Presumption of Safety

In my last post I used the phrase ‘presumption of safety’ and promised to say more about it soon. This is a phrase that (to my knowledge) I’ve coined in order to finally put into words an experience that has caused me such extensive isolation and pain. The phenomenon it describes came to my awareness predominantly through my experience of Bible college and simultaneous glimpses into systems of Western evangelicalism, but since identifying the phenomenon and putting words to it, I’ve noticed it is a far more general experience than this, and one which is common to most trauma survivors.

‘Presumption of safety’ for me means the expectation (implicit or explicit) that a person’s sense of safety can be assumed by default. This presumption reflects an underlying belief that the vast majority of people, or at least of the people who matter, will generally feel safe and will not need any particular accommodations to feel safe.

This presumption may be held by an individual person or assumed by a system (organisation/church/workplace/social group). It can be consciously believed or unconsciously assumed with no real awareness or ill intent.

Being trauma-informed is about safety

Being trauma-informed is at its core about establishing safety—and establishing safety includes not just being safe but establishing a felt sense of safety. This is why trauma-informed approaches benefit everyone—because if everyone feels safe, including trauma survivors, better learning can happen, more trusting relationships can form, and other shared goals can be achieved. This also means that, while being trauma-informed is all about being safe, it cannot merely mean not traumatising people. Even if people aren’t being actively traumatised in this space, there will always be people who have already experienced trauma elsewhere, and they need not just a neutral space where they won’t be harmed but an intentionally trauma-informed space that evokes a visceral sense of safety.

Psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk writes that “traumatized people feel chronically unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs.” (Bessel Van der Kolk, Body Keeps the Score, 96-97.) Because this visceral sense of danger is at the heart of trauma, recovering a visceral sense of safety is at the heart of recovery, as Dr Judith Herman reminds us: “Recovery still begins, always with safety . . . safety always begins with the body. If a person does not feel safe in her body, she does not feel safe anywhere.” (Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, 266, 269.)

On the other hand, because being trauma-informed is fundamentally about establishing safety, it doesn’t need to involve specialised expertise or formal education; it can look like just viewing everything through a lens of safety and listening to the voices of those who have lived-experience insights on what that might look like.

Because being trauma-informed is at its core about establishing safety, holding/assuming a ‘presumption of safety’ is mutually exclusive with being trauma-informed.

Because being trauma-informed is at its core about establishing safety, holding/assuming a ‘presumption of safety’ is mutually exclusive with being trauma-informed. In fact, it is one of the red flags that signals to some of us that this space is likely unsafe for us and may even cause more harm if we engage it.

The cost of presuming safety

Because presumptions of safety assume that everyone in the room experiences psychological safety by default, they fail to expect people with significant trauma experiences to be present in that space, and subsequently fail to accommodate certain needs that might otherwise have allowed those people to experience psychological safety.

Let me give a real example of presumption of safety (content warning for mention of abuse, DV, and suicide in the next two paragraphs). In my journal from 2021, I processed a lot of the Bible college trauma I had experienced, identifying presumption of safety as the number 1 factor impacting my well-being. Reading back over that journal today, I re-lived the story of a particular lecturer in one subject who spoke regularly about all manner of psychologically distressing topics, including domestic violence, abuse, and suicide, without once giving a content warning or even offering a proper recognition that some people in the room might find these topics distressing. Not only did that signal to me that, as someone with a lived experience of childhood abuse, they didn’t expect people like me to be at Bible college, it also sent a much more problematic message that no one else should be expected to find stories of a woman being strangled by her husband or a teenager killing themselves emotionally disturbing. In what world should any of us have a moral intuition that remains utterly undisturbed at these tragedies? I shouldn’t have had to be abused as a child to find stories of abuse confronting. What worried me most wasn’t that I found these stories triggering, but that no one else did.

In fact, rather than share these confronting stories with the emotional sensitivity and moral indignation they deserved, this lecturer calmly recounted stories of a woman being strangled with a serene smile plastered across their face, thoroughly undisturbed and radiating the contented joy typical of that brand of Christian who loudly declares ‘God is good’ in every situation. This lecturer was, in that space, the very model of Christian maturity: someone who never gets ‘triggered’ or experiences indignation, but who breathes calmly and smiles in every situation. In that moment, I realised that the leader my heart needed was the kind of leader who got angry at abuse and felt shaken up, even triggered, when telling stories of violence, and then who recognised that other people in the room would (and should!) feel the same way. I needed a leader who recognised the cost of human injustices and made the accommodations we needed to withstand that psychological affront.

