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:
- Creates an atmosphere of peace, joy, and vitality in life and brings this into other atmospheres.
- Encourages and models healthy communication and relationships.
- Encourages our personal development and stokes an inner ambition to pursue and express our worth.
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:
- A person who accepts me as I am.
- A person who loves me no matter how I am being or what I do.
- A person whose influence develops my ability to love and be responsible.
- Someone who creates love and good works within me.
- Someone who gives me an opportunity to grow.
- Someone who increases love within me.
- Someone I can be myself around.
- Someone who allows me to be on the outside what I am on the inside.
- Someone who allows me to become the “me” that God intended.
- Someone who helps me become the “me” God sees in me.
- Someone whose life touches mine and leaves me better for it.
- Someone who touches my life and draws me closer to God as I understand Him.
- Someone who helps me grow into Divine character.
- Someone who helps me love others more.
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”?
- Dwelling: Dwelling refers to someone’s ability to connect with us. The Greek word used here means to “encamp” or “reside.” The origin of this word has to do with the human body as the place where the spirit resides. Safe people are able to “dwell in the flesh.” They are able to connect in a way that we know that they are present with us.
- Grace: This means that someone is on our side; they are “for us.” Grace implies unconditional love and acceptance with no condemnation. Relationships in which people shame or condemn us are ultimately hurtful and do not produce growth. They require us to be different than we are in order to be accepted. Love that must be earned is basically useless. Grace does the opposite. It says that you are accepted just like you are and that you will not be shamed or incur wrath for whatever you are experiencing. I would characterize this as validation.
- Truth: Truth implies many things, but in relationships it implies honesty, being real with one another, and attempting to be vulnerable. Many people think that safe relationships are relationships that just give grace without authenticity going both ways, but ultimately these relationships can be destructive as well. We need people in our lives who will be honest with us about their own lives, too; people who will match our level of sharing. This is called reciprocity. We also need friends who will tell us the truth. We all have blind spots. If they see something in us that we can’t, then we need friends who will take the risk and tell us. There is imbalance, however, if that dynamic doesn’t flow both ways. A friendship isn’t a mentorship.
Good safe relationships are ones where:
- We can be present with another, connecting on a deep level.
- We receive grace and acceptance with no condemnation, giving us freedom from the fear of rejection.
- We can speak the truth to one another in vulnerability enjoying a validating environment.
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.
- Are my relationships safe?
- Do they meet the “safe people” criteria?
- Am I able to develop and grow in my current relationships?
- Do I feel accepted for who I am in my current relationships?
- Do I feel loved?
- Am I honored as a separate person?
- Am I allowed to share who I am and tell the truth without being made to feel faulty?
- Are my key relationships reciprocal?
- Are my relationships validating?
- Am I a safe person?
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.