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Like many people, I sometimes find the world to be an overwhelming place. Being expected to look and behave a certain way, and to interact with other people within a defined set of social rules, is terribly exhausting for me, as it is for most of us. We sometimes need to go somewhere where we feel completely free to be ourselves and to take care of ourselves. We all need a safe space.
The term ‘safe space’ is often used in inclusive communities, referring to bans on un-inclusive language or behaviour within the community. The safe space I want to talk about in this article is more individual and personal, and it can be wherever you would like it to be. For a lot of people, their safe space is their bedroom, because that is a space they have large amounts of control over. My safe space is my entire home — a flat in London that I share with two other twenty-somethings, one of whom is a good friend of mine. While it is nice to have a comparatively large safe space — and while the familiarity I feel towards my housemates means that I am able to declare my whole home my safe space — having a shared safe space raises its own issues.
As the name would suggest, the most important thing about a safe space is that it feels safe. The crucial point of difference here is that ‘safe’ can mean different things for all of us. One of the most essential components of my safe space is that it is protected against my most consistent triggers — things that can generally be trusted to make me panic if I see them. If there is an occasion when a trigger happens to be in my safe space (for example, if I see a spider), then that space is no longer safe for me, and I feel uneasy being there, even after the trigger has been removed (for example, after one of my heroic housemates has gotten rid of the spider). Having said that, a safe space can be made to feel safe again with some form of maintenance. In the spider example, that maintenance might be to spray the house with a spider deterrent.
Action has to be taken to make the space safe for me. If I think the action has been adequate, I will believe the space to be safe again.
The spider example is a relatively straightforward case, where damage has been done to my safe space and measures have been taken to repair the damage. Let me now spend much of the rest of this article going through a less straightforward case of safe space damage and repair.
The other evening, I walked into my living room, after being out for most of the day, to see my housemate on the couch, cuddling with a friend. After saying hello to both of them, I poured myself a drink, went into my room … and started panicking.
I panicked a stupidly, embarrassingly large amount, considering that the thing that had triggered my panic was nothing but the sight of two people with their arms around each other. My brain went into panic mode, and I started thinking horrible, appalling things about my housemate’s shallowness, whether his friend’s boyfriend knew that she was there, and other such things that I would normally never think. My living room had suddenly gone from being part of my safe space to being one of the most unsafe spaces I could think of.
Once that first horrible flare of panic subsided, leaving behind the uncomfortable and lingering anxiety, I started trying to work out why that sight had made me panic so much. The first thought that occurred to me was that I was jealous. Maybe I wished that my housemate were as keen on cuddling me as he is many of his other friends. I dismissed that idea pretty quickly, though, because I am at least 99% certain that I do not want to be cuddled by my housemate, or indeed by anybody, on a regular basis. I am not a cuddler at all.
I then thought about my not being a cuddler, and that musing quickly diverted over to what I like to call my ‘touch issue.’ Basically, I’m not great with touching people, or with being touched by people in certain ways, even non-sexually. This feeling has a lot to do with primary and secondary school bullying, where other children would recoil in horror or actively protest if I touched them, or were expected to hold their hands, or some other such thing. These events caused me to become afraid of touching people. At the same time, I do enjoy some human physical contact, and I wish that I were better at touching people than I am. The fact that I struggle a lot with something that comes so easily to most humans is a source of constant frustration for me.
And that, I think, was the issue I was having with my cuddly housemate. Seeing him able to engage in non-sexual but intimate physical contact with another human being caused me to feel the same sense of painful rejection and inadequacy I felt as a small child. That in itself would not be enough to make me panic. But because it was happening, completely unexpectedly, in my safe space, it was a shock to my system that my brain seemed unable to handle in any way, except by panicking.
Now that I had worked out what had caused my panic, I needed to work out what could be done about it. Probably the most obvious solution would be that I needed to overcome my touch issue and not let my housemate’s behaviour bother me. I can assure you all that I am working on it. But I still need my safe space to be somewhere I can go and take a break from the difficult aspects of my life, including the work I am doing to overcome my touch issue. The problem was that I had seen something that had damaged the safety of my safe space, and the only way for it to feel safe again was to perform some maintenance on it.
The cleanest option would be to ask my housemate to never cuddle his friends in communal areas, but that would be both horrible and hypocritical on my part. After all, our home is as much his safe space as it is mine, and he should feel free and safe to invite friends over and interact with them in whatever way he wants. It then occurred to me that the main reason I panicked was not the sight of two people cuddling, but the fact that I saw it without any prior warning. If steps could be taken to ensure that I would not have sights like that sprung upon me again, then the risk of me panicking would be reduced, and my safe space could become my safe space again.
What I ended up doing was telling my housemate, the morning after, about how I panicked, and that it unnerves me when he invites guests over and doesn’t let me know about it beforehand. If he could therefore do me a favour and let me know when he plans to have guests over, I would really appreciate it. He agreed to do this straightaway, and his assurance meant that the space we were in became safe for me once more.
Having a safe space is important for all of us, as it is the one place where we can remove ourselves from social practices, be who we are, and feel safe doing it. For many of us, safe spaces need to be worked on and maintained, particularly when something comes along that damages the safety of the space. Once the damage has been looked after, however, the space can become safe again. Whatever a safe space means to you, it is important that it is there and that it serves its job of helping you feel secure.
Love and Scotch Fingers,