The Problem With "I Don't Feel Safe" & How to Feel Safer
This post is an extension of what I discussed in Individual Healing, Community Harm. It can be so empowering to learn new concepts like emotional safety. We absolutely need to have a robust emotional vocabulary to effectively communicate our needs. Unfortunately, it can also be dangerous to learn about these topics within individualistic frameworks that only teach us to look out for #1.
We have all at this point heard someone say, "this made me feel unsafe" in a conversation that on the surface had nothing to do with safety. Some of us have likely told others the same. And while it's likely that we really didn't feel safe, I worry that this phrase is often used not to get to a place of safety, but to exert some control.
First off: What is emotional safety?
Emotional safety is defined a little differently wherever we look. Over at Psychology Today, they say emotional safety is "the visceral feeling of being accepted and embraced for who you truly are and what you feel and need" - which means it's on the environment and people around you to be safe for you, or not. First Things First focuses more on your own actions by saying "When you’re emotionally safe, you’ve removed yourself as a barrier to others freely being themselves."
So, we feel emotionally safe when we're able to be authentic and express our needs. But we need to balance this by letting others be authentic and express their needs. And as I've alluded to a bit, I think a lot of the folks who say "I don't feel safe" in conflicts aren't finding that balance. In the worst case, "I don't feel safe" is in itself an attempt to control the way the conversation is going.
The trouble comes in when "I don't feel safe" comes with the expectation that others will stop and accommodate us regardless of where they're at in that moment. However true it is that you feel unsafe, it is not a justification to actually be unsafe to be around. When "I don't feel safe" implies "so you need to stop expressing needs and feelings," that is exactly what is happening.
Being able to authentically express your needs means that they will be acknowledged and validated (or, at the very least, not invalidated). Emotional safety means that folks aren't making you doubt yourself, or feel that you need to be dishonest with them about your feelings.
Being able to authentically express your needs does NOT mean that others have to respond in the exact way you prefer, and be able to meet those needs every time. And it definitely does not mean that others can't express their needs back. If those are the expectations that come along when you say you don't feel safe, it's time to find ways to safety that don't include controlling others. Healthy, safe relationships mean that everyone present is treating everyone else present like a whole person with needs that may or may not align with their own.
We don't decide to feel a certain way in advance. But we can course-correct & guide ourselves to other feelings, so let's talk about how to feel safe while staying safe to be around.
Okay, so how do I feel safer?
Step One: Good news, you already did step one, in that you named the way you're feeling. Like I said earlier, having this kind of vocab can really set us up for success when used well.
Step Two: Analyze if there truly are any immediate threats to your safety. If there are, it is important to get somewhere safe as soon as you reasonably can. The rest of these steps are going to be specifically for folks who are not in danger.
Step Three: If you've made it to step 3, you know that you are safe, even if you don't feel that way. Find a way to feel safe that is not trying to control the way others feel, express their feelings, or respond to your feelings.
Which brings us to...Regulation. This could look like co-regulation with a trusted loved one, a nature walk, some cuddles with your blankie and favorite plush, or any other number of strategies to ground yourself & calm your nerves. If you're not sure how to get started, my (free) self-regulation menu may help.
Step Four: Once you've calmed down a bit, you can examine why you felt unsafe in the first place. Is it something specific this person did? Did the conflict remind you of someone else or another situation? Are you on edge because of something totally unrelated? These are all valid reasons, and also they all require different responses. If this person has not presented you with danger before, can you remind yourself of this fact?
Step Five: Problem solve, together. Again, if you've made it this far, you've determined the person you were in conflict with wasn't actually threatening your safety. And you've determined that something they did made you feel like they were. So how do you resolve this? By coming back together and making plans to do something differently in the future.
It's important to approach these topics, as hard as they are, with hope and appreciation for the other person involved. If you come back to the table and say "the way you ____ed totally sucked," and keep focusing on what went wrong, and keep looking back, they probably won't be super enthusiastic about continuing to improve. This is why we want to look forward, and find ways to do better and accommodate each other.
Step 6: Reconnect. Do something together that's not a conflict. I think sometimes when we fight with our loved ones, we forget that they're people we spend time around on purpose. It can be really helpful for those feelings of safety to remind everyone involved that, well, y'all care about each other.
This approach is hard. I would never expect folks to read one blog post and ace it. But I at least want to give an outline of one way you can feel your feelings, and acknowledge that the other person is safe. I truly hope I have left you with a better understanding of what you're expressing when you say you don't feel safe, and of ways you can feel safer without exerting control over others.