Safe Spaces (What Is a Safe Space and How Do We Consciously Create One?)

The reinvigoration of the women’s movement and the #metoo movement have brought up a multitude of issues in our society. For many people, it’s triggered a heightened awareness of personal safety (or the lack thereof).

As a girl, I grew up with the awareness that my body could be attacked at any time. It was my responsibility to always be on the lookout for danger. People who were bigger and stronger than me were looking to harm me, so “being smart”meant always being on the defensive. For example, during my teen years, when I worked until closing at the mall, I was told to leave the building with my keys in hand (pointy part out in case I needed to stab a would-be attacker in the eye), keep a watchful eye for people lurking around my car or suspicious vans parked next to it, look under my car in case someone was waiting there, check the backseat before I got into the car, and then lock my door and start driving away immediately (because sitting in a locked car in a parking lot wasn’t safe either). Danger was everywhere and it was my job to keep myself safe.

As I got older, I accepted that type of wariness as normal. Most women I know do, as well; we believe that’s just the way it is. We’ve accepted that it’s not safe to be a woman in the world (even less so if you’re a woman of color), so we’ve learned how to cope with that. We’ve developed so many strategies for keeping ourselves safe that we’ve never questioned our fundamental belief that “the world is a dangerous place.”

But what if it wasn’t?

What if that’s a lie we tell ourselves to justify NOT changing our beliefs or the world we live in? What would be possible if that wasn’t true?

In questioning my own belief about the dangerousness of the world, I’ve also wondered what constitutes a safe space. After all, a space is not safe simply because you’re not currently being assaulted.

So, what IS a safe space?

A safe space is one in which you can relax completely and open up in your full vulnerability. It is not a space without fear, since fear is an internal state, but it IS a space where you can explore your fears and worries.

A safe space can be a specific place, but is often more of an energetic space than a physical one. It’s an environment that is created, sometimes just by and for yourself, but can also be a place created by and for groups, couples, or families.

In order to open into our full vulnerability, we must feel safe on the following levels.

Physical Safety

Physical safety is the most obvious type of safety we think of when talking about safe spaces. Physical safety means being free not just from assault (of all kinds), but also from the threat of assault. The threat of assault isn’t just outright verbal statements, like, “I’m going to get you,” but is also leering gazes/ gestures, menacing looks, and intrusive energy. (And before you think I mean this as a woo-woo thing, think back to the last time you met someone who simply made you feel dirty in their presence. That’s what I’m talking about when I say intrusive energy.)

Sexual Safety

Sexual safety is a subset of physical safety, but includes the freedom to express your sensuality and sexuality without harassment, attack, or abuse. It includes not feeling pressured to do anything you don’t want to and rejecting subtlety masochistic idea such as “pain is normal” or “there’s a point of no return” where you must proceed forward regardless of your own desires. While there are places where it is not appropriate to express one’s sexuality (i.e. at work), beyond the right to NOT be violated, sexual safety means feeling safe in your body without being shamed for how you look or who you love.

The difficulty with this is that some people are so fixed in their beliefs that the idea of someone loving differently than the way they love (i.e. heterosexually within monogamy) threatens their feelings of safety in the world. People are often threatened by ideas that challenge their worldview. In those situations, it is critical to admit and acknowledge our own fears and prejudices; only then can we work through them and live harmoniously.

Emotional Safety

Emotional safety is about being free to be who you are in an authentic way without fear of ridicule. In groups or pairs, this is the freedom to open up and share, knowing that what you say will not be used to make you feel bad in the future. It’s the freedom that comes with the knowledge that you will not be gossiped about, undermined, or made to feel “less than” in any way.

As mentioned above in the section on sexual safety, sometimes people may feel emotionally unsafe when their paradigms are challenged. This presents a moral quandary or grey area when someone expresses a feeling of un-safety because of how another person is choosing to live their life. In those cases, who is responsible for making the space safe? They both are, but not in a punishing or co-dependent way.

If Person A is choosing to live in a way that threatens Person B’s feelings, but Person A’s actions aren’t any other type of threat to Person B, then I believe the responsibility falls on Person B to do some soul searching about his/her own personal beliefs. To help make the space safe enough for Person B to challenge her/his beliefs though, it’s helpful for both parties to be mindful of their inner journey and personal emotional work.

Mental Safety

Mental safety is the freedom to brainstorm without judgment, to have and express your views without fear of belittlement. Despite our constitutional rights to free speech, in a safe space, this is limited by what keeps others safe as well. This is not an “us or them” situation, rather it is an “us AND them” awareness that keeps respect of our own and others’ safety paramount. Being free to express your opinions does not give you the right to threaten, harm, or violate someone else’s feelings of safety.

Intellectual Safety

Intellectual safety relates to protection of your ideas; it’s being able to share your intellectual property without it being stolen, usurped, or co-opted by someone you trust. It gives you the opportunity to be recognized and/or acknowledged for the work you’ve done. While it’s impossible to truly own an idea or a thought, much of what we create in this digital world is abstract. Therefore, protection of our ideas (i.e. knowing you can share your ideas with your workgroup or organization without them being taken from you) is another aspect of safety that is frequently overlooked.

Spiritual Safety

Spiritual safety is not about religion or theology, rather it’s about your connection to something bigger than yourself—whatever that may be. It’s about having the freedom to explore the mysteries of the universe in a way that nurtures and nourishes your consciousness, without being looked down upon by others who feel their “truth” is the only Truth there is. It’s freedom from the imposition of others’ dogma and self-righteousness that allows no room for others to choose a different path. It is also a freedom from those who believe they know better than everyone (or anyone) else about what is “right” and the spiritual snobbery that comes from an ego belief that some person (either yourself or another) is more evolved, enlightened, or holy than someone else.

