The Voice That Says, “It’s Not Safe”

When I was in intensive therapy in my 20s, I met a part of my personality that was working overtime to keep love out. Of course, that’s not how I understood it at the time; I only knew that there was a big, strong, judgmental part of me that kept intimate others at a distance and could think of every reason in the world why they weren’t safe. My therapist asked me to give this part a name, so I called it the Gatekeeper.

The Gatekeeper seemed to be my friend and greatest ally. She was my protector and my champion. After all, her job was to keep me safe, to prevent me from getting smothered or engulfed. Because my old and deeply embedded internal script said, “Men just want to take from you and use you,” I entrusted this Gatekeeper to keep these kinds of men away. This might all sound fine and good, except that she projected her early experiences onto ALL men. No one was safe. No one was good enough. Every man was a vampire that just wanted to drink my blood and steal my soul. Well, let me backtrack a bit. The man would start out nice enough. He certainly wouldn’t wear his vampire mask on the first few dates or even in the first few months. But once the defensive layers of our hearts started to melt away and the vulnerability was revealed, the projection was unleashed and I knew, without a doubt, that he wasn’t safe.

A few months after I started dating the man who would become my husband, the Gatekeeper went into overdrive. She unleashed every criticism she could think of to keep this kind, loving, responsible, everything-I-had-ever-wanted man away. It’s truly astonishing that we made it through and got married given the vitriolic projection that would spew from my mouth daily. But with the support of a gifted therapist and a lot of hard work, the projection slowly, slowly started to fall away until I could see glimmers of the truth: that a gem of a man stood before me, waiting for me to let him in as I had in the beginning and step full-body into the arms of real love.

When I’m working with clients, whether they’re in an intimate relationship or not, I quickly recognize when the Gatekeeper is running the show. She shows up when a loving partner gets too close. She flares up when there’s “too much happiness”. She ruffles her feathers and steps into the driver’s seat when things are going well. You might also recognize her as “The Saboteur”, “The Critic”, or “The Inner B**ch.” (I particularly liked calling her by that last one when I caught on to her tactics and she tried to interfere with my desire to give and receive love.) She often leads with one of the following running commentaries:

• It’s not safe to love.

• It’s not safe to be loved.

• It’s not safe to trust.

• It’s not safe to be happy.

Does this sound familiar?

Formation of a Gatekeeper

Where does the Gatekeeper come from and why did she form? Most people grew up in households where “love” wasn’t exactly loving. Perhaps your primary caregivers were verbally or physically abusive, emotionally or physically unavailable, or their touch was laced with their own needs. As a child, if you were to experience the depth of your despair, pain, and rage, you wouldn’t have survived the intensity of the feelings. Thus, the Gatekeeper was born to keep you safe. She protected you when you were too young to protect yourself. She managed how much pain and disappointment you could internalize without breaking into pieces. If you’re reading this today, it means she did her job well because she kept you alive.

But as an adult, the same defense systems that kept you alive as a child are now preventing you from experiencing joy and love. The Gatekeeper doesn’t seem to know when she’s no longer needed and instead operates from her old and false beliefs that say, “It’s not safe.” You might believe it’s not safe to love because you’ll get disappointed or hurt. You might believe it’s not safe to be happy because at any moment it will be taken away. One of my clients last week expressed it well during our session:

Client: Every time I feel happy for half a day, this part of me comes up and takes it away so that I spend the second half of the day unhappy.

Me: What’s the belief that comes up when you’re feeling happy.

Client: It’s not safe.

Me: Let me hear that part of you. What does she say?

Client: It’s not safe to be happy. I can hear someone coming home and I pray it’s not my dad because he takes my happiness away. He doesn’t want me to be happy and he yells and hurts me. If I close off and shut down my happiness before he comes home, it makes it easier.

Me: So this part of you was actually helping you when you were a child. She created a protection around you so that you weren’t so vulnerable to being hurt by your dad.

Client: Yes. And now I still close off when I’m too happy because I’m scared of being hurt.

Me: Right, but do you see that you’re operating from the old belief system that says that you can’t handle being hurt? This part of you did a great job of protecting you, but she’s no longer serving you. I want you to take a moment to see if you can connect with your Higher Guidance and ask her, “Is it safe to be happy?”

My client took a few minutes to close her eyes and turn inside. Then she smiled and said, “My Higher Guidance says it’s only safe to be happy! And that if I get hurt now I can handle it. I couldn’t handle it as a child but I can handle it now.”

Working with the Gatekeeper

There are primarily two ways that I work with the Gatekeeper. The first way is to dialogue with it, as shown in the example above. This is a main step of Inner Bonding and effectively works to pull the Gatekeeper’s voice (called Wounded Self in Inner Bonding terminology) from the morass of the unconscious. When you shine the light of curiosity and consciousness on the Gatekeeper, its power immediately diminishes and you can start to develop a witness to its lines and beliefs. This process of dialoguing often needs to occur several times a day, as most people find that the Gatekeeper’s running commentary is quite rampant and pervasive. But with time and attention, you will start to hear its voice without identifying with it.

It may also be important to explore where the Gatekeeper originates. This is often a time in therapy where childhood memories emerge, again as seen in the above example. It’s often helpful to be able to say, “I’m scared of someone stomping on my happiness because that’s what happened every time my dad came home.” Again, the more you can flesh out the Gatekeeper, the less power it holds. When you can attach a belief to a memory, it helps anchor it in the past, which is where it belongs. Then you can say, “Yes, that was true then, but it’s not true now. You’re operating from an old model in the past tense.” However, it’s also important to state that remembering specific childhood memories that are connected to the Gatekeeper’s voice is not a necessary step in healing.

