Keeping Yourself Physically Safe Is a Healing Task
Maintaining safety as an adult can be healing and reparative.
Posted June 6, 2022 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- People who have had a normal, healthy childhood often take that sense of security for granted.
- However, those who come from relational trauma backgrounds may struggle with keeping themselves safe as adults.
- The practical and actionable act of keeping oneself safe can be healing and reparative.
Many people take it for granted that they know how to protect themselves well and that others would, of course, know how to do the same.
But strengthening your ability to keep yourself safe can likewise be something with which folks who come from relational trauma backgrounds struggle.
To learn why this may feel like a struggle, as well as practical, tangible ways to practice keeping yourself safer as an adult, please keep reading.
Why is it hard for those from relational trauma backgrounds to keep themselves safe as adults?
While it may seem obvious that keeping yourself safe as an adult should be a top priority and that you would know, inherently, what exactly this means and how to do it, in my personal and professional experience, those with relational trauma histories may struggle with this life skill—sometimes mightily so.
Coming from a relational trauma history can leave one with many biopsychosocial impacts that can lead to deficits in seemingly basic life skills with which their non-traumatized peers don’t struggle.
And one of these “seemingly basic” life skills can be how well or poorly one is able to keep oneself safe as an adult.
When you come from a relational trauma history—the kind of trauma that results over the course of time in the context of a power-imbalanced and dysfunctional relationship (usually between a child and caregiver)—you may experience one or more of the following biopsychosocial impacts:
- Having maladaptive and dysfunctional beliefs about yourself: For example, conscious or unconscious thoughts and beliefs that look like: “I’m a broken person who deserves to be treated poorly.”
- Having maladaptive and dysfunctional beliefs about others: For example, conscious or unconscious thoughts and beliefs that look like: “He’s not really that abusive—that’s just how he shows love.”
- Having no appropriate ideas of adequate safety measures because of a lack of modeling: For example, a child who grew up with a father who drove after drinking might condone friends and partners driving under the influence with them and their own children in the car. Or someone who grew up with a mother who never called the police because she thought all police were bad might struggle to reach out to proper authorities for help protecting themselves.
- Struggling to feel connected to your body and thus not able to access your more subtle somatic sensations (and therefore sound instincts) that warn you of danger: Someone who can’t feel her somatic sensations at all—especially the subtle signals—might miss important cues and clues her body is trying to send her about unsafe situations, places, and people.
And these are just a few examples of how growing up with a history of child abuse, neglect, or chaos might lead to maladaptive and dysfunctional ways of viewing safety and being able to practice safety as an adult.
Thus, learning, re-learning, and refining the life skill of keeping yourself safe as an adult is a critical part of relational trauma recovery.
But what does it even mean to keep yourself safe as an adult?
In essence, I personally and professionally believe that keeping yourself safe as an adult means protecting yourself as a good-enough mother or father would have done for you.
This definition is, I admit, subjective (meaning it will be unique for all of us depending on how we define good-enough parenting), so to catalyze your thinking about this, I’ll share a list of practical examples that come to mind for me.
Keeping yourself safe as an adult may mean:
- Doing whatever it takes to live in a safe, peaceful environment without the presence or threat of abuse, violence, or pain inside or outside of your home. This may include choosing safe neighborhoods (not to mention cities and states) to live in and renting and buying structurally sound apartments and homes to dwell in. This may mean living alone and getting away from your family of origin or romantic partner if they are a source of abuse and/or ensuring you live only with safe, trustworthy people if you share your housing.
- Designing your primary personal environments—your home, your car, your workplace, etc.—to help you feel safe in whatever ways you can. This may mean installing multiple locks on your doors and/or installing security cameras to monitor the inside and outside of your home. This should mean making sure you have functional smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers, escape ladders, and go bags/earthquake kits prepared.
- When in public and outside of your primary environments, make choices that honor what your somatic sensations and instincts want to do to keep you safe. Maybe this means sitting with your back to the wall while at work and at restaurants, so you have a clear view of the door.
- Being able and willing to explore next-level interventions to remove and block unsafe people from your life. This may look like estranging yourself from certain family members. Or blocking them on social media (or getting off social media altogether), blocking their numbers on your phone, and filtering their email addresses to folders, so their messages never land in your inbox and startle you.
And this list is just the tip of the iceberg.
There are so many other ways a good-enough parent might take care of their child and thus countless other actions you could take to help ensure your own safety as an adult.
Now, you might read this essay and think that the above actions seem excessive.
But I want to invite you to consider that if you’ve spent your life feeling unsafe and unprotected by those who should have protected you well against life circumstances (not to mention if you’ve spent your life feeling unsafe and unprotected because your caregivers were the very people who directly abused you and/or threatened your life), these action steps—far from being excessive—are, instead, necessary and reparative.
Taking any and every action step that helps you feel even moderately safer and more protected in the world may greatly help regulate your nervous system and bring you back into your Window of Tolerance.
If you would like support strengthening your ability to keep yourself safe as an adult, the directory of therapists here on Psychology Today is a wonderful resource.