By Lisa Meuser.
In the last two blog posts I wrote about the possibility of discovering a sense of well-being even when there is discomfort. In this next blog post I will take that a step forward into the territory of safety, a topic that is very related to discomfort. Safety is a huge topic, and is a complicated one, with lots of nuances. As such this post will just be a “toe dip” of sorts. If you haven’t already read my previous posts in this series on discomfort (or seen the YouTube video which does not include piece #4), please do, as those lead into this post.
Safety and Discomfort
Safety and discomfort are very entwined, especially for survivors, but also for anyone who didn’t grow up with people helping them to stay in their bodies when they experienced challenge. The topic of safety is so important, for so many good reasons, but it is often misunderstood. I have discovered over time that unless our journey of well-being includes embodiment/our being, the science of the vagus nerve and brain health, practices of discernment, as well as knowing true sources of safety, we will actually wind up as more fragile humans.
As I name that, I see many scenarios flash before my eyes. One I hear about often is the meditator who feels that “all is well” until they get off their meditation pillow. While there may be much utility to meditation, if it is not paired with consciously including and exploring into our human experience, we will be limited by the false and unconscious belief systems that are habitual for us, and remain disembodied. I have been that person. While mediation alone did provide clarity in some ways, it enabled a sense of fragility in other ways. I did not learn how to participate as a human, and instead lived in a “glass house”. This, unknowingly of course, limited me to being a person who needed to control her life, for fear of that glass breaking. This is a hard way to live.
In another scenario, I am thinking of someone I know who surrounds themselves with only people who agree with them. Their past trauma has left their nervous system quite disorganized, and rather than focusing on consciously repairing that, they find people who will make them feel safe through validation and agreement. While there is nothing wrong with wanting validation, when our safety is dependent upon agreement from others, we remain small and disempowered. This is a person who often does great in the world, but due to their inability to discern, their efforts are always limited due to believing that their safety hinges upon factors outside them. The more they try to manufacture safety (i.e. control), the more insular they become, and the more fragile they become. The more fragile they become, the more unsafe they feel. And the more unsafe they feel, the more dysfunctional their behavior becomes. And the cycle continues.
I have been this person too. I have surrounded myself with people who see the world in similar ways as I do. Again, while there is nothing necessarily wrong with this, for me it reinforced a belief that I am not safe with people who see the world differently, which reinforced the premise that I am not safe as I am. It also stripped away opportunities to sit with experiences of awkwardness, conflict, and discomfort, so that my system could discover that I am safe as I am, regardless of if people see the world as I do, or not, and regardless of whether I am uncomfortable or not.
Maybe you’ve been nodding your head reading these scenarios: these are not unusual scenarios, although they might look different for each of us. Regardless of our circumstances, most of us learn what I call false conflation. We believe that if X, then Y, or if Y, then X: if we’re uncomfortable, then we’re unsafe, or we’re unsafe because we’re uncomfortable. Either way, there is a conflation of safety and comfort.
Learning About Ourselves, Learning to Name
When we think about the topic of safety, we often think about what will help us to feel safe, and we build those ideas of safety upon external factors. When X person does Z, I feel safe. When I’m in X location, I feel safe. When X is happening, I feel safe. When I’m in X circumstance, I feel safe. When I feel X, I feel safe.
In my journey, asking curious questions of myself so I can identify the factors I respond well to has been absolutely crucial, and even profound. Getting clear enough to name things for what they are for us can be very empowering. It is important that we know ourselves well enough to determine how we feel in relationship to people, places, things and our own experiential happenings, and it is important that we know what comforts our nervous system, particularly if we are rebuilding or discovering a healthy nervous system.
Having said that, sometimes developing the self-knowledge to identify these things can be seen as the ending spot, or goal, so to speak. In my experience, this self-knowledge is actually the beginning. There is much more empowerment and possibility available.
When Science meets the Practicality of Well-Being
The naming process is an important aspect of our personal and collective evolution because developing the ability to observe our predicament enough to name involves neural pathways that connect to the prefrontal cortex. When this part of our brain is engaged, a few things happen: our vagus nerve is connected to well-being, we’re able to have some distance from the reptilian brain which functions on survival responses, as opposed to what is really going on in a moment, and we can have some ability to resource and self-regulate.
This increased sense of resourcing and agency is empowering, as we’re then connected to our sense of well-being. And yes, it does allow us to feel safe, which further relaxes our nervous system and allows us to experience a wider and deeper aspect of life, with the source of life itself.
All of this helps us in being able to discern and inquire into our experiences, which allows us to see through and disrupt old belief systems and assumptions about our place in the world.
As with everything, this is a process of discovery.
Here’s a personal story to illustrate. Last summer I became part of a group of local activists who were protesting Nazis at our local market. The week before, some militia members showed up to support the Nazi farmers, carrying guns and knives, both legal as we have an open carry law. As you might imagine, I needed to prepare myself to enter into a situation knowing that there was the possibility of violence. Did I feel safe walking into that situation? Ultimately, yes. Was I safe because of the environment? No. Knowing the kind of violence these militia groups are capable of (e.g. Charlottesville 2017) I knew that I could be walking into a violent situation, i.e. not physically safe. But I connected to something much wiser and larger, and that connection conveyed a sense of safety in my Being. Was I comfortable? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Did I experience fear at times? Yes. Through that experience I learned that I could be in potentially violent circumstances, with forces completely outside my control, have some fear, feel discomfort AND I could still be safe in my Being. More importantly, I also was moving from Love, which was also a profound part of my experience, and perhaps is its own blog post for another time.
