A few weeks ago, one of my best friends let me know, via a tearful voice memo, that her partner had cheated. So I did what anyone would do: I came to her door with two bottles of wine, overpriced skincare we could try together, and the unbridled rage that comes with knowing someone you love deserves much better than what they’re getting.
We ate carbs and stayed up late. I listened while she wallowed between bouts of sobs and screaming fits. When it came time for me to take the bus home, she gave me a big hug, squeezed hard, and said, “I know that wasn’t easy. Thank you for holding space for all my feelings.”
I cooed out a luxurious “of course,” in the gentle timbre of an expensive Upper East Side therapist. But really I wondered: What in the Goop Gift Guide does “holding space” even mean? It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the phrase, but I’d never really thought about it. It meant basically nothing when I heard it at the end of yoga, as our teacher bowed her head to us, hands at her heart, and thanked us for “holding space” for our bodies.
I’ve seen it on Instagram, where “#holdingspace” has been used over 100,000 times. To me it just seemed like the language of the privileged and well-moisturized who like pop psychology and not thinking too hard about things.
I rode the bus home Googling a definition. I found plenty on TikTok, in between viral dances and cat videos, both of which were much preferable to the pseudo-therapeutic content I found. “Your ability to hold space for another person’s suffering is directly related to your ability to hold space for your own suffering,” TikTok mindfulness coach Cory Muscara said in a clip, liked by over 1,500 people, as his blue eyes stared directly at the camera.
“Celebrate your growth and hold space for self-compassion,” Kendyl Leasure, a therapist with nearly 60,000 followers, urged her virtual flock in a video posted last month.
“I just want to create and hold space where we can normalize periods,” Nadya Okamoto, an activist who campaigns for ending the tampon tax, captioned a video tutorial showing how to use the menstrual product.
So-called “therapy speak” has taken over a lot of virtual discourse, and ultimately bleeds into how we communicate to each other in real life. Think of the term “emotional labor,” or everything from one’s shitty ex-boyfriend to a slightly demanding job being described as “toxic.”
“Perhaps the language of mental health is burgeoning because actual mental health is declining,” The New Yorker’s Katy Waldman wrote in March in an essay about the rise of therapeutic lingo. (She cited a report from 2018 which found that 19 percent of adults experienced mental illness that year.)
But to use another tired and meaningless colloquialism, it is not “doing the work” to merely send a friend who’s hurting the text, “Holding space for you” with a purple heart emoji and call it an evening. The proliferation of people wanting to hold things for me is lovely, sure, but how can I call it solidarity when I’m not quite sure what that even means? When I’m going through it, sometimes the only thing I want you to hold is a bag of Doritos, that you are passing over to me.
Kelly Elizabeth Wright, an experimental sociolinguist and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan who studies disabling institutional racism through language, told me that the phrase has been amplified through protest movements. “In my own life, I probably started hearing the phrase in conversations about inclusion,” Wright said. “It was included in thinking of how to hold space for people with different identities, abilities, and things like that.”
Sometimes “holding space” can be a kind of synonym for “talking stick” when it comes to ensuring everyone in a collective can speak their mind. “In the graduate student union at the University of Michigan, they do this work by ensuring that people have multiple avenues to comment when we have large general-membership meetings,” Wright said. “They’ll give actual moments of time in the meeting, but also multiple modes of communication.
“People can walk up to a mic, but they can also submit comments ahead of time, or type things in, just to make sure it’s accessible. During Occupy Wall Street, we saw that happening in real time when people were working in a decentralized movement, sharing everything and making sure there was time for all to speak and discuss their ideas. A lot of collective moments use these strategies to embed equity into their daily practices as well as their collective management structure.”
Wright added that the phrase became more popular when companies and institutions began public-facing equity and inclusion efforts after the murder of George Floyd sparked global protests last year. “Everyone released a statement, which was great, but now they have to actually see what that statement looks like in practice,” Wright said. “That’s where holding space comes in—it’s not just being in a room, it means giving people the room to share their perspective and experiences and contribution. In places where people have been actively marginalized for so long, that means creating something physical—that’s where the space comes in, finding a time, a place, a room for you to listen to other people.”
