Define Safety

"If I accept your feelings, just the way they are, maybe you can accept them too — it’s a crucial part of growth." – Unknown

A friend wrote me privately on the post regarding safety. Her question to me was "Can you define safe?"

I thought it was a good question. What makes a person feel safe either physically or emotionally with another person?

Physical safety is a bit more tangible and therefore easier to explain. Statements like:

  1. My car tires are worn and my car is less safe. I might have a blow-out
  2. There are no screens on the windows and therefore they are unsafe. A small child might fall out.
  3. My partner has a history of domestic violence. I don’t feel safe with him. He might hit me.

are easily understood by most – at least to some degree. But what is meant when someone says they don’t feel emotionally safe? Lacking the tangible evidence of bald tires, missing windows or a history of physical abuse, how do you believe someone if you cannot see what is making them feel unsafe?

Furthermore, to make it even more challenging, every person has their own unique pace in engaging and relating. What makes me feel safe may not make you feel safe or you may need more time than I do.

One of the many books I read sometime ago described five key aspects of emotional safety. I agreed with them. For me, they are:

Pacing
It takes time to create an emotionally safe space. I have been with my current therapist for almost four years. I have only JUST begun to delve into some difficult topics with him. He is a good therapist. He is respectful. He has knowledge of many types of therapy and has worked with families, children, all types of abuse victims and trauma survivors. I like him and have benefited from our sessions. However, it has taken me time to develop trust in him to go deeper. I needed to "learn" him. I needed to know his beliefs, and his judgments (or lack thereof). I needed to see how he would deal with certain things I said or did. One of the most critical things for me, was the need to know his position on adoption. Was he going to spout mainstream media win/win hooha to me or was he going to see the damage it does? Being a student of Hellinger and family constellation work, he feels (and told me so) that adoption is wrong and damaging to mother and child. It may be necessary at times but even then it is traumatic. (Those views alone sent his safety rating skyrocketing for me) I needed to see, repetitively, that even if he had a different personal viewpoint he would allow me mine and not be judgmental or critical. Mothers like me have faced so much judgment in our lives that often the fear of judgment is worse than the judgment itself. We hold back (or I do) parts of ourselves out of sheer terror of being judged again. The fear can be crippling to relationships.

Creating  Space
Space, to me, means welcoming all parts of me known and unknown, comfortable and uncomfortable, spoken and unspoken. Said differently, this means allow me to be who I am and not who you want me to be. Don’t push me to go somewhere I don’t want to go. Don’t demand I tell you something I don’t feel comfortable telling you. Don’t call me names when I don’t think like you. Realize that choosing to hold back something does not mean that there is something wrong with you but rather something wrong with me. I don’t feel ""safe" and need time to explore our relationship before I share it. I need space. Don’t force me to do things I don’t want to do. Be patient with me.

Accountability
For me, to truly deeply trust someone, I need to see them hold themselves accountable. This means their actions are in line with what they say. If you say you are going to do something for me, do it. If you change your mind, tell me. If it will take longer, tell me why. If you make a mistake, apologize for it. Don’t justify your crappy behavior. Don’t say "well, you did it too". Don’t lie. Being aware that your life affects mine helps me to build trust in you. Admitting that you are human allows me to be human too.

Boundaries
Appropriate boundaries is a huge issue for me. This includes, for me, physical and emotional boundaries. I am someone who needs a great deal of physical space around me. I also have issues with someone randomly hugging or kissing me. My friend J and I used to talk about this at length as she is the same way. A few years ago, she and I snuggled on a chair together during a support group meeting. It felt weird to me in a way but it was also oddly comforting. Since I knew J was feeling the same, I was comfortable, I did not feel judged by her if I pushed her away. She knew how I was feeling because she felt the same way. (I still feel warm and loved when I think about snuggling with J that day)

I don’t know where my physical boundary issue comes from. Some have suggested some of the abuse in my life, others have suggested it was something genetic or molecular since I also have a high sensitivity to certain fabrics. I don’t know. I am not sure I care where it comes from anymore. I do care that people respect my physical boundaries.  Just because I don’t kiss you every time you enter or leave my home doesn’t mean I don’t care about you.

Along side physical boundaries there is a need for proper emotional boundaries. Emotional boundaries are harder to qualify than physical. I only recently realized how horribly my emotional boundaries had been violated throughout my life. I had no idea. A friend, an adoptee and therapist herself, referred me to the book by Charles Whitfield titled Boundaries and Relationships – Knowing, Protecting and Enjoying the Self after she listened to me for years (literally) carry on about issues in my marriage, friendships or others. I trusted her (felt safe) and therefore willingly accepted her statements that I had boundary issues and might want to explore them. I could go on and on about emotional boundaries. Suffice it to say I consistently excused rude, intrusive, obnoxious, violating behavior of others. I thought I was being empathetic and helpful. I found excuses. I have since learned that empathy does not mean I should take on the emotions of others nor does it mean I have to feel sorry for them and tolerate their obnoxious behavior. I am responsible for my own emotions and let others be responsible for theirs. (Blog parallel: I have had to disengage from reading many blogs over the years as I could not separate my pain from that of another. I became enraged and angry at things done or said to others because I took on their pain as if were my own. Unlike many blog commenters, I did not lash out and call names and act poorly, rather I internalized it all to the point it would make me sick.)

