On Self-Expression, Holding Space, and Reaching In

I wrote a thread the other day on Twitter addressing the issue of people not being able to hold back with their “helpful” comments and how holding space is often what folks who are going through difficult times need. It seemed to strike a chord with many, so I’m reposting it below (with additions).

Before I repost, I will say that offering unsolicited advice is a common problem people in patient and disability communities face. People who think that they are being helpful by telling you what worked for them. Or people who want to interject with problem solving. Or people who want to turn the discussion to fit their needs – their need to be seen as knowledgeable/right, their need to be seen as helpful, their need to have their experiences and emotions validated first. This is not okay.

I think many disabled people are becoming more assertive in saying unsolicited advice is not helpful and it crosses boundaries. But when we do, we are met with backlash of those who are “helping” as not being grateful enough or as complaining too much.  Essentially, “well why are you saying anything if you don’t want to fix it?” or the versions of those “helpful” people  saying that hearing someone relay their experiences is “too much” for them. This dynamic needs to change. People need to respect boundaries of those expressing themselves, validate those experiences, hold space, and reach in with humility.


Dear Twitter users, It is perfectly ok for you to read someone’s expressions of frustration, obstacles faced, upset, or other emotions without jumping in with “solutions.” It is healing and healthy for people to express themselves as they process their realities.

Jumping in with your thoughts is

  • presumptive: you’re assuming someone hasn’t tried or isn’t trying these ideas
  • egotistical: you’re wanting to prove you know something and can save the other person
  • invalidating: you’re missing the point of self expression altogether.

People shouldn’t have to define their boundaries up front for you (i.e. saying they aren’t looking for advice). You are taking it upon yourself to cross/disregard boundaries when jumping in. Simple step to avoid this: Ask. Ask the person if they want advice.

If you still feel asking is too hard and you’re advice is so important to offer, you have no right to be offended when it’s not accepted or when someone calls you out for offering it inappropriately. You do not get to be defensive or say your actions were well-intentioned.

You also do not get to label people. Self-expression is self-expression. What some say is seeking attention or pity is usually someone needing compassion, acknowledgment, and validation. It’s not that hard to offer those things.

Some easy ideas to offer validation without crossing boundaries or making it about you, respond with:

  • ❤ [a heart emoji]
  • “I hear you”
  • “I see you”
  • “I’m here if I can offer help.”
  • “Let me know if I can help”
  • “Thank you for sharing what you’re going through”
  • “I am here to support you”
  • “I validate your pain and experiences and am sorry you are going through this right now”

All of these allow a person to feel heard, which often is the thing most needed. It also allows the person expressing themselves to have autonomy to engage further as needed. They can respond or not as needed.

The quote in my Twitter bio is there for a reason:

We tell our stories to be heard. That’s it. That’s what this (i.e., social media as well as our ability to share beyond the technology platforms) is all about.

We’re here to connect by sharing our stories, our truths. No one should be on here trying to impose their beliefs (and solutions) on others. No one should negate the valid expression of others who put boundaries on what responses are unhelpful.

Listen. Just listen. Listen with compassion. Listen with respect and deference. Listen and learn before jumping in. And have humility if you do jump in.

I can’t say I’m always great at this. Work in progress myself. But understanding that most folks want to be heard (not necessarily fixed) goes a long way in helping them; it’s much more impactful in the long run.

As Grace Burnham tweeted: “Get used to sitting with someone struggling and not trying to fix it.”

Another term for sitting with someone is to hold space for others. It’s not comfortable for the listener, it’s a hard skill for many to adapt to, but it’s vital.

And for those unfamiliar with the idea of holding space, I recommend this article:

What does it mean to “hold space” for someone else?

It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.

Holding space is hard and uncomfortable. We want to fix. We want to help. We want to give answers. We want to share our own experiences. But holding space offers a reprieve for the person suffering. They don’t have to attend to your emotions or try to explain why your solutions may not work or try to problem solve when their capacity for problem solving isn’t where they are at right then.

Which brings me to Reaching In. How do you balance holding space with reaching in and wanting to help? A friend of mine once sent me this article – How to Reach Out to Someone Who is Struggling – and I think the metaphor within is perfect (though I think it’s more apt to say it is reaching in to help a person struggling than reaching out).

The story goes that a man had fallen into a river. He was not much of a swimmer and was in real danger of drowning. A crowd of concerned people wanted to rescue him. They were standing at the edge of the water, each of them urgently shouting out to him:

“Give me your hand, give me your hand!”

The man was battling the waves and ignored their urgent plea. He kept going under and was clearly struggling to take another breath.

A saintly man walked up to the scene. He too cared about the drowning man. But his approach was different. Calmly he walked up to the water, waded in up to his knees, glanced lovingly at the drowning man, and said:

“Take my hand.”

Much to everyone’s surprise, the drowning man reached out and grabbed the saint’s hand. The two came out of the dangerous water. The drowning man sat up at the edge of the water, breathing heavily, looking relieved, exhausted, and grateful.

The crowd turned towards the saint and asked in complete puzzlement: “How were you able to reach him when he didn’t heed our plea?” The saint calmly said:

“You all asked him for something, his hand. I offered him something, my hand. A drowning man is in no position to give you anything.

And that’s the thing with holding space. You aren’t asking the other person to do anything. You are offering to be there. You are offering your hand without proposing a solution or imposing a belief. You are not offering advice based on your assumptions or presumptions about the situation. You are doing those things I listed above: Giving your heart. Saying you see and hear the person in their struggle. Assuring them you are there without judgment.

When you do this, when you offer space, in time the person struggling may be more likely to take your hand, to trust you. Or they may not, they do not owe you anything in return, they may not be in a place where they can take your hand. And that’s okay. You have given them the autonomy, dignity, and safety to self-express which can be a lifeboat in itself.

Finally, a note must be made that there is a great deal of overlap in offering solutions with issues of consent. Offering unsolicited advice can be a form of violating consent – pushing yourself, your thoughts, your suggestions on someone. You aren’t just crossing a boundary, you are imposing yourself on another and it’s not okay.

So please, allow self-expression. Hold space for those sharing their stories. Reach in and offer a hand to hold, an ear to listen, but do not assume that the person in need will take it. Be gentle and humble. Self-expression isn’t about you, it’s about the person giving voice to their realities, don’t ask them to do the emotional labor of validating your well-intentioned, boundary crossing interjections that were never asked for. Have compassion by stepping back, by letting go or your personal need to “fix” what someone simply needs to be able to say.

P.S. – If you are a person who doesn’t like when someone is expressing their pain and experiences and/or you simply cannot handle the idea of not responding, I suggest unfollow, mute, block, or scroll past that person’s posts.

And if you are a person likes advice from others, good for you. You can make that clear in your posts or follow up with folks who reach in for you? Be your own advocate when you want answers. But realize that many people do not want people jumping in. You do you when you want to seek advice for yourself. Respect others’ boundaries who don’t want advice.

2 Responses to On Self-Expression, Holding Space, and Reaching In

  1. Thank you for sharing this valuable information!!

  2. jennjilks says:

    This is brilliant. Thank you so much for sharing it.

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