Updated: Dec 22, 2022
By Jenni de Jong, I Start Wondering Columnist
Recently I’ve had several friends and family members who have been going through serious health crises. In this time of COVID-19, we have all been touched by this experience, either directly or by someone that we know.
This can be a time of fear and anxiety. Personally, this period has led me to feelings of being overwhelmed or even helpless. When I think about others who also feel this way, I wonder how can we be of service or of help to those around us that need us?
Wanting to Fix It
Most of us want desperately to fix the situation or at least “do” something when faced with such challenges. We often want to bring our loved ones or friends a casserole or a pot of soup – symbolic gifts meant to offer sustenance. This is a natural reaction, but this emphasis on “doing” can, at times, be tricky.
Photo by Piotr Miazga on Unsplash
This need to “do” is deeply wired into our culture. Remember that book, “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” by John Gray from the 1990s? I recall laughing with my girlfriends about how the author got it so right. As women, we want a partner who will just listen. We don’t want advice or a plan of attack.
I was so relieved when I read this and shared it with my husband. We both had a good laugh and I started calling him Mr. Fix It. Being aware of this changed how we communicated with each other. I just wanted to be heard so I could sort it out myself, knowing that I’m being supported.
Paradoxically, when friends or family are going through big life challenges, many times I find myself turning into “Mr. Fix It.” It’s such a temptation in our society. With all the information that we have at our fingertips, we think we are being supportive and helpful when we offer information and advice to those we love.
Learning to Hold Space
With each passing year, thanks to self-study, my work, and countless opportunities, I have realized there are situations in which “doing something” may not be what is needed. The “do” was actually to satisfy a void within me: “There is a crisis; I have to spring into action!”
Perhaps “the do” requires a softening into a place of peaceful calm in which nothing is said or done in an active sense. Perhaps we are asked to just be – fully present for others. By taking this approach of just being, others can gain a better footing to deal with what they are facing. This act of being present with someone is often known as holding space.
I first started learning about this from my practice of Craniosacral Therapy (CST). Founder Dr. John Upledger refers to shifting from “doing” to “being with” and how profound it can be for someone who is going through trauma. He spoke of this as our Therapeutic Presence. Throughout CST training, the student is taught to be a neutral facilitator for the client’s process.
What does this mean? It means we are not trying to “do” anything. As a therapist, it is not my agenda or plan of action for the individual that is most important. Instead, the therapist’s intent is to be deeply present. It is about listening and trusting that the person’s Inner Wisdom knows exactly what needs to happen.
This has resulted in a shift for me in always taking a “doing” response. It requires relinquishing my own fears and reactions to a situation (my voids that come from my history, belief system, etc. so I can be of service to someone in a way that is, well…different. Different than what I was taught growing up or even when I was raising my children. To just to be present and to allow the person to be in an environment of calm when calm probably does not describe what is going on inside the individual at that moment.
You might wonder about the relevance of this idea of being present with someone who is going through a physical challenge or the loss of a loved one. I’m sure many of us can remember times when we were going through periods of trauma and pain. Most can recall a time discussing someone else’s troubles and hearing: “I can’t imagine what they are going through.” How true! We cannot fully understand because we do not have their specific life situation and truly do not walk in their shoes.
Imagine that you are the person in need. Think of how refreshing it would be to feel acknowledged and know that even though the situation right now sucks, you aren’t alone. Even if you have to sit in the middle of a big mud puddle, you have a friend who is sitting with you, allowing you to process things the only way you can at the moment.
So yes, sometimes people in the middle of turmoil appreciate receiving a cup of soup–but just as often, they appreciate having someone just listen without responding and trying to “fix it.”
Learning to Embrace This Approach
But what would it take to be that presence for someone? To just be present so that a family member or friend can draw on your inner strength in order to tune into their inner wisdom with the answers they need in the moment? To be open to offering a different “doing”? To just hold space?
Here are some suggestions of how you can hold space and let someone else really be heard:
Ask people what they need Instead of coming up with a list of information and recommendations and/or advice, ask them how you can best support them. I’ve had friends going through difficult times who told me they just needed to talk about how they were feeling, or sort through different options from medical professionals if they were facing a health challenge. They don’t need me to make a decision for them; they just need a sounding board so they can clarify for themselves the best plan. Sometimes they simply need to cry. Asking what they need in the moment can give them the opportunity to express honest emotions and share frustrations in a safe space. It also gives them permission to ask for more concrete assistance, whether that’s asking for your assistance in shopping for groceries or taking care of a pet.
Be a deep listener Resist the urge to talk. Sometimes because of our own discomfort with a hard situation, we attempt to talk too much when what the person going through the hardship really needs is our quiet presence with them. This doesn’t mean that we remain completely silent, but it does mean that we consciously allow space in the conversation for the person to do their own processing. Filling up all the pauses in a conversation interrupts this process and can make the other person feel that you aren’t listening. Being a deep listener means putting all of our personal agendas on a shelf and being “neutral” so the other person can access their own wisdom and power in the situation. If they ask for our opinion, we may share and have a conversation, but we commit to hearing what is most important to another without judgment. That’s really what the phrase “holding space” is all about.
Follow up later When tragedy strikes, there often can be a huge rush of people who reach out to help or to comfort the suffering. But after a time, that outreach starts to wane. Initially, this can be a good thing because the initial amount of attention can be overwhelming for those dealing with fear and/or grief. However, the person who is dealing with a traumatic event can eventually find themselves feeling isolated and alone as the months go by. That’s why it’s important to make an effort to be that friend who reaches out months after the devastating diagnosis or loss. Let the loved one know you are willing to be a supportive presence who will meet them where they’re at.
So the next time you find yourself with a friend or loved one who is going through challenging circumstances, try to curb the reflex to charge into action. Practice being with them instead, providing a calm and peaceful presence for them to feel supported and heard. You might be surprised at how profound this shift in perspective can be for yourself and for others.