Compassion Strengths

Workshops, consultations, education and support for care givers.

Article 7

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Regaining Safety and Control


The last three chapters (The Care Giving Personality, The Personal Cost of Care, and Parallel Process) have focused on some of the issues care providers face in this rewarding and challenging profession.

In The Care Giving Personality we discovered many care providers share similar personality traits as our clients which is both our strength and our challenge. While it allows us to make empathic connections with our clients it can, if left unattended leave us vulnerable to counter-transference reactions that are characterized by their inappropriateness, intensity, ambivalence and tenacity.

In The Personal Cost of Care we looked at the role of trauma and secondary trauma in the helping process. We discovered in one study it was reported 19% of masters level and above therapists have been victims of childhood sexual abuse, the single greatest predictor of PTSD and learned that secondary trauma may be a type of "emotional hijacking" that can result in burnout and depression.

In Parallel Process we discover that emotions are contagious particularly when we share similar personality traits as those who are most expressive of their emotions or Energy in MOTION. When we unconsciously absorb and internalize traumatic emotions of our clients we are more vulnerable to experiencing distraction, sensitivity, overload and misperception.


  • Is a place that doesn’t know, doesn’t evaluate, and is willing to see what is;
  • Sees beyond the fight to an open realm of possibilities;
  • Enables us to let go of the filters of our past and the blinders of our expectations;
  • Perceives no right or wrong, only inquiry and creativity;
  • Turns frustration into fascination and work into play”

— Thomas Crum, The Magic of Conflict

Gaining Safety

Have you ever really thought about it? What is the physical, emotional and mental experience of safety? How do you know when you are safe? What are the triggers that alert you to feeling unsafe?

Safety is a relative concept. Each of us have our own specific conditions, both internal and external that we require for our brains to secrete and transmit those chemical messengers that signal we are safe and can be at ease. Related to these pleasurable signals of safety and ease is a process of thinking, feeling and behaving that is associated or interconnected with this feeling state.

To discover what safety is for you personally, first begin by identifying what the experience of safety actually is.

In a quiet, favorite place play some soothing music, light a scented candle or create your particular cues are for a safe and soothing environment. Allow yourself 10 - 20 minutes for this exercise.

Sit with your back straight in a comfortable chair, close your eyes and place one or both hands over your navel and allow yourself to breathe naturally.

Breathe in fully from your stomach so that your hands will move with the expansion of your lower lungs as you deeply draw in oxygen. Have you ever watched a young baby breathe? Do you notice how their stomachs heave with each breath? As adults, we have learned to hold in our breath out of tension and stress and cut ourselves off from our very life force.

As you breathe in imagine the oxygen as vital life force (which it is) that fills every nerve, muscle and pore of your being with cleansing, refreshing energy. Just as you have filled your lungs, hold your breath for just a moment before exhaling.

Now exhale with a whoosh allowing all of your tension and stress to be released with your breath. Do this a couple of times until you feel relaxed and refreshed. Then allow your breathing to continue naturally.

As you breathe fully and naturally allow your sense of self, the part of you that experiences continuity in time and space to “sink” from your head into the center of your being. Notice the release of tension and stress as your sense of self becomes surrounded and held in the safety of your innermost self.

From this place of security and safety, allow yourself to just notice and watch the parade of thoughts, feelings, memories, etc. If you find yourself getting lost or being taken away from your center by this experience, simply return your attention to your breath as it rises and falls and allow yourself to sink again to your center.

When you have done this for a few minutes allow your awareness to return to normal and record what you noticed.

What was your experience of safety? How did you feel inside your body? What parts of your body could you feel as being "close" to you, and what parts felt distant or disconnected? What did you notice about your emotions or Energy in MOTION? Could you feel energy flow through your body? Did you notice any places where the energy stopped or was blocked. Was there tingling or burning any place in or outside your body? How did you feel inside your "center?" Could you experience a place of safety, comfort and security inside yourself?

The experience of safety is directly proportional to how comfortable we are living inside ourselves. Safety is the result of our ability to provide self-soothing. When we have pockets of "blindness" in our personality that are experienced as dangerous, not a part of us and therefore not under our conscious control, we feel uneasy living inside ourselves. We often numb our feelings and feel disconnected.

One of the effects of secondary trauma is distraction. Problems with attention, loss of stimulus discrimination, internal noise and persistent intrusions will all make themselves apparent during this exercise by grabbing our awareness to attend to their pressing agenda. The more urgent and pressing our internal agenda the less safe we feel.

Gaining safety is a process of focused awareness. As you practice the above exercise and can begin to spend more and better quality time with yourself you will become more and more familiar with the physical, emotional and mental cues that signal safety. The more aware of these cues you become during the exercise, the more you will recognize them in your day to day life.

Re-Gaining Safety

Because we are not always able to consistently transfer the safe experience of being inside ourselves to our pressured and hectic work-day we can easily lose sight of our recently acquired safety. It becomes necessary to learn to re-gain safety especially when we are exposed to the emotions of others that are more likely to trigger secondary trauma.

