Safe People. Are They OK?
I am asked all the time if it is OK to use safe people when doing exposures or facing anxiety challenges. Let’s do our best to answer that question.
Not everyone has safe people. Some anxious people much prefer to be alone when they are afraid of experiencing panic. More commonly, anxious people come with “safety people” attached to them.
A safe person is a person that you think is rescuing, protecting you, or saving you from the things you fear – primarily your own body and mind in our context. In most cases where there are safe people involved, an anxious person will insist that they can only do certain things or face certain situation if they have their safe people with them.
You are convinced that these people can shied you from anxiety, panic, discomfort, or fear. You believe that they must be present to ensure that it ends and goes away. You like to have them around “just in case” you really do need help, rescue or immediate medical attention. Having safe people makes you feel … safer.
In the early stages of recovery, when you are just learning about how to do this and still terrified of doing the scary things or facing your anxiety directly, it’s perfectly OK to use safe people to help you get the ball rolling. That is not a crime, that is not doing it wrong, and I would never judge you for that, nor should anyone. If you can’t seem to get started, doing this to help you get started is a fine idea. I would much prefer that you move forward with helpers rather than remaining still and stuck. Yes, this would still be considered moving forward.
It’s completely acceptable to start this way, but you must understand that you are STARTING that way. Know that you are using your safe people to help you get started and overcome that inertia. But know that sooner or later, you will have to leave them behind and start doing the hard things on your own.
Why must be ultimately leave our safe people behind? Because if we continue to hang on to them, we never learn that we are FULLY aware of handling things alone. Safe people reinforce the mistaken belief that there is such a thing as “too much”. They create a line in your mind that you will think you must never cross without a rescuer at the ready. This means that you wind up vulnerable to life challenges and are more likely to wind up in a “setback” or relapse.
I will assert that if we do not fully learn the lesson that we are completely capable of handling anxiety, fear, and discomfort alone, we never fully recover. I do not mean that you must cut your safe people out of your life completely. You’ll just need to take them out of the rescue position so they can go back to being be friends, partners, siblings, parents, or whatever else they may be in your life.
Safe people never actually save us. We think they do, but they would likely tell you that they have never actually saved you. They may say they support you, or try to make you feel better, but making you feel better is not saving or rescuing you because nobody needs to be rescued from bad feelings, no matter how scary they might be.
When we examine cases of relapse and setback, it is very common to find that the previous “recovery” was conditional – dependent upon safe people to meet challenges that were still deemed to be “too much”.
A fully recovered person will tell you that they never need safe people. They know that there is no such thing. A fully recovered still has close friends, family members, and intimate relationships. But fully recovered people do not place the special people in their lives into rescue roles. We know that it is not required because we are completely sure that we are completely able to handle panic, anxiety, uncertainty, fear, and discomfort. Fully recovered people still like to be supported. We just don’t think we need to be rescued from ourselves.
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