In therapy, creating a safe space is pretty straightforward. The therapist will discuss the rules and policies they have in place if they hadn’t already made them available to you prior to the first session. You should be informed about how confidentiality will work at the very least, and what situations they’ll be legally required to break confidentiality. Those legal requirements where confidentiality has to be broken are when the person is a danger to themselves or others, or if involves terrorism.
Creating a safe space is easy in a professional therapist setting because of these rules and understandings. They’re also bound by a duty of care, as are all medical, care, police, and firefighter personnel. At least in the UK. However, when it comes to creating a safe space with people in your personal life, you don’t have that to rely on. So hopefully this article will help make it easier for you to create a safe space.
What Is A Safe Space?
Safe spaces have become one of those ridiculous hot topic points used by the hard right to troll people with empathy. But please ignore all that. Friends, children, romantic partners, colleagues, etc. can all benefit from having someone they feel safe opening up to.
Having a safe space to talk is especially important to men, who are three times more likely to take their own lives than women, who have lower levels of life satisfaction than women, and who are less likely to access therapy than women (Mental Health Foundation). All stuff I’ve talked about before in my article, ‘Men Need To Start Taking Back Control Of Their Wellness‘ because men tend to lack friends the older they get and don’t have the kind of people in their lives that they can open up to.
Many issues can be resolved just by having a safe space to talk about your struggles. A problem shared is a problem halved, after all. Just meeting up with a few friends every week in the local park for lunch and a chat could be enough (UNHCR). Or it could be you and someone going for a quiet coffee somewhere, a bit like a fika break, or spending some other form of time together. Find a way that’ll work for you and your friends.
Simply put, a safe space is a space where people know it’s ok to share their struggles, should they want to. When we say a safe space, it’s not referring to physical safety, although they shouldn’t feel at risk of violence, but rather a space where they’ll be safe psychologically and emotionally (Holley and Steiner, 2005).
How To Create A Safe Space
The first thing to be aware of when creating a safe space is if you’re ready for people to share their issues with you. For example, I’ve struggled with eating disorders, I’ve tried to take my own life, I’ve self-harmed, and I’ve struggled with hallucinations. Chances are you won’t hear something as intense as that, but it’s possible, so you need to be ready to hear such things. So before you consider creating a safe space, know what your boundaries are. It’s ok if you’re not ready to hear about people’s traumas. It can be a lot.
Developing trust so people can see you’re a safe space is all about leading by example (Kisfalvi and Oliver, 2015). So know that your actions speak louder than words. If you’re ready to be that person people can feel safe to open up to, then you need to behave in a way that makes others feel comfortable around you. No one is going to want to open up to you if you’re part of the gossip group or talk bad about people. But if you use your energies to build people up rather than knocking them down, then you’ll be someone who can establish a safe space with others.
Simply put, people who consistently make others feel good will become central to their social networks and support network (The Atlantic).
Another good approach for signalling to others that you’re a safe space for them to open up is to show an interest in other people (Centerstone). Whether it’s your kids, a colleague, or someone you’re worrying about, just noticing them and striking up conversations is enough to show you’re interested in what’s going on with them. That doesn’t mean they’ll open up right away and tell you every deep dark secret, but just knowing that someone cares enough like this can make a real difference. Then, if and when they’re ready, they’ll feel safe to open up to you.
One way to go about this is to ask questions like you mean it, as I stated in my Ask Twice article for the Time To Change campaign. Sometimes you have to ask twice so the other person knows you mean it rather than asking how someone is to get the generic reply people expect to hear.
As part of building this rapport that shows you’re a safe space, try to circle back to previous conversations (Centerstone). This is a simple way to show you care and that you’re interested in them as a person. Help people to feel like talking to you isn’t an inconvenience for you. Remember, kindness matters and it’s a big part of being someone’s safe space.
Also, remember to be patient with the person you’re trying to be a safe space for (National Eating Disorders). It may take time before someone feels that you’re a safe space, so don’t rush it. If you’re rushing it, then you’re likely not doing it for the right reasons. It’ll take as long as it takes.
Creating a safe space isn’t always easy and it may require you to make yourself vulnerable to help facilitate that environment. I know first-hand how hard this can be when studying for my postgraduate degree. I had to take part in an experiential group with the students on my course who were all learning to be substance misuse therapists. And that group did not go as well as you’d think it would.
The experience taught me a lot about how people can feel attacked and become defensive. This is why it’s important to take note of how you say things, and not just what you’re saying. As therapists, we often have to challenge the beliefs a client has, but it’s how we go about it that makes the difference. So it’s not always what you say, but how you say it that’s important.
If you’re wanting to be the kind of person that can be a safe space for someone, then you can benefit from developing the following characteristics: being welcoming, being approachable, and being supportive. It’s also important to not be judgemental (Holley and Steiner, 2005). Remember, you’re not creating a safe space to become their therapist, you’re just creating a space so they feel comfortable sharing their problems.