Re-gaining safety is a function recognizing and responding to those physical, emotional and mental cues that alert us to danger and an impending emotional hijacking. This requires that we develop within our conscious awareness a witness or safe observer who is free from the grasping tentacles of an emotional hijacking.


Begin this exercise where the last one left off. As you watch the parade of thoughts, feeling and images notice the part of you that is watching. This is the observer function of your ego.

The observer is that detached (not disconnected) part of you that can watch the process of how your mind unfolds. It is not critical or judging. It does not perceive right or wrong and is not caught in the struggle to be right, noticed or special. It is clear and accepting.

The observer is your wellspring of creativity. It is a tremendous resource for solutions and insights. It is source of your intuition and can be your greatest ally. However – the observer is present and available to you to the extent you are honest with yourself.

Self-honesty is not a judgmental or critical process. In fact, self-honesty is present to the extent we are safe and accepting with ourselves. Self-honesty is self-transparency. We are able to peer inside ourselves to the extent that we are honest and transparent with ourselves.

As you continue to watch the parade of thoughts, feelings and images notice their emotional intensity and quality. Which thoughts, images and emotions are connected together? What part of you is “doing them?” This is the participant.

The participant is that part of you that is “caught up in the drama.” It contains the structure and content of your belief systems your judgment about what is right and wrong, good and bad. It is also rooted in your body and is the part of you that is emotionally engaged with your clients.

The participant is also a wealth of valuable information. This part of you is “in the trenches” with every communication and relationship. It is constantly receiving and giving information – the majority of which is experienced as emotions and body sensations.

Observing Transference and Counter-Transference

Now, bring a current relationship with a client you believe may have some strong feelings about you to focus. Pick a client whose relationship with you is characterized by inappropriateness, intensity, ambivalence and tenacity.

What happens to your breathing and body sensations as you focus on this relationship? What goes on in the parade of thoughts, feelings and images? What information or insights does your participant receive?

What is happening to your observer? Is it being drawn into an emotional right/wrong position? Are you losing your detachment?

If this is happening, bring your attention back to your breathing and sink into the safety of your center. Make a conscious effort to detach your observer so that you can watch the process of your participant. The stronger your feelings and emotions, the more you may need to detach yourself.

One technique is to imagine your observer self to be floating high above you watching you experience your thoughts and emotions from a safe distance. As you breathe out your emotions and begin to feel calmer and safer, allow yourself to close the distance between observer and participant.

Now, allow your observing self to bring the relationship back to focus. From a safe and detached perspective, look closely at the content and process of your client’s communication with you and your communication with your client.

Notice both the verbal and non-verbal communication between you and your client. Notice what is being said and when. Allow yourself to remember those specific times in which you experienced inappropriateness, intensity, ambivalence and tenacity by either your client or yourself and what specifically was transpiring at that time.

What were you feeling in your body? What feelings or sensations came from inside of you and which ones seemed to be directed at you by your client? How can you tell which are which?

Transference and counter-transference are simply two sides of the same coin. Human beings are dynamic energy systems. We cannot help but to be connected with each other. What transpires “inside” our clients also transpires “within” each of us. It is our personal response to absorbing and internalizing emotions that determines whether transference and counter-transference becomes our greatest ally or our toughest opponent.

Grounding and Centering

As you continue to review your communication and relationship with the client you have brought into focus, specifically notice when you begin to lose your observer to the emotional drama that is transpiring in your participant.

Each time you begin to lose detachment and perspective, consciously return your attention to your breath and your center. Allow yourself to breathe deeply and fully. With each breath breathe in new, fresh, vital energy. With each exhale breathe out the tension, stress and the need to be right. Then go back to reviewing your communication and relationship. Repeat this process until you are feeling freer, clearer and more grounded and connected with yourself.

From this safe and secure position within yourself you are able to notice the observer - participant function within yourself. You are able to observe yourself participating in the parade of thoughts, emotions and body sensations as they unfold without judgment or criticism.

Begin to notice which thoughts and/or images make you feel tense and unsafe. Rather than block or repress them, to the extent you are comfortable allow them to flow through you unrestricted. Notice your breathing. Are you holding or restricting your breath? Usually the very first sign that we are tense and unsafe is when we begin to restrict our breathing.

The sense of safety is a function of being “grounded” or “centered.” The experience of being centered is to capture the essential feeling of self - or what Heinz Kohut describes as our sense of continuity in time and space.

That feeling of being grounded and centered is often described as being located right at the center of our being which is experienced physically as being in our stomach where we can receive intuition or “gut feelings.” The experience of tension and fear will draw your attention into your head and face where you may experience a physical flush as well as being drawn into your distressing feelings and images.

Each time we can disconnect the fearful emotion from our distressing thoughts and images by returning to our full relaxed breathing and the sense of safety within our center, we have successfully disconnected the stimulus-response pattern that characterizes emotional hijackings.

Regaining Control

Dr. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, states: “Another early step is to help patients regain some sense of control over what is happening to them, a direct unlearning of the lesson of helplessness that the trauma itself imparted…The sense in which PTSD patients feel ‘unsafe’ goes beyond fears that dangers lurk around them; their insecurity begins more intimately, in the feeling that they have no control over what is happening in their body and to their emotions.”