Wright added that “holding space” seems to be a direct etymological descendant of two other phrases: “holding forth” and “holding court,” which both date back to the 1400s. “When we say someone is ‘holding court,’ that means they’re in a room full of admirers who are in rapt attention listening to them,” she said. “When someone is ‘holding forth,’ they’re speaking on an issue and also keeping everyone’s attention, saying their peace. In both phrases, ‘hold’ as a verb is used to refer to commanding attention.”
For Wright, “holding space” requires action, but it doesn’t always need to be a grand gesture. “If someone thanks you for ‘holding space’ for them, it might just mean that you sent an email. You might not realize it, but you made them feel seen, or heard, or said something that needed to be said,” Wright explained. “When companies are like, ‘We hold space for blah, blah, blah,’ and there’s nothing behind it...we’re looking for something deeper than that. A lot of language can be used in empty ways.”
Katt Bonger Hoban, PhD, is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. She studies collective action, and consensus building in social movements. While the decentralized, leaderless Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011 were often parodied by the mainstream media for a perceived lack of organization, Hoban contends these groups worked to ensure all voices were heard.
“Consensus processes rely upon a group working together to form an agreement that takes into account various perspectives,” Hoban said. “And ‘holding space’ takes two forms in these discussions. The first is literally giving everyone the opportunity to speak. A typical consensus process won’t wrap up until everyone has had a chance to speak their share. Or, people with marginalized identities can “jump the stack,” which refers to the list of people who are speaking, to make sure that space is being held for various identities.”
In a typical decision-making process—like a jury, or a board meeting—folks who wield more power or influence will inevitably have the loudest voice in the room. “Consensus process, in my observation, is a really powerful way for people to develop their own voices,” Hoban said. “People will say that there’s a ‘magic’ within consensus that happens with everyone having the space to speak.”
“Holding space” changed Heather Plett’s life. The author, who works as a facilitator in Winnipeg, Canada, wrote a bestselling book on the topic in 2013. She was inspired by the palliative care nurse who guided her family through her mother’s last days. “She was so intuitive in giving us what we needed in that process,” Plett said. “We were going through the biggest grief and transition of our lives, and she had this way of giving us what we needed, backing off when necessary, and not layering her own stuff over what we were going through. Not everyone has that quality.”
Plett first heard the term about 15 years ago, from the consultant and former Episcopal priest Harrison Owen, who founded the organizational development group Open Space Technology. “He was the first source I found in terms of talking about holding space for others in a conversation,” Plett said. She also referenced Donald Winnicott, a 20th-century British psychoanalyst who coined the term “holding environment,” for how therapists should treat their clients with compassion and emotional attunement.
But Plett has her own definition for holding space: “It’s the practice of showing up for another person and allowing them to have whatever experience they’re having without trying to direct them or fix them,” she said. “It’s trying to withhold our own egos, baggage, and narrative, so people can have their own autonomous experience but still feel supported.”
Plett acknowledges that, when bleached of any meaning, “holding space” can sound a lot like “thoughts and prayers.”
“Let’s say I have a child run into traffic,” Plett said. “I’m not going to say to that child, ‘I’m holding space for you,’ I’m going to rush into traffic and pull them back. I won’t allow that child to experience violence so I can withdraw from the situation. That doesn’t help. So I really resist when people just say ‘I’m holding space for you,’ if that’s not what’s needed in the moment, especially if there is a real injustice happening.”
Pandemic-era uncertainty and chaos makes the idea of “holding space” a pretty comforting idea for a world of humans all facing an unpredictable future together. “We’ve built this culture that wants stability, predictability, and security,” Plett said. “Suddenly, we can’t control anything. People are feeling quite lost, and some people want to go back—the idea of ‘Make America Great Again’ is a pretty profound example of not going forward, of not following through with transformation. So a tool like ‘holding space’ can feel very profound when a lot of people are feeling lost.”
That sounds convincing... as long as the phrase is supported by some action. “One of the qualities of ‘holding space’ is getting involved in the mess of life,” Plett said. “How do we engage with each other in a way that honors each other’s dignity and right to justice? That’s a much deeper concept of holding space than the one that is far too often used on social media.”