When safe feels unsafe

by | 21 March 2019 | 23 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. 


Find the complete article in Carolyn’s new book, ‘Unshame: healing trauma-based shame through psychotherapy’, available now!

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/




  1. Catherine Davies

    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.

  2. ALJ

    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.

    • Traci

      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

  3. Helen

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

    • Annette Wincott

      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

  4. Caroline

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

  5. A grateful survivor

    Thank you…

  6. Cathy

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

  7. L

    Thank you

  8. Miranda

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

    • Davina

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

  9. C

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

  10. J

    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.

  11. Caroline Taylor

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

  12. Shaz from Oz

    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. 🙂

  13. karen Taylor

    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

  14. Nina

    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

    • Carolyn Spring

      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’.

  15. Mary

    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

  16. Jan Simmons

    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!!!

  17. Caroline Joy Foster

    Thank you Carolyn, I found that deeply moving and interesting

  18. Catherine Carey

    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..

  19. Imani

    That bit in the last few minutes of therapy with your therapist is the worst weekly experience ever! Contemplating how you’re possibly going to go away and deal with all the stuff that’s been raked up AND stay safe and crisis free for 7 days is really threatening. You articulate it so well here, and this “coming up with a safety plan” thing and “what are your plans for the week” stuff used to make my ears bleed, but I get why it had to be done (to wake up your pre frontal cortex and all that jazz.) Walking out of the therapists door is indeed the scariest part of the week, though it is a lot less scary now I work with a private therapist who is able to keep me within my window of tolerance much more consistently.


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