Some people were born to two nurturing, physically and emotionally present caregivers who showed them that relationships are safe places to get their needs met in healthy ways. Well, that certainly sounds lovely. But this is not the experience of, dare I say, the majority of humanity.
When two people procreate, what are the odds that neither one of them has any limiting beliefs, unhealed trauma, or self-defeating behaviors? Pretty slim, yes?
Now, what are the chances that these parents do not project their dysfunctional shit onto their children, but instead transmit an emotional maturity that they themselves do not possess?
Let us also consider the probability that there is no medical diagnosis, death, divorce, accident, bullying, abuse, neglect, or relational trauma of any kind to interfere with the proper development of a child.
Looked at it from this standpoint, becoming a well-rounded, emotionally intelligent, self-aware, and empowered human being simply as a matter of course seems like a fucking statistical anomaly, now doesn’t it?
In this article, I’m going to describe a commonplace response to the inevitable hazards of growing up and suggest a path forward to more wholeness and satisfaction in life.
Believing Relationships Aren’t Safe
In a prior article entitled Emotional Ghosts, I wrote:
“Childhood is the most dangerous hood in the world. The crime rate is astronomical, and literally no one is patrolling those streets. Shit that happens in that hood — from broken promises and stolen dreams to first-degree soul murder — goes largely unaccounted for until the statute of limitations is up. The result is a bewildered populace of emotional ghosts, completely oblivious to their undead condition. They blend into a crowd with prosthetic hearts and play patty-cake with the normies for a chance to feel alive.”
Some of the emotionally undead that I describe here are those who learned from inconsistent parenting or turbulent childhoods that relationships aren’t safe. And, for better or for worse, the unanimous conclusion of anthropology, biology, psychology, sociology, and everything we’ve ever known about people is that we need human connection in order to thrive.
Needing connection while simultaneously knowing from lived experience during your most formative years that connection is terrifying places you between a rock and a hard place, to put it lightly.
If your childhood trauma wired your nervous system to operate under the assumption that relationships aren’t safe, you’ll be compelled to implement vulnerability avoidance tactics, which subsequently produce a relational deficit whereby your vital attachment needs cannot be met. And living with unmet needs is the beating heart of shitty feelings and poor life choices.
Nonsense, I Love Relationships!
Just because you’ve got a bunch of relationships, doesn’t mean your subconscious mind isn’t fully convinced they’re not safe.
Do you have lots of friends, but very few know everything about you? How many people know all your deepest fears and insecurities? How many people are you completely vulnerable, transparent, and authentic with?
Are you fiercely independent, self-sufficient, and highly successful? Do you rarely ask for help, if ever?
Have all of your romantic relationships been with emotionally unavailable or dysfunctional people? Is it possible that you’ve chosen partners that you knew were not capable of true intimacy — your greatest mortal fear?
Many people attempt to get their needs met from a safe distance — through work relationships, achievement, performance, friendships, helping others, casual sex, or by some other way that keeps people at arm’s length. Maybe they use pets or their own children to outsource emotional jobs to maintain the upper hand.
Take a look at your relationships across the boards. Do you have true authentic connection with two-way vulnerability? Or do you mostly hide behind a job title, a role, a facade, a wall of cordiality, behind money, power, prestige, a funny personality, or some cardboard cutout of your actual self?
Practically no one would want to admit that they have fake friends, superficial relationships, and a hollow-ass life — a soul-crushing admission for sure. In fact, many people go to great lengths to furnish their lives from wall to wall with shiny objects, distractions, and synthetic self-importance.
But acknowledging the problem, obviously, is prerequisite to doing anything to change it.
Proving Your Nervous System Wrong
This belief that relationships aren’t safe is not a belief in the conventional sense of the word. It’s not a conscious thing you may have ever thought about or said aloud. It’s what we call an operational belief — the type of belief you can only confirm by looking at past actions.
For example, let’s say someone has the explicit, rational belief, “I want an emotionally attuned partner who shares everything with me.” If the last twenty people they shacked up with were emotionally unavailable schmucks, we may conclude that this person’s operational belief is, “Relationships with immature people are very safe.”
These types of beliefs are wired into our physiology in a very real, neurobiological way. Think of them as physical beliefs. As such, you cannot talk your way out of them. Sure, reading books and doing talk therapy can be immensely helpful. But the transformation happens when you start providing your body with feelings, sensations, and somatic experiences that contradict the no longer helpful, fear-based beliefs living in your organism.
My friend Dane once told me, “Vulnerability is the price of admission to a real relationship.” Without vulnerability, you can never truly be seen, accepted, and connected to another person. And if you are not seen by anyone else, do you even exist? Who are you? What does your life even mean?
So invulnerability, we could say, is the price we pay to avoid reliving the pain of our childhood wounds. But this strategy is like locking our wounded child in an emotional bomb shelter with limited rations. So, while we may be satisfied with the alleged safety it creates, we’ve still got to reckon with the isolation, emptiness, emotional starvation, and identity crisis.
Learning to be vulnerable and authentic, therefore, outlines the path of healing for people like this.
The number-one principle of trauma-informed care is safety. It is of paramount importance to find safe places and safe people to practice vulnerability with. This is the great benefit of therapeutic relationships and trustworthy friends.
Following are some suggestions to create experiences of safe vulnerability:
Get a notebook and practice regular journaling. Tell that notebook how you’re feeling, what’s going on with you, the joys and the pains of life. If you cannot be vulnerable with a notebook, how the hell are you gonna be vulnerable with another human being? It’s great practice.
Read Vulnerability Avoidance Tactics and Alternatives To Being Human for examples of things people do to protect themselves when relationships don’t feel safe. Then, make a list of all the ways in which you get your needs met in roundabout ways, avoid emotional risks, and keep people from getting too close to you. Next, consider healthier, more vulnerable alternatives to each one of your sly practices and actually implement them (action is key).
Try listening in on some CoDA meetings. It’s a free and anonymous twelve-step fellowship whose only requirement for membership is a desire for healthy and loving relationships. CoDA is a safe space where people go to practice being vulnerable. You can participate or just observe. Paradoxically, vulnerability is often scary when you do it, but super courageous and inspirational when other people do it. Give it a shot.
Work one-on-one with a therapist, coach, mentor, or twelve-step sponsor. If this person is good at what they do, they’ll be able to ask the right questions to help you get in touch with yourself and feel safe sharing authentically with the world.
Phone A Friend
Pick or make a healthy and trustworthy friend with integrity and ask if they would be willing to talk to you on the phone or meet for coffee once a week for about an hour. Consistency is key, so put it on the calendar for the same time and day every week. Discuss anything and everything with this person. Fears, insecurities, hopes, dreams, secrets — everything is on the table. Allow them to really get to know who you are. Warts and all.
If you’re in a relationship, you can also do this with your partner. There is definite value in having weekly chats with someone who is just a friend. But doing it with your partner can be a whole different experience. This will take practice, but you can begin with low stake check-ins of “How are you feeling?”, “What’s taking up your mental space these days?”, or “What are you doing for self-care?”
Making Relationships Safe
Remember, the emphasis is on creating experiences of vulnerability that don’t end in drama, tragedy, pain, regret, or turmoil. So if your partner is toxic and your friends are all assholes, then don’t take those last two suggestions. Stick with the first four.
Every one of us has a soul that yearns to be seen, heard, validated, respected, appreciated, and loved. If you’ve got that thing hog-tied in the basement because you think you’re helping it stay safe, consider the possibility that the road you’re on only leads to a cemetery plot made of painful regrets and unlived life.
Start working to make relationships feel safe again today. It’s really the most important thing you can do to make your life not suck.