When I was growing up, my “safe places” were not safe for many different reasons. I still cringe when I hear a loud noise, and still tend to test those who want to be close to me, so they don’t hurt or leave me first. The reasons behind these reactions stem from my relationships with my parents, which were strained and broken most of my life. While I was growing up, I was also taunted and teased at school for the way I looked and dressed (which were both a reflection of how I felt inside).
When I went home, there was no one to renounce the name-calling and cruel words, the lack of self-worth and confidence in my safety; no matter where I turned, I felt on my own. When your safe places are not safe as they should be, you learn to deal and cope on your own, in whatever form that takes.
For me, I pushed and shoved anyone who threatened to love me, as hard and as fast as I could, to see how far they would go to prove that professed love. And if they didn’t, well, then I had been right all along. I was not good enough. This was a defense mechanism, and it was a long time before I was able to recognize that as unhealthy and begin to release that automatic reaction.
When we experience trauma of any sort, our brain sets up triggers that send our body into fight or flight mode, and when anything activates those triggers (similar situations, sights, scents, people, etc), our whole bodies react. It is impossible to move past trauma, when we are constantly reliving it in our mind and our emotions, whether we are conscious of that or not.
Becoming a mother to my daughter brought all of this to light. Her existence softened me to an extent, and I grew to realize that if I could not trust, how could she? If I did not feel safe, how could she? I believe as parents it is our job to give our sweet babies a solid foundation — to be their safe place. We are to exemplify God’s love for us in the way we love each other and our children. I think the presence (or lack of) this safe place is such an integral part of who we become as people, and it affects our decisions and ways of life thereafter.
The first step to healing is recognition and acknowledgment. Action comes later. For me, it wasn’t until my daughter was exhibiting concerning signs that I sought real and true therapy.
Before moving from one state to another, people we encountered would question whether my daughter ever smiled. Her sitter reported that she mostly played alone, and didn’t really get along with the kids her age. I would respond to the inquirers with a polite nod and a “she is just observant,” and would chalk up the fact that she preferred to play with older children because she was “advanced.”
Now, not all these signs warrant anxiety and worry, but I think it’s always a good idea to take note of them to keep track of whether they continue and worsen. While those things may have been true of my daughter, I was shocked when we visited my former home state a few months after we had moved. I brought my daughter to my former office and my old coworkers beamed when they told me how much happier and comfortable with herself she seemed.
I began to consider the effects of my own traumas on my daughter. Could she sense my discomfort with myself? My unease and distrust around men? The tension around our family, who had proved their love to us time and time again? How did my stress affect her when she was in my womb? She was beginning to comment on her dislike for boys, and that our family disliked her. Were my inward thoughts and feelings being picked up by my 4 year-old?
I realized that I was risking repeating the dysfunctional cycle with my daughter. I needed to get better myself, so that I could help her too.
In doing this I sought therapy, counsel and advice, I read books, and I prayed. Slowly but surely, the pseudo-safety walls I had carefully created to protect myself gave way to a love and vulnerability that came crashing in. I was able to accept constructive criticism as a form of love and not abuse. I was able to accept help without stubbornness or apology. I began to look at my daughter as more of a being whom, yes, would benefit from protection, but mostly needed my unconditional love. I am able to be her safe place because I am learning to feel safe for the first time in my life.
Many people who suffer severely from trauma aren’t able to just “zoom out” and look at the bigger picture, or simply “dare to believe” that maybe everything will be okay. Trauma and the resulting anxiety have long-term affects on the brain that make merely thinking a different thought so very difficult. It often requires someone else pointing out that what you are doing or the way you are thinking is not the healthiest, and today there are so many people and resources available to really and truly help.
In my case, it was wanting more for my daughter so that she would not experience the weight of the chains that held me. I am so thankful for the suffering, sorrow, joy and grace that I have experienced that has shaped my relationships with others and has shaped me, because who I am shapes a lot of who my daughter becomes. I believe it is possible for every individual to find healing and a safe place for themselves and their children. Be gentle and patient with yourself; it’s worth it. You are worth it.