What is safety???
This is a big important question!
We’ve had a lot of discussions lately about safety, so Laura and I decided to collaborate on an article talking about this very topic. Safety is extremely important, and in our opinion, it is the foundation of healing. It’s hugely important and absolutely essential for every dissociative trauma survivor to understand what safety means. This article won’t cover all the elements or layers of safety, but it’s a great start.
What is safety ?
And the flipside of that, how do you know if you are unsafe ?
How can you be safe when you feel unsafe ?
Safety means being protected from harm. It means you are not in danger, and there is no imminent risk to your wellbeing.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines safety as “the condition of being safe from undergoing or causing hurt, injury, or loss.”
The Oxford Dictionary defines safety as “the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury.”
For survivors, achieving safety is an important step in healing.
You have to be safe from the abuse before you can really begin to heal from it.
When ongoing abuse is happening, ongoing wounding is happening. Ongoing wounding leads to the ongoing need for protective strategies. Protective strategies for DID survivors could include dissociating from the trauma, known or unknown switching, known or unknown time loss, splitting off and creating new insiders, etc.
Of course, addressing the dangers of ongoing abuse is the beginning of the healing process. It takes a whopping lot of courage to start your healing process by addressing any current trauma, but yes, facing these truths are often the starting place.
When the abuse is happening, it is all-encompassing. It touches and colors everything. Even things that would normally be safe, like feelings, become unsafe in an abusive environment.
Having feelings during childhood abuse….
Anger, sadness, loss, grief, are all big feelings that an abused child is not allowed to feel. When you were little, it is very possible that these feelings were unsafe for you.
Think about this example. Were you ever punished for expressing or showing emotions in front of your perpetrators? This is a common experience for DID survivors.
When abusers or caretakers violently punish children for having normal, natural, healthy emotions, these children learn to fear their emotions, and learn to dissociate them away. So while having feelings is normal, and natural, and healthy, in many abusive environments, feelings begin to feel “dangerous” as they could potentially lead to increased abuse, pain, or even torture done by very unhealthy and emotionally disturbed abusers.
Notice — the emphasis here is on the unhealthy twisted behavior of abusers! Feeling feelings and emotions IS natural and healthy, and children who are feeling their feelings are not doing anything wrong. Being punished for having feelings is a form of abuse.
The details in these distinctions are important to remember.
Children may easily confuse the difference.
For the child, the “feelings” caused the abuse. Much like how Pavlov’s dogs learned to salivate at the ringing of a bell, these traumatized children learned to fear feelings. The problem really and truly came from the abuser’s violent behaviors, but chances are, these children were not ever taught that the abuser was the problem instead of their feelings.
Situations where someone else is angry, where there are disagreements or arguments, can also be unsafe for an abused child.
Think about family violence, or domestic violence, or someone in a drunken rage. These situations where someone else is angry can mean something bad is about to happen.
This is another example where feelings can appear to be the cause of the danger, when again, it’s the behavior of the abusive violent offender that is the problem.
Years and years of these situations can most certainly scare children, and teach them that having big feelings is dangerous.
Let’s bring it to the here and now, specifically for non-abusive situations.
For Survivors who are NOT in a Current-Day Abusive Relationship or NOT in an Abusive Situation
In the current day, for an adult survivor who is no longer being abused, feelings (their own and other people’s) are not unsafe any more.
Feelings are just feelings. They are natural emotions to everyday events.
However, feelings may sometimes be very uncomfortable!
When you are not used to allowing yourself to feel anger or sadness, or when someone else’s anger or disagreements used to mean something bad would happen to you, these situations keep feeling scary even for a long time after the abuse ends.
It can be very difficult to not immediately fall into that fear-place, even if you are not in actual danger.
Years of learning/believing that emotions created abuse means your brain has learned to interpret that emotions lead to abuse, or they cause abuse, or they create pain. This is not your fault — again, remember that it was the dysfunctional behavior of the perpetrators that created that unfair and inappropriate learning environment.
We often refer to these situations as “being triggered”.
Trauma survivors may define feeling triggered as feeling unsafe.
In the here and now, when you are having big feelings, and feeling triggered or feeling unsafe, stop for a minute and have a look at what’s happening.
Really stop and look.
- Are you actually and literally being abused or injured or threatened with danger?
- Is there really a risk of injury happening right now?
- Is any trauma happening to you right now?
- Are you being assaulted?
- Are you being injured?
- Are you being battered, restrained, or confined?
OR are you (or your system) having big emotions right now — the kinds of emotions which used to mean imminent abuse was about to happen?
It’s massively important to stop, look, and think about what is happening in the here and now. Don’t automatically assume your big feelings are the accurate interpretation of events.
There’s no doubt that you know full well what abuse is. It’s the actual trauma that happened to you and your insiders. Every DID survivors has experienced trauma, and probably a huge variety of traumas – sexual abuse, physical abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, spiritual abuse, etc.
