Empathy is the ability understand others and their emotions. It is also the ability to share the feelings of someone other than yourself. It is being able to look outside yourself and put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Being empathetic for the people you encounter in life is an important skill and we are called to feel empathy for our friends, family and the world around us. Sometimes our “strong” friends struggle to let us in or ask for help, but every human craves understanding and connection.
Holding space is a form of conscious and actionable empathy. When we see people struggling or in pain, we can be there for them in real and tangible ways.
When we see that our friends or people in our life and in the thick of it, sometimes the best thing to do is just be there. If someone takes the risk to invite you into their pain, be there for them. It seems like common sense, but in this digital age where we spend our lives connected to our technology and being mired in our own issues, we need the reminder. Turn off your phone and give your attention to them and what they are going through. You might be the only person they reach out to. Don’t miss your opportunity to be there.
Don’t Make It About You
Part of holding space for others is to remove ourselves from the situation. Allow them to tell you their truth and express whatever they are feeling or experiencing. Don’t assert yourself into that experience with comparisons or judgement. Yes, you may have gone through something similar, but bringing up that unsolicited experience takes the attention away from the person in pain. It also takes both of you out of this current moment of connection and understanding. You can empathize with them, but you don’t need to make it about you.
Practice Active Listening
Often people just need someone to listen. We all yearn to be seen and heard, especially when we are feeling alone and afraid. When a friend or even a stranger opens up to you about their life falling apart, listen. Turn your attention to their words and their sorrow and pain. If you don’t know what to say, that’s perfectly okay. Say, “I hear you and I’m sorry you are experiencing this,” then keep listening.
Be Helpful, Without Being Intrusive
Can you pick something up at the store for them, bring dinner or take their kids to the park for the afternoon so they can work or take a nap? Can you send them a card telling them “I’m here, if you need me,” or bring them wild flowers to brighten an otherwise gloomy day? Check in and offer assistance, they might just take you up on it. If they don’t, that’s okay too. Sometimes just the offer is enough to help.
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Think Before You Act
My brother suffers from a chronic illness and is in terrible pain every day. I’ve stopped asking him how he is, because I know that it isn’t good. We had a conversation about a year ago when he confessed that he would say he was fine when asked, because he felt pressure to be okay, even when he was anything but. Part of holding space is using our perception and empathy to not make things any harder on our loved ones than it already is. Take time to think before you comment or ask questions of the person who is suffering. Take a second to put yourself in their shoes and reflect on how you would want to be talked to or approached if you were in a similar situation.
Now, I rarely ask how he is doing unless it is after a procedure or infusion. Usually I just text because he doesn’t love talking on the phone. I will let him know I’m thinking of him and tell him I love him. I also will tell him from time to time, that I am here if he needs me and leave it at that. He reaches out when he needs to.
Use Social Media Wisely
Social media and technology can be a wonderful way to hold space for people we love who are not in our general vicinity. We can send them messages of support, without drawing attention to what they are experiencing. We can be present in their time of need, despite the distance between us. When I had major surgery four years ago, one of my best friends sent me a funny video and quick email every day for over a month. She lives in another state but did everything she could to make it known that I was in her thoughts and cared for, even from afar. I came to crave those videos and look forward to her emails every day. She would check in on the phone as well, but sending those funny videos was a wonderful way to hold space for me. She knows me so well and knew what will make me laugh. She knew exactly what to do, even when she couldn’t be right next to me.
Holding space can be one of the kindest acts of grace we can give to another. Be flexible, don’t have expectations and adjust to what they need in that moment. We are conditioned to be independent, stoic and suffer in silence, but it doesn’t have to be that way. When life is falling apart, we need a shoulder to lean on, a kind word or a friend to listen and love us through it.
[Featured Image: An individual with long brown hair and wearing a button-up shirt sit resting their head on their hand. Pexels.com]