Please Don’t Try to Fix Me; Just Listen to Me
Have you ever been in the place where your life felt like a whack-a-mole game and the moles were winning?
That is what my life has been like lately. I am sure that everyone has experienced times like this. It’s hard. It makes you start thinking about a little island in the South Pacific somewhere — a place with lots of drinks topped with little umbrellas. And no people you know. (That’s my fantasy!)
The hardest thing about difficult times in our lives is feeling like we are alone. We may have people around us, and some of them may be friends and family, but unless one of those people know how to “hold space” for us when we are struggling, we can feel very lonely. This makes it difficult to go on.
I realized that my resistance was not really to the hard things I have been doing. My resistance was to doing them without anyone acknowledging how hard it has been. I felt unseen. I felt alone in my struggle.
Many times, when we are struggling, the ones closest to us want to jump in and fix things for us, or worse, fix us. People tend to be uncomfortable with allowing us to fall apart, or show strong emotions or express thoughts and feelings that make us seem out of control.
In their attempt to “help” us, they may give all kinds of well-meant advice about how we should change our perspective, not take things so seriously, or just “let it go.”
The problem with this kind of response to our need for comfort and reassurance is that it fails to acknowledge, first, that we are hurting. When I need to vent, you can bet I already know what I should be thinking, feeling, doing. It’s just that at the moment, I am feeling engulfed by the chaos of the situation, even if that chaos is just in my head.
I don’t need to be fixed. I need to be held and loved. I need to be heard.
In the past few days I have twice had the opportunity to have someone hold space for me in a way that felt deeply respectful, caring and nurturing. Both times, the first thing they did when I started sharing my struggles was to say “Oh, wow. That is so hard. I’m sorry you are struggling.” Then they listened as I ranted and wailed and basically said all the things I had been afraid to say out loud in front of anyone else.
When I sat with a friend today and said, “I am so tired! I just can’t do this anymore!,” her response was, “You have been doing so much. I see that.” Immediately I calmed down. I still felt pretty sure that I wanted to stop this merry-go-round and get off, but as she continued to listen with loving concern, I realized that my resistance was not really to the hard things I have been doing. My resistance was to doing them without anyone acknowledging how hard it has been. I felt unseen. I felt alone in my struggle.
Then these two wonderful human beings stepped up to “hold space” for me, at different times, being witnesses to my feelings, assuring me that I have a right to feel them and then giving me permission to make my own choices. They both empowered me to find my strength and decide for myself when I will be ready to step into the game again.
How to Hold Space for Someone
“Holding space” for others means we allow them to be just what they are. We allow them to feel just what they feel. And we allow them to think just what they think, without the need to set them straight.
You hold space by listening.
When someone comes to us in a state of overwhelm, the greatest gift we can give them is to listen with our full attention, making eye contact, allowing any and all emotions to be present in them.
Holding space means conveying the message, “I see your pain. I know how hard this is right now. You are working so hard to handle all this and it’s a lot.”
You hold space by validating their feelings.
When people without these skills hear us vent, they want to tell us why we shouldn’t let things bother us, or why if we could just see it from the other person’s perspective, we could get over our feelings.
Basically, their message is, “You really don’t have a right to feel this way.” This causes the person who came to them for support to shut down, assuring that they will never trust that person with their feelings again.
When you lovingly hold space for someone, you let them know that what they are feeling is normal, human and acceptable. You say, “Yeah, that is pretty shitty.” You allow them to say whatever they have to say. You validate their feelings, and them, by making it okay for them to feel what they feel.
You take yourself out of the equation.
This is about seeing their pain, not about one-upping or sharing your own pain, even in the attempt to make them feel less alone. This just moves the focus off of them and onto you and at that point you have broken the connection with their pain, and you are no longer holding space.
Holding space means we are fully present for the person who needs us. By being fully present, we put our needs on hold. If we can be there for someone when they need us most, they will most likely be there for us when we need them. But, right now, keep the focus on them.
Do Not Offer Solutions
When you are holding space for someone, do not offer solutions. This is really hard for those of us who are fixers. We want to share our wisdom so they won’t have to continue to suffer. Only it doesn’t work that way. They don’t want to know what you would do. They want to hear you say that you believe in their ability to find a solution for themselves.
You may remind them of some of the ways they have handled difficult situations in the past, but do this only after you have held space and acknowledged their feelings.
And don’t expect them to “be over it” on your timeline. We all have different ways to process and heal, and some of us need longer than others.
When we have the opportunity to be a witness to someone’s struggle, the greatest gift we can give them is to hold space for their pain where they are safe to express whatever is on their heart and mind.
When we refrain from trying to fix their problems we empower them to fix them for themselves. We have an opportunity to lighten someone’s load just by allowing them to set it down in front of us and have us acknowledge it. We don’t have to solve it for them.
The respect we show others as they share their burdens will either make or break the trust they have in our ability to show up for them. Holding space for someone is a gift, but it is a skill that we can learn with practice. Relationships are made stronger when we can be present in the way others need us to be. Learning to show up for people not only enhances their lives, but our own.