June 14, 2020
Turn the tables and give others what it is that you want to get from them—a sense of safety.
The best gift you are ever going to give someone is permission to feel safe in their own skin. To feel worthy. To feel like they are enough. —Hannah Brencher
This idea is a game-changer that applies equally to every relationship you have, whether it be with your partner, children, parents, co-workers, friends, or acquaintances.
If you want to meet the very best in almost everyone who crosses your path, the key is to do what does not come naturally.
Our natural instinct is to protect ourselves. We can’t help it. Our amygdala, the fight or flight center of our brain, wants to make sure that we are not going to be someone else’s lunch. To prevent that, we are hypervigilant to anything anyone is doing that keeps us from feeling confident, competent, worthy, loved, and, most importantly, safe.
Of course, physical safety is a legitimate concern, but these suggestions do not apply to those moments when you’re alone and walking down a dark side street, or interacting with someone who has a history of consistently dangerous behaviors. In those cases, anything other than having your physical safety as your primary concern would be delusional.
I’m talking about our numerous, everyday interactions that make or break our sense of feeling connected, satisfied, and successful.
The problem is that we are sometimes excessively alert to maintaining our emotional safety. The moment we smell or intuit danger — real or imagined — we go on the defense, turning into someone who is not only disengaging but someone who feels unsafe to be around.
When we’re in any form of conflict, whoever we’re communicating with is just as hard-wired to protect themselves as we are, so they immediately go on the defensive or distance (fight or flight). And there you have it — two twelve-year-olds, trying to feel better by striking out or pushing away the person with whom they most want to connect.
When we’re triggered, what doesn’t come naturally is to stay put.
So the first thing we need to do is to find a way to ground ourselves.
The easiest way to do that is to simply pause, breathe all the way out, notice the story you’re scaring yourself with, and soften your body. Sometimes that’s all you will be able to do when you’re triggered. And sometimes that will be more than enough.
But when you’re ready, and you want more from yourself than just not flipping out, consider offering your own deepest desire — a sense of safety — to the other.
When I offer safety, a place of refuge, to the people around me, the likelihood that I will receive back the loving concern I’m longing for increases ten-fold.
I can’t always do it — ask anyone who has known me for a length of time. It wasn’t all that long ago that I stormed out of a store because I wasn’t getting my way. I was left feeling depleted and disappointed in myself. And I still hadn’t gotten what I wanted. All I did was add insult to what would have been a very small injury.
But when I am able to offer someone else the sense of safety that I want for myself, it almost always returns in kind. And this relates just as much to people I will never see again, as it does to the people who are consistent in my life.
The next time you feel a self-protective eruption coming, and you can tell it’s not really a dangerous situation, start again with pause, breathe all the way out, notice the story you’re scaring yourself with, and soften your body. Once you’re grounded, remind yourself that they’re just as scared and self-protective as you are.
Ask yourself, what will make them feel safe at this moment, right now? When you get an answer, do that.
A helpful resource for putting what I’m talking about into practice is It Takes One to Tango, a relationship book by Winifred M. Reilly. Even though Reilly doesn’t use the word safety, that’s what this book is all about.
When we shift the focus from keeping ourselves safe, understood, and loved, to keeping them safe, understood, and loved, we walk away feeling clean, regardless of what we get back.