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Who Would You Have Been if It Was Safe?

This important question can provide valuable insight for healing.

Key points

  • Who children become in an environment of safety and acceptance looks different than if the environment wasn't safe and welcoming.
  • Asking "Who would you have been if it was safe?" can be an important prompt for one's personal growth journey.

I was having lunch with a new friend, a fellow therapist, in San Francisco the other day.

She and I were catching up and talking about our kids.

She was sharing about her children.

And then she asked me about my daughter.

I beamed with pleasure, subtly restraining myself from gushing as I’m wont to do whenever anyone asks about her, and shared a little bit about her.

I told my friend how strong, feisty, confident, and boundaried she is.

I told her about how my daughter moves through the world with a bone-deep conviction that she’s worthy of the respect and attention of the adults around her, chastening adults in public if they bump into her in the grocery store saying “You DON’T have my consent to touch me!”

We laughed and then my friend asked me a question: “What were you like at her age?”

Without thinking I blurted a question back, “Who was I at her age or who would I have been if the environment had been safe?”

After I said it, we both just looked at each other, goosebumps on my arms, because that was a really good question and an especially salient one for those of us who come from relational trauma backgrounds.

You see, I talk often about this, but children are master survivalists.

It’s a sad and distressing truth that children’s well-being hinges on the approval of the guardians and caretakers around them.

It’s a painfully vulnerable position to be in if your guardian or caretaker is mood- or personality-disordered, addicted, or otherwise compromised and compromising in their ability to be a stable, loving, and providing presence.

In order to secure and maintain that approval, that connection with their guardians and caretakers, children will do almost anything to preserve that tie, sometimes becoming masterful personality contortionists. For example:

  • With a drunk, volatile father who creates an environment of explosive danger without warning, a young child might learn how to withdraw, make herself invisible and needless, lest she “rock the boat” and draw his wrath on her.
  • With a depressive, suicidal mother who is overwhelmed by life, a young child might try to be her confidant, friend, and household partner, growing himself up before his time as a parentified child hoping he can prop his mother up lest she collapse or give up.

In environments that are unconducive to all parts of the personality coming forth safely and with a degree of welcoming, a child may never access, and/or consciously or unconsciously learn to disown, certain aspects of herself: her anger, her fire, her loudness, her exuberance, her neediness, her defiance, her sadness.

She’ll do what she needs to do to stay safe. To stay connected.

So for those of us who identify as coming from relational trauma backgrounds, I think there are always two questions we have to answer when someone asks who we were at a young age:

“What was I like at that age?” and “Who would I have been if the environment had been safe?”

I know in my bones that I would have been different at age 4 (my daughter’s current age) if my circumstances were different, if the environment had been safer.

Who I was back then was quiet, compliant, a “good girl,” a “little helper” to my mother taking care of my younger sisters, all of us close in age. I didn’t talk back, didn’t have tantrums, and was fairly “easy."

But that's not my authentic personality.

My personality now at 40 is actually a lot like my 4-year-old daughter’s personality: determined, fiery, intense, passionate, unapologetic, energetic, and confident.

But here’s the thing: I genuinely think that she gets to express all of these pieces and have her personality shine through because of the environment of safety my husband and I have worked so diligently to create for her.

And I imagine that I would have been a lot like her, had my early environment been different and safer. (Instead, it took me nearly 20 years in therapy to unearth those parts, heal, and come back to myself.)

So, who can a child ideally become in an environment of safety? Their whole selves. Their full selves. With all their many parts.

So how do we use this question “Who would you have been if it was safe?” if time has passed and our childhood is over? We use this question and any feelings it evoked in our own personal healing journeys and go a layer deeper by asking ourselves:

  • Who would I have been if it was safe? What do I imagine about this? What clues do I maybe see in my own kids as an answer?
  • If I didn’t have the environment I needed when I was young to become my full self, do I have it now? In what ways yes, and in what ways no?
  • How do I make my world safer and more conducive for all aspects of me to come out? What do I need and want?
  • How do I support myself to be more of who I am now that I’m out of that environment? What feelings and aspects of self do I disown, disavow, and limit that I may want to make more space for?
  • And, if you’re a parent, you could also ask: How do I create an environment of safety for my own child’s full self to come out? What would doing something different than what my parents did look like?

If you know you come from a relational trauma background and would like support on your personal growth journey, you can find a therapist in the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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