According to the Oxford dictionary, a safe space is defined as a place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.
A safe space is often at a place where you feel most relaxed, and most willing to express yourself freely. However, the qualifier for a safe space is fluid - this space need not always take the form of a physical space. For a space to be safe, a person is required to perceive that he/she is assured of safety. That said, a safe space for someone might not present the same level of safety for another.
The need for safe spaces
The work in mental health advocacy is sometimes a double-edged sword. The effort to encourage people with lived experience with their mental health conditions and those who have had harboured thoughts of suicide to share about their personal stories is commendable.
However, it is important that we remind ourselves that it is human nature to have an (almost) immediate judgement when we witness something that opposes our personal views. It is thus not uncommon for some to comment negatively or trivialise the personal stories shared by those who have faced a personal struggle. This in itself poses many challenges, as not only do the story sharer need to take a step of courage to share their vulnerable side, they will also face a strong sense of uncertainty to how will others judge them from they do or say.
Uncertainties - the feelings of fear and anxiety toward the unknown often gets in the way when we want to voice our personal opinions.
If you wonder what this feeling is like, try to think about the times you hesitated to answer a question your teacher posed to the class, or when a project lead requested for ideas in a discussion.
How do I know who I can turn to?
The fear of judgement sometimes shuts down conversations before it even starts – which is detrimental to anyone who may be suffering in silence and not knowing who to turn to.
We so often tell those around us that we will be here to listen if they need someone to talk to. However, how many of us are truly prepared for the most unexpected conversations? What will be our reaction when we are presented with an unsettling conversation?
The truth is, we will never be sure who will be that pillar of support when we need it most. For some, the one we trust most may not be the best source of support we hoped for. In such cases, we have to constantly remind ourselves to remain hopeful in finding the one supportive figure we feel most comfortable with, no matter how long that might take.
How do we create a safe space?
We don’t create a safe space for someone.
Instead, we create a safe space with someone.
It can be difficult for anyone to empathise. We would experience the feeling of constantly living in the skin of someone else, and not being truthful or upfront with our own emotions and thoughts. However, being aware of this allows us to comprehend the feeling that having to constantly keep your guard up can get extremely exhausting and emotionally taxing. For them, aggravating these feelings would be the supposed lack of avenue to vocalise their struggles as they are afraid of the possible repercussions from sharing.
So what can we do to help someone feel comfortable enough to open up? Just be there with them and let your presence be felt. Allow them to talk about anything that they like, without judgement and even when it is uncomfortable. Your ability to hold a space for them to share about what’s bothering them can be therapeutic in itself. Often, it’s not about what you say that matters. The power of a listening ear is often overlooked.
When we start recognising the importance of creating safe spaces, we allow important conversations to take place.
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