How to recognize safe people

For people in recovery, one of the most important issues is finding safe, genuinely intimate relationships. Many addicts have built walls of isolation around them, and don’t know where to turn for support and authentic friendship. Obviously, getting involved in recovery groups and finding friendships there is ideal. But even within a group of like-minded, recovering people, some are more likely to be supportive and helpful than others. Discernment is called for.

And what about other relationships, beyond the confines and relative safety of a 12-step or LIFE group? What about old friends, neighbors, or family? Some people have very limited access to recovery groups, and must develop safe and intimate friendships with people who don’t have the shared experience of a recovery journey. How can you discern who to trust? How can you recognize “safe people” who are candidates for genuine friendship?

In his excellent book “Living the Truth,” Keith Ablow has this to say:

Love everyone, but trust those connected to truth. While everyone is worthy of your concern and empathy … only those who have recognized the source of their suffering, examined it, and grown from it are trustworthy. This is because putting down one’s shields, looking in the mirror, and facing the early complicated chapters of one’s life story is the only way to feel pain and grow beyond it.

People who continue to deny their suffering, insisting all is well with them and always has been, can draw you into highly charged, unresolved dramas recycled from their past. And those unresolved dramas can contaminate any story you try to write with them.

How do you recognize those who are trustworthy? Look at how much they rely on shield strategies to get through life. Do they drink excessively, ceaselessly pursue fame or riches, use drugs to get through life, gamble, take inordinate risks, change the topic constantly to avoid addressing anything emotional? [I would add to this list: Do they rely on excessive religiosity, and spiritualize every situation?] Do they say everything’s ‘great’ for them now, that they have the ‘ideal marriage’ or ‘perfect children’ or ‘wouldn’t change a thing’? Remember, people carrying lots of shields can’t embrace you. They can’t really love you. They’re too busy running from the truth.

Being open and vulnerable with people involves taking risks. Your honesty may be threatening to them, because it exposes their charade. But having a few authentic relationships is worth the risks! Again, I quote from Ablow:

Keep this in the front of your mind: whether you are embraced or isolated for living the truth, the price is always lower than the cost of running from that truth. Shared fictions – within families or among friends – are false, temporary comforts. The emotional toll of avoiding reality only gets steeper over time. And the last thing you can afford to lose is your authenticity, yourself.

Living the truth will attract those who welcome honesty and will provoke or frighten those who fear it. But sometimes those who are fearful can be inspired to overcome their resistance and put down their own shields when your communication with them is open, understanding, and forgiving.


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11 thoughts on “How to recognize safe people”

  1. Great topic — especially for single people (now >50% of american adults)

    I think Single Christian Men, especially women, who want to date in an honest, respectful way have it especially hard. Much work has been done for Married couples… but not much work has been done by the recovery community in terms of how to GET INTO a relationship as a recovering porn/sex addict.

    I think the only option remaining is for ‘the church’ to start proactively, aggressively talking about love/sex/etc… and in the positive way that God intended for it…

    I think all people struggle with how much to tell about their past and each relationship probably deserves a unique approach — but Christians have the extra risk of an extra dose of Shame/rejection by the community they most want to be a part of.

    I think the WHEN & HOW MUCH TO DISCLOSE is probably a question only diligent prayer/meditation can ultimately answer.

    For those who are just starting out taking risks, An AA saying is to form long term honest relationships only with those who can help you… or those whom you can help.

  2. Thanks for this great and thoughtful comment “guy.” As a former pastor myself, I can testify to the challenge of dealing with this issue in the context of a church. Thankfully, more and more churches are talking about this issue directly. What you’re saying about the importance for the church of bringing this message to single people really makes sense. Thanks again.

  3. Mark,

    Wow, this one really hit home! I facilitate a LIFE group for men, and have shared many times with my safe group
    my frustrations with men in the group, who come from the church community, who use these shields. I didnt have a good name
    for them, but this article has helped. I see guys who were broken and shattered in the early days, but after
    a while shroud it in religiousity and wonderful sounding reports. I sometimes want to shake them and say, guys, I do
    know God is wonderful, but when you keep sharing that as part of your feelings check, and telling us how wonderful
    things are and how blessed you are, when I know you are separated from your wife and she can barely stand to be in the
    room with you, when you tell me you are NEVER tempted anymore, I know you are not embracing good solid recovery.

    It was heartening to read this and realize it is more common than just our small but growing group. I m going to pick
    up Keith s book and see if it sheds more light on this. I know I cant ” DO ” recovery for them, but I want to do all
    I can to pierce the shields and encourage men to make the Journey with us. It hurts, and it is risky, to trust, to
    decide, yes, I DO want to be well. But it is worth it.

