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The secret to building powerful safe spaces

A critical part of the conversation on mental health — especially organizational mental health, is the need and availability for safe spaces. Occupational psychologists and therapists underline the need for “safe spaces” in our homes, organizations, and our universities. Recently, we have started building safe spaces on the internet as well (which seems really counterintuitive given the troll and bashing culture that has come to represent social media).

Safe spaces are supposed to be places where individuals can come together, air out their emotions, and make sense of what’s happening to them and their community. The idea is that such spaces are useful both to the individual and to the community. The individual makes better meaning of their struggles, thereby improving their ability to act with purpose and the community finds ways to improve, for the overall good. So far so good. We understand the need for safe spaces. But what makes one space safe and the other not so safe? Secrecy, the need to keep matters discussed within the participating members, is the most discussed aspect. But secrecy comes after individuals have shared laboriously, their pains and tribulations. What induces a space to be felt as safe by an individual to express themselves freely?

Individual vs Environment Contemporary evidence-based therapies and self-help approaches focus a lot on the individual. It doesn’t matter what triggered a mental health struggle in the individual. The assumption is that “faulty thinking” and cognitive biases are part of the problem and the individual has to restructure her thinking to break out of such patterns. Recently, researchers are starting to seriously question this assumption.

When it comes to trauma, crisis, or moral injury, a good part of our “psychological will” is weakened. The meaning we made based on our “psychological pillars of strengths”, starts collapsing as well. When a person breaks up with a long-standing partner or loses a close family member or friend, when people lose their houses during disasters, when people’s sense of fairness gets tarnished after a sexual assault or organizational indifference to dishonesty — in all these situations and more, the individual’s meaning starts to show cracks. The beliefs and social support that was holding the meaning up, start to crumble under pressure. Individuals start looking for ways to keep their meaning together. And when they can’t anymore, there is a huge turmoil in their minds. While therapy, focusing on the individuals’ (assumed) maladaptive thinking is considered the first logical step to repairing(?!) this situation, it seldom works. As Michael Ungar points out in this deeply meaningful piece on resilience, we need to enable individuals in rebuilding their psychological pillars of strengths before we start focusing on their beliefs and thinking patterns.

Invisible pillars of support Psychological dependencies are the invisible aspects of our world that we depend upon for our happiness and satisfaction. Like we depend on air for breathing. For example, I find a lot of meaning in travel. My ability to spend my time and money on travel is important to construct this meaning. My social system, skills, environment, and opportunities are key to engaging with this valuable act consistently. Apart from travel, a deep connection to myself and my work, the power of my community to help me out during difficult times, sharing and connecting with other community members — are some things I rely on for my sanity. In some cultures, people rely on the government to provide social security and safety from unemployment. We rest ourselves on these pillars of support and construct our psychological well-being around them. When one or more of these pillars get damaged or worse, removed — our ability to maintain our well-being is in serious trouble.

In a piece on Fast Company, Professor Ludmila Praslova talks deeply about the impact of moral injuries on our psychological fiber. When a system or situation fails in terms of what is considered fair and just, it injures us deeply. The resulting injury, termed as moral injury (as opposed to traumatic injuries), affects one’s capacity and motivation to engage in role-playing or any other such cognitive reframing. But it’s during such moments that we need reframing the most — to find new meaning in our actions because old meaning is injured or broken.

The more serious the moral injury is, the more difficult it is to find new meaning. When such an injury is a shared one, by people belonging to the same tribe, having a space to expound on the subject with good guidance can enable new meaning-making. For example, I went through severe moral injury as an immigrant entrepreneur struggling in an unjust business environment. I, along with a few other entrepreneurs, formed a group where we talked deeper about our specific struggles and reflected on smaller truths at the end of it. This process enabled me to continue with my entrepreneurial pursuit while accepting certain harsh realities that were unfair.

When people go through an emotional upheaval, most of the time, they don't have the space or mindset to realize what’s happening to them. Meaning-making of the situation, at that time, feels futile. In many cases, people look back later and realize what has happened to them. What’s interesting is that these hindsight analyses usually happen in a safe space. They happen in environments familiar to the individuals — not just physically but psychologically as well. For example, one of my psychological dependencies is the ability to connect with the people around me as an important part of my thinking process. When I moved to Finland from India, coming to live in a country with very few friends and a huge barrier to being part of the community, I didn’t have this pillar to depend upon, anymore. I found myself not able to do anything concretely. With my “apparent” improved quality of life — it felt like a huge disservice to all good things I got for not being able to do anything “valuable”. After years of struggling with this, it was only in certain safe spaces that I was able to make sense of what I was going through.

Unique aspects of safe spaces Geography — is an important aspect of safe space. Each location and culture has a huge role in deciding the psychological dependencies of the individuals. By going back to our geographical spaces where we experience a familiar form of psychological safety, the chances of being able to compare and make sense of our situation are higher. The costs involved in doing this, though, are huge and not affordable for a lot of people.

A more accessible aspect of a safe space is “shared psychological dependencies”. Whenever I spoke with friends who shared my psychological dependencies and struggle — the space, even if it was geographically distant, became really safe to talk and air out the emotions that were pulling me down. This, I think, is critical because while “community” is an important aspect of safe space, individuals having differences of opinions on what’s important and what’s not — for psychological well-being, makes a huge difference to how safe the space is perceived to be.

If you are creating a safe space for your employees, it's important that you craft a gathering where individuals share struggles as well as psychological dependencies.

Summary While constructing safe spaces, we need to have a better understanding of what elements of their environment people depend upon for their flourishing and which of them are unavailable to them in their current situation. Building safe spaces that re-create these core psychological elements is key to getting the individuals to feel “safe”, express freely, and be able to make new meaning of life without these elements.


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