Finding a Safe Place

This week I have been spending some time focusing on self-care and finding a safe place for my mind and heart to rest. I have been listening to Getting Past Your Past by Francine Shapiro, PhD. It’s a book that uses the basic principles of EMDR for self-help and healing of trauma. I highly recommend the book especially if you are considering EMDR therapy.

Last week, I worked my last day at a treatment center as an administrative assistant. I had been working there almost three years. I left the facility Friday overwhelmed by emotions and experiencing a deep sense of loss of familiarity, relationships, and purpose. I drove away feeling fear in the pit of my stomach about what was ahead.

Change is especially difficult for me. It always has been. Learning new things and new people feels threatening. I fear rejection. I fear losing control. I fear others who I haven’t had the opportunity to get to know will be people who do not respect my boundaries and trigger me.

I also experience a deep fear of being alone.

Change and uncertainty of what’s ahead brings up the pain and losses of the past. I remember the people and the relationships that I have lost. The family and friends who have left a big empty space behind.

While it is extremely important that we grieve the losses in our lives and honor our pain, it is also critical that we learn how to live and function with our losses and embrace goodness. I confess in those really painful moments this can feel like an impossible task. But it is not impossible. It is a process. I regularly have to remind myself.

Those of us who have suffered from complex trauma at an early age can find it extremely difficult not to go to worst case scenarios when we experience the normal stressors and changes in life. The neural pathways in our brains move towards preparing us for worst case scenarios and how to protect ourselves.

I’ve learned in therapy that we play an important role in healing from trauma. When we learn to pay attention to what we are experiencing in our minds and bodies and practice self care, our brains can begin to rewire themselves. The pathways in our brains can learn to go somewhere besides worse case scenarios.

One of primary tools of EMDR is being able to find a safe or a calm place for our minds to go when we begin to experience the overwhelming emotions of our past traumas. We train our brains through calming techniques and positive imagery to go somewhere besides worse case scenario. It is extremely important that this place be somewhere that we have not experienced any kind of trauma.

For many people, especially Christians, this safe place might be in church. However, if one has suffered from spiritual abuse, church is the very place where trauma occurred. I have discovered that going to church many times does not feel safe. Rather, it is the place where I actually need to practice what I am learning in EMDR.

Listening to Dan Allender’s podcast recently on spiritual abuse, helped me to understand that I have been too hard on myself when it comes to attending church. My attempts to push past the traumatic memories in church have been ineffective. I have gotten into a pattern of thinking that when I feel bad in church it’s because God is not pleased with me. Last week my husband and I prayed for God to help us hear directly from Him outside of church. Then we heard the Allender podcast and experienced the compassion rather than judgement of God. We felt encouraged to look for other ways to experience Him outside of church. My husband and I took yesterday off from church. We spent time outside enjoying nature. We drove out of town and did some shopping and had lunch. It was a good day. It felt safe.

On a side note, I want to say that I have some wonderful friends who are a part of the church. They have been safe people for me. They have listened, loved, helped and encouraged me. They have been the hands and feet of Jesus. However, even for these dear people I think it is difficult for them to grasp how their safe place can feel dangerous to us. Our absence from church and church functions can feel like rejection rather than our own self-care. This is where communication is important. Even as I write this I am searching for the words to say. At the end of the day, all any of us can do is be honest with the people we care about. Even when there isn’t understanding there can still be mutual respect for one another. Those who really care will stick around and try to understand. Those who can’t understand we have to let go of placing expectations on ourselves to keep them happy. We are not giving up on attending church, but we are giving ourselves permission to take care of ourselves.

Listening to Dr. Shapiro’s book last week, I was able to discover my own safe place. It was a memory that I hadn’t thought of in years, but it brought a peace to my heart I desperately needed to experience with all the changes happening.

I found my biological father when I was 19 years old. I drove several hours to another state to spend time with him. Our first night out we went to the bowling ally. We sat at the table eating and smoking a cigarette together. Neither of us smoked on a regular basis. It was simply something we both wanted to do on this night out. As this memory resurfaced in my mind, I felt my stomach relax. I felt heard, loved, listened to and accepted in my biological father’s presence. I felt safe. Even though after this experience I went through a wide range of emotions, I knew in those moments that my Father loved me and that was all that mattered.

