Have you ever been in a therapy session and your therapist casually drops a phrase you’ve never heard before? “Hold space”? “Sit with a feeling”? You’re sitting there smiling and nodding politely, but you’re probably thinking, “What does that even mean? Who says that?” Being a therapist, these phrases make sense, are easy to say, and have become second nature over my years of practice, so sometimes it’s easy to forget that not everyone speaks “therapist.” In today’s blog, I’m taking some of the most common statements I use and hear from fellow therapists, as well as my interpretation of what they really mean.
“Hold space” (a verb)
This is the action of allowing yourself or another person to feel or experience a feeling without judgment, criticism, or trying to change it. Most times, when we’re talking to someone who is distressed, we don’t know what to do or how to react; we just feel helpless, powerless, and uncomfortable. In an effort to alleviate the discomfort, we try to change how they’re feeling. Although this is usually done with the purest of intentions, it inadvertently invalidates (tip: that’s fancy therapist lingo for “cancels”!) their experience. “Holding space” is a quieter, yet powerful way to comfort someone. It’s sitting back and allowing yourself or another person to “just be.”
“It’s all part of the process” (a reminder)
Your therapist is encouraging you to keep your head in the game. This is a reminder that things usually get worse before they get better. One analogy that I use often is to have my clients visualize a bow and arrow: the arrow must be drawn and pulled back before it can fly forward. Therapy can be painful and wildly uncomfortable. In addition, healing is rarely linear. There will be times you take big strides forward, times you take a few steps back, times you stumble, and times you freeze – and that’s OK! Keep going! As long as you’re doing your best to stay near the path and head towards the direction you want to be, you will get there.
“Feel a feeling” / “Sit with the feeling” (a -very difficult- verb)
Similar to “holding space,” this verb involves the admittedly-difficult task of experiencing a feeling without judgment, criticism, or trying to change it. Feeling or sitting with a feeling comes in two parts. First, it is assessing what is going on in your body and your mind. Then from there, it is identifying the situation, labeling the emotions and thoughts that go along with it, and allowing them to pass through you without judging it or controlling it.
“Be gentle with yourself” (a reminder)
This one is pretty self explanatory! When your therapist tells you this, they’re reminding you to try not to talk down on yourself or to beat yourself up. Instead, they’re encouraging you to give yourself grace, and to be understanding and patient with yourself. It reflects the belief and action that says “I’m doing my best.” Oftentimes, we find it easy to be gentle, patient, and understanding with others, but for some reason, we find it difficult to turn that same grace towards ourselves. It’s so important to remember that we’re just as deserving of gentleness as the people we comfort.
“Where do you feel that in your body?” (an assessment)
When your therapist asks you this question, they’re encouraging you to notice where you experience a sensation in your body while discussing something, and noting what it feels like. Try to remember the last time you were angry. What did it feel like? Where did you feel it? Now, try to remember the last time you were sad. You may be able to differentiate the differences in how these emotions felt and where you felt them. For me, anger feels like heat burning in my face and throbbing in my head, while sadness feels heavy and hollow in my chest.
“Tell me more about that” (a verb)
Your therapist is encouraging you to keep talking. Sometimes, they’ll say this because they need more information. But other times, they’re noticing that you are getting somewhere and are gently coaxing you to continue exploring that thought to see where it leads.
“What is coming up for you?” (an assessment)
When your therapist asks you this, they’re asking you to take notice of what thoughts, feelings, or body sensations you are experiencing while talking about something. Be honest! There is no right or wrong answer to this. Your therapist is only interested in your experience as you see it.
What are some other therapist sayings you hear all the time but have no idea what they actually mean? Comment below and maybe we can translate for you!
Source for Inspiration: @SitWithWhit, http://www.sitwithwhit.com
Maigen Pham, LMFT, CST-Candidate
Maigen has worked with children, adolescents, adults, and couples – in addition to providing behavioral therapy to children with autism. Her approach to counseling is holistic, eclectic, and collaborative in order to help individualize sessions for each person. Additionally, as a Certified Sex Therapist-Candidate, Maigen provides therapy for individuals experiencing problems with sexual intimacy.