People don’t make me feel safer. Things do.
A locked door, quiet, cleanliness, being able to see the door, even money in my wallet and in the bank–those things make me feel secure.
But lately I’ve begun to see that it can be different from that.
For me, safety with people means that I feel a reasonable degree of certainty that they won’t harm me. And by harm I mean physical assault. Standards, evidently, are low.
It took me years–even decades–to realize that other people seemed to have very different definitions of trust. In a real sense, it didn’t seem to me that I had any problem with trust. People kept telling me that I did have difficulty with trust–notably, therapists–and so I assumed they must be correct. But it didn’t really add up in my mind.
I say that because, overall, I think I’m quite good at assessing matters of physical safety. Having lived and travelled in large, presumably dangerous cities for most of my adult life, I think it says something that I’ve never been robbed, I’ve never had my purse snatched, I’ve been physically sexually harassed but never seriously assaulted. And even that was a very long time ago. I may have just been lucky, but I think I may also have been able to keep myself safe.
I might even be more or less gifted at assessing some kinds of truthfulness, and that helps also with other kinds of safety.
Yes, it’s hard for me to share certain experiences, certain feelings and vulnerabilities with other people. But that’s because I’m afraid some god-like force will appear out of nowhere and strike me dead. It’s nothing to do with the person sitting there listening. I just don’t want to turn into a pillar of salt or a chunk of ash.
It never occurred to me that trust in relationships occurs for reasons well beyond the kind of neutrality that results from an absence of physical threat, and that it has to do with many other, more subtle things. Really. It didn’t.
One of them is simply about presence. The people you trust are the ones who keep coming back. Nandhini and I, despite the 10,000 or so miles between us, have lasted as long as we have in part for the simple reason that one of us keeps calling. And the other keeps picking up the phone. So, the people you trust can be depended on to be there and to be available to you in some way. Not all the time, but enough that it’s something more than a crap shoot. You don’t reach out and keep touching air.
What happens when you are very afraid, as traumatized people often are, is that you don’t reach out, so very few people are ever there. At the same time, you also have a tendency to retreat and to flee and so you aren’t able to be there for other people very well either. You don’t always end up with very trustworthy people in your life, because you can’t always be trusted. So it’s hard. The people who can form relationships with someone who isn’t trustworthy are often not very trustworthy themselves–and sometimes for more nefarious reasons than simply feeling afraid.
And this is probably some of the magic of therapy. You pay them, so they do come back. You can push them away, but they return. It isn’t a two-way street. And so you can have a relationship. You can learn about trust.
But there was a point when I didn’t know to expect that from anyone. I had close relationships–or thought I did–with people who were there sometimes, and other times not.
And then there is this other thing that relates to trust but is entirely new for me. In fact, I don’t understand it. It makes my head hurt to think about it.
This other thing you might call relational trust. Relational trust really comes down to the other person liking you, and liking you for who you are. So there are certain things they don’t do: they don’t tell you that you should live your life differently than the way you are living it, they don’t make fun of you or the of the things that matter to you, they don’t criticize and they don’t judge. Not because they are generous, non-judgmental people, although that helps, but because the reason they spend their time with you is that they enjoy you. The point isn’t just to exercise power over you or to have someone they can feel superior to.
Instead, they encourage you in the pursuit of your goals, because they think what you’re trying to do is worthwhile. Sometimes, they even praise you, because they believe, in spite of your faults, you have good qualities also.
As it turns out, a third element of safety arises out of this: the people who like you and spend time with you find themselves wanting to help you. They can’t turn your life rightside up if it’s gotten itself upside down, but they can lend a hand from time to time–and they do. They want to.
So, if you have secure relationships with safe people, then you aren’t just safe from them, but safer in the rest of your life, because they help you cope with adversity.
It began to occur to me earlier in the year that I felt safer simply having Nandhini in my life. When I have difficult decisions to make, or even just so many small ones I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed, I have a sounding board for thinking about them. At the very least, there is someone to talk them over with who might have a different perspective or a new idea. And there is someone to ask for advice, even if in the end I decide to ignore it.
The fact that this is a surprise to me probably begins with not having parents–not parents who counted,who did parental things. I’ve always had to make my own way in the world, to decide myself what was going to be best for me in the long run. There was never anyone more experienced or knowledgeable to ask. Even now, although I do ask, I find no one else is quite like me. What I am told will work doesn’t work. And approaches that seem effective for other people seem to turn out disastrously for me. Instead, I often ask for information, rather than advice. But the benefits of advice from someone more experienced are ones I’ve come to understand well enough to crave.
But that’s just one kind of help that comes with relational safety.
When I moved out of my apartment recently, I had help. A lot of it, actually. Someone is storing the things I decided to keep and also helped me move them. Someone else brought his truck and pitched in with all the heavy lifting. A third person helped me cart some things I didn’t want off to the charity shop. A fourth person took me to the airport. And the person who is storing my things had me stay with her after I’d moved my things out and there was no longer any place to sleep.
I have never done anything that involved help from so many people, and especially something that wasn’t a crisis or a cause. Just me, needing to pack my things up for an adventure.
I can only guess they did it because they want to see me succeed in this. They like me, and because they like me they also like the kinds of goals I have for myself. But I’m only guessing.
Truth be told, I don’t know what to make of it. It was one of those things I didn’t have enough time to think about. It was happening. And so I still don’t know what to make of it. But it’s the kind of thing that happens in safe relationships.
And that’s the part that’s hard. Because it’s there, and now I can see it is there. But I don’t understand it. I can’t.