Disentangling Safety From Comfort

By Jeff Levy

There is an exercise I facilitate during the first class meeting each time I teach graduate students about trauma.  Before we do the exercise, I ask for people to think about the difference between safety and comfort.  It might seem a strange request to make during the first class, but a relevant one prior to engaging in an activity that invites self-disclosure and possible vulnerability.  Usually, several hands go up in response to the question.  In addition to the hands, there are usually some looks of confusion.  In part, I think the confusion relates to trying to distinguish safety from comfort.  I also think my students are wondering why I am asking such an odd question on the first day of class.

What may seem like a strange question initially, is actually an important one for my students, and also for the people I see in therapy.  Both my students and my clients are making a choice to make changes.  My students are hoping to make changes in what they know about working with trauma in clinical practice.  My clients are hoping to make changes related to the reasons they are seeking therapy—their goals.

With both students and clients, a desire to change serves as the foundation for our relationship.  Even when voluntary it can feel daunting when we are asked to do something differently, to feel differently, to move differently, to think differently, or to relate differently.  It can be uncomfortable to change.  In my teaching and in my clinical work, my hope is to create a space that is safe enough to be uncomfortable.

Feeling Safe Immediately?

During my first meeting with Jason, a young man who came to talk with me about joining a group I was offering for male survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I shared a bit with him about the group and then checked with him to see if I could ask him some questions about his history.  “Of course,” he said.  “That’s why I’m here.  I trust you completely.  You’re the professional.  Ask away.”

I could have proceeded without thinking twice.  I had permission to ask Jason about why he came to the group and to ask for more information about his experiences of abuse.  Instead, I said “I’m not going to ask you to share any specifics today.  I just want to get a sense of what you’re hoping to get from the group and why you’ve chosen this point in your life to be in the group.”   Still, he insisted he was prepared to tell me anything, reiterating that “this is a safe place to share.”

Jason had been in therapy before.  He knew how the process worked.  He was comfortable in his role as a client.  He didn’t, however, know me.  And while I like to think of myself as a safe person, and one who creates a safe space for my clients, Jason really can’t know if I’m safe until he gets to know me.  Safety requires that vulnerability be respected so that even more vulnerability is possible.  It’s through being vulnerable that we grow and change.  And this can only occur over time, through experience, and very often with a high level discomfort.

Another young woman I was seeing grew up in a conservative religious home in the south.  It was also a home in which all the children endured severe punishments and physical abuse.  At one point in her therapy, there was going to be a Ku Klux Klan rally in Skokie, Illinois.  Historically known to have a strong Jewish population, there were predictions of violence erupting.  The week after the rally, this client came to her session telling me she had attended the rally.  She wanted to be there to “defend those whom the Klan was targeting.”  The more we talked, the more she realized that it really wasn’t safe for her to be at the rally, but the potential for violence was quite comfortable.  Danger she knew and understood.  Danger was comfortable.

Combinations of Safety and Comfort

If we conflate safety and comfort, it’s likely that when we feel uncomfortable, we’ll mistake that for feeling unsafe.  That feeling of tension—both physical and emotional—is uncomfortable, but not necessarily unsafe.  It’s important to tease these apart.  Below are a few examples of how safety and comfort might manifest for us:

  • Feeling unsafe and uncomfortable creates a high level of distress and the “I gotta get out of here” feeling.
  • Feeling unsafe with a high level of comfort can be dangerous.  The internal message may be something like:  “I know what’s going to happen next.  I’m going to feel pain, but at least I can predict it and I know it’s about to happen.”
  • Feeling safe while feeling comfortable encourages the status quo:  “No need for me to change…this is a breeze.”
  • Feeling uncomfortable while at the same time experiencing a high level of safety allows for growth:  “I know this is awkward and unfamiliar, but I know I can experiment and that no harm will come to me.”

As the anecdotes about my two clients illustrate, disentangling safety from comfort can be quite difficult.  It’s also extremely important to do so when we engage in the process of change.  While it may sometimes feel basic, when someone says to me “I don’t feel comfortable,” I will usually respond with a follow up:  “Is it that you don’t feel comfortable or you don’t feel safe?”  Often, this invites a discussion about how safety and comfort may be different.

Similarly, when someone shares:  “I don’t feel safe,” I’ll also follow up, but usually asking for more information about what doesn’t feel safe.  Sometimes, we uncover triggers that create this lack of safety.  Sometimes, however, we also realize that the feeling is not about feeling unsafe, but about feeling uncomfortable.

The Importance of Feeling Safe and Uncomfortable

Safety and comfort become themes in much of the work we do.  Fostering change is almost always uncomfortable, but as much as possible, we strive to maintain safety.  It’s also important to remember that safety exists on a continuum and we are often not totally safe or totally unsafe, though certainly our efforts toward change can allow for the highest level of discomfort when we also create the highest level of safety.

Making these distinctions about safety and comfort apply to me as well.  It’s important that I find ways to feel safe in the work I do, so that the discomfort that comes from saying difficult things, feeling difficult feelings, or asking my clients a question that I sense might invite strong reactions, becomes possible.  If I stay safe and comfortable, I may squelch the possibility for my own vulnerability.

When we’re confident we’ve established some level of safety, we are more apt to lean into discomfort.  And rather than seeing vulnerability as a weakness, we can reframe it as a sign of strength.  So while safety and comfort are definitely related, they aren’t interchangeable.  Our hope is that safety builds over time.  And when our feet are firmly grounded in safe soil, we can more easily flex and bend to the discomfort and uncertainty of change.

When the wind of change blows, some build walls, while others build windmills.

—Chinese Proverb

Written by Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS

Published on November 28, 2017