The second technique I use often follows the first: When you’ve identified the Gatekeeper’s voice, traced its origins as best you can, and have developed a strong witness so that you don’t believe its lies, you may shift from a place of curiosity and compassion to one of intolerance. By this I mean that you just become plain sick of hearing things like, “It’s not safe to love. You’re not allowed to be happy,” or, from my anxiously engaged clients, the running negative commentary is often projected onto their partner and they finally get to the point of saying, “Buzz off! (Or perhaps something less polite). I’m sick of you! I’m not going to listen to your lies!” This is often a turning point for people in therapy as it indicates that the Loving Self, not the Gatekeeper, is in the driver’s seat.

None of this is easy work and all of it requires time and patience. As I’ve written in other posts, when the Gatekeeper starts to weaken there’s often a grieving process that occurs, as it can feel like you’re letting go of an old and trusted friend. Like all processes of letting go, it’s important to let yourself grieve, and perhaps have some kind of ritual or ceremony that acknowledges the passing of an old, but no longer helpful, part of you. And, like all transitions, as the old parts fall away, new parts are growing up in their steed. As this fearful and protected part of you dies, the part of you that longs to love and be loved will grow more solid and consistent than ever before.

12 comments to The Voice That Says, “It’s Not Safe”

  • Anne

    Amazing post Sheryl. This one is getting bookmarked for myself and my clients. 🙂

  • Thanks, Anne. I’m so glad it was helpful.

  • Elisa roberts

    This is a great post. This is what kept me from allowing happiness with a man into my life. You have accurately described what is going on with us superindependent super-self reliant people. I know now that the Gatekeeper must be overcome to experience the full richness that life has to offer together with another person.

  • Sarah

    This was extremely helpful for me. I often think I’m not supposed to be happy, especially considering what I have going on in my life, and that I should be moping around depressed and sad all the time. Feeling happy has always felt unsafe for me – the voice says, “you’re just avoiding things. you’re not really happy. get over yourself and quit faking it already. you really had a good thing and were just too afraid to love. way to go and mess up your life!” And now that I’m single I feel like there’s a straightjacket on me preventing anything from coming in and anything getting out. But what I’m really wanting is release. The layers are starting to shed, but it seems there’s pretty thick scar tissue underneath. Dialoguing with it is super helpful though, and understanding and accepting that it all takes time. Thank you again for giving me some good thoughts to ponder. 🙂

  • Liesl

    Thank you for this post! I am pregnant and in my 16 week and still scared of being happy and hopeful. My Gatekeeper is strong, but not necessary anymore. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Leslie

    Thanks for being genuine Sheryl. It’s nice to see you’re not afraid to let others know that you had your own “demons” to deal with. The Gatekeeper applies to my husband. He sabotages everything when it’s going well. He’s an extreme distancer, and I’m a fuser due to childhood abuse and neglect (huge emotional abandonment issues). We’re in counseling (when he’s not afraid to go), but at 47 years of age I’m not real hopeful this marriage will have a good outcome. I’ve had years of counseling to overcome family of origin issues, he has not had that opportunity. Guess I’m still trying to “fix” my broken childhood. Thanks for your realness. You are a true gift to your profession.

  • Thank you, all, for your wonderful and honest comments. Leslie, I see it as my obligation to be as honest as possible, knowing that we are all wounded and all carry the most immense capacities for growth.

    I’m sorry that you’re struggling in your marriage, but being 47 has nothing to do with having a positive outcome or not! My mother has been a therapist for 43 years and she tells inspiring stories of couples in their 80s who transform their marriages. It only takes one person to change the system in a relationship, and when one end changes the other end has to change – either for the better or not. There is much hope with the right support and tools.

  • KD

    One of my new favorite quotes is ‘Let go or be dragged’. Letting go is hard work, but essential to growing.

  • Thanks, Sheryl! I’m totally working with my main gatekeeper right now (with Inner Bonding).

    I didn’t quite understand one sentence/point, though. Were you meaning to say that remembering the specific traumatic events/dynamics/environments that actually caused you to develop the false/limiting beliefs is NOT part of healing? “It’s also important to state that remembering specific childhood memories that are connected to the Gatekeeper’s voice is not a necessary step in healing.”

    If that IS what you meant, I’d have to disagree with you strongly on that one. Understanding things this way: “Given that[insert information/traumatic memory] happened to me, I developed [insert limiting/false beliefs & resulting habits/addictions]” has been critical to making 100% sense of myself, developing self-compassion.

    Also, “Explore with love, compassion, and curiosity the feelings, behaviors, false beliefs, and MEMORIES of the wounded selves” = Step 3 of Inner Bonding. So I’d love to understand more about your logic on this point (if I understood your point correctly).

  • Dana – While it’s helpful to be able trace the limiting belief back to a specific memory, it’s not essential. There are many people that don’t have many memories (or any) of their childhood, and they can still work effectively with the Gatekeeper’s (Wounded Self’s) false beliefs. Certainly when you can link it to a memory it can bring compassion for yourself, but the core of the work is changing your negative thought patterns and moving from fear to faith. That can be done regardless of memories of past events. Does that make sense?

  • Herut

    That is a very helpful post! Thanks.

  • I found your site at the suggestion of a friend. I am normally an always happy/chipper/loving soul, but I realized that i was just discontented/restless no matter what. I have been crying uncontrollably, and I’m absolutely terrified of making any decisions… I am IN therapy but terrified of my therapist! It’s ridiculous, really… thank you so much for putting this out there. I can’t wait to use self-inquiry to get to the bottom of the Gatekeeper’s situation.