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Learning Relationship Safety Signals to Build a Secure Self

Life is crazy more times than not. Life, and our relationships, are full of uncertain, unknown, confusing moments. How, then, do we adapt to experiences in life that we feel unprepared for? This question comes up in every session I have with clients – and almost every conversation with friends and colleagues.

When you didn’t grow up in a secure environment, something every child should have had but most of us didn’t, then life can be even more complicated.  The research indicates that one in four of us has what we call a secure attachment.  That means, of course, that the rest of us, three of every four of us, do not.

As ominous as that sounds the very good news is that we can actually develop a secure self as we go through life.  In attachment theory, we call that developing an “earned” secure attachment.  We literally use the experiences of our lives to build a secure self inside our body, mind, and heart.  The child researcher, Karlen Lyons-Ruth, describes this as an inner scaffold.

Building that inner scaffolding means taking things in small, bite-sized pieces. We’re prone to take a huge chunk, thinking that will help us get better faster.  That isn’t what happens in real life though.

Slowing down and taking a thimbleful of experience to “digest” helps in two ways. 

  • First, you won’t overwhelm yourself.
  • Secondly, by mastering each step, you’ll lay down a strong foundation to withstand the craziness of life.

That’s the purpose of this blog, to map out a step-by-step process to build a secure self, an unshakeable core, that gives you the capacity to be with life as it happens, solid and steady.

We’ll look “under the hood” of experience, taking the profound research of attachment theory, neuroscience, contemporary psychotherapy, trauma treatment, and the wisdom traditions to discover ways to apply, in an embodied way, the foundational concepts.

In general, building a secure self has at least three main functions:

  • Solidifying a sense of safety and security
  • Regulating our emotions, providing soothing, ease, and calming the body
  • Offering an inner platform to explore the world from

This dynamic flow between stepping out into the world, while having a secure base to return to when in distress, is central to attachment theory as pioneered by John Bowlby along with his colleague Mary Ainsworth.

It’s native and hardwired in all mammals. When we’re scared, we try to move closer to safe others.  A mother elephant will shelter her baby.  A good enough human caregiver will pull a child close to protect the child.

In that sense, safety is about the absence of external threats.  For many, it’s almost more important to know they are psychologically and emotionally safe, something we call safeness.

Cultivating an internal experience of safeness requires exploring signals that indicate we’re with trusted others.  When we know what signals safeness we can more easily orient to that.  Instead of being with people where we feel anxious or uncertain (we know those signals!), we attune to signals of safeness, security, care, consideration, and connection.

You may well notice, that as you turn your attention to what feels better, you feel resistant or have parts that object.  That’s normal.  Welcome and acknowledge the resistance, fears, and blocks that are there.  At the same time, it can be empowering to know that none of us are only our fears, blocks, and resistances.

In fact, try this, bend down to touch your toes (or as close as you are comfortable).  What happens when you lift up again?  Most likely there will be an automatic tendency to stretch in a different direction.  In fact, in the Yoga Sutras, written between 500-200 BCE, the sage Patanjali wrote about this phenomenon.  For every moment, thought, and feeling there is an opposite.  Learning to balance one side of experience with what I call a more Nourishing Opposite gives us flexibility and more ease in life.

I’m curious about your experience. It’s one thing to think about safety but what is it in a felt way?  How do you know inside your body when you feel safe?  Can you recreate the experience when you need to as a way of balancing insecurity and uncertainty?

When you notice yourself getting caught in a negative loop it’s a perfect opportunity to invite in a Nourishing Opposite.


  • Take a moment and identify someone or a pet or an environment where you feel safe.
  • What are the small, simple signals inside that indicate to you that you are safe?
  • What kinds of thoughts do you have?
  • What feelings are there?
  • Can you identify what happens to your muscles, belly, nervous system?
Learning Relationship Safety Signals to Build a Secure Self


Deirdre Fay, LICSW, has decades of experience exploring the intersection of trauma, attachment, yoga and meditation, teaches “a radically positive approach to healing trauma.”  An international speaker and workshop leader, Deirdre has written Becoming Safely Embodied (Morgan James, in press), Attachment-Based Yoga & Meditation for Trauma Recovery (W.W. Norton, 2017),  co-author of Attachment Disturbances for Adults (W.W. Norton, 2016) as well as the co-author of chapters in Neurobiological Treatments of Traumatic Dissociation.  A former supervisor at The Trauma Center, trainer for Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute from 2000–2008, she’s also certified in Internal Family Therapy, qualified trainer in Mindful Self-Compassion, former Board member of the New England Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation which add depth and understanding to these practices. Deirdre is a respected international teacher and mentor integrating trauma, attachment, yoga, and working safely with the body. Visit her website to get a FREE Safe Guide to Healing Trauma.

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APA Reference
, . (2020). Learning Relationship Safety Signals to Build a Secure Self. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 8, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Jun 2020
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