I have a tendency to be oblivious in a very unintentional sort of way. I haven’t always understood the importance of holding space for others’ experiences, opinions, and emotions. It’s not a lack of intelligence; I have 4 degrees to prove that. Instead, I think I suffer from being somewhat weirdly naive.
Recovery and Trauma Superpowers?
Whether from the scars of my childhood or 25 years of blackout-inducing binge drinking, I hadn’t spent a lot of time focused on the world outside of me. When focused on survival, you don’t spend too much time examining social justice or anything else for that matter. Until I stopped putting alcohol and drugs into my body, I didn’t know how years of just getting by skewed my worldview. Still, getting sober didn’t immediately change this for me. Putting down alcohol and drugs is not a magic wand; I was still me and there’s a lot to heal. Sober for over a decade, I have only really started to examine the world outside of myself in the last few years. It takes a long time to wade through your trauma and I don’t know that it really ever ends.
Still, I’ve realized that my recovery and my experiences have given me superpowers. Instead of making me hard and cynical, my life and my recovery have given me empathy and love. Whether I want to be or not, I’m fairly tuned in to the moods of others. Coming out on the other side allows me to recognize another’s pain and sit with them in that pain while holding space for their experiences and emotions.
What Does It Mean to Hold Space?
But, is holding space just about pain? What does it mean to hold space for someone or for ourselves? According to Mind Body Green, holding space is being present with someone without judgment. To some extent, I think it might be easier to sit with someone in their pain than to be present without judgment. If you don’t believe me, go online for a few moments and read some of the comments on any social media platform. We LOVE to judge.
And we don’t just love to judge others, we really seem to love to judge ourselves. I think it may be easier for me to hold space for someone else. I have spent far too much time judging myself and also aligning myself with the opinions of others.
A Chameleon Holding Space?
For a myriad of reasons, I became a chameleon. I had taken people-pleasing to a Gold medal-winning Olympic level. Not content to seek approval from people in my day-to-day life, I unknowingly sought approval from any public figure that I respected and/or followed. It even crossed over into my recovery. My childhood training left me with an “all or nothing” mentality.
I started to realize this after reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. When I read it, I loved her rule “Be Gretchen”, but I couldn’t wrap my head around “Be Cyndy”. When I picked up another one of her books and it didn’t speak to me in the same way, I blamed myself. Why couldn’t I take in what Gretchen was saying? Seriously?! I can’t even type this without laughing now, but that was my mindset. Now I know that I may like one or more books by an author, but that does not mean I have to like all of them. And, shockingly enough, it’s not anyone’s fault if I don’t like a book.
Lessons from Recovery
All of these lessons have also caused me to wonder how we exchange information and share our experiences without invalidating, minimizing, or shaming each other. How do we hold space for ourselves and someone else at the same time? Perhaps we could apply some lessons from the recovery community?
Within recovery, we strive to accept each other as is, without shaming each other. As you read above, we’re not always successful. We are all a work in progress. Still, the recovery community needs to function with this as the goal because most individuals with a drug or alcohol use disorder know how to shame themselves better than anyone else could. I don’t think we’re alone though. Those of us in recovery have not cornered the market on low self-esteem, mental health issues, or anything else. It’s more that we’re united because we collectively added drugs and alcohol to the mix.
I have yet to tell any part of my story to another person in recovery and have them shame me – not even for the things that I thought should never be said aloud. Likewise, I’ve never done that to another person in recovery who has trusted me with their story. I know that we, the collective we, did the best we could with what we knew when we knew it. When we knew better, we did better. I also know that the stories of others give me solace and the perspective of another; they tell me that I am not alone. Most importantly, our community has expanded and evolved in a way that has reduced the stigma associated with recovery.
Is Acceptance Holding Space?
I wonder if we could extend the premises of acceptance beyond the recovery community. How could we hold space for ourselves and others to live their lives without judgment? For starters, I think we need to realize that it’s okay for different paths and experiences to exist. Your experience does not have to be untrue for my experience to be true. Not only can our experiences differ, but those differences don’t invalidate the other person. We don’t have to do what others expect of us but we also can be what they don’t want to be.
You might be asking what the heck I am talking about, so allow me to give you a couple examples.
- I was raised in the Catholic religion by two people who didn’t necessarily have a lot of faith and didn’t teach me about faith. So, it didn’t “stick”. My sister-in-law was also raised in the very same religion but by someone who had a lot of faith and raised her to have that same faith. She relies on her faith in nearly all parts of her life. Her experience is true and valid; so is mine. The two different experiences can exist without diminishing the other person.
- Another friend of mine recently posted “before and after” pictures showcasing significant weight loss. She was celebrating a milestone in her own weight loss journey. Another friend feels triggered by “before and after” photos; she believes it goes against the body positivity movement and is fat shaming. Guess what? They can both be right as long as they’re not judging the other. One can celebrate her accomplishment and the other can feel triggered. The key is that they accept and respect how the other experiences the photos.
Holding space is not an endorsement or a denial. It’s being present.
Holding Space Is Simple but Not Easy
Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? It is, but it’s also challenging. I catch myself judging myself and others more often than I’d like to admit. It happened just this morning. I have a group on Facebook where I post about Beautycounter, Whole30, eating healthy, and other health-related topics. As I was inviting friends to join, I immediately pictured others receiving the invitation and thinking “Who does she think she is acting as an expert on health?” That thought nearly stopped me in my tracks and almost prevented me from inviting people to join the group. And then I remembered, I have to hold the space for myself that I hold for others.