Safety Guide For The Holidays
Most years I board the plane for Reno to visit family with all the mindfulness of a fence post. When I was a pastor, I loved Advent but it was also exhausting. By the time we sat down to open presents on Christmas morning I was more than ready for a break.
Side note: For those of you who go to church, be kind to your pastors. They’ve had 18 extra services this month with a whole bunch of expectations. They need a break. Also, if you want to give them a gift, go with cash and a note of appreciation. Bonus if you can remember any part of a sermon they preached this year. Also, they don’t need another praying hands lamp or print of da Vinci’s Last Supper. Cash or a gift card is the best option. I double checked the national average for a pastor’s salary in the US: $45,993. Checks work too.
The closest I’ve lived to family since I was 18 was the 10 hour drive from San Diego to Reno for three years in college. I miss my family. I’ve never lived in Reno, but being with my parents and brothers, especially over the holidays, feels like home. Not every visit has been pleasant. I have had some years when I wasn’t my best self. So did my dad and brothers.
My mom is special though. If I’m having a tough day at work or upset because Adam just doesn’t understand my deeply complex emotional needs, she’s always there for me. Just the sound of her voice can set me at ease. I know she loves me no matter what. When I visit, sometimes I curl up beside her and she holds me close.
Thinking about home and family has me thinking about what it means to feel safe. Occasionally I talk about wanting to be a safe person. I wondered if it’s worth exploring the concept as we get ready to celebrate Christmas.
I remember the first time a friend said to me, “You’re not a safe person and I can’t be around you.”
Oh, thank goodness, I thought, I was hoping we could be done with this ridiculous conversation and I’m not excited to be around you either. But what the hell does that even mean? I am not a safe person?
I think about this often because, believe it or not, my direct style of communication is not always well received. While I appreciate someone who gets to the point and just says how it is, others often prefer a softer and mores subtle approach. A compliment sandwich perhaps.
While in this particular conversation, I did not enjoy being told that I had utterly humiliated this other person, I respected their courage. I didn’t see things the same way, but I took note that my way of handling things could definitely use some improvement.
I’ll be honest, this language of safety sounded a little silly to me for a long time. It seemed like an excuse to blame other people for your problems. How do words make a person feel unsafe? No one ever died from being talked to.
Maybe it’s because my family is perfect. Growing up, we never said anything to intentionally hurt each other’s feelings. Except for that one time I called my brother, Joe, a bastard.
“Excuse me!?” he spit back at me. “Are you saying that our parents were not married when I was conceived?”
Huh? I thought. Oh, so that’s what that means. Ok, noted. Should have gone with asshole instead.
Ok, let’s talk a little more about feeling safe.
Let’s say I have this “friend” who is driving down the freeway at 70 mph and distracted by a text message trying to confirm plans for dinner that night while figuring out the navigation app to the job site she is headed to. Suddenly my “friend” looks up from her phone, slams on her breaks, barely stopping in time before nearly hitting the bumper of the car stopped in front of her. My pulse… I mean my “friend’s” pulse is racing. She’s breathing hard. Everything around her slows down. She is hyper aware of everything and nothing at the same time, jolted into the present moment ready to react and respond to the danger at hand.
In that scenario it’s my “friend’s” amygdala, this little tiny part of your brain, that responded. It’s part of the limbic system. It’s constantly assessing the environment for danger, even when you’re looking at your phone when you should be driving. When it fires off a little warning signal or a full blown siren, your body responds. No thought process involved.
Emily and Amelia Nagoski wrote a great book explaining this called Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Think about our old school ancestors. You’re walking through the forest and suddenly this mountain lion pounces in your path. You turn and you run for your life. Since you’ve been training for a 5k with your friend, Librarian, you run like the wind all the way back to your village. Or the lion catches you because your 2 legs are no match for its 4 and you become lunch.
If you make it back to the village you breathe a heavy sigh of relief. You made it. You survived. Everyone gathers around to hear your incredible story. Your mom holds you close and cries herself silly with joy saying, “Oh my baby, I’m no glad you’re safe.”
Your partner holds you a little closer as you fall asleep that night. “I love you so much,” they say. “I am so thankful you made it home safe.”
Most of us are not being chased by mountain lions, but we certainly have stress. In fact, in the day to day our autonomic nervous system that manages this feeling of fight or flight can kick out the same stress hormones and throw us into varying degrees of panic in a wide variety of physically low-risk situations. It doesn’t care. Its job is to keep you safe. If it has to sound the alarm louder and longer all day until you run like hell back home, it’s going to do it.
That’s why finding home is so important. That sense of connection with other human beings is what lets our body know it can rest. The arms of our loved ones tell us to breathe easy. Everything is going to be ok.
Running, too, is an important component. We underestimate how much of our emotions we carry in our body. Movement can do so much to flush out the physical symptoms of stress and release the tension that our stationary bodies hold on to. The rhythm of your feet as they tap on the road, left and right, left and right. It’s the soothing regulation that’s reminiscent of your mother’s heartbeat in the womb and your father rocking you to sleep.
But what if home is not a safe place?
