How to Create Your Circle of Emotionally Safe Relationships
I'm excited to share a guest post with you this week from therapist Christie Morgan, LPCC. Christie specializes in working with couples and with concerns surrounding identity, faith deconstruction, and trauma. You can learn more about her work at: Embodied + Embraced
Emotional safety is one of the most important foundations to thriving, connected relationships. It enables you to feel safe enough to welcome another person into the vulnerable, imperfect parts of you without fear.
Emotional safety involves being secure enough in your relationships to let your most authentic self show up.
We thrive in the presence of emotional safety.
From an attachment perspective, emotional safety is key to developing secure bonds that enable us to lean into the person we are made to be. These safe and secure bonds provide us a safe haven to return to when we need comfort and a secure base that empowers us to go after our dreams, take risks, and thrive.
Contrary to our culture’s emphasis on independence, attachment theory tells us that we are made for relationships. Interdependence, not independence, is the context within which we thrive.
Dr. Sue Johnson, a leading researcher and innovator in the fields of couples therapy and adult attachment, emphasizes the importance of this interdependency and claims that attachment and emotional attunement lies at the heart of humanity. The most important tenet of attachment theory is that isolation–even emotional isolation–is traumatizing for human beings. Our brains recognize isolation as a traumatic experience.
You, as your most healthy self, involves being connected to emotionally safe people.
John Bowlby, pioneer in the development of the Attachment Theory, said that the main purpose of emotion was to communicate our deepest longings, fears, and needs. Our emotions, when communicated well, become a window through which we welcome another person into our truest selves. Our communication enables growth, change, and connection when it is suffused with emotion.
Have you ever heard someone tell you that you are “overly emotional” or that you are just “overreacting”? Chances are this is not an emotionally safe person to welcome into the most vulnerable parts of you. You deserve to have relationships in your life that are attuned and responsive to your deepest fears, needs, insecurities, and emotions.
In my work with clients, I have the opportunity to be a safe relationship in that person’s life. They get to experience feeling seen, known, and cared for in their darkest moments. My hope is that this becomes a starting point for them to develop the ability to recognize the safe relationships in their life and courageously engage those relationships with authenticity and vulnerability. I desire for my clients to experience the joy of having deeply connected relationships in their lives.
As Brené Brown reminds us, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.” That being said, vulnerability only leads to a fulfilling sense of belonging in the context of safety.
When our brains feel safe, we thrive relationally.
To take it a step further, neuroscience affirms that emotional safety is critical for satisfying and loving relationships.
Stephen Porges, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading experts in the field of neuroscience, uses his Polyvagal Theory to explain that our brains are constantly evaluating the level of safety in our environment through our senses. There is a link between healthy relationships and our autonomic nervous systems, which mediate safety, trust, and connection through our social engagement system. When our minds and bodies experience feeling safe, our social engagement system empowers us to listen, empathize, and connect.
Three Aspects of Emotional Safety
Dr. Sue Johnson, in her book, Hold Me Tight, uses the acronym A.R.E to describe three aspects of emotional safety:
Accessibility- A sense that a person is there for you and available when you need them. The emotionally safe person makes themselves accessible by remaining open to you when you experience doubts or insecurities.
Responsiveness— A sense that you can rely on the person to respond to you emotionally. The emotionally safe person is attuned to you, your emotions, needs, and fears. You matter to them.
Engagement— A sense that the person will value you and stay close. The sense that you exist in the person’s mind when you are not with them. The emotionally safe person is emotionally present to you.
Toxic people–unlike emotionally safe people–tend to abandon you in your time of need and struggle to respond to you, your needs, and your boundaries with empathy, validation, and compassion.
Characteristics of an Emotionally Safe Person
An emotionally safe person will…
Attune to your emotions
Engage you with curiosity rather than judgement
Express with their body language that you matter (turn towards you, give you eye contact, make facial expressions that show you that they have your attention)
Approach conflict with a collaborative attitude by using “we” statements around resolutions and affirming the commitment in the relationship
Accept their own imperfections and have space for you to be imperfect
Respect your boundaries
4 Steps to Creating Your Circle of Emotionally Safe Relationships
As you begin to consider who you want to welcome into your circle of emotional safety, I would encourage you to reflect on the following prompts:
1) Take an inventory of the relationships around you and the degree to which you feel emotionally safe with each of them. Ask yourself:
-Is this person there for me when I need them?
-Do I feel safe to express myself authentically?
-Do I feel safe to tell this person when they have hurt my feelings?
-Is this person emotionally available to listen to me when I feel insecure or afraid?
-Can I trust this person to value my emotions and needs?
-Would I trust this person to provide comfort rather than shame when I express my vulnerabilities?
-Can I trust this person to keep my secrets private and not gossip about me?
-Does this person validate me, my emotions, and my experiences?
-are consistent in words and actions and follow through on their commitments
2) List and understand your relational triggers that tell your brain that you are unsafe. Are there people in your life (especially people who you spend most of your time with) that frequently trigger your brain and body to feel unsafe? Are these triggers sending you clear signals that this person is truly unsafe or are these triggers responding to something of your past? Get clarity on what is your trauma speaking and what is the reality of the relationship in front of you. If you have experienced relational trauma in the past, I would encourage you to reach out to a relational trauma therapist who can walk with you on this journey.
3) Develop regulation and coping tools to help you navigate your emotions when you feel triggered.
4) Reflect on the boundaries you need to feel emotionally safe in your relationships.
Surrounding yourself with people who bring you to life, validate your worthiness, and create space for your most authentic, vulnerable self to show up is one of the most loving things you can do for yourself.
You are worthy of a life of love and belonging just as you are in this moment.
Thank you so much, Christie!
Meredith Waller MSW, LCSW
Based in Boulder, CO and offering online counseling throughout Colorado
-Certified Shame-Informed Treatment Specialist
-Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional