Choosing someone to hold space for your emotional pain

Holding space for emotional pain...


What we need

All of us experiencing emotional difficulties need someone to hold space for them.

What is meant by this?

Someone who is right with you, in your despair or loss or confusion, and accessible to you. l heard someone once describe it as someone being right there next to you in "the mud". Just listening. Just offering a heart with ears, showing compassionate empathy. 

Not sympathy. 

You might well be thinking, 'But sympathy is OK surely... isn’t it?' when it is a kind remark made by a stranger or even someone you know as a passing thing, a kindly nice comment.

However when you are "in the mud", so to speak, the likelihood is you are also feeling shame, not wanting to appear not the same as everyone else, and you feel very much on the outside, where a feeling of belonging and being part of everything is both the balm and approach needed. 

Here, when you’re down in "emotional mud", sympathy actually upholds a felt distance –  the difference between the person giving it and the person receiving it.

It is of course good and nice to be sympathetic, however, when someone allows you the privilege – and it is a privilege of baring their soul and vulnerabilities to you – sympathy is alienating. 

There is no, "l get it, l have felt like that", or "l can imagine how it feels, how you feel", no inclusion, in just sympathy, more of a kind of observation. Here, belonging goes out the window. 

Sympathy is more about, "So sorry you feel like that, we’re fine over here!" This ramps up the shame and the isolation that is part of that shame.

The term 'mental health' on top of it all. Why does that sound so awful? Like some kind of ultimate path to ruin?! A path that you are on, and it's super scary, when you feel altered and not at all like yourself.

You can be physically ill but not defined, and yet if you feel sadness, uncertainty, insecurity, and debilitating loneliness and want to cry your eyes out – and these are all quite normal as a result of a bad and/or traumatic (for you) experiences, if you are a human being, by the way, and/or you are going through dark times – this is entirely normal and not "mental" in its adjective sense. 

The term 'having mental health problems' being applied to you feels like 'Ooh you are some poor misfortunate individual, troubled with a pitied mental capacity and someone who couldn’t be trusted to be able to function ever again!' Like the term, their "mental", the word doesn’t have happy connotations associated with it, like a mental home, mental institution, visions of locked doors, barred up windows and grim cold-hearted tyrannical Nurse Ratched looking staff!

True to say that anyone, yes anyone, who has experienced or who is experiencing trauma and because of it has mental health-related problems is in a triggered state that they themselves would so rather not be experiencing, and this does not have to be something that is extreme. 

There are a lot of levels of trauma, and trauma is going to put you in a triggered state. 

What’s a triggered state?

Fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.

Fight, flight, or freeze. Some also consider 'fawn' to be a triggered state. l also agree with the fawn state being a trauma response and believe if someone is sufficiently afraid of another person or a situation they will indeed be trying to appease the hell out of them to remain safe or sometimes to ensure their own survival. 

What is not commonly known is that being in this state of the four F’s – flight flight freeze or fawn – we are not able to access or employ our executive functioning.

What is executive functioning?

This is actually posh, professional terminology for when we can’t think rationally. We can’t access our reason, our digestive system is affected too, and our biology shifts into "running away from the danger or the tiger" mode.

Survival kicks in super quick.

Our only imperative is to run from what is felt as danger, fight your way out of it, or literally (when in freeze), not be able to move. In this state, we employ tactics tried and true that we have used historically even if we know they don’t work. They are knee-jerk responses, they are familiar, and known, we are not into employing when we feel in danger, unknown tactics, they feel too risky.

Doesn’t sound good, does it? Doesn’t feel good either!

But even so, here once again in "the mud", we are still handled with both method and terminology that induce shame. Who are we kidding, we somehow are thought of as someone who has slid down a ladder if we are classified as having mental health problems. I can hear it now and l have heard it many times before.

"Well, they have had mental health problems".  Do people say that if you have had a raft of infections or you are in poor physical health? No, they don’t.

The segregation still exists.

Even if it’s not spoken, it can be sensed and definitely felt as shame... there you go, that undesirable old chestnut. You are on the outside. Somehow you are termed as "not normal".

If we allow it, if we can find someone who doesn’t make us feel like we have "emotional leprosy", we can move through it without feeling like a misfit, or the only kid on the block facing emotional problems, if we are reassured. 

Somehow, if we can normalise these dips in our happiness and what are more often than not, perfectly normal reactions to pain and loss, fear and emotional wounding, we have hope of getting through it without feeling permanently marred, by not only the despair of being scared or broken and afraid and isolating all of these impossible to manage feelings alone, but the humiliation that sadly only too often comes from well-intentioned but misinformed people, supposedly in the "know", call help and define it as such. 

