When safe feels unsafe

by | 21 March 2019 | 22 comments

‘Are you going to keep yourself safe this evening?’ asks the therapist. It’s nearly the end of the session. And it’s been a tough one. We’ve done some good work – knowing what I’ve previously been unable to know, feeling what I’ve previously been unable to feel – but I’m quivering right at the edge of my window of tolerance. And after previous such sessions I haven’t coped well.

I don’t know how to answer. I don’t really know what she means. I don’t know what the right answer is. And I don’t want to get into trouble.

‘Yes,’ I say, looking away and down and wriggling slightly in my seat.

She knows I’m bluffing.

She bites her lip and her eyelids squeeze together a bit. A long pause. She’s seeking me out and I’m watching her without looking at her.

What are you going to do to keep yourself safe?’ It’s a subtle change of question, but an effective one, because I’m caught.

‘I have absolutely no idea,’ I say, deciding that honesty is the best policy.

She pushes her lips into a faint smile and with enough lightness that I don’t feel in trouble. But I can’t not notice her seriousness.

‘Well, you need a plan,’ she replies.

Stalemate.

I have no idea how to formulate a plan for staying safe. I don’t understand the concept. I feel like she’s asking me to play chess blindfold. But I can also sense, from the way that she’s looking at me, that she’s not going to accept my excuses.

I sigh, angry at myself.

‘Let’s look at it the other way around, then,’ she offers, defusing me. ‘What would unsafe look like? Let’s identify that at least.’

This feels a bit easier. Breaking things down into steps for me is always effective. It is a skill that I have for other people, but never – so it would seem – for myself, or at least not here. Because I have never stopped to consider any of these issues before. Life has always just happened to me. It is a new idea that I can formulate plans to manage what life throws at me – what I throw at myself.

“Life has always just happened to me. It is a new idea that I can formulate plans to manage what life throws at me.”

Tweet this

 

‘Self-harm,’ I say, beginning the bullet-list in my head. ‘Driving dangerously. Going missing. Going back to where the abuse happened in a dissociated state. Taking an overdose. Drinking too much. Getting into a ‘state’ …’

The list sounds a little stark now I’ve verbalised it. For the first time, I glimpse it from the therapist’s perspective. Yes, I can see why she wants me to develop a plan to stay safe.

But as soon as I have that thought, I have another one to contradict it. But I don’t care if those things happen. I don’t care if I’m not safe.

Something must happen on my face to reveal my thoughts, because she leans in towards me, solemn and warm and investigative. ‘What are you thinking?’

I shoot my eyes up towards her for half a second and then look away, feeling that too-familiar feeling of shame wash through me like the flush of a toilet. I fold myself forwards and down, trying to go small and find some comfort in disappearing.

‘I’m thinking …’ I reply, but then I pause, as a new realisation hits me. ‘Part of me is thinking … that they don’t care if I’m not safe.’

I feel annoyed with myself, partly for saying it, admitting it, and partly because I hate this constant push-pull of conflict within myself. And, of course, because I hate having parts.

The therapist waits.

I wait.

I want things to be different. I want to care about my own safety. I feel like I ought to. But I don’t know how.

‘Why do you think that part of you doesn’t care if you’re not safe?’ she asks at last.

I shrug. I’ve never thought about it. I reflexively distract myself from thinking about my parts. But the therapist wants an answer, so I start speaking and hope that the words will come.

‘I don’t know. I guess maybe they don’t feel that we’re worth keeping safe?’

The therapist’s face scrunches up into a look of acute sadness. ‘Ohhh!’ she says, as if she’s just trapped her finger in the door.

I look up at her, surprised. That wasn’t the sound I was expecting.

What does it mean? That I am worth keeping safe?

We sit for a few moments with the sound still echoing in my chest, and I’m shocked by the reflexive honesty of it. To me, it’s just a statement: I’m not worth keeping safe. Of course not. Never have been. That was my experience in childhood. What else are you supposed to believe when you grow up living with your abusers?

‘I think you know that I think you’re worth keeping safe,’ she says eventually, breaking up the confused sludge of thoughts in my head. Not until just now, I think, but I don’t say it. I just nod and stare at her shoes.

