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