There’s No Such Thing As A Safe Place

The older I get, the more I begin to appreciate Melanie Klein.  I think Melanie gets a bad rap for her vivid and primitive descriptions of object relations, and the psychotic processes that describe the best attempts by the developing infant to make sense of the world.

But when I reflect on Klein’s description of the depressive position, I like to imagine that Klein and the Buddha would get along really well.  They’d probably agree that existence is suffering, in that it is a normal part of the universe, and that a mature understanding of suffering is that it is inevitable, and on a human level it is often in terms of the desire to gratify urges and avoid pain.

But this blog is about social media and confidentiality, and therapy actually.

Every few weeks, on one of the several forums in which I participate, some eruption occurs.  Some therapist writes about something, and then someone else quotes it in a video, or blogs about it, or cuts and pastes it somewhere else.  And then everyone gets outraged, because the confidentiality of the group has been violated.  And words like violation and boundaries get thrown around, and inevitably someone chides someone else about not respecting that the group is a safe space.

Somewhere along the line, we therapists got the idea that there is such a thing as a safe space. There is not.  Maybe, at best, there’s the “safe enough space.”  But setting aside for a minute that Facebook is not a consultation room, let’s take a look at what safe often stands in for.  When someone says, “I don’t feel safe,” they are often trying to use that expression of feeling to manipulate their environment, rather than check in with us about their emotional state.  Safe is often a code word for “I want you to do something different,” such as:

Safe means you take responsibility for my lack of caution

Safe means you have to respond to me in a conscripted way

Safe means you can or can’t say things if they’ll cause an unpleasant feeling in me

 

I wonder how many of my colleagues have ever been in a group as a patient?  I remember the group therapy experience I had in graduate school.  We had to take a course, it was mandatory, and in the middle the class “turned into” a group for 45 minutes.  I remember one class, er, group where I said something and then got a very upsetting response, and after group, um, class I locked myself in a rest room and cried for a good 10 minutes.  Didn’t feel safe at all.  But it did feel real.

I tend to believe that therapy is never safe, that’s why our patients are so damned brave.

But anyway, somewhere along the line, we therapists have gotten this idea drilled into our heads, and think we can create some sort of bubble that is safe.  And we conflate the ideas that childhood trauma and having our feelings hurt are the same thing.  And we assume that if we make a rule everyone is going to follow it, which is bizarre if you consider what you might say if a patient came in and said to you, “I’ve decided that at the workplace it is not ok if people talk about me when I’m out sick.”  I imagine you’d think that was rather entitled of them, and yet we wave the flag of entitlement around all the time and say we agree that we’ll do/not do X, Y, or Z in an online forum to make a “safe space,” and then are amazed when it doesn’t happen.

Look, first off, this is not about technology.  People need to stop worrying about whether to use social media and start worrying about how they comport themselves when using it. It’s sort of like saying I am not going to use the phone because I’m afraid I’ll get a prank call.  The forums, Facebook, Twitter, are not the problem.  We are the problem.  Us, human beings.  Because we somehow think that we can behave differently online than in real life.  And because we want to imagine that every professional is going to agree how to behave and behave that way all the time.  I never write anything online without assuming that it will be read by my patients, supervisees, friends, enemies, exes and my mother.  And someday my children and grandchildren.  If you are a therapist and you want private supervision, go buy some.  Don’t expect that you will get good supervision from a 100-person forum.  It’s not because there aren’t a lot of brilliant clinicians online, there are.  It’s because forums are not supervisions, you can get some great tips, but generally any dilemma that has got you rattled enough to sound off on it is probably one for a supervisor.

Second, I’m with Melanie Klein and Buddha on this one.  We’re often pushing through our life trying to get to a safe secure place so we can hunker down and stop changing.  If I have enough money, I’ll feel safe.  If I have a home, I’ll feel safe.  If I have a career I’ll feel safe.  If I have a different career I’ll feel safe.  I won’t feel secure until you marry me.  I won’t feel secure until we start a family.  I won’t feel secure until the children grow up, I won’t feel safe until we separate.  The list goes on.  We’re always seeking refuge rather than embracing change.  This is what Pema Chodron is talking about when she talks about the “Wisdom of No Escape.”

Take a look around us.  There are still 100,000 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan.  Mothers kill their young children and hide their bodies.  College students get bullied for being gay and jump off bridges.  Where is/was their safe space?  We need to get out of our bubble of delusion in my opinion.  The idea of a safe space is a spurious concept born of white privilege and naivete, the expectation that we can enforce it is born of entitlement.

There’s a great song from Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along which one of the characters sings after another has had something terrible happen to him:

All right, now you know:
Life is crummy.
Well, now you know.

I mean, big surprise:
People love you and tell you lies.
Bricks can fall out of clear blue skies.
Put your dimple down,
Now you know.

(For the full lyrics, go here )

 

Klein’s theory of development posits that mature development arrives at the depressive position.  Depressing name, but what the depressive position is all about is realizing that human beings are not all good or all bad, but inconsistent, imperfect, complicated and mysterious.  We’re noble and we cheat.  We’re sensitive and inconsiderate, loving and jealous, honest and sneaky.  All of us.