‘What else?’ she says. Somehow she knows there’s more. ‘Why else doesn’t that part care if you’re safe or not?’

I focus my attention inwards, effortfully, doggedly. I’m not used to seeking out what my parts think and feel. It’s like looking for a black object in a dark room.

“I’m not used to seeking out what my parts think and feel. It’s like looking for a black object in a dark room.”

Tweet this

 

‘I guess maybe they feel guilty at being safe.’

‘Guilty?’

I shrug again. I don’t know why that word came out of my mouth, but it feels true and relevant and real.

‘Maybe guilty because we survived, and we shouldn’t have done. Other children didn’t. And maybe we don’t feel that we deserved to survive. So maybe we shouldn’t be safe now. And …’

The thoughts are coming thick and fast, like things that I’ve always known are pushing themselves into consciousness. Each one of these thoughts could be expounded in its own session.

‘And … that it’s a kind of betrayal to feel safe now. Because then I’ll forget the traumatised parts. I’ll ignore them again. They need to keep me feeling unsafe so that I don’t forget them.’

What I’ve just said sounds terribly, terribly crazy. I pinch a look upwards at her face, but she’s just looking steadily back at me, furrows in her brow.

I take a deep breath and press on. ‘And anyway, safe feels … safe feels … weird.’

‘Unfamiliar weird?’

‘Yes, like it’s too quiet. Scary quiet. When we’re agitated and distressed and feel unsafe, it’s as if all is well with the world. We know what to expect. We can handle it. But we can’t handle feeling good and peaceful and safe.’

‘Because?’

‘Because … because that’s when the bad stuff will happen – when we’re safe. If we allow ourselves to feel safe, that’ll be our undoing. We won’t be on guard. We won’t be ready for the bad stuff. So we mustn’t feel safe – because it’s not safe to …’

“If we allow ourselves to feel safe, that’ll be our undoing. We won’t be on guard.”

Tweet this

 

She nods slowly, looking intentfully at me, like she’s trying to absorb it all and make sure she doesn’t miss a single beat of what I’m saying. I’m expecting her to laugh at me incredulously, like I’m insane and that I’m talking rubbish. But it glows warm on the inside that she’s taking me seriously. Maybe it’s okay to say this stuff, and acknowledge it.

‘So you’re actually trying to keep yourself safe, by making sure you don’t feel safe?’ she says.

I look at her like she’s just said something extraordinary. I turn it over in my mind. Could this be it? – Therefore what I’m doing, not wanting to feel safe, is actually a smart thing to do, rather than insane?

‘Yes,’ I say once I’ve fully grasped it. ‘Yes, I think that’s it.’ And I breathe out the tension I’ve been holding. I’m not mad. At least, not entirely.

She nods again. ‘That makes a lot of sense.’

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘But it’s not very helpful, is it?’

She bounces her head from side to side. ‘Yes and no. It’s helping and not helping at the same time. It’s your best attempt to manage the fall-out from trauma. And you’ve found a way to cope, so let’s not rubbish it. It’s been important. But, yes, it’s got some ‘side-effects’ too.’

‘Does it matter, though?’ I say, with sudden passion, as I switch sides within myself and take up the contrarian position.

‘Does what matter?’

‘Does it matter if I don’t keep myself safe? If I self-harm? If I go missing? If I …’ I wave my hands around to fill in the blanks that I don’t want to articulate.

She clasps her hands together and looks down, then says slowly, ‘It matters to me.’

Ouch.

I’d forgotten, as always, that I matter to anyone. I’d forgotten that my actions have an impact on others. I feel irrevocably broken – entirely incapable of mentalising and empathising – that it doesn’t even occur to me. My significance to others is constantly dissociated from conscious thought.

I sit sadly, not knowing what to say.

The therapist instead speaks. She looks up at me and burrows into my head with my eyes. ‘Recovery from trauma involves learning to feel safe again. So it does matter when you don’t keep yourself safe, because that just perpetuates the trauma. It reinforces your trauma responses.’

“Recovery from trauma involves learning to feel safe again.”

Tweet this

 

This is a new thought to me. I’m not sure I understand it.

