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Fear, Safety, and Connection

Healing only happens when safety is present

Safety is not merely the absence of danger. It is the presence of connection.

It seems so obvious. But the implications are nothing short of mind-boggling.

Healing - physical, emotional, spiritual - can only happen when a person feels safe. Feels safe. Notice I didn't say "is safe," which could be understood as free from danger. To feel safe, we must be connected to, held by, others.

We evolved as social organisms, hard-wired for connection. Unlike any other species on earth, we have years of utter and complete dependence on a caregiver. This means that if a young human is not CONNECTED to a caregiver, he or she will literally not survive. Therefore connection is a survival need - as much so as food, water, and protection from danger.

A newborn infant can't do much, but she can use her eyes to connect with another. Eye contact is an instinct present at birth. Babies very quickly learn familiar faces. They wrap their tiny hands around a finger. They are soothed by holding and distressed by solitude. Their tiny bodies know the truth: they need connection in order to survive.

Here is neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

"Our brains evolved to experience threats to our social connections in much the same way they experience physical pain. By activating the same neural circuitry that causes us to feel physical pain, our experience of social pain helps ensure the survival of our children by helping to keep them close to their parents. The neural link between social and physical pain also ensures that staying socially connected will be a lifelong need, like food and warmth."

Since I started the Compassionate Inquiry professional training in May I have been blown away by how often I feel unsafe. The training involves tuning into my own body - for my own healing and to enable authentic attunement with clients. When I tune in, even when nothing much is going on, I often notice tension and contraction in my belly, a rapid heart beat, and a fluttery sensation in my chest and stomach. Fear. The smallest stimulus - internal or external - can trigger these fear sensations. I used to ignore, override, or just not notice them. Now I am paying close attention. Now I am getting curious. What just happened to trigger that? Was it a thought? A comment someone made? A notification on my phone? A sound, a smell, a memory?

Why do I go there so easily? It's pretty simple - I did not get what I needed as a small child to build an inner sense that I am safe in this world - or even in my own body. To develop what's known as secure attachment - which enables a child to self-regulate - a child needs to be held, seen, heard, understood, appreciated, enjoyed. This was not my experience. My parents did the best they could - given their own backgrounds and the cultural context - so there's no blame. But I did not feel safe in my connection to them. I was not able to be authentically myself and also stay attached to them.

Chronic pain is one of ways that lack of safety - that primal fear of being injured or left alone - has shown up in my body. That means that restoring my sense of safety - deeply, at a cellular level - is essential to resolving the pain.

I took a big step in this healing process last fall when I worked with pain reprocessing therapy (see blog series on same from Sept-Dec 2021). Once I understood the connection between physical pain and fear, I could reassure myself that the pain was not dangerous. It was just a set of sensations. It quickly and dramatically lessened to the point where I believed I would be pain free. After thirty years, four surgeries, and countless interventions and modalities. Pain free. Me? Really? I could taste it.

Then my world imploded when my husband was diagnosed with cancer. He was - he is - my safe connection. That's why I fell in love with him. We have our issues, every couple does. But from the first time he held me in his arms, I felt safe. It felt like home. And then, boom, he was in shock, immobilized by fear when the diagnosis came. I took over. I became the strong one, the safe one. Of course I did. And we got through it. Miraculously, he has recovered.

It wasn't until months after his treatment ended - as the pain in my body that had disappeared started to come back - that I understood what had happened to me. I'd lost my primary safe connection, my home base, which came from his stabilizing presence.

As the pain took hold once again, I grieved the loss of my brief reprieve. I struggled to reproduce the healing process that I'd discovered all those months ago. I revisited the books, articles and podcasts. I did the exercises. It wasn't the same. The pain persisted. I was devastated. And there was an undercurrent of self-blame. The old, old voice returned that says "maybe you don't really WANT to heal."

Well, I now see that there was a deeper level of safety that I needed to attain. Beyond retraining my brain to de-couple pain from danger, I had to get to the roots of the matter. Why did I so often lack the "neuroception of safety," the felt sense, in my body, that all was well? And when I did feel it, why was it so easily threatened by seemingly mundane things? Now, thanks to my inner compassionate inquiry, I am starting to understand. To understand the magnitude of the terror I experienced as a child. The confusion, the uncertainty, the inconsistency. My little nervous system became hyper-vigilant for the smallest signs of disconnection - because disconnection IS danger. My personality formed to assure connection regardless of the cost to my authentic self-expression. It's not a choice - to be authentic or to stay attached - it's an evolutionary imperative.

With understanding comes opportunity. To really GET what happened to me as a child - to honor the magnitude of the fear and pain little-me experienced - is to compassionately understand all my coping mechanisms, all my insecurities, all my strategies. And I can re-learn what my system actually needs - on a moment by moment basis - to feel safe.

Because I don't feel safe unless I am BOTH authentic and connected. It's no longer ok to sacrifice one for the other. My body will always contract in pain if one is absent. That's the healing path - providing myself with conditions where I can be authentic and also be connected, loved, accepted, seen, heard, appreciated and enjoyed.

What's so amazing is that as adults, we can do this for ourselves. No, we couldn't do it for ourselves as children. We needed caring adults for that. To the extent it was absent, we adapted, contracted, suppressed ourselves so that we could keep them close. In doing this, we lost the most essential and life-sustaining connection of all - the connection to ourself. It is wonderful to have safe connection with another being - be it a person, a pet, or the natural world. And - the safety we need and long for can also be cultivated within. Ultimately, I need to feel safe - seen, heard, appreciated, enjoyed - by my very own self. All those exiled parts need to come home, to be loved and accepted. While others can support us, feed and nurture us, ultimately safety becomes an inside job.


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