to figure out how to hold space for them in our lives. To hold space, we have to drop our judgements and open up to others even as we create an authentic area in which they can express themselves. Holding space the right way enhances our relationships, but it also deepens our understanding of self and those we love.

Holding space is a delicate thing.

A lot of us were brought up on warped ideas about what it means to support someone. Many of us were taught that loving and supporting meant sacrifice; sacrifice of self, sacrifice of joy. That’s just not the case, however. When we really hold space for someone, we do it while holding simultaneous space for ourselves. It’s a delicate process, and one which takes some time, commitment, and conscious effort to master.

Holding space for someone does not mean giving them free control over your life. It doesn’t mean allowing them to stroll in or out whenever they want. What it does mean, however, is being present physically, mentally and emotionally whenever you do open the door up for someone in need.

It’s a powerful thing to be completely open and completely present with someone. When we create this kind of space, we focus on the other person and we allow them to be vulnerable with us. We have to set boundaries, however, and ensure that we’re holding enough space for ourselves even as we’re holding it for others. Our mental and emotional wellbeing must be protected, after all, if we want to be able to nurture and support others.

Why it’s the right thing to do.

Building close relationships with people — be they platonic or romantic — requires us to hold space in our lives. We can’t hold on to others and expect them to only see to our needs. It’s necessary to be present and open for them, so that they can come to you in times of trouble. Holding space is the right thing to do, and it improves our relationships on a number of levels.

Connecting on deep levels

In order to connect with those who we love, we have to be vulnerable but we have to also be open. Often, we misunderstand this openness as a thing we give to others. We’re willing to be open with our own information, but it’s harder sometimes to just sit and be open to experiences and perspective of someone else. Holding space helps us to drop our judgements and be present enough to connect on deeper, more meaningful levels — without letting our narrative get in the way.

Repairing damage

For us to repair relationships which have been stressed, we have to communicate with one another and open up the door of vulnerability to one another. This requires time, but it also requires us to put our egos aside and see one another as we really are. We can do this by holding intentional space for one another. Space in which we listen compassionately and from the heart, while releasing our judgements and striving to see things from your mental or emotional point of view.

Alleviating guilt

Are you and a loved one struggling to overcome divides that seem too great to bridge? Are you fighting all the time? Or otherwise engaged in a constant power struggle? When things go wrong in our relationships, we have a tendency to shut down, rather than to turn and confront our feelings. As things worsen, we begin to feel guilty and out of control of the spiral. To get back on track, we have to consciously make room for one another to safely (and willingly) express our needs, emotions, and fears.

Rebuilding trust

One of the most powerful reasons for holding space in your life or a loved one is the rebuilding of trust. Allowing someone to open up to you in the most vulnerable of ways is moving. It causes us to see one another in a different light, and it generates a certain bond of trust. Holding this space with room for our own boundaries and needs, though? This helps us to form deeper connections with others while re-establishing trust in ourselves and our ability to look after our wellbeing.

Setting boundaries

Consciously holding space helps us to build better boundaries and communicate what we would also like in return from those relationships. To consciously hold space for someone means not only to listen and help someone. It also means ensuring you’re capable of committing to that emotional labor. We’re not always equipped to help a friend in need, and we’re not always in the right frame of mind to do it. By setting boundaries, we ensure we’re holding space for ourselves as well as others.

How to hold space for a loved one in your life.

Do you know how to make space for loved ones in your life? Do you know how to set boundaries and actively listen when someone opens up to you? In order to hold space, you have to be present — but you also have to communicate. Drop your internal narrative and leave your judgements at the door.

1. Learn how to listen actively

How often do you engage in the practice of active listening? More often than not, we spend our time hearing things rather than truly listening to them. To hear something is to take a noise into your ear and through your brain, but listening is where the processing comes into play. In order to be present for others, we have to truly listen to the information they’re sharing with us. That happens by mastering the art of active listening.

Active listening requires us to set our own internal egos and narratives aside in order to understand and engage with what the other person is saying. Instead of listening to respond, we have to listen for meaning. This happens with active listening and engaging with the speaker (even while you set yourself aside).

Wipe your mind clear of any pre-fabricated assumptions and responses. Be present in the moment and look for the deeper meaning behind the words the other person is speaking. Nod, shake your head, and respond where appropriate. When the other person pauses, or finishes a point, ask them questions in order to show your interest and your active attempt to empathize. Active listening helps communicate our care and willingness to help.

2. Become a better communicator

Communication is the key to any successful relationship we hold, and the way by which we primarily express our needs, expectations, and desires. When it comes to holding space, this skill becomes especially important. That’s because it’s not just about listening to the other person or doing things for them. To create healthy space which benefits you both within the relationship, you have to communicate your own needs too.

