Having/providing a space was something which was already on my mind, but it came to the forefront more recently. I was at a DCP conference in Liverpool in January, which is a division within the British Psychological Society. On the Thursday afternoon there was a debate around fears and hopes for the profession.
Clinical Psychologist, Dr Aaron Roberts talked about how he hoped that clients and staff would still be able to have a ‘space’. There were many aspects discussed that day, but this resonated with me the most. From then on, this way of being has been more heavily incorporated into how I practice therapeutically, when speaking compassionately with colleagues and friends, and also into my self-care tool kit. Finding a space is a life ethos really.
So, what exactly is a space?
‘Sufficient freedom from external pressures to develop or explore one’s needs, interests, and individuality.’ - The Free Dictionary, 2017
I like this definition as first of all it emphasizes the need to be free from external pressures and through the narrative I will explore the benefits of this, particularly in relation to having a therapy space and the use of silence. The emphasis the definition places about space being about one’s own needs is also central.
Many people have not had an available space offered to them or have been unable to find one for themselves, due to a number of factors blocking this e.g. emotional distress or an extremely busy way of life.
One type of space I am able to offer as a clinical psychologist is an individual therapeutic space. People often come to see me and they are confused with what they are feeling and why. Initially they may be apprehensive of the quiet, enclosed space that is the therapy room. But after a short time as clients get used to the therapeutic framework and our relationship starts to foster, people really appreciate this space.
Upon exploring what people feel about coming to therapy, clients often comment that they rarely get a space to think about themselves; the therapy room is non-judgemental and completely the person’s space. If people are very distressed, really struggling and have not been afforded a proper space in their life to think about, understand and learn to value themselves, then my colleagues and I are able to provide this. There are indeed many different types of spaces, but this is a safe, containing space. There are no rules within the space; people are accepted exactly as they are, no matter what they bring or how they feel. People value this sort of space.
What happens in the therapeutic space?
Anecdotally, I have found that the people I see for therapy do not like a structured approach and need time…space. To be able to think about their story. A person needs to feel comfortable and safe in the therapy room so they can explore their story, some of which may be very distressing.
Part of the reason for having such a space is to tell a narrative. As this is being made sense of via a verbal or visual formulation (a deep understanding of a person’s story), people start to understand themselves more. The more understanding, the more they value themselves and the more people start to naturally self-sooth and implement good self-care skills. The process continues after therapy and some people need other support, but some clients start to create new spaces for themselves outside of the therapy room.
'Whatever silence is however, it is not nothing. Silence can be eloquent or dignified, and it can be precisely the right response in some circumstances.’
Other Spaces…including being Silent
Although the therapy room can be a vital space, other spaces are vital for physical and emotional wellbeing. People often tell me they have different spaces that they use. For example, use of mindfulness meditation or informal mindfulness practices, such as sitting and being.
A space does not have to be complicated, it can be something simple; for example, people tell me they sit in their garden and this is a space for them. Or some go to the safe haven of a separate room in the house away from other family members where you can sit in silence.
Some people find silence uncomfortable, but it can be a moment for the individual. Smith (2015) states: ‘Whatever silence is however, it is not nothing. Silence can be eloquent or dignified, and it can be precisely the right response in some circumstances.’
This is vital as sometimes people see silent time as not being productive – ‘it is not nothing’. So, although some spaces may involve talking/interaction, some may not and silence may be what is just required. Try it out.
Indeed, the benefits of silence from a health and wellbeing perspective have been reported. Cooper (2017) talks of how research has communicated that silence is beneficial for our brains. For example, it was reported that silence can have a more relaxing impact than music and that it allows the brain to return to its normal default setting, rather than being overworked by noise.
The author went on to conclude: ‘Finding silence and a calm space for yourself won’t just improve your health – it’ll help you do the best work you can.’
Greguire (2017) reported that very few people afford themselves moments of complete silence during their day. The article noted a number of benefits to having a silent space, such as relieving stress and tension, that it replenishes our mental resources, and that it can help regenerate brain cells. Kirste, Zeina, and Kempermann (2013) found that in mice two hours of silence led to the growth of new cells in the hippocampus area of the brain, which is responsible for learning, memory, and emotion. This interesting contemporary research will hopefully lead to people realising the health benefits of silence.
