Routes of Safety

A glut of internet information about relationship styles and approaches visited upon generations that grew up with Cosmo quizzes and online personality tests means that most of us have gathered more information about what ‘type’ we are than we’ll ever need: our MBTI, our enneagram, our zodiac sign, our love languages, you name it.

This is great, but sometimes we can fall into the trap of believing that familiarity with these surface labels of what we’re like is the same as “doing the work” — telling a date that we have an anxious attachment style or deciding that our enneagram 2 is why we’re codependent is the beginning and end of it. We don’t always translate self-knowledge into applied self-work.

That’s directly addressed by paradigms like the Routes of Safety — a self-knowledge model that not only reflects something about ourselves but is fundamentally actionable. Developed by psychotherapist Jake Ernst, MSW, RSW, routes of safety is a trauma-informed polyvagal framework that speaks to what we need to feel safe. These can apply in life in general, but specifically, in relationships, feelings of a lack of safety or trauma triggers can come up in arguments, times of great stress, unexpected changes or problems, and more. Like apology languages, they speak directly to how we need to be taken care of by loved ones — and more importantly, take care of ourselves. Which routes resonate with you (or a partner)?

Quality Relationships


Seeking out quality time with loved ones is a socially sourced practice, meaning it’s a form of co-regulation rather than self-regulation. This can mean a form of co-regulation specific to the stressful event — processing a resolution to a conflict or being comforted about a threat — or can be more general quality time: cuddling, watching a movie together, or even snuggling with a pet.

Closeness and Proximity


Also socially sourced, closeness and proximity as a route of safety may not involve direct social interaction like quality relationships — it’s almost the inverse of a private retreat in that knowing someone is nearby if you need them is the key to reassurance, regardless of whether you’re actually doing something together. It may be especially reassuring for people with a history of abandonment or isolation. This could look like coworking together, reading, or being on your phones in the same room, or someone agreeing to stay on speakerphone or FaceTime with you while you do mundane tasks or fall asleep.

Common Humanity


Sometimes we don’t need reassurance from a specific person or people, but the broader social-emotional experience of knowing we aren’t alone in the world; this is the safety route of common humanity, where we feel safer after knowing others share our experiences and we aren’t alone or judged for how we feel. This could look like talking with a friend who can validate your emotions, but also turning to internet message boards or social media, reading books or shared content from people who have felt similar things, or experiencing art that speaks to our experiences.

Inner Guidance


For people with inner guidance as a route to safety, having personal time and space to access their own inner dialogue and values is very centering and reassuring — they may feel more secure after journaling, doing a tarot session, engaging in a spiritual practice, or just spending time alone to think through things. This route is self-resourced, meaning it’s a form of self-regulation.

Sensory Experiences


Sensory experiences that can help with restoring a sense of safety might be things we find personally comforting or soothing, like a scented candle or a soft blanket; they might also be things that have self-soothing somatic qualities proven to have a regulating impact on our nervous system, like a weighted blanket.

Private Retreat


Also a self-resourced practice, private retreat is the definition of alone time. A person might use this time to make art, watch a comfort movie, or just nap or think through things; they may want explicit markers of privacy like a locked door, drawn blinds, or phone turned off. This practice may be especially comforting for people with a history of unsafe relationships or family dynamics, or a history of violated space or trust. What the time is used for isn’t necessarily the primary thing, but the fact that it can be done alone, offering the security of confirming the person can safely withdraw without their privacy being violated, and time to self-regulate on their own schedule.

Protective Measures


One of the action-oriented routes, protective measures offers safety in a more literal sense, or at least the feeling of it: this practice relies on yourself or others taking action to physically or emotionally protect you or finding ways to access restitution for a wrong done to you. This could look like checking or upgrading the locks in your home, having a door stopper to your home or bedroom, or asking for physical protection or support from someone you trust — whether the danger you feel is a tangible threat or not, this can increase your feelings of security enough to regulate your emotions

Structure and Certainty


For most of us, having some kind of routine and reliability feels good; if a route of safety for you is structure and certainty, this can be a major building block for feelings of security and safety. This can look like being able to plan a consistent schedule or routine and making detailed plans to follow — but more than that, it speaks to a broader desire to confirm that you have control and agency over your own life. That need can be more deeply met by finding opportunities to develop and execute solutions to problems, experience mastery and control in situations, or build greater financial security.

Many of us will have more than one route of safety that feels important to us; our routes of safety might also change depending on our life circumstances or situation. Knowing them can set us up for success in life and partnerships, and communicating about them can open up the ways we can show up for our partners and be supported during the most difficult times, as well as reframing things we find challenging. What calls out to you, and how can you create these routes to safety in your own life?

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