14 October 2007

Getting Well, Part 7: Deep Safety

Geologists, paleontologists, and physicists all deal with "deep time". It is the time required for planets to form... species to evolve... continents to drift. It is measured in units of millenia... epochs... eons.

In my own halting journey as an abuse survivor, I have lately been contemplating "deep safety". This is a concept of safety that goes beyond the simple physical and emotional self-protection that one individual can practice; it is communitarian, and it is multidimensional. It is, in simplest terms, the Social Contract raised to the level of a sacrament.

It has also, I have discovered, been profoundly mapped and explored by Sandra Bloom, M.D.; the term she uses for it is "Sanctuary".

This is a fitting term. In Western religion, the first description of sanctuary is found in the Pentateuch; in the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy, there are designated "cities of refuge", where fugitives could seek shelter. The custom was also observed in Ancient Greece and in medieval Europe, particularly England, where fugitives fled to churches and cloisters for protection from persecution by arbitrary and capricious temporal authorities, whose exercise of power was otherwise unchecked.

Sanctuary, then, was refuge, asylum, shelter, protection. It was not extended universally and uncritically - but it was extended generously and without betrayal, to many who would otherwise have been arbitrarily destroyed.

In my experience, most survivors of abuse have a profound, even consuming desire for a place of deep safety. This does not represent mere regressive desire for infantilized caretaking, but is a genuine and valid need for an external environment which is healthy, restorative, and profoundly honest. Abuse survivors need such an environment in order to fully recover from the effects of their experiences. Tragically, this need is often so intense that unsafe environments are dreamed into places of safety, just as abusers may be dreamed into charming princes, and the net result is further, often more severe, retraumatization and a deep sense of self- and other-engendered betrayal. And thus the cycle of abuse continues.

What are the elements of deep safety? Bloom considers four:
-physical safety, which is basic safety from harm;
-psychological safety, which she defines as the ability to preserve one's safety in the world, built upon self-discipline, self-esteem, self-control, self-awareness, and self-respect;
-social safety, defined as the ability to be safe with others in relationships and other social settings [this would include churches, clubs, workplaces, support groups and recovery groups];
-moral/ethical safety, which is the ability to maintain standards, beliefs and principles that are consistent, guide behavior, and are grounded in respect for life.
These elements assure that a person, family, group, or organization will be "trauma-sensitive", in Bloom's terminology; there will be a culture of nonviolence, that is emotionally intelligent, committed to inquiry and social learning, with shared governance in that members learn self-control, self-discipline, and the ability to recognize and cooperate with healthy authority.

Crucially, she also notes that such a culture requires open communication - essential to the reduction of acting out, to healthy self-protection, to the establishment and maintenance of healthy boundaries, and to self-correction. In such an atmosphere, social responsibility easily becomes a shared positive norm, and growth and change are embraced as key to the restoration of hope, meaning, and purpose for all members.

Bloom's approach stems from extensive experience with trauma survivors, which gave her a fundamental awareness that support and recovery for trauma survivors absolutely requires an enviroment which does not re-traumatize them. In her own words, "...teaching and reorientation... cannot be successful if the treatment environment mimics the behaviors of the dysfunctional systems... experienced as children." She goes on to note that any dysfunctional system may be characterized by collective denial of problems, shared shameful secrets, a lack of honesty between system members, and "a web of lies that is difficult to penetrate". There are often "unclear and shifting roles... boundaries are diffuse and confusing... There is poor tolerance for differences and no good mechanism for conflict resolution. Instead of resolving conflicts they are kept submerged... if they finally rise to the surface they are dealt with in a highly moralistic and usually hypocritical way."

She also notes [as do Judith Wyatt and Chauncey Hare, with respect to abusive workplace environments] the strong internalization of negative norms by survivors of dysfunctional systems. These are norms such as denial, coercion, secrecy, and manipulation [her list], "cloaked and given other words like "privacy", "loyalty", 'self-sacrifice", and "obedience" so that the individual... subject to such norms becomes cognitively confused - accepting the verbal interpretation while nonverbally sensing the more hostile aspects of the environment... Additionally, a coercive system makes it clear that there is no tolerance for questioning this double and contradictory level of meaning and any attempt to do so is labeled as "disloyalty"... and... summarily punished."

This is an uncannily accurate description of every abusive environment I recall from my own experience. I have gradually come to believe that it is impossible to speak to and engender healing of any kind in such environments. One cannot address any pertinent issue gently enough to avoid provoking distortion, projection, retaliation; because the real issue is not one's gentleness or tact, but one's heresy. To see what goes on beneath the surface of any dysfunctional system is suspect; to articulate it is anathema. The game is always rigged; the house always wins.

What then can be done?

First - one must be aware, and one must hold that awareness as if it were a sacred trust. In many ways, it is. To become aware, one must learn; to learn, it is wise to read. This link will take you to Dr. Bloom's publications page, on her Web site. It is an excellent place to learn about deep safety - how to recognize it, how to contribute to it, how to avoid counterfeits.

Second - one must seek to detach. This is much harder to do, always, than to say, or to pretend to do. To fully detach, one must emotionally divest oneself, and this is very, very difficult when in pain or fear. But it is even more difficult when in the 'throes of hope' - and that is when it is most necessary. To seek detachment, to know that it is necessary for healing, is enough of a start.

Third - one must learn to trust one's own judgement. Hare and Wyatt, in the book linked to at their names above, describe ways to do this while immersed in an abusive environment. However, it is inevitable that with greater awareness and greater self-trust comes greater unwillingness to remain in, and thus tacitly collude with, an abusive system; then one must trust oneself enough to know when it is safe to leave - or less safe to leave than to stay.

Fourth - and highly important - one must learn to recognize abusive systems as quickly as possible upon entering them, and remain detached enough not to prematurely invest in them. This is really no different than learning to be less susceptible to charmers offering whirlwind romance, or to cults proffering cures for your soul - if you will but sell it to them. It isn't necessary to despise or condemn any system in order to leave it, but it is necessary to see as clearly as possible, and to be able to accept what you see, even when painful [because it will always be painful; there is no anesthesia for the loss of hope].

Finally, and crucially - one must remain detached enough to be able to recognize if a previously safe place is becoming unsafe. Sadly, negative norms are very powerful, and 'stealth abusers' often take advantage of courtesy combined with cluelessness to establish themselves as influential members in groups. They do this in workplaces by conning interviewers during the hiring process; they do it in churches and other groups, by presenting a 'facade' which may not match their actions in significant ways, but goes unchallenged because 'nobody wants to be impolite'. Any system, once so infiltrated, becomes progressively less safe as the abusers within feel more safe, and thus more free to abuse. It is important to recognize this when it occurs, and not to accept blame for causing it merely because you happen to see it.

Deep safety. Earnestly we seek it; our souls thirst for it; our bodies long for it, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. We have seen it in the sanctuary, and beheld its power and its glory...

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Found your blog via Narcissists-suck. Some very good observations and helpful links.

25 October, 2007 01:18  
Blogger Stormchild said...

Thank you! It helps to know it helps :-).

Narcissists-suck is an excellent site. I discovered it, and What Makes Narcissists Tick, [also excellent] about a week ago, and have spent a lot of time reading them both.

I've added links to them here - which I hope will also be helpful.

25 October, 2007 20:16  

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