(When the world is objectively NOT safe!)
How can a person learn to feel safe, in a world that is fundamentally not safe?
Such a question is understandable, and also heartbreaking. I wish I could say that the world is safe, but of course… I can’t.
So instead, I talk to my clients about how trauma (aka: the source of the feeling that the world is unsafe for most of us) works, and what “feeling safe” in an unsafe world means.
First of all, let’s get clear that when we talk about “trauma,” we’re not referring to the distressing event that happens in a person’s life, but rather to the chemical and neurobiological response in the person’s body that happens during and after a distressing event– specifically, a distressing event that overwhelms the person’s ability to cope.
What is considered distressing is entirely subjective, and what causes trauma will vary widely from person to person, because again it’s not based on the event itself, but rather on the person’s physiological responses to the event.
One person could get into a massive car accident but not experience any negative effects of trauma after, while another could end up with PTSD after they almost got into a car accident.
This is because trauma occurs when the distressing event overwhelms the individual’s ability and capacity for coping with it. Everyone has different levels of ability and capacity for coping with distress, and everyone will find different things distressing, so there’s no predicting what has the potential to become trauma.
Interestingly though, what happens after a distressing event has a very high chance of predicting whether or not it will become trauma.
A little kid who falls and hurts themself is unlikely to be traumatized by it if, say, their caretaker sweeps in to hold and comfort them right after. A little kid who falls and hurts themself is a lot more likely to be traumatized by it if they’re ignored, laughed at, or disciplined for crying after.
Why? Because in the first example, the kids learns it’s uncomfortable but ok to get hurt; that the world is still a fundamentally safe place. In the second one, they learn that the world is fundamentally not a safe place; that their pain will only lead to more pain, and they only have themselves to rely on so it’s best to avoid pain at all costs in the future.
Feeling safe in an unsafe world is about knowing you have a bubble of care, comfort, connection, and empathy available to you for when you get hurt.
Now let’s look at how this looks in an adult.
Imagine a woman experiences a scary incident of street harassment, in which a big muscular guy pulls up to the curb where she’s walking and starts yelling aggressively sexual and/or violent things to her, following her for blocks, and only leaving when she walks into the closest available building. This would obviously be a very distressing event, and anyone might feel really shaken, distressed, and agitated after.
The woman tells the story of what happened to her partner when she gets home, and her partner responds by getting cold and tense, acting disgusted with her, and asking her “what did you expect would happen when you walk home flaunting your body like that?”
In this scenario, the woman is already feeling shaken and vulnerable, unsafe and uncomfortable, and then she not only gets zero support or comfort, but she also gets her relationship security threatened, and her intelligence and character attacked. This sends her distressed energy inward into quiet shame rather than outward into tears, anger, shaking, verbal processing, or even laughter.
She decides that ultimately it probably was a bit her fault because she was wearing a crop top, and that she has no right to be upset, feel bad about it at all, or even mention it again. Over the next few days, without any outlet to process out that stuck survival energy, and with it getting all wrapped up into shame and isolation, this event is a lot more likely to settle into her body and psyche as trauma.
The woman went home and told the story to her partner, and her partner responds by holding space for her to cry and shake and talk it out, comforting her, acknowledging and normalizing her feelings, and asking how she wants to be supported.
They express disgust and anger at the man who harassed her on the street, ask her questions to help her process, validate how scary and unsettling it must have been for her, and offer to hold and cuddle and soothe her (or give her space, or call the police, or go smash things, or have sex, or whatever else she needed) while she processes it. After going on a long walk to move some of the yucky energy out, the partner’s intense tenderness melts into some gentle joking and smiling, and by the end of the night they’re laughing together– that warm body-shaking laughter that sometimes flows in after processing and moving through such heaviness.
In this scenario, the woman would probably feel a lot better immediately, having dealt with the distressing energy in a healthy way both physically and emotionally, and she would also most likely feel supported and valid in her need to process the event over the next few days, telling multiple friends and family members who all hold space and express disgust and anger at the man who harassed her, further reinforcing that what he did was worthy of outrage.
Her processing would likely continue over the next few weeks, having been affirmed and supported. She might take out her anger and fear in her kickboxing classes, take a lot of time alone to rest and cuddle with her cat, ask her partner and other loved ones for lots of hugs and care, listen to her body and stays away from sex and intimacy for a little while as she moves through her feelings, and seek out a therapist for extra support.
And because of this continually reinforcing cascade of resources, connection, tools, and support, her capacity and ability to process and cope with what happened is so much higher than in the first example, that the event is a lot less likely to land in her body and psyche as trauma.
And this is the thing. The second scenario didn’t keep her safe from being harassed, but it helped her feel safe in the world again. And that’s really all we can ask for.
Whether or not a “traumatic event” becomes “trauma” is deeply influenced by what happens after, and how it’s dealt with and received.
Like a little kid who falls and scrapes their knees, feeling safe in the world isn’t about avoiding scraping your knees, it’s about knowing that when you do, someone will be there to comfort you, kiss your boo-boos, and get you a bandaid.
And as adults we can actually cultivate a bubble of care, comfort, connection, support, and empathy. We can cultivate the resources and relationships we need to trust that when bad things happen, we’ll be held, believed, respected, listened to, comforted, and supported.
This is the key to feeling safe in our bodies; to feeling safe in an unsafe world.
Sending you a big hug (and a band-aid, if you need one) today,
Body Neutrality Coach
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