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What Does it Mean to Hold Space

Although the idea of “holding space” comes in many different shapes, the value of allowing room for emotions to flow freely and be released in a healthy and productive way is indispensable when it comes to healing. For instance, in Chinese medicine, the root of (arguably) all disorders comes from a lack of Qi (the body’s vital energy) flow that results in blockages and stagnation. According to Chinese medicine theory, one of the most common causes of these blockages is the repression of emotions.

So what does it actually mean to hold space? As mentioned above, there are many different versions of “holding space”. For the sake of this discussion, holding space means giving room to whatever emotions someone may be feeling and letting that emotion be expressed without reserve. It means accepting someone just as they are, while letting go of our own preconceptions, beliefs, and biases. From the perspective of an acupuncturist, this has the potential to put patients at the helm of their own healing while simultaneously encouraging expression of the innate vulnerability we all possess.

One of the most common Chinese medicine diagnoses in the Western world is “liver Qi stagnation”. The liver is the organ most responsible for promoting the free flow of Qi through the body; it is also the organ of soothing emotions, especially frustration, anger, and irritability. Therefore, liver Qi stagnation generally manifests as being quick to anger or becoming overwhelmed with frustration. It is often described as feeling “stuck” in life, like you are so overwhelmed that you can no longer see a way to move forward. Liver Qi stagnation means, literally, that the Qi in the liver is unable to move freely due to blockage and the organ is then unable to promote the healthy passing of emotions.

A major cause of liver Qi Stagnation is emotions being repressed. This can be because it is not societally or socially “acceptable” to express a particular emotion, or it can be because maybe you don’t have anyone to express the emotion to, or perhaps because the source of the emotion is so constant that it never feels resolved. For example, feeling trapped in a job you don’t like but are unable to leave, and this may cause daily frustration that can lead to chronic liver Qi stagnation.

How does an acupuncturist hold space?

Although treatments like herbal medicine and acupuncture encourage the liver to release these stuck emotions, as holistic health practitioners we understand that sometimes the most important thing is to give our patients the chance to speak their fears and frustrations aloud and allow these feelings to run their course in a healthy and productive way.

Another opportunity to hold space is in cases when the patient isn’t yet comfortable expressing, or may not be conscious of the root cause of their current symptoms; either where it may be “embarrassing”, or too upsetting or triggering for them to verbalise. Common examples of this would include discussion of topics like bowel movements, digestion, or sexual functions. It may also involve physical or emotional trauma, especially (but not exclusively) for abuse survivors.

Even if the practitioner may suspect there is something the patient isn’t ready to say yet, it is important that we create a safe and accepting environment so that over time the patient may reach a place where they feel comfortable verbalising subjects of this nature. Not pushing a patient to say more than they’re comfortable with while simultaneously creating opportunities for them to speak freely can promote comfort and a supported lowering of defences. This is another form of holding space.

Holding space can also mean waiting until the patient is in a position to accept our advice in areas like taking herbal medicine or making lifestyle changes. This can include things such as meditating, exercise habits, quitting smoking, and diet modifications. Suggesting these revisions can be completely overwhelming, change is hard and not everyone can take it on at the same pace. Therefore, not pressuring anyone to make these changes immediately, while continuing with supportive treatments until they are ready is also holding space.

Many people deal with emotions like guilt, regret, and shame. The act of holding space can be especially important when dealing with these emotions, because it means hearing someone out and not placing a judgement on whether or not they should feel guilty or shameful. For example, perhaps they were involved in a hit and run accident and they feel at fault over it. Regardless of how you may feel about their part in the incident, as a practitioner, it is important to leave that outside of the treatment room. Therefore, holding space in this situation means practising radical acceptance of your patient for who they are and what they’ve been through, regardless of your own personal morality or judgements.

How do you start holding space?

According to Heather Plett, a writer and public speaker well versed on the subject, there are eight steps to ensuring you are on the right path:

“1. Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom.
2. Give people only as much information as they can handle.
3. Don’t take their power away.
4. Keep your own ego out of it.
5. Make them feel safe enough to fail.
6. Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness.
7. Create a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma, etc.
8. Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would.”

Also important is keeping in mind that everyone in the world lives in a slightly different reality. No two experiences of the world are the same, and keeping this in mind can make a massive difference in our ability to hold space.

It is clear how powerful it can be to hold space for a patient, especially in regards to Chinese medicine. Physiologically, it promotes the free flow of Qi and emotion, preventing stagnation and blockages. Emotionally, it can offer validation and empathy when needed the most. Holding space can mean the difference between treating symptoms and treating the root cause of a problem. This offers lasting healing instead of plastering a metaphorical bandaid on the issue. Overall, it is one of, if not the, most important things we as holistic medicine practitioners can do for our patients.