The futile search for “safe space”

By Caitlin Kelly


It’s a shriek of outrage/grievance/shock that happens when:


Someone says the wrong thing.

Someone touches you in a way that feels aggressive.

Someone disagrees with you.




Among  some younger and apparently ferociously ambitious women, I’m seeing a kind of mass fragility I — and my peers — find astonishing:


Every day, someone shrieks in fury that someone has been racist or sexist or mean to them — which they might well have, but not actually have intended as a personal attack.

Every day, someone says “You’re shaming me!” when all you’ve done is politely, if firmly, disagree with them or share an alternate view, which is now, for some, unforgivable.

Every day, though, I also hear pleas for advice, insights, mentoring.

Every day, the demand to march into HR and get them to fix it, right now.

Every day, the need to school others in how to speak and behave, including those who have the ability to hire — and fire — them.

Every day, a chorus of virtue signalling; dare to challenge or contradict the group, and you’ll be banned, shunned, blocked and bullied  — for your lack of sensitivity.


This, often arising from women who have already acquired the relative privilege of a college education and/or paid employment, has rendered me and other women at the top of our professional game, women who have spent years teaching and mentoring, both mystified and repelled.

Because women who have already spent decades in the working world didn’t harbor, or share in fury, the naive fantasy that life would be easy or that it even should be.


The world is full of very sharp edges!


Anyone you meet can challenge or even threaten you, economically, politically, emotionally or physically.

Yes, life is often much more difficult when you’re a person of color, transgender or LGQTBA and the daily fight for social justice is still a necessary one.

I’m speaking of something different, something that feels both more privileged and more unlikely because of that innate power.

Many older women are second or third-wave feminists, every bit as filled with righteous indignation as anyone today ranting and raving about how terrible everything is.

Yet we’re now being lectured to by finger-wagging neophytes on how to speak and behave.

We already know that moving ahead through a male-dominated world could be hard and it still is.

We already know that situations one expects to be civil can get weird, even frightening, and they still do.

We already know, no matter our skills, credentials or experience, we’ll probably have to listen to some absolutely appalling crap and we still do.

These depressingly shared experiences could create powerful inter-generational links, but that’s not what I and my peers are seeing; instead it becomes a dialogue of the deaf and one that older women like myself eventually just walk away from.

No one deserves to be mistreated, overlooked, underpaid and ignored.

We get it!

But older professionals never enjoyed the luxury of a “safe space”, nor would it even have occurred to us — while weathering three American recessions in 20 years — to expect or demand one.

My husband, of Hispanic origin, has heard shit, socially and professionally, I can barely believe. Yet we’re both still working and achieving our goals. If we’d stood up, (as we very much wished to each time someone was rude to us), and shouted “How dare you?!” — we’d possibly have lost a well-paid, hard-won job and probably damaged our careers.

The only safe space I know of is a locked room to which only you have the key.

Talk to people living in Syria or Myanmar or Mexico — where heads literally roll in the streets — about what a “safe space” looks like to them.




There’s a phrase from the Bible, (even though I’m no ardent Christian), that I find powerful and moving: “Put on the armor of light.”


Armor up.

48 thoughts on “The futile search for “safe space”

  1. Pingback: The futile search for “safe space” – Exclusively Unlimited

  2. This is indeed a strange, unbecoming and deeply annoying, phenomenon sweeping the land. If this keeps up, I’m in real danger of having my rolling eyeballs permanently stuck in the top of my head..just as my mom always warned me about.🙄

      1. Heck yeah and it’s as annoying as it is perplexing..esp among the “younger set.” It’s this nasty brew of insufferable self-importance, entitlement, victimization, condescension, verbal abrasiveness and the complete inability to engage with those deemed not “on your side.”… Couple that with images of “man-boys” in the street with homemade shields, and “stick swords” and I think we have a bit of a developing problem..

      2. Well, I have four..and I have had to have several frank conversations with a few of them about tone, respect and that condescending “virtue signaling” that drives me COMPLETELY INSANE. Being a know it all just isn’t enough, you have to beat others over the head and crush them with your superior understanding of issues..ugh. No room for discussion/debate- at all. I just do not get sucked into any controversies any more..not worth it.