‘How do you mean?’ Asking this, too, will give me time.

‘I mean that trauma has hyper-activated your nervous system, to prepare you for danger. Part of the work of therapy is to get your nervous system to calm back down to baseline,’ she explains, patiently, kindly, gently. ‘And every time you put yourself in danger, it ramps it back up again.’

I squiggle my face around to try to understand.

‘But I don’t intentionally put myself in danger,’ I counter, defensively. ‘It just happens. It’s not always me, it’s parts …’

She smiles, maybe laughs a little – I’m not sure which – like she was waiting for me to make this excuse. She looks at me earnestly. ‘I know,’ she says. ‘I get that. But nature abhors a vacuum.’ – Where is she going with this? – ‘And so if you don’t plan to keep yourself safe – if you don’t take charge and make a determined effort to self-soothe and manage your distress and put yourself into a safe setting, with safe activities which will help to lower your hyperarousal – then unsafe-feeling parts will come in and fill the vacuum. You will default back to coping strategies from the past.’

She pauses. I pause. Her words are like little thunderclaps of revelation on my mind. But I’m not sure I like them.

‘And I’m not saying that those coping strategies are wrong,’ she adds, remembering my shame-default which takes everything as criticism. ‘Like we just said, they were your best attempts to survive. But you’re here in therapy to develop better ways. And so I’m encouraging you to take charge of yourself – of your selves – and to come up with a plan to keep yourself safe. Because ultimately, learning to feel safe is the bedrock of recovery from trauma.’

“Learning to feel safe is the bedrock of recovery from trauma.”

Tweet this

 

I sit and let it sink in a little, and throw the thoughts from side to side in my brain, to see if I can rattle them into making sense.

‘So if I don’t plan to manage my distress,’ I say, slowly, concentrating really hard to try to understand it, ‘then that’s going to keep me traumatised?’

‘Yes.’

‘But what if I don’t know how to manage my distress?’ I say.

‘That’s what you’re here to learn. And you do know how to do it a little bit, at least in theory. You’re just not so great at putting the theory into practice – coming up with a plan, and then actually implementing it. That’s what I’m encouraging you to do.’

I shift uncomfortably on my seat. She’s right.

‘I guess it’s the conflict on the inside of me,’ I say, because I know that I can always think of at least one thing I could do to self-soothe, but I always fail to do it. ‘It’s the conflict between wanting to be safe and feel better – which is why I’m here – and the parts who want to keep the status quo of feeling unsafe.’

She nods.

‘So how do I deal with that conflict?’

She seems to be about to say, ‘What do you think?’ but changes tack at the last moment. ‘How do you deal with any conflict?’ she says instead. ‘What are good principles for that?’

I shrug and want to laugh her question away, but I realise that the clock is ticking and I need to make the most of these last few minutes.

‘Understanding each other’s perspective? Finding common ground? Negotiating? Communicating? Making it a win-win?’

She nods. She’s doing a lot of nodding today. ‘How can you apply that to you and the parts you’re in conflict with?’

I wince. I hate this bit. ‘I need to understand what those parts are trying to achieve – that they’re trying to stay safe by making sure that we don’t feel safe. But then I need to help them understand that we are safe now – mostly – and that we don’t need to be on guard like we had to be as a child. So they don’t need to keep using that old strategy, because times have changed. I need to understand their perspective, and they need to understand mine.’

‘And how are you going to do that?’

This is the million-dollar question. How do you ‘talk’ to ‘parts of yourself’? It all feels so nebulous and vague, faintly ridiculous, maybe even a touch insane. When I’m ‘me’, I’m not ‘them’. When I’m ‘here’, they’re not. So how do I talk to someone who isn’t ‘here’?

And it makes me deeply uncomfortable. I have survived all my life by dissociating from these other parts of me. It feels counterintuitive, dangerous even, to communicate with them. If I talk to them, they might talk back. And then what will they say?

“I have survived all my life by dissociating from these other parts of me.”

Tweet this

 

I realise, with a gulping unease, that I know full well what they will say. Because I hear it. I just pretend that I don’t.

