The High Wire: Why Therapy isn’t Always About “Safe”

If you’ve spent any time reading this blog, or if you found this site through one of the online directories where I have a three-sentence description of my practice, the title of this post may feel pretty contradictory.  One of the points that I frequently emphasize with both current and prospective clients is that therapy is intended to be a safe space.  And that is the truth.  All of your feelings, particularly the challenging ones, are welcome in therapy.  No matter how angry, or sad, or scared you are, I can make space for that–without shutting you down.   My commitment to confidentiality means that therapy is a safe space for even the most painful or embarrassing secrets.  I believe that creating and protecting that emotional safe haven is one of my primary responsibilities in the therapy relationship.

And right about now, I can hear you asking–so what gives?  If safety in therapy is one of your primary goals, why on earth would you write a post about why therapy is not always safe?  Here’s why.

Safety Has Multiple Meanings

English is a fun language.  We have lots of words that can mean multiple things, particularly when you’re considering emotional issues.  So, for the purposes of today’s post, I’m looking at one specific meaning of “safe.”  When I talk about “safe space,” I’m talking about the ideas that I outlined above, or in other posts about the therapy process.  But the “safe” that I am talking about in this post is better described by the phrase “playing it safe.”

When we think about “playing it safe,” we think about trying to avoid or minimize risk.  We think about trying to keep our actions small or our emotions controlled, so that we won’t be hurt.  We think about “not getting our hopes up.”  We think about keeping to our routines.  Playing it safe might mean that you avoid relationships after a painful breakup.  Playing it safe may mean that you stay in a job that you loathe because finding & following your passion feels scary.  Playing it safe may mean that you follow old patterns of dismissing your own voice, because taking a stand might mean dealing with conflict.

There are a lot of reasons that we play it safe.  The most common reason is past experiences of hurt.  Another is fear of change or fear of failure.  We might feel tired.  Our family or friends may encourage us not to take risks.   It can feel like playing it safe is the “smart” way to go.  But, as I noted above, playing it safe has its own costs.  Playing it safe often means that we accept a smaller, tighter, less fulfilling, less joyful life–with the hopes that doing so will reduce our chances of getting hurt.

Therapy: A Safe Space that Challenges You not to “Play it Safe”

I have written before about the idea of increasing our ability to feel comfortable with paradox–with things that, while they appear to contradict, are both true.  Safety in therapy is all about paradox.  I work to create a safe space so that my clients feel strong & supported enough to stop playing it safe.

Most of my clients come to therapy because they don’t want a small, restricted life.  They want to have the opportunity to explore their own potential, to feel joy and connection and excitement.  They want relationships that are fulfilling and engaged.  So, we look at what patterns in their lives are about playing it safe.  Once we understand that, we can start asking questions.  Where is there room to be more open, more genuine, more connected?  What are the “baby steps” that you can take to change the habit of playing it safe?

So how about you?  Where are you playing it safe?  What kind of support do you need to be more engaged in your life?

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