What does it mean to be “safe?”

Trauma causes our brain to get stuck in a place of defense. Anything that reminds our trauma brain of the original experience, whether conscious or unconscious, will trigger our fight, flight, or freeze response.

In order to shut off our trauma response, we must be in an environment that is truly safe. Otherwise, we will continue to be retraumatized, or compound our trauma with other equally damaging experiences.

When we think of being safe, we usually think of being physically safe. But safety is so much more than that. In Redefining Love, there are five realms of safety: physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and financial.

Physical safety

From early childhood we are taught basic rules meant to keep us physically safe: wear your seatbelt, look both ways before crossing the street, don’t talk to strangers. And yet, there are many other ways we must learn to protect ourselves that are overlooked, or even discouraged by modern life.

Here are just a few ways that culture sanctions behaviors that put our personal safety at risk:

  • Children are forced to hug or kiss adults they don’t know well or they don’t really like.
  • Violent or sexually explicit media that reinforce unhealthy relationships.
  • Food used as a coping mechanism for comfort.
  • Diet culture
  • Tobacco or excessive alcohol use.
  • Denial of basic physical needs such as sleep, food, proper clothing for weather, and shelter.
  • Regular yelling, screaming, or other major disturbances that disrupt the sense of security and peace of the household.
  • Threats to physical safety, even if they are not acted upon.
  • Corporal punishment (any physical punishment that leaves a bruise, abrasion, or cut on the skin).
  • Withholding basic needs such as food, water, sleep, etc. as punishment.
  • Denying someone’s personhood – making someone feel invisible or lacking in value.

The truth is, there are endless examples of ways we can be physically unsafe, and as a parent I can tell you that it is impossible to protect your children from exposure to everything. It could even be argued that insulating children from every danger in the environment does not properly prepare them for life in the real world.

That being said, it is important to realize that violence is so much more than physical beating or sexual assault. Any action that causes physical harm, a sense of impending harm, or ongoing anxiety that physical needs won’t be met consistently is an act of violence.

Any time someone is left with a feeling that they do not have autonomy over their own body, their physical safety has been compromised.

Emotional safety

Historically, the cultural expectation of emotional expression is very gendered. Women are “too emotional” to be rational, and men are not supposed to have any emotions except anger and happiness. Regardless of gender, the final result of these toxic emotional expectations causes people to mask their true feelings in order to be taken seriously.

Gendered expectations of emotional expression are incredibly damaging. We are given emotions for a reason. We cry when we are sad. We laugh when we are happy. We shake when we are angry. We gasp when we are scared. The expression of emotions is an energetic release that regulates our nervous system. When we stifle these reactions, we are disrupting our body’s natural processes and our brains get stuck.

Stifling emotional expression simply compounds our trauma. Not only have we experienced a traumatic event, but we are traumatized further by stifling natural reactions to that event. Our brains are designed to process traumatic events with emotion, yet we also teach our brains to identify those emotions as bad. The next time you experience that emotion, your brain is going to automatically shut it down because that’s what it’s been programmed to do.

It also creates a “volcano effect” – we hold the emotion in until our bodies can no longer take it, and then they erupt into violent rage or a total emotional meltdown. Or, alternatively, our bodies literally absorb the emotions and they manifest as physical symptoms of pain or illness.

So, how do you become emotionally safe? You surround yourself with people who will sit with you in your big feelings. And you allow yourself to sit with your big feelings, express them as they arrive, so they can be released and you can move on.

Mental safety

Mental safety often gets confused with emotional safety, but they are actually two entirely separate things. Mental safety is when you can trust yourself and others around you to be honest, direct, consistent, and reliable. In short, you aren’t worried about your close relationships playing mind games with you, and you trust yourself to discern when you are being manipulated.

Words like “gaslighting,” “scapegoating,” projecting,” and “toxic relationships” are related to mental safety. When we feel mentally unsafe, we do not trust others or ourselves to discern the reality of a situation. Our brains become programmed to distrust all people and ourselves, making us susceptible to isolation and further manipulation.

