A Safe and Necessary Distance for Healing

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I woke up this morning to the crack of rumbling thunder in the distance. It was a compelling sound: close enough to see the storm, far enough away to watch it with interest and not fear. I am far away from home this week—working in Dubrovnik and my hotel room looks out over the Adriatic Sea. My room has a small balcony that is covered and I took my coffee out and sat and watched the storm as it dumped rain on the mountains across the way, as lightning shot down and thunder echoed along the coast. I am not sure why, but sometimes you can feel even safer, even more solid—when you are in a storm, but have just enough distance and safety to take it in. A safe distance from a storm can feel safer than when there is no storm at all.

For some reason, this storm so very far from home reminded me of how much I loved being in elementary school when there were thunderstorms. It would be nearly dark outside and you could watch the pouring rain through the big windows of the school, and yet inside it was bright and cozy and colorful. School was my safe place—so I think I could actually feel the dark and hear the thunder and experience myself holding what might have been otherwise frightening only because I had the safety and coziness of school to lean on.

It seems that in order to heal and hold what is hard, scary, or difficult that there is a requirement for a necessary safe distance.

Across our lives—no one escapes storms:  illness, loss, death, violence, grief, trauma. And when the storms of life hit you are in it: you are soaking wet, you are wind-whipped, tired, grief-stricken, terrified, anxious, angry, frustrated and disoriented. These storms often mark necessary times to seek shelter —to hunker down out of the storm. Hunker down enough to get through, to survive, and wait for the storm to pass.

But in the realm of healing from any real or repeated trauma I think that these storms—and their aftershocks tend to continue long after the actual storm. Sometimes weeks, sometimes months, sometimes years. The lighting continues to strike and the thunder continues to roll and your healing isn’t served by seeking shelter completely away from the storm, but rather the healing is served by being able to sit through the storms and observe them. And this is the healing of a necessary safe distance.

Last week I was working with some very tender and painful feelings—old storms, buried storms, storms that in the past had sent me running for cover—storms that I just wasn’t able to hold or to watch. And last week I had found just enough safe distance to sit and observe them— the storms were close enough to see, and loud enough to hear —there needs to be a certain clarity so that you can really see your storm.  And this clarity made it so that I could see them enough to talk about them. Describe them well enough that I wasn’t alone with them. They were close enough to see, but far away enough away so that I wasn’t as afraid—and I could stay still long enough to work with them. This necessary safe distance is such a special place and it can be such a hard place to find.

We don’t just find this safe distance within ourselves. We also, and maybe especially, find it within a relationship.  We can get some necessary and healing distance from our storm by talking to and connecting with another person—getting the story out of our heads and hearts and bodies and letting someone else see it: see it and hold it from their perspective. What is healing, what provides us some distance is not that they see it exactly from our point of view, which we often think of as the healing element, but rather that they can hold it from their point of view—that we can borrow this distance—even for a moment.

I think this might help those of us who are in the business of helping other people—whether we are therapists, counselors or parents or loved ones. It seems that there is a misunderstanding of empathy and what it means to help someone through a storm. While I both believe and teach that empathy requires us to see something from the perspective of the other, to feel what it feels like to walk in their shoes—and this is one of the necessary aspects of empathy— I also believe that what can be truly healing is that you can have empathy but also hold your center. You don’t lose your perspective entirely—you allow your perspective to be ballast, to create that necessary safe distance.  

And when you are the person who is being helped, it is important, and may even be comforting, to not only feel understood, but also to have a bit of space left open by the other so that your storm, your feelings, your experience are yours to observe, to hold and to see –that you can hold the whole of your experience and yet not do it alone. You have the benefit of another’s distance from your experience. To feel understood but also be able to see your problem from their vantage point.  I think we forget that in moments of empathy— there is a mutuality—there is the experience of the person who is experiencing the storm— but there is also the experience of the person who is listening and supporting and guiding—and part of the empathic healing comes not because the two people have the same experience suddenly, but because empathy allows the person who feels badly to both be understood and to borrow, even if for a moment—a necessary and safe distance from the storm.

© 2019 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD