6 Safety Structures Updated from San Francisco Workshop with Sylvia Israel, TDY, LMFT, TEP

Containment: The Key to Safety

Action Methods with the Therapeutic Spiral Method

September 26-28, 2014

Co-Sponsored by Bay Area Moreno Institute

San Rafael, CA

Sylvia Israel, MFT, RDT/BCT, TEP

Kate Hudgins, PhD, TEP

sylvia@imaginecenter.net www.drkatehudgins.com

6 Safety Structures (Cox 2001)

1. Observing Ego (OE)

The OE role is a neutral cognitive role that is non-judgmental whether you are following your intent for healing or getting stuck in a trauma pattern during a session. One cannot heal if all energy is going into self-blame, shame, or defenses such as dissociation and denial or acting out with addictions or eating disorders.  The OE is an important role to first establish in all trauma healing or nothing else can occur.  Also the OE keeps a cognitive role available at all times in case someone gets triggered into defenses of dissociation, regression, etc. during experiential work. Then they can be immediately role reversed into the OE to balance thinking and feeling.

On Friday, we used TSM Animal Cards that have both pictures and words to show need for balance of creativity of the right-brain and the meaning making of the left-brain. 

Following the 3 strands of the model, we focused first on strengths.

Friday instructions:

1.Choose a card that will help you observe your strengths with non-judgment. 

2. Share your intention for healing and/or learning for the weekend and how this card will help you observe without judgment when you are following your intention or when you are stuck and what you might do to reach out for help.

On Saturday, delving into trauma, we used Soul Cards for the OE. Soul Cards or other cards without words go directly to right brain that holds both trauma and creativity.

Saturday instructions:

Pick a card that will help you stay present for witnessing the trauma. What does your OE want to say to you? Give some information that might help you be present and not judge and blame and shame yourself

One at a time, Role Reverse with the card and talk to yourself in front of group.

On Sunday, the day of transformation, we used Power Cards. Power Cards have fewer images and more words to emphasize that transformation includes bringing change into language and meaning making. The cards and their associated words create a new story so that group members can remember and anchor it into the left-brain to help guide the future.

Sunday instructions:

Choose a Power Card that is a strength that will help you with transformation or new meaning making. Share in dyads about how the strength you picked can help you witness yourself in wherever you are in transformation, without judgment.

2. Circle of Safety

There are many ways to create the Circle of Safety but the basic teaching is that we need to build personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal strengths to be able to face our traumas and heal.  By definition, people who have PTSD or have deep loss often feel isolated and alone, that they are the only one who feels this way, so it is important that they learn to have a shared safe space.  The Circle also creates a visual image that goes into the right brain throughout the workshop showing that traumatic images can be contained and not just pop in and out of the brain; that there is a place for experiencing and observing and in TSM both are equally important.

Since the group can only go as deep as the sociometric web, building the circle of safety is an important step in building the connections between group members.

1) Sylvia chose a scarf for a strength that she sees in a TAE. The TAE receives it, breathes it in (20 seconds to change the brain) and then places the scarf on the floor to start the Circle with personal, interpersonal or transpersonal strengths.

2) Then the TAE who has the function of being a bridge between the group and the leadership of the Team Leader and the Assistant Leader picks a client/group member s/he can see a strength in.  Same process, s/he gives the strength and the person receives it, breathes it in and places it on the floor to continue the Circle.

3) Then, that person picks someone else so that a chain of connection is formed until all group and team members have received the recognition of an observable strength as they start the workshop. 

4) Then, to increase size of the circle the clients are each asked to pick another kind of strength than the one given to them that they bring to the group.

In our workshop, a playback theater technique was used as a spontaneity training and to the learn more about each other and our own strengths.

The instructions were:

Stand in a circle. Identify a strength you have. Tell a story in 3 sentences that conveys how you used that strength. The person across from you takes your role. One person on either side of the teller’s actor play other roles in the story. The 3 people spontaneously preform a brief enactment of the story. Each person in the group tells a story and watches it enacted.

5) Finally, the team notices if there is a category of strengths that has fewer scarves and adds personal, interpersonal or transpersonal strengths.

After it is created, have group walk inside of it. This is the group’s experiencing space, an emotional container. Director then asks them to step outside the circle into the observing space, making clear to group members that both are equally important in TSM—the cognitive and emotional must be balanced do that the brain is not overwhelmed and re-traumatized in dramas.

3. Spectrograms

The purpose of this safety structure is to assess the strengths and issues that people in this particular group are bringing for healing. Again, it also helps build connections between group members as we learn more about each other.

