Healthy social engagement depends on emotional safety. We need to feel safe in order to allow ourselves to be vulnerable with others and create healthy emotional connections. Relationship problems can stem from not knowing how to create emotionally safe environments through self-awareness and boundary-setting.
New studies are revealing that we have neural pathways that respond to environmental stimuli to define a situation as safe, dangerous, or life-threatening. These evaluations are subconscious and automatic, but they trigger metabolic and chemical changes. When our nervous system senses we are “safe,” our facial muscles relax, our ears listen better, and we are able to respond in healthy social ways. If our bodies sense dangerous or life-threatening conditions, those systems shut down.
This autonomic system helps us understand the need for us to examine ourselves, our lifestyles, and our relationships for circumstances that may be creating a sense of danger within us, creating anxiety, stress, emotional outbursts, or unhealthy relationships.
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As a marriage and couples therapist, I often see people’s stressful situations spilling into their relationships. People who have high-stress jobs, for instance, should be able to come home and experience peace away from the job. However, this often is not the case, because they are still signaling a sense of danger – a tense facial expression, a heightened awareness of threats, real or imagined, and emotional distance. This is subconsciously communicated to their spouse and children, who then feel threatened by the over-stressed partner/parent.
In these situations, when couples know they’re safe but don’t really “feel” safe emotionally, I help couples learn how to send “safe” signals to each other.
Sometimes, however, problems are more complicated. Certain people in your life may actually be unsafe for you, at least in the way your relationship currently is. In these cases, it’s important to determine the cause of these feelings and set up appropriate emotional boundaries.
You may not have healthy boundaries if you allow a friend’s problems to affect your peace, or you take on other people’s moods when you’re around them. You may feel dependent upon another person for emotional support. You may be unable to say no to people, or you may put up with someone’s rudeness, bullying, or abusive behavior.
Concrete ways to create emotional safety
Start setting up emotional boundaries now, so that you can create an environment that supports emotional safety. Here are a few important first steps:
- Recognize the need to put your own emotional, mental, and physical health first before helping others. Just as in airplanes you are instructed to put on your own oxygen mask before you put on your child’s, you must first care for yourself before you can care for others.
- Learn to say no to requests that make you uncomfortable, you don’t want to do, or you don’t have time to do.
- Create structure in your life to help you with the “saying no” part. For instance, if you plan to spend one hour of quality time with your family every evening and someone asks you to take on a task that would interfere with that time, you can more easily say, “I’m sorry, I do not have time to take that on,” or even “I have other plans.”
- Be willing to ask for help and accept help when it’s offered.
- Learn to delegate. You don’t have to do everything yourself.
- If you feel uncomfortable about the way you are being treated, speak up.
- Some people are toxic – they may talk about their own problems all the time, gossip, try to manipulate you, have bad tempers, or be abusive. Do what you can to eliminate those people from your lives. If the person is a boss, you may have to look for another job or find ways to limit your exposure to them. If that person is a family member or spouse, a counselor or even a family member willing to mediate may be able to help heal the toxicity.
- Do not carry guilt or allow others to make you feel guilty for not helping them. The kindest thing you can do for them is to take care of your own emotional and physical health so you can be there for them when they really need you.
Reach out to a counselor or a support group as you begin to make boundaries and create a feeling of emotional safety in your life.