We are encouraging you to learn the difference between being abused (where there is no safety) to being an adult who is having intense feelings (where there is safety).
When you are feeling big feelings, and especially when you are feeling unsafe, remember to check what is happening in the current here-and-now.
Because, as life continues, in the here-and-now, the scared and unsafe feelings you’ve had since childhood don’t just stop happening on their own. In the situations where current-day-abuse is NOT happening, now could be completely different from then — you are not really unsafe now!
You may very well FEEL unsafe even when you are completely SAFE.
This can feel really confusing.
After years of emotions feeling unsafe, it can be a brand new experience to BE SAFE around big difficult feelings or uncomfortable conflict. Yes, please note: in the here-and-now, even historically scary situations such as conflict do not have to be dangerous.
As important as it is to validate that something is happening that used to be unsafe, it is just as important to acknowledge that you ARE SAFE in the here and now.
Unsafe means being in actual danger. Unsafe means still being abused.
Unsafe means being vulnerable and at risk of being hurt.
Unsafe does NOT mean feeling angry or getting your feelings hurt, or not liking what someone else says or how they say it. Unsafe does not mean being challenged or facing disapproval.
Unsafe does not equal feeling strange due to something being new. Something new, or unfamiliar, or unknown is not necessarily unsafe. New learnings can be very helpful, even though they feel odd.
Unsafe does not equal change. Change can feel scary, but it can be a very good thing as well. Some changes are essential and important, even life-saving — they aren’t “bad” even if they feel scary.
All these things are uncomfortable to experience, but they are not unsafe.
Being uncomfortable is not the same thing as being unsafe!
This is a really important thing to understand.
The words we use to describe things to ourselves and to others have weight.
Calling something unsafe when it’s not, telling yourself you are unsafe when you’re not, means you are still telling yourself the old old story of victimization and powerlessness. Your words are stealing your own power away from you!
A lot of healing work is all about learning how to tolerate the big scary feelings in yourself and other people while still maintaining your sense of safety.
In fact, good therapy should make you feel uncomfortable!!
Healing means challenging yourself to look at things differently and to change what you’re doing, and a good therapist will encourage you toward healing even when it’s not comfortable.
- It’s not your fault that you were hurt. The responsibility of the violence and abuse belongs to the abuser.
- It is normal to have big giant overwhelming feelings about being hurt. Of course, you should be angry about being hurt! Of course you should have felt scared, sad, confused, betrayed, abandoned, etc. All these emotions are NORMAL responses to trauma.
- Feeling occur naturally, and are not “punishable offences”. They are part of being human.
- Feelings happen daily, whether the situation is trauma-related or not. Feelings are not the same as the trauma, but often happen at the same time (even if they are dissociated for awhile).
- While big feelings may remind you of traumatic unsafe experiences, big feelings can also occur during non-traumatic safe experiences.
Expand your vocabulary!!!
While feeling unsafe is a reality, and has definite applications, the word “unsafe” has all too often become a generic catch-all word for anything uncomfortable, unfamiliar, or challenging.
Pay attention to your own language, and as an exercise, instead of using the word “unsafe,” try a more descriptive word or feeling. Replacing the word “unsafe” with other words more accurate to the situation. Challenge yourself to really think about this. You might actually be in a SAFE situation, but still using the word “unsafe” out of habit.
Remember, sometimes being “pushed out of your comfort zone” means you could actually be learning something NEW, something HEALTHIER, something BETTER than what has been familiar in the past.
There are layers more to topics about SAFETY. Hopefully this article encourages you to think a little more about when to use the word “unsafe”.
We both with you the best in your healing journey, with oodles and gobs of safety!
Kathy and Laura
Copyright © 2008-2018 Kathy Broady MSW and Discussing Dissociation
The littles says
I don’t know how exactly to think about this. I’m grown up now but I don’t always feel safe with my husband. Only one time a long time ago did he grab my arm to keep me from leaving the room when he wanted to talk. But he’s verbally and emotionally abusive at times, doesn’t understand body language and even when I’ve told him I’m having a hard day he still ignores that and wants kissing and touching me. So I often don’t feel comfortable or safe with him
I know that I am physically safe with hubby (i.e – he doesn’t hit or slap me)….but it is hard for me to feel emotionally safe with him….many things I cannot explain or share with him because he is a “it’s water under the bridge” kind of guy…..I cannot explain the changes in my perspectives of things so I try to keep as much as possible to myself……
IF there was physical “abuse” involved – I know that I would be able to leave….It is the “mental” and “emotional” stuff that gets me all messed up…I can’t figure out what is OK and what is NOT….but we feel “on guard” around him most of the time….
