Safe Spaces, and Optimal Wellness Environments
First, is there a difference between an OWE and a safe space? Yes. A safe space is a prerequisite for an OWE but there are elements of an OWE that go beyond the experience of a safe space. While physical environment is always a factor, and while some people may be very skilled in facilitating a safe space, no one can make a space safe for anyone else. Each person must accept responsibility for creating whatever level of safety she feels. Two people sitting next to each other in the same group often have very different perceived levels of safety.
When we speak about safe spaces and OWEs, we are referring to different locations on the Trust Continuum (next page), not either/or situations (i.e., safe or not-safe). There are many degrees of trust or safety experienced by people sharing a space with each other, so to say a space is “safe” is an over-simplification of what is occurring at any point in time. It would be more accurate to say “my perceived level of trust now, for me at this particular gathering, is a ‘2’” (on the scale shown of -4 to +4). When trust levels are high and other factors are present (see below), you move into the realm of OWEs. Even here there are many degrees of how optimal an Optimal Wellness Environment happens to be for me right now. Creating an OWE for ourselves is a moment-to-moment and life-long process, not something that we do once and then sit back and enjoy.
Factors influencing how safe people may feel are: their type of childhood wounding, the degree of consciousness they have of it, their ability to name and ask for what they need, their ability to receive support from others, and their willingness to own their projections and work with their shadow elements. Those less conscious of these factors or less able to take care of themselves in these areas will tend to think others in the group are making it unsafe “for them” and will experience the group as threatening or boring. This is not to say that others in the group do not contribute to its degree of safety through their own behaviors and attitudes, but no matter how “good” or “bad” they may be in facilitating a safe space within the group, ultimately the responsibility is yours.
We have developed a series of questionnaires to help you evaluate where you are on this continuum in any particular group. They help assess what is contributing to and detracting from your experience of safety or “optimal-wellness-ality” in the group at any time. With this knowledge, you can actively accept more responsibility for co-creating a space that feels safe to you.*
Increasing your trust levels will make a group feel much safer, but even the safest of groups may not provide you with the feeling of being in your OWE. Safety alone does not an OWE make.
People from all walks of life may come together and feel safe sharing their personal lives with each other. They bring with them different needs, goals, interests, and “chemistry.” What moves a space from being a safe one to being an OWE is unique to each person, but it is what makes the group exciting, challenging, inspirational, and fun. An OWE requires a greater degree of selectivity than does choosing people only to create a safe space.
In designing and creating an OWE, not only are the people (or absence thereof) you chose to be around you important, but also the physical environment such as climate, geography, predominant culture, the availability of resources like buildings, equipment, etc. It is important to have people who share common interests, goals, and purposes.
Each person needs to identify just what it is that excites, inspires, and challenges her. The people with whom she shares a safe space can support her in gaining this clarity and pursuing her dreams. They may or may not be the people with whom she experiences her OWE. The people in her OWE will be those with whom she feels free to be fully herself, and challenged, nurtured and inspired to living out of her deepest visioning.
* Another way of looking at safety is to view it from the standpoint of intimacy. Howard and Charlotte Clinebell, (as quoted in Game Free, Tom Oden) have distinguished at least twelve different types of intimacy which can apply to relationships:
• Sexual intimacy (erotic or orgasmic closeness).
• Emotional intimacy (being tuned to each other’s wavelength).
• Intellectual intimacy (closeness in the world of ideas).
• Aesthetic intimacy (sharing experiences of beauty).
• Creative intimacy (sharing in acts of creating together).
• Recreational intimacy (relating in experiences of fun and play).
• Work intimacy (the closeness of sharing common tasks).
• Crisis intimacy (closeness in coping with problems and pain).
• Conflict intimacy (facing/struggling with differences).
• Commitment intimacy (mutuality derived from common self-investment).
• Spiritual intimacy (the we-ness in sharing ultimate concerns).