When safety contracts fail

I’ve talked briefly about Allison’s encouragement of a formal safety contract (see Becoming unstuck); well, something happened about a month ago which forced the issue, and a safety contract was written.  It has been covering one week at a time and listing the two actions which are considered to be the most dangerous, the reward for keeping the contract, and the consequences of breaking the contract.  It is kept simple, and driven by me as a way to try and maximise the chances of success.  This week, there was huge resistance to making the contract for an entire week for several reasons… but mainly because there is a big rugby game being played here tomorrow.  My reservations weren’t about wanting to break the contract and self-injure; but instead, there was a fear that I would break it, and in so doing, break a promise.  The idea of potentially breaking a promise created huge amounts of tension… like lies, broken promises is not allowed.

Allison listened to my fears about shortening the contract, but said that part of the reason to have the contract, is to see what happens when it is broken.  That sounded reasonable, so with little thought, and despite the warnings, the contract for the week was sent through to Allison.

The backlash was severe, and immediate.  I had again ignored the warning signs, and instead of listening, I rode roughshod over the concerns.

I’ve done this before, and it’s never pretty.  In my head, I counter all the concerns with very adult logic… “It will be alright, there’s only three days difference.  What’s the big deal?”  Implied within that line of thinking is the thought… “Just get over it”.  It’s a sign of my intolerance, as well as my inability to accept what is happening in the present, and what happened in the past.  It’s telling different ones that their opinion doesn’t matter, and that their feelings are meaningless.  It’s another way in which I try to express my need for control…

Whenever I’ve tried to impose any form of unilateral control in the past, there has been an outright rebellion.  The control tends to be harsh, and the responding consequences are just as harsh.  This time was no exception. I have no one else to blame, but myself.  I should have listened.  I should have paid attention.

The problem is now that the contract has been broken, there is a reaction to breaking a promise to Allison.  Ones within the system don’t want to see her again, for fear of what she will do and say.  Others see the breaking of the contract as an invitation to push the self harm to new levels – the contract is already been broken after all, so may as well make the most of it, right?  I know that the feelings driving this line of thought are the worthlessness and shame arising from the self harm, but it’s still confusing.

My head is a mess.  I’m struggling to stay present.

As I write this, I hear the background chatter… the taunts, the derisive comments, the hatred, the self-hatred, but most of all… fear.

The rugby game hasn’t even started.  The tourists haven’t arrived.  That will happen tonight and tomorrow… how ironic that the big game should happen on a Friday night, which has always been one of my most difficult nights to get through.

Did I mention that my head is a mess?


18 thoughts on “When safety contracts fail

  1. CG I’m really proud of you for writing about this. And you have no reason to feel ashamed my friend.

    I don’t know if it will help or not but my therapist just did this to me about two weeks ago and I felt exactly the same way. I’m sure it’s a therapist training thing but I don’t know if they realize the tremendous pressure it puts on the patient. When you’re already going through internal stress and turmoil, having that added responsibility can be harsh.

    I know that every time my therapist has done that, I’ve felt angry with her for a couple of reasons. One I was angry that she in effect cut off one of my ways of coping. Two, it felt like my feelings were being brushed aside as easily handled. Like, ‘Oh, you’ll be fine. Just agree that hurting yourself is not allowed!’

    I get angry with that because she’s not the one going through any of it but she gets to sit there and make me promise. I’m like you: I don’t break promises and I take them very seriously. Maybe they don’t realize that or maybe they do. Putting someone in that position can feel like the therapist is taking your control and your power away from you which I think we would naturally react negatively to. I sit there in her office wigging out and obsessing over what will happen to me if I fail. My uppermost thought is that she will stop seeing me if I break the contract. That causes HUGE amounts of turmoil and stress which just makes everything worse.

    Sorry that this comment is so long but when I read this I knew what you meant and I wanted you to know that your feelings are so very understandable CG. Please don’t be ashamed. Maybe this can be a trust exercise where Allison gets to prove to you that she’ll still be there for you.

    I didn’t catch what the “terms” were so-to-speak if something happened? Are you supposed to call her or something? Actually another thought occurred to me but this may not work. Instead of looking at it as a failure, can you guys work out a new contract over the phone that simply shifts the terms, like a do-over or like saying, ‘No problem. Let’s try again.’ but with less pressure for you? I don’t know, I’m just thinking and typing it out.

