Update: As of March 4, 2016, the Baltimore Annapolis Psychotherapy Podcast has a new name: Therapy Chat! It's still found in the same locations online - my website, as well as iTunes, Stitcher and (soon) Google Play. So when you listen to the podcast episode attached to this article, don't be confused!
Finding Safety in An Unsafe World
There have been a lot of horrible things in the news lately. There was another mass shooting just yesterday. Terrible things are always happening: violence, hatred, fear, oppression...they all seem to go together, don't they? Is this inevitable?
These are scary times.
Scary things are going on. We're more aware than ever before of our shared humanity. Has it gotten worse or was it always like this? Globalization is bringing our world together. Our young people are growing up learning that people all over the world share the same feelings. We all want to be safe and free.
I remember when I was a child of about 9 reading a short news article in our local paper. It said that a large number of people - maybe 1000, or 10,000 or even 100,000 - had died when a landslide happened in East Asia. I wondered at this story, feeling sad and scared. I was reassured by an adult who told me that it was nature's way of correcting the overpopulation in that country. Those humans who died were individuals with their own stories, their own hopes and dreams, just like me. Their lives mattered. But in that time, we were so detached from a reality of life different from our own here in the U.S. that it could seem as if people in faraway places we never saw were not actually humans like ourselves. Those people who lost their lives were not "others." That concept creates an artificial distance between us. Distancing ourselves from others' pain can help us feel safer, but it also creates disconnection.
Those people who died that day, and everyone who has died before and since, regardless of geographic location, culture, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, sexual identity, skin color, hair color, eye color, language or any other characteristic wanted safety, belonging, connection and control over their own lives just like you and I.
Now, thanks to global 24-hour news and the internet, we can see the devastation and pain when an earthquake or tsunami destroys a town, or when flooding or tornadoes hit and people lose shelter and suffer injury or death. We see the humanity of those who are affected. We witness their pain and loss, and we can feel empathy for them and gratitude that we were not directly impacted. But it can feel like too much.
Sometimes it feels like too much.
It's too painful. Watching and reading news of terrorist attacks around the world is so painful. We may want and need to turn away because the pain is too much for us to bear. We begin to fear that we may be at risk of experiencing this same pain and loss. What if terrorists attack here? How will we be safe? How can we keep our loved ones safe?
I talk about this often with my clients. Suddenly you have a general sense of unease which becomes a feeling of being unsafe. Next thing you know you've switched into autopilot, survival mode. When you're in this mode you're usually not consciously aware of it. So check in with yourself: Am I absentmindedly checking Facebook? Obsessively checking e-mail? Wanting to micromanage my kids or my spouse? Suddenly forgetting about self care? Feeling stuck, immobilized? Click here for a short body scan mindfulness exercise to help you get centered and grounded in your body.
I'm scared! What can I do?
So why do these bad things happen? The world's problems are so complex. Are the natural disasters caused by climate change? Well, if so, what can be done about that? Some are saying our planet isn't going to survive unless something changes. It's a terrifying thought! What can be done to protect the Earth for our children's children? It can feel hopeless. I see the feeling of powerlessness to effect change as the result of our overwhelming anxiety and fear. In other words, although it may feel like a hopeless situation and you may feel powerless to make a difference, that is not reality. You can take action if you want to change the way the world is. As Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has!" That's one of my very favorite quotes.
Using the example of climate change, if you feel worried about it, ask yourself what one small change you can make that will have a ripple effect. Can you teach your children not to litter? Can you make a change in what you consume? Can you donate old clothing instead of throwing it out? Post a Facebook status that raises awareness of the problem? Make a donation to an organization that is working to address the problem? Volunteer to pick up litter on a road in your town one Saturday?
Many of us are feeling fear and a sense of helplessness from the violence we see and hear about. Most recently the terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris this month have created fear that we won't be able to stay safe. With so much anger, hatred, violence and talk of vengeance, are these problems ever going to get better? And will we be safe?
I'll quote Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that." Our discussion about terrorism and violence in general tends to be overly simplistic. We break it down into "good guys" and "bad guys." There are no good guys and bad guys! There is just us! We can do good things and we can do bad things.