From some parts – the younger, terrified, traumatised parts – I hear their constant wail, their agony, their distress, their neediness, their fear. It is mostly inarticulate, but it is unmistakeable. And unbearable. It is the scream of a traumatised child, unremitting, unheard, unsoothed. Like living next door to a neglected baby whose screams of abandonment fill the night, the only response is to block it out with headphones.

From other parts – the critical ones – all day and all night I hear their rabid, frothing disgust towards me: utter disdain for who I am. Their angry, desultory shaming of me, pointing out my magnificent crapness as a human being, highlighting every error I make, pulling me apart, undermining me, running me down. I don’t want to tune into it.

And then there’s the fearful parts. I hear their anxieties like the constant screech of fingernails down a blackboard: everything is a source of concern. Everything is going to go wrong. Everyone is going to hurt us. We’re going to mess everything up. And we will be hated by all.

I look up and realise that some of this – I’m not sure entirely how much – has been vocalised out loud. Damn.

‘No wonder you don’t want to talk to them,’ the therapist says, sadly.

I’m off the hook. She understands.

‘It sounds like all of you needs to think about how you to talk yourselves,’ she adds.

Damn.

I hang my head, ashamed, but also relieved. She has called me out on my self-abuse. She has called me out on the internal attitudes which are holding me in trauma. They are not the entirety of the problem, but they are at least the portion of the problem over which I have some control. I have to stop hating my parts. I have to stop being so discompassionate towards them, and blocking them out, and refusing to care. I have to accept that they are me, and I am them, and only together will we heal. That is the way forwards.

‘So, what are you going to do to stay safe?’ she asks again, shifting into the body position that says, ‘We’re finishing soon.’

It’s strange how I can feel both chastened and supported by her at the same time. She gets it. She gets me. But she also won’t let me make excuses. She demands change. She demands that I treat myself as she treats me. She refuses to be the only one who is responsible for compassion here.

“She gets it. She gets me. But she also won’t let me make excuses.”

Tweet this

 

I sigh and then pull myself upwards into a resolute, taking-action kind of posture. ‘I’m going to go to a coffee shop on the way home and journal,’ I say. ‘I’m going to write down what we’ve been talking about, and think about it. Then I’m going to potter around at home and do a few jobs and get on top of things a bit. And then I’m going to get myself some tea, have a shower, and watch a box set in my pyjamas.’

It sounds silly. It sounds mundane.

‘It sounds great,’ she says.

Is that really all it takes?

I realise, with alarm, that I’ve never planned even for these trivialities. I’ve left therapy every single week with no plan at all, feeling powerless at what might happen next. And then hours later I have been surprised to find myself somewhere else having done who-knows-what.

Walking out of the therapist’s door is the hardest part of the week. I move from the safety of containment and support back into the lawlessness of conflict within myself with no referee. I move from connection to aloneness. I move – too often – from hope to despair. These are the feelings which emanate from deep within me, from deep within the traumatised parts of myself, who feel this departure as abandonment and rejection. In my adult self I know that it is seven days, and I can cope, and I will be busy, and there is life to do. But these younger parts cannot envisage a future; they cannot imagine their return. To them it is the end, and they are stepping into the void. Shame overwhelms me every single time, at this hidden neediness within. And – I realise without saying – often I drive myself into unsafeness as revenge for the abandonment.

“Walking out of the therapist’s door is the hardest part of the week.”

Tweet this

 

But this final conversation in itself has been grounding. I realise that it doesn’t matter so much what I plan to do, as much as that I do plan. And that I commit within myself to taking care of myself. To staying safe. And that I resist the temptation to counteract the healing effects of therapy by returning to the status quo of agitation and unsafeness.

‘Be kind to yourself,’ she says as I leave. Easier said than done, I want to reply, but I don’t, because I know I’m making excuses and leaving the door open to myself to resort to abusiveness.

‘I will,’ I say, and once the words are out I accept it as a promise, and a determination, and a plan. My stomach crunches up inside me at the prospect of it – being kind! what a thought! – and there’s an immediate rush of panic, that it’s not safe. But I’ve said it. And so I’ll do it. At the very least, I’ll try.

