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  • Lemuel Tan

Feeling Emotionally Safe

Updated: Feb 23, 2020

“He is not a bad person. I…. I just do not feel like I want to go back home. I just…… I just dread the thought of it. I mean he has never hit me or anything. But I cannot help but feel somewhat paranoid even when I am not around him.”

There are many types of safety: physical safety, financial safety, psychological safety…. and there is emotional safety. So what is Emotional Safety (ES)?

ES is the feeling of being secure and comfortable in expressing your emotions with others. It is a sense that you can openly express personal concerns, deep thoughts and differences regardless of race, gender, power/authority, hierarchy, etc. You do not feel worried and you do not feel that you are putting yourself in danger.

Those who do not have ES may feel: trapped, not trusting, sceptical about the other person’s intention, unheard, excessively worrying about small mistakes or perceived mistakes, paranoid or even shutting down. A prolonged lack of ES may potentially develop into a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, adjustment disorders, etc. ES is not only inherent in couples or in close family/family relationships but occurs in groups, work-place, communities and others. If you feel anxious going to work, feel you cannot trust your colleagues, feel fed-up at your work place, feel mentally insecure and feel uncomfortable in expressing your thoughts and emotions at work, there is a chance that you may be experiencing a lack of ES at work.

ES has its roots in Attachment Theory (How early relationship impact us as a whole). In an ideal scenario, a baby would have a healthy relationship with his/her parents- the parents would be able to meet the needs of the child: physical, comfort, nourishment, emotional, etc. However, when a child experience abuse and neglect, a child becomes at risk of developing an insecure attachment (becoming anxious or avoidant) which potentially sets the tone for later adult relationships. The idea of ES comes from the idea that a child being attuned and connected with the care-giver will experience ES. However, having a “Secure Attachment” in childhood is not an inoculation from poor ES in later adult life.

The lack of ES usually occurs gradually with most people not even noticing it until it is too late. They then feel fed-up and burned-out by the relationship or group. However, other abuses such as physical abuse and sexual abuse, are somewhat immediate. One can experience the immediacy of the impact– scarring, immediate physical/emotional pain, legal consequence, etc. When it comes to emotional abuse or the lack of ES, the experience is often a slow grind, almost unnoticeable. Because of this, people may tend to think that ES is boring and unimportant. However, to be healthily functioning and enjoying relationships, it is vital that we have ES.

What can I do to have better ES? Below are some general ideas of what one can do:

  • Understand your own emotional needs and acknowledge that you have needs too. As cliché as it sounds, acknowledgment and acceptance is indeed the first step to recovery.

  • Find, build and invest in trusting relationships, even outside of the trigger environment. Make friends outside family and work.

  • Create emotionally safe places in your home, work, etc. This may be a place in the environment where you can retreat and recuperate without being further triggered or activated.

  • If possible, talk to the individual about how his/her actions is making you feel unsafe and come up with an agreed plan of how it could benefit the both of you.

  • Learn psychological skills such as “grounding” – learning how to be present and not let your own thoughts affect you or what other people say affect you.

  • Being self-compassionate and kind to yourself. Give yourself breaks, intentional “time-outs” and do what is necessary to gain back some level of ES – going for a walk, listening to your favourite music, etc. Being intentional is key as maintaining ES may appear boring and unimportant.

  • Consider psychotherapy/counselling to understand yourself better by uncovering your own expectations, drivers, needs, etc. As strange as it sounds, sometimes being Emotional Unsafe may have benefits. A client once told me that she would rather be emotionally unsafe instead of physically unsafe. The reality is that you deserve to be safe on both fronts and one is not greater than the other.

If you or a loved one is struggling with ES, remember that you are not alone and that you can seek help.

Disclaimer: The material on this blog is not to be used by any commercial or personal entity without expressed written consent of the blog's author. The article above is an opinion of an individual clinician and should not be taken as full clinical advice. The statements on this blog are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any mental health or mental illnesses. Always consult your doctor for medical advice or seek professional therapy.

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