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  • Writer's pictureAbi Sims

The Important Role of Safe Relationships in Healing C-PTSD (Complex Trauma)

C-PTSD (complex trauma) develops as a response to prolonged emotional, physical, sexual, mental, and/or verbal abuse or neglect is present in childhood. While PTSD typically stems from a single event, C-PTSD stems from trauma inflicted over an extended period of time. C-PTSD encompasses a broad range of behavioral, emotional, and cognitive symptoms, such as emotional dysregulation, difficulty in relationships, a loud inner and outer critic, low self-esteem, worthlessness, emotional flashbacks, intense shame and guilt, negative beliefs and expectations, hypervigilance, dissociation, and impaired functioning at work, school, or social interactions (side note about impaired functioning: children are commonly diagnosed with ADHD, but what we're learning is that ADHD is an attachment disorder that stems from complex trauma. Is it ADHD, or is it actually complex trauma, is a question worth asking.)

The idea we have about how relationships function are taught to us from the very first relationships we've ever had: the relationship with our parents/caregivers. They pave the way for us to understand how to communicate, emote, and interact with people. They show us what it looks like to self-regulate, love, and treat others. Children who grew up in homes with inconsistent caregivers where abuse was present don't know what healthy, safe relationships actually look like. Their idea of a healthy, safe relationship is the relationship modeled to them by their parents, which is actually an abusive, unsafe relationship. This is one of the reasons why many people living with complex trauma struggle with romantic relationships, or finding a healthy partner, because they naturally gravitate towards potential mates that are like their parents.

One of the greatest, most profound ways we can heal complex trauma is by engaging in relationships with people who are safe.

What does being a "safe" person mean?

And how do we know when people are safe?

Let's dive in.

The Power of Safe Relationships

Safe relationships are relationships that are grounded in empathy, trust, and reciprocity. They most literally form the cornerstone of healing for survivors of complex trauma. Safe relationships provide a sanctuary for survivors to find solace in the embrace of understanding and acceptance. Unlike the turbulent, destructive landscapes of past relationships, safe relationships and safe people offer a fertile ground for vulnerability to bloom without there being any fear of judgment.

Safe relationships are significant in healing complex trauma because of their ability to counteract the sense of isolation, worthlessness, and emotional flashbacks that accompany traumatic experiences related to complex trauma. Through compassionate validation, survivors are able to reclaim the narrative of their story, unraveling the threads of guilt and shame that have been woven in the fiber of their being.

Through safe relationships, survivors learn to rewire maladaptive coping mechanisms ingrained by trauma by replacing them with adaptive strategies for regulation and self-care. Being around a safe person can also help a survivor co-regulate, which is when the survivor is dysregulated and is struggling to come out of an emotional flashback, but the regulated safe person is able to sit with them, hold space for them, and help bring them out of their emotional flashback.

It isn't easy for survivors of complex trauma to open themselves up to vulnerability in safe relationships due to the fears and insecurities associated with connection. Hypervigilance and lingering distrust often impedes the ability to fully engage with others, repeating the cycle of relational estrangement. But, if survivors are able to find at least ONE person in their life who is a safe person, they are on the road to healing. We can't emphasize enough the power of safe relationships in healing complex trauma.

How Do I Know if Someone is Emotionally Safe?

Even for people who don't have complex trauma, having safe relationships and safe people in your life is crucial to health overall. But, how do we know if someone is emotionally safe?

Here are a few key indicators that you're around a safe person:

  1. Acceptance & Non-Judgment: Emotionally safe people accept others without harsh judgment or criticism. They embrace diversity and understand that everyone has their own experiences and perspectives.

  2. Empathy & Compassion: They show genuine empathy and compassion towards the struggles and emotions of others. They actively listen, validate feelings, and offer support without trying to minimize or invalidate your experiences.

  3. Boundaries & Respect: Emotionally safe people respect boundaries and communicate their own boundaries clearly and respectfully. They understand the importance of personal space and consent, and they do not pressure or manipulate others into doing things they're uncomfortable with.

  4. Reliability & Consistency: They are consistent and reliable in their words and actions. They can be trusted to follow through on their commitments and be there for you when you need them.

  5. Open Communication: They encourage open and honest communication, creating a safe space for expressing feelings, thoughts, and concerns without fear of backlash or rejection. They're willing to engage in difficult conversations and address conflicts constructively and with respect.

  6. Authenticity & Vulnerability: Emotionally safe people are authentic and vulnerable about themselves, sharing their own feelings, thoughts, and experiences openly. They create an environment where vulnerability is valued and reciprocated.

  7. Supportive & Encouraging: They offer genuine support and encouragement, celebrating your successes and providing comfort when you're going through challenging times. They believe in your potential and encourage you to go after your dreams and goals.

  8. Self-Awareness & Emotional Regulation: Emotionally safe people are self-aware and able to regulate their own emotions. They do not react impulsively or lash out in anger, but instead handle difficult emotions in a healthy way.

  9. Respect for Diversity: They respect diversity in all its forms, including religious, cultural, and idealogical differences. They appreciate the richness diversity brings to relationships and communities.

  10. Consent & Respect for Autonomy: They prioritize consent and respect for autonomy in all interactions. They understand that everyone has the right to make their own choices and decisions, and they support autonomy without manipulation or coercion.

Emotionally safe people create an environment of trust, acceptance, and mutual respect. They create room for authentic connection and growth in relationships.

People may think that being an emotionally safe person is something that's inherent, but actually, it's something people learn to become.

As important as it is for us to surround ourselves with safe people, it's equally important that we learn how to be a safe person for others, too.


At Root Counseling, we work with clients experience complex trauma and provide them with tools to heal and thrive. To schedule a session with one of our therapists, you can visit us here.

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