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I can’t help but wonder if we’ve been doing it all wrong.
It’s hard to know how to truly show up for someone and hold space. The term, “holding space,” if I’m honest, had started to become a bit of an eye roll for me with its recent popularity in the personal development and coaching world. Just like authenticity had, it felt like everyone was dropping this expression without really thinking of the power behind it.
In recent months, I’ve found myself mulling over what it means to truly hold space for someone as my mom fights for her life with her fourth cancer diagnosis. It’s not always an easy thing, but if we learn how to truly show up for others, it can be one of the most transformative and rewarding experiences that can radically change the lives of all involved.
I know this all too well myself.
After the last two years of dealing with my own mysterious cancer diagnosis, I often find I’m having panic attacks, seemingly out of nowhere. The fear of the unknown starts to creep up and, before I know it, my breathing is labored, and tears are streaming down my cheeks as all the what-ifs frantically bump into each other in my mind.
I haven’t been feeling well lately, and the left side of my back has been in excruciating pain. As I laid in bed, rocking back and forth, trying to find reprieve from the dull and constant ache I now live with, stretching from my rib cage down my left leg, I cried as all the irrational thoughts took over.
As the months pass by, my panic gets a little worse. For most recovering from cancer, the years without its return bring a peace of mind. A diagnosis of remission, a sense of freedom. For me, the silence is deafening at times. Where are you? I sometimes whisper, talking to it as if it’s a loved one gone missing.
“Don’t give it energy, Amanda,” people often tell me. “Don’t think about it. You don’t want to bring that energy into awareness and have it become a reality.” I smile politely back at them while, in my head, telling them to take their spiritual bypassing and shove it.
Never finding my little monster, as I often referred to it, coupled with a genetic predisposition and a mom who is fighting her fourth cancer diagnosis, sometimes leaves me gripped with fear and even with all my tools, it can get the best of me.
I believe in the power of our thoughts and mind, but I also believe in the power of deeply feeling the truth of your emotions.
I also believe in honesty—radical honesty—facing them up close and intimately. I believe in truly acknowledging what and why I am feeling a certain way so that it may come up and out of me, releasing the angst that dances in my chest.
Over the last few months, I’ve thought a lot about stepping into my truth more fully and being radically honest with myself and others about how I feel. But it’s scary. I always hesitate to share my true feelings because it can make a lot of people uncomfortable.
However, I realized this discomfort is creating some major disconnection within myself and in my ability to support others. I’m learning the art of holding space for myself and for others to authentically feel.
I understand this discomfort though. Even after everything I have been through, I still feel a dis-ease when I’m with someone experiencing their true feelings. That’s my emotional unavailability. In my family, we are stuffers and we are stoic, and we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and we don’t feel because feeling…feeling is uncomfortable.
I think a lot of us believe that holding space or supporting someone means we have to say the magic thing that will fix the situation or relieve the pain, sadness, and fear. We offer up ways in which the other can solve their problem. Or worse, we tell them to just be strong and courageous and try not to think about it.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told I am the strongest person others know. And I get it. I appreciate that you view me as this way and it’s true. I am strong. I am courageous. But I want to be clear, I thought I had no other choice.
What if, instead of telling someone they are strong and courageous, we just provide the space for them to feel scared of what is before them?
You see, when we bombard someone with this notion that you only view them as strong or courageous or brave, it can leave them feeling the need to abandon their true feelings in order to be the strength and courage that you need to see in order to feel comfortable.
At least this is what I’ve found in myself in these moments of discomfort. I am too caught up in what I am feeling or what I should say, I forget that I am merely the person needed to hold space for the other to truly feel.
Bu I am a solution person. At least, I’m turning into one. I want to do more than just complain. I want what I have been through to not be all for naught but to have meaning and purpose.
I’ve often joked to some of my friends and family that I want to create a pdf of what to say and what not to say to someone going through a challenging experience like illness or loss of any kind. But maybe that is just what I need to do?
I thought of some of the things others have said to me:
>> It doesn’t do any good to worry about it.
>> You are the strongest person I know. You can get through this.
>> Don’t put energy into it, Amanda. You don’t want it to become a reality.
>> God doesn’t give you what you cannot handle. (By the way, this is literally the worst thing you can say to someone.)
>> Try not to think about it.
>> Just take it day by day. That’s all you can do.
When we say the above statements, what we are really telling the other is: “I am too uncomfortable to truthfully hear and know how you feel.” We send the person experiencing this challenge into a place of trying to make the other feel more comfortable instead of being vulnerable and open for them to be human.
We take away their right to feel and express their full humanness.
The feelings and thoughts we experience in deep despair and challenge are completely normal and natural. We are complex and deeply emotional beings.
Shaming anyone, even if it is unbeknownst to you, into not feeling their truth is a disservice to them and to yourself and humanity as a whole. When we allow the space for them to feel safe, we allow ourselves to feel deeply with them, and we all receive a healing—a melding of truth, honesty, and deeper connection.
So, I’d like to offer you an alternative. A solution. A possibility for expansion and growth and more intimate relationships with those in your life.
When someone has reached out to you to express their pain, here is what you can say:
Person feeling emotions: “Hey, I need to talk. I found out today I have ___________ .”
Party B: (Pause and breathe and remember this is not about you.)
1. “I am so sorry. I’m not entirely sure what to say right now but if you are open to it, I’d like to hear more.”
Just keep allowing them to talk and share. Ask questions. Be curious.
Person feeling emotions: “I’m feeling so ___________ (scared, confused, x, y, z).”
2. “I’m so sorry. I’m hearing you say that you are feeling ___________. Do you want to continue sharing or are you looking for advice from me?” If they want advice, try to avoid actually giving advice. This is hard because we want to fix but it’s really not our place to tell someone else what to do. Try to ask questions that will get them to flush out what they need for themselves.
3. “I’m going to sit here and listen to what you are feeling for as long as you need me to.” (If you are with them and have a relationship to do so, reach out and grab their hand.)
4. “I’m so sorry. What do you need from me? How can I help?” If they say, “I don’t know,” take it upon yourself to really think about them as a person. Knowing them, what could you offer up? Dinner? Cleaning their house? Getting them a massage, or other service they’d find relaxing. Taking their kids for the afternoon? Taking them somewhere they love?
5. “How can I help you? Do you want company? Do you want to talk more about it?”
You see, when we show up with a vulnerability, with curiosity, and just an openness to provide space, we create an environment for richness, for closeness, and so much more connectivity.
The heaviness, the momentary need to talk through emotions, is normal. Personally, I’m a feeler. I need to feel everything deeply to truly allow them to pour out and not sit in dis-ease in my body. I stuffed for way too long and it almost killed me.
When I share the depths of my feelings and emotions, it’s met with the very thing that will make the other person feel more comfortable—“you are the strongest person I know, Amanda.”
But this leaves me feeling guilt-ridden or shameful because on many days, I don’t feel strong at all and am merely seeking a shoulder to lean on and hold me up when my legs feel weak.
To honestly ask for help, to be open to another holding space for me to deeply share the depths of my fears and emotions, well, that is what makes me the strongest person I know.