Trigger warning: this article contains references to suicide, self-harm, OCD, and eating disorders.
Even now if I were to simply walk along an overpass above a railway track, I could find myself slipping into unsettled and unsafe depressed thoughts – and as we all know these kinds of emotions can far too easily become overwhelming.
Physically, I would be perfectly safe walking, but emotionally, I would feel impulsive, unstable, and scared - of relapsing into old habits - memories of suicide attempts and self-harm would often return when I feel scared, as after all feeling unsafe leads to fear.
It is not just these temporary feelings that can be unsafe, wider patterns in mood and emotions can threaten not only our physical safety, but also our mental wellbeing, especially for people like me that have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
Connecting with your feelings through emotional safety
Emotional safety is a term I use frequently to describe my mental wellbeing in these situations. This is not a new word, but has been commonly used by mental health professionals, although I have taken that word and made it my own.
It is a concept is used often in interpersonal therapies such as couples’ therapy, where it means that all parties feel they are safe to be open and honest with each other and allow for vulnerability. To me however, emotional safety means that I feel secure and settled in my emotions, this could be interpersonally or applied to day-to-day activities.
I identify with this term and find that it is so helpful to me to articulate my self-understanding and enable me to be more compassionate to myself and others. With it I can not only identify my feelings, but also understand how they will impact my mental wellbeing, emotional safety, and comfort - and then I can learn to accept these feelings and forgive myself.
As a mentally unwell person, I have often been at physical risk, but those physical risks come from unsafe emotions, my mood, and not anything else. Suicide attempts, deliberate self-harming behaviours, restrictive eating, and compulsive exercise have all been ways in which my emotions have made me physically unsafe.
Perhaps the best example of this though, is my OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). I have obsessional thoughts, which make me feel things - discomfort, terror, disgust, etc. These all lead to compulsive behaviours, such as excessive hand washing or even using inappropriate products to clean my hands.
Of course, not everything is emotionally unsafe, for example feeling content with my life or being happy and feeling good are safe. But there can also be contradictions that come from emotional and physical safety.
Because perhaps the most helpful area for the term emotional safety, although it may be the most confusing, is that while prolonged fear may be damaging to our mental and emotional health, especially if we are kept in dangerous situations, fear can also keep us physically safe. For example, if you were being followed and had a gut instinct that you should be afraid of this person, you may be able to protect yourself by allowing the fear to lead you.
Applying emotional safety to mental wellbeing
Emotional safety, then, is a term to describe the long and short-term impact on mental health and wellbeing, differing from physical safety but sometimes complimentary to physical safety. And it is a tool to process and understand how you feel as well as setting out the next steps of addressing those feelings - although this can make it occasionally paradoxical in that it can make you feel and be mentally safe but also unsafe.
It allows me to understand and be honest about my emotions – benefitting both myself and others. I have often found myself overwhelmed by my emotions to the point where I shut down entirely, denying I feel anything at all. By having a tool to identify first if I feel safe or not, I have a way to breaking down how I feel, this understanding means I can connect with my emotions, and practice self-compassion.
If you feel this term could help you, it may be a good idea to write down which emotions feel safe, and which feel unsafe - try to go beyond the simple nice or less nice, and think about the impact on your mental health and well-being, as well as your day-to-day function. Sadly, there aren’t many resources out there surrounding this specifically, but some mindfulness techniques to do with connecting with your emotions might help, too.
Many, myself included, may not get on particularly well with mindfulness as a concept, which is why I believe connecting with this one may be more beneficial. Emotional safety works for me because I can understand and convey my emotions and their effect on me very simply - as safe or unsafe. Sometimes, I feel therapeutic terminology can get lost in translation, leading to misunderstandings in treatment, but simpler terms mean that this is less likely.
All this makes me quite surprised when I found out that this term is mainly used in circles of interpersonal therapies, rather than across all mental health services. If this term were to become widespread, and if it were understood and explained well it would be a fantastic tool to describe and understand difficult feelings and mindsets.