Tough love and holding space are terms and methods that are two sides of the same coin. They are distinctly different approaches to aiding others that require two entirely different skill sets. If we desire to help those who are suffering, they both need to be explored and practiced. To begin, let’s define tough love.
The Merriam Webster definition of tough love is: love or affectionate concern expressed in a stern or unsentimental manner (as through discipline) especially to promote responsible behavior.
Wikipedia says that tough love is an expression used when someone treats another person harshly or sternly with the intent to help them in the long run.
The Urban Dictionary defines tough love as follows: To show somebody some tough love today will save them heartache in the future but may cause a small amount of upset for the receiver immediately after the “Tough Love” has been dispensed. They would suffer more if you let them get on with their life with no interference from third parties.
Tough love was how I was saved from the depths of depression and addiction. My sponsor, Gerry H., used it. And like many alcoholics, I needed it. The Alcoholics Anonymous approach to recovery, as I see it, is tough love. When we are dealing with people in dire situations, this type of intervention is often necessary. If a person is in a desperate state, there is no time to sit back and listen in the hopes that they will soon find their way. One needs to take drastic measures with a person who needs immediate attention. The risks are high. Unreasonable and unstable people cannot be reasoned with, they need more than hand-holding, they need prompt instruction and guidance.
In any event, there must be a component of compassion when expressing tough love. Tough love is never domineering or abusive. We must always have the sufferer’s best interest at heart. This means putting our ego aside. In A.A. meetings, Gerry would say to me on occasion, “I’m here to help others, this is not a popularity contest.” He would often remind me that we are doing God’s work.
Not the less, generally, people don’t like being told what to do (or what not to do). Human beings are defiant. The founders of A.A. knew this, and they knew that they were dealing with drunks with fragile egos that could easily turn defensive or become overwhelmed. This is why A.A. presents itself as a suggestive program. The spiritual principles, the Twelve Steps, and the instructions in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous are presented as “suggestions” by the Fellowship. In some meeting rooms the Twelve Steps are even displayed as the Suggestive Steps. Be that as it may, there comes a time when we must be strong with a sponcee, sometimes sooner than later, depending on how pressing our prospect’s situation is. Holding space, on the other hand, is quite a different approach.
The Urban Dictionary defines holding space as follows; A term that “woke” people use in place of the term “being supportive”
In an blog, entitled The Sweetness of Holding Space for Another, meditation teacher and coach Lynn Hauka, defines holding space as follows: “When you hold space for someone, you bring your entire presence to them. You walk along with them without judgment, sharing their journey to an unknown destination. Yet you’re completely willing to end up wherever they need to go.”1
On her blog entitled, What it means to “hold space” for people, and eight tips on how to do it well, speaker, writer, coach, and facilitator, Heather Plett, explains what it takes to hold space: “To truly support people in their own growth. . . We have to be prepared to step to the side so that they can make their own choices, offer them unconditional love and support, give gentle guidance when it’s needed, and make them feel safe even when they make mistakes.”2
Likewise, when we hold space in a group setting, we are creating a “safe space” as author, educator, and activist Parker Palmer puts it:
. . . safe space needs a facilitator. . . . the role of the facilitator is to keep the space safe, even when someone tries to break the safety. I think there are some simple rules, there are some not so simple rules, but one of the simplest is no fixing, no saving, no advising, and no correcting each other. Well, what we’re going to do in the absence of those behaviors, is we’re going to learn to listen deeply to each other, and we’re going to learn to ask honest, open questions to hear each other into speech. Which I think is another of the most critical tasks of our time. So many people unseen, unheard — they need to be heard into speech. So there are things we can do, but it’s a discipline.3
In my view, holding space can be difficult for the masculine analytical type, like myself, who wants to help by fixing the problem. Basically, we have to stop trying to help the sufferer and give them space to help themselves. We have to sit back and listen to them. Yet, we cannot take a passive position, we have to actively listen. Additionally, we must listen to our own thoughts and feelings, let go of our opinions and judgements, resist the urge to offer solutions, and relinquish our desire to control the situation. We must refrain from offering advice, especially unsolicited advice. We help the person by letting them be heard without the fear of being judged or shamed. And by doing so, we validate their feelings and experiences, making them feel adequate and competent.
I would say that holding space is more of a feminine and gentler approach to helping others. It takes a great deal of restraint. We cannot overwhelm the sufferer with information. Any given guidance must be minimally offered. And it must be given only when asked for or necessary. However, if the situation were to become serious, whereas the person became helpless or at risk of harming themselves or others, only then, may we apply tough love. But again, we have to employ it with compassion, just the same. No doubt, for some, the tough love approach may feel unnatural and uncomfortable—being kind-hearted, gentle, and assertive and directive can be challenging. For instance, if we waffle and not exercise tough love when necessary, we chance enabling the sufferer. Actually, one could say that there is a thin line between holding space and being an enabler. If we get caught cleaning up after the sufferer, lying for them, covering for them, taking up their responsibilities, putting their needs before ours, we will vicariously experience the effects of their troubles, and do them and ourselves a great disservice. And so, we must be straightforward and strong. Gerry often said to me, “When helping others, carry the message, not the mess.” By enabling someone, we lessen their chance of recovery and risk developing a codependent relationship, leaving them stuck in their addiction and depression.
In conclusion, we cannot expect to hold space nor utilize the tough love approach without a willingness to learn the techniques. Creating boundaries, putting aside our ego and agenda, developing patience, sharpening our intuitions, and cultivating love, compassion, and understanding take practice and effort. That said, keep in mind, not unlike the people we are trying to help and comfort, we, like them, are works in progress. And so, in being of service, we must continuously apply what we have learned, seek knowledge, explore, experiment, reflect on our experiences, and refine our skills.
- Hauka, Linda. Blog. The Sweetness of Holding Space for Another. Published on Huffpost.com. 28 March 2016
- Plett, Heather. Blog. What it means to “hold space” for people, and eight tips on how to do it well. Published on heatherplett.com. 11 March 2015
- Palmer, Parker. Courtney Martin. Interview. The Inner Life of Rebellion, On Being with Krista Tippett. 8 January 2015.