Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

The Magical Power Of "Safe" Words To Prevent Harm

How you can resolve conflict with a single word

Photo: Mikamatto
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Many people have recently become aware of the use of "safe" words in the context of sadomasochistic sexual practices largely due to the popularity of the book Fifty Shades of Grey. In general, a "safe" word is an agreed-upon code word that the "masochist" can say to the "sadist" at any time to halt whatever pain is being inflicted. "Safe" words have the benefit of being unequivocally clear and of avoiding strong emotional responses. That is, upon hearing the word spoken, the sadist automatically disengages without thinking. There's no on-the-spot decision about whether or not to stop because the decision was already made when, in a distinctly unemotional moment, both parties agreed what would happen whenever the word was spoken. Once the word is spoken, both parties specifically withdraw their judgments and their emotions (no matter how excited they may be), and automatically follow a predetermined course of action.

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Recently, one of the therapists I work with told me how her group would often use "safe" words with each other in conversation. This immediately struck me as brilliant. In the heat of conversation, many uncomfortable—even explosive—emotions frequently arise for all of us. Sometimes we find ourselves in the grip of an emotion we can't control and escalating conflict in a way we later wish we hadn't. Perhaps we become angry and say or do something we regret—or embarrassed, hurt, or depressed by something we hear. Though we usually can't predict exactly how a conversation might escalate in this way, we can almost always sense such an escalation coming.

Establishing a previously agreed-upon "safe" word with the people to whom we're closest (and therefore are at highest risk for unpleasant conversations) like our spouses, our parents, and our children can create an almost magical "pop off" valve. By obviating the need for us to verbalize that we're feeling angry or hurt (something often quite difficult to disclose when in the heat of a conversation) a "safe" word can act like a simple button we push to "turn off" a potentially painful or destructive interaction.

It works like this: agree upon a word to use with your spouse, your parent(s), or your child(ren). The more nonsensical the better: "eggbeaters," "weatherman," and "butterball" are all good choices. Don't discuss what will trigger it (each person gets to decide that on his or her own). Discuss instead what will happen when one of you says it: whatever conversation you're having at the moment the word is said will end immediately, without any questions asked (no matter how frustrating it may be to the person who hears it), and without any reprisals. In other words, it buys you a timeout. Of course, either one of you is free to return to the conversation later. The use of "safe" words isn't meant to eliminate important or painful conversations. It's simply meant to give you a breather so you can allow explosive emotions to come back under control and have those conversations in a calm, productive manner later.

For this to work, both parties must agree ahead of time that once the "safe" word is spoken that the conversation will stop, no matter where it is and no matter how much the person hearing the "safe" word wants it to go on. Saying the "safe" word communicates that the person who says it cannot continue for a reason they cannot or do not want to name (or perhaps don't even know themselves). Being able to stop the conversation without having to name the reason they want to stop is incredibly freeing and enabling and can prevent significant damage from being done to a relationship when used sparingly and wisely.

It does take practice, however. It will feel quite strange at first, and you may even find yourself laughing at it. But it works. For people who find themselves consistently enmeshed in conflict with one of their intimates, it offers an excellent way to limit the intensity of those conflicts and provides a way to return to conflict in a more composed, productive manner.

 

Dr. Lickerman's new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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