Even the smallest gesture can make the biggest impact. We must not diminish the power we each hold to be a safe space for someone who needs it most.
Have you ever watched a young child stumble, fall down, scramble to their feet again, only to look toward the adults in the room before deciding whether they’d laugh or cry? Better yet, remember being that child scanning the room for validation, support or a pair of open arms to sink into? We may grow older, and become more adept about getting up from the spills we take, but we’re never too old for reassurance along the way.
We never outgrow the need for safety.
As simplistic as it seems, this dynamic hasn’t changed much since childhood. We still look for support when we’ve fallen, craving the safety being met with compassion and acceptance when we do. No matter how much self-confidence and personal work we’ve done, there’s an immeasurable, much-needed benefit we get from the encouragement, comfort and support from the people we’re close to.
I met Stephane two months before I left New York. He was a bartender at a trendy club my friend Anna and I wandered into after dinner late one night. The bar was a hipster haven and Stephane, Anna and I were a little older, a lot more jaded, and obviously out of place. So what’s your story? I asked him. How’d you wind up here? Stephane smiled right through me and replied in a thick French accent. By the time Anna and I left, Stephane and I had exchanged numbers and embarked on a crash-and-burn affair that would find me digging my heart out of the rubble six weeks later.
As the wonderful friend she was, Anna stood silently by that summer and watched our relationship twist, turn and unravel without a word of judgment. Even as she and I headed home from the bar, fully aware that Stephane was probably a player—and that I was definitely moving across the country—I still entertained a hope that something serious would develop from a night of tipsy flirtation with a stranger.
One day Stephane and I rented a car with his good friends John and Margo. He’d heard great things about the seafood in Baltimore and wanted to spend the day sampling as much of it as he could stomach. All of us were up for the adventure and fortunately made great road companions. On the return trip, I shared the backseat with Margo. She was lovely. She had trusting eyes and a calming presence. It was only too bad that she and I hadn’t met sooner and become friends. She told me as much as we rode home. I really like you, she said. But there was more in her eyes and what she didn’t say. Just remember that whatever happens, you’re a good person. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
The next day Stephane ended our relationship. I’d be lying if I said he was a jerk or that my world was shattered because of him. Even so, you wouldn’t have known it from how hysterical I was when I called Anna with the news. She listened to me sob about all of the bad choices I’d made in men and never once shushed me when I asked her whether I was truly broken and doomed to be forever victimized by a cruel universe. Anna was patient and kind through my ranting. We’d been friends a long time, and we’d certainly seen each other through worse in the past. She told me to come over.
By the time I got to her apartment, my friend had drawn me a hot bath and placed a cup of hot tea on the shelf by the tub. I wasn’t big on bubble baths, and hadn’t ever done anything more than wash my hands at my friend’s house in the past. But she hugged me hard and pointed me toward the bathroom. I sank into the tub and cried until I couldn’t any more. I didn’t know it then, but the sadness and fear of leaving behind my friends and the life I’d known for more than a decade in New York had been building for months. I had no idea how to handle the transition, but I was no stranger to relationships going bad. I knew exactly what to do when that happened: I fell apart.
I didn’t have to tell Anna any of it because she already knew what was going on with me. She’d been a witness to it all and understood what I needed, even when I didn’t. The farther away I get from those memories of sobbing in my friend’s bathtub, the more gratitude I feel for the lovingkindness Anna showed me that day. She wasn’t just a witness to my unraveling; she was my sounding board, caretaker, and confidant.
In the middle of my meltdown Anna was my safe space.
I’ve heard it said that, “A true friend never gets in your way unless you happen to be going down.” The same could be said of a compassionate partner, trusted relative, therapist, colleague or caretaker. Anyone can be a safe space. The key lies in knowing how.
Being a safe space for another person might require that we leave our judgment and advice at the door and allow the person to vent, collapse or throw a tantrum as they feel led. In different circumstances, your judgment and decisiveness in a difficult situation may be what the person needs. Whatever being a safe space looks like to you, it’s important that the person feels comfortable enough to connect to the raw emotion of what is.
We may never know the power that lies in our ability to reassure someone through a gentle touch, a heartfelt “hello” or the sincerity of a smile. Offering a safe space needn’t be as dramatic as my experience with Anna; it can also be as brief as making eye contact with a stranger, praising a job well done, offering a spontaneous compliment. This single act of bearing witness, of lending support and validation is hardly passive. In fact, it’s a tremendously conscious act of caring that can help heal our deepest wounds and mend what’s broken from the inside out.
[image: via Jesslee Cuizon on flickr]