What makes for safe spaces? What makes people feel safe? What is safety, relatively speaking?
I didn’t grow up with a sense of safety. My world revolved around keeping certain people happy from a very young age, and around finding ways to step between certain people and those who needed protection more than I did–which was everyone, it seems–or feeling devastated and shitty about not taking responsibility for doing so.
The people doing unsafe things in my life weren’t the bad people; the adults who should have stepped in weren’t the bad people; I was the bad person, for not somehow not making everything magically all better.
Now, as a middle-aged divorced and block-em-and-go-no-contact-if-I-gotta adult, I’m starting to realize that isn’t really the case. I don’t have to make things magically all better for the people around me.
But in some cases, I can.
I’ve been sorting through that idea for a while. Lately the idea has focused on safety and safe spaces. If I don’t want to take away other people’s problems–that is, if I don’t have to control the space around me so nobody triggers an asshole to hurt them–I can’t just do what I’m used to doing.
Here’s what I have so far.
A safe space:
- Is more than just a place where you don’t feel endangered.
- Is a place where you can lower your defenses; you feel safe and don’t need to use energy to pretend to be happy, normal, or even really clear.
- Has to be understandable by imperfect people in imperfect, fundamentally uncontrollable spaces (i.e., by normal people in the real world).
- Has to be asshole-resistant, both in tending to push assholes out of the space without confrontation, and in providing a clear guide during a confrontation.
- Has to be clearly identifiable by participants with good intentions and a reasonable level of emotional intelligence; that is, a fucking asshole can’t get away with their usual bullshit because it’ll stick out like a sore thumb.
- Has to be so clear that you can know yourself whether you need to step away from a situation because you are the one who isn’t safe.
- Has to accommodate a metric shit ton of house rules that don’t need to be explicitly stated in order for the participants to know if they’re “good” or “bad” rules.
The real world is complex and confusing, full of poorly defined situations and relationships. How can I, myself, make those spaces safe? I am a reasonably intelligent, emotionally intelligent person who got “enchanted” into a shitty situation for decades on end. You’d think I’d have known enough to be safe without having to go to therapy first. Nope.
Which means any tools for creating safe spaces have to be amazingly resilient, easy to communicate, AND work for my weird brain.
Here’s what I got:
- A safe space encourages play over judgment.
- Often, playful interactions sound like “Yes/and…”
- Often, judgy interactions sound like “No/but…”
Let’s say your first reaction to those statements is “BUT THAT’S NOT SAFE WHAT ABOUT…!!!???!!!”
If so, would you say that you’re overly hard on yourself, just in general?
Do you ever really feel safe? Or more like you’re constantly being judged?
If you’re talking to a two-year-old and they’re about to do something dangerous, yes, of course you do whatever it takes to stop them. They are unsafe; the space they’re in is unsafe.
But when you’re explaining the danger afterwards, in a safe space, you don’t shriek at them (or rather you shouldn’t). You walk them calmly through the situation and explain why it’s dangerous.
Real-life example with Ray from when she was a toddler:
“Can I play with the stove?”
“Yes, as long as you only play with me for now and remember that when the stove is hot, it can hurt you.”
[Both of us practiced holding our hands above the burners, getting a little closer or further away to see what the limits of safety were.]
“Also, if you pour spices right on the stove with no pan, they just get burnt and smell bad. That’s why your cooking didn’t work before. If you want people to eat the food, you have to use a pan.”
A judgy interaction would have sounded like:
“Don’t put spices on the burner, stupid.”
“This isn’t good enough.”
“Why aren’t you working harder and doing more, with no extra resources? I don’t care if you’re overtaxed; you should be doing it and I don’t have to help you.”
“Because I said so.”
“Hurry up or I’ll leave you.”
“We have to do what I want because what you want to do is stupid.”
“You’ll never understand.”
“Why do you keep repeating the same problems over and over? Can’t we just move on?”
Eughhhh…I could go on. But let’s not.
It’s not that playful spaces are uncritical ones, and it’s not that playful spaces have to stay light and carefree. Some of my favorite teachers have kicked my ass time and time again…playfully! And I’ve had all kinds of people call on me to tell me horrific shit that they have to tell SOMEONE, and I’ve always tried not to shut them down, but to encourage them to say more, to let more out, to sort things out verbally, to brag, to humanize themselves and others in the situation, to just be fucking angry and selfish about it.
Play in that case is “YES I BELIEVE YOU AND THIS IS HOW I FEEL ABOUT IT FROM THE OUTSIDE OF THE SITUATION. TELL ME IF I NEED TO GET A CROWBAR.”
Person: [Tells me horrific shit.]
Me: That’s terrible!
Them: It’s not that bad, lol.
Me: I know you’re strong enough to handle it! But nobody should have to!!!! That is not right! And they’re trying to make like it look like it’s normal! I am angry for you!!!!!
Them: No hitting. I just needed to vent.
Me: Okay. But let me know if you change your mind.
We all have things we shouldn’t have to tolerate but that we end up tolerating for one reason or another, I suppose, which is why I’m working on the concept of a safe space in the first place. But it still just pisses me off: that we not only don’t expect to be reasonably safe, ever, but also that we don’t even know how to want to feel that way.