I adore Becky Chambers. Finding a new author to crush on is the absolute highlight of my month. I’ve just read this beautiful book for the second time and am loving the kobo quote tools. https://www.kobo.com/AU/en/ebook/the-long-way-to-a-small-angry-planet-1?utm_campaign=PhotoQuotesAdr&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=App_Acq
We talk a lot in trauma recovery about safety and empowerment as the magic that heals which is real and true and appropriate. They have a dark side though, which is rarely explored. What is it to feel safe? Is safety a good and healthy aim for a human? What happens when we feel unsafe? Threat is the opposite of safety, and many of us with backgrounds of complex trauma feel constantly and chronically threatened, triggering an array of responses across the small menu of mammalian options: fight, flight, freeze, fawn. Safety is crucial to being able to function outside of this menu, to bring to life different aspects of our selves than simply the reflexes of raw survival.
But not everything that threatens us does us harm. And not everything that feels safe is good for us. Abusers feel threatened by the freedom and autonomy of the people they are in relationships with. They restore their sense of safety by undermining that autonomy.
Becoming aware of the ways in which you are privileged can feel very unsafe, especially if you are also tangled in shame and guilt as if you are somehow personally responsible for it. For many people the idea of having privilege has become a kind of personal taint, a character flaw to overcome rather than an abstract awareness of unequal opportunities and a responsibility to share them.
Some people feel safest at the bottom of every hierarchy, too small and powerless to harm.
Some feel safest at the top, apex predators who see all others as fellow predators to compete with, or prey to devour.
When I developed the peer based recovery group for Bridges, the face to face support group for people with dissociation and or multiplicity, I choose Safety as one of the key values for the group. Striving to make a safe place is essential for the involvement of people who had often experienced severe trauma. And yet I did so slightly ambivalently, aware that safety is a good goal but also an insufficient one. Without other values to be in tension with, safety is a kind of death. Extreme risk aversion creates coffins of our lives: isolation, dehumanization, and disconnection rule.
As a parent, safety is a primary concern for me. An essential part of my job description is keeping Poppy and Star safe. Whether that’s from physical injury, sickness, abuse, or neglect, this is my concern. However I hold this concern in tension with their other basic human needs. Freedom, autonomy, connection… many of our essential needs require risk. If I focus only on safety I will shun risk. Risk is my enemy, to be identified and dug out of life like a weed. The highest possible aim to reduce all risks to nothing. But risk adverse living has predictable and at times devastating outcomes. It is in itself a risk to be understood and treated with great care. Children allowed to take no risks also cannot learn, grow, connect, gain confidence, cope with mistakes, or navigate imperfection. Risk adverse approaches lock them into extremely small lives where obedience and fear dominate all.
Risk competence is about understanding that safety must be paired with unsafety. It’s about knowing that a culture that has horrifyingly high rates of serious child injury is taking huge risks, and also knowing that a culture with almost no serious child injuries is taking huge risks in other ways, because the only lifestyles in which that is possible preclude climbing, running, playing outdoors, pets or animals, sports, and all the opportunities children need to become competent at using their bodies and navigating their environments. There is an optimal window of risk, too much or too little are both harmful, which is a difficult concept to fathom in a public health framework.
What this optimal window is and where its boundaries are is highly contentious, informed by the personal values in tension with safety, and the way we cope with the fear of bad things happening. A major way we navigate this fear is called the just world theory. This is the belief that bad things will not happen to us because we are smart and decent people. This is a major way most of us create a sense of safety in an otherwise unpredictable world.
Most of us who have been through trauma can speak of the savage outcomes of the just world theory. The first is that we tend to blame victims of bad situations for their circumstances, because it makes us feel safer to believe they were at fault in ways we would not be. The second is the devastating loss of essential illusions when some trauma strips the just world theory away from you. Trying to function in a world that is unfair and uncontrollable is a nightmare when you’ve previously relied on comforting beliefs that all things work out fairly in some way.
As victims (/recipients/survivors) of trauma we are desperately trying to piece back together our own sense of safety, while resenting the painful price we are paying for the illusions of safety of those around us. We don’t want them to be safe, we are begging them to be brave. To stand with us and face the gross injustice and paralyzing uncertainty of our situations. Safety is cultural denial and numbness in the face of devastating pain and abandonment. As those who are marginalised and dealing with various forms of oppression, likewise.
What this looks like when it comes to risk is a cruel system. People (and parents) who take risks, even massive risks, and succeed are lauded. The acceptibility of the risk is determined by the outcome. Those who take even minor, or very well equipped and skilled risks who have bad outcomes are frequently attacked, shamed, and shunned. Whether they are parents going sailing and dealing with an ill child, or a mother going out for her birthday who is betrayed by the babysitter who harms her child, no risk is acceptable in the context of a bad outcome. Such is the nature of a risk adverse culture with a just world theory (embedded in neoliberalism) and no agreement about the optimum window of risk.
This savagery drives highly risk adverse parenting, which is often called out in ways that shame those parents (mothers) with little awareness of the underlying context. Few of us feel we can afford the risk of being attacked and rejected by our communities at the point of a devastating experience. Each time we witness it or participate in it we drive home the message more strongly: no one can afford bad luck, bad circumstances, or risks. Safety is the only practical goal.
This drives the ‘mummy wars’ where I’ve been told I’m a child abuser for such minor lifestyle choices as allowing Poppy to attend an outdoor event with me, permitting her to not wear shoes in a park, or allowing her hair to be dyed purple. The intensity of these interactions far outweighs the circumstances. Risks become linked to difference, without consensus there is no safe place to stand where judgement won’t fall.
Safety without courage not only cages us in very small lives, it cages our communities and exiles those unfortunate enough to suffer. Safety is essential for us, a basic prerequisite for or ability to get up in the morning and function. We can build it on capacity, consent, freedom, and experiences of risk. Or we can build it at great cost to ourselves and the people around us. It’s a beautiful and noble goal, especially when it’s been shattered. But it also has powerful dark sides best keep in mind.
3 thoughts on “The Dark Sides of Safety”
Niice blog you have
Sarah, you have no idea how reading this has just nourished me – on a day feeling extremely vulnerable… thank you.
I’m glad to nourish ❤
Vulnerable week here too. Honoring these things helps ground me, all the experiences given voice and space.