Even as you listen to what the other person has to say, keep the communication channels open toward your own needs. It’s okay if you feel overwhelmed by the demands your loved one makes on you. It’s okay if you need to take a break and walk away. You just have to communicate these things and be honest and compassionate while you do.

Be there for the other person. Listen to them and then give them the feedback that they ask for, or the feedback that they need to hear. Leave your grandstanding out, however. They don’t need every detail of your experience, and they don’t need to hear how their experiences make you feel (unless they specifically ask for that). Leave the “I” out of things and approach your friend with compassion in your heart and your focus on them.

3. Set meaningful boundaries

Even as we hold space and time in our lives for other people, it’s important to ensure that we are holding space and time for ourselves. We can’t fully be engaged or present with others if we don’t first tend to our own needs. We have to recharge our own batteries, reset our own needs, and come to the table open and free of distraction. Basically, if you want to be there for others, you have to first be there for yourself. And we do this by setting boundaries.

Avoid a swinging door policy with friends and family (with the exception for emergencies). Build up some boundaries for yourself. If you’re dealing with a lot of stress and anxiety and a friend comes to you for help, let them know if it’s not a good time and express your own issues or worries.

Our loved ones don’t always have the emotional or mental capacity to help with our struggles — and that’s okay. We all lead challenging lives at time, but it can be easy to forget that when you’re dealing with your own hardships. If it’s a bad time, tell your loved one it’s a bad time. Point them in the direction of someone who can give them more immediate help. It’s okay to say no to making space for someone if you’re unwell. We should all ask permission before we dump our problems on someone else who might be struggling.

4. Avoid centering things on you

When helping someone you care for, it can be tempting to relate their issues back to your own experiences. You want to comfort them. You want to show them that this thing that they’re going through is temporary — but that’s not always the best move. Sometimes, people just need us to be there to listen. They don’t want us to fix their problems, and they certainly don’t want to hear about you triumphing over something which may be pushing them to the edge.

Avoid centering things on you or your story. When you do make space for a loved one, make sure it’s their space and not your space masquerading as empathy. If you’ve committed to making space for someone, you’ve done it for them. Leave yourself, your emotions, and your narrative out of it.

Check your internal voice. Listen to the responses it generates, and the responses you give the other person. How often do your replies begin with the phrase “I think…I want…I know…”? Consider those phrases, then think about how you would feel if you bared your soul to someone, and they replied with a story about their youth. Making space for someone else means taking our ego out of the equation.

5. Leave judgements at the door

As humans, we tend to be highly competitive and highly comparative. Our massive hubris leads us to jump to assumptions, and in those assumptions we find judgement. Judgement doesn’t work when we’re opening ourselves and our hearts up to other people. If we want them to be open and honest with them, then we have to try to see things from their point of view and leave our hangups and assumptions out of it.

No one ever has all the details — no matter what they may promise. We’re all living life through our perspective and through our perception of reality. That looks different to each of us. What’s wrong to one person may be completely moral to another.

To help someone you have to drop the judgement and understand they have a right to think and do as they wish. We’re all doing what we can with what we’ve been given. Open up your mind and allow yourself to understand their reality. Rather than comparing their journey to yours, question what within them inspires them to act, behave, or believe as they do. When we question the problem, we find the root causes.

Putting it all together…

There’s a lot of talk out there about “holding space” for the people we love, but many of us get this concept wrong. Many see this as creating a swinging door for the constantly fraught friend to push their drama through. Creating healthy space for our loved ones is far more nuanced than that, however. We have to set boundaries for this space and align it to our own needs. Are we ready to take on their emotional baggage? There’s right and wrong ways to go about it.

Listen actively to what the other person is saying and engage with their emotions and the perspective they’re sharing with you. Ask questions, nod, and let them know you want to see things from their angle. When it’s time for you to reply, do some from the heart and without over-involving your ego with stories of your own personal triumphs and emotions. Holding space simply means being present for someone in every way. Be there for them, but not before you have the mental and emotional capacity to do so. Set meaningful boundaries and ensure that you you’re equipped to be there for them in the healthy and balanced way you need to. Leave yourself out of the story and leave your judgements out of it too. We all have a different way of seeing our lives, and that’s okay. If you love them, hold space for them in your heart.

LV Development

Self-awareness, relationships, and psychology.

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E.B. Johnson, NLP-MP

Written by

Certified Life Coach | NLP-MP | Entrepreneur | I write about relationships, psychology, and the growth mindset. Founder @ Dragr LLC. 📱: about.me/EBJohnson

LV Development

Self, relationships and mental health. If you’re looking to make your life better, this is where you start.

E.B. Johnson, NLP-MP

Written by

Certified Life Coach | NLP-MP | Entrepreneur | I write about relationships, psychology, and the growth mindset. Founder @ Dragr LLC. 📱: about.me/EBJohnson

LV Development

Self, relationships and mental health. If you’re looking to make your life better, this is where you start.

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