So, what are safe words? Suppose you are out with friends, and someone begins using subtly sexist or racist language towards you. You don’t feel comfortable calling them out because you are struggling to gauge how they will react. Will they lash out if I speak up? Will they turn it into a debate? Is it even worth my time and energy to say anything at all? How can I change this situation safely and comfortably without repressing my mental and emotional needs? How can I calmly indicate to my friends that the situation is stressing my wellbeing?
Safe words — words that signal when things are becoming uncomfortable, unpleasant, and in need of redirection during sex. But what about outside of the bedroom? Many uncomfortable—if not triggering—situations occur in other areas of life. So why aren’t safe words used in instances of social, mental, and emotional duress? Unfortunately, systems of communication for emotional and mental needs remain underdeveloped, despite their necessity for navigating the throes of everyday life with our partners, friends, and family.
Why Do We Need Safe Words?
It is not always easy to express what’s wrong, especially in public and in the company of people we may not know very well. In these situations, how do we attend to our emotional and mental needs? Perhaps a joke goes too far and we begin to feel unsafe in that person’s presence. Perhaps we start experiencing the beginning signs of a panic attack and we need support, but don’t want to draw attention. Or perhaps a trigger starts to spin us out and we want to leave. We cannot expect ourselves to effectively address uncomfortable situations directly when we are also experiencing mental and emotional duress.
In these situations, social safe words are useful. These are words or phrases that signal when things are becoming uncomfortable, unpleasant, and in need of redirection during a social situation. Safe words privately indicates to a trusted person “I want to leave” or “I need to talk to you alone.” In unsafe situations, the phrase could be as benign as “I’m thirsty.” In more trusted circles, it could be “I’m feeling tired” or “I’m feeling overwhelmed.” Whatever the context, it is an agreed-upon signal that our emotional and mental needs require more space, attention, and support than the current situation allows. Having a safe word or phrase allows a trusted person to cue into our need for a shift in the social dynamic while also honoring our emotional and mental boundaries. It allows us to practice equanimity in the midst of overwhelm by allowing us to become selectively vulnerable on our own terms.
Safe Words Lead to Safe Conversations
Safe words work because they involve a shared agreement of intention and attention. Beyond safe words are safe conversations—where safe spaces are actively cultivated to support each other’s emotional and mental wellbeing. While we live in a hyper-individualistic, “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” culture, the truth is that we can’t always be there for ourselves. Support from loved ones is necessary for our wellbeing.
How many of us have had a candid conversation with our partners, family members, and close friends about our exact triggers? What phrases piss us off or spin us out? What forms of care actually work, and which don’t? What are our “tells” for when we are entering a depressive state or experiencing anxiety? Have we explicitly stated what helps and what does not help during a depression pit, a panic attack, or bodily dissociation? No one knows our needs better than we do. Write them down. Exchange them with a loved one to begin creating a “self-care manual” for each other. This process requires a great amount of trust and vulnerability.
Again, what are in safe words? In safe words are safe conversations. As we learn how to better show up for each other and for ourselves, it is important to communicate our emotional and mental needs, wants, and boundaries with loved ones. And to do so as explicitly as we communicate our physical needs, wants, and boundaries with intimate partners. Human beings are complex—an entanglement of physical, mental, and emotional threads woven to the patterned complexity of lived experiences, learned behaviors, and adopted habits. Safe words can help us ensure that our needs do not get lost in translation, misinterpretation, or repression.
Moselle is an anthropologist turned ethnobotanist with extensive experience working for food justice initiatives around the world. For her, health is written in landscapes, imprinted in bodies, and reflected in social structures. Through her writing, she hopes to connect with the phenomenon of being human in order to inspire people to take leaps in their own personal evolutions and revolutions. Moselle is an avid artist, grower, activist, and traveler who practices lichenology, boxing, and martial arts in her free time.