    Your safety over the weekend with what’s going on is very important. Maybe Allison can give you some ideas. The fear needs to be addressed and maybe the others would calm.

    I’m trying to think of what you’d tell me in this situation. Would you remind me that I’m safe now and that I’m an adult who has more resources than I did as a child so nobody can get to me anymore?

    Can you get out of town for the weekend? Again, just thinking aloud.

    I’ll sit with you if you like. I had to catch myself before I got too mushy on you, so just know that I had all sorts of uncomfortable, squisshy things that I could have said but I didn’t want to freak you out. 😀 Does “mushy” translate as affectionate in New Zealand? Gotta make sure.

    Nevertheless, I’m here.

  2. Hi tb,

    We call it “mushie stuff” over here 🙂

    You’re right, the contract only added another layer of stress, which I didn’t need. So many of the books talk of safety contracts, that I’ve always thought it was me being stubborn which has meant that they haven’t worked for me. It’s good to know that I’m not the only one who struggles with them.

    I can’t go anywhere for the weekend… pretty much the whole country is involved in the Cup – including all of the accomodation being booked up. It honestly is everywhere… all the shops have at least got posters up, many cars have flags, some people are walking around in national colours, and many are wearing rugby gear of some sort.

    I have some DVDs to pick-up, so I’ll go do that and try to hide in the house for the weekend.

    Thanks for the support and the mushies 🙂

    Take care,

  3. I am proud of youn for writing this too. Perhaps it would be much wiser to take the contract in smaller increments of time, in much the way recovery programs stress taking things just a day at a time, because before they know it it a day has turned into two, and then into a week, and a week turns into a month, etc… Quite frankly I’m a little perturbed that a week was demanded. But I am only an outside observer. Above all be kind to yourselves, and maybe start a new contract as of tomorrow with a more manageable goal for everyone.

    • Hi Storm Dweller,

      I’ve never liked the idea of a contract, as it feels controlling. I didn’t express my concerns about having the contract for the week very well, so in all honesty, Allison can’t have realised the chaos that it caused.

      Thank you and take care,

  4. Hiya 🙂
    I’m not a therapist and I am not trying to be a know it all, but didn’t your therapist say the purpose of the contract was to see what happened if you broke it? And now you feel guilty and ashamed for breaking it. Other than that, did anything bad really happen? You had some very stressful thoughts, but you are OK. Nobody is going to hunt you down for breaking your contract. What did you learn from breaking it? Does it make you feel like a shorter one would be better? Does this contract thing do anything at all for you? I don’t think your therapist is going to be upset. They are trained not to be. As my therapist always says “Its not good, its not bad, it just is.” And just like that saying, breaking a rule or a promise just happens sometimes and that is OK. My therapist often warns me about my all or nothing thinking because there really isn’t anything in the world that follows that rule, and we are no different 🙂 Hope this doesn’t sound harsh – I have rewritten it a bunch of times and I still feel like I am coming off as a bossy mother hen. So sorry about that – too much stuff around the house has the momma in me out in full force today. If I could I would bring you one of the cupcakes I made. They look so yummy. (Wish I could eat one – damn you no flour no sugar no goodies diet). Enough of my babbling – take care!

    • Hi Sandy,

      You didn’t come across harsh at all… You picked up on an area that I struggle with constantly – black and white thinking. I can do shades of grey in certain situations, but rarely with anything to do with things like promises… they have to be followed to the letter. In that respect, the contract has worked, in that I didn’t follow it, and the world didn’t end. In other respects, it didn’t work, as I didn’t follow it, and there were punishments carried out as a result. So although there were no obvious consequences, they were internal.

      There is still huge fears over what will happen when I next see Allison – she knows the contract wasn’t kept, but I don’t yet know her response to that. It’s interesting to me that something that it meant to be a contract for myself, has become a promise to someone else within my mind. I’m not sure if that is to try and dodge responsibility, or out of the fears of the young ones who only know that sort of thinking.

      Ohhh cupcakes… although Cake Wrecks has totally changed my perceptions of cupcakes, they are still cute and yummy when part of homemade goodness 🙂

      Take care,

      • My littles perked up when I read the word cupcakes!

        I’m glad to know I’m not the only one with this black and white thinking issue. For me there is no gray. Gray is not allowed to exist in my world. If something is gray, I can’t tell if it’s right or wrong or good or bad! Gray is scary.

