There is a beautiful quote from an old text, I think it might even be the bible, that refers to our obligation to offer what we have to help those who need it. When we have something that can help someone, who are we to withhold it?
For many of us, it is a real challenge to know what to do when somebody we know or care for is experiencing difficulties like mental health issues, adversity, or even grief.
Sometimes People Need People
It might be that someone close to us has a mental health issue (whether its depression, an eating disorder or something else). Or it could be that somebody we know either at work, in our family, or socially, just lost someone close to them.
Hopefully, this article helps to shine a light on one small way we can step up and show support to those in our communities, families or social circles that are experiencing less than ideal situations.
Have you ever had someone tell you something intimate or challenging about themselves and you just do not know what to say? Perhaps someone you’ve been socialising with for some time mentions they are an orphan. Or possibly somebody you know, but not THAT well, mentions they have been going to therapy. What do you do? How do you respond?
Many of us, especially if we haven’t personally experienced said ‘awkward thing’ above, whatever it is, will hastily come out with a paltry comment like ‘oh no, that’s awful’, or ‘you poor thing’. Often a change of subject will quickly follow. And there’s no shame in that. It’s just what we are taught, to carry on, and keep our chins up and not get bogged down or ‘wallow in it’.
The Problem with Pity
The problem with those responses (above) is that often, none of the things we fear or are taught to avoid (wallowing/getting bogged down/nor any self-pity) is in fact occurring. And if you’ve ever experienced any kind of awkward thing in your life you’ll know that at some point, when you are ready, it really helps to talk about it with someone who is able to listen non-judgementally. With someone you trust.
So what does it mean to hold a space for someone to do just that?
Holding space is best summed up in this way. Say, you are with a toddler and that toddler just really wants a certain toy but they can’t have it. On realising that they will not get what they want they begin howling and screaming how much they want the toy. They are making a scene. They are on the floor, feeling all that grief in their whole body because they haven’t learned yet to distinguish between physical feeling and an emotional one. To them it’s all the same, a feeling is a feeling and it hurts all over.
Many will feel embarrassed and try to control the kid so as not to bother other people. Or if they are at home perhaps a parent might feel protective and so closely associated with the experience of their child that they cannot bear to see them so upset. Therefore they might console them, try to talk them out of their feeling, or distract them with something shiny and noisy to see if they can stop them having their uncomfortable feeling that way. They might just not be very good at witnessing or allowing strong feelings in general and find it unbearable to be near it – maybe they close the door, put them in isolation or get angry. These are all quite natural responses.
Let’s postulate just for a moment, that the child is expressing a strong feeling of disappointment, or anger, or frustration or another of those less attractive or acceptable emotions. Perhaps that is why us adults don’t like to let them moan or cry or wail. We are taught early on that those emotions are less acceptable and less allowable.
Now, carry this same notion over to when a full-grown human is having one of those “less desirable” emotions. It makes sense we could feel uncomfortable and get diverted away from allowing a person to speak about their experience, and just focusing on them and what they might need at that moment, doesn’t it?
The first thing we can do is forgive ourselves for not knowing how to be there for each other when these emotions come up. A lot of us haven’t had much practice if any.
The second thing we can do is understand the power of simply being there for someone. Not problem-solving. Not trying to save them. Just fully and wholeheartedly being present to whatever it is that is being expressed and shared with you at that moment.
A Big Call
Easier said than done, I know. Like anything, the more we practise the skill of creating and holding a space in which a person feels safe to feel or say whatever is going on for them, the better we get at it. It is a powerfully transformational tool.
For more resources on this topic, start by reading this article or this one on Deepak Chopra’s website. For now, the best thing to do is to practice clearing your own stuff enough to be able to fully present at any given moment, no matter what comes your way. That gives you a huge amount of freedom to in turn pay it forward and give someone else the space to feel what they need to feel when things get tough.