The pearls weren’t really white, they were a warm oyster beige, with little knots in between so if they broke, you only lost one. I wished my life could be like that, knotted up so that even if something broke, the whole thing wouldn’t come apart. ~Janet Fitch, White Oleander
Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves. ~Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
We live in a world where mass shootings at schools is almost a weekly occurrence. A world where children are being torn from their parents with a flimsy reason given of “immigration status.” A world where women are still raped daily. A world where women are killed by their intimate partners daily. A world where black boys and men are murdered by the police daily. A world with war, poverty, misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism… you get my point, I’m sure.
For those of us living with trauma in our bodies, minds, and being, it is validation for our anxiety and other trauma symptoms. Each of these types of events is like a nod to our own individual systems saying “See! I’m not paranoid! The world isn’t safe!! Being in hyper-arousal is the ONLY way I will survive!”
It is true that the world is not safe. It is less safe depending on the color of your skin or perceived gender or sexuality or ability or class or age. It is less safe for some than for others, and it is not 100% for anyone.
The first phase of trauma processing work, no matter what kind of work/model/approach you are using, is always developing stabilization and a sense of safeness.
But how can we feel safe when we know we are most definitely not actually safe?
First, there are degrees to safety itself. Living in a home where there is physical, sexual, or psychological violence is not safe, and also living in such an environment does not allow for developing a sense of safeness.
And, living in the world is not safe. However, it is a different level of not safe, it is a different level of constant threat. It is an unknown (whereas living in an abusive home is a known). We cannot predict when we will be mugged or be in a car crash. Often, when living in abusive environments, we can become very good at predicting when shit is going to go down.
Second, there is a difference between being actually safe and having a sense of safeness within our body, mind, and being.
Anxiety has physical manifestations. For some people it shows up as a vibrating feeling or like your skin is crawling. For others it’s stomach pain or feeling like your stomach is tied up in knots. For some it’s headaches. For others muscle tension. Rapid heartrate and shallow breathing are also symptoms of anxiety. These are all also signs that our sympathetic nervous system – the part of our system responsible for fight-flight-freeze – has been activated.
When our body systems are in a state of hyper-alert, our systems are constantly telling each other we are not safe. We are not safe in our environment. We are not safe in relationship. We are not safe within ourselves.
It means we constantly second guess ourselves. It means we don’t trust ourselves.
Having a sense of safeness within ourselves means that we trust our Self – it means that we know we’ve got our own backs. It means we can confidently tell ourselves that should something happen out in the world, we will survive it. It means being able to detect, hear, and respond to the subtle messages our bodies give when we are actually in physical danger.
It is knowing that we live in an unsafe world and still being willing to walk out into it without constant fear and anxiety.
Developing a sense of safeness within our Self requires having a relatively safe space to explore this idea. It requires having our home be a safe space (where abuse is not currently happening). It requires being in relationship with another that is safe enough (more on this in a few), be that person an intimate (sexual or not) partner or friend or a trusted therapist.
What do I mean by safe enough? The reality of being human is that sometimes we unintentionally cause harm to others. When in relationship – be this parent child or intimate friend or partner, we call this misattunement. It means we are not attuned. Someone said something they thought was funny and we internalized it as very hurtful.
Misattunement happens. In all relationships. With our children, with our parents, with our best friends, with our lovers, with our therapists. Misattunement happens because we are all human and each of us carry our own unique set of stuff, and no one can ever know all the stuff another person carries.
This is where re-attunement comes in. It is where we apologize for harm we have caused. It is where we state in a non-blaming way that we feel hurt by the other persons words or actions. It is where the opportunity to repair is present and it is vital for the relationship that both sides take full advantage of that opportunity. This is when a relationship is safe enough: that when harm does happen (and it will), we are able to repair in honest and loving ways.
We live in an unsafe world. This is a fact.
We can still develop a sense of safeness within ourselves, within specific environments, and in relationship.
We do this through connecting with our body, its sensations, its emotions. We do this through trial and error. We do this by learning ways to calm and soothe our nervous systems when we are in safe enough environments. We do this by learning to sense our physical, emotional, and psychological boundaries and how they interconnect. We do this by learning to find center and ground and be present in the here and now with ourselves, with our environment, with our relationships. We do this by acknowledging our own inner and outer resources.
We do this slowly and by being brave. We do this by not gaslighting ourselves. We do this by becoming curious.
As we each learn to develop our own sense of safeness within ourselves, we can then begin to help others do the same. This shifting allows us to move from the reactive states of fight-flight-freeze into the intentional, mindful active state of creativity, empathy, and compassion. This shifting within ourselves allows us to create shifts within our world.
Perhaps the world will never be 100% safe all the time for all persons. And we can sure make it more safe for all persons, including ourselves. But first we need to have a sense of safeness within so we can more fully connect with our frontal lobes and create change out of love and curiosity instead of fear.
Originally published on February 18, 2018 as a weekly newsletter and revised for publication here. Did you enjoy reading this? If so, I invite you to sign up to receive my weekly love letters right here.