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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