Introductory criteria to teach the technique of spectrograms:

—-I love being out in nature vs I love being at home.

—-I have or have had a pet I really love vs I don’t have a pet and never cared about having a pet.

—I have at least one good human support for doing my trauma work vs I have a lot of family, friends and professional helpers

Moving into defenses and trauma criteria:

—I am familiar with my most used defense against the pain of my issues and traumas vs I am not sure how I cope with what has happened to me in my life.

—-I can name the traumas that have brought pain to my current life vs I am still unclear if I even have experienced anything traumatic in my life.

—-I am willing to share a little bit of my story in the group tonight vs I need more warm up to the group to feel safe.

***Depending on the answer to this question, we will know how deep to go with the next two trauma based criteria.  If the answer is yes, then I would choose

—-A locogram with five choices of — What I have experienced that I am bringing to work on based on the sharing in the questionnaires:

1) emotional, verbal or psychological abuse

2) physical abuse

3) sexual abuse or sex addiction

4) many losses in my life

5) something not mentioned

—-I have either felt suicidal or tried to commit suicide vs. I have never felt any suicidal thoughts or feelings.

If they say need more warm up, I would come back up the spiral with

—-I know what I need to feel safer in the group vs I have no idea what I need and have people state what they know they need and those that don’t know can then join someone who has a good idea that they like and think they can use to feel safer as well.

—-I can now say one traumatic experience to one person in the group vs I am still too scared to tell anyone anything.

Now, we move back up the spiral either way

—-I feel safer in the group now vs I am still anxious.

—-I have a transpersonal belief or strength I can rely on vs. I have no contact with a higher power.

4. Hands on Shoulders

Teach the exercise and explain that the purpose of this safety structure is four fold:

1)  To get used to making choices for people to play roles in your dramas

2)  To get used to being chosen or not chosen

3)  To make overt the transference that is already in the room

4) To increase the connection of people in the group

Then check to see if everyone is comfortable with having a hand placed on their shoulders


Introductory to teach the exercise with easy and supportive criteria

1)  Put your hand on the shoulder of the person who could play a support in your life who would walk beside you during this workshop if they could be here.

2)  Pick someone to play one of the strengths you have to work on your trauma

Now move into trauma based roles

3) Pick someone to be your Wounded Child/victim self—explain that the team is here to play this role and have the TAES “pull” for that role by acting wounded in different ways.

4) Pick someone to be the person who abandoned you and didn’t protect you during your worst of times in your life.

Don’t usually do all three trauma-based roles as it takes up too much time plus is too much to hold for group so safest to start with WC and Abandoning Authority rather than the Perpetrator Role in a short workshop.

Then come back up the spiral

5) Pick someone you feel you could trust to talk to in this group if you get scared

6) Pick someone to be your favorite hero or heroine

7) Pick someone who could play your sleeping/awakening child

8) Pick someone who could play your good enough mother or father

5. Art Project: Creating a Container

We do different art projects each workshop for two reasons:

1)  To provide a container for the unconscious process

2)  To make the unconscious process overt throughout the workshop:

Using art materials. Each participant created a container to hold strengths, trauma, defenses and transformation.

Friday—Prescriptive Roles

Put in at least one thing for each of your strengths to heal your traumas and losses.  This can be the personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal strengths, as well as your Observing Ego or even something that provides containment for you.

Saturday—Trauma-based Roles

Add something to represent the trauma or a trauma scene you would want to work on or have worked on.


Add something to represent the transformation based on interaction of the prescriptive roles and the trauma roles

6.  Circle of Similarities

The purpose of this Safety Structure is to add to the sense of shared trauma and decrease further the sense of isolation.  It is also another time for people to practice saying their traumas while the team can assess what is going on for each person and the group as a whole. This was used as our warm-up to the Saturday afternoon drama.

Safe and easy criteria to teach the structure

—- Who had a good sleep last night, even if it wasn’t long enough?

—-Ask group for a fun criterion or two.

Moving to defenses and trauma criteria

—–Who has used or currently uses dissociation as a defense?

—–Who has or used to have an eating disorder?

—–Ask group for 2 defenses criteria

—-Who has experienced deep loss in their life?

—-Who has been sexually abused?

—-Who has had suicidal ideation or attempts? 

—-Ask group for 2-3 more trauma criteria

Moving back up the spiral

—-Who is in touch with their higher self today?

—-Who feels they can stand in their Appropriate Authority even a little bit?

—-Ask group for 2-3 more fun criteria