  3. Carolyn

    Thank you! I see this everywhere on social media, on the street and have had conversations with my adult children about it…two of whom feel as we do. The youngest, however, is a part of the younger generation who sees everything as a microagression. I love her dearly but shake my head and wonder why I agreed to let her go to a very liberal college…

    1. That word alone is enough to set my teeth on edge. YES….when you are a marginalized minority, and there’s a lot of that, for sure — and it needs to be called out and addressed.

      But I’m seeing a white/privileged fragility that bodes very very poorly once these people move into the larger world where no one gives a shit about their feelings. NO ONE who will pay them real $$$$ that is. And my industry, journalism? Hahahahahahahaha. I have no clue how a fragile flower can survive it.

  4. You’ve raised some conflicted feelings within me, I must admit. I do not want these young women to go through anything close to what I went through at their age. And yet, I also don’t think it’s smart to look to be parented in the workplace. Mentored, yes. Respected, yes. But the world will never be perfect . . .

    1. I figured it would…:-)

      For sure, no one should, (in an ideal world) be subjected to bullshit, but the fact is — they will! We can’t possibly control every interaction or run whining to HR (if there even IS an HR) to mommy you when someone is “mean” to you.

      I saw this expectation when I taught freshman at a $$$$$ private college and hated that aspect of it.

  5. Jan Jasper

    I wonder how these young peoples’ parents raised them. My thoughts are tangential to Caitlin’s very important topic, but it’s related: financial self-reliance. I don’t have kids myself, but I observe the parenting styles of some of my friends whose kids are now in their early 20s to late 40s, These friends are frequently giving their adult children money. One friend’s kids are approaching 50 and they’re at a huge disadvantage because they were never taught to do much for themselves. The daughter still hits up her dad for money – my friend is past 70 and on an extremely limited income. His son has turned a non-serious injury into a lifetime of getting disability checks. Another friend has early-20’s kids in college, they’re getting D grades, yet he keeps giving them money for both living expenses and tuition; he has a very hard time confronting them. I don’t understand how this friend thinks this is helping his kids become successful adults. Watching the outcomes of my friends’ parenting has made me realize how fortunate I am that nobody handed me anything at that age.

    1. Wow. Thanks for sharing this.

      I’ve never been given a penny in help by either parent after I left home at 19; my 1st wedding expenses ($10,000) was a generous gift, but that was IT. I have been managing my own finances since then (and well) and even when scared and anxious was very aware — and they both have plenty of $$$$$ — that neither parent, not my step-mother, would lend me a dime nor welcome me back into their homes. I got some $$$ from my maternal grand-mother’s estate and managed every penny of it on my own, again without their guidance or advice.

      You figure it out.

  6. quietwoman

    Very well said, except for the few cuss words, I totally agree. It’s unfair, but life isn’t fair. I don’t deserve, no no no, but who does? Maybe those who say things that are insane….like Hitler.

    1. I once whined to an older/wiser friend — I was maybe 20 — “It’s not fair”; she replied “Who told you this morning that everything would be fair?”

      I doubt I’ve said it since.

      FYI, I swear. My blog, my style. 🙂

      1. quietwoman

        I know I know everyone has their own “style” if you want to say it that way. But still never the less I somehow wish I would have *kept* my facebook account just to post this…..but they know they’re ridiculous and I’ve talked to them for what seems like ages yet they don’t change.

  7. quietwoman

    OK I’ll try my comment again. It happens to me too….on facebook with a whole church full of people that are “sapposed” to love and support me yet all they do is lurk and stalk me on facebook and talk poop about me to each other. Such behavior can and should be prosecuted. But we live in an unfair environment that will continue to become more unfair….until something drastic happen like the return of God.

  8. Yes – I couldn’t agree more that there is a lot of fragility. When my wealthy ex-husband and I divorced, I was shocked at my kids’ behaviour. It’s all about the money and a concurrent sense of entitlement.

