When I started my “what is” series, there were a number of terms that I thought were deserving of a post in the series, because they are viewed as social justice jargon that many don’t understand.
One term I was not aware of when I started the series, but sounded like jargon to me when I first heard it, was something called holding space. And then, I heard that term heard multiple times in short succession.
So, what is holding space, and why is it so important?
I’ve heard several definitions, but one of the more extensive definitions I’ve seen of it is that it is “to be present with someone, without judgment. It means you donate your ears and heart without wanting anything in return. It involves practicing empathy and compassion. You accept someone’s truths, no matter what they may be, and put your needs and opinions aside, allowing someone to just be.” For example, if you need to process something that’s weighing you down emotionally and a friend of yours listens while you process things, that friend is holding space. When that friend is listening to your rant about something distressing in your academics, your job, or something else (and doing so without judging you, or even doing so by sympathizing with you by sharing their own experiences), they are holding space.
Holding space sounds easy, but it is actually really difficult for many of us. Holding space means that others and their experiences, as opposed to us and ours, are at the center of attention—something that some of us struggle with (because some of us can struggle to have anything other than us and our own experiences at the center). Some of us are more inclined towards taking up space emotionally instead of holding it; as such, that can make holding space all the more difficult.
In fact, certain topics are so sensitive and difficult to process that it’s not wise to expect a friend to hold space (for example, trauma of various kinds). I cannot say enough how important it is, in such a situation, to seek a mental health professional if at all possible. While I recognize the unfortunate reality that mental health care is expensive for many and has a scarcity of access for many (issues which could be the subject of their own blog post on access to mental health care), there is no substitute for a good mental health professional when you need someone to help you process certain things. A friend may be helpful and loving in certain ways, but at the same time, a friend is not your mental health professional. Furthermore, mental health professionals—psychologists, psychiatrists, and licensed social workers—are trained to do more than hold space; they are trained to help their clients process and address crises and other areas of concern.
Even if, in many cases, it may be best to seek a therapist, hopefully this post explains what it means to hold space in other situations.
 https://www.cnbc.com/2021/05/10/cost-and-accessibility-of-mental-health-care-in-america.html. One thing I should add though is that there are some resources out there for those who find money tight when it comes to mental health care; you can find some such resources here: https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/mental-health-services-how-get-treatment-if-you-can-t-ncna875176