I’m often reluctant to share my experiences because you as the reader may not grasp how much effort and time it has taken for me to develop the resources and agency to be able to partake in these kinds of events. Furthermore, I’m not saying that everyone has to rush out there and protest Nazis at their local farmers’ market.
There is utility learning how to be present and engaged in the everyday experiences of our life. Unwinding the false conflations and misunderstandings about safety allow us become active participants with life which might allow us to: have uncomfortable but important conversations with our friends, children, families, neighbors, work mates, etc – and even with ourselves!
- stay committed to things that are important to us even when “things get hot”;
- get involved in creating change in our organizations and communities;
- advocate for ourselves as well as others who are often not represented in our culture;
- be in integrity with our actions and our emotions; and so much more.
Going Deeper Than Safety
What? Deeper than safety? Well, if we keep getting real, eventually we will learn that absolute safety is an illusion. I cannot control what other people do or say and I cannot control factors outside of me. I also cannot control all the thousands(?) millions(?) of microcosms happening within my body. What I can do is connect with my sense of well-being and learn how to develop a relationship with that so that I Know it so deeply that nothing can strip it from me. I may have what I call momentary bouts of “amnesia” when it comes to this Knowing, but they are short lived because I now have the ability and resourcing to reconnect with it.
Developing this Knowing is not necessarily easy. As I said earlier, it takes conscious effort and practice to develop the resources and agency because most of us have never been taught how to be in relationship with ourselves, so we lack the self-knowledge with regards to being present with our experiences. In fact, for most of us, the neural pathways that enable this do not exist. We have to build these neural pathways through conscious practices: practices that include embodiment/our being, and the science of the vagal nervous system/the brain health, practices of discernment, as well as practices which develop a relationship of Knowing true sources of safety.
Gently Exploring our Experiences
The reality is that I can literally be safe, but be convinced that I’m not. AND, I can do all the right things and not have much well-being at all.
What do I do with all that? When we’re triggered and enter into fear our prefrontal cortex stops working efficiently, so the first thing we have to do is build enough self-awareness to know when our nervous system is activated and that we’re triggered. This very important naming can dramatically influence the quality of our life because we will then have the ability to slow down, discern and inquire into what is going on.
What can help us realize we’re triggered? When we’re in a triggered state, we might have narratives that sound something like this:
“Wow, my thoughts are really spinning”
“I am thinking/saying/writing the same things over and over”
“My heart rate has increased”
“I’m feeling overwhelmed”
“My gut (throat, chest, fist) is tightening/clenching/etc”
“I need to do something/act, now…”
There are many more possibilities, but these responses tell us that our nervous systems are triggered. If we do not slow down, it won’t take long for us to experience increased fear, and from there we will quickly start to make false assumptions about our safety. Our prefrontal cortexes won’t be online, so we won’t have the ability to think clearly. This is why slowing down is both hard, and yet crucial. Without the self-awareness to connect with our experiences, we will also steamroll ahead.
Once we slow down (or, if you’re in a session with someone, your therapist can help you with this) then curious questions can be asked (curious questions come from the prefrontal cortex). We can ask ourselves about the underlying assumptions going on with regards to our experience.
I know I feel overwhelmed/triggered/unsafe/in danger. But am I actually?
When we slow down to examine the actuality of our experience, we learn that we can have simultaneous experiences. In other words, I can absolutely feel unsafe/in danger, but when I look around my room, I can very clearly see that I am not unsafe/in danger. I can keep exploring.
Ok, I feel unsafe. And, I can see that I am not. But wow, this sensation is really painful and I’m really uncomfortable and overwhelmed. Am I really safe?
At that point I would need to look around the room again. Then I can name to myself (if this feels true):
Ok wow. So, I am feeling something really uncomfortable/painful, AND, I can see with my eyes that I am safe/not in danger. Let me connect to breath, and/or feel my body in the chair for a few minutes.
This process is the way to start to unwind all the false conflations about fear, safety, discomfort and well-being. I would strongly encourage you to find someone to help you with this process, because in my experience as someone who works with trauma every day, it is not easy to hold this for oneself. In fact, all of your strategies will steer you away from this. Also, keep in mind that our culture thinks in binary relationships, so including the AND is very important. This allows for us to discover that we can feel unsafe, AND be safe at the very same time.
Compassion for Ourselves
I hope that this blog post has been helpful. While learning about the territory of safety and discomfort is crucial, it is not easy. I invite us to be slow, gentle and kind with ourselves while we learn and unlearn. One thing that helps me with this is to remember that life can be messy, and sometimes I have a hard time embracing the mess. I remind myself that that is ok, and I rest in the kind, compassionate, real words of Alexis Pauline Gumbs:
The primary offering here is a space to be. Be here. Be all over the place. Be messy. Be wrong. Be bold in your helpfulness. Be confused in community. Be reaching past isolation. Be part of the problem. Be hungry for after. Be helpful in the midst. Be so early in the process. Be broken by belief. Be bolstered by brave comrades. Be unbelievably unready. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, foreword of Beyond Survival
In my upcoming 2021 Exploration we will learn how life altering it is to Know safety with/in our being, so that we do not have to try to control that which is outside of ourselves in order to “have” safety, and we will learn how to support others in discovering this as well. Please let me know if you have questions!
To read more about Lisa Meuser, click here.