A point I tend to make often with clients is that having safe relationships is important to our mental and emotional health. We all need someone we can feel safe to confide in and feel heard. If we want to overcome hardships and struggles, it is easier with the help of solid social support. But, before we can engage that social support to help, we have to know if the social relationships we have are healthy. For this post, I’ll go over a few points on how we can discern who isn’t necessarily someone we can build a safe and trusting relationship with. Now, everyone is not perfect and we all have different faults. Simply because you cannot build a safe relationship with a certain person does not mean they are a bad person. Knowing that someone has these tendencies and behaviors can be a signal for you to recognize it would be best not to hold onto this person as a confidant or that if you open yourself up to this person, you will end up being more hurt than heard. From Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend’s book, Safe People, they describe these unsafe tendencies in three categories: The Abandoner, the Critic, and the Irresponsible.
These are the people that either like to start relationships and not commit to it when they feel like they are not getting anything out of it or like to keep the relationship shallow and stay as acquaintances. Some people are looking for something specific in relationships and if they don’t find that in you, they begin to fall away and look for others. Possibly from painful and unpleasant past experiences, closeness and intimacy may be scary for them so they avoid it. You could be the safe person they need, but when you’re in need of a safe person yourself, they may not be there for you. Trusting that they will be there for you is the problem.
These are not necessarily the people that criticize you, rather they are the ones that are judgmental and “focus on correcting errors instead of making connections”. They may come off as blunt and speak the truth, but without any love behind the words. They can incredibly insightful and helpful in finding solutions to your problems, but you may come out feeling guilty, ashamed, or judged. I believe we all need clarity, but sometimes that’s not what we need first.
These are the people that struggle to take care of themselves and others. They may or may not stick to their commitments because delaying gratification is difficult for them. These are the people that are hard to depend on because they struggle to change their behavior. They may genuinely apologize for hurting you or breaking a promise, but they never actually make changes to their behavior. It’s possible they make up for their mistakes, but when faced with keeping the same promise, they wrestle with sticking to commitment or giving up because it’s easier in the moment. They say they will do one thing, but they end up not following through. They can be very kind and well-meaning people, but their lack of ability to take responsibility makes it hard to trust them with our care.
Finding Support That’s Right For You
There are definitely more obvious characteristics that indicate that someone is not safe, like selfish, a blamer, and a gossiper. But, these characteristics are more overt and clearly show that this person may end up hurting you in the long run. The Abandoner, the Critic, and the Irresponsible may not necessarily be trying to hurt you, but their actions are definitely not helping you. We can still be friends, but when it comes to finding emotional support, they may not be the best option for you in the moment. Sorting through our relationships can be straightforward and can be a messy task. Take some time to reflect and notice if any of the people you regularly confide in show characteristics like these and recognize their impact on you. I help people search for supportive people in their lives that can help them along their struggles. If you’re having a hard time developing safe relationships, we can work together in creating safe boundaries and finding the support that you need.
Written by therapist Daniel Pak
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