Does this sound like you?
You experience something painful. It hurts. You feel anxious, angry, or frustrated, as if you’re on the verge of boiling over. So you self-isolate—sometimes for hours, sometimes for days—and wait for the pain to subside.
You don’t call a friend or a loved one, even though you know you technically could. You know that using your support network is supposed to enable your healing process, but you just can’t pick up the phone. The thought of having one of “those conversations” again is simply too exhausting.
This is how I used to cope with stress, anger, and fear. I know hundreds of folks who do the same.
This unwillingness to share ourselves in painful moments is a collective roadblock to healing. So why do we isolate? Perhaps we don’t share our painful truths because we have an embedded fear of intimacy. Perhaps our support network doesn’t make us feel safe, seen, or heard when we reach out for help. Perhaps the people we most need support from don’t know how hold space for us so we can heal.
What does it look like to hold space for a loved one?
Think of it this way: when we’re hurting, our needs vary depending on the situation. Sometimes we need to share our experiences. Sometimes we need to feel heard. Sometimes we need space to reflect. Sometimes we need solutions—but not always.
We often believe it’s our job to solve others’ problems. But that’s not the case at all. Even though you may not be able to offer a solution to a loved one’s pain, you can meet her needs by offering space, support, and compassion.
At the crux of the nine dos and don’ts is the simple premise that your role as a confidante is to listen with an open heart and provide emotional support—not solutions—to your loved one.
Over the past few years, I’ve slowly altered my healing process to incorporate the listening ears of loved ones. I haven’t necessarily become more or less comfortable with intimacy—but I’ve developed new, deep friendships with people who can hold space for me when I’m hurting.
This is what they’ve taught me.
1. Do let them speak fully.
Patiently listen as your loved one shares their experience. Listen silently, without feedback or intervention. Give their feelings the focused, nonjudgmental attention they deserve.
2. Do validate their experience and feelings.
For many of us, hurt, shame, and anger are all overwhelming and isolating. By telling a loved one “I hear you” or “It makes so much sense to feel that way,” you help them feel heard. Avoid invalidating your loved one’s emotions with misguided attempts at helping like “Don’t be sad” or “It’s not that bad.”
3. Do ask clarifying questions.
When we ask questions about our loved one’s experience, we assuage any hidden fear that they are burdening us with their story. By demonstrating your interest, you give them the chance to process the narrative of their experience. As an added bonus, you get a clearer sense of the context of their story.
4. Don’t make it about you.
Remember: your role as a confidante is to listen with an open heart and provide emotional support, not solutions. Perhaps you’ve been through something similar and you’re eager to share what you learned from your experience. However, diving into a tale about your past diverts the focus of the conversation to your lesson—not your loved one’s pain.
Perhaps you believe that your loved one needs direction and that some concrete advice would help. However, every time we offer concrete advice, we imply that we know what’s best for our loved one, which isn’t true. Only they know what’s best for themselves, based on their emotional landscape, the context of their life, and their experiences.
5. Do follow your loved one’s lead.
Inserting your own emotions into your loved one’s narrative can be harmful for two reasons. First, if you incorrectly capture the emotional essence of the story they’ve shared, they may feel misunderstood, which can contribute to a deeper feeling of emotional isolation. Second, it may not be your place to pass judgment on the folks they’re in conflict with: their mother, their colleague, their partner.
For example, they may feel comfortable venting about their partner, but they may be offended if you do the same. Instead, try mirroring your loved one’s language and centering them in your feedback. For example: “It sounds like she really hurt you,” or “I hear you—that sounds unbelievably frustrating!”
6. Don’t imply that your loved one is isolated in their pain.
Sometimes your loved ones approach you having shouldered unbelievable burdens. The death of a parent, child, or partner; a miscarriage or infertility; traumatic physical or emotional harm; a natural disaster, war, or severe financial losses.
Sometimes in an attempt to acknowledge the gravity of your loved one’s pain, you may say, “I can’t imagine how awful that must be for you.” However, such statements only exacerbate the feelings of isolation that your loved one inevitably has. Instead, try: “That must be incredibly painful,” or “You must be hurting right now.”
7. Don’t psychoanalyze your friend or tell them what they really want or need.
It’s true that the more you hold space for a loved one, the more you’ll begin to notice patterns in their thinking and behaviors. Perhaps they’ve been casually dating for months, but leave every encounter feeling empty and lonely. They claim to want comfort, stability, and care, but deny wanting a more serious relationship.
You analyze the situation and come to your own conclusion that your loved one secretly wants a serious partner but is afraid of commitment. Though your analysis may be spot on, this particular moment is not the right time to share that with your loved one.
When the environment is less charged and your loved one feels more comfortable, you can ask: “Hey, have you given more thought to being in a committed relationship since the last time we chatted about it?”
8. Do ask how you can support your friend.
When your loved one has fully shared their experience and the feelings surrounding it, ask them how you can offer support. Everybody reacts to pain differently, so by asking how you can be of aid, you imply that they are the expert in their own needs—which they are! Remember that some loved ones will want space, or to simply be alone. This honest feedback may sting, but it has nothing to do with you.
9. Do offer a hug.
By asking your loved one if they’d like a hug or to be held, you simultaneously give them power over their own healing process and respect their needs and boundaries. Remember that they might not be in the mood—so don’t take it personally if they say no.
When we provide heart-centered support to our loved ones, we give them the tools and confidence they need to heal their emotional injuries and create change from a place of empowerment.
That being said, holding space for a loved one can be emotionally and physically taxing. When facing our own burdens, we may not be in the proper state to hold space for anyone but ourselves. Be sure to meet your own needs before overextending yourself for someone else.
Relephant: What to do when our Relationships get Tough.