Our perspective of “abuse” is messed up…boundaries are messed up….not fun……
I wish my dissociative partner would read this article… They never will though. Don’t like being shown how wrong they are… They are a strong, male bodied martial artist and they bloody well know it, I cater to so many of their triggers yet they don’t return the favor. I am an independent woman (because they are not) who has big laughs, big feelings, big tears and if needed a big voice but sometimes I need support too.
They can’t tolerate any feelings… their own, mine, our kids. My partner can’t hold me when I’m upset, instead my tears are described as abusive manipulative acid burning their soul and they prefer to yell at me to stop crying, or worse, make fun of me for it… it sucks, it really really sucks.
I wish they would go to therapy to have someone else tell them this kinda stuff. I’m starting to get frustrated with their refusal of the facts. ” You have DID, you have Autism and you have off the charts ADHD… and I’m not a biggot or gaslighting you for saying your actions are part of your neurodiversity or for loosing my shit over you saying I’m abusive because I react to your self righteous bullshite, gahhhhh”
I’m told I’m patient beyond what most could manage by others but my gosh I’m quickly loosing it with this concept in their head playing out into our family life.
Sum tims i dont fel safe but rely i do be safe
I got to thik an membr i be safe
And dont pannic
Cuz proble i do be safe
Also i can help keep my sef safe
we are triggered very easily by others expression of strong emotion, especially anger. we wear noise cancelling headphones to block out most external stimuli but it isn’t always possible to avoid such situations. if we witness a public confrontation we immediately enter a trauma response, especially if it is a parent yelling at a child or worse.
our own strong emotions scare many of us. only two of us are capable of expressing anger or rage. when we do become enraged we either shut it down almost immediately and/or it becomes profound crushing suicidal shame.
we were conditioned in childhood to believe that any emotion was bad but especially anger, and worst of all, crying. to this day we can barely cry.
if we hear a crying child we switch into a little immediately, and feel intense sorrow, its like we’ve been instantly transported to our own childhood bedroom where so much of our crying took place. we also feel terror.
We hear you, Daria, we hear you…….
Sigh….WHY is this still so hard for me to figure out? My “brain” KNOWS it is a trigger…but I still can’t figure out how to FEEL safe….I try to explain to people what is going on and their “blank” looks and their distancing themselves from me becomes another trigger in itself…..I feel VERY defective which compounds the whole situation and the “unsafe” feeling magnifies……a VERY strong feeling of “there is no way for me to be heard” which spirals into other directions that I don’t understand……
My “brain” KNOWS that I am not in physical danger in the present moment….but I am lost in the world of my “gut” – which always feels more “real”…..again – the perpetual “clash” between Outside World and Inside World…..guess which side keeps “winning” in the “feeling” department…….
Even trying to “make myself” feel “safe” in the present feels “dangerous”….like I am deliberately allowing myself to be vulnerable….hyper-vigilance then sets in…..To deliberately ignore the triggered parts can end up creating Internal havoc because then the parts see “me” as abandoning them – not “hearing” them – which devastates their ability to “trust” me and puts “me” back at square one with THEM……So then, not only am I trying to NOT look “weird” to Outsiders – I am, at the same time, trying to maintain my relationship with the “parts” – especially the littles…..(Rage isn’t real happy with me either)…..I HAVE seen the littles hide behind a rock Inside – but there is still no sense of “safety” even in that….just super “on guard”……How can I provide for them what I don’t even know what “feels” like?….”feeling” safe “feels” dangerous…..what do I do with THAT?
Trying to deal with Inside triggers in a present Outside world is like walking a tightrope …. every little move can “feel” critical….I make my Outside “body” act like it is safe (i.e – not fall apart or run out the door… or freeze)….but Inside is SO on guard….
Triggers seem to require an ability to walk Outside AND Inside at the same time – and the clash can be significant….mind-boggling…no wonder my “head” hurts……
i dont want to go to schol evr agan 😞 it gona be very not saf from now on
i be so terifid
we mite get hert bad
i be so afrad
Oh Mae I am so sorry that you are feeling so scared. Do you want to tell us about it? Does your Outside Big Person need to know about this (i.e., that you are scared and maybe what is happening to make you feel scared)? You do not have to be alone with this scared.
I re-read this article to try to get some insight because of triggers in my work situation….and it is just not sinking in…..I am not being “physically” abused…no one is hitting or pushing me, etc….but the “head-gaming” and “manipulation” feels potentially “dangerous”……there is also massive confusion about whether I am “imagining” it or not…or blowing it out of proportion or not……
But the very fact that there is such intense triggering MUST mean that there is something there…..any attempt to “confront” the situation or “set a boundary” just backfires in my face and I end up the one “in trouble”…..so I don’t know if I just “blew it out of proportion”…..
