Keeping Ourselves Feeling Safe at Work
(Guest Blog Contributor: Cecilia Culverhouse)
Many of us spend a lot of our time at work and because we do, we want it to be
meaningful, moneymaking and maybe even . . . fun. For work to be these things
though, we need to feel safe. Our sense of safety is primary. However, feeling
safe at work is nuanced. We need emotional safety, personal safety, and
financial security. Losing a client or not getting a promotion can feel in our
bodies like our physical safety is at risk. Also, while we may be able to choose if
we go to work on any day and how we show up at work, we can’t control if our
colleague is having a bad day and chooses to ignore us.
As someone recovering from PTSD, keeping myself feeling safe in my work
environment is important to me. I find it easy to think of feeling and being safe at
work in terms of internal and external safety. While from a non-dualist spiritual
perspective internal/external is a false binary, this lens gives me a sense of
choice over my safety. At work and with clients, I think of my internal safety as
what is going on within me and how it’s causing me to react to people and
circumstances. External safety means safety created by circumstances, policies,
and culture created by me, my employer/clients, and my colleagues’ behavior.
I learned to build my internal safety while working at an 11,400+ employee
government agency in New York City. This agency had clear human resources
policies around appropriate work behavior. This included rules prohibiting
discrimination and harassment, as well as handbooks and trainings. If you
violated these policies it was grounds for disciplinary action, an administrative
hearing, and potentially dismissal. To some people these types of policies and
rules seem heavy-handed. Yet at this agency they created a sense of security.
We all knew the bounds of the sandbox. By and large, people followed the rules.
In the law department where I worked, the atmosphere was collegial and focused
on work. My colleagues and I would lunch together, we had awkward and cheery
department-wide holiday parties, and we shared in small acts of kindness and
mercy like taking turns bringing in coffee for the floor’s coffee maker so that we
could drink something that didn’t taste like grainy mud.
Yet, while this employer had made a sturdy container of safety for employees to
learn and contribute within, I frequently felt internally unsafe. My reactions to one
of my managers caused me to feel unsteady and insecure. She had a personality
akin to my father. At this time, I was doing intensive therapeutic healing that
centered on the relationship with my father. It was as if the Universe gave me the
opportunity, five days a week, to create a sense of safety within myself, and
through this, heal childhood wounds.
To create this sense of safety – while performing well, forwarding the agency’s
mission, and making meaningful relationships – I practiced calming my nervous
system and connecting into compassion. Three psychological and spiritual
practices in particular helped me, which I’ll share with you here.
The first practice is morning meditation. Each day, I meditated at home for 20-40
minutes before getting dressed for work. Now, if that length of time seems out of
reach, know that this was before I became a parent or even became committed
to a long-term partnership. Nowadays, meditation sometimes is breathing deeply
for 10 minutes in the car in a grocery store parking lot. I have always practiced a
straightforward type of meditation called Vipassana, or Insight Meditation. When
my mind got too full of chatter, I meditated using mantra or guided meditations.
This simple sitting practice kept me grounded through crowded subway
commutes and busy mornings of reporting to my boss, drafting contracts, and
going to court.
The helpful second practice is Somatic Experiencing. I learned and practiced this
over several years in therapy, including when I was working with the manager
whose personality was similar to my father’s. Pioneered by Dr. Peter Levine,
Somatic Experiencing, or SE as it’s called, is a therapeutic practice for releasing
trauma by connecting the mind to the body and releasing trauma through
movement. At work when I was triggered and remembered SE as a resource, I’d
retreat into my office, shut the door, and go through a short sequence of SE. How
it went is like this: I’d sit in my chair. Then I’d bring my attention to the sensations
in my back, legs, and rear in my office seat. Then I’d describe to myself how they
felt: sturdy, firm, warm, solid. Sometimes, I’d actually say this out loud – “My legs
feel solid.” This process de-activated my limbic system’s fight/flight reaction. If
you want to try this at work and don’t have a private space at work, perhaps try
going to your car or even sit outside of your work building in a private spot on the
The third practice was praying a prayer of compassion for this manager. My
spiritual mentor at the time urged me to do this starting my second week of work.
This compassion prayer wasn’t a special prayer. It was this: anything that I
wanted in my day, I’d pray for her to have the exact same things in her day. For
example, “Dear Higher Power, may so-and-so be able to finish all of her legal
briefs on time, feel appreciated at work, and have a good date tonight.” My
manager at the time was married and I was dating, so it felt silly to pray about her
having a good date, but I stuck to the suggested phrasing. Fast forward ten
years, as a married person I now know that you have to schedule “date nights” to
hang out with your significant other alone, and to avoid spending both Friday and
Saturday nights on the sofa watching Netflix together.
You know what? Praying a compassion prayer shifted my attitude toward this
manager. It lifted my resistance and anxiety. Every time.
For many reasons, I ended up leaving this organization and the practice of law
for a field of work I find to be more rewarding. I still practice Vipassana
meditation, Somatic Experiencing, and compassionate prayer for creating
internal safety. They continue to make it easier to be present and show up more
fully for my life. Hopefully, they can be a resource for you, and support you in
creating internal and external safety in your life.
Guest Blog Contributor: Cecilia Culverhouse
Cecilia Culverhouse is a spiritual practitioner, meditator, and recovering perfectionist who lives with her family in San Francisco. She coaches and teaches people managers about healthy working relationships and social intelligence. Cecilia also blogs about mindful parenting, and writes for spirituality and mindfulness blogs like Elephant Journal.