Life Lessins Blog

Holding Space (Part One)


We know a lot about how emotions work. The rules of emotional physics tell us that just as the physical world abides by established parameters, such as gravity, the law of inertia, and cause and effect, so too there are definite principles that govern how emotions operate.

What Do We Know About Emotional Physics?

The following three “rules” will help us understand the idea that emotions function with certain guidelines.

Emotional Physics Rule #1: Emotions always happen in reaction to an occurrence whether around us or within us that we deem important. 

Without there being some degree of personal meaning ascribed to the triggering event, the emotion will not arise. For example, if we are not particularly concerned about an unfortunate story we read in the news, we will not feel sad about it.

Emotional Physics Rule #2: Emotions vary in intensity. 

An emotion’s force depends on several factors, such as the hopes and expectations we have for a particular outcome. We feel more disappointed and rejected after being dumped by a potential partner with whom we saw a future than by a person we were not particularly excited to be with.

Emotional Physics Rule #3: Emotions alter the way we think. 

The way we look at someone when we are hijacked by anger is entirely different than how we think of them when we’re feeling calm. Emotions temporarily change the way we perceive reality.

These examples of emotional physics are familiar to most of us. There is one rule, however, that is often overlooked; a rule that is particularly salient to our day-to-day lives. We’ll call this The Rule of Holding Space.

The Rule of Holding Space

The Rule of Holding Space states that emotions need to be seen, heard, and understood in order to reduce their intensity. This rule is especially important when dealing with negative emotions which can affect our behavior in undesirable ways (positive emotions need holding as well, but that’s less the focus here). Holding our feelings is an essential part of emotional regulation, defined as the process of monitoring, evaluating, and modifying emotional reactivity. Learning to make space for our emotions helps us manage them better.

Holding space for our feelings is not intuitive to most of us. When we find ourselves feeling distraught, nervous, worried, angry, or hurt, we generally attempt to “solve” the feeling by hoping it will go away. Alternatively, we may criticize ourselves for feeling it or distract ourselves in an attempt to forget it’s there. The one thing we don’t do, which would probably help the most, is to create the space necessary to hold what we feel.

To understand “holding” a feeling, imagine the following scene. Your 10-year old son comes home from school in a huff and proceeds to tell you why he’s upset. A teacher was unfair, a friend said something hurtful, and the gadget he’s been waiting for from Amazon still hasn’t arrived. You sit there patiently and listen, without interrupting, and nod in understanding. You may not say much at all, perhaps just inserting a few questions for clarification or some gentle words of support. But you’re there, taking it all in. Somehow, at the end of his tirade, your son is less upset and ready to get on with his afternoon.

What happened here? How did your son feel better if you didn’t actually do anything to solve his problems?

The answer is that you just held space. You were there to see, hear, and understand what he was feeling, and that was all he needed. He did not need you to fix anything or to make his frustration go away. He wasn’t interested in advice, and trying to distract him would probably have left him feeling not tended to. He simply needed to deposit his emotions with you so that you could carry them together. Just by holding space, you gave his emotions what they needed.

Holding Space for Ourselves

Most of us intuitively grasp why holding space for others is important, and perhaps we even know how to do it. A much more difficult task is to hold space for ourselves. At first, we may not understand what this means: How can I hold space for my feelings if I’m the one feeling them?

The answer is that we can have emotions and hold them too. We possess the capacity to drop into our own internal experience and become a compassionate container for what we find inside. The moment we notice an emotion, be it anger, nervousness, sadness, or fear, we can pause and go down the elevator from our head to our heart and simply be with it. Very often, being present with what we’re feeling from a place of caring attention is all we really need. And incredibly, if we are willing to stay the course and hold space for what we are experiencing, we will find ourselves feeling much, much better.

Staying and Expanding

The process of taming our emotions requires us to exercise “staying power,” our latent ability to stay present with our own internality. When we do, we begin to notice a gradual expansion of the mind around our current inner experience. We find that when we first look inside, the mind’s eye sees the target emotion in a limited way, as if through tunnel vision. The longer we stay with the unfolding experience, however, the more our mental scope broadens and our ability to be present with the emotion deepens.  

This is the process known in Jewish literature as harchavas hadaas, expanded consciousness. What starts as mere intellectual awareness of an emotion eventually becomes a deeper “being with” it in a way that can be profoundly soothing. By reminding ourselves that our emotion needs us right now, we are better able to simply stay put, hold space, and just listen to whatever each feeling is “saying” to us. When we do, we are offering an inner hug to the part of us that needs it most.

We may at first feel overwhelmed or uncertain about our ability to contain our own emotional experiences. This is a common fear and one of the reasons people are afraid to check in with themselves (other reasons will be explored in upcoming posts). It is sometimes helpful to think of holding space as sitting in the eye of a storm that will eventually pass. No emotional storm lasts forever. As powerful as a feeling may be at first, we are ultimately stronger and able to contain it. Our capacity to hold space for ourselves and others is a G-d given ability that we need only to believe in.

An Element of G-dliness

Holding space is one way in which we can resemble G-d. We learn that G-d has many names, each of them showing us another aspect of His “character.” How we refer to G-d helps us understand what He is about. As we understand the meaning of each of G-d’s names, we are also encouraged to find the parallel in our own lives. This is what it means to be “created in G-d’s image” (Bereishit 1:26-27), that we each contain elements within ourselves that correspond to the various elements we find in G-d.

One of G-d’s names is makom, which is commonly understood as the place in which the world exists. Another explanation is that G-d is a place where each of us can exist as well. G-d is able to hold us. We refer to G-d as “a refuge for me” (Adon Olam), which conveys our view of Him as an address to which we can turn to be seen, heard, and understood. G-d makes space for us.

The equivalent concept in our own lives is that we all have the capacity to be a place, a location within which things can be held. When we view ourselves as space holders, we don’t feel the need to run away from what we are feeling, even if it is painful. We feel confident that we can sit with it and still be ok. Holding our feelings from a place of compassion will not necessarily provide us with solutions to the problems at hand (although often we do emerge with more clarity), but we will leave the experience feeling more settled and resolute about the path forward.

Turning to Ourselves

Being a holder of our own emotions does not preclude needing the help of other people. No person is an island and none of us can sustain emotional health entirely on our own. However, we often feel powerless to help ourselves manage our feelings and instead turn quickly to others to do it for us. This tendency can create an unhealthy dependence on other people to make us feel better (which leads to a host of other issues when they don’t give us what we’re hoping for). 

While we undoubtedly need the love, support, and understanding of other people in our lives, we cannot depend on them to do something that we must first learn to do for ourselves. To paraphrase the psychologist Richard Schwartz, we can and should rely on others to be our secondary caregivers, but the primary task of caring for our emotional world rests firstly upon us.

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3 Comments

  1. David, I really like this article and it was very helpful as a parent and a spouse. Great website!

  2. Thank you for this beautiful and thought provoking essay. It makes me think that when we say “HaMakon Yenachem Etchem…” to mourners at shiva we may also be referring to the “holding space” that the process of shiva affords to them – in effect, a suspension of every day life to enable them to take some time with their grief.
    Lots to think about in your words.

  3. […] is that it doesn’t allow us to pause long enough to hold space for ourselves and those around us. As we’ve seen, holding space is more than being technically aware that something is happening inside (although […]