Safe Space First. Brave Space Second.

In several of the communities and events that I participate in, I’ve seen some ongoing discussions about the differences between a safe space and brave space. While these conversations have been useful to some degree, they often turn into a debate about which one is more important. It seems to me that this creates a false dichotomy. I find that we need both safe spaces and brave spaces. That’s true for relationships as well as communities.

What is a Safe Space?

There are a lot of ways to think about what makes a safe space. I like the way that Galia Godel frames it:

A safe space is a place – online, or in person – where you know that you will feel comfortable and heard. Where the people around you have had similar experiences to you, or who will validate the pain and frustration that you feel in other places. It’s not a place to argue or question. It’s not a place to say “sure, that’s how you feel, but have you considered why the person you interacted with made those choices that hurt you?” or “what is your responsibility to do differently?” A safe space is a place where you finally get to relax, be understood, not have to explain yourself.

This is important because we need to start with safety before we can move into exploring our edges and learn something new. Safety is more than a list of groundrules, though. It’s a sense of ease and relaxation in your body, especially in your nervous system. When we can feel that, and when we have a set of agreements and norms that help each person stay within that comfort zone, the entire body slows down. That feeling of relaxation is the embodied sense of safety.

If we don’t have that as the starting point, our learning edges aren’t fun places to explore and expand our capacities. Instead, they can feel like threats to be avoided. That’s why there has been so much focus on creating safe spaces, especially for people who have generally been denied that sense of safety as they move through the world.

What is a Brave Space?

A brave space is one in which we can move towards our edges to discover what’s just beyond them. The authors of The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections From Social Justice Educators list five main elements:

  • “Controversy with civility,” where varying opinions are accepted
  • “Owning intentions and impacts,” in which students acknowledge and discuss instances where a dialogue has affected the emotional well-being of another person
  • “Challenge by choice,” where students have an option to step in and out of challenging conversations
  • “Respect,” where students show respect for one another’s basic personhood
  • “No attacks,” where students agree not to intentionally inflict harm on one another

These are excellent guidelines for how to support folks as they take a step outside of their comfort zones to take a look at what’s there, and I think they work just as well in relationships as they do in classrooms.

Part of what makes these useful in brave spaces is the definition of bravery. Bravery doesn’t mean ignoring your fear or pretending it isn’t there. Bravery means not letting your fear control you. It means doing the thing that scares you.

We Need Safe Spaces AND Brave Spaces

Learning something new can be uncomfortable, challenging, or even threatening. If we’re going to do it, we need a brave space. But our ability to be in a brave space rests on a foundation of feeling safe. We have to start with an embodied experience of safety before we can comfortably move to our learning edges. That’s why it’s important to begin with a safe space and then, when we’re ready, move into a brave space.

Safe spaces give us an opportunity to titrate our learning by allowing us to dip into new experiences and then shift out of them so we can absorb what we’ve learned. A safe space helps us keep from getting overwhelmed because we can take a break and integrate what we’ve explored. It’s the mental and emotional equivalent of taking a day off from working out so the body can get stronger. If you keep pushing yourself and never give yourself a chance to rest, you’re on the path to emotional flooding, getting overwhelmed, and/or burnout.

On the other hand, if we don’t have a brave space, then we never grow, learn, or change. Without a brave space, we stagnate. We need the opportunity to try something new, examine novel ideas, or simply experiment to see what the results are. None of that can happen if we never leave our safe spaces.

The trick is to be able to move back and forth when we’re ready to and when we need to. That can be difficult since the boundaries of our safe spaces (hopefully) expand as we integrate our experiences, and they contract when something upsetting or triggering has happened. It’s important to allow our safe spaces to flex in response to our circumstances, and trust that when we’re ready for them to expand again, they will.

There isn’t always a clear line to point at and say “here’s the border between safe and brave.” What we can do instead is learn to give our attention to how it feels in our bodies when we feel safe, how we know when we’re ready to be brave, and what’s going on for us when we need to take a break and let things settle in.

Respecting Safe Space

One of the places where I see relationships get stuck in is when one person wants to move forward into their brave space and the other person isn’t ready. Sometimes, that pushback can show up as avoiding the topic, agreeing to something and then not following through, picking fights as a way to distract, or finding excuses to talk about something else. It’s important to listen to that resistance because it’s telling you that someone isn’t ready for the conversation. The more you try to push someone to go faster than they want, the more they’ll resist and the entire process will take even longer.

Instead, take this as an opportunity to ask them what would help them feel safer. Do they need some time alone? Some quiet time together? Some support? Do they need to deal with some other pressing matter first, so they can feel more relaxed and present? Do they need to eat some food or get some sleep so they’ll have more energy and focus? Maybe they need someone to guide the process, like a mediator, a coach, or a therapist. Or maybe they need to take some time to figure out what’s going on for them before having a conversation.

It’s important that you enhance or build safety without being so focused on the goal of getting to the brave space. If you’re coming to this with that outcome in mind, you aren’t creating authentic safety. That can skew the entire process. Instead, try to trust that once safety has been established and experienced, there will be opportunities to move into bravery. That can take some practice, and it gets easier once you’ve been through this a few times.

On the other side of the equation, if you need some support in order to feel safe enough to step into your brave space, that’s totally fair. But you also have a responsibility to take care of yourself, and then return to your partner to talk. It isn’t fair to avoid the discussion by saying that you don’t feel safe, and then never do anything to move forward. That erodes trust and decreases your partner’s safety.

The purpose isn’t to use safety as a way to never deal with things. Instead, it’s a tool to give your system a chance to settle down, find your feet, and then return to the conversation. This often becomes a practice of doing whatever is not your habit. If you tend to push yourself extra hard, then this is an opportunity to explore slowing down and focusing on safety. If your habit is to pull back, withdraw, or avoid, then you might look for ways to increase your safety with an eye towards proactively engaging in the conversation. But either way, the first step is still all about safety.

It’s Worth The Investment

Creating a safe space and a brave space might seem like they take a lot of time. But I find that in most situations, it’s an investment that pays off because the conversations that follow will be less difficult and more efficient. If it seems like a huge process, that might be because there’s a backlog of old emotions, especially anger and resentment. It can be hard to create safety for someone if you’re resenting them, and it can be hard to trust that safety exists if you know the other person is feeling resentment.

That’s one reason it can be useful to work with a coach or therapist, both individually and as a pair (whether it’s a romantic relationship or not). It’s helpful to have a space where you can work through your feelings, say whatever comes up without worrying about how it comes out, and identify what you need in order to begin to work together.

Even if that isn’t a structure that would work for you, it’s still a good idea to think about what you might need in order to establish both a safe space and a brave space. Once you have, figure out what you can do to make that happen. At first, it might feel unnecessary. But after you’ve done it, you’ll probably see the payoff pretty quickly. And that makes all the difference.

As a somatic sex educator and relationship coach, I want to help you find new tools to create the relationships that support you and make you thrive. I offer in-person sessions in Seattle, as well as coaching over video. Get in touch with me to schedule a free Get Acquainted call. Let’s talk about what’s going on for you and how I can help you make sex easy