    Great post – well said. 🙂

    1. Thanks….glad this one resonated.

      Interestingly, I’ve been admonished elsewhere for not being clearer that some people (yes, I think I said this?) are, and should be, fighting hard for a safe(r) space…but the people I am speaking of here are not those who need it most.

  9. I agree and love that quote. I’m no monk but work to live by another: “Do not oppose because in opposing the tenderness of the feeling level is crushed. That is why we say Speak the Truth but see that you are speaking delicately. Do not speak non-truth and do not speak in a non-sweet way, so that the feeling is nourished.” ~ Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

    Not much nourishing going recently.

  10. Here’s a great safe space from history: The white people only lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Wilmington, NC. Remember how dumb that was? Everything old is new again.
    Good bit, thanks for posting it.

  11. Great article/entry! I totally understand, and experience this often in the work place. An overall entitlement in general among the millenials coming up now. I especially liked the statement about what a safe place must look like for Syrians etc. Great piece!

    1. Thanks much…

      I am not at all sure how people who enter the workplace with such expectations will survive — nor their managers! Some people definitely need and deserve additional protection but many expect the world to accommodate them entirely, and it simply won’t.

  12. it’s an interesting and disturbing trend. some of our pre-k and kinders come to school, protected and over worried about. i try to teach the parents that this is the time to practice, while the stakes are low, and learn how to deal with things. we are there to support them to in this endeavor and learning experience. this is the time to learn to lose, share, take turns, wait, negotiate, and communicate needs, wants and feelings. they will not always be picked first, they may be shunned by a friend, they may get hurt feelings, and may have things, good and bad that happen during a day. i will never let them feel unsafe or in danger and if they learn this now, they will grow up resilient, able to adapt, and be able to live in the world with all of its ups and downs. they will know how to deal with either. no one is entitled, everything worth something is earned.

    1. You really see it in a way that anyone NOT teaching can’t…It’s interesting that you have to somewhat remediate this for parents who are over-protective.

      I also wonder (?) how much of this is generational — Jose and I have weathered so much bullshit, from teen years onward when we were already working for national publications and meeting professional adult expectations — that we have NO tolerance for this silliness. Instead of people realizing they need to buck up, we get painted (non-fragile folk) as “mean” — when the world at large is utterly uninterested in our feelings so expect otherwise?!

      That’s why I am SO grateful when strangers are kind and helpful. I expect very little.

      1. And as you know, like you and Jose, I fumbled through the world at an early age. I also have very low tolerance for those who don’t work hard –

  13. Jan Jasper

    Thanks Caitlin for another fascinating discussion. This reminds me of what a family friend, an art teacher in a private school in a wealthy Detroit suburb, told me about many of his students. Some of the students do poor work – or no work at all – and when he gives them the poor grades they have earned, he gets angry phone calls from their parents who demand that he change their kids’ bad grade to an “A.” The administrators also get these calls, demanding that they fire the teacher. What will happen when these young people get out into the real working world? And what will happen to the rest of us when we have the misfortune to be their colleagues, customers, or scariest of all, their patients?

  14. quite relatable , the whole concept of safe place is the reason for the fragility. the fragility that makes you weak and low on energy at young age, when actually you’re supposed to get ready for life. amidst all this we sometimes forget enjoying life and just ignore the fact that we should celebrate every moment

    1. It’s tough to generalize — because some people are so subject to abuse. But, for those who are not marginalized, I despair at the inability to get ON with it, as if many others before them haven’t also faced and overcome some tremendous obstacles.

      You can only build resilience by overcoming obstacles, not by waiting for everything to become easier. It won’t.

  15. Pingback: Sweet Epiphanies

  16. I move in very different spaces, but actively making safe space for people is something that is important to me. it worries me that people who aren’t really having a hard time of it are adopting the language of abuse, of triggering and panic, of genuine problems and deep distress and trivializing it. I think the only answer is to model better behaviour, and not let people who are fairly privileged get away with appropriating the language of people who are not privileged and need taking seriously. Hmm. I feel a blog post coming on….

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