We all need to feel comfortable in expressing ourselves and being vulnerable with others. But how do we ensure this need for safety? When navigating discourse, safe spaces aim to offer non-judgmental zones, whereas brave spaces encourage some conflict and dialogue. So, which one is better or more effective? Let’s get into it.
What Is a Safe Space?
A safe space ideally refers to a judgment-free environment where people can fully express and be themselves.
The concept traces back to the mid-1960s within the context of gay and lesbian bars. At the time, homophobia and anti-sodomy laws were rampant- while these bars didn’t exempt people from legal risks, they offered an opportunity to showcase practical resistance against these stances.
It wasn’t nearly as “safe” to show affection or display yourself as gay or lesbian back then. Therefore, people needed to have places where they could be themselves freely and without fear.
Today, safe spaces can be tangible- such as in a specific club or meeting or specific setting. Or, they can be more intangible, such as within a particular culture or subset of friends.
Safe spaces may include some awareness and learning, but the main goals are rooted in empathy and support. In a safe space, members aim to reduce or avoid any sense of discomfort. Instead, it’s more important to feel welcomed as a member of the community.
Benefits of Safe Spaces
Safe spaces offer a sense of inclusivity and unwavering compassion. You can unapologetically be who you are- without any need for explanation. You can show up knowing that people will support you.
For these reasons, safe spaces can be fantastic opportunities for marginalized groups who have experienced chronic oppression or abuse. In such cases, a safe space provides a sense of refuge. There is no need to perform or justify your actions. You are allowed to just be.
Safe spaces can also be valuable when people need support more than guidance or education. For example, an online forum that provides support and resources for a woman grieving the death of her child may benefit from having this safe space. Or, a child suffering from depression and loneliness may also need a safe space in his school via a support group.
In these instances, the goal isn’t necessarily about teaching a specific concept. Instead, it’s about offering the strength of the community to foster a sense of healing.
Downsides of Safe Spaces
Critics of safe spaces often call these spaces limiting and coddling. Some researchers have argued that these spaces prevent growth because they meet people just at the edge of discomfort. Instead of trying to foster more dialogue or awareness, safe spaces aim to alleviate any source that could contribute to tension.
Safe spaces may also inadvertently enable unhelpful behavior. For instance, if one member frequently complains of a certain problem, the group may continue to provide validation and support. However, that member might really need some straightforward guidance. But instead of risking hurting that person’s feelings, the group might continue only offering kind words.
Furthermore, some critics of safe spaces argue that they don’t adequately prepare people for the real world. For instance, does a trigger warning actually prevent someone from being triggered? And if so, will such avoidance only result in more problems later on?
Finally, others perceive safe spaces as a threat to the social movement they seek to promote. The argument is that focusing on smaller details may derail the larger mission at hand. For example, if people omit entire ideas- due to fear of triggering others- this action may cause greater alienation and stunt potential growth.
Start Your Mental Health Education.
Get instant access to free videos, and be the first to know about live classes and events.
What Is a Brave Space?
The concept of ‘brave space’ started gaining popularity in the past decade. Its roots began in university settings, but the ideas can be applied universally.
A brave space aims to create a dynamic space where everyone can actively participate. That said, key ideas tend to include:
- Controversy with civility.
- Owning intentions and impacts.
- Challenge by choice.
- No attacks.
Controversy with Civility
This is one of the most critical tenants of a brave space. Of course, controversy is often an inherent part of working through complex issues. But maintaining both dignity and respect- while navigating a disagreement- can foster greater connection.
Owning Intentions and Impacts
Accountability is another cornerstone of a successful brave space. Members must be willing to hold themselves responsible for how their words or actions affect others. Even if their motives aren’t intentional, they must recognize the impact certain decisions can have on a system.
Challenge by Choice
Challenge by choice refers to being willing to challenge yourself and others. It means that you are open to stretching your comfort zone and absorbing new information, even if it feels uncomfortable or scary.
Respect is imperative in a brave space. Even if you don’t particularly like someone or their ideas, you need to respect them for who they are and what they bring to the discussion. Respect means avoiding jumping to conclusions, gossipping about others, or disrupting the safety within a group setting.
Members must handle conflict appropriately. Insulting, yelling, threatening, or otherwise making fun of someone is never tolerated. If an attack occurs, the group must manage such outbursts immediately.
Members must fully understand and implement these fundamental ideas to create an effective brave space. Doing so requires an inherent set of structure and rule-setting- the teacher or facilitator must be willing to openly share this concept with members.
Benefits of Brave Spaces
Brave spaces require a personal sense of accountability, respect for other people, and the willingness to sit with discomfort. Moving through this process inherently helps people grow and learn more about the world around them.
For these reasons, brave spaces offer many advantages- both interpersonally and societally. The more open-minded we are in understanding how other people live, the closer we are to achieving civility and peace.
