People are like plants: they grow toward the light. I chose science because science gave me what I needed—a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.
If you had a childhood full of drama, yelling, violence, addiction, over-controlling or neglectful parents, it can be especially difficult to feel safe. Without a sense of secure attachment to a reliable caregiver you didn’t have the opportunity to create an inner template for safety and calm. Even your telomeres, the end caps of your chromosomes, were effected. Apparently, in the first 18 months of life your telomeres either get wrapped up like the ends of a shoelace, or frayed, depending on how securely attached you were to your parents or care-givers. This chromosomal change has far reaching effects into adulthood; specifically, how easily and quickly you become anxious or agitated. In other words, how you can go from feeling safe and secure one minute to feeling unsafe and insecure the next.
There is no quick, easy recipe for cultivating an internal safe harbor, but it is possible. Like anything worth having, it takes perseverence and hard work, or as they like to call it these days: Grit. Frankly, anyone alive has grit since everyone is beset with hardship and suffering of one kind or another. Learning to cope, even if it’s accompanied by kicking and screaming, still counts as resilience. Resilience will get you through this mortal coil, while cultivating a feeling of internal safety will lighten your load, provide comfort, and, in time, build deep trust in yourself.
Thankfully, there are many ways to develop a sense of internal safety. One of the most important is speaking to yourself in a gentle, loving, patient tone, just the way you wish your parents had spoken to you. As the Buddha said, there are only three important things in life: kindness, kindness, kindness. Practicing being kind to yourself is not always easy, as you have inculcated every negative voice you ever heard, with the loudest being those of your primary childhood caregivers. If they were harsh, critical, or demanding, you internalized those voices and probably speak that way to yourself. With vigilance and attention you can substitute loving messages for those automatic thoughts.
The first step is being aware when they show up. Since they typically engender negative emotions, when you feel angry at yourself, guilty, ashamed, depressed, or anxious, you can ask yourself what you are thinking. If nothing shows up, ask yourself if it is OK to feel angry, guilty, ashamed, depressed, or anxious. Often, the same internal messages that created the bad feeling also tell you you shouldn’t feel that way, just adding insult to injury; and, creating a secondary problem. Now, you have the original issue of the negative emotion and the secondary one of putting yourself down for having it. Just being aware of this dynamic begins to change it. Think of what you wish someone who really cared about you would say to comfort you. Say those things to yourself. At first, they might sound fake or hollow. In time, they will feel authentic and supplant the old messages.
In addition to cognitive therapy, body therapies are incredibly helpful for rewriting the body-mind feedback loop. Yoga, felt sense exercises, walking meditation all reacquaint you with the language of your body and help you welcome and understand it.
You might choose to work with an Internal Family Systems therapist, who can show you how to befriend all of your parts, including the inner critic, and learn the ways they have always been trying to help and protect you. This is an amazingly powerful, yet gentle, process.
Buddhist philosophy, especially the podcasts by Jonathan Foust and Tara Brach, can be very supportive as they deal with life’s issues and transitions head-on while showing you different ways to feel safe in yourself regardless of the challenge du jour.
You can also create a sense of safety by using techniques to activate your parasympathetic nervous system: rest and digest. Anytime you feel relaxed you typically feel safe. This is why alcohol, other drugs, and OCD behaviors help people feel safe: they calm the sympathetic nervous system. After a while, they stop working and you have all the anxiety plus an addiction. The good news is you can use the exact same mechanisms to get “addicted” or habituated to meditation, yoga, rest, reading, music, etc. creating a peaceful internal environment, a safe haven to return to again and again. By repeatedly experiencing that delicious calm when unagitated, your nervous system becomes capable of switching more quickly into when triggered.
Tonglen, a Buddhist practice of being with your own discomfort while acknowledging everyone else’s, and Kristen Neff’s self-compassion techniques (see her You Tube video) also provide a different perspective when you feel as if you have been singled out, or are alone with your difficulties.
How does a parent make her child feel safe? With love, hugs, predictability, soothing tones, healthy food, rest, touch, and simple supportive words. Even if you didn’t have those experiences as a child, you can lavish them on yourself now. Yes, it takes time to retrain the body-mind, but it can be done with kindness, patience, and perseverence.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang