The Holding Space by Julia Macintosh

Like most people, you are not able to face more than one fear during your lifetime. You also spend your life fleeing from your first fear towards your first hope. Be careful that you do not, through your own wiliness, end up always in the same position in which you began. (Jane Bowles)

I was invited by Alex to share my personal account of mental illness, and was reminded of this by Joel White’s moving reflections about his experience of breakdown and its transformative impact on his life. Well here’s the thing: I’ve already recounted the ins and outs of my own experience of breakdown, on my personal blog. My posts there record the evolution of my reflections over the past few years, as I headed into crisis and emerged from it into recovery and renewal, into the present. So I’m not going to dig too deeply into that – though please bear with me here, because I’m going to try to use it as a springboard to something else.

Julia Macintosh

What I’d like to do with this essay is to create a holding space. A holding space – in this context – is the space in which we are able to learn. It is a space where we are held, without judgment, and allowed to explore something which may be complex, emotive, or even contentious.
Let me explain why I feel the need for a holding space. Alex very kindly sent me the draft of research he is compiling on the topic of action learning – a theory of learning developed largely by Reginald Revans. “Action learning combines self-development with action for change. The motive to act and learn is both personal and political, based on a critique of how things are and a desire for something better; at the same time part of what is changed is the actor.”
Now this, to my mind, sounds like the theoretical equivalent of striking a match near a keg of gunpowder. What human being has ever truly changed in a personal or political sense without touching off the tremendous energy within their hearts and minds? I am reminded of what my friend Nina says – “Change is easy, immediate. Transformation is what requires the real work.” Change is the action, transformation is the learning.
What I’m going to try to do in this piece of writing is conduct a small-scale action learning intervention on myself. And this is why I must establish it as a holding space – because it is going to be personal and it is going to be political, and it is going to be based on a critique of how things are, driven by my desire for something better. Hopefully what will be changed in the end is myself – and you, dear reader… I invite you to be changed too, if you wish.


A mental health crisis gives one a precious opportunity to reframe one’s internal reality. A breakdown of one’s psyche happens when new information competes with the existing internal reality, to a point that the existing reality can no longer be sustained. We take in new information all the time, and adjust our reality accordingly – but a breakdown signals a clash of new information that cuts far deeper within. This clash of information creates a degree of anxiety which outstrips one’s ability to cope, so instead of adjusting and accommodating the new information, one’s internal framework instead cracks. When your internal framework has cracked, it leaks out all sorts of emotions that have been suppressed over a lifetime – unbearable in their negativity.

My reflections about my mental crisis form a narrative, meaningful to me and perhaps meaningful to readers of my blog. But it is an unfinished story, because surviving a mental crisis doesn’t solve anything in itself. The challenges and extremities and internal dynamics of the unconscious mind are still roiling beneath the surface, alive and kicking.

Here’s how I interpret what happened to me: feminism. As I understand it, feminism is simply the belief that women are human beings. So what happened to me was that I accepted my place as a human being in this universe we all share together.

breaking point

My mental health crisis occurred when I recognised and questioned and challenged a lifetime’s worth of accommodation to the status quo in respect to men’s space and women’s space. It occurred when I examined my assumptions and relationships and behaviours with men, and recognised how deeply I had surrendered voice and agency and personal responsibility in order to get along in this world. My crisis occurred when I used this new information to push back at the walls of this particular social cage, and received a vicious slap of backlash by those unwilling or unable, for their own personal reasons, to acknowledge my voice and perspective and experience.
I describe this in hindsight, but it wasn’t clear at all as it occurred. It was protracted, angry, guilt-ridden and extremely messy for me and for all those around me. And it isn’t over – it won’t be over until the day I die, because all it means is making choices, one at a time, to create a different reality for myself.

An Anecdote

When I met Alex recently, he was at the Peartree, out in the beer garden with friends Derek and Mike, setting up the stage for the Edinburgh Fringe Live podcast project. Three men, and me. I set into this meeting as confidently as I could, and undoubtedly managed fine, but do you want to know what I was feeling beneath the public face?

On trial with a panel of judges.

A trespasser in a public space established and owned by these three already-acquainted men.

When I left the meeting I was trembling physically with nerves, tense from the effort of trying to hold my own as a woman in that male space, the conscious effort to hold it all at bay: my self-doubt and my personal insecurities and my assumptions about how I must fit in.

Now hang on.

Were these men unfriendly? Not at all.

Unwelcoming? On the contrary! They were very welcoming to me.

Threatening? No. No, they were absolutely laid back and kind. Really, we did have a very good chat.

So what was going on?

In his book, Individuals, Groups and Organisations Beneath the Surface, Lionel Stapley outlines some of the psychological mechanisms that we (all of us) experience in our interactions with other individuals. He observes that…

“We look at the world in light of what we have learned to expect from our past experience of the world. We put objects that to us are similar into the same category.”

Attitudes have been defined as relatively lasting organisations of feelings, beliefs and behaviour tendencies directed towards specific persons, groups, ideas or objects. An individual’s attitudes are a product of the person’s background and various life experiences…. [Our attitudes may] develop from unconscious processes as a result of emotional experiences.

