This month has been about Safe Space. Staying at home, closing shops, restaurants, libraries, pubs. Therapists too retreat once again behind their screens
It was easier this time round, Lockdown 2. Clients who experienced the transition from face-to-face to online in March knew what we needed to do. New clients coming first to the Shelter since June weren’t so sure; it was a new and daunting change.
My feelings were mixed. Keeping up with changes had been mentally and physically tiring. That tiredness was felt as I lost the option to work outdoors. Welcoming autumn I added layers and found means of keeping warm as we continued towards winter and colder days. It had been a wonderful and expansive learning curve.
The tired part of me felt relieved and grateful to retreat indoors. Central heating, a soft chair and doors firmly closed. Again contained and containing within four firm walls. Blessed with an acceptance and willingness to adapt, I let go of my love of working outdoors and welcomed back my love of working inside.
We returned indoors to stay safe. Reducing the risk of increasing the spread of the virus, we are reminded of this shared vulnerability – ours and the world’s. Our external physical vulnerability reflecting our internal psychological vulnerability
Here we are managing both elements, the inner and outer. When our inner and outer experiences are paralleled and both negative or threatening we can become overwhelmed. Unable to escape our internal psychological distress by going out and getting busy and unable to escape the external physical threat of the virus by retreating within and cutting off, we can become stuck.
This was reflected in our preparation for working online. For myself, the loss of freedom to work outside, highlighting the unsafe environment globally, and the vulnerability that evokes. Paralleled with the emotional vulnerability – concern for my family and the challenge to my practice. For clients, the same environmental threat and loss of access to the safe therapeutic space as well as bringing into your home, via electronic means, the private, therapeutic relationship.
If you are home alone it is about considering what time you might need to take before and after the session. Without travel time and the head space that gives, we think about what you may need to do to prepare both before and after. This might simply be sitting for 5 minutes either side and not letting yourself be pulled into distracting or avoiding activity – emails, laundry, telephone calls. Think too about where you sit. If you have a home-office, you might want to move yourself to somewhere not identified with the stress and strain of your professional self. Think about where you feel comfortable, safe and happy to engage in the session.
If you are home with family members your considerations will be all of the above as well as where you will not feel at risk of being overheard. This is a hard one. Some people sit in their cars – either just outside their home, or driving first to somewhere quiet and secluded. Here we know that for some, not being on their own at home can make online therapy impossible. If caring for children you will probably not feel able to maintain your therapy this way. If you live with a dominating or abusive partner access to therapy is no longer available to you. This is a reality many of us have become aware of and continues to be of great concern to the individuals and professionals in this field.
Can we find a safe space within ourselves? If our home, our relationships, our world is feeling unsafe and uncontained, can we escape it without a physical space to run to?
Developing a safe internal space, a secure sense of self, is a task of therapy. When we are not mentally robust or equipped to deal with difficulties and challenges in our lives therapy provides the safe, reflective and compassionate space in which to think, and feel, our way through. The client’s experience of being safely seen, heard and responded to can then be held within, remembered and taken forward, providing for the future an experience of trust in oneself to manage, either by themselves, or by knowing that if necessary they can ask for help and it will be given.
If your early parental, family and social relationships did not give you an experience of being safely seen, heard and helpfully responded to, this therapeutic relationship is a hugely significant experience.
Bowlby’s Attachment Theory https://thebowlbycentre.org.uk/psychotherapy/ provides an extensive study into the dynamics of human interaction. In relation to our safe space idea we can draw from Attachment Theory’s ‘Secure Base’.
“SECURE BASE A term introduced by Ainsworth (1982) to describe the feeling of safety provided by an attachment figure. Children will seek out their secure base at times of threat – danger, illness, exhaustion or following a separation. When the danger has passed, attachment behaviour will cease, but only if it is there to be mobilised if needed will the child feel secure. The secure base phenomenon applies equally to adults. We all feel ‘at home’ with those whom we know and trust, and within such a home environment are ale to relax, and pursue our projects, whether they be play, pleasure-seeking or work.” (‘John Bowlby & Attachment Theory’, Jeremy Holmes, 1993, p.223)
Internalising this early experience of a secure base creates a secure sense of self in the world. We can trust that we dare to venture out, to play, to explore, to experiment. If things go wrong, if we get hurt, wounded, if we get into trouble and find ourselves lost, we have an instinctive, or learned, belief that we can return once again to a safe space – our family, partner, a stable sense of self. There we can do the necessary reparation and healing of wounds, restoring balance and when ready venture out again and take those necessary, appropriate human risks in our work, our relationships, our self-development.
The absence of a secure base in childhood can lead to a lack of security in oneself. It can make us fearful, uncertain and untrusting of ourselves, others, our environment. When we then experience an insecure situation such as COVID it can leave us very much without something solid to cling to and anxiety and overwhelm threaten to take over.
The therapeutic relationship offers you a secure base in which to work through these early experiences. Understanding them and finding acceptance of them allows you to be in the world differently. In the therapeutic safe space we seek to develop your internal secure base, allowing and encouraging you to be all you wish to be.
May we all find a safe space to dwell.