  4. Wow Doug … I appreciate your comments, and I whole-heartedly agree. Something HAS to be done about the culture of “I’m doing great, isn’t God neat!” that permeates too many churches these days. Authentic faith will help us face the realities of life with our eyes wide open.

  5. Mark,
    I really enjoyed this article. This was a major question for me as I was trying
    to recover and was looking not just to be authentic, but to have relationships
    that were honest and built on truth and also the growth that comes from understanding
    our life stories. I guess I instinctively knew that I could share my story with
    those who I recognized that they had honestly examined their own wounds and were
    comfortable with accepting the real hurts and tramas that they had suffered and
    could really connect with that pain from the past. Many times it meant that I
    had to risk sharing my own pain first and the fear of rejection was enormous. But
    the more in touch I was with my pain the more freedom I experienced and the responses
    from other men who then felt free to share the “truth” was really meaningful.
    But this is a great topic to expand on. Trusting others and feeling safe is so
    important for recovery and growth and it is such a wall to climb sometimes! Thanks
    for this article it was really helpful.

  6. I read this and felt prompted to post it —

    “Not everyone is healthy enough to have a front row seat in our lives. There are some people in your life that need to be loved from a DISTANCE.

    It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you let go of, or at least minimize your time with, draining, negative, incompatible, not-going-anywhere relationships. Observe the relationships around you. Pay attention. Which ones lift and which ones lean? Which ones encourage and which ones discourage? Which ones are on a path of growth uphill and which ones are going downhill? When you leave certain people do you feel better or feel worse? Which ones always have drama or don’t really understand, know or appreciate you? The more you seek quality, respect, growth, peace of mind, love and truth around you…the easier it will become for you to decide who gets to sit in the front row and who should be moved to the balcony of Your Life. “If you cannot change the people around you, CHANGE the people you are around.” Remember that the people we hang with will have an impact on both our lives and our income. And so we must be careful to choose the people we hang out with, as well as the information with which we feed our minds. We should not share our dreams with negative people, Nor feed our dreams with negative thoughts. It’s your choice and your life….. It’s up to you who and what you let in it…”

  7. Mark,

    Great topic!

    There are dozens of men in our F&T support groups that are working on purity but are NOT trusting of others. Though a lot of meetings help break the ice, some men put up a wall of isolation even in small groups. This article may help chip away at that wall. I will pass this on to “my guys”…with proper credit to the author!

  8. I read what a guy wrote on being single and working out his recovery. Like him I have been single for almost 30yrs. Though I have never been engaged or married I find myself struggling with wanting to be married and participating in my recovery group.
    Last fall I had attended a seminar and Dr. Lasser was a guest speaker. He stated a sentence that got me thinking. He said that if a single was thinking that getting married would solve your sexual addiction, you are thinking wrong.
    I have had the Holy Spirit also share with my heart that if you put anything in the center of your heart other than Christ you are creating idolatry. Not only that but, you are having an affair on Jesus the one you have taken as your Lord and Savior. I know that is a hard statement and I struggle with the truth of that from time to time.
    What do you say to a single who is participating in a recovery group where most of the members are married and haven’t got a clue about what it is to be single with a sex saturated world where it affects not only themselves but, even the younger generation who are looking for truth to walk away from the peer-pressure the get hit with everyday. The abistince programs are a blessing from God but, what do you say to the one who stumbles in sin?
    I believe that how we get to know God more intimately has alot to do with it. I know I stuggle as a man to express a relationship with God in that way. Women have an easier time because they are built for relationships.
    To the single who is struggling my heart goes out to you. One thing to keep in mind. DON’T compromise your walk with Jesus for a moment of pleasure and try to listen to the Holy Spirit more intimatly and believe that God has the best for you and Don’t put getting a mate on the throne of your heart and get out of fellowship with God.

  9. Goodness i love this! I will have to check out that book! Like someone has said, Ive seen this behavior so much but never knew what to call it except “a big show of hiding ones insecurities”. My husband tends to do this religiosity thing. He will recite the Miracle of Forgiveness, the scriptures and other books, and will say things that are so inspiring and will give the most beautiful advice….but he falls short of doing anything he actually talks about. Yep, definitely checking out that book. Thanks again!

    1. Thanks Kate for your comment. I think it’s a really good book. Mostly the value for me has been in getting clear about how to find “safe people” — even among people who aren’t in recovery like me. It sounds like you have some strong and negative feelings about your husband right now. I don’t know what to say about that, other than I hope things get better. Blessings!

      – Mark

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