        I’m not sure I understand the reasoning behind rewards and consequences for keeping/breaking the contract. I know the reward/consequences strategy has been used in all sorts of situations. And it is effective.

        But, for something so emotionally charged as SI, is it more helpful or hurtful, I wonder? Isn’t it bad enough if I were to break a contract and harm myself, and then still have to worry about consequences (or punishment is how I would play it in my head)? Or am I misunderstanding how the reward/consequence concept works in this type of situation?

        My therapist hasn’t asked for a contract with me, and I’m not offering. It’s too stressful, I think. I haven’t hurt myself in I’m not sure how many days…a couple weeks? I actually try not to think of how longs it’s been because it adds to anxiety about what I’ll lose if I slip.

        I also don’t like thinking too far ahead. I really only can handle one day at a time. Often, if I’ve SI’d, my therapist will ask me if I’m going to harm myself the next week. I can always honestly answer “I’m not going to hurt us!” But he knows it’s L, one of my littles. He knows the best I can do is promise to try not to, and he knows that my promise is genuine and wholehearted. I do try.

        Sorry, went on a little long…

        CG, my thoughts have been with you this weekend. I hope you are managing well. *hands you a homemade cupcake with pretty sparkly sugar glitter in whatever color is your most favorite*


        • Hi rl,

          I can sometimes do shades of grey, and sometimes I can’t. It’s probably a sign of my compartmentalisation, but I can do shades within my work environment, as long as it’s not about anything emotional. But as soon as it’s outside of work, then it becomes more black and white. Actually, even within work there is black and white, but I think that it’s more easily managed.

          I had similar issues with the concept of a reward and punishment system as part of the contract, which is why I changed the emphasis of the reward and punishment… the reward was more difficult to come up with, as rewards were used as part of my abuse, so these change each week and tend to be what I enjoy doing anyway… I did want to make the reward living a more peaceful life, but Allison encouraged short term rewards as well. The “punishment” was reworded to “consequences”, and the consequences are to tell Allison what happened, and why. It was made clear that the consequences are about trying to understand why the SI is occurring, and not as a punishment. Saying that, it was still incredibly difficult to do.

          I agree that often if you stop and think about timeframes, etc it can bring on more stress. Just mentioning it can be enough to cause distress, so it can become a catch-22… say well done for not SIing, and run the risk that this alone is enough to create a push within someones mind; or say nothing, and that be enough to create the push. This is part of the reason why good therapists are worth their hourly rate (and more). I know that each of us is responsible for our actions, and therefore our safety; but it can feel like a minefield sometimes.

          Shall we do a cupcake exchange 🙂 Here’s one for you in whatever colour sprinkles you want 🙂

          Take care,

  5. Yes please hang in there. I’m really proud of you for writing about this, too. I can imagine how difficult it was.

    I’m sure (or at least I hope) the consequences with Allison aren’t nearly as bad as some of you fear. I know there’s learning in that, and while my experience of it was a bit different, I hope it doesn’t cause you the chaos it caused me!

    Please take care, CG. We all love and need you here. ((hugs)) if wanted – if not, CUPCAKES 😉

    • Thanks Kerro…

      Allison was neutral, supportive and sorry about the self-injury. What was interesting, was that there was no talk of a contract for this week during the session, and it was only after I’d emailed in this weeks contract (without prompting), that the anger I talked about on FaceBook eased. It seems that some within the system see the contract as an attempt, or intention to stay safe, and without it, there is less care being taken. There are still ones who hate the contract, but overall it appears to be a positive step in self-care.

      There is also another big game this weekend, so everything will be put to the test again… Why does this competition have to go on for so long?

      Thanks for the hugs… (((warm safe ones))) back 🙂

      Take care,

      • Hi CG, I’m really glad that Allison was supportive, and that overall the contract is helping with self-care. That is so great! 🙂

        Poor you with another game to endure. Are you planning some self-care, possibly even nurturing, while this takes place? I’m thinking … escape to a hotel (which could be better or worse, could go either way really), leave work a little early and get home before the streets get too crazy, favourite movies to watch or music to listen to, a relaxing bath, even good friends to chat to online while the game is on 😉

        • Thanks for the support Kerro… I’m still trying to come up with some ideas for the weekend. The hotels are full of rugby people, so it would be worse than staying at home. I’ll probably be too switchy to talk to anyone, I’m not sure… and horror upon horror… I’ve run out of my broadband allowance for the month!! How bad is that???

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