All I know is that it triggers off feelings of being helpless, frozen, manipulated and used, voiceless, required to comply without comment, etc, etc……Bottom line – it feels just as dangerous as if I was in actual physical danger……
It took me over two years to leave my emotionally abusive ex because I knew what to do if he had ever hit me – I knew that boundary……what I had no clue how to deal with was emotional abuse…..I barely knew how to recognize it much less how to put a stop to it until Rage suddenly stepped in, threw my belongings in the car and I suddenly was out of his life….and him out of mine…….
How do you take a stand against emotional abuse without it backfiring on you and leaving you in massive confusion with an end result of numb compliance with Rage seething in the background……
Well, that is a dilemma … and one that I am not sure how to respond to. My first reaction is to ask one of the insider helpers (who does not reside in the realm of emotions and would not get triggered – if you have such an insider) to take over while you are at work. What I was thinking was acknowledging that you are being triggered but maybe you are being triggered in ways that otherwise would just be annoying to anyone else but for you (given your abuse history) comes out very differently. I hope that you understand that I am not diminishing your experience or upset in any way. I am just trying to balance what is happening in the workplace with how you may be taking in the experience given your trauma history. I guess that I am trying to find a workable solution for you to keep your job and your sanity.
Hum … have you asked your insiders who is being triggered and why? What old history is being triggered. Maybe make a list of what is triggering you at work and let insiders add their feeling to the list to see what comes out. You may find some important information about your insiders and your history. In other words, maybe there is more here than dealing with a crappy boss and workmate.
Bottom line is that you do not have to accept emotional abuse AT ALL. I am just trying to help you sort out what is happening so you can define what is happening and where boundaries need to be set.
Keeping you in my thoughts. Please let us know how it is going if you can.
Yup, Me+We – definitely some triggering going on…..I am afraid I have been commenting about this on different articles….scattered as usual – all over the place as I try to see what is going on….have tried to go the non-emotion route (i.e. – numb), but Rage is NOT happy with that…..the explanation is in a recent post on another spot – don’t remember which one…..
I can name the “emotions” that are connected to the turmoil and catch split-second flashes of the “feeling” – but then it blocks off…….I just still don’t know the story behind the emotions…..so it leaves me in confusion as to WHY they are there…..the turmoil may be the preparations needed for me to be able to “see” the story…….
I totally got what you were trying to express…..I just got a huge plate full of “spaghetti” of emotions all connected together (i.e. puzzle pieces) that I am trying to untangle…..thank you for your insight and suggestions…..I am working away on it…….
I am still quite unsure of what to make of this article. Safty is important, but after all the abuse I received I actually became very bad at understanding what is safe or unsafe. I still can understand when something is unsafe, but it takes me a lot of time if at first I decided it is not dangerous.
But the thing is, I do a lot of unsafe things. I pushed myself into having an intimate relationship with another survivor, and although it was not abusive, I did suffer a lot because of the abuse I did to myself, because I believed I have to be in this relationship and can’t leave.
I was lucky a (different) toxic relationship I had ended (by the other party) before it became abusive,and it actually re-traumatized me in some ways. I lost the ability to have sex. 🙁
Not being abused does not mean one is safe, and I don’t think that it is always healthy…at least for me, as I can only speak for myself.
I am afraid of making myself think I am safe, when I am not. I know very well the feeling of being unsafe without being harmed, like when I meet my biological family. No abuse is happening on the surface, but after all is finished I am crushed. And although I know I am not in danger, it doesn’t really help.
Especially since even understanding of what is dangerous is very muddy.
For me, it is relatively easy to shut up the voices that cry “danger!”, but I still know how to recognize them, sometimes. But when the danger is very low and the problem is with chronic exposure, I don’t feel that at all. There are also different levels of feeling danger – that sort of bring out different reactions?
I am mainly confused by everything, because I don’t think I know what safty means. There is no real safty most of the time. People can become violent randomly. Especially when you are marginalized in some ways.
I don’t know if true safety is possible, because life is unsafe. Keeping safe can unfortunately also mean harming yourself low-key over time in order to avoid bigger harms.
And those smaller harms can really pile up.
Oh my ponetium … I am sorry but I am not in a place to respond to you at length or in a way that I would want to. But, I just want you to know that I hear you and I am so glad that you have found this place. We are safe here. Kathy is safe here. I know this because I watched for three years to make sure and then I jumped in a year and a half ago and I found community, support, caring and hope. My heart goes out to you as well as my sincere compassion and support. You do not have to be alone here no matter where you live, no matter what you have been through, no matter how much you have been let down my others. We are here. We see you. We welcome you. You are prepared to walk with you on your journey to healing. We will be there for you ponetium. You just have to ask.
