[This is another Musing in a series born out of my experience earlier this summer. If you’ve not seen my original “Please Stop” Musing, you might want to check it out, it’ll give you the background and origin of the phrase. And a second Musing subtitled – dancing (and sometimes stepping on toes) towards an ecology of shared power.]
To be clear, this Musing isn’t a definitive treatise about safety, I’m sharing where I’m at in my exploration. And the questions I ask aren’t rhetorical ones! I really would love to hear your responses to them and anything else I share here – perhaps on the At Home call on Tuesday (see more info below), or any other way that works for you.
Would that all children experience the kind of safe, supportive connection this child is having. It helps us build the resilience that’s so necessary in navigating the more challenging moments of life ...
In exploring the notion of safety, I’ve realized it’s one of those words that we commonly use, and without thinking much about it, assume everyone knows what we mean. So. Not. True.
Even a quick look at Dictionary.com shows part of why that’s so. There are three definitions for safety:
- the state of being safe; freedom from the occurrence or risk of injury, danger, or loss.
- the quality of averting or not causing injury, danger, or loss.
- a contrivance or device to prevent injury or avert danger.
Number 1 is a lovely idea, and at times our experience in the moment. But to me, it’s a fictional state for us humans, and to the extent we feel we must somehow create and maintain this state (and make ourselves or others wrong when we can’t) we set ourselves up for disappointment, stress, and trauma.
Developing tools or practices (Number 3) that help us notice and avoid or avert danger (and so feel safe) is a really good idea! I’m glad to have things like stop signs or cross walks that help me cross a busy intersection.
But it’s Number 2 that I’m referring to in this piece. Being human necessarily means we’re going to experience scary, hard, and dangerous things. The question for me is, how do we support ourselves and each other in developing these skills and capacities to navigate these spaces well? And this is particularly so for us kind people who don’t want to cause injury, danger or loss, and yet (as I did recently) find ourselves in the painful position of having done just that.
I don’t know anyone who has never experienced what Dan Siegel calls ‘flipping our lid’. In a great short video here, he describes this human response that often happens when we’re exhausted, or overwhelmed, or when someone or something pushes a particular emotional button in us. When that happens, rather than being in our preferred state of feeling tuned in, and connected, balanced and flexible, we can act in ways that can terrify others – especially if they’re on the edge themselves, or have a painful history of this kind of body memory. Our actions can, in an instant, have them move from feeling safe and connected, to the ‘flipping’ of their own lids.
And there’s no arguing with or denying another’s experience
– impact trumps intention.
When we feel hurt by something someone has done, there is no denying or arguing with our experience. If they try to tell us they didn’t mean to hurt us, those parts of us whose painful history has been evoked will understandably once again feel the fear of being at risk and unsafe. They’ll see this as a repeat of their achingly familiar hurt that has never been deeply witnessed or validated.
In those moments, our neo-cortex goes offline, and until a sense of safety is restored, our actions will follow the instructions of our ancient reptilian survival brain. Fight, flight, freeze, faint, fix, or figure it out. Usually whichever reaction was the one we used back then that seemed to work best.
And when our inner adult is ‘offline’ they’re not in a place to notice what’s happening, and care for those young parts who are in pain. So if the other person tries to explain their intentions, or do anything but acknowledge our painful experience in this moment, the parts of us Dick Schwartz calls our protectors (the firefighters) will come out. Their job is to show up and manage this internal emergency.
Firefighters have one job. Do whatever it takes to put the fire out. And the fire they’re attempting to control is that painfully familiar old hurt that’s been fanned into flame inside us. They’re not looking out for anyone else around.
If a building’s on fire, there’s grave danger, so collateral damage isn’t an issue. In that moment, firefighters do whatever it takes. And, even if things look or feel back to normal, until they’re pretty sure those embers are well and truly doused, those firefighters will be on high alert – ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice.
But there’s another thing that commonly happens as the fire dies down, especially if fear or shame at the impact of our firefighter’s actions start to surface in our consciousness. This is especially so if our relationship with the other person is important to us, or our safety feels at risk. Other protectors (managers) emerge to try to clean up the mess and salvage things.
And while there are many ways these manager protectors operate, in this kind of situation, they’ll be trying to smooth things over, or make us look better – perhaps by minimizing our experience in the interaction. Their focus will likely be on taking care of others’ needs rather than our own.
There’s another way that can help us emerge from these interactions with the
bridge of connection and trust between ourselves and the other person
perhaps a little shaky, but still intact.
