What Does Safety Mean?
By Helen Beynon, RCC
Reviewing therapists’ websites (including my own), I often see statements about creating “safe” and non-judgmental spaces. We all know this is important, but I began to wonder about the meaning of safety and what clients know about it. Does it resonate with them when they are reading websites of prospective therapists?
In my own experiences seeing practitioners – whether for counselling, trauma therapy, or bodywork – I didn’t realize what felt “safe” and what didn’t until I started to do my own work and training in counselling and healing modalities. There are the obvious things: someone with a kind and compassionate presence feels “safe” for me. Someone who tells me I need to work on something or risk never getting better does not feel “safe”. However, as I developed a greater understanding of trauma-informed work and my own nervous system, I realized how nuanced (and sometimes fleeting) a feeling of safety is for me. We may not consciously recognize when our internal sense of safety has been compromised by a practitioner, or what safety feels like.
For clients new to therapy, especially those with any history of trauma, creating safety is about more than the oft-used words of a “confidential, non-judgmental space”.
For the therapist, it means being carefully attuned to what is happening for our clients and helping them to navigate what comes up in each moment. It means ensuring our own nervous systems are regulated so that we can act as safe harbors for co-regulation: helping the client find an anchor in a sea of overwhelm or emotion. Knowing when to slow things down for a client, and when to stop. Carefully eliciting feedback and helping them to learn and identify their own cues of when something is too much. Of course, we want to find opportunities for clients to build their capacity, heal and grow – but a “safe harbour” for each unique individual enables this growth to happen in a way that doesn’t overwhelm their window of tolerance.
Why is this so important? Because safety can be transformational in its own right.
A relationship with an attuned therapist where a client is witnessed and met exactly “where they’re at” can provide a completely new experience. It may be the first time a client has been able to do things in their own time, in a way that feels just right for them. This safety offers clients the opportunity to come into deeper relationships with themselves and perhaps the parts that have been wounded or kept locked away because it felt dangerous to allow these to surface. Research has shown that the therapeutic relationship is, in many cases, the foundation for change, irrespective of the modalities used.
Polyvagal theory proposes that the establishment of safety in relationships permeates our body language, facial expressions, and vocal tone. These are interpreted by our client’s nervous systems (and vice versa), typically without our awareness. If we as therapists are regulated and attuned to our client’s experiences, then our client’s nervous systems will likely interpret us as safe. Then, the client can ideally lower automatic defenses, creating the conditions for new learning and growth (Geller and Porges, 2014).
This is a process that must be worked out for each client individually, and not every client will respond to the same cues or processes. For example, a client who has experienced trauma may have a nervous system that interprets safety and relaxation as “unsafe”. If they did not experience safe attachments in their early development or have had to adapt to complex traumas, a state of vigilance and hyperarousal may be how their system creates safety for them. Trying to move them out of hyperarousal might be counterproductive when we’re first seeking to establish safety. The early stages of therapy might focus more on helping the client develop an awareness of their felt state, and noticing when their body feels safe, hyper or hypo-aroused (without going too deeply into any of these states if they cause distress). Further explorations into trauma therapy can help inform the variety of ways in which safety can be established for diverse nervous systems.
If safety can be established, and a secure partnership is formed between therapist and client, healing can occur that may have been too much for the client to take on alone. In this way, safety becomes much more than just a descriptive word and becomes a transformational embodied experience.
How are you creating safety in collaboration with your clients?
Geller, S. M., & Porges, S. W. (2014). Therapeutic presence: neurophysiological mechanisms mediating feeling safe in therapeutic relationships. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 24(3), 178.
Helen Beynon, RCC is a Registered Clinical Counsellor with the BCACC, based in Squamish, BC. She helps adults navigate anxiety, grief, and long-held patterns so they can connect with their essential selves and have satisfying lives and relationships. She has additional training in trauma-informed somatics, attachment theory and practice, and emotionally-focused modalities. Her work is informed by the 15+ years she spent in the non-profit world as a manager, mentor, facilitator, and educator.
You can find her at www.helenbeynon.com.