Emotional Safety

This past week I moved my 17 year old son from Virginia to live with me in Vermont.

I would love to be vain enough to think that he loved dear old dad so much that he would leave behind the life he’s always known, the friends he has had since elementary school, and all the activities that have brought him such joy to move here. But that is not the case. He moved here because living there was not an emotionally safe place for him to be, and Vermont is. My daughter made the same choice when she was sixteen.

Despite the pain of the leaving, It worked out well for her. She recovered her emotional balance, moved forward, finished high school, finished her Girl Scout Gold award (like Eagle Scout in Boy Scouts), went on and graduated from college in a field she loved. I loved having her here, no matter how or why she came. And I am praying that my son finds his peace and moves forward just as well.

The past few years have been like one giant lesson to me about emotional safety. It is one of those things that we all sort of know, but we don’t talk about. At least we don’t give it the importance I believe it deserves.

I am part of a creative group that was started years ago by Jon Katz, the bestselling author. He’s a neighbor and over the years has become a friend. He had this thought of a group of creative people who were simply supportive of each other. He calls it “The Ministry of Encouragement.” There are writers, artists, fabric artists, photographers, all sorts of creative endeavors. Most had held back on their creative side for their entire lives, almost keeping their creativity in the closet. Jon’s creative group gave them a place to share their work, their experiments, their failure and their wonderful successes. A few years on since it’s beginning, we have seen these people grow, seen their art grow, seen books published, art displayed and sold, seen courage flourish, and seen people expand far beyond what they thought possible.

Because they felt safe there. They had a safe place to grow.

I have seen the same thing in the professional world. A fair part of my career has been spent as a manager. I have to confess to not loving being a manger. Not nearly as much as the other parts of my work. But I dearly loved hiring and growing employees. I had a habit of hiring people not really qualified for their jobs, and then nurturing them to a place where they excelled. Watching them grow, giving them a place where they felt safe growing and seeing how that that safe place allowed their confidence and courage to move forward is without a doubt, the greatest reward of what has been a wonderful career.

I have seen the same thing in my faith life. When a church or other religious faith family is a place of nurturing instead of condemnation, there is a healthy spirituality there that is joyful, that infuses the people with strength and comfort, that allows them to project that joy and strength to others, and draw them into the family. When a church or faith family is a place of fear and condemnation, that joy that God wants for us withers. There is bitterness and fear instead of joy and acceptance.

And I have seen it in marriages and relationships. When a couple feels safe with each other, there is the kind of intimacy that holds them together. When they no longer feel safe, the relationship slowly dies.

Many things in my life are in a constant flux. In the past 10 years I have gone from married to divorced. I have been single, a single parent again when my daughter moved in, to single again when she went to college, to, as of this week, a single parent again. My work has shifted. My art has shifted. I moved from Virginia where I have lived all my life, to Vermont. I have taken on the duties of pastor, something I have always fled, feeling not worthy and temperamentally not suited. My parents have died.

But this need for safety, I have noticed, remains the same. It seems to be built into us.

I used to laugh at the idea that we are all children inside. But I don’t any more. I have seen it play out consistently for decades, particularly the last decade. And I have learned something. When we do not feel safe, be it in our work, our relationships, our faith or our art, one of three things happens:

  • We shut down and close ourselves off to protect ourselves.
  • We become crushed.
  • Or we leave.

THAT is how important safety is to us. So important that when it is not there, it can only destroy. Nothing good comes of an unsafe place. Ever. But when people are in a safe place, this is what happens:

  • We open ourselves, and our life and circle expands.
  • We flourish and grow.
  • We stay, joyfully.

I don’t have many universal laws in my life. I run my life and faith with a few basic principles. But the need for emotional safety, and the desire to provide that for people in my life is one. I have not, and don’t always succeed in creating safe place for the people around me, but it is something I work hard at. Because that’s what I want for myself. And because I have seen how it affects others. The desire to provide a safe place for my family, for the people who work with me, for the people I am in relationship with comes from my own need for emotional safety.

It’s hard to make our own safe place. We can isolate ourselves to create that place, and that is a path many of us take. But there’s little joy in it. And expansion is slow.

Living in a place of faith helps, if our faith sees God as a loving God who wants the best for us and loves us no matter what. If we see the universe as benevolent.

But the biggest factor, I have learned, is the people we surround ourselves with. Negativity kills. It stifles. It smothers. It builds fear. Positiveness builds safety, allows us to reach out, experiment, fail with grace. It reaps what it sows – joy. The more I have surrounded myself with positiveness, the more I have grown and flourished. And I have seen the same in literally every other person I know.

I am in a good place in life. No, things are not perfect. Far from it. There are demons to fight, mountains to climb and things are very foggy ahead. Sometimes I feel my whole life is one big science experiment. But I am a place where my heart is safe. The people who love me are kind and forgiving. My God is kind and forgiving. My readers are kind and forgiving. The people closest to me, even when they have a concern or a conflict, are unfailingly kind and loving and gentle, and never let me forget how much they value me.

Seriously, I can ask for no more.

If you are not in a safe place in your own life, I wish you safety. Seek out friends who love you in a supportive way. Surround yourself with them. They are all over, just as the negative people are all over. We have a choice. That’s what we forget sometimes. We have a choice of who and what to surround ourselves with.

That’s right. We have a choice. That’s what my kids discovered. That’s what I discovered. I wish the same for you.

Be well. Travel Wisely,



  1. Thank you for offering your Self through words Tom. I’ve been pulled back to read this specific post a number of times over the past two days.
    Your writing has touched me. I entered into a place of deep reflection during the Fall, and emotional safety – the need for, the creation of – is one of the issues that I’ve been called to examine.
    Peace and blessings for you and your son as you hold the space open for Be-ing and healing.

    • Hello Kelly. It is a subject that hold a special place in my mind as well. More and more I come to believe that this is one of the biggest things that hold us back in life – unsafe places. I’ve seen so many who have finally found their safe place blossom in a way I never would have thought possible before they got there. Be well in your ruminations.

  2. I agree Tom. I am honoured again and again to witness that blossoming in the 6, 7, and 8 year olds that I am privileged to learn alongside of each day. We share our community visions at the beginning of each school year, and then intentionally create a safe, respectful, loving, learning environment. The ensuing growth is a joy to behold. 🙂
    I’ve experienced this unfolding in myself over the past 12 years, and am once again consciously choosing openness and expansion.

    P.S. I love the word ruminations. It is wonderfully peaceful. 🙂

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