Come to think of it, who is trained or even asks at the go-to-visit your doctor level, what has even happened to you? Somehow, the source of your angst is overlooked. There is more often than not, no enquiry. 

Just a referral to a minimum of a six-month wait to see a mental (there you go again, use of that word) therapist, and the joyous option of chemicals, and pills to suppress all your normal human responses, which can often make you feel worse for the first month while they kick in.

I have to say here that, for some, taking allopathic anti-depressant, anti-anxiety medication helps, and if it does there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It can be a bridge home. There are also, though, so many other alternative options to chemicals that are also non-addictive.

Finding support 

The brokenhearted and those of us going through loss, and those who feel temporarily lost through the mire of grief and despair need support.

In the early acute stage of depression and anxiety, support is pivotal. It is also mostly misunderstood as usually the wait for help is at least six months and thereafter, the offer of only 10 sessions with a therapist is ridiculously considered enough for you to be done and dusted! 

Never have l heard of patients or clients being supported in the in-between when it’s needed the most.

I always do this, and offer this in my work because it makes a huge difference to recovery. "Out of hours" backup. I can appreciate though that this is not always possible, but it is always preferable.

The success of recovery in 12-step fellowships has, for so many years, been absolutely garnered by the sharing with others in the "same boat" and the hope that is given when others share their journey to understand change is possible and the banishing of eternity thinking that isolation creates also is successfully challenged here. As you find alongside the entered into recovery, a sponsor. Someone to turn to and their wisdom. Wisdom is inspiring.

Weekly 50 minutes worth of sessions with professionals are a help of course, but they are not enough without in-between support. Both. whilst you are waiting and as backup whilst you are receiving therapeutic help.

Shame of pain

Believe me. People do not want to share their pain, we are not even socialised to do so. We often feel very misunderstood in this place and desperately not wanting to feel judged or alone with no agency, and furthermore socialised to be defined by this.

This can’t be fixed, by someone wanting to just fix either. This needs space to be held for it. 

The space to cry maybe, or tell without the fear of being talked about or, as l said above, also be defined or stigmatised by it.

Sometimes with the best intentions in the world, the offer of fixing makes it worse. Often people however well-meaning do not get this. 

We are not really taught how to handle grief or depression or loneliness or sadness as a society. 

It feels contagious, because it can touch on the cracks in our own veneer, and we can end up feeling judged to boot if we let the "wrong" person in at a vulnerable time. Do pick your person carefully. This is because going forward in the most beneficial of ways so depends on who you go to.

If you want to help, either someone else or yourself, what do you allow? 

What to allow

Allow the loss and the struggle with it. It’s normal but perceived and held as abnormal in real-time even though we are supposed to know this stuff now, bearing in mind the articles, podcasts, debates and discussions we have about this being considered as a normal part of being a human being. We, those who suffer, still are thought of as being embroiled in a misfortune that has a stigma attached to it.

What you feel is not who you are. It is how you feel. 

Feelings can change. They are absolutely not our identity. 

So, why are we still perpetually identified by them, both by ourselves and only too often how help is structured within our society?

There is a balance... it is not that we are or can be OK all the time or unhappy all the time either. Things are contextual. What are your characteristics, your temperament? In different situations, these are either things that work for you and the situation or against you and the situation. 

In summary...

  • reassurance (this goes a long, long, way to even beginning to realise you cannot manage alone)
  • accepting that it’s something you are going through (not something you are)
  • rest
  • enough sleep
  • what you eat
  • who you confide in
  • knowing it is temporary
  • understanding what caused it
  • understanding who you are
  • ditching those who make you feel less for it
  • calming music
  • meditation
  • alternative therapies
  • rescue remedy
  • herbal teas
  • supplements
  • massage

... and a whole host of lovely, gentle things can help you back on your feet again, feeling safe.

Remember, you are a human being. Going through loss, fear, self-doubt, sorrow, brokenness and difficult times are a part of life and being human.

The people who matter, don’t mind.

The people who mind, don’t matter.

As Rumi has so beautifully said, "The wound is the place where the Light enters you."

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, N8
Written by Gail Berry, Emotional and Relationship Coach
London, N8

Written by Gail Berry Emotional Coach - both a therapist and an alternative medical practitioner who works with healing people’s core wounds and uses Bach Flower Remedies alongside talking and behavioural therapy to make real change and transformation possible.
07771 715072
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