That is a more extreme example that may make you think ‘well thank goodness my church shows more sensitivity when approaching these topics,’ but the very next episode in my journal documents another example that is much closer to home, and one that has since made me question a lot of common Christian practices of small group Bible studies or prayer practices. I’ll quote this paragraph from my journal in full:

In addition to the failure to recognise the possibility of vulnerability or trauma, [this lecturer] enforced expectations of compulsory vulnerable disclosures in class. [They] would regularly make us pair up with the person who happened to be sitting closest to us and make us share vulnerably with each other with instructions to probe more deeply to uncover the sensitive stuff, and sometimes the instruction that we had to pray over each other. There was no recognition that being forced to be vulnerable on the spot with a potential stranger sitting next to us could be difficult or damaging for some of us; no recognition that some people in the room might not be safe people to share certain things with; no recognition that people in the room might have trauma; and no opportunity given for people to opt out, choose a more familiar and safe friend to confide in, or otherwise engage the emotional resources they needed to make these vulnerable disclosures safer. Instead, these experiences, like most of the QTC experience, were characterised by ‘the presumption of safety’ that left me feeling incredibly isolated, not to mention trapped in a distressing environment where my agency was taken away.

Notice that what struck me, as I journalled about this experience later, wasn’t so much the actual practices themselves of peer-pressured vulnerability or praying aloud for each other (that was just the starting point in my journal) but the landing point of feeling utterly marginalised by the expectation that no one in the room would have trauma. This is what I find so isolating about the presumption of safety: a space that assumes everyone experiences safety tells me I don’t belong.

Whatever the possible reasons underpinning this assumption (and there are several), what I hear is one of the following messages:

  • “This space doesn’t consider your need for safety because we don’t expect people like you to be here.”
  • “This space doesn’t consider your need for safety because we don’t want people like you to be here.”
  • “This space doesn’t consider your need for safety because we don’t even realise people like you exist.”
  • “You can be here if you want but this space isn’t made for people like you, so you’ll just have to deal with it.”
  • “You can be here if you want but we don’t believe your needs are real or worth accommodating and that’s why our space is the way it is.”

Although there are several reasons why a space may hold a presumption of safety (and some of those reasons are better than others), the net result is that every single one of those reasons marginalises me and tells me I don’t belong.

This is what I find so isolating about the presumption of safety: a space that assumes everyone experiences safety tells me I don’t belong.

Presumption ≠ Belief

I should clarify something at this juncture: when I talk about a space ‘assuming everyone experiences safety,’ this doesn’t necessarily mean they consciously believe that everyone will in fact feel safe, but that they functionally adopt it as a working assumption that underpins their approach. For example, I was in a preaching class when a colleague preached on Philemon (a short letter in the New Testament addressed to a wealthy man who enslaved humans addressing the matter of formerly enslaved person who had escaped his household), where the preacher made the sermon all about reconciliation and accepting relational fault on both sides. He said things like ‘reconciliation is the goal of the Christian life’ and that ‘in every relational issue there’s always some fault on both sides, even if it’s 90-10 instead of 50-50,’ and that every Christian is called to do ‘whatever it takes to achieve reconciliation’ (not just pursue reconciliation, but achieve reconciliation!), and that ‘we don’t get to make excuses’ to avoid this responsibility.

When we were invited to share feedback on the sermon, I asked the preacher kindly but directly how he thought a talk like this would land for survivors of abuse. To my shock, he acknowledged that this question had in fact crossed his mind already as he drafted the sermon, but that he had made the conscious decision, rather than address the matter in his talk, that he ‘didn’t want to open that can of worms and risk distracting from the more general practice of reconciliation for everyone else.’ He told me that he hoped anyone who had experienced abuse and had issues with the talk would just come to speak to him personally after the sermon, and that he could then clarify any relevant nuances in that more personal environment.

While it’s easy to pile on with criticisms of this particular sermon, I don’t think this approach is an anomaly or even a particularly bad example. The preacher is a man I know to be a kind and gentle leader with a pastoral heart and good intentions. I share this episode because I believe it represents a bigger pattern of ministry leaders being somewhat aware that traumatised people exist but functionally deciding that it is not worth directly addressing their experiences publicly or applying the Bible specifically to them in their week-to-week preaching. ‘Perhaps,’ they think, ‘there may be a handful of people in this community who have experienced trauma, but a public-facing sermon should focus on addressing the “normal” people. If anyone has issues with it, they can always talk to me privately afterwards so I can clarify things, otherwise we can refer people with mental health issues to our pastoral care team to deal with.’