Our brains can also learn to be on alert in a variety of situations. This is especially true for people who have experienced trauma. It’s not logical. Our brains are wired to protect us no matter what. If that thing looks like another thing that hurt you, it will hit the panic button and put on the breaks, full stop, whether you want it to or not.
I didn’t really understand this until recently. I had told my husband many times, “I don’t know why, but when you touch me, I just start to feel really anxious.” I love my husband. I find him very attractive. This didn’t make any sense at all. Until I realized that for years as a single person, I had trained myself to throw up a danger sign anytime sexual intimacy was initiated. I had conditioned my body to hit the brakes hard and being married didn’t change any of that.
My husband came to our marriage with his own brake pedal. Anytime we got into what I might consider a good discussion he would suddenly get quiet. I often took that to mean he had no objections and went ahead with whatever I had in mind. Only later did I figure out that he did in fact have other ideas.
Like for instance when we were engaged and I nervously told him I intended to hyphenate my last name. “That’s fine,” he said, “you could just keep your last name.”
My jaw dropped. Wow, I thought, I had no idea I was marrying such a progressive guy.
The week before our wedding we sat down with our minister. He asked how we would like to be introduced. I pointed out that “I now present Adam Doran and Sharon Beck-Doran” is a little wordy. That’s when I found out how my husband to be really felt.
Adam had a very strong opinion. “You need to just pick one last name or the other,” he said. By having two last names I was adding unnecessary complication to my life. He was right, and I remember that every time I have to spell it three times for someone over the phone. But I don’t regret my decision, not one bit.
In the Beck family, disagreement is kind of a sport. Spectators may ask what we are fighting over, only to be met with confused stares. Who’s fighting? We’re just having a discussion, one in which we talk loud and fast so we can make our point before someone cuts us off with their louder, faster opinion. Feelings have been hurt on occasion, but most of the time it’s an excited contentious exchanging of ideas.
Most of Adam’s experience with conflict had been unenjoyable. If disagreement has painful consequences, you learn very quickly to keep your mouth shut. When your partner gets upset and stays angry for days and weeks at a time, you spend a lot of time trying to keep the peace. That conditioned response didn’t magically disappear as soon as he had a new partner, especially since my approach isn’t always the most delicate.
Sometimes we would go back and forth. He would withdraw if things started to get tense because that was how he had learned to keep safe. That pushed on my insecurity that I was just too much to handle.
It took me a while and much frustration to realize this. I didn’t get it until I read the book Crucial Conversations.I learned that sometimes in conversation when emotions are high, people can feel unsafe. They will typically react in one of two ways, silence or violence. I am clearly a “come at you verbally swinging” type. My husband, on the other hand, was definitely the “retreat at the first sign of danger” type.
I have learned to recognize when my husband starts to feel unsafe. Like the other night when I heard myself saying, “So if it’s a man it’s leadership and if it’s a woman she’s a control freak.” He was done talking after that. Not my best make it safe moment.
When I see Adam retreat, I have to take a step back and reestablish safety. He is the deer darting in front of my headlights in full frozen panic mode. I am the driver trying not to run him over. Ok, that was a dramatic overstatement for effect. But you get what I’m saying, right? It’s stressful. I need to stop and redirect before we can move on. Usually something like, “I value your opinion. I know you may not agree with me on this, but I really want to hear what you have to say.” In time, as we are learning how to be married, those moments of retreat have become less and less.
Sometimes the trigger is obvious. That person hurt me and now we are in the same room and I’m afraid they will hurt me again. Sometimes we don’t know why or how or where it’s even coming from. The thing sits below the surface like a land mine and you don’t realize it’s there until someone steps on it. Our family can be really good at stepping on our land mines.
Signs that you might feel unsafe: physical tension, leaning forward, holding your body back, wide eyes, shallow breath, racing heart rate. I sometimes feel my heart pounding in my ears, my chest is tight and my breath catches.
Recognizing that you or a loved one is feeling unsafe can be very helpful. Many times we might say or do something that triggers a painful memory or an automatic response without ever realizing it. The thing is, for most of us, our people really love us. I hope and pray that’s true for you.
Family can also be a great source of healing connection. Sometimes your safe place, your home, isn’t with your biological family. And that’s ok, too.
We are made for connection. When I think about God’s presence in my life, it feels like home. I know it’s not the same for everyone, but for me, I have this profound sense of a higher power that supports me. When I’m stressed and worn out, I think about God’s grace and all the good that I have received. It’s like a warm breeze to my soul.
That’s how I want to be for the people I’m around. Clearly, I don’t always nail it. I want to people to know that they can be themselves and it’s ok. I want to support and encourage. How can I show grace and empathy to the people around me? What if I listen more and talk less. Sometimes I imagine that I glow with God’s love. I don’t know if it really works or not, but it sets my mind in the right direction.
I want the people in my life to feel at home with me. I want to learn how to be a safe person.
As you prepare to celebrate Christmas, set an intention. How do you want to show up for the people in your life?
 Nagoski, Emily and Amelia. Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Random House Publishing Group, Reprint edition 2020.  by Kerry Patterson , Joseph Grenny, et al. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. McGraw-Hill. June 18, 2002