Seeking Safety in Estrangement

Do you prefer listening to reading? There’s a Reconnection Club Podcast on this same topic. Click here to listen now:

RC Podcast Episode 164: Seeking Safety (available January 29th)

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Many people who create distance between themselves and their parents do so in the pursuit of emotional safety. Unfortunately, their parents don’t always understand what that means.

Even more unfortunate is that those same parents suffer a loss of emotional safety as a result of their adult children’s estrangement.

While the adult children may be seeking safety in distance, their parents are likely to feel safer closing the gap…

Wired for Safety

The imperative of emotional safety is not a figment of the imagination of a younger generation. It’s in our genes. 

We’re wired for connection; some research has suggested we experience the hurt of social rejection in the same parts of our brain that process physical pain.

Although the term “emotional safety” may not have been in vogue when we were growing up, the human desire for emotional safety is nothing new or strange. 

For example, if people are talking about you behind your back, saying things that are unkind and untrue, that discomfort you feel is a lack of emotional safety.

So is the misery of feeling betrayed, having your secrets revealed in public, or hearing your spouse threaten divorce.

It’s no wonder an unwanted estrangement can also feel dangerous to our safety-seeking brains. While your adult child might feel somewhat safer keeping some distance between you, the opposite may be true for you.

It’s reasonable to ask why anyone would feel safer apart from family. Obviously, it’s a painful question. It might even feel unsafe to ponder it.

But wait! A lack of emotional safety in the adult child is not necessarily the reason for any given estrangement. Sometimes it’s a simple need for more psychological space, or even a practical matter of logistics. So this article might not apply to your estrangement.

However, if your estranged adult child has implied they don’t always feel emotionally safe in your relationship, you might be interested in how emotional safety can be created, maintained, and potentially restored. 

Creating Safety

There are ways we can try to cultivate emotional safety. But please note: it’s very difficult to do if we ourselves aren’t safe.

With that in mind, here are 10 tips for creating safety in all your relationships. It starts with you.

1. Be trustworthy. Keep your word, and never betray a confidence. Don’t share your own secrets with people who can’t be trusted with them.

2. Lead with understanding. Never argue with how someone feels — even when that person is yourself. Feelings don’t have to be justified. Only actions do; actions are by choice. Feelings aren’t.

3. Avoid judgment and criticism. That includes both yourself and others. It’s hard for any of us to feel safe when we’re being judged. 

4. Be empathetic. You may not feel exactly the way someone else does. But if they feel afraid, for example, you know what that’s like. You’ve been afraid yourself before, surely. You can empathize with how unpleasant it is to feel afraid.

5. Go easy on people. Don’t expect anyone, including yourself, to be unfailingly logical or rational. Reason is valuable, but so are emotions. We make better decisions taking both reason and emotions into account.

6. Use “I”-statements. Rather than saying, “You’re being mean,” say, “I feel hurt by what you said.” By talking about your own experience in this way, you’re less likely to come across as critical when you’re hurt, confused or sad.

7. Be respectful. Observe psychological and physical boundaries, both your own and others’. There are many books and articles on the subject of boundaries if you’re not sure what this looks like.

8. Be authentic, not brutal. There’s nothing admirable about brutal honesty; being judicious in expressing opinions is a mark of maturity. Make sure your self-talk, too, is characterized by as much compassion as honesty.

9. Be inclusive. Focus on the commonalities, not the differences, between people. Don’t stoke the destructive fire of “us vs. them.”  Remember humans are all more alike than we are different.  

10. Be affectionate. Choose a loving response whenever you can. There’s no defense against genuine caring.

Did you notice you can practice every one of those 10 tips on yourself?

It’s not possible to be perfectly safe, emotionally or otherwise, at all times. Life doesn’t accommodate perfection or (alas!) permanent safety.

But by giving yourself the experience of emotional safety as often as you can, starting in your relationship with yourself,  you could gradually become a beacon of safety for others as well. Including your currently estranged adult child(ren).

Meanwhile, here are some links where you can learn more about this powerful concept.

Emotional Safety: What It Is and How to Develop It

Emotional  Safety (National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments)

How to Create Emotional Safety Within Yourself

4 Things to Know About Emotional Safety

10 ways to improve emotional safety in the workplace

Emotional Safety: Honoring Yourself While Creating Trust and Presence to Experience Meaningful Relationships by Alex Avila, LPC

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