Being Safe with One’s Self
Posted on April 1, 2016
Being safe with one’s self is something many of us think little about in our own lives. Even if we struggle at times with self-confidence, we usually trust that we will not embarrass ourselves or get ourselves in trouble. A life of stress and trauma often creates a brain structure that is highly reactive and struggles with social and emotional regulation. This results in a personal narrative where the protagonist does not feel safe with themselves, and can be a danger to self and others.
Imagine walking through life, not trusting that you won’t explode. No client wakes up in the morning and decides, “I’m going to throw a fit in the waiting room today” or “I think I’ll get triggered by a medical examination and push my physician” or “Today, I’ll get really stressed and relapse.” A life dominated by stress and trauma is a reactive and unintentional existence. No one, including the client, can predict when and where an outburst, crisis, retraumatization, or breakdown will occur.
For a second, imagine what this must feel like. That at any moment you could lose it and just go off on your boss, romantic partner, or at the grocery store. You have no idea what the consequence of this explosion will be. You might get fired, lose friends and loved ones, or arrested. No one seems to understand that you are not intentionally exhibiting these behaviors. You don’t know when or why it happens, but you do worry about the trouble you can end up in.
In my experience, those who feel this loss of control rarely have the language to express it. Trauma impacts language systems in the brain, making it difficult for clients to put thoughts and feelings into words in a way that others can understand. Not being able to express oneself can be a frustrating trigger in and of itself, leading the client to become a victim of their own behaviors and actions.
This can set up a lifelong cycle of explosions and punishments for these behaviors. Unfortunately, the person then often picks up labels such as “criminal,” the “bad kid” in school, “oppositional,” “problem client/patient,” and so on. Too often, society treats people with these labels in a certain way, which can increase the likelihood for these behaviors to occur in the future and can also set up self-fulfilling prophecies that too often are fulfilled unintentionally by the client’s reactions.
What breaks my heart is how often, as service providers, community members, and educators, we punish these behaviors as if they were intentional, without understanding the pain and suffering that causes the behaviors to occur. I know I have struggled to create safe environments for staff and other clients, while being empathetic to clients that exhibit unsafe behaviors. I’m still haunted by clients I have “kicked out” of programs in the past, before I learned about the science that helped provide a context and a way to understand these behaviors. Even with this knowledge, creating a safe environment for everyone, while also addressing dangerous behaviors, can be a difficult, if not impossible, balance to find.
While this balancing act will always present us with a challenge, there is an important piece I missed early in my career. When explosive behaviors happened, I often took action without reconnecting with the client. Over time, I realized that so many clients did not fully understand the impact their behaviors were having on others. For many, their behaviors were punished and service providers would then close their doors and turn their backs to them. I was just another person reinforcing this pattern. Other clients did not seem to remember anything about the explosive event, and if they could remember something, it was very different than what I witnessed.
A disruptive behavioral event can be an opportunity for growth and insight. Statements like, “When you threatened us this is how it made us feel” can be very powerful, and can often help the client realize that they might need to consider mental health therapy. For others, they might have dissociated and not remember the event at all. Reconnecting with these clients can help show them how much their past trauma is impacting their lives and, again, can be a motivator to get additional help and resources. The goal should be insight, followed by strategies to help the client learn to be safe with themselves. Regardless of the situation, reconnecting with the client is the most important piece. Reconnection is integral to helping the client find insight and to help them realize that relationships can be repaired and even become stronger after a disruption.
It is up to us as providers whether we reinforce past patterns or help find positives in difficult situations. Disruptive events challenge our own ability to regulate and bring our best selves into the situation. My question this week is: how has knowledge about trauma and the brain impacted how you or your organization approach disruptive situations, and how have you been successful in helping clients feel safe in their own skin?