By definition, in psychology terminology, a safe base refers to the sense of security provided through a relationship which typically offers a reliable base from which to explore and a haven to offer reassurance when facing difficulties. In essence, a safe base nurtures and promotes security, confidence, competence, and resilience.
My vocational career at Inspire Foundation has brought me working in proximity with myriads of families of all shapes, sizes, and colours. Irrespective of whether we are talking about families of origin, families of choice, extended family, or blended families, and no matter from which culture or ethnic background we are speaking, family remains synonymous with significant others who we carry in our hearts all day and every day – those who give us a lasting comforting sense of safety. While unfortunately this may not be the case for everyone, a common denominator that binds everything when talking about families is that sense of belonging and wellbeing one feels when they form part of a family. The familiar faces to whom we return to, to rest, to care about and, in turn, be cared by.
As professionals in the subject matter, often we join in with different family systems or individuals, even if only temporarily. This is especially the case when families are being challenged by disability, illness, or other major life shifting experiences. The professional role might require us to be empowering with knowledgeable and emotional support. This can sometimes even mean carrying the proverbial torch of hope until the family/person can once again carry the torch of hope themselves or help the family/person see and believe in their own capabilities to successfully overcome the challenges. The reasons can be plenty, but they can be boiled down to one key factor – the relationship we as professionals have with these individuals. Research has shown that the therapeutic relationship is a strong indicator of the therapeutic outcome. This means that the relationship we foster with service users and their families will help sustain them through adversity.
It is to observe that a safe base can even mean one or two significant people. It certainly does not have to mean a crowd. A common characteristic is that these significant people would have one’s livelihood at the heart of their actions and words. A safe base needs to be built from the ground up, meaning that a genuine relationship must be fostered and nurtured. This does not happen by chance or automatically. We are all human and need time to get used to each other, including the elements of forgiveness and empathy for any misgivings or misunderstanding. One should also allow space for conflict resolution as this is also part of building a safe base. It is less about not having conflicts and more about knowing and working so that the relationship can survive whichever conflict arises. It is crucial to practice being your genuine self with these significant people, letting them know what you find helpful during challenging times, asking for your needs to be met, negotiating ideas safely, giving and receiving love and care, and expressing opinions openly. If for the time being, your safe base people are not available, identify a place – be it a room or even simply a space – which gives you a safe comforting feeling. A common tactic are special memories, possibly of people who used to be a safe base such as grandparents, parents, siblings, partners, or friends.
Reverting to the initial question, do I need a safe base? Research indicates that there is strong evidence showing that a sense of safety is crucial for the resilient self. A reliance on ourselves, but also those few people who we know can stay with us through the challenges. These can include professionals who might be working by our side aiding in building our resilient self.
This leads us to another question, what is resilience? Some might argue that resilience is withstanding and bouncing back from adversity. This definition seems to be prevalent on social media. However, in my opinion this is an understatement of what resilience means and does not depict the whole picture clearly enough. Here it might be useful to explain what resilience is not. Resilience is not about becoming thick-skinned or not allowing oneself to feel what is being experienced. It is also not about, not allowing others to witness how adversity has hurt us or changed us. It is also not about survival at the expense of others or our own true self.
Resilience allows us to experience all the uncomfortable emotions, the hurt, the concern, the disappointment. It can be defined as a response to the painful and/or worrisome experience one is living through, for which resilience provides an underlying calm, peaceful, hopeful demeanour and a thorough sense of wellbeing and security, knowing we will work through it.
In conclusion a safe base does not minimise self-reliance but amplifies it and empowers it. Having a safe base is something to stive for, and if at the time being it cannot constitute of people, it can transition to a special space that inspires safety and courage.
By Charlene Borg, M. Sys. Psy. Family Relations Manager at Inspire Foundation