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i need to be close, but i don't feel safe

In my practice, I see many people, often women, that share a deep need to be connected and close to their partners, their friends, their family members. Why can't they achieve this? Why do they continue to be hurt? Why can't relationships feel happy and safe? And why can't all of this be easy like it seems to be for everyone else on FB, Snap and Insta?

First things first, it is NOT EASY for anyone with a history of trauma. Anyone that tells you it is easy is probably ignoring emotions and hurts and has a skewed understanding of how things are really playing out. Even those that do not have a history of trauma, often have ups and downs in their relationships and feelings of closeness and safety with others.

Closeness with Another Person

Being close to someone, feeling connected with someone, it feels fulfilling, and can bring up feelings of safety and love. It also opens us up to be hurt deeply.

When we have insecure attachments as children, we can either replay these emotions and entanglements in current relationships, or over-correct and spend so much time avoiding those patterns and people that it screws up the relationship anyway.

So, if I haven't really processed/healed from my jacked up relationship with my angry father, chances are, it's playing a role in close, vulnerable relationships today.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when you're reflecting on your current close relationships:

How do I feel when I am deeply connected to this person? (use emotions here, not thoughts)

What situations cause the most hurt for me in this relationship?

What situations caused the most hurt for me growing up with Mom and Dad?

What feels safe for me about this person and this relationship?

What feels unsafe for me about this person and this relationship?

Safety in Relationships

Safety is related to trust, consistency, vulnerability and genuineness. A healthy, close, safe relationship can be one where you turn to when you are hurt, when you are overwhelmed, sad, angry, afraid. It is a relationship in which you feel more "good" than in pain.

How is safety created? When you are securely attached to someone, safety is a bedrock of that relationship.

The ability to be open and honest with someone, without the fear of criticism, attack or judgement creates safety. In return, not criticizing, attacking or judging someone who is opening up to you creates safety. See what I did there?

Safety is definitely a two way street and self reflection and listening to your partner is equally important in creating this type of relationship.

Also, having a healthy way of REPAIRING a relationship from a rupture is paramount to having safety and security in a relationship.

When Closeness Feels Unsafe: A Vignette

A history of trauma, this includes emotional, physical and sexual abuse, can often create a situation as follows:

Alma grew up with many siblings and both of her parents, but often felt alone. There never seemed to be a place for her. When she did speak up, she was often made fun of for being too weak or dumb or immature. So she learned to blend into the background. Invisibility felt safe, away from attacks. She wanted to be loved and seen by her family, but they sent clear messages that she wouldn't get that from them. As she grew up, she learned that she was guaranteed affection if she was agreeable. She craved to be wanted, to be cared for.

In adulthood she often finds herself in relationships where she wants to feel close to her partner, she tries anything to be close, saying yes to everything even if she disagrees and molding her personality to theirs.

When she receives this closeness, when her partner is there for her, she feels exposed, she feels so, so afraid. She feels completely uncomfortable, sometimes defensive. It doesn't feel safe. She doesn't feel worthy even though she desperately needs to feel loved and close. She may not be completely aware of all of this, nor be able to name it if I asked her. All of this rushes through her body in surges of fear, pain, defensiveness, shame and sadness. Reflexively she may pick a fight, she may shut down and grow distant, she may also disrupt that safety by attacking or betraying her partner's trust.

If this story sounds a little bit like you, and you'd like to dig a little deeper, here are some questions to sit with:

When was the last time I felt comfort in closeness?

What are the patterns of emotional safety in my life?

What feelings come up when someone offers me safety?

How do I react when someone offers me safety?

What Next?

You may recognize these patterns and emotions, now what?

Awareness and insight are helpful, and necessary for change and healing, they are only the first step.

You'll hear me say this a lot, emotions need to be validated and processed in order for change to occur.

If you have trauma in your history, I highly recommend finding a qualified professional that is adept at trauma treatment, namely Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing to help you.

There are other ways to get validation and objective, non-judgemental space to process in the world, but the tried and true way is psychotherapy, which by definition, provides you with the space to do all of this.

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