Safety as a spectrum

Developing our language for trauma, safety, abuse, integration, and other emotion / relational concepts can help us develop and understand our own experience – here I talk briefly about the way these realities of safety, connection, trauma, can be understood on a “spectrum.”

A few examples to supplement what I share in this video:

Some jobs require a “disintegration” of certain parts of ourselves. “I don’t pay you to think” is an overt message which some people can interpret as “the thinking part of me isn’t valued, heard, connected, seen” and “I am just supposed to be arms, legs, a body moving around here.” Some other, less subtle forms of this disconnect, or disintegration of the self, sound like “You’re paid from the neck down,” “Stop being a (insert pejorative term),” and “How dare you not trust me!”

This kind of disconnect from the self shows up in other ways, in other contexts: some people are socialized to ignore the warning signs of their body in order to survive abuse, to push through emotions like discomfort or mistrust in order to function in their role within the larger system. This dynamic spectrum can range from the socially acceptable and mundane, like pushing one’s body to the physical and emotional limit for sports, to the abusive and violent – soldiers in war, survivors of abuse, the fight or flight response experienced in accidents, natural disasters, and so on.

The “spectrum of safety” concept can help us locate our own experiences, and within that, our needs. For example, I may have an experience of a particular person who is un-safe with negative emotions (sadness, suffering, loneliness, depression) and who is otherwise relatively safe – they’d be a pleasant partner for a meal, a good enough conversationalist; this hypothetical person just may not be experienced as “safe” when I’m struggling. And “safe” here is an important, emotional safety. There may be “un-safe when I’m vulnerable” that references a person who will re-traumatize, hurt, exploit, manipulate one’s vulnerability. There’s some “safety” developed, counter-intuitive thought it may seem, by increasing our ability to find the edges of the safety, attending to the level of danger.

For many trauma survivors, the “spectrum” has too many spikes, or jumps-to-overwhelm in order for it to be experienced as a dynamic, flexible, nuanced spectrum. Though it’s not a catch-all, healing process for many, as they develop their own sense and experience of safety, is to recognize the subtle shifts in one’s body. Escaping a physically, emotionally, holistically dangerous situation will be experienced within the nervous system as “nothing and no one is safe” (or safety as an all-or-nothing proposition) to, after some corrective and healing experiences, “there are some people who can be somewhat safe, sometimes.” More people can be experienced as safe, in all the ways that people can be safe, as we continue the healing process.

This is not just for trauma survivors, but those who are managing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and the day-to-day un-safety that comes with being a person – sometimes there may be a “buzzing in the background” anxiety when going to a particular event, followed by a release (or sudden flash of fear) when a safe/un-safe person shows up. The “safety” conversation sometimes lends itself to strictly conversations of physical or bodily safety. However, there are the subtle, low level experiences of un-safety: when someone’s facial expression or tone send some shame or disapproval, interpersonal dynamics with one’s partner can show up as trauma triggers from early childhood, the messages caught from tones, and so on. It can be very difficult to parse the messages from the external world, and to settle the internal world enough to make meaning of it. The “spectrum” concept here can give us some space from the situation and ourselves in order to assess and notice our own experience – this may be a “there’s a tiger in the room” reality, or this may be a “I’m overwhelmed with the needs of my partner because of what happened to me” type of situation. What I’m suggesting in this post and video is that safety is developed socially, through relationship, and through language. The more we are able to put language to what is safe (and not), how safe, what’s “safe enough,” and so on – and to notice and experience it with all the different parts of our nervous system (this isn’t just a cognitive or rote verbal process!) the more we can build it, develop it, healthily protect it, and even be it for others.

If you’re interested in continuing your own healing journey, and developing “safe” for and within yourself, please reach out. We have specially trained therapists who have immediate availability.

#depression #anxiety #trauma #IFS #EMDR #safety #PTSD

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