We experience the presence or lack of emotional safety in physical, emotional and mental ways.
Both feeling safe and not feeling safe can be intense, and powerful because they are felt in so many different dimensions at once.
When you don’t feel safe with someone, it’s important to assess the severity of the situation, the risk of injury or violence. If necessary, remove yourself from the situation.
In many cases, however, the feeling of not being safe occurs because of factors that we can influence. In such cases, a healthy response is often to work on modifying the situation and changing our response to it, rather than simply leaving the situation.
Doing so requires a level of self-awareness and inquiry to discover the internal shifts and external changes that will help you begin to feel safe.
There are 7 areas that influence our sense of safety. Some are external. These may be within our influence but not within our direct control.
Many of the factors that create or destroy emotional safety are internal and within your ability to change, though doing so may take some time and careful attention.
1. Attitudes and beliefs
At the core outside of specifically violent or abusive situations, emotional safety is created by your attitudes and beliefs about yourself and others.
If you don’t believe it’s possible for you to feel safe with a certain person or type of person or in a certain type of situation, then it’s not likely you will be able to feel safe.
The stronger the belief, the more this will override other factors until you’re able to change the underlying belief.
Similarly if you believe you’re a victim or are not capable or interested in taking part in creating your own sense of safety, then it will be tough for you to feel safe.
Certainly many experiences may be mixed. Ask yourself if you feel able to influence change or if you feel powerless to do so?
Is that feeling based in actual verifiable facts or rooted in personal emotion? Feeling and actually being powerless are separate, though often overlapping. Both contribute to a lack of emotional safety.
Darryl (not his real name) wanted to find a life partner. He complained that whether he approached people for dates or for sex, he couldn’t find emotionally safe people and was about to give up looking for a life partner.
As I coached him and helped him explore this, he discovered that a painful breakup in the past had led him to the unconscious belief that most people of his preferred gender were not emotionally safe.
Although there was still more work to do, this dramatically shifted how he felt about his interactions with dates.
2. Events and behavior outside one’s control
Second, events and behavior outside one’s control clearly impact our sense of safety.
This includes the behavior of other people, including clearly harmful behavior as well as neutral and positive behaviors we interpret nega
Sometimes the behavior of others is clearly unsafe and has already caused an actual harm of some kind, whether it was as minor as a spilled beverage or as serious as physical violence.
Other times it may be unsafe based because of risky behavior that has not yet caused harm, such as a failure to follow common safety precautions whether that’s wearing a seatbelt, having smoke alarms in a home or following safer sex practices.
In many of these situations, the impact on us is affected by our interpretation of the commonly accepted guidelines and our personal level of risk-taking. This interpretation is often heavily influenced by learned beliefs based on past influences and experiences.
The interpretation of what is safe is also heavily influenced by personality. How much of a risk taker are you? Is that consistent in all areas of your life?
Many of us may be more adventurous in some areas of life than others. Jim, for example, was unusually cautious about what he ate even though there was no medical reason for this. At the same time he often willingly took what most would consider very dangerous risks during his outdoor winter hikes.
Past events outside our control can also contribute to beliefs that it’s not possible to be emotionally safe in a new, yet similar situation. This can happen even when the new situation, without that belief, is safe.
Emergencies, whether a spilled coffee or an earthquake can also greatly impact how safe we feel.
3. The quality of communication and interaction
Third, the quality of communication and interaction with the other people involved affects our sense of safety.
This is jointly created and evolves and changes as time goes on.
Here are three questions to ask yourself to explore this area
- Is there positive intention and nonjudgmental respect going both ways?
- Does each person’s behavior match their words and intention?
- Is there a sense of jointly creating the experience and sharing power?
Notice how you feel about those who do what they say, those who respect your boundaries, those who accept you nonjudgmentally – and those who don’t do one or all of these.
The underlying intention with which others approach us also matters (as does our intention in approaching them). Is the underlying intent positive or blaming, score-keeping or judgmental?
4. The quality of presence
The quality of presence affects whether we feel safe with someone and they with us.
Presence refers to the ability and willingness of the person to be fully present with you – to give you her full attention. Is she here in the now with you? Or is she distracted and somewhere else in her mind?
Our society understands the importance of presence and attention even if we don’t always live it out in everyday encounters. Just consider how in professions like surgery or flying aircraft – professions where the absence of full attention and presence can be life-threatening. In these professions, people are treated harshly when they fail in this area.
However, in our everyday encounters it’s easy to forget that texting and watching TV while talking with someone means that you’re not fully there. If that is your habitual way of interacting with them, then it should be no surprise if they don’t feel safe with you.
5. The quality of touch
Safety is deeply felt in the body. To experience that just notice whether your stomach is relaxed or has a knot in it when you’re with someone.
Touch, or the lack of it, is such a physical act that it can profoundly affect the presence or absence of emotional safety. This applies in all our interactions, including those where touch is not appropriate. In those situations, for emotional safety that boundary needs to be honored.
Touch done in a way that feels emotionally safe can be deeply healing. If it feels unsafe, it can prompt a trauma response.
The keys to creating safety for the person receiving touch are clear, verbal consent, respect of boundaries, and appropriate pacing.
Pacing includes looking for both verbal and nonverbal signals, and understanding that the body is not always ready as quickly as the mind or as verbal consent is given.
If you don’t feel safe receiving touch from someone it’s worth reflecting on which of these elements were missing.
6. The impact of the mirror effect
People are mirrors for each other. We draw people into our lives who mirror who we are.
People also treat us the way we treat them. Then, we treat them the way they treat us.
Back and forth it goes as this becomes a cyclical, self-reinforcing loop. The cycle supports things not changing. Like a rolling snowball gets bigger, this cycle of reaction to reaction gets more powerful.
What may have started innocently enough becomes emotionally unsafe.
When you experience highly charged emotions from interacting with someone you regularly spend time with, it’s worth exploring your role in prompting the behavior that prompted your feelings. If you don’t feel safe with them, what might you have done that prompted them to not feel safe with you?
This can be tough and even scary to explore, and yet discovering such awareness can be deeply healing.
The key to breaking the cycle is choosing to act in ways that support emotional connection and safety, rather than just reacting based on the strong emotion of the moment.
7. Your ability to respond
If you don’t feel safe, it can feel heavy, difficult and maybe even shaming to be told that you need to take responsibility to change things. Yet there is truth in this.
At its core, responsibility is about responding. Responsibility is simply having the ability to respond – response ability.
With the exception of sudden, violent or emergency situations, each person has an ability to influence what is happening.
By developing the ability to respond to uncomfortable things and to ask for what you want and need, you can create options for yourself.
There are many situations where a small change you initiate can help you shift from not feeling safe to feeling good in a given situation.
Often this means speaking up for yourself.
Ask for what you want and need. For some, that’s easier said than done, but it’s a skill you can learn. It gets a lot easier with practice.
No one can read your mind. Expecting them to do that leads to disappointment. For most people, there will be some areas of life where this is harder than others.
Changing things so you can feel safe
It can be very challenging to be in a situation where you don’t feel safe. As long as there is no immediate risk of violence or injury, it’s often helpful to stay involved and explore the shifts that you can initiate that could change how you feel about the experience.
These shifts may be internal changes you need to make. Or they may be things you can ask for from the other person. Pay attention to pacing, consider getting help from a relationship coach or therapist, and give yourself time to make the changes at a speed that feels safe to you.
You might in the end choose to leave a relationship, but by slowing down and taking time to explore, you can ensure that you’ve made a wise decision you won’t regret. You’ll also increase your chances of future success in relationship.