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Do you have a safe space?
You know, a place where you can be alone with your thoughts? Where you can heal and recharge? Where you feel physically and emotionally safe to be yourself?
If your answer is no, sadly, you’re not alone. Many of us dealing with crappy family dynamics don’t have a safe space, mentally or physically.
Since the pandemic began, there’s been an 8.1% rise in domestic violence. Many LGBTQ+ community members report feeling unsafe in both their home and school. Unhelpful family dynamics like Triangulation can make a regular house into an unbearable nightmare for many. These are just a few examples of how unrelenting toxic situations can be.
If this sounds like your situation, read on. This guide may help you build a little hope in a tough time.
What do Space and Unhealthy Family Systems Have to do With One Another?
When you’re part of a mentally unhealthy family, space is a privilege you don’t often have access to. That’s because trauma bonded, disorganized attachment type families don’t understand boundaries, physically or mentally. Growing up, the door to my room was always off its hinges, allowing anyone to walk in and torment me. And made it so I never had any place to hide my big emotions.
We always knew one another’s business, whether we wanted to or not. When we’d fight, there was no safe place to run.
In lieu of having a safe space, I began surrounding myself with stuff. At one point, my entire room was hoarded out with 4 feet of trash and one tiny path to my bed. It helped me then, but in the grand scheme of things – hoarding wasn’t a long term solution. That’s because it took what little space I had and made it even smaller.
We’ll talk about more affirming safety strategies later on in the article.
What is a Safe Space?
I had no concept of safety growing up. And I didn’t fully understand until I was well into my twenties when I finally was able to start my healing journey. If you grew up like I did, you may also be unclear on what a Safe Space is supposed to look like.
A healthy safe space is:
- A place where you can be yourself without fear of judgement or punishment
- A place where you can be alone if you want
- A relatively clean, stable place you can access anytime you need
- Populated with things that make you happy and satisfied
- A place where you can freely express your emotions and your creativity
A healthy safe space is supposed to lift you up and recharge you.
How do you Create a Safe Space When it Seems Impossible?
So how are you supposed to create a safe space if everything about your home life is determined to break that boundary?
I know, it seems impossible. But take it from me, there are a few things you can do.
- Read our cornerstone article on surviving a mentally unhealthy living situation
- Don’t be afraid to talk to someone about your situation. There are lots of amazing and affirming trauma and family based groups on Facebook that can give you advice about setting boundaries and getting help. We have lots of groups to choose from in our Mental Health Support Groups list.
- If you have a room or even just a small personal space, try to keep it clean and organized the best you know how. I know it’s certainly not easy but having something stable like a made bed can be like an anchor in a midst of chaos.
- Set boundaries with your family when it comes to personal and emotional space.
- Learn everything you can about family dynamics and generational trauma, knowledge is power.
- Make sure you have a way to communicate with the outside world in your space. Dysregulated family situations can be isolating so it’s good to have a computer, phone, or internet connected device stashed in your room. If you’re in a controlling or domestic violence situation please consider getting communication assistance from organizations like Operation Safe Escape.
Here are a few more things that can help you get a little peace amidst the chaos.
Sensory Items Can Help Ground You and Make You Feel Safe.
Sensory items help emotionally ground you. That means they can help you stay in the present instead of worrying about the future or the past. Things with calming, mild scents are best – like a lavender spray for your sheets or a scented candle. Lotions and essential oil diffusers can also do the trick.
And smell isn’t the only sense to include in your safe space! You can have sounds like your favorite music or a white noise machine (which are amazing for helping you fall asleep). Weighted blankets help soothe anxiety and feel like a hug.
One of my favorite things to do is put rice in a (clean) sock and warm it up in the microwave. This makes a home-made heat pad for your feet, head, or back. The moist heat and the change it makes in my body temperature really help calm my anxiety.
Try to Keep the Safe Space Clean and Tidy
I know cleaning in this situation isn’t the easiest.
But there are some low energy, high impact things you can do to make sure your safe space is clean and tidy.
- Make your bed/couch/etc. (doesn’t have to be perfect – just straighten the sheets/pillows a little)
- Fluff and organize pillows
- Put books and electronics away
- Throw laundry into a hamper (you don’t have to do laundry, just get it off the floor)
- Do a cup check every once in a while (look around your room, collect all the cups/dishes, whisk them off to the kitchen sink – bonus points for washing but that can wait til later when you’re feeling better)
If you’re struggling with Executive Dysfunction and cleaning you might want to check these two related articles: Mental Illness, ADHD and Cleaning- 5 Neurodivergent Strategies to Fight Executive Dysfunction and Exploring ADHD and Executive Functioning.