We look at people who do bad things with disgust and wonder how they can be so cruel. Are they just bad people? Maybe they were born bad. How can they hurt others and seemingly not care? How can they be so heartless? It would seem that people who commit acts of terrorism actually take pleasure in hurting others, torturing them and seeing them suffer. This is incomprehensible to most of us.
Yet some voices call loudly for vengeance, saying the only way to solve the problem of terrorism, to keep us - the good guys - safe, is to blow 'em up! Nuke 'em off the face of the earth! Or capture them and torture them until they admit who their leaders are so we can kill them! Harsh, yes, but they deserve it for what they've done to the good guys! Bad guys deserve what they get! We hear a lot of bloodthirsty cries for justice - swift and deadly. I'll be clear that these are not my views. I feel that anyone who hurts someone else should be held accountable with a justice process that is fairly and evenly administered. However, violence begets violence. If we react with vengeance instead of understanding the cause of the behavior and addressing that, we do not resolve the problem.
Often people who use violence and vengeance to express their pain use their interpretation of religious directives to justify hateful and destructive behavior toward various groups based on ethnicity or culture. We, the good guys, know this is wrong. But Xenophobia (defined as fear of what is strange or different) tends to be our knee-jerk reaction. How is that any different from the attitudes driving terrorists?
Then what's the answer? Or is it hopeless?
The opposite of this hatred and fear is empathy and compassion. What if we believe that the people who commit acts of terrorism and violence are human beings like ourselves who feel justified in their actions? What if they think their behavior is justified because of their own desire for vengeance related to some hurt and pain they feel? What if we could look at the conditions that create whole groups of people who fear and hate other groups of people and address the underlying causes? I know that sounds complicated but it really isn't as hard as it seems.
Sociologists and other human behavior researchers have been studying the causes and solutions to these issues for years. What if we looked at the causes of violence, oppression, racism, misogyny and actually addressed the underlying reasons for those attitudes and behaviors? What if we looked at each other as fellow humans, regardless of what makes us different from one another? Could we live more peacefully, feeling safer and having more freedom and ease if we were able to consider that everyone else is doing their best in a given moment? I'm no better than you and you're no better than me. What if we are all equally worthy of love, acceptance and approval? Because, whether or not we believe it, it's actually true. As humans, no one is better, and no one is less than another. How might things be if we lived this way?
Wanting everything to be okay
As for feeling that we need to have some reassurance that we will stay safe and that nothing bad will happen to us or the people we love, we don't get that. There is none. Bad things will happen. We will hurt. And we will get through them and we can be okay.
I used to believe that a good life is one in which I would always be happy, or at least content, and nothing bad would happen to me. I still want to believe that I can get through life feeling safe from pain and most importantly, that I won't lose the people I love. I don't know if any of you have felt this way. I know I'm not alone in the feeling. But I don't feel this way because it's how life is, or how it's supposed to be.
I feel this particularly deeply because of the fact that in my early years I did experience loss of people who were most important to me. It took a long time for me to process how these losses affected me. So the worry about losing the most important people in my life comes from that early experience. Now that I know that and now that I've processed the pain of that loss, I can live in the reality that nothing is certain. No matter what I do, there is really no way to insulate myself from the possibility that I might lose the people I love.
In some small ways, my children growing up can be an experience of loss. It's a process of losing the close connection we've had their entire lives. It is tempting to try to hold on to them in a way that prevents them from becoming independent adults, to serve my own desire to feel connected and loved. But that's actually not healthy for them or for me. Being conscious of that feeling of wanting to keep them close to fulfill my own needs keeps me in check, and I set boundaries on my role in their lives to create a healthy relationship. Setting boundaries (defined as what's okay and what's not okay with me) isn't just a one time thing. As we all grow, the boundaries are re-drawn. The relationship isn't static, so the boundaries must change too.
So how do we live with the reality that we can't possibly prevent every bad thing from happening, no matter what we do? How do we go through life and be okay, even when something bad can happen that might take us by surprise? Well, one way to do it is to live your life worrying about every possible risk and taking steps to avoid it. I wouldn't recommend this strategy since it could eventually make you feel afraid to leave the house with no one wanting to be around you because you worry so much you make everyone else nervous.
