The best way to feel safe, secure, and “whole”—capable of facing whatever challenges life may bring you—is to have emotionally safe people in your life. That’s a basic part of our blueprint as human beings.
Emotionally safe people are people whom you can turn to when you feel vulnerable, and with whom you don’t feel afraid to be yourself.
Unfortunately, when people feel chronically emotionally unsafe, their inner bodyguard gets extremely protective. As we noted in previous articles, the prime directive of all life is survival. So, when a chronic lack of emotional safety takes hold, the inner bodyguard, taking the attitude of “better safe than sorry,” starts to see practically everyone as dangerous, and either stays away from them or pushes them away. The problem is that by never allowing anyone to feel truly “safe” to you, your bodyguard prevents you from getting the one thing that would give you a sense of emotional safety.
So creating an emotional safety net is both an “inside” and an “outside” task: Finding some people who are emotionally safe, but also recognizing the people who can (or want to) be emotionally safe, and taking small risks to build your circle of safety from the inside out.
Here are four tips to help get you started.
Look around for the people who accept you. Think of the people in your life (at home or at work) who, when push comes to shove, really do care about you and support you, even if they don’t always get it right. If they’re not nearby, call them up.
Take small risks to open up. Share a vulnerable feeling, such as “I’m nervous,” “I’m scared” or “I’m sad,” without blaming the other person for making you feel that way. In an emotionally safe relationship, whether with a friend or an intimate partner, sharing a vulnerable feeling will naturally elicit a caring response, as long as the other person doesn’t feel blamed or that what they can give won’t be enough. The act of sharing vulnerable feelings with a friend or partner in a non-defensive way and getting empathy in return – and in turn, responding empathically to someone else’s vulnerable feelings – builds your emotional safety net.
Ask your bodyguard to stand close, but not step in right away. The moment you feel scared and vulnerable, your bodyguard will probably want to take over. But you don’t have to tell your bodyguard to go away (you probably couldn’t, anyway). You can ask your bodyguard to stand to the side and watch while you try to do something new and different.
Learn to discern – and learn to forgive. It’s true that many work and social environments really aren’t emotionally safe, and some people really aren’t safe and never will be. That’s when it’s better to protect yourself. But most people are somewhere in the middle. Accepting, understanding and forgiving the flaws and lapses of the people closest to you allows them to relax more and draw closer to you, which in turn will make you feel safer (and more loved) by them.