On Holding Space

Read This Article. Seriously. Read it. Read the whole thing.

If you do any kind of counseling, or clergy work, or even just group work in a sensitive context, then, like me, Holding Space is a skill you need to develop, and continually explore. If you have friends and family you care about and want to be better at taking care of in their times of pain and greatest need, if you know anyone with chronic pain, or who is going through major stress, life changes, or other challenges, you need this skill.

Does that sound like just about everyone? Yep, it is. Because really, we all need this skill in our lives, and precious few have it.

On good days this is a thing I can do. More often than I’d like, I fall prey to my troubleshooting impulse, and offer advice. I’m an excellent troubleshooter, and proud of my problem-solving skills, so naturally I want to offer them to anyone I care about who may need my help. But that’s often not what they really need, and my pride and desire to help has to take a back seat to their true needs if I’m going to actually help.

On the one hand, many people actually come to me because I offer useful advice, including ethical advice. I’ve been working on first asking if advice is acceptable, but people are frankly unlikely to say “no”, if only to avoid being rude. I’ve been focused on offering any advice without an additional load of judgement. Those are good steps in the right direction, but they’re not the whole picture. On the other hand, many people come to me because I’m pretty good at being non-judgemental, and at those times, many people need me to not be in a fixing mode.

Ritual space, counseling space, requires a kind of focus that is hard for many people to maintain. It’s often actively stressful to maintain, especially if someone in the circle is having a hard life, and trying to express it. A pressure builds, and we want to let that pressure go. We want to escape the pressure, downplay it, or ignore it.

So we offer distractions. There are times in life when distractions are helpful, sure, but pulling focus away from a ritual isn’t one of those times.

Holding Space goes a step beyond simply focusing, though. Holding Space requires letting go of our expectations on someone else’s behalf. Focusing I can usually do. Focusing without ego or agenda, though, that’s much harder. On the occasions I can, though – often with Freyja’s help – the results are profound.

What are your experiences of Holding Space, whether as the one doing it, or receiving it from others?


About EmberVoices

Ember Cooke has been a member of Hrafnar and Seidhjallr for more than a decade, where she trained to be a Seidhkona, Galdrakona, and Gythia. She founded the Vanic Conspiracy and made ordination vows to the Vanir and her congregation in the summer of 2013. She has contributed to several publications on Heathen and Northern Pagan subjects and regularly presents rituals and workshops at festivals. Her personal practice is more diverse, as the Vanir have lead her into cross-training and service for the wider Pagan community. This has including medium and servitor training in American Umbanda, clergy training with the Fellowship of the Spiral Path, and jail ministry for local counties. She holds a BA with honors in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University. Ember has lived all her life in the south San Francisco Bay Area, and is intimately bound to the valley of her birth.
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7 Responses to On Holding Space

  1. Rose says:

    Ummm…. I do that naturally? I think it’s being Autistic. I don’t have so many pre-conceived ideas of how other people should be, and I don’t expect others to think like me or want the same things. If it’s as unusual and useful as you say, I wish there was a way for me to do it productively.


    • EmberVoices says:

      I suppose it’s possible, but of the many people on the Spectrum I know, most of them find it *harder* to pay attention in the way that Holding Space requires, so if you find it easier, you have a real gift there. -E-


  2. thetinfoilhatsociety says:

    Ember, I have pointed out to many people over the past 8 years or so, that *judgement* is NOT the same as *condemnation* I – and you – and pretty much most of our compatriots – are capable of forming a judgement about whether someone’s behavior is harmful to them (or us). That is good, and healthy, and helpful, and necessary for a functioning society. Condemning them because of that behavior is something else again. We make HUNDREDS of judgements each and every day, but very few condemnations, hopefully.

    There IS a difference. Especially if you are in health care as I am, or in clergy as you and I both are, there is a NEED for judgement. And discernment. I can’t help my obese diabetic patients get better if I don’t judge their diets and lifestyles as being harmful to them, their families, their livelihoods in cases, and offer them alternatives. I can’t offer help in a domestic violence situation if I don’t make the judgement that ‘x’ behavior is wrong, is hurting person(s) ‘y’ and there needs to be intervention.

    That being said, there is, however, NO ROOM for condemnation. You can’t get buy in if you are condemning, you’ve just shut the communication loop completely down, likely forever.


    • EmberVoices says:

      Yes, I differentiate between “Judgement” and “Judgemental” as well as judgement in certain contexts, where the connotation is disapproval, vs. judgement in contexts where the connotation is discernment.

      In this context, however, even offering my best judgement is not the point. Holding Space is creating room for people to follow *their own* best judgement without trying to push them in some other direction.


      Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on facingthefireswithin and commented:
    I am trying to get better at this. It is very important when supporting victims of abuse and in counseling those facing rage and anger.


  4. Widdershins says:

    Sadly, I’ve discovered that far too many people whose profession is to ‘hold space’ are really really bad at it.


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