There’s no guarantee here, but if the other person recognizes that their actions or words have hurt us, and they (or if the shoe’s on the other foot and we’re the ‘hurt-er’, we) are willing, we can (as Brene Brown says) choose courage over comfort, and practice, not just profess, their/our values.
What does this look like practically? After respectfully checking in to see whether we’re ready to receive their words, they can acknowledge and own this hurt, apologize, and wonder together with us about ways to make amends.
One thing that’s become so clear to me is that even as chronological adults, creating safety for ourselves is ONLY possible to the extent we’re actually present in this moment, and grounded in Personal Power.
And as we’ve seen in Dan Siegel’s ‘lid flipping’ video, if we expect ourselves (or anyone else) to always be perfectly grounded, we set ourselves up for failure. But it’s important for us to begin practicing noticing the signs when we’re moving away from our center.
Here are some common signs or clues that we’re feeling unsafe or at risk:
- making ourselves small, or limiting our self-expression; resisting change; expecting others to create safety for us
- over-reacting to situations; trying in some way to force an outcome; excluding other perspectives
- ignoring our intuition; becoming judgmental; distancing ourselves from, and avoiding or numbing ourselves to what’s happening.
Building capacity for more powerful presence … Meditation Detention – Mindful Moment
60 Second Docs
The truth is living in our world can hurt A LOT, but as the little boy in the movie The Sixth Sense discovered, while the dead people WERE hurting him, neither the dead people nor our pain is intended to harm us. The hurt is meant to draw our attention to the message it has for us so we can take the appropriate (and best) action we can muster in that moment. But depending on how we hold our experience of pain, its impact can really throw us for a loop.
So when we find ourselves doing any of the things in the bullets above, we’re not being ‘wrong’. They can even bring us temporary relief and buy us a breather, and sometimes that’s the absolutely best we can manage.
There’s no way of changing or ‘fixing’ events that happened in our near or distant past. What’s happened has happened, what is right now, is. However what we can change is our capacity to hold, and the way we hold, what happened that triggered our pain and sense of not being safe. And as that happens rather than being something to avoid or turn away from, we can begin to see pain as the friend/ally that it is. (You can see more about this in my Musing on Practical Presence.)
As we practice connecting with the parts of us that still carry that old unacknowledged hurt, and deeply witness them and their experience, they begin to trust us to keep them safe in a way they couldn’t in the past. Over time, as this relationship is deepened, we can begin to mentor them into different or more nuanced interpretations, or ways of understanding our experiences from the past. In turn, this can create space for more possibilities than were previously available to us.
While I’m passionate about the work of Realizing RICH Relationships, and that certainly includes the challenges and practices I’ve referred to in this piece, it feels important here to offer a few specific recommendations here for those who might find them valuable:
- If you’ve experienced deep or complex trauma in your life, I want to recommend you have a look at someone whose work I’ve been paying attention to for a number of years – Irene Lyon, MSC. Irene is a nervous system specialist and therapeutic coach who uses an integrative body-mind-environment approach in helping people release their deepest traumas from their nervous system, allowing them to finally heal from chronic mental, physical, and emotional conditions.
- If you’re living with chronic pain, I’d like to point you to Dr. Lisa Van Allen – a friend and colleague who lives with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), the most painful condition known to modern medicine. I’ve had the privilege of witnessing Lisa’s journey with CRPS. She has this wonderful combination of being gritty-real, wise, and inspiring, as with a fierce advocacy, she navigates life, and the medical systems of support and care.
- And if you find yourself in organizations and feel the pain of the absence of equity, inclusion and social justice, I’ve so appreciated the work of Desiree Adaway and her colleagues at The Adaway Group. She brings together multi-racial teams to do the hard work that’s needed on a personal and organizational level to create inclusive spaces, or to keep folk from under-represented groups involved so that everyone in the organization can thrive.
And as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions to all this! Together we can support and encourage each other in this journey of creating safety for ourselves and each other.
One way of doing that if you feel drawn, is to join me and others in our community during our daytime, no cost, At Home with Maralyn & Friends call as we gather this Tuesday September 11 on our Maestro line at 1:00 pm ET. If it works for you, I’d love to hear your voice. If you’ve never registered before, click here.
As always, we’ll stand for possibility, and will encourage one another in the practice of expanding our capacity for Practical Presence, by co-creating safe(r) spaces – within ourselves, and in our world.
Safe, supportive connection – Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash