Some Thoughts on Instilling a Sense of Safety in Others.
I remember the day I heard his name for the first time.
My boss at the employment centre was on a call in her office, offering up her support to the clearly distressed person on the other end.
“He told you to go do WHAT to yourself?! You’re still managing his case?? Oh, you poor thing. Anger issues, eh? Ohhhh, his leg was crushed? Did they amputate? Ahhh I see, so he uses a cane then. Ok, ok, so mandatory computer tutoring or his claim is a no-go? They actually bought him a laptop? Hmmmm … he’s been through three tutors already?? I don’t think we have anyone that would take that on … oh wait! Hold on, I might know someone. I’ll call you back.”
Her footsteps clicked toward my door. I knew what was coming. This wasn’t anything new. I was always handed the “problem client”. A last-ditch attempt at keeping the file active. The “Hail Mary” cases as I liked to call them.
“How would you like to make some extra money and grow your people skills at the same time?”
I remember thinking that no, I didn’t want to grow my people skills but as a single mom, I always needed extra money.
“What’s his name?”
I walked into the coffee shop and spotted him right away. His anger and agitation were a tractor beam, sucking me in as I made my way toward the table.
“Hi, you must be Roy.”
“Whatever gave you that idea,” he said, abruptly gesturing to both his walking cane and a brand-new laptop on the table, still in the box, unopened.
I felt my face heating up and in that moment I knew that I had to get over my fear or this gig was going to be over before it even started.
“I’m Laina. What do you have in the box?”
“Did you forget your glasses today, Laina? What does it look like I’ve got in the box??”
I sat down across from him and leaned back in my chair, my heart was racing and I didn’t particularly want to look at him but I knew I had to.
I took in his ginger complexion, his balding head, and his weather-beaten face.
He was stocky and had massive arms and hands that resembled two small hams.
It was obvious that he had once been a force to be reckoned with. I felt like I was witnessing the remains of a colossal, ancient ruin.
“I think it looks like a whole new life for you, Roy.”
And with that, he was silent long enough for me to open the box and get his new laptop out.
“You want a coffee?” he asked, begrudgingly. “Or maybe a tea? I drink tea. Coffee makes me irritable.”
I laughed and I think he smiled a bit.
“Well, you’re doing better than the others”, he said, “they didn’t even get to sit down.”
“Thanks, Roy. I’ll try not to let that go to my head.”
“So, are you some sort of computer expert?” he asked, his tone shifting from hostile to teasing.
I shrugged. “Not really. I know the basics.”
“I don’t know anything about these damn things.”
“So what? I don’t know anything about logging.”
He let out a small chuckle as I racked my brain for a way to get this guy interested in the computer.
I asked him what sort of stuff he was into. Expecting him to say medieval weaponry or horror films, I was surprised when he answered; “I’m reading The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle.”
“Do you have an email address, Roy?”
“You do now.”
“Because you need one to get a YouTube account. We’re going to watch some Eckhart.”
After that first session of binge-watching videos of Eckhart Tolle, Roy proceeded to learn how to use email and word docs and spreadsheets and surf the internet.
During the next few sessions, he confided how his leg had been flattened while on the job at a logging site, and that he was in the midst of navigating the world of workman’s compensation all while stuck in a horrible custody battle over his young son.
He used his new computer skills to communicate with the various players in these situations and even started documenting his cases digitally.
The very thing that he was resisting was proving to be of great service to him.
I was proud of him and I could see he was proud of himself.
We met weekly for many months and became friends. I remember he was tearful when we parted ways at our last session.
I don’t have a deep, psychological understanding of why I was able to reach Roy or any of the other “difficult” cases that were thrown my way.
But, what I do know, is that I didn’t take away from their already shaky sense of safety.
In Roy’s case, his nervous system was rocked with a severe injury, lost wages, the loss of his house, and then the loss of living full-time with his beloved son … not to mention any old stuff he had lingering from the past.
The guy did not feel safe.
Forcing him to learn something daunting with someone that he was anticipating to be a pretentious, out-of-touch do-gooder, was not going to make him feel any safer.
Somehow, without really knowing what I was doing, I was able to present myself as a non-threat and help him keep what was left of his felt sense of safety.
After studying nervous system dysregulation over the past few years, I now have enough knowledge to distill my success with Roy and the other “Hail Mary” cases down to three essential components;
1. Find Common Ground.
When someone needs your help to feel safe, finding some common ground is a good jumping-off point. It helps to get on their level and not try and “pull rank” or conversely, put yourself in a subservient position that may translate as condescending.
When someone is dysregulated to the point of fight, flight, or freeze, an authority figure forcing them to act or think in a certain way will not be well-received.
If you ask respectful questions and take the time to observe the other person, you can usually find a clue that will point you in the direction of common ground.
2. Co-Reguation. Be Cool, Not Reactive.
Co-regulation is the way that the nervous system of one individual influences the nervous system of another. Without getting too much into the science, it is an interpersonal interaction but also a neurological and biological process.
When dealing with someone in a state of dysregulation (anger, rage, annoyance, etc.) the worst thing you can do is add to that energy. This doesn’t just mean avoiding getting angry or resentful yourself, it means avoiding any extreme reaction, including being overly sweet or supportive.
Offering up a nice, neutral energy to the other person helps keep their nervous system from becoming more stimulated.
3. Do Not Take What They Say or Do Personally.
During my years working in social services, I’ve witnessed a lot of ego-driven intervention on the part of my co-workers.
Although well-meaning, they easily became agitated and offended when they were unable to instantaneously bend an irate client into submission.
They made the situation about them and let the inevitable onslaught of insults and resistance polarize them further from the goal of calming their client down.
Instilling a sense of safety in others is a powerful and essential aspect of human interaction. It serves as a foundation for trust, connection, and personal growth.
When individuals feel safe in their environment, whether emotionally, physically, or psychologically, they are more likely to engage openly, express themselves authentically, and embark on journeys of self-discovery and healing.
Just like Roy did.
I truly believe that this sense of security contributes to the creation of compassionate, empathetic, and resilient communities.
By being aware of our power to instill a felt sense of safety in others, we not only help them out of dysregulation, but we do our part to build a more supportive and harmonious world in general.
Interested in learning more about nervous system regulation, anxiety, and the like? Check out my free guide here.
Thanks for reading, you guys. See you next time!
Sending out a special thanks to Justin Staley https://twitter.com/steelorcaio (DJ, AI Artist and just a nice guy in general) for creating the image featured in this letter! Amazing work, as usual. http://steelorca.io