Feeling safe seems very elusive to me right now and if anyone has any good suggestions it would be much appreciated. There is a room inside that is full of babies and very young toddlers. I’m not sure how many because I cannot see them, I hear them constantly and I feel their distress. These littlest littles are constantly terrified and crying. I have tried to get to them to comfort them but when we have tried to get in the room we receive what feels like a shock so that we can’t get to them. There used to be a part that kind of cared for these littlest ones but he was only five and now I do not know where he is. Anyway, I know it sounds crazy but the constant crying and feeling their fear is…well…kind of making me crazy! Please, any help on how to approach this would be heaven sent! Thank you
Kathy Broady MSW says
Thanks for writing, and I can assure you that what you are referring to is not crazy. It is a common situation for dissociative systems, and lots of DID systems have groups of young ones inside who cry and express distress. I few this as an internal place that even your littlest selves had to go when they were unable to receive proper care and attention from their caregivers, or a place to hide in when they were terrified. It’s very sad, but think about how a very small child, who is either hurt, or hungry, or cold, or neglected — any version of a child needing something normal and healthy — but not given that comfort, or not allowed to show natural emotion. The child learned to dissociate and separate those feelings and push them deep within. It was about survival, and potentially what was required to reduce / avoid further harm. It sounds like they are very afraid, and I’m sorry that no one helped them not be hurt, or afterwards, when they were feeling so badly.
You’re on the right path, re: having someone on the inside take care of them, and I encourage you and your insiders to keep working at this. If the little 5-year old boy can’t be in the room anymore, is there anyone else in your system, able to get there? And it is also important for someone to try to find that lost little boy as well. He is important in this whole situation too.
Is there anyone who can remove the shock — OR is there a way you can minimize the shock feeling by clearing the door with something that does not conduct electricity. For example, rubber, glass, plastic, and cloth are poor conductors of electricity and might be able to protect you.
Or … since those little children belong to you, maybe you can find / create a new way to enter the room — a way that is not blocked by the electrical shock. Remember, your inside world is YOURS, so … find the folks in your system who have the power / authority / creative ability to work around the blocks you see and feel inside.
Or, maybe you can let it gently rain teddy bears and blankets and pillows and snacks to your littles who are stuck in that room. Or play soft soothing music for them to hear. Or comfort them with your voice, letting them know you are trying to find ways to help them, that you are there to help, that you are not there to hurt them, etc.
You will be able to find ways to help them, and while this is a new experience for them (and probably for you), it is good to take a stand on helping the children who have been left in such fear.
It might take quite some time to understand the depths of why those children are caught in that room, but it is very important to help them, and to do your best to comfort them. I know it’s not easy — I know it’s hard and painful. But I also know that every single one of your inside children deserves safety, and protection, and kindness.
So keep at it…. it’s important for the whole of your system to know your insiders can begin to feel safe, heard, comforted.
Keep up the good work!
Hi Kathy, I didn’t know I did have an answer to my question! I had purchased the Sadest Little Bear Story Pack and forgot…(dissociated it away?) Anyway…thank you!! I found that answer and much more! I very much appreciate all you do!!
Kathy, hard to believe safety in the outside world when many trauma scenarios on the inside happening every second of every day! T and I got 1 child out today but many to go! Built a nice, safe, comfy inside area for them to go to with others to care for them.
It’s very exhausting. How many do you think is safe to do in one day? I hope you can answer.
i did be safe on vacshn
that man kep me awa from the edj of the gran canyn so i don fall
i did be safe in the car he is a good drivr
i be safe wen i tok to ar t
i be safe wen i wats out for bad giys
tuck kep me safe he wars out for me bcuz he be 8 he be big
i can kep mi sef safe if i be carfol
i can wats ware i be going
i can stay awa from bad plasis
i don tok to strajrs
i can stay away feom bad pepl
Mae I so happy you were safe
i be safe in my bed
i be safe on the cowtsh with my dog
i be safe wen i get redy for schol
i dint be safe with the bad pepl no matr wot missy thot
i be safe at the pizza plase
not saf can fel like
think i in trubl
mabe meet new pepl
i notis this week som tims i do fel saf
i fel saf with my T
i fel saf undr my cuvrs
i fel saf lay on my coch with my dog
i fel saf wehn i eat supr
i fel saf wen i play gams with mindy and rachel and tuck and rylie
i fel saf wehn i lisn to the rain fall
i fel saf on satrday morngs
do this be good kathy?
Kathy Broady MSW says
Yes, mae 😀
That is EXACTLY what I’m talking about.
I’m glad you are learning that there are safe moments, and safe places, and safe feelings for you too. That is very very good.
Well done, Mae !!!
I’m super happy to hear this. 🙂
It’s GOOD to feel safe !!
High fives your way —
I had to do this today like Mae has to practice. 🙄
I am at home today and got an email from my boss that said “see me.”
