To Be Held

It’s often said we cannot “go it alone.” We all need someone to believe in us, to stand by our side when we’re not our best self, to lift you up. It’s just as important to know when to let go. Today’s post from Mental Health contributor Tala Ciatti examines our universal need for one another, and how these relationships affect us physically, mentally, emotionally. As someone who often withdrawals when times get tough, I’m taking notes. – Kate


If life is calmer when rooms are calming, and if the act of dressing can be mindful, and if moods can be affected by a wall color, then it’s no surprise that having a solid support system helps maintain a sound mind and emotional wellness. I believe this, as a counselor and as a human. We were built to connect, at our best when we are supported and supporting. A naturally therapeutic environment is created when we interact honestly and intentionally. The data is there and the stories are real, but I hesitate to open up the topic – even in my own little Word document – because authentic human relationships can be JUST SO DIFFICULT. Complex. Gray. Maybe for you too.

Who is “holding you?” Someone is…possibly many someones. Unless you are terrifyingly isolated, there are friends, family, acquaintances or colleagues who lift you up, offer perspective, and influence your understanding of the world. Usually, this has a positive connotation – my people, my tribe. In some cases, a community can yield a negative influence. To maintain health, we do well to take stock of who is around and how they impact us.

In his work The Evolving Self, psychologist Robert Kegan works from the general notion that “the person is more than an individual” – we develop and make meaning of our experiences through interactions with others. We were built for connection, and we aren’t meant to go it alone in this thing called life. But what makes up a good network? Is there hope after college and before the nursing home for organic and productive community to flourish?

Kegan built on Donald Winnicott’s idea of holding environments and described three main things that he believes are necessary for us to be well supported. A good holding environment, according to Kegan can hold us well, let us go, and stick around:

Holding on  A social circle can literally “hold on,” providing physical comfort and protection. Those in our collective can also hold us by recognizing and confirming us as we are, offering practical and emotional care.

Letting go  The purpose of a positive holding environment isn’t conformity or confinement. We aren’t at our best when we are “kept” or spoon-fed. Instead of filling our every need or allowing us to stagnate, helpful relationships encourage us – push us, even – to grow as independent and responsible individuals.

Staying put  According to Kegan, a helpful “culture of embeddedness” will be there for you. (You know: “When the rain starts to pour…like I’ve been there before…clap clap clap clap.) A good circle will remain, and provide continuity as we venture out into bigger circles and other experiences.

I think about this concept often. I spend too much time in my own head trying to sort out relationships or the lack thereof. I always almost give up. Then, I am brought back from despair by someone in one of my holding environments. (Kegan called it.) I get a call from a friend who has a knack (in her personal life and amidst her work in the business sector) for initiating and sustaining authentic relationships, and I ask her how they are possible. She speaks of things that are simple but not always easy: Scheduling time for a phone call, making a practice of writing (and mailing) handwritten notes, using technology without apology for quick conversations or texted life summaries, using the time available to stay in touch until more time is available, saying no to things that damage or detract from wellbeing. I listen to another describe the way she approaches building community as her family moves (across the world and quite often), and am inspired by the fierce sense of purpose this easygoing friend employs. I make an appointment with my counselor and compare: friends can be therapeutic, but shouldn’t be expected to be therapist. New to town, I gratefully receive a personal invitation to meet up with a distant acquaintance and am challenged in my belief that social media is a place to lurk, but not connect.

When I am tangled up in theory, relationships are overwhelming. In reality, they are possible, and they are happening, with honesty and intentionality. And they are necessary: without confidants and mentors, I am prone to drift. Holding environments offer a safe place to land for celebration, for shambles, for growth and development.

I want to know how you do this…or if you believe its possible. How do you find and maintain the relationships that hold you well, let you go, and stick around?

Tala Ciatti, M.Ed, LPC, NCC is a clinical mental health counselor with a natural fascination in people and professional experience in the treatment of children and families, maternal wellness, mindfulness, trauma, human development, grief and loss, and cognitive behavioral therapies. Tala has a special interest in raising awareness of the importance of emotional, behavioral, and mental health for every person. She currently lives in the Minneapolis metro area with her husband and infant son, who patiently serve as her primary audience for musings on mental health in the modern world.


Image by 2nd Truth

    • Stephanie, I’m so grateful that you shared some of your experience. It is a struggle…and always-changing relationships require stabilty within ourselves. I love that you used the phrase “wish I knew what it took.” It takes you! You are enough for successful relationships! So thankful that you shared here. Wishing you a safe space to unpack these thoughts, and the knowledge that you are needed in relationships and deserving of them!

  • I’ve struggled as well. I usually don’t feel very safe and end up not really being myself in order to gain some control. I’m working on learning to trust. Trust that they will “stay put”. But even if they don’t, I have to be okay with that.

    • Sam. Thank you. What you said is so important! It can be such a challenge for me to stop and listen to my reactions and emotions when unsafe and uncomfortable feelings arise. Learning how I veil and mask to protect myself has been so eye-opening. I’m inspired by your work in knowing yourself, accepting yourself regardless of the actions of others, and trusting others in positive relationships.

  • I’m usually the person that tries to keep up with relationships. I make the phone call, nag them over text to face time and avidly try to meet my friends in person. I’m currently in a masters program with a class of only 8 people and although I love them all in a way I know which people can benefit me in a healthy way and which ones won’t. Most times I feel isolated because I choose not to interact all the time with the people that distract me, but then i remember that I have true friends that I can count on. It’s truly a balancing act and a test of personal mental and emotional strength. I spend most of my days singing and bearing my soul in front of these people and I just don’t want to share any more with them after I’m off the stage. My fiance keeps me grounded, he’s my safe place. Never doubt that connection and never doubt your own intuitions.

  • Hi Tala, what a well-timed and wonderfully complex exploration. I am so fortunate to have been pulled into two incredibly supportive holding environments, and over the past few years have met more and more women who are such need of space and time for intentional, trusting, safe, supportive conversations. It’s like we are all so connected, but so disconnected from these real spaces in real time where we can share, listen, and be heard. The timing of me finding this post is such synchronicity. Next week I’m running a kind of social experiment that will bring 50 women together to tell stories, listen, share, and learn from one another. The theme will be chance, and we’ll be telling our own stories of taking a chance, or getting a second chance, or needing a chance. I’m going to share this post with them ahead of time, as it so reinforces my dream and desire to bring women together in exactly the way you and Kegan describe. I wish you were closer, I’d love to have you join! I’ll be following your work. Thanks again for this.

    • Deb, this reply is late in coming, but I’m sending my thoughts with you in hopes that you are still engaged in this work and embedded in these holding environments. So exciting! And so necessary! I would love to hear how this experimental gathering came together! Thanks for commenting!