Understanding “Safe Space”

Let me begin by saying I’m a firm believer in all things recovery related, whether they be self-help groups, counseling, spiritual/religious practices, etc.  I owe what successes I have on many of them.  Coming up on 32 years sober, clean, and free from the institutionalized biases of the mental health system, I find myself reflecting on what has worked, or not worked, to aid me.  And one of the most common elements in the recovery world, one that has both aided and hurt me, is the idea of “safe space.”

It is an ubiquitous term in the recovery related business, and one often misrepresented, misunderstood, and misused by those participating in its creation.  It is also essential to the development of an alternative lifestyle designed to relieve a sufferer of painful self-hood.  That being said, I wish to share a few of my personal experiences with it.  Let’s be clear, though: I WOULD NEVER DISCOURAGE ANYONE FROM SEEKING SAFE SPACE TO GAIN RECOVERY!

The ideal of “safe space” is that we sufferers have a place to go where we can talk about our issues without being judged, used, labelled or attacked.  It is necessary and empowering to relieve our selves of deep-seated secrets, doubts, fears, traumas, habitual responses, etc.  It is also amazingly validating to do that unburdening among others who have actually experienced what we have.  To know there is someplace we can go, someone we can talk to, who truly understands, can be exactly what we need to get through the next few minutes of battling with our “sicknesses.”

BUT…

The reality is that these very safe havens we seek are made up of people, subject to human errors and flaws, suffering many of the same symptoms of sickness that we are.  That makes them inherently “un”safe.  Take a roomful of sick assholes – ego driven, self-seeking, self-destructive, with a history of destroying their own close, personal relationships – and put them together in an enclosed space with cautions about what “proper” behavior is expected of them, and I can almost guarantee you’re going to wind up with a room full of assholes, minus their most glaring symptoms.

That’s fact.  Best we face it early in recovery, lest we be tempted to use that fact later to derail our recovery.

Here are a few, simple guidelines I’ve culled from my experiences in such environments.  It is not complete, but it is what comes to mind today…

#1: PEOPLE WILL TALK…

Regardless of the rules, or their best intentions, people will talk about you, and share what you’ve said outside of group.  Sick people (all people, really) will gossip; it makes them feel better to take the focus off themselves for a while.  Sometimes it’s a form of flattery, in that you got their attention, and they want to share what works for them.  Sometimes it’s malicious, and they need to tear you down because they feel threatened or hurt by you, or life itself.  Either way, expect to one day find out that your “confidentiality agreement” has been violated.

And then keep talking anyway…

Our secrets make us sick.  Let them go!  You are stronger in recovery than any words spoken about you, so such betrayal of your confidence is no excuse to relapse!  If you truly have secrets that might cause permanent harm to you or others should they be revealed, save them for one-on-one meetings, or write them down, read them aloud to yourself, feel the pain of them, and release them by burning them.

#2: DON’T LET ANY HUMAN BECOME YOUR “HIGHER POWER”…

People are, by nature, fallible; that’s not an excuse, that’s fact.  They cannot live up to your expectations.  Period.  So don’t burden them with that.  Rely on them for support, advice, wisdom, experience and hope, but make your own decisions!  And put your faith in some non-human force that can aid you, whether it be God, Nature, the Universe, Fate, etc; you choose.

When I was newly recovering from alcoholism, I used alcohol as my “higher power.”  Part of that was my inherent smartass showing through, but it was also logical to me.  After all, alcohol had kicked my ass, proving it was more powerful than I.  And it was always consistent, even if it was negatively and destructively consistent.  I didn’t pray to alcohol; rather I asked myself in stressful moments, “what would alcohol want me to do right now?”  I answered as honestly as I could, then took the opposite path.  It worked for me until I could find something positive to rely on…

#3: STRIVE TO BE THE “SAFEST” PERSON YOU KNOW IN THE GROUP…

Ultimately, what helped me most in recovery was being of service to others.  I wasn’t (and still am not) perfect, but I strive to do my best.  I try to catch myself, and stop myself, when I begin to gossip.  I’ve trained myself through constant vigilance to leave names at the door, so as to respect, and protect, others from my misjudgments.  I try to listen, offering comfort and support more often than advice.  And when I’m feeling particulary shaky in recovery, I look around for someone I can aid in some way.  It doesn’t have to be recovery related (in fact, if I am shaky enough, it probably shouldn’t be), but getting out of my own head, not dwelling on my “problems” for a little while, can buy me time.  And that time is one more day of recovery, rather than relapse…

In short, use “safe space” wisely.  Understand its limitations, as well as its benefits.  Own your part in making it a safe space.  And recover because of it.  And sometimes in spite of it!