Another option is to pretend everything is fine even though inside you're dreading the moment when everything falls apart. This strategy often leads to feeling disconnected from yourself because you get so good at ignoring that constant worry that you don't really know how you feel anymore. People who do this will sometimes say, "I don't know who I am anymore. What do I like? I have no idea." Those of us who do this frequently find ourselves taking temporary comfort in numbing out through watching TV, becoming absorbed in social media, binge watching DVDs, compulsively eating, shopping, using sex, gambling or substance abuse to escape. But does it make you feel safe? Not really. There will be loss. You will suffer at points. It's the human experience.
So what does help? How can we go through life trying to be okay if we can't be 100% sure that nothing bad will happen to us or the people we love? For me, two things have helped. First, healing from the traumatic experiences of my life by working for much of my adult life (starting at age 29) to process my trauma from those early losses I mentioned and other painful experiences has helped me to feel much safer in the world. The second part of my healing, and I share this in hopes that it will help you too, is implementing a self care practice.
Being grounded means being in the present moment, in your body, here and now. From what I've experienced personally and witnessed in others, any regular practice which makes you feel grounded is key to being present in your body, mindfully aware. I can say unequivocally that when I feel grounded and centered in my body I feel safe and I'm not worried about anything happening to me or the people I love. I wrote a blog post about getting grounded when trauma symptoms are triggered. It, and the graphic above, explain basic grounding techniques. Click here to read the post.
Here and now. This moment is literally all we have. We truly cannot know what's going to happen next, in any area of our lives. Having control is only an illusion. I saw a beautiful quote by Johannes Wolfgang von Goethe which read, "I say to the moment: 'stay now! You are so beautiful!'" But do we really stop and appreciate the moments of happiness we experience? I've found myself in the middle of a joyful moment worrying when it's going to end rather than just being. Have you ever done that?
So how can you feel okay, knowing there is no guarantee of what will happen next? Well, let me ask you - are you safe right now? Can you be okay in this moment? Check in with yourself. What are you feeling? What are the emotions? The thoughts? What body sensations do you notice? What do you hear? How is your breathing? Can you experience gratitude for this moment that you're allowing yourself right now, just to feel how you are? Can you be okay right now, even if everything is not okay? Right now you're safe. In this moment, there is nothing you have to do or be other than just being you.
Right now, as you are, without changing anything about yourself, you are enough. See if you can take a deep breath and just let that wash over you. You don't have to do anything else right now besides just be. This is the only moment. There is nothing to think about that happened before, and nothing to think about doing next. There is this moment, right now. Just breathe into it. And as you are doing this, just being, ask yourself if there is anything you can feel gratitude for right now. Sometimes when we feel really good it can be a feeling of gratitude for how well things are going. And if there are some things which aren't going so well, or things you're worried about, see if you can find anything that you can feel gratitude for.
In any moment, as worried and stuck as I might feel, if I try I can always find something to experience gratitude for. When I feel critical of my body or discouraged with myself for getting out of my regular workout routine, I can experience a feeling of gratitude that it's not too late, that my body is strong and I don't have any health problems at the moment to prevent me from being able to go ahead and do something active like stretch, take my dog for a walk, do yoga or go to the gym.
Sometimes it's simply helpful to notice that right now, in this moment, I and the people I love are all okay. No one is hurt or sick and we all love each other. That can help me stay grounded and present instead of worrying what if something bad happens? Another practice I find helpful is listening to guided meditations. Click here for a guided meditation I recorded to help with grounding, gratitude and creating a sense of safety for yourself and the world.
Thanks for reading my longer-than-usual post. I hope you found it useful in these scary times. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below! I'd love to hear from you.
If you’d like to talk to me about working together click here or send me an e-mail at email@example.com. You can reach me by phone at (443) 510-1048. For more from me, sign up for my occasional newsletter! I don’t send them out unless I have something I want you to know, and you can unsubscribe any time you want. You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Google+. To listen to my weekly podcast, search the Baltimore Annapolis Psychotherapy Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and (coming soon) Google Play. Or click here to listen via my website.
Laura Reagan, LCSW-C