As I think back to this memory, I thank God for this reminder. I am able to see that He is a good Father who gives good gifts outside of church. I am comforted to know that He truly does meet us where we are.

The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord , is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the Lord .
Zephaniah 3:15‭-‬20 ESV

Fear

What am I really afraid of? Things not working out at all like I planned. That this new home, new community, and hope that I feel will get dashed away just like so many other good things I’ve had have been. That I’ll still wind up eventually alone and afraid again.

Last night I tossed and turned in fear. Life is changing. Things feel out of control. Like I’m in room with everything strewn out across the floor and not knowing where to put anything. All I can do is sit in the chaos. And I hate it. Once again we are moving. This time a little less than an hour away. Nothing like the move we made four years ago, but with plenty of things to remind us of it. We are moving at the same time of year. Boxes are piled up against the walls. The emails from the mortgage company wanting to know about everything we owe. It’s scary because I worry about if we are spending too much. If our neighbors will be good ones. If our jobs will continue to provide so that we can pay a new mortgage. So many unknowns. So many things that could go wrong.

Fear rises in my chest from a place deep inside. Its strange how I can think I’m doing so well one day, and then fear comes and knocks the breath right out of me when I start to feel like I don’t have control.

Lately, I’ve been reading about attachment disorders and developmental trauma. Being an adopted child, I have been reading to understand more about myself. One thing that has stood out to me in what I’ve read is how much fear children who do not have healthy attachments with their parents live in. Being adopted I can relate to this fear only too well. As I look back over my life, I realize fear has never really left me.

I remember hearing a preacher point out one time how many times God says in the Bible do not be afraid. I don’t know the exact number, but I know its a lot. God knows how desperately we all need to hear it. At the core of our being is the need to be safe.

When I think about what it might have been like as a baby to be born and taken away from my mother at birth I know it must have been terribly frightening. After three months in a foster home things would change again and I’d go to live with my adopted family. A family that was far from stable. Is it any wonder I am still afraid? Is it any wonder I want to feel in control?

Sometimes I’m able to remind myself that God is in control and not let fear take hold, but with so many things out of control right now and the stakes being higher for something to go wrong, I’m finding its a lot more difficult to trust. I want to trust God, I really do, but the fear won’t let go sometimes.

What am I really afraid of? Things not working out at all like I planned. That this new home, new community, and hope that I feel will get dashed away just like so many other good things I’ve had have been. That I’ll still wind up eventually alone and afraid again.

As I look back over my life there have been so many losses. So many times when I’ve believed that things would be ok, but they were not. So many people I thought would be in my life for a lot longer than what they were and now they are gone. Was it my fault? Am I destined to ruin everything good? Fear haunts me with these heavy questions.

I hear regularly at the residential treatment center where I work the importance of being honest with ourselves about our losses and allowing ourselves to acknowledge and feel their pain. Recently, I heard one of the residents weeping over the realization that she’d never have a mom and dad who would love her like God meant for her to be loved. It broke my heart for her. But it also broke my heart for me. Because I want the same thing she does. A place to be safe and belong.

Why is it so hard to love one another the way we should? Why has the love of so many grown cold? Why do we in our worst pain wind up hurting those closest to us? I wish I knew, but I don’t. But like this young girl who was forced to accept the reality that things had not worked out at all like she hoped, I too must accept that reality and keep moving forward to a future that is unknown, grieving the losses along the way. But also believing that there is hope up ahead.

This morning a Bible verse came into my mind after a night of tossing and turning in fear.

Lord , my heart is not proud; my eyes are not haughty. I don’t concern myself with matters too great or too awesome for me to grasp. Instead, I have calmed and quieted myself, like a weaned child who no longer cries for its mother’s milk. Yes, like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, put your hope in the Lord — now and always.
Psalms 131:1‭-‬3 NLT

God meets us where we are. He never rejects us because of our fear. He reminds us that He is holding us close and that He will never leave. Even when fear is overwhelming us, our souls can rest in this truth.

for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
2 Timothy 1:7 ESV

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
1 John 4:18 ESV

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
Psalms 56:3 ESV

I sought the Lord , and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.
Psalms 34:4 ESV

fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Isaiah 41:10 ESV

Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”
Deuteronomy 31:6 ESV