The important role of “safety” in our life is so intuitive and so relevant that it is surprising that our institutions neglect it. Perhaps our misunderstanding of the role of safety is based on an assumption that we think we know what safety means. This assumption needs to be challenged, because there may be an inconsistency between the words we use to describe safety and our bodily feelings of safety. In the Western world, we tend to place higher value on thoughts than on feelings. Parenting and educational strategies are targeted toward expanding and enhancing cognitive processes while inhibiting bodily feelings and impulses to move. The result is a corticocentric orientation in which there is a top-down bias emphasizing mental processes and minimizing the bottom-up feeling emanating from our body. In many ways, our culture, including educational and religious institutions, has explicitly subjugated feelings of the body to the thought processes emanating from the brain. Historically, this was clearly articulated in Descartes’s (1637) statement“Je pense donc je suis” (I think, therefore I am). Descartes did not state “Je me sens donc je suis” (I feel, therefore I am). Note that I used the reflexive form of the verb “to feel.” In French, when “feel” is used as a reflexive verb, it emphasizes that feelings reside inside the person. However, in English, the meaning of the verb “to feel” is ambiguous, meaning either the sensory feelings associated with physically touching an object or the subjective experience associated with an emotional response.

Arguments regarding the relative contributions of cognitions and feelings have been at the core of historical questions related to how human behavior and emotional experience can be understood, modified, and optimized. Only during the past 50 years have emotion and investigation of subjective states of feeling become an accepted research domain within psychology. Prior research and its influence on educational (and parenting models) and clinical treatment models emphasized the cognitive pathway with the objective of nurturing cognitive functions and containing subjective feelings. This focus emphasized objective, measurable indices of behaviors and cognitive functions while dismissing subjective reports of feelings.

This has been an excerpt from The Neurobiology of Feeling Safe by Stephen Porges. For more excellent material for the psychotherapist, please subscribe to our monthly magazine.

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