A safe space to speak your truth: how do we cultivate safety?

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.


Published by Kamela Dolinova

Expressive arts adventuress: writing, performing, healing, loving.

6 thoughts on “A safe space to speak your truth: how do we cultivate safety?

  1. Safety is complicated. In both senses, I suppose, but I mean here the emotional sense of being safe.

    Sometimes what makes me feel safe (or unsafe) makes no friggin’ sense at all, and I just have to accept that part of what I am is this scared non-sense-making creature that needs what it needs, and it’s the responsibility of the rest of me to provide that, because no amount of thinking about safety in the pragmatic sense is going to help reassure those parts of me.

    When I started seeing a therapist after my stroke (er, a psychological therapist, I mean, in addition to speech, physical, occupational… the language gets blurry) there was really only one thing I didn’t feel it was safe to say to my social community, but it loomed large, and it was affecting everything else. The single most important thing to me going in was knowing that whatever else happened, I could say that, and I would be shielded from the (unarticulated, largely fictional, nevertheless terrifying) expected consequences of having said IT out loud within my “real life”.

    So, yeah, safe space.

    The irony is that I could have said IT in my real life as well, and it would have been fine. It wasn’t all that horrible, or even unusual; indeed, under the circumstances it was almost banal, and the response I’d have gotten from most of my community would basically have been a nodding “Yeah, that happens, it sucks, can we help?”

    And I knew that, and knowing it wasn’t enough.

    Often it still isn’t, though the dichotomy isn’t as strong as it was. (And yet, I am crying and shivering as I write this.)

    Safety is complicated.

    1. I’m moved that you shared this, Dave. Thanks, as always. Yes: safety is complicated. And honoring that there are parts of you that won’t be rationalized into silence is a huge step toward healing.


  2. Paradoxically, if someone declares (whether directly to me or to a group I’m a part of) “This is a safe space” or “You are safe here”, I immediately bristle and feel a little bit less safe. I feel like they’re judging for me whether I’m safe or not, when I’m the only one who should have the authority on that. They don’t know what I need to feel/be safe, and taking away a piece of my agency is not a good way to start. Much better would be to hear something like, “Our intention is for this to be safe space.”

    Related to that, I get frustrated when someone makes a blanket declaration of “safe space” without describing what that constitutes and how they intend to create and maintain it. It’s like they think that the words “This is a safe space” are a spell that magically creates somewhere that is actually safe.

    Sorry, I guess I’m a little grumpy on this front. 😉

    1. This is an excellent point, and I know exactly the problem you’re talking about. I’ll also never forget something my own long time therapist and Synergist said to me once: that really, there’s no such thing as totally safe space, and that becomes more true the more people you add to a group. When a whole bunch of people’s different issues enter a room, there are things you can do to create a sense of safety, there are ways to cultivate mutual trust and respect, but blanket declarations of safe space are not the way to do that. And even the best efforts of facilitators and participants can’t *guarantee* safe space.

      I do find that having people turn to their bodies can be a great way to start cultivating a sense of safety, because as Dave said above, our bodies are often where we know what we actually need to feel safe.

    2. This. When I worked at the college counseling center, there were signs you could put on your door that indicated that the room inside was a safe space for GLBT people. And I never did put one up, in part for just the reason you mentioned – I felt it was A. presumptuous and B. inaccurate for me to just DECLARE that a space was safe by fiat of my saying so. Safety is something that grows slowly, over time. I really like your way of saying it, Rowan – about setting an intention.

      1. This feels to me like something that was really endemic to the ’90s in university culture; I wonder if things are still done this way? It is rather presumptuous, isn’t it?

        Still, I remember loving, and still love, the idea of the pink triangle in the green field: a symbol that told people you were an ally. I also used to see it up in people’s classrooms and workplaces to indicate safe queer space.

        I wonder if it’s essentially a terminology problem? The symbol doesn’t bother me, because it feels subtle and iconic, and like it’s delivering a simple yet crucial message about whether or not someone can be themselves someplace in relative safety. But the phrase “safe space” applied the same way does seem presumptuous.

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