Not such a bad thing, right?
but years ago I had the boss from hell who used to leave sticky notes in my mailbox that said “See me!” ALL the time, and I was ALWAYS in trouble for something. She could write me up for the most unbelievable things. I may have done ONE of them over the years. But she wrote me up for many things. she had a reputation as a horrible, mean buss and did this to everyone.
so now any time when someone says “see me” it just strikes fear in my heart.
so of course i started worrying right away, wondering what in the world i did wrong this time🤨
I tried to call, but my boss was on the phone.
so i sat there and worried for a minute and was all worried.
but then i had to think- DIFFERENT boss, DIFFERENT time, this is NOW not then, this boss is much better, she is actually nice, I am safe, I am not in trouble, things are probably ok.
and lo and behold when i finally got ahold of her, it was something that had nothing to do with me. it was just something going at school with my team that i needed to know about for next year. that was it!
so… apparently i need more practice, just like Mae does 😉
Thank you for this important article. It got me thinking about why I often feel in danger even though I know that I’m in a perfectly safe situation.
Part of it, I think, is that it seems more “normal” to be unsafe since that is the way one grew up. Part of my experience was living in a home that looked calm and safe, but could get quite violent for a brief time without any warning, and then be calm again (usually with me having been punched and battered). So, a safe atmosphere could always change at any moment. It usually came from my brother, who, I now think was reacting to his being abused and lashing out at the nearest target. Living in that sort of situation teaches one to keep up his guard at all times.
But, more importantly for my life now, I wonder if “feeling unsafe” isn’t itself a way to feel safe? Since being on guard against danger has alway been my “normal” way of being, then to really feel safe would be an abnormal experience and would be uncomfortable. Something of a Catch-22 situation: to feel safe then becomes unsettling, uncomfortable and dangerous!
This will take more thinking about…
This is very insightful, Ollie. I definitely am accustomed to hypervigilence as the norm and am in the transition to trying to recognize safety in the now-time versus safety during the trauma-time in the past.
Neuropathways are forged in our brains to keep us safe. Then we get older and those old ways of thinking don’t serve us. I think it will take much concentration for many years for me to identify my current safety in the present and feel it, too. And for my little parts to come into this safe present. It makes sense to me, Ollie. Thanks for saying it. 2/6/18
I used to be afraid of so many things. At me and missys house our dad come home very angry a lot and drunk some times and he act bad. the night time kids they have lots to be afraid of.
from our talker lady I have learned that feelings cant hurt you. there just feelings. but if you do bad things from your feelings that can hurt you. so dont do bad things if you feel bad. you got to learn to just sit with it. lots of places might not feel safe but really they are in you are careful and watch put for you self. like if you be on the internet and some person say somthing you dont like. that dont mean you dont be safe there no more. it just mean you be feeling somthing. because words on a web page cant acshaully hurt you.
Great article. I will read it again.
Safety vs unsafe for us, let’s see…
When we were homeless safety priorities were trying to keep other people from hurting us, trying to find warm places to sleep, trying to find food. All those things at the bottom rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Where we live now we live alone but we live in a poor area of town. Domestic violence is all around us and there have been two instances right off the top of my head that I can tell about gun violence. Everyone would agree that’s not safe. I wasn’t involved though. We cant afford to move. How can you feel safe when gunfire erupts in the apartment above you at 9am on a Sunday, or when the police kill a man 40 feet away from you? We are in a relatively safe place considering where we came from but these kinds of unsafe comes from trauma in other people’s lives and the unsafe things happen outside our knowledge that it’s even coming. Yep. Not safe. But we’re not getting hurt. But we kinda are. And it reminds us of the past too.
Online safety is an issue. Hackers trying to steal your identity to get money is unsafe. Filthy pictures popping up in social media, and vulgar, rude, mean, hateful, spiteful, etc language being hurled around can make us feel unsafe even though we are physically okay. One of the best things out of all the best things about this site is that it’s monitored.
When we are triggered by something and are feeling unsafe but really what’s happening outside is not the same as what it brings up inside we still feel and react as it’s unsafe. I think we are getting better and better about seeing the differences. But it can be hard to know.
I like this article because it will help me figure out how to tell the differences.
I really like that you talk about feelings not being safe because you can get hurt for showing them when around abusers. But when you are not around them anymore and those kinds of really big feelings come up, it feels unsafe but really it is okay. What if it’s not safe still because of inside abusers? We grew up in the abuse cycle. Then after we were gone from them we played out that cycle again and again on ourselves. What do you do when abuse needs to happen to get you to feel safe? After the abuse when young was the only times we knew it was over so we can go to sleep. For a long time we had inside people who hurt us just so we can get rid of those fears and sleep.
I like this article. But I have to read it again because there is so much in it.
