I have a personal question to ask you: What makes you feel safe? Is it living in a safe neighbourhood, in a peaceful country? A friend you know you tell anything to and who will simply witness you? A partner who has your back in any situation? Perhaps it’s the money in your bank account and knowing that you’re able to pay for the roof over your head and food in your belly?
The answers to the question of ‘What is safety?’ will be different for everyone. But I’d argue we all have one thing in common that makes us feel safe, and that is our connection with other people. I heard a quote the other day that blew my mind from renowned trauma specialist Dr Gabor Maté:
‘Safety is not the absence of a threat. It is the presence of connection.’
What this says to me is that whilst an absence of danger can help you feel a sense of security, true safety can only be found when you have strong connections with other humans.
We are social creatures – even those of you who are more introverted feel a need to connect with others every once in a while, even if it’s just a text or a nudge on social media. It’s in our DNA to crave connection – it’s how our ancestors survived. They found safety in numbers. To be part of a tribe was to be looked after, cared for, fed, sheltered – everyone would protect each other because it was only together that they could survive in the harsh world around them. And whilst we no longer have to worry too much about being attacked by sabre-toothed tigers, the need for connection remains. John Donne said 400 years ago that, “No man is an island entire of itself,” and even in our increasingly distant world, the same holds true today. You still need your tribe.
When you are truly connected with someone else, you’re able to let your guard down. You can show them your soft, tender side, and they can show you theirs in return. Think of a cat – when your kitty feels a connection and trusts you, she’ll roll over and show you her belly, her vulnerable spot.
Actually, cats are tricksy and use this tactic to lure you into giving them belly rubs so they can pounce on you – so maybe imagine a dog instead.
Your dog trusts you with his belly because he feels connected to you – you’re part of his pack. Whilst you might feel no need to roll around and expose your tum to your friends or sniff each other’s butts, the principle remains the same: when you feel a connection with someone, you’re able to be vulnerable.
Being vulnerable might sound like a dangerous thing, but when you’re able to be vulnerable is when you will feel the most complete sense of safety. You know you can truly be yourself, can show someone every aspect of your being, and feel secure that you are held, protected and safe. Even on your worst days, you can rest assured that someone will be there for you, that you are supported.
However, whilst this all sounds good and simple, what do you do if you have a hard time connecting with other people? Maybe past experiences have reinforced your reluctance to rely on others. There is no way people can hurt you if you keep them out, right? It can be hard to let go of these habits, especially when they’ve been ‘protecting you’ until now. Once you recognise that your need to protect yourself is actually isolating you from those around you, how do you find ways to make the connection you crave with others?
I believe the first step is by reflecting on the connection you have with yourself – how vulnerable do you allow yourself to be with your own thoughts and feelings?
A simple practice could be something like starting each day by naming five things you love about yourself – you can say it out loud in front of the mirror or write it in your journal. Treat yourself like a valued friend, someone worthy of love and connection, because that’s what you are. When you remind yourself of your worth consistently, eventually, you’ll feel open to making connections again. And it is through those connections that you’ll find safety.
Whether it’s with your inner circle, your partner, best friend, parents or siblings, having true connection with other humans is what will make you feel truly protected, cherished and safe.
When you’re in ‘self-protection mode’, your body instinctively clenches, bracing for an anticipated shock. It’s only when you start to feel secure and open to connection that you notice a lessening of this bodily tension.