 

A word of explanation

I had therapy mainly between 2006 and 2015. These blog posts are not verbatim accounts of sessions, but rather the client equivalent of ‘case studies’ - amalgamations of various sessions, ‘narratively true’ rather than ‘historically true’. Although often written for stylistic purposes in the present tense, they are very much from a past period of my life. Ideally they should be read within the wider context of other blog posts, articles and my book, to give a more integrated and rounded sense of where I was at, where I’m at now, and the process that took place between those two points. I have been on a journey of recovery, and the difference in me from when I was in therapy (especially at the beginning) to now is testament to the brain’s ability to recover from even the most appalling suffering.

My primary work now is writing, followed closely by training therapists, counsellors and other professionals to support survivors of trauma. Regrettably I cannot provide one-to-one support but our charity framework PODS (Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors) provides a helpline and a range of other services: please go to www.pods-online.org.uk for more information, and https://support.pods-online.org.uk/start-here if you are looking for support.

For training, please see our range of live courses at www.carolynspring.com/live-training, and our online courses at www.carolynspring.com/online-training. We also publish a range of resources to support recovery from trauma, which you can see at www.carolynspring.com/shop. My first book, Recovery is my best revenge, is available to buy at https://www.carolynspring.com/shop/recovery-is-my-best-revenge-paperback/

BUY CAROLYN’S BOOK

FREE RESOURCE

22 Comments

  1. I really enjoy reading your blogs Carolyn, they are so pure, honest and thought provoking. I especially love the case study excerpts- I learn a lot from them.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Thankyou for this article – it has come at a perfect time for me. I am currently working with a therapist for trauma and this week has gone off the rails but this article has really helped me to understand things a bit more.

    Reply
    • I really enjoyed reading this and as i read this i felt myself back in my therapy room experiencing the same.
      But reading your journey of it gives me hope i soon will also learn to make safety plans and implement them.

      Thank you
      Traci.x

      Reply
  3. Wow, these are so powerful. Thank you. I identified with much of what you have written both personally and professionally.

    Reply
    • Thank you for writing and sharing this information and most importantly, for sharing personal your personal recovery process with people. This is very encouraging.

      I spent many years in therapy and was supported to the point of being able to support my self, and be self harm free, which took a me many years to do. So with the right support, it is achievable.

      I enjoy reading your blog ,as it is very inspiring.

      Much appreciation for the time and energy, that you and your team put in to it.

      It is making a positive difference to the professionals and volunteers who support survivors like my self.

      Regardless of where we are in the our personal life long recovery process.

      This blog is helping have a positive impact on people’s over all health and well being.

      I am one of those survivors who is saying thank you, to Carolyn Spring and PODS

      Reply
  4. These are powerful and important ideas, thank you for sharing them

    Reply
  5. Thank you…

    Reply
  6. You put into words exactly what I think and feel. Thank you.

    Reply
  7. Thank you

    Reply
  8. Thank you so much. Every blog post is a gift to us all.

    Reply
    • The first blog of yours I have read – and so much hit home. Especially about trying to understand that I matter. Thank you.

      Reply
  9. I needed to read this today after therapy, thank you.

    Reply
  10. Wow! Its like looking in the mirror, it was so powerful. I felt like it was me having a session with my therapist. So many quotes reflected back on me.

    Reply
  11. Carolyn thank you for sharing so much. I’ve learned masses from everything you write and all the pods courses. So grateful and empowered.

    Reply
  12. I drank in every single word from this article Carolyn. I am at the start of my DID journey so reading this dialogue was enormously helpful and comforting as it was like you put into words what many of my parts are feeling. Thank you so much. Please keep writing. 🙂

    Reply
  13. brilliant article, having mainly worked with voice hearers and using voice dialogue, I have realised that many voices are actually parts and once a person is encouraged to start communicating in a compassionate way with their parts healing and integration can happen if that is what the person wants . also a reminder about using phrases like how are you going to keep yourself safe? need much more exploration than thinking the person will know what that means

    Reply
  14. Hi, brilliant article! I have a question please. How do you know if someone actually has ‘parts’ vs just different moods, temperament, personality types at different times like we all get?! Thanks

    Reply
    • It depends what you mean exactly. For an official ‘diagnosis’ of DID, you’d need to be assessed ideally using the SCID-D. See for example https://information.pods-online.org.uk/how-is-dissociative-identity-disorder-diagnosed/.

