Whitney Goodman LMFT

Healing Together


The Language of Therapy, Explained

What your therapist actually means when they tell you to "hold space."

Posted Jan 20, 2020

Source: Shutterstock

Therapists have their own language. It’s ingrained in us from the moment we step into graduate school. Those pesky little platitudes have a way of consistently infiltrating your dialogue while the rest of the world is left scratching their head asking, “What do you mean you want me to ‘make space?'”

It becomes so normal for us to speak like this and we forget that the rest of the world may not understand. As much as I try to avoid the standard therapist dialect, it always finds a way to drift into my sessions and my online content. If you’ve been wondering what the heck your therapist is saying, you’re in luck. Here is your introductory guide to language in therapy.

Five sayings therapists use all the time and what they actually mean: 

  1. “This is all part of the process.” You're probably going to feel worse before you feel better. Therapy and healing can be wildly uncomfortable.
  2. "This is the work." I know you're scared and feel lost right now, healing can make you feel this way. This is usually what it feels like. It will all be clearer soon. I can see that you're headed in the direction that you want to be.
  3. "Be gentle with yourself." Try not to talk bad about yourself or beat yourself up, please. You're doing your best.
  4. "Feel the feeling." Try to find out what is going on in your body and your mind. See if you can label it or define it. Don't judge it or try to control it.
  5. "Hold space." Let them (or you) feel what they're feeling and experience it. Don't judge it or try to change it, just let it be. Be a kind human who listens and seeks understanding.

If you've ever been confused by the language that therapists use, you're not alone.

Individuals that grew up in homes where there was not a lot of emphasis on feelings or creating a feelings vocabulary may really struggle with some of these sayings. If you've ever experienced relational trauma or have felt unsafe in a relationship it may also be extremely difficult for you to understand comments like "this is all part of the process" or to trust another individual to safely guide you. 

It's ok to ask your clinician to explain what they mean or give you another explanation. If you don't like any of these sayings or they don't resonate with you, share that with your therapist. It's important that you have a shared language that you both feel comfortable with. Once you are able to create a shared language between you and your therapist, interactions become much more fluid.

As therapists, it's important that we use language that is accessible to our clients.

This often means using language that isn't only known by therapists, explaining what we mean, or adopting the client's language entirely. I advise that clinicians confirm that some of these sayings make sense to clients when they first begin using them. What may seem like a simple concept to a trained professional can be an utterly confusing ideal for a client. By checking in, explaining, and adjusting our language we can transform the therapeutic relationship into a safe place where there is safety and a feeling of being understood.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.