After my last post, I wanted to pause and discuss the idea of a safe person and what that means using Drs. Cloud and Townsend’s book Safe People. On their website, Cloud and Townsend ask the question: What are safe people? This is a crucial question for adult children of borderline parents (and really all humans) to ask because in order to heal the cognitive impairments inflicted by years of trauma experienced in a borderline relationship safety must be established. In all my communications with my mother, I have insisted that she focus on learning to become a safe person, but, as I have pondered this notion, I have asked myself what it might mean to specifically be a safe person.
According to Cloud and Townsend, a safe person exists within the boundaries of a safe relationship. Keep in mind, Cloud and Townsend operate within a Christian worldview; I’m using their material as a template for this discussion; so, I’m going to change it a bit in order to make their points more accessible to all worldviews. A safe relationship is one that does three things:
Cloud and Townsend did a survey of their clients and community asking them to describe to them what a “safe person” meant to them. These are the results of their survey:
What we see in this list are themes founded upon love, unconditional acceptance, accountability, and encouraged growth and development. We also see that a safe person sees good things in us and calls that forth. They encourage us when we are discouraged, and they don’t judge us. There is no jealousy, relational aggression, or competition. They respect our holistic needs including our spirituality–whatever that looks like. The idea of spirituality is important because abuse does affect the spirit. Accountability is the idea that someone in our life sees the best in us and holds us to that with the intent to encourage us not to settle for life’s lesser loves but to pursue the higher calling for which we were designed. We all need a person like that in our lives.
The next question I would ask is: How do I recognize a safe person? This has been one of my bigger struggles. When we engage in the process of recovery we become excellent at problem-solving in that we are always looking for what doesn’t work. When asked “What do you want?” my response would always be “I don’t know, but I can tell you what I don’t want.” I didn’t know what a safe person looked like, but I was fairly certain that I could recognize a perpetrator. Part of healing our cognitive impairments and developing new neural pathways is learning how to recognize a safe person. When we begin to recognize what safe people look like we also begin to practice being safe. Since safe people don’t judge others, we should not judge others either. Since safe people look for the good in us, we should be looking for the good in others as well. This requires different neural processes, and activating the frontal lobe calms the brain’s alarm systems and gives us practice in empathy.
So, what are the three qualities that describe a “safe person”?
Good safe relationships are ones where:
I read Safe People over ten years ago, and I was deeply affected by it. I realized that I had few safe relationships in my life. It was then that I saw how UNsafe my mother was. I also realized that I had to reeducate myself on how to be a safe person. How you might define safety in the context of relationships might differ from how Cloud and Townsend define safety, but the important issue is that you assess your relationships. Are you safe in your relationships? I’m not merely talking about your physical safety although that’s priority one. The shocking fact, however, is that it’s easier to heal from physical abuse than it is from emotional abuse. Longterm emotional trauma lasts far longer cognitively speaking than does physical abuse. This is why it is imperative that we all take the time to do relationship assessments.
I encourage you to read Safe People: How To Find Relationships That Are Good For You And Avoid Those That Aren’t by Drs. Cloud and Townsend. As with all self-help books, you may not agree with all the content, but it is the only book I’ve found that addresses this important topic. It’s worth the time.