Many of my readers will likely have heard the term “safe space.” This phrase is sometimes used as a term of art in therapeutic circles, referring to a place where people can speak freely and honestly without fear of judgment or ridicule, but it is also often used in communities organized around oppression – i.e., feminists, people of color, LGBTQI, and so on – for a place that contains only people of the oppressed group, whose members can speak without concern over the thoughts and opinions of the oppressor.
To me, and in my work, a safe space can also be highly personal: a place, whether real or virtual, where I can speak my mind and heart without worrying that I will do collateral damage by doing so, or have to censor my feelings for fear of hurting someone else’s. For many people, such spaces are few and far between, and some people don’t have any safe space at all.
A counselor’s office may be the only space someone has that is “safe.” Someone who is living under hostile parents, or with an abusive partner, or in a housing situation with unstable friends or strangers, may feel they have nowhere that is safe. Someone who lives alone and is isolated from friends and community may similarly feel that there’s nobody who will understand or even listen to their problems. And that’s where therapy, counseling, Rubenfeld Synergy or any number of other emotional health practitioners come in.
The trouble, of course, is that a therapist of any kind is always a stranger, at least at first. There is some safety in a stranger, though. I am remembering when I first started journaling online: it was before Facebook, and before such things began to be called “blogs.” I was in my mid-twenties, and pouring out my soul to a group of total strangers on the Internet. It was freeing and thrilling, to share my story with people who couldn’t see me, under an assumed name; to write in a way I had only previously written to myself, in my paper journals. The people I connected with, based on shared interests, liked my writing, laughed in the right places, made supportive comments. It helped enormously, at a time in my life when I needed help to grow and change.
Over time, though, that space changed purpose, radically. I began to meet people in real life who lived near me, and form friendships. Soon I began to add people I met in real life to my online friends list, and before I knew it, instead of an audience of strangers, I had an audience of people I knew, whose lives intersected with mine. Ironically, it wasn’t long before that was no longer a safe space for sharing my deepest feelings and life experiences: there were too many people, and the story was no longer only mine.
With a counselor, confessor, therapist, or whathaveyou, the stranger relationship can be a double-edged sword: the person doesn’t know you, and is specifically trained not to judge you. But unlike online, you can see them and they can see you. The confession is one-sided, and they know your real name. You’re sitting with them face-to-face, without the protection of a keyboard and screen.
So how, as healers, do we create safe space for our clients?
In RSM, as with all things, we begin with the body. For some clients, getting on the table right away is too much: they may need to sit and talk for a while, get their thoughts out to a compassionate listener, and not worry about the intimacy of being touched just yet. Often I will talk with a new client, and begin to introduce the concept of tuning in to their bodies. I may have them touch their own bellies or hearts or knees. I may have them put their feet on the floor and feel how the ground supports them. I may have them notice what they’re feeling, physically, as they talk about a particular topic, then attempt to locate that feeling in their bodies.
Grounding emotion in physical solidity can be incredibly helpful for increasing safety, and making a client feel that what they are experiencing is real and normal. It also begins to cultivate a relationship of trust between the client and his or her own body: a relationship that often has been broken in people who seek help. The more a client knows he can trust his body to tell the truth, the more resources he will have to support him in difficult times, and to make the changes he wants in his life.
As the person who is facilitating the client’s increased sense of safety, I feel that listening without judgment, bringing open compassion, and not pushing the client too far, too soon are probably the most important skills for cultivating a relationship of safety.
What do you feel is most important? Your comments, as always, are welcome.