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July 5, 2011 / Katie

On Safe Spaces

There’s been a lot of discussion and debate over the years, particularly among Feminist and Fat Liberation blogs, about safe space. There are so many discussions examining the nuances of what safe space is, who it’s for, how it can be created, if it’s even possible, and whether it’s useful or harmful. I have seen well-reasoned, compassionate arguments on all sides, and I’ve seen snotty, hateful arguments on all sides.

I’m thinking about safe space today, because I do actually think safe space is important, but I think it’s also important that, like in all things, we are reflective about it and continually assessing and re-assessing the way we behave that creates safe space for people.

One thing I’m thinking about is how different spaces, times, places, and persons call for different standards of safe space. To illustrate this, I’m going to share (some of) the standards of safe space I uphold in my counseling office and then look at the standards of safe space that I enforce on this blog.

In my counseling office, clients can expect:

1. They will be treated like a human being, a person of great worth

2. I do not hold secret judgments about them. If I think I may have a correct interpretation about their intentions or feelings in a particular situation, I will check that interpretation with them to make sure I am on the right track.

3. I fiercely guard their confidentiality, not sharing information with others and taking extraordinary steps to guard digital information. I disclose—verbally and in writing—the exceptions to this (such as discussing cases with my supervisor or situations of legal mandatory reporting).

4. If I disagree with them about a belief or value that they hold, I will respect where they are coming from and will only challenge them if I have good reason to believe that their belief or value may be harming them in some way. I trust the client, however, and if they tell me I am wrong, I let it go.

5. I trust my clients to know what is best for them. I am the expert on psychotherapy in general, but they are the expert on themselves.

6. They will never experience ridicule or shaming behavior from me.

7. If a client is unhappy or concerned about something in therapy, they are free to share that with me without me becoming defensive, angry, or otherwise deflecting from the issue at hand. Their concerns are honored.

8. I will take responsibility for maintaining appropriate boundaries, both online and in “real life.” If a client attempts to initiate an inappropriate dual relationship, I will take responsibility for not crossing the line. I will communicate clearly what appropriate online boundaries are and will kindly enforce them when necessary.

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list. And as I said, I am continually re-assessing how I create space that is safe for clients. This world is so unsafe in so many ways, I want their experience of therapy to be an oasis from that. But being safe does not always mean being comfortable. In fact, it is in safe spaces where we become truly free to explore our painful emotions. Therefore, sometimes, within the safe space of my counseling office, I may challenge clients to re-think something that has become a stuck point for them. Sometimes they may need to sit with painful feelings or memories to find the healing that they need.

And on this blog, safety does not mean that you can literally say whatever you want without getting called out on it. The safe space of this blog is different from my counseling office in a number of ways. The most obvious one is that we have not created a therapist-client contract. Thus, I expect more in return from you. I expect more respect, kindness, compassion, and open-minded consideration of my viewpoint. I expect good faith reasoning, sticking to the facts, and avoiding personal attacks. I expect you to respect my boundaries.

On this blog, readers and commenters can expect:

1. While harder than in the counseling office, where I have a flesh-and-blood person sitting in front of me, I try my best to be mindful that commenters are human persons of sacred and inestimable worth, who deserve to be treated with respect.

2. I will not make judgments about motivations or intentions of a commenter without checking with them (e.g. “When you said ___________ I couldn’t help wondering if you are angry with me. Am I reading you right?”)

3. When I disagree with the commenter, I will stick to the facts. I will not use personal attacks, straw men, or other diversionary tactics. Therefore, when you comment here, you are not “safe” from critique of your arguments, but you are safe from personal attack by me and others. I will respond to and/or delete (depending on the severity) any comments which level a personal attack against another commenter.

4. All commenters will initially be assumed to be decent people responding in good faith unless they demonstrate reason for me to believe they are not.

5. I will clearly communicate my boundaries in a way that doesn’t attack you personally. If you have crossed one of my boundaries, I will clearly state that and tell you what actions I am taking in response (e.g. “I do not tolerate personal attacks against myself that are not substantiated with evidence. Because you are doing that in this comment, you will be temporarily put on moderation and I will not let such comments through in the future”). Thus, you will always know where you stand with me.

6. If I have done something that has hurt you or contributed to your oppression, you are safe to contact me and discuss it. I do not want anyone to leave here feeling hurt or rejected. This includes if you feel I wrongly put you on moderation, you were misunderstood, personally attacked, or felt that a post I made was oppressive to a privileged group of which you are a part.

7. I will not make accusations against you and attempt to keep you from responding. It is rare for me to make posts criticizing other bloggers in a personal way (beyond just the ideas of their posts), but in the extremely rare case that I do, I will contact that person privately first to see if the issue can be worked out. When I make the post or comment about what was said, I will quote the person exactly and in context to as accurately and respectfully as possible portray their viewpoint. I will always remain open to dialogue and will never ban someone from commenting on a post I have made about them.

Again, like with the counseling office examples, these are just examples and not an exhaustive list. I am still fleshing this out and thinking about what safe space means in the various contexts of my life. I’d love to hear from you, readers, how you negotiate the creation and maintenance of safe spaces in your life as a blogger, a professional, a friend, a spouse, a parent, etc.!

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