BY: Lauren Peffley, MSW
To someone who has never experienced danger, safety might not seem like a priority. If safety has always been your baseline, you may not understand how important a baseline it truly is. I write to you as a person who has lived the vast majority of my life shrouded in safety. It was only because I purposefully (at times forcefully) pushed myself outside my comfort zone that I realized safety is not a guarantee and many individuals live their entire lives without ever experiencing it. Far too many people do not have a place to call home or a home to call safe. I have heard story after story of individuals facing danger after danger, and it breaks my heart every single time.
Although it may be challenging for individuals who have lived safe lives, filled with safe relationships, to perpetually think about the importance of safety, I encourage us all to be actively mindful of the danger some individuals face on a daily – perhaps hourly – basis. Before any clinical work is done and before recovery can truly begin, safety must be established. In her seminal work called “Trauma and Recovery,” Judith Herman dedicates an entire chapter to this topic. She describes three important stages of healing from trauma: Safety, Remembrance and Mourning, and Reconnection. In the stage of establishing safety, she points out the importance of physical safety, mental safety, emotional safety, sobriety, and safe relationships. Herman also notes that one of the most common therapeutic errors is moving forward with trauma work “without sufficient attention to the tasks of establishing safety and securing a therapeutic alliance” (Herman, p. 172). Clinicians, service providers, friends, and family members may have the best intentions in trying to push an individual into more advanced stages of recovery, but if the baseline of safety is not established then that work (and those good intentions) may be rendered useless.
I write this to myself as much as I write it to you. This is a reminder to never push too hard too soon – to not get frustrated if a person is not yet ready to move forward. If someone is in survival mode and cannot find safety, their behaviors and decision-making processes are almost certainly going to reflect that. If that is the case, then I vow to do everything in my power to show utmost empathy and radical respect. I vow to help find safety. Once safety is established, then and only then can a survivor begin their journey to recovery and reconnection.
Learning to promote safety first,
Recommended read: “Trauma and Recovery” – Chapter 8: Safety (pp. 155-175) by Judith Herman (1992)