The real question we are asking each other is “Am I safe with you?”
“Is it alright for me to reveal my wishes, my un-spokens, my hidden truths, my guilt, my shame, my yearnings to you? Or are you going try to fix me like a broken table?”
Quaker and teacher Parker Palmer once said,
“We need safe spaces for truth-telling.” and when we do, we are then able to “listen a person into speech.”
It is important that we learn to calm ourselves down, or what some psychologists call, self-regulate. But we must not forget, we first learn to calm down by someone calming us down, that is, co-regulation. Innately, we learn to feel ok in the presence of another caring individual.
How do we listen to each other into speech? How do we learn to empty and avail ourselves to others in our lives? How do we make room?
If you are in the caring profession, you know this isn’t as easy as it seems. Given all kinds of competing demands, like keeping a person safe who is suicidal, court reports, well-meaning parents who have a different agenda, etc.
How Not to Create a Safe Environment
Let’s think about possible negative examples so as to provide a contrast on how not to create a safe environment:
- Impose an Agenda
The first step to ruin a sense of emotional safety is to impose an agenda.
No matter how well-meaning, an imposition of an idea can have an invalidating effect on the inner-life.
2. Deny the Explicit and Implicit Emotions
In my profession as a psychotherapist, I sometimes take it for granted and jump into the implied stuff without first acknowledge what is explicitly present. I might try and read what’s going on on the inside for a person and fail to see what’s right in front of me. For example, when a person’s clearly angry, it can be rather invalidating to say “You must be so hurt and sad by all of that has happened.” Instead, first acknowledging a person’s rage before going further, might be a more humane thing to do.
3. Missing the Implicit and Hearing Only the Explicit
Sometimes we get so caught up with what’s going on on the “outside” and miss what’s going on on the “inside.”
Yet, the inside story, our inner lives, is the thing that needs to be given a voice in the sea of inner-conflict, discord, and sometimes dissociations from our different parts of selves.
More on this in the next blogpost.
Creating a Safe Environment
Now that we’ve looked at what not to do, let’s look at how we can cultivate the conditions for a safe environment in helping a person in distress.
It’s worthy stating here that simply telling someone, “You are safe here,” is not a good way to create a safe environment.
We need to create safe spaces for truth-telling by our pacing.
Speed matters. If we continue to travel at the speed of light [add link], we are not going to achieve this. The pursuit of efficiency can backfire as the least efficient thing to do.
Instead of traveling at the speed of light, we need to learn to travel at the speed of life. Translating this to practical steps simple means, slowing the heck down.
How do we approach difficult emotions without scaring it away?
The late poet Mary Oliver anology is useful here:
The wildest animal I know is….i know a soul exists, it is entirely built out of attentiveness. The last thing we need if we want to see a wild animal is to shout it out… we need a safe space for it to come out.
When my older daughter was about 3, she got upset about a spilled drink. Her cries were developing into a fit. Our friend, who has 2 grown children of her own, said to her, “That’s ok. You are upset sweetheart… because of the spilled orange juice. Accidents happen… Just slow down…” as she gestures her hands from up to down in a rhythmic fashion; she repeated this a few more times “slow…down.”
Gabor Mate said, “Safety is not the absence of threat. It is the presence of connection.”
True presence is when we are neither invasive or evasive. Our task is to not only to understand, but to help the other feel understood [add link].
In our efforts to get better, we need to directly learn to cultivate true presence, with what we say and don’t say… making room to “listen (to the person) into speech.”