Published, with a follow-up request by Kathy (read below).
no ware be safe
bcuz any time we cud get hert
by bad pepl
bad pepl be efre ware
no plas be safe
bad pepl got guns
bad pepl got boms
bad pepl get in schols
we werk in a schol
that man be mad lots he cud hert us
pepl we love cud di any time
that mene it nevr safe
Kathy Broady MSW says
Mae === I’m going to post these phrases…. BUT …. I’m going to ask you to completely reconsider what you just wrote, AND to come back and write a new list. Because there is no room for safety anywhere in those words. And I don’t believe that you are at 100 % risk of 100 % danger 100 % of the time. That’s way way over the top with too much fear and too much scary. It’s what I call EXTRA-sizing the bad stuff.
So please think about it — ask your others inside for some help — and see if you can re-write these sentences in a way that might be a healthier way to think about life.
mae and wendy says
i am trying to help mae out but I gonna make her write her own words but I am making her think. Wendy
sum plases culd be safe
we got locs on the doors at the house.
he got guns to kill bad giys that get in.
polise help pepl be safe
at schol we do practs loc don drils to be safe if a bad giy get in
the bigr girls can help keep me safe bcuz ther bigr
do that be betr,.?
Our inside kids throw the phrase “It doesnt feel safe” around all the time. I think our therapist asked one of the kids about what not feeling safe means the other day but I didnt hear the little one’s answer. I know they dont feel safe anywhere. They perceive danger everywheree, all the time. They think they are going to get hurt / attacked/ injured/ yelled at all the time.
Even though I tell them all the time that they are safe now, they dont believe me. We do have some situations in our life that arent all that safe. But not in the ways that they mean. They are scared that any minute we will be in a car crash or attacked by terrorists or shot by someone in the city, etc. I always tell them its my job to keep them safe, and i will help them keep themselves safe. I dont know why they dont get it. We were never actually safe, growing up. But that was a long time ago.
we are switching now…. got to go
I struggle with this, too, Caden: worst-case scenario thinking. I believe persistently feeding my brain real-time safety data based on my surroundings will strengthen neuropathways of safety and diminish catastrophic thinking.
When parts expect trauma, I try to ask what evidence supports the notion and draw our attention to actual safe data about our surroundings at that moment. I also have to practice keeping an adult part present because Littles don’t remember we’re DID and forget to ask for help. 2/3/18
Just me says
I have little parts that seem never to feel safe and my attempts to convince them otherwise seemed not to work. Then slowly I came to realize that what they wanted from me was for me to LISTEN. To hear from them what life was like when we weren’t safe. And to really feel now what we weren’t able to feel then. And we have agreed that this kind of listening and feeling, for now anyway, happens in therapy. Now I can tell a scared part who is feeling unsafe “Something about this situation is reminding you of what it was like when we weren’t safe. We need to bring this to T. ” I am still learning to recognize and do this. When I do, it helps tremendously, and the scared part goes to a safe place inside to wait for therapy time and the adult part is free to deal with the present. I hope for her to eventually feel capable and strong and stable enough to do this on our own, without waiting for therapy time, but for now it is a start.
When I was a kid, buses got exploded a lot because #MiddleEast. The media made some things even worse, but being afraid of a terrorist attack is just a fact of life in some places and areas.
But I don’t know what the media and political circumstances are in other places, but institutional and police harm of citizens is sort of big everywhere.
Maybe it is my background talking, but …
Wow. Such an interesting topic! Seeking safety in a safe environment could be perpetuating the lies of the abuse. Note how to accept that and learn to feel safe within future relationships.
Kathy Broady MSW says
CD — I’m interested in hearing more of what you are saying. Would you be willing to expand on your thoughts please?
Thanks for your comment!
Hi Kathy –
It’s something I have been thinking about a lot. Something along the lines of: healing doesn’t come from perpetuating the lies of the abuse (or denial or avoiding) but through embracing the truth. So if we’re continually seeking safety in an environment where we are already safe, we’re continuing the abuse by abusing ourselves.
I don’t have much beyond that. It really has struck me. I know that my insiders have felt really unsafe… But we are actually safe. By continuing to define it as unsafe (vs the more accurate description like you talked about; uncomfortable, hurt feelings, etc) we are reacting as if we’re re-experiencing the trauma. Not sure any of this makes sense. I came to the blog today to look at more stuff to do for my littles to feel more safe and came across this article.
This is a fantastic article.
Emotions definitely are triggers for feeling unsafe to me. Feeling powerless and angry, feeling silenced and not having a voice, feeling shame or shamed, to my insiders, means that abuse is ready to happen and makes me feel unsafe. And the dissociative process starts. The adult me steps back and one of my child parts comes forward.
Those feelings – anger, shame, powerlessness, start a vicious cycle. And sometimes, the triggers to those feelings aren’t from actual events on the outside, now, but are from inside parts who repeat the words my abusers used and encourage me to self-harm. When this happens, I feel very unsafe, but it is more from internal parts and reactions than from anything on the outside happening now.