As you continue breathe and re-center your attention bring to mind a recent situation in which you experienced a brief, minor emotional hijacking. Do not begin this experience with your most traumatic life event. Emotional relearning requires time and practice. Much like weight training, you cannot go to the heaviest weights and expect to lift them.

As you review the experience in your mind, pay attention to your physical tension, your breath and your center. If this experience precipitates an acute fear or rage reaction discontinue it and return to your breathing and your center.

If you are able to approach the experience with your center and your “observer” intact allow the experience to unfold. Continue to observe yourself participating in the experience.

Begin to notice at what time during your review of the experience that you feel tension in your body and restriction in your breathing. What is happening that threatens your sense of control? Don’t do anything just make mental notes.

What you may notice is that you will begin to lose your observer perspective when you are experiencing threatening thoughts, images and feelings. You will feel drawn into the experience and lose your center or sense of self. Despite what the images may be, what we are really afraid of is losing our sense of self, our sense of continuity in time and space. This is the ultimate fear: emotional death and/or disintegration.

Regaining control continues with disconnecting the fearful emotion from our distressing thoughts and images so that we can re-connect the thoughts and images with soothing and centering emotions and body sensations.

One of the techniques in which we can create a disconnection is to consciously utilize one of the defense mechanisms we are so familiar with - dissociation. However, rather than utilize the word dissociation with its negative connotations, we will call the process of utilizing the observer function of your ego in a specific way as “witnessing.”

Witnessing is one method in which we can take personal responsibility or ownership for a very powerful process that we can proactively utilize to regain a sense of control rather than unconsciously dispatch to remove ourselves from our perception of threat and/or danger.

Witnessing involves the same dynamics as when we dissociate reactively and unconsciously - except we are “in the driver’s seat. Witnessing involves disconnecting from distressing thoughts, images and emotions with conscious intent. When we align our conscious intent with our thoughts, emotions and behavior we are re-owning rather than disowning that part of ourselves caught in the emotional hijacking.

Practicing witnessing involves identifying the moment you notice your breathing become restricted as you tense your muscles in preparation for fight or flight. This signals the activation of the Amygdala, the part of your brain that can by-pass your rational, thinking mind and trigger an emotional hijacking. Accompanying changes in breathing and muscle tension are distortions in our perception.

One of the first perceptual distortions we experience as you are drawn into our distressing mental images, memories and emotions is, you begin to observe the distressing images as though you were looking at them up close through a powerful telescope that draws you right into the magnified details. Being drawn into the picture so closely may be one of the reasons memories of past traumatic events are often re-experienced in bits and pieces - they are experienced as though the experience was smashed up against your face allowing only glimpses of glaring detail.

At this moment, as you feel your observing self being pulled through the telescope into the picture, consciously visualize yourself turning the telescope around and peering through it in reverse. As we have probably all experienced, looking through a telescope in reverse causes the thing you are looking at to appear far off at a great distance.

Use your imagination to see and feel what it is like to observe the part of yourself that is in distress as though you were far away and safe, yet connected with the experience you are observing. This is the essence of witnessing; to be emotionally at a safe distance and cognitively intact to observe and experience the whole traumatic event as though you were sitting safely in the back row of a movie rather than being chained to a front row seat with your eyes forced open, sounds and smells invading your consciousness, and the movie crashing in on you as though it were a powerful strobe light.

As you observe yourself re-experiencing the traumatic event from the safe and unique perspective of the witness, make a conscious effort to provide self-soothing, to see yourself as a compassionate friend would see you. You can even provide support, understanding and forgiveness to the person/self you are watching.

When you have had some success with witnessing and can provide safe distancing from a traumatic experience yet remain conscious and connected to it, you are ready to take another step in this visualization exercise to gain greater control over the memory of the event. It is important to remember, we are working with the memory of the event, not the event itself. The actual real event is over and gone.

Allow the entire experience to unfold before you at whatever safe distance you require. Allow it to play from beginning to end. Allow yourself to notice how each event unfolds and the particulars of each event - the sounds, smells, touch, etc. When you are comfortable replaying the event in it's entirety noticing as much detail as you can, then it is time to restructure the memory by re-associating different sensory states.

Because memory is state-specific, that is, we will be more likely to remember something if we re-produce the physical, emotional and mental state in which the memory was originally recorded - we can use this knowledge to create different states with the same memory.

After you replay your traumatic memory from beginning to end, try running it backwards from the end to the beginning. Imagine your memory as though it were a movie in reverse. Because memories are actually like a mental movie imagine that everybody is walking and talking backwards. And because you know how it ends, you can also take an active role in re-writing the script. You can also attach music to the running memory/movie and even turn it into a comedy like the old time movie houses of the Marx brothers.

The important part of re-creating your memories is that you have regained control of your experience. Rather than being victim to intense, unpredictable and chaotic mind/feeling states you have learned to approach previously dangerous memory experiences while remaining whole and intact.

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