Spiritual safety

Yikes. This is such a minefield… Here’s the deal. Religion is a beautiful thing when it is used as a means to connect with yourself, humanity, and the universe in a way that is fulfilling for you and in service to the greater good. When practiced in a healthy way, religion is good for ourselves, our families, and our communities.

Unfortunately, because religion is a human institution, all religions can be abused to attain power and control over others. If you believe your religion is immune, or that the institution you attend is immune to such corruption, it’s probably time to do a deep dive to explore the roots of this belief. The only way our religion can be beneficial is if we maintain a healthy skepticism of the power structures within our chosen faith.

The first step in attaining spiritual safety is to recognize the difference between spirituality and religion. Spirituality is your relationship with your higher power. Religion is the human institution created to express that relationship. A spiritually healthy person recognizes that if all human-created concepts were removed, they would still have a connection with their higher power. Spirituality is about relationship. Religion is about expression.

If you answer “yes” to any of the following questions, you may be experiencing spiritual abuse:

  • Does your religion encourage violence towards others? (Remember that violence is not only about physical assault.)
  • Does your religion place humans in absolute power over others?
  • Are you allowed to ask questions about your religion without fear of mental or physical retribution?
  • Does your religion place you or others on a hierarchy above others?
  • Are you afraid of social abandonment, isolation, banishment, or punishment if you question the tenets of your religion? (Another way to ask this question: Would the primary people in your life no longer have a relationship with you if you ask too many questions or leave the faith?)

It’s important to recognize that abuse can be within a household, or it can be institutional. The danger of spiritual abuse is that it can insert itself into all layers of a person’s relationships, and may be encouraged within households by the larger institution itself. This makes extracting ourselves from spiritual abuse a very isolating – and sometimes dangerous – situation.

If you believe you are experiencing spiritual abuse, try visiting another place of worship outside of your current institution’s affiliation. Pay attention to how the new place of worship is different from your own, and gauge how your close relationships react. A little confusion from your family and friends is understandable, but displays of excessive anger, threats of banishment, or isolation from your faith peers is a sign that you may need help or support.

Financial safety

When we are financially dependent on someone else, it creates a power differential. Certainly there are plenty of families who function beautifully in these family structures. But it only works when the breadwinner does not use finances to control others within the household. When others in the household feel trapped in the relationship by their financial situation, their financial safety is at risk.

The classic example of this is when a physically abused woman cannot afford to leave her abuser. As many as 99 percent of domestic violence survivors experience financial abuse (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence).

Financial safety applies to more than just domestic violence situations, however. Financial safety is when you feel trust towards those who have financial power over you. If you feel that your personal autonomy is determined not by you, but by the person who has control of your finances, you may be experiencing financial abuse.

Financial conservatorships are an extreme example of this. Other examples are: parents who buy their kids affection in a divorce situation, when a parent withholds basic needs like proper clothing as punishment, or when a spouse demands line-by-line justification of receipts for basic household needs.

Be careful when considering possible financial abuse that you are taking personal accountability. A parent who chooses to withhold college tuition from an adult child who is failing all their classes is not being abusive, nor is a spouse who closes credit cards because a spouse is charging luxury vacations and clothing they can’t afford.

Healing our trauma

It’s been said that we cannot heal in the same environment that made you sick. If you live in a house with black mold, you aren’t going to recover from it’s effects until you eradicate the mold or move to a new house. Similarly, we can only heal from our trauma if our current surroundings are truly safe. So it’s important that we examine and understand what it means to be safe, in all it’s forms.

Once you have determined the ways you feel unsafe, you can determine whether the best course of action is to resolve the issues within the relationship, or leave the relationship entirely. It may be that the other person simply didn’t know that their behavior was causing harm. Once they understand, you can work together to remedy the situation. And sometimes, a situation is so toxic that you must remove yourself from the situation entirely.

**A note on physical safety**

If you feel physically unsafe in your home, please seek help. You don’t have to face this alone. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233), or visit their website at www.thehotline.org.

Learn more...

To learn more about the Redefining Love Way, I encourage you to browse the site. Have questions? Feel free to email me at sara@sarabethwald.com, or schedule a free discovery call. 

For more information on how to join the Redefining Love Community, please visit redefine-love.com/coaching.

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