I genuinely wish you peaceful and happy moments to strengthen you through your process of healing!  😀

5 thoughts on “Understanding “Safe Space””

  1. Thank you for this post, it clarifies a lot, you bring the safe place in another perspective. Safe places in therapy are often ‘ imaginary safe places’ where you can leave bad things, in DID it is about vulnerable parts etc. What I see as very contradictory is the fact that society is absolutely not safe. There is no safety and people are not safe, so the imaginary place is too imaginary and too far from reality, like you state , the most trust you can trust is yourself. It even occurs therapists are speaking of a safe place, while they are not safe themselves and are not open to listen without prejudices. Thanks for showing alternatives for a safe place!

    Reply
    • I am so glad this article spoke to you and validated your own experiences! It’s true that people are not “safe,” but I believe they are still essential to our recovery, healing and growth. The “trick”, I think, is to understand their limitations and adjust accordingly. We need each other, but we cannot base our healing on anyone else’s behavior…

      Imaginary safe space has its role, too, especially when dealing with severe anxiety. Anything that allows us to slow our racing hearts and catch our breath to counter a panic attack is useful and worth pursuing, in my opinion. But it is only one possible tool among many for accomplishing that goal.

      And finally, as I said in the article, it is imperative that we find a way to speak about our fears, traumas, needs, etc. “We are only as sick as the secrets we keep,” was a slogan I heard often in my recovery process. I believe that therapeutic “safe space” can be invaluable in that unburdening process, but like all tools, realism (an honest assessment of possibilities and potential pitfalls) is a healthier way to approach it than idealism…

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Such interaction is a tonic for my soul… 😀

      Reply
  2. Fantastic article! Thank you for sharing. Well said too!

    I am 5 & half years sober and don’t find the ‘safe space’ to be all that safe??! I have trust issues too. I have started to use a journal of late to express myself in a safe place. I help others in meetings etc. I am very trusting person but don’t feel this reciprocal for the most part.

    Well done on your 32 years – amazing and very inspiring!! ??

    Reply
    • What I meant to say is that people often confide in me and know this is safe to do so. People confide and out their trust in me at work, personal life and recovery.

      I used to think other people did the same – however, I now know this is a rare quality. I can trust my journal! ?

      Reply
    • Thank you! And congrats on your own recovery! You must be doing something right to have put so many days together in a row… 😉

      In my recovery I have been lied to, lied about, abandoned, betrayed, slandered, conned, stolen from, abused (verbally, emotionally and physically), and raped, all by people I knew and trusted from such recovery meetings. And then they would tell me I deserved it, or had it coming, because my own early recovery behavior was not pure and/or perfect… The truth is NO ONE deserves to be treated that way, recovery or not! And no, I wasn’t “asking for it”!

      I don’t tell you this to discourage you, but rather to remind us both that none of those terrible experiences “justify” a relapse, no matter how awful they were to endure. I survived. I thrived, even. Eventually. And each such lesson reinforced for me that no HUMAN power was responsible for my recovery…

      I have seen so many desperate people seek recovery over the years. I have watched with joy as their eyes cleared, and their hearts opened to embrace life once more. And I have witnessed too many being crushed by the perceived betrayal of supposedly “safe space.” I guess I needed to write this article in hopes of preparing, and supporting someone likely to face that crisis in recovery…

      Trust is a beautiful thing! When coupled with realistic expectations of our selves and others, it becomes a truly powerful transformative tool!

      Keep on keeping on, my friend in recovery! 😀

      Reply

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