It takes a lot of positive self talk, and internal communication and recognition of what is happening very early in the process, for me to disrupt the cycle and remind myself that I AM safe and in the here and now. That I have power now. That I am not a child stuck in abuse. That anger is not dangerous, but can be healthy. That I have a voice I can use now. That I am worthy, now, and I can choose to value myself in the moment and make different choices. It takes a lot of internal awareness and compassion and communication to respond differently to the internal parts that are triggered and repeating phrases used my abusers.
I don’t often catch it early enough, but I am learning.
I have a quote taped to my computer that says, ‘Being human says that free will trumps everything else.’ I use it, every day, to remind myself, that I AM free NOW. That I CAN choose differently NOW. That I am safe NOW. That I have different choices NOW. That I have the power to think and respond differently NOW.
For the longest time, I feel like a prisoner trapped in my body. I couldn’t control the dissociation that was happening. I didn’t understand the dissociation was happening and I felt like I did not have free will. That my free will was something taken from me by my abusers. It was a lie they wanted me to believe.
Reminding myself, everyday, that I HAVE the power and freedom to choose differently NOW, gives me back my free will. It takes the power away from my abusers and gives it back to me.
And that helps me feel safer both with my system internally and with the people and events happening externally.
Thank you again for this article.
I really appreciated your response, Neo. I see similarities to my own experience of being triggered and having my littlest, least resourceful self pop up front. I’m also working on reminding myself of safety.
I do 3 check-ins with my parts each day (via reminders on my phone ) to name what I’m feeling (non-judgmentally), to identify what I need, to try to bring body and mind into the present because my abuse is over and Now is the safest time.
Safety is also why I don’t do memory work in therapy. I’m not fully grounded in the present yet, so revisiting traumatic memories for parts that think trauma is still active retraumatizes them, which engenders feelings of being unsafe. I don’t want to try desensitizing myself by retraumatizing my parts until they’re numb. I want to be free and safe to feel now. 2/3/18
I agree that memory work can be tricky especially when it comes to feeling unsafe. And I think each person and system has to decide what is best for them with regard to processing memories.
I first went to therapy because of the extreme flashbacks, dreams, and body memories that I was experiencing. It was a change in my life, something new I was experiencing, and I had no idea what was happening to me. At the time, I was in a truly unsafe environment and my parts were essentially screaming at me to leave, but I didn’t understand that because I didn’t remember my past. I had no context and no understanding of my emotions or my history to even begin process or understand what I was experiencing.
And I had no understanding of safe vs unsafe. Internally or externally.
Once I stepped away from the unsafe environment, and processed those memories, I felt safer, both internally and externally. As I learned to honor the parts of me that were communicating through the dreams, flashbacks, and body memories, the memories stopped coming so frequently and now only happen occasionally.
Now I do memory work only if a flashback, dream, or body memory occurs – because I feel like it is an important message from parts of my self that I am not connected to. My T is excellent at making parts feel safe and orienting them to the present and we are working on co-consciousness when we process memories.
I have a part whose sole desire is to be heard. She wants her voice. She wants to tell what happened. She wants justice. And if/when she isn’t heard, there are major disruptions in my outside life and my internal system – which makes me feel terribly unsafe – within myself and in my interactions others.
So with memory work and feeling safe it is a bit like walking a tightrope. I try to let my parts be the guide and follow their lead. I truly believe that they are ( and always have been) working for my health and wholeness.
I am always amazed at how each person and each system is so very different and has different needs. I applaud you for honoring your parts and your system with your decision not to process memories and in feeling safe!
Hi Kathy and Laura
It is really important to look at what safety, or the lack of it, actually is. I think when there has genuinely been a lack of safety for a long time, it can be hard to recognise when that changes. I’ve had to work super hard on getting safety in the here and now, moving away and having no contact with those who would abuse me. Sometimes I can wonder ‘when’s the other shoe going to drop?’ Being abused, being unsafe, can feel inevitable. I have been, and continue to, work on recognising that I am cared about and loved and safe now, and making this the new ‘normal’ for me and my insiders.
I have a question though. You wrote “Unsafe does NOT mean….. not liking what someone else says or how they say it.” I agree and understand that people have different opinions and perspectives on everything. It’s something I like actually and I think the world wouldn’t be so interesting if we were all the same. But where does not liking what another person says or how they say it stop and verbal or emotional/psychological abuse start?
With all the stories of abuse that have come out in the past few years, it has put a spotlight on abuse. It is far from perfect and so much needs to change but there has been a shift in thinking. Laws are changing and there’s starting to be recognition that words are powerful and can be damaging, that coercive and controlling behaviour is hugely detrimental. So, where’s the line between not liking others’ words and them being abusive?
Thank you for writing about this and giving me much to think about. I really appreciate everything you do.