How to Hold Space

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How to Hold Space

Categories: Center for Safety and Empowerment

By Michelle McCormick, LMSW


Survivors of trauma and victimization, whether domestic violence, sexual assault or human trafficking have described one dynamic so frequently that I have come to believe that this dynamic is a universal experience of victimization. That dynamic is: isolation.

Isolation is the condition of being cut off by choice or circumstances from one’s friends, family, or support networks. In some circumstances, isolation is used as a tool by the abuser to ensure that the victim/survivor has limited options to leave the relationship. In other circumstances, survivors report feeling so changed by the traumatic event that they cannot envision a future where they remain connected in any way to their prior life, including in relationships with their support network. Yet, we know from cutting edge research on how the brain and body is affected by trauma that the most effective way to experience healing is through connection with people who are safe. Healing can happen in the context of supportive relationships without judgment.

One of the best ways we can support those we know going through a trauma and recovery process is by holding space for them. Holding space is a term for a process where a person or support network does not try to force the victim/survivor in any one direction in the healing process, but instead agrees to be present with love and care, as the survivor finds their own way. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.

Trauma survivors need a safe space, emotionally and physically, as well as time to do the internal work required for transformation. At a base level, the body needs the space and time to regain its capacity for self-regulation. Our brains and bodies were built to heal! Our attachment bonds are our greatest protection against any threat. Traumatized people recover in the context of relationships: with families, loved ones, friends, supportive employers, AA meetings, veteran’s organizations, religious communities, professional therapists and so on.

The role of these relationships is to provide physical and emotional safety, including safety from feeling shamed, admonished, or judged, and to bolster the courage to tolerate, face and process the reality of what has happened. Much of the wiring of our brain circuits is devoted to being in tune with others. Recovery from trauma involves (re)connecting with our fellow human beings. This is why trauma that has occurred within relationships is generally more difficult to treat than trauma from traffic accidents or natural disasters.

Survivors have to find someone they trust enough to simply be present with them. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, who wrote the seminal text called The Body Keeps the Score states, “Feeling listened to and understood changes our physiology; being able to articulate a complex feeling, and having our feelings recognized, lights up our brain and creates an aha moment”.

The good news is that anyone can assist trauma survivors to have this aha moment! It does not require that one complete extensive training on trauma intervention practices in order to help those around us build and re-build resiliency. It requires that we intentionally listen with open hearts. Offer the space and time for our loved one, friend, or co-worker to say or not say whatever they need. And it requires we validate for them, with empathy, that we will walk beside them through their journey, however winding and twisting that path may be.

Michelle McCormick, LMSW, is the Program Director for the YWCA’s Center for Safety and Empowerment.

Want to support the YWCA Northeast Kansas’ crucial programs for survivors in our Center for Safety and Empowerment? Join us on Saturday, April 6th at 6:30 PM at the historic Jayhawk Theatre for the 2019 Concealed Revealed Art Auction. Purchase your tickets here.