After nearly 20 years in the mental health field, I have decided that perhaps the most important concept I have learned is that of holding space. This is true no matter what role I am playing – therapist, mother, wife, daughter, sister or friend. Many years ago, very early in my training at the Gestalt Institute of Phoenix, a wise faculty member shared the following revelation “People are starving for a witness to their existence.” In our fast paced, fix-it, task oriented society it can be easy to miss the opportunity to hold space for those who seek our ears and often our guidance. I am a true believer that the answers lie within.
At the very core of the Eagala Model of equine-assisted psychotherapy is the foundation belief that our clients possess the answers. It is our job to create a safe space for those answers to rise to awareness and to ask the right questions and provide the right activities to bring that awareness to the foreground. I feel fortunate to see this happen every day.
“Janey” called one cool December morning to ask if she could come in for a “tune up” session – the semester was ending and she needed some perspective. Her mother found me when Janey was very young and struggling several major losses in her life. Over the years, she would come back for a handful of sessions to process challenges as they arose in her young life.
Today she gave no explanation for her need to come be with the horses other than perspective. She arrived with a heaviness to her presence – no bubbly smile or spring in her step – just a seriousness in her face that let me know there was a lot going on in her head. After a brief mindful breathing practice and check in with her body we stepped into the arena. Her step was purposeful and swift as she moved deep into the pasture to approach a horse she has worked with many times over the past 8 years. He lifted his head and reached his nose towards her as she approached. Her shoulders immediately dropped and I could hear a soft giggle as the tension left her body. After a few moments with him, she visited several other horses before returning to silently stand beside me. When asked what she needed today her reply was “I am not sure – just that I need to be here.”
We stood quietly side-by-side for 40 minutes. Her gaze primarily focused on her old friend and two other horses as they interacted. I stayed focused on the horses and Janey’s shifts in presence, patterns that presented, and unique interactions that unfolded and periodically checked in with my own internal state. She spoke only twice – once to draw reference to an interaction that was meaningful and at closing as she stated “This IS what I needed – to be still”. She then wished me a Merry Christmas, got in her car, and went home. Her mother later shared that “Janey” had not shared what happened in the pasture but something clearly shifted.
Did I have a dozen questions? Of course, I did. However, those questions were about me and would have intruded on a process that was unfolding within her. It is likely that my questions will organically be answered in our next session.
Of course, not all of my sessions are silent and still. Holding space takes on many forms. Sometimes we build/create, sometimes we story tell to the horses, sometimes we create art on the horses or dress them up and sometimes they carry our burdens. The important thing is that we create the space for learning, growth and healing to happen. In my work this is what allows my clients to connect with, and feel safe to address the next level of work that is bubbling to the surface. In my personal life it allows a friend or family member to find the avenue to their answer.
I struggled to find a topic for this blog so I gave myself some space and stepped away from it. I closed my eyes and grabbed a book off the shelf that I have had since high school, The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Yes, I have nerdy side. As I opened it, a note fell out that a friend wrote to me 40 years ago. It said “So much is said about those always talking, and so little about those always listening. You are one of those who is always listening. That is your gift.” and POOF, the holding space idea was there. Give yourself and the people in your life the gift of space.
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