      But in simple (even simplistic) and metaphorical terms, are you ‘open plan’ or ‘different rooms of a house/building’? In my home I have an open plan living area where I can move between cooking in the kitchen area (one ‘mood’) to watching TV in the lounge area (another) to working in the lounge area (yet another). I’m feeling differently, acting differently, when moving between areas, but I still retain a sense of cohesion, that I’m the same person, and I don’t forget who I am from when I’m in the kitchen area to when I’m in the study area. DID is more like living in a block of flats in the same building, where there are walls and doors, and you can’t necessarily ‘see’ what’s going on in one room from another – or even at times remember. But neither is it at clear-cut as that … everyone is somewhere on a spectrum. I went over the course of therapy from living in separate flats to knocking down some walls to eventually living ‘open plan’. But at any one point it would have been hard to identify exactly where I was at on my ‘building project’.

      Reply
  15. Wow, thank you
    After almost 3 years in self imposed and mainly self managed recovery I went out and made myself vulnerable and somewhat unsafe for many hours during a recent weekend
    Two weeks on I am paying the price but awake to what I did and the fact that I can still manage to do that to myself
    Fortunately all the hard work and self love practice undertaken by me,, for me to me, from me in my recovery (including 18 sessions in trauma therapy) limited the damage I could have done and I am back on the mend
    So anyway reading your blog today is perfect timing as I have declined an invitation I was given over that weekend for more of the same hanging out with folk whose normality includes drinking alcohol excessively and taking drugs, the lovely lady who gave me that invite has given me a kind, compassionate and understanding reply to my no thank you, allowing me to be honest in return about how worried I had been lest I be judged for saying no thank you to her and I realize saying to myself yes please I want to and I choose to stay safe. Literally within 15 minutes another invite has arrived to a seemingly lovely “party” day and already I have been hearing 2 parts of myself trying to out persuade each other and an unsafe me giving me great reasons to go
    Reading your blog has strengthened the “ah Mary you have the tools and the insight and the wisdom” moment needed to help me stay safe and in a moment I will decline the invitation
    Beyond that I love your written form. I am using writing in creative recovery and it so powerful as a way to stay safe. While I read your blog I could relate so much it transported me to being back in the therapy room
    Thank you for speaking your truth

    Reply
  16. So very helpful. Your book is amazing. I am glad you are healing from your severe childhood trauma. You are the bravest and strongest person for what you have been through and have turned it around to help others. I salute you wonder woman!!!

    Reply
  17. Thank you Carolyn, I found that deeply moving and interesting

    Reply
  18. It was such a relief to read this. I’ve always ‘known’that it’s not safe to feel safe, but I’ve never heard it expressed by anyone else. If I allow myself to feel safe I quicky begin to panic about what will go wrong – what I will do wrong to spoil it. This makes me constantly on edge and leads to me taking unhelpful rather than helpful actions. Thank you so much for writing this..

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More from Carolyn…

The safety of self-hatred

I shrug helplessly because the words have dried up and suddenly I feel like I’ve stepped partway into Narnia, into a deep place of unreality in my head. Part of me is with her in the room. Part of me is somewhere else. I’m not sure which world to choose. I’m not sure if I can choose.

We’re stuck because I’m perpetually in danger mode, convinced of her hatred of me.

Making the most of your GP Appointment

‘I’m not seeing a doctor!’ I insisted with a look on my face that was intended to end the debate once and for all. As far as I was concerned, it was simple: I wasn’t going to the hospital, walk-in centre or GP surgery, because I couldn’t go. I couldn’t cope with going. Such was my abject terror that, unless it was a matter of life or death, I avoided all things medical.
The problem? This was rapidly becoming a matter of life and death.

Five ways our thoughts hijack us … and how to say hello

When bad things happen, what do our thoughts do? Self-blame, paranoia, overwhelm, meaning-making, catastrophising? These thought patterns were my loyal companions until well into my thirties.

Enjoying Carolyn's writing?

Why not take a look at her book, 'Recovery is my best revenge'?

You have Successfully Subscribed!