Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name
And they’re always glad you came.
The theme song from “Cheers” is the first thing that popped into my head when I started contemplating the idea of having a safe space. A place where “everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came,” appeals to me, and may have had something to do with the popularity of the show during the eleven years it aired on TV.
The studio where I practice yoga is called “Sacred Space”, but I often think of it as a “safe space” for that exact reason. Everyone there makes a point of learning, remembering and saying people’s names. It’s an incredibly simple, yet powerful, way to make people feel welcome and known. Well, of course, you might say, it’s a yoga studio; they’re going to make that effort. Unfortunately, my experience tells me that it is the exception rather than the norm.
What makes a place a safe space? The safety we seek could be physical, mental or emotional. For some, a safe space might simply be a place they feel protected from physical harm. For others, it’s the place where they feel comfortable enough to speak freely. Or it’s the place where they feel accepted and loved unconditionally, just as they are.
Once, when talking with a landscape designer, she told me that people don’t like to sit outdoors with their backs exposed. So she would plan a row of trees or shrubs behind a seating area. In the same way, we feel safe emotionally when we know that someone “has our backs”, supporting us, not leaving us exposed. Who has your back? Is it your family, a friend, a community? How does knowing you have backup change how you go through life?
Sometimes the safe space is where we go when we need to get away from our own negative emotions. The term “breathing room” often refers to a break, or respite, from work or other stressors that are weighing on us. Thich Nhat Hanh, however, recommends that people have an actual breathing room in their homes, a designated place to go when feeling overwhelmed by anger or other strong emotions. He writes, “That little room should be regarded as an Embassy of the Kingdom of Peace. It should be respected, and not violated by anger, shouting, or things like that. When a child is about to be shouted at, she can take refuge in that room. Neither the father nor the mother can shout at her anymore. She is safe within the grounds of the Embassy. Parents sometimes will need to take refuge in that room, also, to sit down, breathe, smile, and restore themselves. Therefore, that room is for the benefit of the whole family.”
A safe space is where people are valued, and have values in common. It’s the place where we are free of judging and being judged, the place where the masks come off and we can be our truest selves. It can be outdoors or indoors, a physical space or a room in our minds; it can be found in the covers of a book or the warmth of a hug, the darkness of a theatre or the stillness of a church, in a community of people or the solitude of nature.
Growth comes from leaving our comfort zones, but it shouldn’t mean leaving them behind for good. I don’t think growth would be possible if we didn’t know we could return to that part of the comfort zone that holds our safe space. When we fail, when we feel rejected, even when we’re just plain tired, we need a refuge. When we’re overwhelmed by life’s ups and downs, we need shelter. Where is your safe space?