Believe it or not, I don’t think things are bleak.  I don’t think life is crummy.  But I do think there’s a lot of work to be done, and if you want to help with some of it here’s one way you can.  There’s a lot to be hopeful about as well, and people can make things better for the world.  But we need to tolerate what it looks like.

There’s no such thing as a safe space.  Stop waiting for one.  Try now, take risks.  Think about what you say to who before you say it online, just as you would offline.  Be cautious, be brave.  Take risks, then learn from your mistakes.

And if you catch yourself saying, “I thought at least here I’d be safe,” it’s probably time to get moving.

 

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Comments

  1. I agree completely. Not only is safety an illusion, it’s one that is dangerous 😉 It’s in seeking guaranteed safety that someone with agoraphobia ends up retreating further and further from the world. The end result is living in a prison of one’s own making and still feeling afraid.

    Oh..and I LOVE the pic with this post–perfect!!

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says:

      Thanks Nancy, I got a kick out that photo too. And I think it is dangerous to make promises that we can’t keep, or don’t really understand.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this, Mike. In addition to making me ponder even more the importance of exercising caution in all of our online (and offline) dealings, your article helped me to reflect back on an article I wrote in high school. (seems like so many years ago). The article was called 50/50, and I too wrote about how there is good vs. “evil”, and beauty and ugliness in all of us, as well as our surroundings. I wish I still had the article. And I have to echo, while there is no absolute “safe” place, there IS always hope and the opportunity to effect positive change all around us. That’s why so many of us do what we do. Peace and blessings to you.

  3. Love your “red pill” posts. Totally agree with you and Nancy – well said!

  4. donna trainor says:

    i have to agree with you that there is no safe place when it comes to the shared word. therapists should be more cognizant of this as it is part of our daily practice as we try to offer some sense of safety to the words shared in session. however,we surely cannot guarantee it,we can try but there are so many potential circumstances that can destroy it. the obvious danger to self or others,mandated clients,minors,clients discussed in supervision,clients discussed with collegues,etc. all meant well but still a breaking of the safe place. therapists should remember this and know it applies to them as well. the client has the right to file a compliant against the therapist(justified or not),the client can talk to others about what goes on in sessions,the client can talk about the therapist,etc. one may indignitaly say therapists speak of the clt for the clts benefit,or with good intentions. its not the same. but isn’t it. there are good and bad people. there are good and bad intentions. there is illness on both sides of the equation at times. in other words-theres no safe place to count on for either of you. so realize the reality that exists with confidentility and within the relationship you are equal. the answer is to have less to hide and to be more comfortable being real with your clients.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says:

      Hi Donna, I’m with you. I think we should be more focussed on being honest with our patients, including about the limitations and illusion of safety.

  5. Arrrgh you introduced Sondheim to your blog which means I just HAVE to comment – it’s compulsive!

    So, a better explication of how I see what you are talking about, from Into The Woods:

    And I know things now,
    Many valuable things,
    That I hadn’t known before:
    Do not put your faith
    In a cape and a hood,
    They will not protect you
    The way that they should.
    And take extra care with starngers,
    Even flowers have their dangers.
    And though scary is exciting,
    Nice is different than good.

    Full lyrics at http://www.allmusicals.com/lyrics/intothewoods/iknowthingsnow.htm

    Take risks but learn from them. Everything is different In The Woods, and its the same for Social Media. Hope that resonates,

    Kate

  6. 2nd try! LOVE to see Sondheim on academic blogs. Although personally I would have gone with Into the Woods as an analogy about safety:

    And I know things now,
    Many valuable things,
    That I hadn’t known before:
    Do not put your faith
    In a cape and a hood,
    They will not protect you
    The way that they should.
    And take extra care with starngers,
    Even flowers have their dangers.
    And though scary is exciting,
    Nice is different than good.

    Kind of sums up “take risks, then learn from your mistakes” for me – always has. Colleague and I once had a whole training planned on works of Sondheim. But I digress…

    Full link to lyrics here: http://www.allmusicals.com/lyrics/intothewoods/iknowthingsnow.htm

    Great post 🙂

  7. Mike,

    Even though I think all your writing is great – this post is particularly impressive. I look forward to reading it several times as there are so many great points.

    What struck me first was your group experience in grad school. I am so sorry that happened to you and I can really relate! In my “mandatory group #3”, the facilitator said, “I think you are taking over the group, Casey. So I am bowing out – you take over. Isn’t she taking over? (to the others)” and then she went silent for the remaining 7 sessions of the group. Not safe at all. I didn’t speak during the remainder of my time in that mandatory group.

    Second, you triggered a pet peeve of mine re privacy and social media. I believe we spend a lot of time trying to make sure what we post online is private (I mean seriously) Let’s assume that anything that comes out of our mouths or keyboards could potentially be heard or read by someone it wasn’t intended for. Let’s act responsibly and kindly. If we need to vent, let’s find supervisors, peers or therapists who will help us to move through our stress so that we can be the best – for ourselves, our families, our clients and the profession. Let’s not complain about our clients online – even if we think it is private. It serves no one.