After all, everyone has biases and stereotypes (whether they like to admit it or not). But in a brave space, people can challenge those preconceptions they hold about the world. This can inadvertently create new opportunities for relationships along with a deeper awareness of oneself.
Downsides of Brave Spaces
Brave spaces require maturity and respect. However, even if members intend to implement the key ideas, it doesn’t mean they will follow through. Therefore, a brave space can quickly become an unsafe, dangerous space if even one member challenges the rules.
Brave spaces can also feel uncomfortable.
Talking about certain issues can be triggering, and if you don’t have adequate coping skills to manage elevated emotions, you may feel worse before you start feeling better. Likewise, even if the goal is creating greater understanding and connection, you might feel distracted by the people who disagree with your beliefs.
Finally, brave spaces tend to require strong facilitation, especially for highly controversial issues. If they cannot control the group, the entire mission can become compromised.
Safe Space Vs. Brave Space: Which Space Is Better?
It depends on the context. Both spaces have unique advantages and disadvantages, and there is clearly room for both spaces to exist.
It also depends on your personal goals. Do you need support above anything else? If so, a safe space is probably your best fit. Do you want to be challenged or inspired to think differently? If so, you might benefit from a brave space.
Keep in mind that neither option is perfect. The best spaces can still have problems. People, even under ideal circumstances, can act unpredictably. Basing your well-being off how other people behave often results in intense resentment.
That said, finding supportive people who love you unconditionally can help you create a virtuous space for healing. These people may be your current loved ones, and if they’re not, it may be worth starting your search. You deserve to have people who believe in your spirit and accept you for who you are.
How Can You Find These Spaces?
Safe spaces and brave spaces exist everywhere. It depends on your location, goals, and preferred platform.
If you are a student, your school or university likely provides certain groups dedicated to supporting marginalized populations. While they may not advertise themselves as safe or brave spaces, that might be their overarching goal.
Furthermore, many nonprofits and community health clinics offer specific types of support groups. These groups often focus on specific issues like bereavement, domestic violence, depression, or postpartum issues. Most of these groups combine education with support, making them mimic either safe or brave spaces.
Finally, you can also turn online to find a safe or brave space. Social media platforms like Facebook or Reddit offer communities dedicated to particular causes. No matter what you might be struggling with, there is probably a group or forum devoted to it.
Join MedCircle’s Facebook group, Mental Health: Educate, Share, Inspire.
What if a Space Fails You?
What happens when you try to give it your all and it doesn’t work out? Or when you decide to truly be vulnerable, only to be met with shaming or invalidation?
Such experiences can range from feeling mildly irritating to downright devastating. And unfortunately, even the best groups don’t always live up to their expectations. That’s why it’s important to have realistic goals when finding a space for your needs.
It might be helpful to first reflect on what exactly went wrong. Was it a single event or a series of challenging issues? Is it something you can look past, or is it entirely unforgivable? Did you play any part in what happened, or was something malicious done to you? In other words, can things be healed- or is it time to move on?
Of course, it can feel discouraging when a space that promises to be open and inviting ends up doing the opposite. You may even feel tempted to dismiss seeking support moving forward.
Try to remember that one poor experience isn’t indicative of all safe or brave spaces. It just may take some trial-and-error to find the group setting that works best for you. Staying open and curious about the process can help you heal.
Talking to Your Children about Safe Spaces and Brave Spaces
Parents often want to ensure that their children feel supported as they grow up and learn how to navigate the real world. This task can be daunting, especially if parents struggled to feel safe when they were growing up.
Let your children know that they can always come to you with their feelings, emotions, and concerns.
First, it’s important to remember that initial safety starts at home. Let your children know that they can always come to you with any feeling or concern. Never punish a child for simply having an emotion- always validate and normalize feelings as they arise.
Next, make sure that you model safety and bravery. Consider how you navigate difficult conversations. Do you tend to be respectful and curious when you disagree with someone? Or, do you become defensive and combative? If it’s the latter, you show your children that it’s okay to disrespect others to get your own point across.
Finally, try to help your child find groups and clubs that promote their well-being. Do not force them to participate in events that make them feel uncomfortable. Additionally, do not require them to have friends that they don’t want to have.
Even if they are young, your children have strong intuitions that help them determine what is and isn’t safe. As a loving parent, it is your job to respect and cultivate those boundaries.
Safe spaces and brave spaces offer numerous benefits to individuals and societies. They can undoubtedly create an important sense of community. For marginalized groups, they provide genuine connections without fear of judgment or shaming.
That said, it must be noted that there is no such thing as a perfect safe or brave space. People are ultimately people, and they can act irrationally. So while finding a supportive community is a valuable goal, try to avoid getting fixated on absolute perfectionism- it just doesn’t exist!