My boundaries, emotional and physical, were horribly violated by others when my child was surrendered to adoption. Since I believed they were right and I was wrong, I continued to allow people to violate me in such a way. It seemed the way things were supposed to be, no? NO!

Presence
For me, presence me means you are able to offer your full attention to me while being grounded in yourself. You have no personal agenda. You aren’t trying to convert me to your way of thinking, religion or prove that I am wrong and you are right. You are welcoming, allowing and non judgmental. You are you and I am I. You are emotionally intelligent. To use a blog example, presence to me means you read me here, you may disagree with my views, but you read and respectfully comment or you don’t. You don’t let your own emotional baggage cloud your ability to interrelate with me (same goes for me with you). If you are angry at your first mother, you don’t blame me what for she did to you. I tend to run and run fast from people who cannot separate their own trauma from mine and must project or transfer their stuff. As noted above, this is something I work hard on myself. So much in adoption can be very triggering. Even still, I find myself drawn to those that seem well balanced in that regard. I want to learn from them. I want to associate with them. I want to say ‘hey, how do you do that?". As recent as this morning, I read the blog post of an adoptee who is doing an awesome job in understanding and respecting her needs and those of her natural mother. She realizes they both have been traumatized and both have issues that they both need to work on. I enjoy reading her. She can say "I am really really hurt by this and struggling with it all" versus saying "All first mothers are fucked up, selfish, crackwhore sluts that I wish would just roll over and die. Take my mother first! She is the biggest most selfish sluttier abandoner of them all". This blogger gives me hope.

So, if you have gotten this far into this 1440 word post, tell me, how do you define safety? Have you got any tips for me?

8 Thoughts.

  1. Here’s my 2 cents.
    In college I was attracted to Alan Watts title, The Wisdom of Insecurity. I never read the book but what I got from the title, is there is no security which is sometimes confused with safety.
    I ask for spiritual assistance to create and keep a safe place inside me for everything I see or hear or say; so that anything can go out or come in to this place without attachment. That’s an ideal for me.
    Since I don’t know what is truly for the highest good of all concerned I leave things to God, as the source of all creation. It’s a safety net.
    Then I listen to my intuition and test it. Keep checking things out. Pay attention. And the things that I don’t like, I treat as sources of information.
    Because while, “You are you and I am I.” You are me and I am you too. That’s where compassion lies.
    I have to keep checking for the safe place inside me.

  2. Justice, thank you for the intuition statement. I agree so strongly. I have only recently learned to trust mine. I remember, SO STRONGLY, feeling that it was wrong to abandon my daughter. I did not want to. Something inside me was kicking my guts out but that thing never got to rise to my voice and never spoke up. I consider that my intuition. I have learned to trust that gut feeling. (Which reminds me rapid cognition and that wonderful book by Gladwell titled _Blink_)

  3. Suz, Yet another excellent post.
    I have been thinking about safety, boundaries and the like myself, some things along the line of adoption, some not. This was helpful.
    As far as me feeling safe? I think above all else I need to feel that I am being heard to feel safe. The people around me right now are too busy with their own anger and pain to really hear me, so I don’t feel very safe at all.
    Hey, perhaps that is the key for you and your daughter? Listen first, then maybe she will feel safe enough to hear you too?
    Deb

  4. “You are you and I am I.” You are me and I am you too. That’s where compassion lies.”
    I love this! Justice, that’s an awesome way to put it . . . especially if we are talking about our reunited children.
    I think safety is relative, for instance, cultural awareness,Europeans and Asians tend to violate Americans sense of personal space because their culture is more crowded. Understanding effects my safety reaction. Rather than pepper spray and a kick in the nuts I can just move back or ask for more space. How many murders and even wars have resulted from this sort of misunderstanding? Education is very important for safety.
    My emotional reactions can be a signal for me on my safety, if I feel fear or anger it is a natural indicator of a boundary violation. Does a certain person make me feel shameful, not good enough, or unattractive? These feelings are cause to reflect, is this something that awareness can resolve? Is this person an abuser or just an asshat as Suz would say?
    Discernment is a self preservation tool that I have HAD to learn after multiple violations, child rape, forced adoption at 15, years of spousal emotional abuse. My healthy reactors have suffered damage. I know I am “hyper sensitive” so I try to compensate for my own PTSD disability (yes adoption left me DISABLED mom) like learning to walk again after a terrible accident. The rosy adoption glasses distort how I perceive the world and everyone in it. I would be in constant state of panic if not for discernment and awareness I have had to learn them like a blind person learns brail.
    Thanks Suz for getting us all thinking and all your hard work on this blog.

  5. Suz, thank you for this post and for your (previous) recommendation of Boundaries and Relationships, which I am still working my way through.
    This — “For me, to truly deeply trust someone, I need to see them hold themselves accountable. This means their actions are in line with what they say.” — and your whole discussion on Accountability meant a lot to me. I don’t think I have ever felt safe with my son, at least not emotionally. But that might be as much my stuff as his.
    You’re the best. Always on point.

  6. Thanks for sharing your ideal. I like what you wrote.
    I’d change all the people who violated you… etc… if I could. I wish I had power to fix it.

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