Holding Space & Creating Boundaries

One of the most important boundaries we can create with others gives us held space. Held space is an emotional setting in which those in it with us feel safe to be authentic and to speak from a place of emotions (not criticisms, thoughts or judgments) – a space in which we can be fully seen as we are.

I learned an important lesson recently in holding space that goes against what I’d previously known. I had previously learned that when someone cries, it is helpful and supportive to offer tissues. It is a sign that I am here with you in this and will support you through this emotional experience.

Turning this on its head, I was recently taught another understanding that offering tissues is often received as a sign of discomfort and distancing: “Please don’t cry in front of me. Please clean up your mess. I’m uncomfortable when you’re so emotional and messy.” In this model, it is the responsibility of the individual in emotion to take care of themselves, to be empowered to reach for or ask for tissues (or specific support) if they want it, while being supported silently by those with them. There is power in being held, observed, having someone bear witness to our distress in all its ‘messiness’ and to stay present with each other. “I am not scared away or uncomfortable with your emotions.” Emotional release is not something that needs to be ‘cleaned up.’

I have a dear friend who lives too far away. When we see each other, we begin our adventure together by inviting good boundaries, explicit needs and requests, and an environment in which we offer safe space without overreaching. It creates a playground of openness, connection and vulnerability in which we each get to grow, experiment, learn and feel confident that the other is there to support us according to our explicit requests. Next time you are creating an emotionally safe space with someone (hopefully often!), I invite you to offer your support in a more boundaried way; one in which each of you is responsible for self-care and for asking for support in the ways you want it – not where it is offered in ways that can feel constricting and judgmental.

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