Working with Space and Safety
Alexis Johnson, PhD
A few weeks ago I heard from a CIL graduate who wrote about starting another program and then added “I always miss the CIL training – it is the best and safest and most supportive I have ever done.” That got me to thinking about safety and space and what promotes transformational change. I love theory and deeply understanding concepts and ideas. But both in private work and in groups, theory, like all information, has a very limited role in promoting growth and development.
I first heard of the concept of ‘space’ in psychotherapy while reading Winnicott. Space in therapy cannot be talked about without talking about boundary as well. He said in a talk to other professionals: “What we do is to arrange a professional setting made up of time and space and behavior, which frames a limited area and we see what happens.” As I think of it, the boundary is my understanding of human growth and development, my theory of therapy, and the space is where we ‘play’ in my office. Coming as I do from both a conservative analytic background and a more expansive body oriented/humanistic/transpersonal background, my theory boundary informs my role in that play space.
So space is literal – my office – and much more than that. It is the place of the meeting of two heartminds, the space between. I like attending to both. I want my professional space to be welcoming, seating to be comfortable. I need plants – the green of aliveness and I even hope they give us more oxygen in the room. In NYC I need flowers – again some aliveness and color – not to focus on, but to subliminally remind both of us of beauty and hope.
The place of meeting of two heartminds is the crux of the work. If there is enough ‘space’, there will also be the beginning of safety. When someone decides to enter therapy, he or she is most often feeling upset about something and this upset registers in the body as tightness, construction. When he is constricted, he cannot breathe properly, he cannot think creatively, and he cannot hope for change, for something better. He is in a world of no space, no options, no freedom. Coming into the office, coming into therapy is a hoping for hope, a hoping for change.
Space can only be constructed with a boundary. But a boundary does not necessary lead to space. Boundaries can also construct, limit. I can create a boundary and then use the created space to inform, or educate, or advise. When I step too far into the space, freedom is curtailed. Some freedoms have to be curtailed – time, for example is a real boundary and both in groups and in sessions, I like to keep very close to the agreed upon time. There is safety in that as well. We all know when something will end and that time must be respected. But I don’t want to boundary topics, or deep emotions, or shameful thoughts and ideas. There must be freedom in the space to explore whatever is inside and wanting expression.
A comes into my office each week longing for support, longing for a mirror that she is OK, that her feelings are OK, and her dreams are both OK and can be realized. Like many young adults in NYC, she is a struggling actress, still supported by her parents. She seems to have little internal safety, having grown up with a very critical father and a very compliant mother. I know at our first meeting that my job is to establish what Erickson called basic trust, because this young woman does not trust herself, her family and has never created trusting relationships. I must give her the space to find her own feelings, impulses, gestures. At the same time we must create a dialogue encompassing an I-Thou relationship in which I am real, authentic, alive to my own feelings. This is the space where change can happen for her.
B comes to my office each week not wanting that kind of support and interaction at all. He wants to talk to himself, out loud, to find his own center. The quality of our relationship is almost non-verbal. I say very little, attend very deeply. He is an older man with health and relationship issues pushing him into despair. We both know that there is no hope for external change. His health will continue to deteriorate and his marriage will never support his own development. What he needs is to be witnessed. The change that slowly emerges by the end of each hour is an inner change, the knowledge that he can meet each day with dignity, that he is worthwhile, has meaning and the help he still gives others is valuable.
Both of these situations require space to unfold, the former within a dynamic dialogue and the latter within the energy field created by deeply attuning to the ongoingness of his being.
When I can create safety within the healing space, anxiety and despair can soften. Porges coined the term ‘neuroception’ to describe how the nervous system is constantly scanning for danger. Danger to us modern human beings is mostly psychological – where will I be misunderstood, de-valued, shamed? Where there is safety, new possibilities unfold, a risk can be taken, a need or a feeling can be expressed. Perhaps the worst feeling in the world is the feeling of being alone in the face of psychic danger – Winnicott’s unthinkable anxiety. By creating interpersonal safety, we can walk side by side into the danger, into the feelings that threaten to destroy the cohesiveness of the self.