Some people get mixed up between threat and soothing in relationships and are then unable to access the calm, safe spaces they need to heal. How can we help to change that?
Becoming who we are
Us humans have ways of regulating our emotions, developed through many thousands of years of evolution and change. One particular human, Paul Gilbert, gave these names: the drive system, the threat system and the soothing system. Having all three active and balanced is a good start for having a healthy life (For more info, see Paul Gilbert’s website, Compassionate Mind).
We also need each other and develop attachments to people close to us from the moment we’re born. The quality and substance of these early relationships has a huge influence on how we live with ourselves and others as adults (For more info see Attachment Theory | Simply Psychology).
The hope is our childhood teaches us that generally, people are ok, I’m ok, and my emotions are manageable. Sometimes this goes wrong. Sometimes the very people that are meant to be safe are also a threat, and that can be very confusing or too overwhelming to process.
Maybe mum would sometimes be lovely, and sometimes be out of control angry.
Maybe dad would sometimes protect, but sometimes attack.
Maybe our friends smile and laugh, but tear us down behind our backs, or intimidate us into staying friends after we discover they do bad things.
Maybe we’re told we like something or that it’s good for us when everything inside is screaming that it’s not.
If this happens enough, the threat and soothing systems get blurred and we find it hard to know the difference.
If I know mum loves me, but I’m always walking on eggshells so as not to upset her, maybe that’s just what family is?
If dad, who I know is protective, attacks me instead, maybe it was my fault because I’m the threat? How would I know?
If people say they’re my friends, but I feel anxious and under threat all the time instead of safe and relaxed, well maybe that’s just what friendship is?
If I’m supposed to like this, but I feel horrible afterwards, maybe there’s something wrong with me? Maybe that’s what pleasure is, and I just don’t understand?
When anxiety becomes the norm
Several times, I have shown someone the words used to describe the soothing system; contented, safe, protected, cared for, trust – and they comment back that they don’t recognise those things in their own life. They have no way of accessing those feelings either internally or with other people because the ways of getting them have been blocked. Physical touch makes them recoil. Vulnerability makes them feel sick or scared of attack. Being focussed on makes them feel like they’re under scrutiny and judged instead of feeling important. Opening up to someone is humiliating, instead of comforting. Life experiences have taught them that the soothing system is in fact threatening. If this happens, you can end up living your whole life feeling anxious, or trying to avoid anxiety by escaping into work or temporary relief through experiences. Rest, calm & safety in relationships are never things you can get to because your threat system tells you they are dangerous things.
Though this can be our past, it doesn’t have to define our future. We can understand our own story; how we got to where we are, what we value, our difficulties and triumphs, the people that have affected our lives. We can take all that and, with courage and support, begin to take steps to find places of safety again, both internally and with other people.
This is often where a therapist can help. They can provide a contained space for us to explore and experience what safe relationships feel like, so we can recognise them back in normal life. They can help us untangle our own stories, so we understand how we got to where we are and can see and accept the brave and wonderful person we are today. They can help us to tease out our (incredibly quick) responses to threat, so we can catch ourselves before we close down or lash out. The goal is to separate out the threat and soothing systems so we can form deep bonds with ourselves and other people without being afraid.