Trauma & Experimenting With Feeling Safe

Lisa Martens

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I wouldn't say I have "struggled" with feeling unsafe all of my life, because I didn't see it as a struggle.

I saw it as being smarter than everyone else. I knew that my home could be gone at any moment. Fire, explosion, being kicked out, moving...Whatever happened, I was emotionally ready, because I was detached.

I felt like feeling unsafe was almost a blessing. When something bad happened, everyone else would be caught off-guard...but not me. I wouldn't be shocked or stunned. I would be ready, like some kind of superhero...or villain.

This is a symptom of trauma—I was experiencing hyper-arousal, and numbing. I felt afraid of something bad happening, and my solution was to detach...to act like it was "okay" if my house exploded, because I "didn't care about it anyway."

My symptoms compounded and convinced me that these feelings were not bad, no...they were for my benefit.

Lately, I've been experimenting with feeling safe. This required me to reconsider the following:

1. Feeling on-edge made me "smarter" or "better prepared" than other people. When bad things happened to me, I was never surprised. I was always a little detached. When bad things happened to other people, they were surprised. And so, I felt like I had a little cushion, a little padding, that no one else had. And it made me feel better, like I was somehow better suited for the world than all the "regular" people. I didn't consider the idea that being numb also meant not being able to heal fully or experience joy as fully as other people. I just saw that I was good at avoiding pain by feeling nothing.

2. I could feel safe, or be on-edge, but not both. It was one or the other. I thought this was some kind of either/or situation. I didn't envision a world where I could plan, but not have anxiety attacks. I could hear realities, but not panic. I could look at my bank acount coolly. I didn't have to be anxious or numb.

3. I had earned the skill of being on-edge, and feeling safe meant "going soft." I didn't think of feeling safe as a skill-in-itself. I saw it as weakness. Over time, I came to see feeling safe as a useful skill that, like any other skill, I had to practice. I just happened to have an upbringing where I practiced feeling unsafe more than I practiced feeling safe. However, I could use both skills.

4. Feeling on-edge helped me survive in every situation. There are a lot of situations in our everyday life where feeling on-edge does not help. Working an office job, for example. Planning a trip, checking a bank account. There are many situations where feeling hyper-arousal injures productivity, and there are actually few cases where it's an asset.

5. Feeling on-edge actually prevented bad things from happening. This is a hard one to explain, but I felt like somehow, in some cosmic way, feeling anxious and in anticipation actually prevented bad things from happening. I felt like if I felt safe, that would usher in bad things...as a kind of punishment for feeling good.

6. Feeling on-edge was a part of my identity that could not change. I thought, for a long time, that this was who I was, and I should be proud of it. I saw any opportunity or hint to change as an affront to who I was. I didn't consider that developing the skill of feeling safe might help me to achieve other goals. Feeling safe, for example, is important when you're working on a creative project, creating a budget, and trying to have good, lasting relationships. If I was constantly waiting for something bad to happen, and if I identified with that feeling, then how was I ever going to accomplish anything?

What I tell myself as I experiment with feeling safe:

1. Feeling safe is a useful skill, not a fact. I always thought of people who felt safe as foolish. Safety was not real. It was an illusion. I felt like the future was not real.

Then I began to consider that maybe feeling safe and secure was more like a skill than a fact. The more I practiced feeling safe, the better I could plan for the future. I could make better decisions if I imagined a world where I was safe, and prepared for that...instead of jumping from chaotic event to chaotic event. My self-imposed chaos was a distraction. I could instead feel safe until real chaos happened to me...naturally.

Unexpected events do happen, so I don't have to worry about them happening. They will. I can only be adaptable so that I feel safe and enjoy good times, and am agile enough for the bad.

2. Caring about details helps cultivate my own sense of security and safety. I used to say I didn't care where I stayed or what it looked like. I didn't care where I lived, if my bed was comfortable for me, or if my room was decorated. I've slept on literal mattresses on the floor with a jacket on top of me. I thought making a fuss about things like that was something weak people did...but I started to realize that when things were the way I actually liked it, that was...nice. It helped me feel better.

Feeling at home wasn't really quite so bad. It wasn't the scary thing I had assumed it was. I wasn't immediately a weaker person just because I had a bed with sheets and trinkets that were uniquely me.

3. When staying still is difficult, it's okay to question why. I used to get this feeling, and have to move. Have to change jobs. Have to run away. Have to break up, or drive people away. I have to start over.

I became used to completely reinventing my life, so that sticking to one sent me into a state of anxiety and panic. If I changed my own life, something terrible couldn't happen to ruin it. In a strange way, never being safe...made me feel safe.

I began to question why I was so restless, and I discovered tangle after tangle of complex emotions that I had never dealt with.

So far it...is okay.

This is like stretching muscles I didn't even know I had. I am struggling with the idea that feeling safe is a skill to be perfected, not a lie to be avoided.

But like stretching muscles, it gets easier every day.

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