Vulnerability and Safety in Stage One Recovery

Vulnerability and Safety in Stage One Recovery March 29, 2016

Header stage 1 with titleby Cindy Kunsman cross posted from her blog Under Much Grace

All images by Cindy Kunsman from Under Much Grace and used with permission

One might think that the first stage of healing from trauma involves recounting tragic circumstances, but it is actually about creating a safe place with safe people who can help you heal. In the previous post, I described a situation that I had with a counselor who I don’t believe understood trauma very well and didn’t use an approach that was helpful for me.

But think about that for a moment. This counselor had a master’s degree and many years of experience as a Licensed Professional Counselor, and they were highly recommended for me. I made the assumption that she would be a safe person. If she wasn’t, who was – especially because I sought help after a string of events that left me off balance. I wasn’t in any place to make such hard decisions. I had to reach out to trust someone.
Human Vulnerability
Looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, I think now of what has been written about human nature and all of the things that we take for granted. Consider a person that came from a “good enough” family who is well adjusted – someone who hasn’t suffered a great trauma. Even they are vulnerable to taking short cuts through all of the decisions we must make every day. Shortcuts involve risk, and there is also the “learning curve” – the time of testing which you need to learn about whether a person really is trustworthy.
Just based on the context of a situation or even a person’s clothing, we assume that we have an unspoken contract with a policeman, therapist, doctor, nurse, or a religious adviser because of what their professions represent. But each time we take information for granted and make those shortcuts in logic and judgment because of appearances, we take a risk. We can’t go through a complicated process of evaluating every person we meet, especially when we are vulnerable. Every person should be aware of the risk that we take when we trust those cues that we tend to take for granted.
True FriendshipAltered Level of “Normal”
If we have just exited a relationship that was in some way abusive or failed to be safe for us, we are at an even greater disadvantage. We become conditioned to a new level of “normal” for us that is really quite abnormal. We lose perspective. I watched loved ones work at a job where they were disliked and devalued, and it took a few years for them to readjust to what was truly healthy and normal because their expectations for how others treated them had dropped so low.
Add to that the extra burden of never really having a good example of “good enough” if you were raised in a high demand system or family. Thinking again of one of my feral cats, when I finally was able to get him to be comfortable inside my home, I set up a little protected place for him with everything that he needed so he would feel safe. The pneumonia he suffered from made it a bit easier (much like we can be when we are off balance from a major life event). Though I made a comfy bed for him, this poor kitten nestled down in the litter box I provided. My heart broke because he felt comfortable and safe in what was most familiar to him. It took three days before he would choose to sleep on the nest I created for him out of a blanket and pillow.
Pia Mellody’s model of core elements of childhood
If we grew up in a family that didn’t honor our childhood needs and limitations, our ability to identify safe people and safe places becomes skewed. I like the way this author parses out the needs of childhood which can set us up for difficulties in our adult relationships. We fail to bond with others when we aren’t properly honored and loved. Our examples of boundaries with others may not even exist. We may be reduced to objects or people who are owned who exist for service to others without any identity of our own. We can be seen in a far too simplistic way as a person who is either all good or all bad with no shades of gray or color in between. For those who grew up in families like Quiverfull ones, we were likely not permitted to fully mature into adulthood.
I’ve been working hard on my own recovery for thirty years, and I still recognize different areas in my life that need to change to provide for my own safety. And that’s okay, though it isn’t always fun. I’d love to kick my feet up and coast, pretending that I’ve mastered what so many people with a “good enough” upbringing and life take for granted. But that idea is also a fantasy. I expect that I will continue to grow and find more holes in my development and my habits that make me vulnerable to those who are unsafe. But I’ve accepted that it’s okay.
More on safe people and places in the next post.
For further reading until the next post:


Cindy is a member of the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network.

Cynthia Mullen Kunsman is a nurse (BSN), naturopath (ND) and seminary graduate (MMin) with a wide variety of training and over 20 years of clinical experience. She has used her training in Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a lecturer and liaison to professional scientific and medical groups, in both academic and traditional clinical healthcare settings. She also completed additional studies in the field of thought reform, hypnotherapy for pain management, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is often associated with cultic group involvement. Her nursing experience ranges from intensive care, the training of critical care nurses, hospice care, case management and quality management, though she currently limits her practice to forensic medical record review and evaluation. Most of her current professional efforts concern the study of manipulative and coercive evangelical Christian groups and the recovery process from both thought reform and PTSD.

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  • Abigail Smith

    Safety! Yes, key word…I’ve been learning this same lesson lately…I never felt safe as a child because I needed protection from those who were supposed to keep me safe. It took me over 20 years of marriage to be able to feel safe enough to tell my husband about how bad the abuse was as a child….I would try to share things with other christians and did NOT feel safe because I got platitudes and that judgmental look because they didn’t understand (must have come from good enough homes???) or didn’t want to understand…
    Yesterday I had a situation come up that normally would have put me into a panic…but it didn’t and I was able to calmly say no to a ridiculous request from a family member that has bullied and belittled me in the past…I realized that I felt safe enough in who I was to say no when I meant no, and not to be bullied into doing something, which is not something I had experienced as a kid. Something non-traumatized people take for granted. But I don’t. I celebrate it as a victory.
    Love your series!

  • AuntKaylea

    For me, the term “safe” is still an incredibly loaded term, as some of the early counseling I received (Christian) approached a desire for safety as errant in and of itself. I lost count of how often a particular counselor of mine quoted CS Lewis and the Chronicle of Narnia at me about how God is not safe, but he is good (in reference to Aslan), and how I shouldn’t be concerned about safety.

  • Karen the rock whisperer

    Someone I know, when much younger, was going through trauma related to a bad marriage and PTSD from his Vietnam service. He found a therapist who seemed like she’d be helpful, so he shared a lot of personal stuff with her. She turned around and shared it all with his soon-to-be-ex-wife, which greatly exacerbated the marriage problem and hurt him badly in the divorce. The poor man swore off all mental health assistance from then on, and suffered very badly from mental health issues for many years. Now he’s seeing a psychiatrist for meds, but only because his current wife and his church convinced him to do it, and his psychiatrist is a church member. He still struggles with depression, but has dementia now also so can’t really help manage his own mental health issues. It’s really sad, and all because a single “safe” person turned out to be very much not so.

    My advice to anyone who isn’t getting good (i.e. helpful) therapy, or feels that the therapist has some other agenda besides your own personal mental health: escape! There are many, many good therapists out there. Don’t spend another minute or nickel on one who isn’t helpful, or worse, is a hindrance. Trust your inner voice when it says that whatever you’re doing isn’t working.

  • Astrin Ymris

    Um… couldn’t that therapist be sued, or at least reported to the APA and lose her license to practice?

  • Abigail Smith

    What the…????
    If God is not safe as a Father, what is the point? That is so awful that you went through that.
    We finally left our last church (Reformed Baptist) when the pastor said something about how God “purposely hurts His children”…I used to cry through the services, not knowing why. That day it hit me that it made me feel like being abused as a kid all over again…I had parents who were supposed to protect me hurt me…why would I want a God like that??

    Now that I’m out from under that oppressive theology, God seems good again…and safe….