    This post has inspired me and I look forward to writing more on it myself (and rereading this post – it is fantastic, Mike.)

    Thanks for all you do!
    Casey

  8. *Standing up and applauding*
    Great. Post.

    Thank you, Mike…this has to be said. There’s no safe place in life, never mind online.
    More than any other group, I see therapists sometimes say things online that they shouldn’t. Whether it’s a political view, a disagreement that is disagreeable, or some complaint that should be kept to ones self and closest friends.

    Anything and everything online can be copied, pasted, edited, and shared. As you say, let’s get over this reality already,and conduct ourselves as professionals,accepting the consequences for what we choose to type and upload. No one forces you to put anything online. When in doubt, say nothing. If you don’t mind it being front page on the Huffington Post, then say what you have to.

    And so much of what I hear about the threats of social media are really the profession trying to manipulate the environment (great phrase).
    We’re not going to ‘undo’ social media or our clients’ attachments to their cellphones. We’re not going to control our client’s confidentiality if they choose to disclose their session notes on Facebook. They will follow us on Twitter.

    We can’t overcontrol the environment we work in now and for the foreseeable future. We have to adapt. Have to. Not a choice. And that gives us lots of opportunities to do good, innovative work. All professions evolve. We drive in cars, not ride horses. And Freud went from studying the neurology of eels to developing psychodynamic theory. Imagine if everyone told him he had to stay stuck and not innovate? We’d all be out of a job…

  9. Safe doesn’t mean you get what you expect. Safe means even when you are wrong, breaking down, at your lowest point, etc the other will not reject, bully, abandon, critisise you. It means after sharing yourself you and the world are in one piece, no matter how much it feels that the world as you knew it is over. Lets not confuse things. There is such a place as a safe place. There is no such a place on line where you make the rules. Period. But those are two very different things.

  10. judith barnard says:

    Hi Mike and All who responded,

    I am new to social media and still finding my way. I appreciate your thoughtful article and the helpful comments of those who responded. Much appreciated. Thank you.

    Judith

  11. Kelly L. Norman, LMSW says:

    Really, really good article. I loved reading Klein in graduate school…this makes me want to drag out the object relations book again.

    Incidentally, the “life is suffering; let go” is a core Christian (Christian as in taught by Jesus Christ, not Christian as in what people tell us Christian is) belief as well. That is, let go and realize that there are some things you just can’t change, and if you want to be authentic, the world isn’t gonna like you very much, so don’t let that throw you.

    I’m interested in the concept that even in the therapy setting, we can’t guarantee our clients safety. I work in a psychiatric ER. It’s definitely not a safe place to bare your soul; you could end up hospitalized against your will, or you could end up having to wait for many hours for a hospital bed (a tragic consequence of the fact that psychiatric beds in Michigan do not, for whatever reason, respond to market forces. I’m not talking about people without insurance waiting for beds. I’m talking about people with really, really good insurance and people wealthy enough to buy their own hospital, as well as the indigent. ). Waiting for hours in a place where people with psychiatric problems that might be much different than yours doesn’t feel safe, as comfortable as we try to make people.

  12. What a thought provoking post, Mike!

    On what hand, I agree with what I interpret you to mean (and I could be way off on this); “safe” is subjective. We all have our different “safe” and what it means to be safe and how we, as clinicians, promote “safe”. And the internet is not a “safe” place, but one where we all step into a great unknown adventure or disaster with each word we write. We have to find our own “safe” and what we are comfortable with putting out there, and realize that EVERYTHING that is put on this thing is subject to interpretation, judgment, and commentary – all should proceed accordingly.

    On the other hand, what I struggle with is the idea that we can’t provide for our clients safety – isn’t that part of our duty as clinicians? We may not be able to make them safe, or give them safety; but isn’t our job to give them a “safe” place for an hour, or a few hours, each week. And by doing that, hopefully we can help them explore their own ideas and attitudes on the concept, and therefore change how they are “safe” in the real world? Again, I recognize I may be interpretting your words incorrectly, so I would like to know what you think about my interpretation.

    As for the philisophical commentary – I do love some good philosophy and intelligent historical quotes, so let me offer you one of my favorites that I think is relevant to the topic, but a bit more modern:

    “Perhaps there exists a possible benefit when hardship is also accepted as part of human life.” – Bruce Wayne.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says:

      Hi Dan, important questions. I think in terms of therapy we can try to help patients, but ultimately we can’t keep them safe. Yes, if someone can’t contract for safety they can be sent via ambulance to the ER and then inpatient, but ultimately if someone wants to suicide they are going to do it. In terms of a safe place, I think that concept has been bandied about in our field so long that it is almost meaningless. I’m not saying we don’t have the responsibility of providing an environment which can hold or contain the therapy process and the feelings that come up in it. But I think I am with Winnicott on this one, and think of safe-enough therapy as a parallel to good-enough mothering. Maybe we need to take apart what “safe” means in terms of the therapy place.. Thanks for the thought-provoking comment!

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