What is emotional safety? Part 1

Sex is a form of adult play!

So how do you create a safe playground for it? Emotional safety is the key.

People come to me because they want me to help them have great sex. First, I explain to them that there’s a dual control model of sexual response. We explore “the gas pedal” and “the brake” – arousal is not just the process of turning on the ons, it’s also turning off the offs. Quite often the biggest obstacle to a happy sex life is stress in the relationship that’s hitting the brakes too hard. This stress has different components:

  • criticism
  • defensiveness
  • stonewalling
  • irritability
  • aggression
  • contempt

If any of these is happening, we proceed to explore what emotional safety is and how to get there. This includes working with the body, senses, memories, thoughts and behaviors to achieve a different emotional state.

Emotional safety is the foundational element in a relationship:

In psychology, emotional safety refers to an emotional state achieved in attachment relationships wherein each individual is open and vulnerable.

That can happen only if the environment is safe, consistent and calm.

Focus on growth

It’s essential for all people involved to understand that work on emotional safety means focusing on the following:

  • changing one’s own perception of the situation
  • openness to different and new
  • courage to be vulnerable
  • becoming good at handling of one’s own emotions

This constitutes growth!

We can’t really change anyone – but we can learn how to be reasonable and respectful when expressing our boundaries/desires and actively create safe conditions for change to occur. By doing this we create trust, the very best attachment-glue there is.

It’s great to begin the process by agreeing to practice good faith and to initiate every person’s innate ability to simply slow down. You state the goal: “We’re going on a journey together with the aim to explore how we can help bring out the best in each other.”

In case you’re not sure if what you’re going through is meaningful endurance or sacrifice, accepting abuse and settling, it’s best to talk about this with your therapist as there are many different factors to consider.

Self-soothing and handling of emotions

In my sessions with a client, we start with exploring the benefits of everyone involved becoming better at self-soothing and handling their own emotions. People too often engage in controlling behavior in order to self-soothe their discomfort. This creates an illusion of power and after some time people start to notice: “I can have power or I can be connected, but I can’t have both.” That’s the moment when they start thinking of asking for help from someone neutral.

For starters, it’s necessary to differentiate emotional pain from abuse and emotional discomfort from differences of opinions.

It helps to ask yourself:

“Is my partner hurting me intentionally or unintentionally?”

Most often it’s unintentionally, but hurts like hell nevertheless. Why is this so? Partly, it’s because we’re biologically programmed for this type of pain if we lack affection, but what contributes to the intensity of the pain the most is that we didn’t yet learn how to self-soothe; and quite often, we have trauma and defense mechanisms from the past that are making things far worse.

Think of it this way: our skin has the natural capacity to heal. For example, if a child falls and hurts it’s knee while being playful the skin will heal. We can teach the kid to tend to the wound, to clean it and put on a bandage. If the kid already has a wound that hasn’t yet healed, the pain might be worse than normal. We teach the kid to assist the natural capacity of skin to heal and to discern when to call for help if necessary – and whom to call.

Relationships are like running in this example; falls are inevitable and as we go we can learn how to make good repairs. It’s great if a partner “puts a Band-Aid” on us but it’s equally amazing if we can also do it on our own and not fall to pieces if a partner is incapable of helping. Metaphorically speaking, maybe they get a bad reaction when seeing blood, something that was programmed long ago before you met them – perhaps in their childhood? It certainly helps not to take this programming personally. If we want to open a space for change to happen in our partner, criticizing and yelling is definitely not the way to go. Such a rash (but typical) response further cements the defensive programming and the result is often emotional gridlock in the relationship.

Instead, people can learn to recognize the defense mechanisms which helped them survive their childhood but are currently interfering with their relationship. They can thank that part and even honour it because it helped in the past, but nonetheless decide to engage in another, more creative and positive behaviour to escape the trap of emotional gridlock. Breaking out might feel frightening at the beginning, almost like self-betrayal and it definitely helps to have someone to help guide you with this process.

What’s really going on in my brain?

The biggest benefit of self-soothing and grounding is this: you give a chance to your prefrontal cortex to handle the situation, the part of the brain that is actually capable of performing such a task. If you’re upset, your brain’s limbic system is in charge. It is the system that detects and reacts to danger in a split-second, aka fight/flight/freeze/fawn response. It’s been indispensable for perhaps hundreds of millions of years when beings were surrounded by predators but nowadays it’s routinely hindering how we navigate complexity in relationships.

By engaging in grounding, you literally direct the blood flow into the prefrontal cortex. You need also this for confronting yourself as well. Preferably with your inner cheerleader, and not your inner critic 😉 This is the essential precondition for creating new neural networks. It helps you to progress from being a pawn to becoming a queen or king – you open up to moves you thought were impossible.

Using our body and senses for grounding

Start to observe your body multiple times a day, also when you’re calm. Pay close attention to how it feels when you’re calm, when you’re upset, when you’re fighting. Just a few seconds is enough to notice rigidity of the body, tension in different parts, sweating, shallow breathing and heart pumping. Educate yourself about grounding and experiment with grounding exercises, for example, running around the block, taking deep breaths into your belly, using your senses to snap out of being upset and to do a reality check, learning to meditate, exploring touch with a partner, etc.. Notice how your expression of emotions within your body feels before and after. Write about it in your journal. It’s beyond the scope of this article to dive deeper into the vast topic of grounding, but information on this is abundant on the internet.

When you show up in a conflict grounded and/or make good repairs after doing grounding exercises, you create emotional safety. Your partner learns that sharing their vulnerabilities is safe. It doesn’t imply agreeing on a solution; that is a separate process that requires a lot of negotiation in the safe space you’re actively creating. This is also a powerful antidote for jealousy as well. If you’re jealous and engaging in controlling behaviour it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Grounding is a far better strategy. Most people recognize that a safe space where they can let go of defense mechanisms is the most precious thing in a relationship and naturally make an effort to preserve it.

– How do I create emotional safety? Continued in part 2.

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