Peartree beer garden

So what was going on for me, there in the Peartree beer garden, was that I was trying to manage a set of attitudes related to gender – both my own and those I was anticipating from others (in this case Alex, Derek and Mike) – as we engaged in a mutually-created public space. Without digressing into a vast catalogue of personal history, let me just wrap it up succinctly: as a woman, I find it incredibly difficult to move in public space, which is traditionally a patriarchal space. Patriarchal space declares that the male perspective and experience is primary and fully human, while the female perspective and experience is secondary and somehow less than fully human. Patriarchal space demands that the female voice adapt and defer to the male voice – an expectation that is so deeply ingrained in our interactions as to seem invisible. If a woman resists this expectation, she finds herself interpreted (by others and by herself too!) as a social problem: a troublemaker. This has been my own experience and I offer it to you as no more and no less.
I carry enormous personal baggage about my self-worth which is bound up in socially prescribed gender roles, reinforced profoundly by my earliest relationships within my family. I carry enormous emotional baggage about my self-worth which is bound up in gender – and so do you. We all do. Is there anything we can do about it?


Let’s look again at action learning. Action learning, Alex writes, provides one with the opportunity of “learning a way through risky ground in the company of some trusted companions.”
So how does one find trusted companions? This is a crucial issue for us all, whether in education environments or in social interactions. Learning of any kind invokes one’s vulnerability. Please give yourself a moment to let that sink in:

Learning of any kind invokes one’s vulnerability.

Learning means allowing oneself to stand in a space of unknowing and uncertainty, it means holding oneself open to new information. The information can be intellectual, or emotional, or behavioural or spiritual. We exist entirely through information – through our senses, through our meaning-making minds which filter out data and string together observed items like beads onto the string of one’s personal narrative reality. When we allow ourselves to hold one of those beads that doesn’t quite fit the usual shape, and we turn it around and around inside ourselves until we find a way to add it to our string – that’s learning.

castells, human towers in Tarragona, Spain

Learning involves trust, and trust is a relational experience. We trust others when we have revealed our vulnerability, and have been accepted – not rejected. It sounds deep and personal but actually, we establish and dismantle trust constantly, in every interaction and with every other person we encounter.
I propose that feminism is inseparable from the secure establishment of trust. If I am to participate fully as a human being with other human beings in this shared space of mutually-created reality, I must be able to give witness to my own perspective. This is what it means to have a voice. At a recent New Statesman event, Professor Mary Beard pointed out that “If what you have to do is pretend to be someone else in order to get heard, you have already lost….” Feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan made the same point when she highlighted the following question from a female student: “Do you want to know what I think? Or do you want to know what I really think?”

Friendship as a Commons

Very recently my friend Tony drew my attention to a recording of a talk delivered by Dougald Hine to the Commoning the City conference held in Stockholm last year. The subject of the talk was friendship as a commons. In his presentation, Dougald distinguishes two definitions of the commons:

  1. Commons as a pool of resources to be managed; or
  2. Commons as an alternative to treating the world as if it is made up of resources.

He suggests that the commons is “a fabric of relationships which is built and rebuilt and renegotiated over generations.” I agree. What’s more, I propose that feminist activism is a worthy effort, for that very reason.

Now, it’s interesting: Dougald observes that friendships are at risk “when people start counting things and measuring things,” as this moves the relationship into the realm of the commons as a pool of resources to be managed. I will respond with a question: is it possible to separate these two realms? Don’t they impinge upon one another? A relationship in which resources are distributed unfairly, in which roles of interaction are exploitative, this type of relationship is inimical to the spirit of friendship. A relationship operating in a social space which declares one individual a human being and the other individual as only a partial reflection thereof – is this the basis for a true friendship?
Dougald goes on to suggest that “a friendship is not inexhaustible” and can be “damaged in a way that will never be made good.” I must disagree: no relationship exists which cannot be made good. Forgiveness is a choice we all have the power to make, and it opens up the potential for renegotiation. Or as Tony would say: the potential for dialogue.


In fact: forgiveness is the only way men and women will ever become friends – because the damage that exists between them cannot be ignored or denied. The amount of pain and anger and frustration and guilt and shame and longing that is buried inside us, trapped within our world’s social dynamics – this won’t just go away. If we really recognise it – and own it – it will crack open our mutual reality with energy infinitely more powerful than an atom bomb. It’s incredibly fucking messy. Forgiveness is the only way to move through this, to renegotiate the relationship and to generate trust. And forgiveness can only really happen between two human beings.
Learning in Action
So I return to Alex and his observation about trusted companions. I suggest here that in order to co-create trust we must first co-create a holding space in which to dwell. We all of us must choose to create a holding space, where we might safely contain the fallout – the tremendous energy generated when new information crashes into and cracks open our existing reality.

And I suppose the only way to end this experiment in action learning is to extend an invitation to you, to step into and participate in this holding space – to explore new information and to create new ways of being humans together, whatever your gender. Let me put it this way: I’m inviting you to be a feminist.