It helped me to remember that I was doing these little chores as an act of both care for myself and rebellion against the shitty circumstances. It gave me a little sense of empowerment that was so necessary in a very tough time.
Fill the Space with Light
During some of the most bleak parts of my childhood, something that made me feel safe was light. That’s right, just having a couple lamps in my room somehow made things easier to handle.
Having a night light was really important for me (still is). That’s because, like many trauma survivors, I’m terrified of being alone in the dark. A soft, friendly night light can make a room way less scary and provide you with a little sense of peace.
Get Out When You Can
Sometimes it truly is impossible to have a safe space in the place you live. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek one outside the home.
- Sometimes a safe space isn’t a physical place. You can use the “Safe Place” visualization technique designed for Trauma Survivors to create a perfect place in your mind to escape when things are rough.
- Get out as often as you can to a favorite coffee shop, friend’s house, park or community center. These aren’t permanent solutions but they are a break from difficult living situations.
- Spend time in nature if you can
- Make a safety plan to start exiting your current situation if you feel ready
Even after you get out of a bad family situation, it can be very difficult to feel safe. If you’re struggling with that right now, just know it gets better. It may take some time, but you’ll get there. I promise.
PS. Are you Neurodivergent or think you might be? Feel free to join MSB’s Neurodivergent Learning and Life Skills Group on Facebook. It’s a wonderful group where NDs can vent, learn, and connect with each other in a safe, non-judgemental environment.
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32 thoughts on “How to Create a Safe Space When You’re Part of an Unhealthy Family Dynamic”
Thanks for sharing. My space is not spacious, so clean and tidy areas are are a must, otherwise I can’t get anything done. So important to make a habit out of this. Keep it up.
Yes absolutely! I’m not a naturally tidy person and depression makes it worse but I’ve found making tidying a habit helps a lot. I call the micro-chores!
I loved this article! I am actually in the process of giving my “safe space” a makeover. For me it is my home office. It is the one place in our home that uses my favorite colors of turquoise/aqua and pink with white and grays! It is my oasis. I have scents in there and a cushy chair int he corner for reading with a plush throw blanket. I always joke with my husband and son there are o boys allowed LOL!
Lol! Your space sounds amazing! I love aqua and pink together, something about the combo just makes me happy!
Glad you liked the article and thanks for reading 💖
Lovely post !! I definitely agree. We all need that one spot to just get away and have a moment to ourselves. I am not too sure where that one place is for me – as it changes every time that I need but after reading this, I am definitely determined to figure it out! Thanks for the great post!
You’re very welcome, thanks for reading!
Very insightful and interesting article. Thank you!
Thanks for sharing! I think this is a super important topic, especially right now with quarantine and having not a lot of opportunity to leave home.
You’re very welcome! Thanks for reading 😄
This hits the spot. Especially now that we are home more than ever with the quarantine. Thanks for sharing!
You’re very welcome!! Thanks for reading 🙂
I’ve recently joined a Hygge group and I love the ideas presented there. Love what you’re sharing here too. My space is outside in a hammock under a fig tree. I’d like to create another space indoors to read a book quietly without distraction. Thank you for the reminder about how important this is.
Oh joining a Hygge group is a great idea, I might just do that myself! Your hammock space sounds wonderful too, glad you have it!
Thanks for reading 💖
Funny how I am in the process of creating a safe space for myself. This came at a great time especially since I’ve been meditating.
Wonderful how things line up like that! The universe is trying to tell us something lol!
Enjoy setting up your safe space and I hope meditation works well for you!
Great advice! I need to find a Hygge group to join.
Oh and by the way, Ulysses is really super cute:)
Yes he is, I’ll tell him you said so 😄
I have 3 cats – not so sure they are low maintenance though! Especially the boy. He’s a handful but the cuddliest cat ever.
Ha I guess it depends on the cat! I have one that’s medium maintenance and one that’s super low maintenance both very cuddly tho
Such lovely advice and the cat!! So lovely. Great visuals, surely calm me down!
Thanks! And we actually have two now so double the cuteness 😀
Just found your blog. Really enjoyed it. I definitely agree with having a cat! They are soo fun and great for your mental health. Two are even better.
They bring so much joy and really don’t need much it’s great!
Thanks for reading!!
Wonderful suggestions, especially about the lighting. My salt lamp is perfect in my small space but I also love string lights! I find that soothing music also helps create the atmosphere since my apartment building can be a little noisy – acoustic guitar is my current go to.
Ooh I want a salt lamp! I’ve been listening to a lot of Spa type music which is very soothing because it reminds me of times I’ve been very relaxed (I love going Spas and to get massages and stuff)
I need to make a new safe space since I moved recently. This will help!
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