What It Means To Hold Space For Someone
To be a good therapist
Years ago I had a professor who said, “If you want to be a good therapist you need to do two things.”
“One, be nice.”
“Two, read existential philosophy.”
Each time he said this, the class would chuckle and I would join them, not reflecting too deeply on such a statement.
Eight years later I enrolled in a clinical refresher course with this same professor, who, again, started class with the same statement.
“If you want to be a good therapist you need to do two things. One, be nice. Two, read existential philosophy. That’s it!”
Eight years later the students still laughed and again I joined them. This time, however, I couldn’t shake the statement. More seasoned and professionally established, I questioned the legitimacy in being nice while seeing value in reading existential philosophy.
I decided that being nice is not required in order to be a good therapist.
Being nice, actually, is a pitfall of being a therapist. While being nice is well, nice, it does neither the therapist or the client(s) any good. In being nice, the more difficult topics aren’t adequately addressed because the desire to be nice is prohibitive.
As therapists, if we are too nice, we can’t be tough and there are times when being tough with/on clients creates the “ah-ha moments” that move therapy forward.
Instead of being nice, I think being human is better. In being human we can be nice, demonstrating empathy and validating experiences, while being tough and encouraging clients to evaluate the impact of early childhood experiences and maladaptive behaviors that perpetuate patterns and (sometimes) unhealthy relationships.
To be a good therapist, the goal is to be free from judgement and biases, while displaying kindness, unconditional positive regard, authentic warmth, and honesty. While an honest reflection of a particular event may initially feel raw to a client, cushioned within gentleness it can create new insight.
The therapy room is a delicate ecosystem. It is the therapist’s responsibility to create a holding space equipped to accommodate a variety of clients, conditions, crisis and concerns. The holding space embodies unconditional positive regard for the client in the room and goes beyond being nice. The convergence of challenging unhelpful thoughts or behaviors married with validation, acceptance and collaboration influences change.
In being present with another, we are doing more than being nice. We are allowing people to feel honored and heard, and, in return, the client can “just be” in their own unscripted way. Without such a holding space, the therapeutic work remains stunted.
Maybe the professor wasn’t wrong after all. Maybe to be a good therapist you can be nice and read existential philosophy. A great therapist, however, goes beyond being nice, creating the multi-dimensional holding space that becomes the catalyst for change.