Different Spaces for Different Situations

Different situations require different awarenesses in terms of safety. Ideally, all spaces would be safe for everyone, but since we’re currently just building the idea of safety (beyond the physical) in our culture, this seems nearly unattainable right now. And when something seems unattainable, we’re more likely to give up than to pursue it.

So how do we create safe spaces?

We start with the basics: physical safety is the foundation. Just like we cannot attain self-actualization without our physical needs being taken care of (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), we cannot feel spiritually safe if we’re constantly worrying about being physically attacked. (Although many people do surrender into the spiritual when they cannot control dangerous physical circumstances, that is an extreme example, and hopefully not the case for anyone reading this.)

The main difficulty with safe spaces is that we carry our own danger and fear with us internally. When we persist in holding beliefs that we are unworthy or not as good as others, it makes us feel emotionally or mentally unsafe. Then, we carry those beliefs into even the safest of spaces. Seen another way, if we are emotionally, mentally, and spiritually safe within ourselves, can anywhere truly be unsafe?

Theoretically, no. In that case, we would be so enlightened that only physical danger could actually hurt us, and we would probably even find a higher meaning in that (though I don’t know since I’m not there yet ;-)).

I love the idea of being so fully coherent in my heart, mind, body, and soul that I have released all fear. I don’t know if it’s achievable, since it often feels like the human condition is graduating from the big obvious fears to the little subtle ones that seem innocuous but are really insidious. Part of me thinks that fear is what leads us to growth, but the other part of me has to ask, “How do you know that that’s true?” (I don’t.) and “What would be possible if fear wasn’t the only path to growth?” (Maybe I could learn and grow with less pain.)

It’s a beautiful idea. I look forward to integrating this possibility until I believe it! 😉

Until we reach that level of enlightenment then, I believe we must prioritize safe spaces for ourselves and others. Not because it’s our responsibility to save anyone else or do their work for them, but because it gives us the freedom to open ourselves deeply and examine what is within ourselves.

How these safe spaces look and feel will vary depending on each group and circumstance, since there are different expectations in different situations. Let’s assume that physical safety is a requirement for most organizations. Emotional and mental safety should also be standard, but the #metoo movement (and many of our experiences) tell us these things are not a given in today’s society. Intellectual safety is somewhat expected in the workplace, but expectations don’t always equate with reality.

When it comes to where we expect to get which types of safety, we do tend to be discerning. Most of us don’t share our painful emotional wounds or insecurities in professional settings. We don’t expect to experience spiritual safety or to open up into complete emotional vulnerability at work or in the grocery store. It’s usually neither appropriate nor expected.

But what if your workplace or somewhere you spend a lot of time is a values-based organization? Do you (or should you) have higher standards?

I would say yes. If you are creating a spiritual organization that asks people to be more vulnerable and open, then the priority of full and complete safety—in all the categories mentioned above—should be paramount. This is obvious in the work of therapists and counselors, but it’s important to consider any time you’re asking people to be vulnerable.

And what about people who feel vulnerable simply walking through life?

Part of the personal responsibility issue is discernment. There are some people who will never be “safe” for us emotionally, physically, or otherwise. Our responsibility in our personal journeys is to remove ourselves from situations that are unsafe for us when possible, confront the people who jeopardize our safety (when reasonable to do so), and only be vulnerable in spaces that are truly safe. (This is the “trust in god but lock your car” type wisdom I find useful for its pragmatism.)

As a highly sensitive empath, when an issue comes up within the collective consciousness that touches my own inner wounds, I feel it even more intensely than when something is just mine. Being a sensitive person means you have to have clear boundaries and the ability to determine whether the big emotions you’re feeling originate from within yourself or from someone else.

Many empaths spend their early years feeling bombarded by a world that is too loud, angry, sad, or fearful. Many take years to understand that what they’re feeling is not, in fact, their own. They take on others’ feelings and internalize them, often thinking something is wrong with them for being too emotional, when in reality they have leaky boundaries.

With good boundaries and discernment, this burden becomes a gift. Discerning empaths who are committed to their own inner work make excellent counselors, coaches, and mentors. They can be the most compassionate bosses, leaders, and motivators, because they truly understand people. But empaths also have a highly-tuned alert system for danger, since they feel everything so intensely.

Because of this, I think empaths are especially in need of safe spaces. It is incredibly difficult to be spiritually open and vulnerable (in a state of oneness) while maintaining the energetic boundaries we empaths learn to use for discernment.

I have disliked the concept of “psychic protection” for almost as long as I’ve understood why people feel they need it. The concept of protection directly feeds into a belief that the world is dangerous and people will seek to harm you. I’ve always preferred the image of radiating wholeness and harmony throughout my entire being, so rather than needing to fight off a would-be attacker (energetic of otherwise) I could simply stay balanced in myself. The other day, my very physically fit friend told me that while playing gladiator with her niece, she simply stood on the balance beam while her niece tried to make her fall. She was strong and balanced, and her niece fell off the beam. If we felt 100% safe in ourselves, this would be how we’d walk in the world—no matter where we were.

But most of us are still human and learning to work through our fears; therefore conscious creation of safe spaces is necessary.

It’s not just about others though; this requires an intense focus on our personal responsibility. It requires us each to be aware when we are violating others’ feelings of safety. It requires each one of us to be aware of how we communicate. Are we gossiping, talking about people behind their backs, or being cruel? Are we lashing out with sarcasm, snarky words, or even “just” eye rolling?

It may seem impossible to be that aware of other people’s feelings; it feels like that to me too sometimes, as I am certainly not perfect. But as an ideal—as a goal—I believe it is a noble one to reach for.