The key point I’m driving at is that even when we believe people with trauma exist, if our public-facing communication fails to address their experiences meaningfully, we functionally behave as though they do not.

Applying biblical teaching to survivors of trauma isn’t ‘opening a can of worms’ or distracting from the ‘real’ message of the Bible. If your message isn’t good news for the broken-hearted, it’s not the biblical gospel.

Reversing presumptions of safety

On the flipside, the powerful effects of ‘presumption of safety’ can be positively reversed by helping someone feel seen. In the above story, my friend Luke weighed in on the class discussion to say that while he had listened to this sermon, he had exactly the same thought cross his mind about how survivors of abuse would receive the sermon. He shared in front of the preaching class that after hearing so many of my own personal stories at college (and second-hand stories from my church community), he couldn’t help but think of the troubling implications of this Bible teaching for abuse survivors.

In that moment, something changed for me.

I felt so seen—not only because my friend understood me personally on a deeper level, but because in that moment I realised I was no longer the only person in the room who saw these dynamics.

Those of us who have experienced significant trauma are so accustomed to being the only one in the room who sees or feels something. When everyone around you, especially the leaders ‘up the front’, remain silent on something that seems glaringly obvious to you, it creates an insanely destabilising dissonance: either your own perception is wrong and cannot be trusted, or the perception of everyone else in the room is wrong and cannot be trusted. Take your pick. Both are profoundly disorienting.

But when even one other person in that space shows they see it too, it’s healing. Humanising. Gestalt therapy frameworks speak of the importance of a person having a ‘witness’ to what they’ve experienced; whether it’s a therapist, an empathetic friend, or a faith leader, this act of witnessing alone begins the process of healing. In Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, Shelly Rambo writes, “The possibility of trauma healing lies in the capacity to witness.” (Page 26.)

This is empowering, because it means even for those who lack the power to reform entire systems like churches or schools, simply being a witness to another person’s suffering can be deeply humanising. Our ability to withstand unsafe environments exponentially increases when we have someone by our side who doesn’t presume safety is our default: someone who recoils at the same moments we do and who proactively creates space for us to debrief any harm we may have experienced.

In the coming weeks, I hope to explore more of the systemic dynamics of safety and talk about practical steps communities can take to cultivate explicit ‘markers of safety’ and confront our own survivorship bias.

Even when we believe people with trauma exist, if our public-facing communication fails to address their experiences meaningfully, we functionally behave as though they do not.

5 thoughts on “Presumption of Safety

  1. The irony of writing about trauma and safe places when you promote a theology that is toxic and unsafe for a majority of the LGBTQ community.


    1. Hey Tim. I do see the sense of irony and I can understand how my personal theological leanings may seem inherently harmful, especially to someone who doesn’t share those convictions. I will admit too that the evidence of fruit produced by this particular theological tree is not on our side (if by ‘our’ I mean those who hold a traditional Christian sexual ethic). Whatever my personal convictions, I have always sought to empower and give a voice to other queer folk who have different convictions to me, and I hope to at the very least create space for *all* queer people to exist in safety and dignity in the church (as I do for those in my own church community who are affirming/partnered/trans/etc.) and to continue living up to my very firm conviction that a queer person’s theological belief should never be a prerequisite to treating them with dignity. I think that extends in both directions, to people both more progressive than oneself as well as those more conservative.

      I hope as well that over time, the more deeply I grapple with careful theological thinking and real-world evidence in hearing people’s stories, the less toxic my views would become, whatever direction that pulls me in and however inconvenient that may be to my existing frameworks. I appreciate pushback from people like yourself and would appreciate your prayer that God would lead me further in the direction of truth and life.


      1. I appreciate you thinking about it but there is no seemingly harmful. I know many people who are still working through the harm the theology has caused. As for you advocating for a safe space for all queer people Revoice has shown they have no interest in establishing safe spaces for the majority of
        LGBTQ who are affirming.


  2. I started reading this with something of an understanding of the importance of this, but also a sense that it wasn’t personal to me. However, when you mentioned tinted when your asked to share vulnerable things with a stranger, that hit home. All last year, half a year before it, I did have the one thing that I desperately needed prayer for and was a mixture of terrified and embarrassed to talk about (and maybe in denial). The feeling that I didn’t know how people would react and not saying anything, but every time my Bible study group shared prayer points secretly wishing someone would say something. And I’ve had other things in the past that I would have been unwilling to talk about with anyone if I’d been asked.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s