Being a safe space for someone isn’t about helping them fix their problems. You’re there to give them a safe space to open up, and if possible, help guide them to their own solutions. One way to do this might be to create a situation where you can signpost them to a service that might be better suited to help them.
One thing I learnt early while studying A Level Psychology was the importance of unconditional positive regard for a therapist. This is where a therapist is meant to value the clients as they are, without criticism, evaluation, or judgement (Counselling Tutor). If you want to create a safe space for someone to open up to you, then you’ll need to be able to do this as well. It’s not as hard as you think.
We all make judgements and have internal biases. But what they mean when it comes to unconditional positive regard is how we don’t allow these judgements and internal biases to affect how we help a client.
When I had to cover for a keyworker whose client was on the sex offenders register while working at a substance abuse service, I had to put aside my judgements. But first I had to acknowledge they were there, and that I was there to support the client with their recovery needs. It was a weird experience, and I had no idea if I was going to be capable of doing it until I did.
Unconditional positive regard and empathy go hand in hand, and if you can create a safe where people can feel that from you, then you are most of the way there.
When creating a safe space for people to open up to you, start small. Not many people are going to feel comfortable talking about their struggles with a group of people. Find a place where it’s only you listening to the other person. That doesn’t mean there can’t be other people there, as you might find yourself in this position during a party. Just create a situation where it’s just the two of you in the conversation (Better Humans).
Creating a regular meet-up time can be a simple way to help a loved one know that you’re a safe space. Because people are more likely to open up to people they have this kind of time with. This can even work with your children. Setting aside time each week with your children where you can chat or engage in a hobby or interest together, will create a space for your children to open up. This is one way you can help them build mental health resilience as well as making sure they’re ok. They’re also more likely to talk to you about being bullied if you’re able to give them your time.
When people open up about their issues, there is a chance they may worry about what they’ve shared. So remember to reassure them by saying something like, “it might have felt difficult but it’s good that you spoke to me about it” or “I’m really glad you told me this” (Young Minds). This is all you really need to do as a safe space, reassure them.
Another way to help create a safe space is to tell stories (Better Humans). Tell stories about issues that may relate to people but without including any identifying information. This shows that you’re open to talking about sensitive topics but that you’re also capable of keeping things confidential.
When it comes to communication, it’s important to be aware of our nonverbal communication, aka your body language. Much like I stated in my Ask Twice article, use positive and relaxed body language like having an open body posture, nodding, and making eye contact to show you’re engaged and that you’re there for them.
Along with reassuring the person who’s opening up to you, it’s also important to validate their emotions and experience, no matter what they’re struggling with. Along with open and engaging body language, this can be achieved by saying something like “what you’re going through sounds really tough” or “it’s okay to feel like that” (Young Minds).
One thing worse considering is how some people can’t help but spread their so-called negative emotions with us when they’re feeling them, which can make it difficult for people to feel safe opening up. Think of movies where a son wants to open up to their parents, normally a dad, but you and the character both know the dad will just blow up instead of listening. They have a negative affective presence, which makes creating a safe space extremely difficult. They also lack active listening, which is important.
I learnt early on to be able to manage my emotions so they didn’t affect others. That doesn’t mean they don’t come out at times. Everyone has their limits. But I’ve spent more of my life depressed than not feeling depressed, but I can still support those around me and make them feel good even when I’m feeling empty inside.
To be a safe space for someone doesn’t mean you have to ignore or bury your own feelings, just that you don’t let them spill over, affecting others around you in a negative way. Furthermore, if you’re struggling yourself, then know your limits and have boundaries to protect yourself. You being a safe space for someone else doesn’t mean that your own wellbeing gets put on the back burner. Your wellbeing is also important.
It doesn’t matter how old you are, we can all benefit from knowing we have someone who’s a safe space to talk to. Too often, we suffer in silence, which in extreme cases, can lead to someone taking their own life. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can be each other’s safe space without having to go through training. It’s just about being a shoulder to lean on with a nonjudgmental ear to listen to their problems. That’s it. You’re not their therapist, nor should you be, so don’t put pressure on yourself by thinking you need to fix them. Just listen and be supportive.
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, please share your experiences with being in or creating a space safe in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget, if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
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Holley, L. C., & Steiner, S. (2005). Safe space: Student perspectives on classroom environment. Journal of Social Work Education, 41(1), 49-64. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.5175/JSWE.2005.200300343 and https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jacqueline-Corcoran/publication/250396178_Field_education_Student_and_field_instructor_perceptions_of_the_learning_process/links/543fa9760cf21227a11a4d3c/Field-education-Student-and-field-instructor-perceptions-of-the-learning-process.pdf#page=49.
Kisfalvi, V., & Oliver, D. (2015). Creating and maintaining a safe space in experiential learning. Journal of Management Education, 39(6), 713-740. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1052562915574724 and https://www.researchgate.net/profile/David-Oliver-4/publication/274739657_Creating_and_Maintaining_a_Safe_Space_in_Experiential_Learning/links/560b46db08ae4d86bb14c3d8/Creating-and-Maintaining-a-Safe-Space-in-Experiential-Learning.pdf.