To connect with others, it’s often important that we feel safe with them. Safe to be ourselves, to be vulnerable, in order to feel comfortable. Yet we’re all different, with different past experiences, and that can mean we feel safety in different ways. What makes you feel safe in social interactions? And how can you introduce ways to feel safe in your relationships in your host country? 


We all have different ways to feel safe during social interactions. What feels like a safe interaction to you, might not feel safe to someone else. For example, some of us are more comfortable chatting with a friend at home over a cup of tea; others would prefer to go to a bar. One person loves body contact; another keeps their distance. Some of us like to text loved ones every day; for others once a month is plenty. And some of us are happy to share all the details of our lives, while others prefer to stay more private. This may be due to different personality styles (introvert versus extrovert) and/or different life experiences (including past traumas).

Moving to another country is a big deal, and the intense transition can mean we may need to (re)establish ways to feel safe before we can make friends or enjoy meaningful social interactions in our host country. As expats, we may face additional challenges like language barriers or culture shock, which is why it can be helpful to understand what makes you feel safe. 


The Routes of Safety model

Canadian psychotherapist and social worker Jake Ernst believes that there are different ways to support and maintain your sense of safety during social interactions. He has identified eight “Routes of Safety”:

  1. Inner Guidance
  2. Common Humanity
  3. Structure and Certainty
  4. Sensory Experiences
  5. Quality Relationships
  6. Protective Measures
  7. Closeness and Proximity
  8. Private Retreat

 Find more info on the Routes of Safety here.

To understand which route(s) you turn to to feel safe, Ernst suggests asking yourself the following question: “What makes me feel safe?” 

We think it’s also helpful for expats to ask: “What are the things I wanted to do––or did do––first in order to feel safe in my host country?” 

Reflecting on this can reveal clues to the ways you most quickly or easily feel safe in the world and in social interactions; i.e. which of the “routes of safety” you tend to access. And knowing this about ourselves can help us “understand the routes we’ve used to access safety in the past and how we can get there in the future,” says Ernst.


Identify and practise your “routes of safety”

The following are practical examples for expats of different “routes”. Which do you need to feel safe? Which do you never take?

  1. Inner Guidance

Build self-trust, discover personal strengths, and/or find self-supportive resources in new places – for instance, starting a new hobby, writing about the feelings and emotions you encounter during the adaptation phase, and taking a walk to discover new places. You rely on personal experience, make your own decisions, and focus on finding yourself in your new location.

  1. Structure and Certainty 

Find a job, settle all paperwork and documents, make a schedule, open a bank account, get familiar with the public transport, and find the best supermarkets and shops around.

  1. Sensory Experiences

Decorate your new place, cook your favourite meal, take some time to meditate and reconnect with yourself, start a new book, and take a second to breathe in and out whenever you feel overwhelmed.

  1. Quality Relationships

Find a community of interest, make acquaintances with neighbours and people around you, start dating or have a date with your partner where you discover the new place, and talk to your family and friends who are far away

  1. Protective Measures

Discover your district, be pragmatic, follow your interests first, be open and direct, take the time to listen to yourself, and do one thing at a time.

  1. Closeness & Proximity

Find someone with whom you feel comfortable to speak about your emotions, enjoy the warmth of a hug whenever you need it, text your close friends and talk about how you are feeling, and form strong and close relationships based on trust.

  1. Private Retreat

Enjoy some self-care time, start journaling, value your personal space, write down your short and long-term goals, watch a great movie, go for a walk in nature, and try some yoga/stretching to release your body from tension.

  1. Common Humanity

Share your experiences with others that might be going through the same situation, express yourself fully, and give and ask for support whenever you need it. 

Applying the model to your expat life

Knowing what makes you feel safe can help you build strong relationships in your host country (as well as maintain previous relationships). I can also help you adapt to your new environment. By exploring other people’s Routes to Safety, you can also learn to notice and respect their safety boundaries.

Remember that these routes of safety can evolve, and that you might take different routes in different contexts, or use a combination of them. And as for those routes you don’t often take: do stay open to trying them! Feeling safe is a process of trial and error. Each route is a learning experience and can be used as an additional resource during difficult times.


Which route gives you a sense of safety? And which would you like to explore or develop further? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below. 


Thanks to Mora Neustadt for her contribution to this article.


Photo: Andrea Piacquadio/Pixabay