What is safe? Most people think and believe that feeling safe is locking the doors and windows; knowing there’s a cop available at the end of a 911 call; or even something as simple as believing that red lights and stop signs will be obeyed by other drivers.

In that world, this translates as trust. I translate it to an expectation…not one that I trust per se, but I do expect it so I can drive, go out and come home. In this ‘trust’ model, you trust that when you lock your door, nobody will come through that door, but a former co-worker told me that her mother always said ‘locks only keep the honest people out.’ And her mother was right. Nobody is accused of breaking and entering because the door was unlocked. And when that locked door is breached and we call 911, cops generally show up. But do these expectations constitute trust? Possibly. But do these trust/expectations constitute Safe?

I have to suppose that for the majority of people the answer is yes. My own therapist likened driving to trust. But for the survivor of childhood trauma, the general ‘trust’ most people have are simply expectations that have no bearing on what is ‘safe.’ Trust and safety are two entirely different things and while survivors have an expectation for general behavior—nobody’s gonna just enter a locked door, the cops will come if called, folks will stop at red lights and stops signs—safety is far more intimate.

I can drive on a roadway and expect you to stop when it’s required, but I have no expectation that you’re going to listen to me or hear me. I have absolutely no connection to the person or persons in another car. As long as they’re in another car, they are safe persons that have nothing to do with me. They are nameless and faceless. They’re just another car on the road. The best reason to avoid them is to not have an accident. An accident would make persons in a car unsafe because that would mean having to interact.

For the survivor of childhood trauma, safe is a lack of attention. Safe is invisibility. And invisibility comes in many forms. It can be running away from the situation. It can be procrastination or laziness. It could be feigning ignorance. It could be excessive helping. It could be silence. It could be angry outbursts. It could be throwing and breaking things. Invisibility can sometimes be physical violence towards others or the self.

To others, these behaviors are anything but invisible. Everyone sees the behavior. And everyone reacts to the behavior. They either dismiss the behavior, justify it in some way, condemn it, or simply accept it. No one ever says this person is trying to be invisible. In fact, the stereotypical thinking is that the person displaying these behaviors is an attention seeker or a bully.

Safe, for the child of trauma, isn’t locked doors, police, or traffic signals. Safe, for the child of trauma, means space that doesn’t produce fear. And for the child of trauma, fear is people. The child of trauma grows and learns which people they can interact with and which ones they can’t. The people with whom they can interact are ones who may have an intellectual connection. It can evolve to an emotional connection, but the very second emotion comes into play, that connection becomes unsafe. And unsafe means becoming invisible. So the relationship is abandoned in some way, whether ghosting or sabotage.

Relationships are work. And they are hard to maintain. Emotional connections are necessary to relationships. The child of trauma doesn’t work this way. Don’t get me wrong. Certainly, the child of trauma tries desperately to maintain the connection, but the emotion is sometimes far too overwhelming.

Safe is invisibility and without emotion. But there is a truth in the stereotypical thinking that a child of trauma is seeking attention. The child of trauma really does want attention but has only survival in seeking it. And seeking attention as a child of trauma is a paradox when invisibility is the only safe place one has ever known.

So what is safe for the child of trauma? The answers will vary by individual, but there are some universals.

Validating the expressed emotion.

  • “I see you’re angry and you have every right to be angry. Can you explain why you’re angry?”
  • “Yes, it hurts because that person died. It’s ok to cry.”
  • “I’m so sorry that my words hurt you. I will need your help so that I don’t that again. Can you tell me about those words?”
  • “I see that something has upset you. Can you tell me about it? Please?”

Validating the response.

  • “Yes, what that person did was wrong.”
  • “Crying is a good response when someone dies. Would you like me to hold you so you can cry? I won’t tell anyone.”
  • “I am so sorry that what I said hurt you. You don’t deserve that. Can we talk about this so that I can understand how not to hurt you like that anymore?”
  • “Wow, that’s a lot to carry. I’m so sorry you have to go through that. Is there anything I can do to help?”

Safe is invisibility in survival. As adult survivors, safe is being validated for feeling, whatever that feeling may be.

 

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