My own personal experience of having a space and the importance of ‘self-care’
I do have a number of spaces; I should after all put into place what I advocate! I have certain spaces which are very precious to me. Like when I am with my family and friends. Some are on my own, quiet spaces. For example, when in Lourdes, France each year I sit across from the domain area on the grass, either watching the river flow or gazing at the tress above. Another yearly visit is Manhattan Beach, Southern California. Sitting and reading on the beach is a beautiful space, I hugely appreciate.
‘Finding silence and a calm space for yourself won’t just improve your health – it’ll help you do the best work you can.’
Towards the end of my clinical psychology doctorate, my psychodynamic supervisor
recommended for personal and professional development for me to see a psychoanalyst. I was anxious about this particular space, but decided to go with it. This was a considered and curious space. At first I was unsure, but I came to really value the space with Maureen. This was where the door closed and the space was completely mine.
I knew Maureen would not start to speak about herself or be judgmental and in a non-therapy space, people can be. It was a space where I could take all my stuff. As I moved geographically, this came to an end. This was hard. And this is why I am very sensitive towards therapy endings with the people I work with. I wanted to start with a new therapist for some time but I found the thought of sitting with a new therapist strange as they would not have been Maureen.
This was another aspect I learned for my professional work, starting with a new therapist can be incredibly hard, and I think it is important that practitioners understand this. Anecdotal evidence continually informs me that people do not like to see too many different professionals, telling their story again and again, they want a settled space. I have now started with another therapist and hope this to be a valuable space for myself.
As Aaron said, we all need a space. And spaces come in all different shapes and sizes. I love my job and it is a real privilege to hear and share in people’s lives and stories. But during a busy day, I too need a space. So no matter how busy, every single day I go to our work lunch room. I sit. I eat. I breathe more slowly. Sometimes I am silent, though my colleagues would say this is rare! This is my space during the work day and it is vital for my health and wellbeing.
Finding a space is a central part of what I and others would term ‘self-care’. I first heard this term during my time on the clinical psychology doctorate (Coventry & Warwick course). The Coventry course was a big advocate of self-care and they really stressed the need for this and fostered/developed this important way of being in me. I am really grateful for this as not only do I practice this myself, but it forms part of how I work with clients.
So if you want to start doing something for yourself, go and find yourself a space. Try it out; see what happens…you might like it.
After completing a psychology degree, Damian qualified as a primary school teacher. Having an interest in clinical psychology Damian gained practical experience in a children’s home as a care worker and also worked in positions, such as Assistant Psychologist and Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner in child and adult psychology services.
After completing a clinical psychology doctorate, Damian worked as a Clinical Psychologist in CAMHS, which he loved. He now works for a psychotherapy service and his main passion is working therapeutically with people one-one, providing a safe, containing, exploratory space. Damian works psychodynamically, but integratively where needed.
Damian enjoys neuropsychological assessment, teaching, research, and supervision, particularly of trainee clinical psychologists. Damian is a committee member of the Division of Clinical Psychology (DCP) Northwest Branch, helping to promote psychology locally.
Cooper, B. (2017). Quiet Doesn’t Cut It: Why Your Brain Might Work Better In Silence. Retrived 27th March 2017
Gregoire, C. (2017). Why Silence is Good for Your Brain. Retrieved 27th March 2017
Kirste, I., Zeina, N., & Kempermann, G. (2015). Is Silence Golden? Effects of Auditory Stimuli and Their Absence on Adult Hippocampal Neurogenesis. Brain Structure and Function, 220, 1221–28.
(2015). The Aesthetics of Interruption. In I. McCarthy & G. Simon (Ed.), Systemic Therapy as Transformative Practice (pg 222-232). Farnhill: Everything is Connected Press.).
The Free Dictionary (2017). Definition of Space. Retrieved 2nd April 2017